21 Tips For An Asian Invasion
A tourist goes to a place and then returns home; but a traveller is at home wherever he may find himself.
In winter 1997 I spent a few months touring through Japan, Hong Kong, China and Indonesia. Below you will find my lessons and impressions.
Japan, land of contradictions. A place where Zen buddhists ride bullet trains. A nature-worshipping culture with one of the worst environmental records on the planet. A country where the denizens of the Tokyo-Yokohoma sprawl, a gargantuan Blade-Runner-meets-Disneyland urban jumble with more inhabitants than all of Canada, are glued to their TV sets each spring to track the flowering of cherry blossoms across the country. A land where pachinko parlors take in more money each year than the worldwide grosses of all the Hollywood movie studios combined. The safest place in the world for female travellers, where salarymen openly read sickeningly violent comic-book pornography on the subway.
Trains, Trains, and Trains
If you plan to travel anywhere in Japan, look no further than the nearest set of rail tracks. Japanese rail service is extensive, frequent, and ridiculously efficient. It is also expensive, but foreigners can pick up a Japan Rail Pass for one- or two-week periods, which allows the bearer to travel anywhere on the JR network - which means, in essence, anywhere in the country - simply by flashing the pass. This includes the express train from Narita Airport to Tokyo, all but the fastest of the bullet trains, and the major Yamanote rail line which circles central Tokyo. The only caveat is this: if you are in Japan, it is too late. The Japan Rail Pass can only be acquired outside of the country. It's still expensive, but a single trip from Tokyo to Osaka and back on one of the shinkansen bullet trains will make the pass worthwhile.
You can navigate around Tokyo reasonably well with English. (You will of course get hopelessly lost in Shinjuku station, but that's OK. Even the Japanese get lost there. Shinjuku station is the world's busiest place - more people travel through it on an average day than the entire population of Toronto - and it is also one of the worst-designed and most confusing transit centers on the planet.) Once you leave Tokyo it can be difficult to keep track of where you're going, let alone where you are, as place names are written in Japan's 2000-character alphabet. When in doubt, swallow your pride and ask: the person you're asking will likely know no English, but will recognize the place name.
The Only Word You Need To Know
Sumimasen. That's all the Japanese you need to learn. It generally means "excuse me", but depending on context and tone of voice, I've also seen it used as "I'm sorry," "Please take a seat," "hello," or "Yo, bitch, we'd like some service over here!" Completists can round out their vocabulary with konnichiwa (good day) and arigato (thank you).
You may still have some language trouble. When I travelled to Hiroshima I stayed at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, and as I spoke no Japanese and the landlady spoke no English, I did not learn until too late that the inn closed as tight as a military base at 11 PM. I vowed not to pay twice for the same night's accomodation and wound up spending the night in an all-night karaoke bar in downtown Hiroshima. There are two lessons to be learned here: i) make sure you know of any curfews, particularly in inflexible Japan, and ii) don't make stupid vows like mine.
A Japanese Antonym
"Tokyo" and "Kyoto" are the same two characters in Japanese, in reverse order, and like their names, the two cities are mirror images, the two sides of the Japanese coin. Tokyo is an extraordinary 21st-century city, wide boulevards lined with gleaming spires, honeycombed with subways and fibre optic cables, home to fashion models and mountains of money and the famously exclusive Ginza Strip, the Orwellian towers of the Japanese government, fads and crazes that burn themselves out in a few months but echo around the planet. It is Tomorrowland.
It may seem at first that Kyoto is like every other Japanese city. Its downtown is overgrown with buildings, its streets lined with cars, and you can travel from the shinkansen terminal to the subway without ever seeing the sky...but around the city lie a hundred monuments to Japan's history. Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, Zen gardens, pagodas, palaces, cemeteries and pavilions ring the city like an army beseiging a castle. Sitting in the implacable serenity of a Zen garden, with the rest of the world walled off by a stand of bamboo, it is difficult to believe that a place like Tokyo even exists.
Landing at Hong Kong's Kai Tak airport is itself worth the airfare. The plane approaches over a wide stretch of water littered with every kind of seagoing vessel imaginable - cruise ships, military vessels, junks, fishing boats, ferries, jetfoils, name it - which at night light up the water like an enormous new constellation. Then the plane reaches the congested towers of the city proper, and dips lower and lower, passing by the neon river of the Golden Mile, and then lower still, until the rooftops and the landing gear are separated by maybe fifty metres...and then the plane banks sharp right, towards the skyscrapers of Tsimshatsui, still dropping, and the low buzz of anxiety from the first-timers on board grows louder, and just at the moment when you think: "Well, this is it, the pilot's flipped out, we're all going to die" - the buildings magically disappear and the airliner plunges like a Scud missile to the tarmac. There are no soft landings at Kai Tak.
Kai Tak is due to close later this year, to be replaced by the larger, more efficient, and less entertaining Chek Lap Kok airport, which will receive its first airliner on July 1, the day that China takes over. Hong Kong is looking forward to that date with mixed emotions. The people seem a little uneasy about Chinese rule, but the businesses are rubbing their hands in glee. My entirely unscientific opinion is that Hong Kong is going to affect China a lot more than the mainland will affect Hong Kong. It is interesting to note that the monthly salary of China's occupying soldiers is less than the price of a single beer in trendy Lan Kwai Fong. I think Hong Kong will cause China to open up wider and faster than it is now. You may not be able to to depend on love, loyalty, trust or faith, but sheer human greed never lets you down.
They say there is no place else in the world like Chungking Mansions. Sometimes they say this with a smile of relief. Located in the heart of Hong Kong's Golden Mile, immediately next to the five-star Holiday Inn, Chungking Mansions takes budget accomodations to new lows. It is a crumbling fifteen-story highrise teeming with well over a hundred hostels, hotels, guesthouses, flophouses, cut-rate stores, cheap restaurants, moneychangers, travel agents, and shady import-exporters. It is a haven of smugglers, illegal immigrants, hustlers, pickpockets, Western backpackers and other vermin. Every race, color, creed, language, crime, vice, and dubious achievement is well represented. It is common to crowd youself into a tiny elevator with Indian businessmen in suits and ties, Dutch travellers with battered backpacks, African laborers in tribal outfits, an Islamic woman in full veil and a mostly-naked Thai prostitute.
By no means am I advocating actually staying in Chungking Mansions - though once you get past the first two floors into the guesthouses, it grows tolerable so long as you keep reminding yourself how much money you are saving - but it is at least worth a visit, and I know travellers who go back to it just for the hustle and energy of the place. The rooms range from "spartan" to "filthy", and you always run the risk of being woken by a midnight police raid, but they are reasonably safe, very cheap for Hong Kong, and you can't beat the location. If you want a cheap and friendly youth-hostel environment without Chungking Mansion's added edge, I recommend the Garden Hostel, just around the corner on Mody Road off Nathan.
Got to Get Away
The city of Hong Kong is one of the densest, noisiest, most chaotic and nerve-jangling urban jungles in the world. It's an amazing place, but after a few days you may be crying out for some sign of Mother Nature. You won't find it in the city - like Manhattan, "park" often means "one tree, two shrubs, and hectares of concrete" - but wilderness is remarkably easy to come by. Take the ferry out to Lan Tau Island, which makes up over half of Hong Kong's area and is almost entirely undeveloped, and start walking in any direction. In half an hour you will have left civilization behind. If you don't feel up to walking, take the bus up to the Po Lin Buddhist monastery, and make sure you sit by a window - the ride is stunning.
It sure isn't wilderness, but one of Hong Kong's favorite getaways is another country entirely: the Portuguese colony of Macau, due to be handed over to China in 1999. Macau is smaller, poorer, quieter, and historically much more interesting than Hong Kong. Churches, castles, and graveyards mark hundreds of years of cautious contact with the Orient. Nowadays its casinos are full of mainland Chinese shedding their recently acquired wealth, and it has a reputation as a capital of drugs, prostitution, and gang violence. But even if you don't want to sample tne nightlife, it is well worth a day trip. Ferries leave from Hong Kong frequently and take less than an hour each way. You will of course need your passport.
If you meet Western expatriates in China and wish to make them laugh uproariously, sidle up to them and whisper in their ears "Communist China is a classless society." Actually, "Communist China" might do the trick. Today's China makes the USA look like a Marxist utopia. If you visit the Maosoleum in Tiananmen Square, you too can witness the remarkable sight of Chairman Mao spinning in his crystal coffin, a little faster with every passing day. Be sure to shop at the souvenir stalls selling Chairman Mao keychains, coins, condoms and cigarettes.
This may be hard to believe, but the ruling Communist Party - and yes, I'm talking about the same senile coven of tyrants who sent the tanks into Tiananmen Square - are the most tolerant, enlightened, and open-minded government China has seen for centuries. I almost feel sorry for them. They have revitalized China's economy, and the resulting boom eats away at the Party's power and influence with every passing day. Every new employee of a private enterprise is another Chinese citizen no longer ruled by a Party work unit.
Attempts to paint China as the new Evil Empire no longer convince me. China could give Canada lessons in navel-gazing. I get the impression that if the Chinese government could build a new and impenetrable Great Wall around all of China, they would, so long as the wall included Hong Kong and Taiwan. Example of this paranoia and self-obsession: the People's Daily, the English-language voice of the Communist Party, actually accused the Clinton administration of deliberately leaking the USA's foreign-money scandal in order to discredit China.
Same Time Zone, Different Worlds
In China, the distance between the First World and the Third World is often as little as twenty metres. Just down the block from Wuhan's five-star Holiday Inn is a squalid marketplace, perpetually under destruction, crisscrossed by hundreds of bicycles, thronging with families dressed in patched rags. Beijing's wide avenues are lined by gleaming hotels, conference centers, stores and restaurants, but the tiny hutongs which riddle the spaces between them belong to another world entirely. Shanghai's Nanjing Donglu is a brighter and busier shopping district than Tokyo's famed Ginza Strip, but the would-be labourers who flock to it from the countryside have often never seen a foreign face before they reach the city.
Most Chinese are subsistence farmers. Eight hundred and fifty million people - take a moment to try and wrap your mind around that number - till their fields with water buffalo and the occasional two-stroke tractor, and live in villages which have, if the inhabitants are lucky, one telephone and one power line. Urban China, by contrast, is moving to the driving beat of money into the twenty-first century. Everyone wants to sell you something, though in most cities there is little variety - it sometimes seems as if there are only a dozen stores and another dozen street stalls in China, each repeated endlessly.
An Especially Tricky People
Travelling in China can, frankly, be difficult. Aside from the 1.2 billion people surrounding you, the traveller must wrestle with The System. There is a reason that you have never seen the phrase "ruthless Chinese efficiency" until now. Foreigners cannot rent cars. Plane tickets are expensive, and travellers have joked that the letters in CAAC - China's domestic-air organization - stand for China Airlines Always Cancels. Trains are probably the best way to travel, but buying train tickets can be a hassle. CITS (China's tourist agency) typically requires at least a week's notice to get tickets: ironically, over-the-counter tickets cannot be purchased more than three days in advance. I managed to buy tickets on my own without major problems, but this was largely because of the tiny amount of Mandarin I spoke. At least sleeper berths are fairly cheap, reasonably comfortable, and not as hard to come by as they used to be.
The System can be less problematic than The People. The woman you buy your tickets from probably doesn't really care whether you get to your destination on time, or at all, and won't be shy about showing it. Customer service is a new concept to the Chinese, and while there are signs that they are starting to catch on - the staff on the trains, in particular, were extremely friendly, helpful, and efficient - it will be a hard road. To get anything done in China you need patience, politeness, and persistence. In the hotel I stayed at in Beijing, my bed had been stripped of its mat, leaving a surface of bare jagged wood, and it took an hour and six requests to get a replacement.
I don't mean to warn you away - far from it. China is by far the most fascinating country I have ever been in. And go as soon as you get the chance: everything about China is changing with dizzying speed, and I am certain that much of its fascination will be gone in ten years.
A River (briefly) Runs Through It
The Yangtze River has been a battlefield, a major transport artery, and an inspiration for China's writers and artists since before the Roman Empire. The third-longest river in the world, it runs from its source high in the Himalayas through the heart of China until it empties into the ocean near Shanghai. In a few years it will hardly be a river any more. The Chinese government is building a colossal dam, drowning the famous Three Gorges and rendering more than a million people homeless, in order to generate power and improve Yangtze navigability. This is a dubious project even without the environmental implications. Building the world's largest concrete structure to hold back the world's largest artifical lake from some of the most densely populated real estate on the planet, in an area prone to massive earthquakes, can be chalked up either to chutzpah or sheer idiocy.
River tours through the Three Gorges are popular among both Chinese and foreign tourists. Some find the Gorges overrated, some find them spectacular, but if you don't go before 1999 you'll never find out. I was firmly in the "spectacular" camp. Steep green slopes with trees that looked like grass blades, or twisted and folded precipices carved by plunging riverbeds, or rows of jagged ridges, or simple sheer cliffs half a mile high: every now and again a house, or a road, to remind you of the colossal scale, of just how big the gorges are. Each hill and cliff appearing over the midst, looming for a time, then fading behind like huge shadowy fingers that point to the Yangtze's path.
There are two types of passenger vessels that ply the Yangtze: Western tour boats, expensive and reasonably well appointed, and Chinese ones, cheap and grungy. I was the token foreigner on a Chinese boat en route from Chongqing all the way to Shanghai, so along with the riverside scenery, I experienced a microcosm of China. The ship in question, catchily named #59, had accomodations ranging from first class (2 bunks and a private bath) to seventh class (roll out a mat on the deck). First class was populated by Commmunist Party cadres on expense accounts, second class by wealthy elders, and third class by me, less wealthy elders, and friendly young businesspeople. Sixth and seventh classes were populated by rural labourers going to Shanghai to seek their fortune, and they evinced no interest in the river or the Gorges or anything outside their food, their card games, and me: most of them had never seen a foreigner before. One of the seventh-class passengers died en route, and the corpse was casually carried away wrapped in plastic sheeting. Nobody thought it a big deal.
Beijing, by Bus, bearing Backpack
The first thing any traveller is likely to notice about Beijing is its size. Don't plan on walking anywhere. The five concentric ring roads around the Forbidden City's bullseye cover an area half the size of Belgium. Most taxis cost a fixed 10 yuan ($1.50) for the first 10 kilometres, with distance surcharges beyond that point. Expect to pay those surcharges frequently.
Beijing is not just China's capital, it is also its most popular tourist destination, and between the two you get a wealth of creature comforts. Newspapers, shopping malls, an English-language bookstore, block after block of 5-star hotels, foreign exchange on every street corner, a dilapidated but effective subway, and a host of McDonald's (who provide the only reasonably priced and drinkable coffee in China) are something of a relief after the spartan countryside. The downside: to many of Beijing's natives, foreigners are little more than walking bundles of dollar bills.
Beijing's buses are only for hard-core travellers or the very cheap. In theory they cost half a yuan: in practice, they are usually free, because you cannot reach or even see the conductor. Travel on a Beijing bus and you will find yourself compressed to half size by the press of an incredible number of bodies. You may find yourself forced out like a boulder in an avalanche well before the stop you intended. There is an excellent chance that you will board the wrong bus, or misunderstand its schedule, and get lost. And it is essential to make sure that prying hands cannot relieve you of your valuables before you force your way on. That said, it's worth trying - once or twice - to get a feel of what daily life is like for a Beijing public-transit commuter.
There are four "must-see" sites in the city, and the way they are hyped I sometimes wondered if you had to show ticket stubs for all four in order to leave the city. The Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, and the Great Wall of China. Like everything else in Beijing, they are OK but overpriced. Try to see Tiananmen Square on a Sunday, when it is home to an incredible flock of kites - birds, boxes, faces, fish, streamers, dragons and other mythical beasts. Take a paddleboat through Bei'hai Park and spend an hour or two in the Lama Temple, the only Tibetan temple outside Tibet (it exists so that the Chinese government can pretend it practices religious tolerance). Go through the Forbidden City, overrated as it is, but take a moment at the end to appreciate the stunning view from the north gate. If you're desperate for some non-fast Western food, try the embassy district to the northeast.
You can see the Great Wall in other places, but most tourists see rebuilt sections an hour from Beijing: you can take a bus tour to the site and a cable car up to the top, watch fake Mongols pace up and down, buy Great Wall T-shirts, and get your picture taken on a camel. If this is not your thing, take the Jinghua Hotel's tour to Simatai, which the brochures proudly proclaim as "the most dangerous section." It is a high and nontrivial climb, with some narrow paths over steep drops, but if you take it you can see the crumbling remnants of the real Wall. It wasn't until I climbed the Wall at Simatai and saw it winding its way across the hills like a colossal pale python that I realized just how insane an achievement it was. Mad, yes, but grandly mad, mad with flair. Go see it.
I mentioned above that foreigners cannot rent cars in China. The only exception to this rule is in Shanghai, but just because a thing is possible does not mean it should be done. Having experienced Shanghai traffic, I must conclude that Shanghai's government rents cars to foreigners only to cull the hordes of Western businessmen in the city. Picture the most anarchic traffic conditions you have ever seen, multiply by a thousand, and add two million bicycles, and you may begin to understand. It almost makes you long for Bangkok's perpetual gridlock. Shanghai pedestrians can be divided into two groups: the quick and the dead. The only way to cross the streets is to gather your courage and walk straight ahead, fast, without looking either left or right. If you act as if you are interested in surviving the next five seconds, this behaviour will confuse the bicyclists and drivers, and they may accidentally swerve into you instead of around.
Shanghai is rocketing into the future at Mach 10. On the west bank of the Huangpu River is the Bund, a mile of stately Western architecture, reminder of the years when the Western Powers apportioned the city among themselves and Shanghai was a synonym for sin. Ten years ago the Pudong, or east side, was nothing but swamp. Today the enormous Sky TV tower is crowded by countless cranes and the skeletons of forty-nine skyscrapers, all scheduled to be finished in five years. A world-class subway arcs across the downtown, with a second line running from the airport to Pudong due to open any month now. Massive highways cross and loop around the city, and a second international airport is nearing completion. The streets are clogged with shoppers, most of them newly wealthy Chinese, emptying the racks of French and Japanese department stores as fast as they can be filled. Crowds of Western investors collide and mingle on the major thoroughfares. The young have already been subverted by fast food, rock music, Hollywood movies and European fashion. The Shanghai Art Museum, all cool marble elegance, houses an extraordinary collection and charges a cool 60 yuan ($9) admission fee, enough to live on for days in China's hinterlands. The whole city is rushing to reinvent itself, and its inhabitants are hustling to ride the wave into wealth.
The only Indonesian news which makes it to the West seems to involve Nike factories, autocratic government, and gold salting, none of which you are likely to encounter, and so a basic introduction seems in order. It has a population of 200 million, half of which are found on the relatively small island of Java. Its government is aggressive and highly undemocratic but stable. The entire country is located within ten degrees of the equator.
Indonesia has only been a country for fifty years, and so its thirteen thousand islands are home to an extraordinary variety of cultures. Do not wear yourself out in a futile attempt to travel through the entire country and see everything - even if you use all of the sixty days alloted to tourist visas, you will inevitably fail. If you only have a couple of weeks, pick one area and explore it at your leisure.
Locals and their Price
"Hello! Where you going?" Expect to hear this a lot in Indonesia. I mean, a lot. Sometimes it is from a genuinely friendly Indonesian, interesting and interested, happy to spend an hour or two giving you a local's perspective on wherever you find yourself. More often it is asked by someone who wants to sell you guidance or transport and will take any demurral, no matter how firm, as an attempt at negotiation. (Hint: if you don't want to be hassled, answer jalan jalan, which means, just walking around). Indonesians are by and large a friendly, open, helpful people, but very many of them make most of their money by "picking white coconuts" - i.e. tourists.
This means, if you do want something they offer, keep a wise eye out for rip-offs, and be sure to bargain and bargain hard. I do not subscribe to the "give the poor people all they money they ask for" philosophy. This is partly selfish and partly because I like treating people as equals. But be careful lest you find yourself haggling over a nickel for minutes on end, and please don't be one of the irritating travellers who insists on paying local price and not a rupee more.
Bali and Lombok
Just east of densely populated Java, Bali and Lombok are two sister islands, both about 150 km across, which offer dramatically different experiences. Bali, the only primarily Hindu island in Indonesia's 90% Muslim population, is the country's number one tourist destination. It includes havens for wealthy resortgoers, drunken Austrlian youth, artists, eco-tourists, honeymooners, surfers and scuba divers. The populace is friendly and colourful, the tourist infrastructure is reasonably well-established, and you can fly directly to the capital of Denpasar from North America.
Lombok, a mere four hours away by ferry, is a little bit different: poorer, more rural, and less well travelled. It is an island where the keening, unforgettable Muslim call to prayers rings out five times daily, where Cadillacs and donkey carts share the streets, where herds of water buffalo graze a hundred metres from perfect white crescents of beach. It is not as easy to travel in Lombok as in Bali, but I found it more rewarding.
Travel light. Everyone will tell you this. For once everyone is right. You should travel with at most two bags, one main pack and one day pack. Anything more limits you to travelling in Touristland instead of the countries you spent all that air fare to get to. A good preparatory exercise is this: heap everything you intend to take into one pile and all the money you plan to spend in another. Then halve the first pile and double the second.
If possible you should fit everything into one carry-on size bag. Note that the definition of "carry-on" is not strict, we've all seen people carry on baggage collections the size of small naval flotillas, so don't feel guilty about cheating by an inch or two. There is a reason that airplane overhead racks are significantly larger than the maximum carry-on size.
Make sure that your passport isn't going to expire any time soon and that you have enough blank pages. Get visas ahead of time if possible: it's worth the peace of mind. Bring an old expired passport to give to people who ask for yours as security.
Bear in mind if you are leaving the First World that you can no longer expect speedy health care should you need it, that you should restrict yourself to bottled water and thoroughly cooked foods, and that diseases such as typhoid which hardly exist in the West are common through much of the developing world. Get thee to a doctor well before you go and get the appropriate inoculations. If travelling to a malarial area, think twice before taking chloroquine: I took it for several weeks without noticing any side effects, but many consider that particular cure to be worse than the disease.
A Few Fragments Of Paper
It's easy to treat passports, visas, travellers' cheques and insurance papers as almost-forgettable irritants. It's also a very bad mistake. Vital papers are like oxygen: you hardly think about them until they're not there any more. Bear in mind that when you are in a foreign land, it is only these sheets and pamphlets that stand between you and a literally desperate situation.
Paper is very light and takes up virtually no space in your pack. Bring whatever might be useful: photocopies of your passport and driver's license, travel insurance claim forms, travellers' cheque receipts, addresses and phone numbers of friends and relatives. If you don't have a credit card, get one before you go if at all possible - they are enormously useful. Copy down your credit and phone card numbers, but jumble the numbers slightly in case your pack is stolen. Find out the Home Country Direct phone access numbers for all the countries you plan to travel to and write them down before you leave.
On The Hubris Of Schedules
It is good to research and plan for a trip before you go. It is good to assemble a list of places you want to see and things you want to do. It is even good to come up with a tentative schedule. But it is very bad to have your trip ruled by a schedule devised before you ever left your home. Travel is replete with unexpected delays, sudden opportunities, new information: you may meet people who rave about places you never heard of and heap scorn on the sights you most wanted to see. Be ready to change your plans and flights at short notice. No-refund, no-exchange airfares are cheaper than flexible ones: they are also a foolish purchase. You may hate the place you travel to, and if so, be both ready and willing to leave earlier than you had planned. You may fall in love, find it dizzyingly inexpensive, and want to stay an extra month. Do yourself a favor and be prepared for either event.
They call it the language barrier, but that is a misnomer. "Language stupidifier" is a much better term. When you don't speak the language the locals speak, you are, for all intents and purposes, an idiot: unable to do, speak, or understand even the simplest things. Many travellers react with a timid reluctance to attempt any communication for fear of embarrassment. Others respond with indignation and come close to blaming those around them for not speaking English. Both reactions are natural, understandable, and wrong.
Asian languages are notoriously difficult. The exception is Indonesia, which has the world's easiest language - no tenses, no grammar, no sounds not found in English, you can learn enough to get around in a couple of days. Japanese, on other hand, is difficult, and Chinese is ridiculously hard. Native Chinese speakers have told me that they found English easier to learn as a second language than Mandarin Chinese as a first. And Mandarin is the easier of China's two preeminent languages. If necessary you can convey almost anything using a good phrasebook, infinite time, and a patient subject, but two of those ingredients can be hard to come by.
In Japan and Indonesia, and of course Hong Kong, you can get by in English: there's always someone around who speaks it if you absolutely need it, and in Japan if you so much as look puzzled someone may politely ask you in English if you need assistance. In China, English speakers are much harder to come by outside of the major urban areas. I learned a tiny amount of Mandarin Chinese before I travelled there, and I recommend this to anyone planning to spend some time on China's roads less travelled. My ability did not even approach the ability to have a conversation - I was able to buy a train ticket, ask for directions, and express basic opions, while understanding little to nothing of what was said to me - but there is a profound difference between knowing a little of the language and knowing none at all.
Know Your Friends
A good guidebook can be the difference between a great trip and a disaster, so don't get your guidebook from the same publisher who steered you through your week in Pittsburgh. Go to the experts and get a Moon Guide, a Rough Guide, or best of all, a Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit. If I ever meet the couple who founded Lonely Planet, I will shake their hands vigorously. And if you know people who live in your destination, even slightly, give them a call. Just as it's better to be a traveller than a tourist, it is better to be a guest than a traveller.
For travel packs and trinkets, you rarely need look further than Eagle Creek. My Solo Journey is the best backpack I have ever seen, let alone owned, and it's carry-on size to boot. They also produce a mind-numbing array of travel accessories.
Citibank deserves a special mention. It can be hard to get money in Asia. Hong Kong is littered with ATMs and money changers, but even in Japan, tower of world finance, money can be a stumbling block. There are countless ATMs in Japan, but Japanese banks, still a little unclear on the concept, actually switch them off at night. This is a moot point for Western travellers because they are not connected to international networks anyway. Citibank rides to the rescue with several branches in Tokyo and one in most major cities. They also run what appears to be the only ATM in all of China, located by the Peace Hotel in Shanghai. Plus they have efficient, friendly, multilingual service.
Also bear American Express in mind. They can be found in most major cities, they issue the world's most-recognized brand of travellers' cheques, and for those lucky enough to be cardholders, they run a 24-hr emergency-assistance hotline and are willing to turn personal cheques into travellers' cheques.
Disclaimer: My only relationship to the companies mentioned above is that of a satisfied customer.
And On The Seventh Day...
For all its rewards, travel is often a draining, stressful and exhausting experience, and this is often compounded by the "we must see as much as is humanly possible in our limited time" attitude. Don't fall into that trap. It's a big wide world out there, and no matter how often and how long you travel, you'll never see all of it, so don't even try. If you find yourself sleeping in a new bed every night, stop and reconsider your approach. And when you are a little sick of it all, tired of pagodas and crowds speaking foreign languages, and you want to pamper yourself with a day off and some Western creature comforts, go right ahead. Find an expensive hotel, check in for a day, and spend the whole day soaking in the tub, reading a book, and ordering room service. This may sound like a waste of time, but in fact it's a vitally important recharge period. I only took one day off on my trip - in Chongqing, after two consecutive nights on hard-sleeper trains and a long depressing day in the armpit city of Guiyang - and it was a wise move. I woke up the next day refreshed, reinvigorated, and with all my travel enthusiasm returned.
Don't Be Caught Dead In The Night Life
Every Asian city has an area which is allegedly the place to drink and dance - Roppongi in Tokyo, Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong, the French Concession in Shanghai, and so forth. Avoid these places as you would Ebola virus. They are populated half by pudgy American businessmen looking for exotic nightlife and half by locals whose idea of a good time is the Macarena. Karaoke Macarena. In Hong Kong, these problems are compounded by an infestation of yuppies. In my experience, denizens of large Asian cities have (warning: this sentence is about to end with an insulting and insensitive stereotype) absolutely no musical taste. I'm sure there are cool local places, and I'm sure that they don't make it into even the Lonely Planet guides.
One final note. When you travel, there will be days filled with little but delay and frustration, days when you count yourself lucky to accomplish nothing, days when it seems that every person on that side of the Pacific Ocean is working hard to keep you from getting what you wish. For your own sake, and the sake of those of us who follow you, try not to erupt when this happens. Deal with your adversity with courtesy, and patience, and a little bit of grace.