Friday 31 October 2008

China: People of the Middle Kingdom

I've spent the past week in China with colleagues from the Australian Society of Travel Writers. After we held our Annual General Meeting in Shanghai, we flew out west to Chongqing to join a cruise down the Yangtze River to Yichang. We're now in Wuhan, waiting to fly home.

It's been an amazing week full of large, spectacular sights, from the massive modern architecture of Shanghai to the majestic gorges of the Yangtze. But travel stories - like all stories - are about people, and I've been struck by the friendliness and relaxed practicality of the Chinese we've met on the way.

A few snapshots:

  • The stallholder on Shanghai's Old Street, who cheerfully haggled with me over the price of a number of items I wished to buy. Her running commentary on her fairly absurd stock (waving Mao watches included) was high spirited and not too pushy. We left the best of friends after settling on a price by alternately typing our bids on a calculator.
  • The musician playing a string instrument at a teahouse above the markets. He and his partner played a number of traditional tunes in classic robes - then launched into an instrumental version of Click Go the Shears. I looked up sharply from my jasmine tea, and we shared a knowing glance.
  • Steven Xu, the bar manager on the Victoria Queen cruise boat, who talked to me about his experiences serving foreigners floating up and down the Yangtze. As his parents and grandparents are small-time farmers with a small income, he says they're proud of his work on the river. He keeps in touch with pen pals from among his former passengers, and hopes to travel to Australia one day, to visit one.
  • The boatmen who operate the sampans along a narrow side gorge we visited one day. Ceaselessly cheerful, they helped visitors in and out of the boats and piloted them through rainy weather through an impressive stretch of rocky cliffs. In straw hats and lifejackets, they looked like they were really enjoying their jobs. I asked Steven what they'd be doing if there were no tourism, and he said they'd probably have departed for industrial work in some distant city. Much more rewarding to be out on the water.
  • Our guide to the Three Gorges Dam, Kevin, who had a cheerful patter worked out about being "a good dam guide or a damn good guide". I told him our prime minister, Kevin Rudd, also spoke Mandarin, so there was more than one Mandarin-speaking Kevin. To which he said "But mine is better - you can't beat a native speaker".
  • The guys on the coal scow that nestled next to our boat on the journey through the multiple locks that bypass the Three Gorges Dam. I stepped out on my cabin's balcony and saw them below, standing on the front of the scow, helping direct the pilot's placement. They looked up, I waved, and they returned the wave while simultaneously shouting "Hello!".
It can't always be easy living in such an overpopulated country, but the Chinese do it with good humour and an unexpected grace.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Shanghai Municipal Tourism and Helen Wong’s Tours.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Familiarity Breeds Content

I was in a train station when the revelation hit me.

But before I get to that, let me backtrack to the previous evening. I’d been in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania for a few days, and was waiting outside the main train station for the overnight bus to Warsaw, Poland.

There were no benches nearby so I seated myself on a lower step. It was an interesting place to loiter.

It was an early Saturday evening so young people were on their way out of the station for a night on the town, others were returning home after a day out, and in front of me a steady stream of trolleybuses was picking up and dropping off passengers, including the occasional trademark Eastern European old lady with a scarf around her head.

After a while, a few more people started hanging around the bus stop sign. First up was a young slim guy with a long ratty ponytail, and what appeared to be his mother and younger sister, towing a lime green suitcase. I drifted into eavesdropping range and detected Polish being spoken, so dropped in a few words about going to Warsaw. We all nodded.

It is strange how little change of perspective is needed to make people into kindred spirits. In Poland I was the foreigner, trying to understand the place and its people; but in Vilnius the Poles and I were all outsiders, having to get by with English because we didn’t know the local language.

The bus tore off through the night about 10pm, scheduled to stop only at Lithuania’s second city Kaunas and the eastern Polish city of Bialystok on its way to Warsaw. I was awake as we crossed the border, and was amazed to see the complex of customs houses, sidings and truck bays I’d dozed through a few days earlier.

What was more remarkable was the way in which we ignored these empty buildings and joined a convoy of trucks threading their way between them. As both nations are now part of the border-free Schengen zone, there are no border crossing formalities between them. Bypassing the redundant border checkpoints was an exhilarating experience – as borders are imaginary lines set by humans, so may they dissolve.

But that wasn’t the moment of revelation. About 5.30am we pulled into the bus bay behind Warszawa Centralna, Warsaw’s communist-era main train station. I walked into the lofty ticket hall, bought a ticket to Lublin, the next city on my Polish itinerary, then took the escalator into the labyrinth of corridors that run beneath the station.

Low-ceilinged, lined with dozens of shops, and linked to further pedestrian tunnels leading to tram and bus stops, these corridors are inherently disorientating. But I realised, as I walked through them, that I’d finally (after many years) worked out their basic configuration.

I strode unerringly to a particular cafe I was looking for, and stepped in just as they were opening. I ordered the same coffee I always ordered there, then sat in the same chair at the same table I always sit in when I’m killing time before a train journey from Warszawa Centralna.

That’s when I realised how completely at ease I felt there. I was so used to the place and how it worked, that I might as well have been a resident of Warsaw. And, it occurred to me, I visit Warsaw more often than a lot of places closer to home – I’ve visited the city on four occasions, for example, compared to the one time I’ve been to Brisbane.

So I seem to have lost the mild unease that usually accompanies travellers when they head into a foreign country – that frisson of irrational fear when surrounded by an alien culture.

I assumed, on reflection, that I’d now travelled widely and often enough that it had withered away, leaving behind a lively but assured interest. Also that I now felt experienced enough with new places to deal with their differences without any conscious effort.

It was an interesting moment. But one I rather liked.

Thursday 16 October 2008

An Essential Luxury

According to eTurboNews this week, Indonesia’s tourism minister Jero Wacik has an unconventional opinion on the ongoing global economic crisis.

He thinks it will benefit his country’s tourism industry rather than harm it, saying “The crisis is stressing so many people out. They need to relax to relieve the stress.”

Is this a supreme example of spin doctoring, or the most optimistic statement since the commander of the Light Brigade said “We can take ’em”?

I say this not to impugn the forecasting skills of Mr Wacik – he may well be proven to be correct. But it’d be against the conventional wisdom, which suggests that in times of economic downturn, people give up travelling.

On the surface, this makes sense. If companies are feeling cautious with their money, they may well cancel all non-essential travel and use email and video conferencing more. Individuals might also see travel as a luxury they can do without, and hoard their pennies in the old oak chest.

And that’s what this theory revolves about, doesn’t it – the assumption that travel is a luxury, rather than an essential. Especially for individual travellers.

But is it? Obviously it comes down to the opinion of the individual. I’d argue that, at least in my life, travel is an essential item I’d give up a long way down the list from many material comforts.

On my Facebook page I say that I love the way travelling through somewhere totally unfamiliar, preferably using a foreign language, engages all your senses and makes you feel extraordinarily alive. I’m sure many others who’ve experienced the stimulating joy of travel agree.

On top of this, think how much good travel has done in dispelling racist stereotypes of foreigners among everyday people. Sure, narrow-minded people still travel overseas and return with unaltered prejudices, and even broad-minded travellers might meet only the sort of pushy touts that give their countries a bad name.

But never again will governments be able to get away with the propaganda posters used in the two world wars, depicting the enemy of the day as a race of slavering inhuman monsters with hideously distorted features who bayonet babies. The fear of the unmet “other” is always worse than the fear of a people you’ve actually encountered, however imperfectly.

Intolerance will, sadly, always be with us. But travel does its bit to dispel its evil, and long may it do so.

Monday 13 October 2008

Queenstown: Larger Than Life

This week's guest blog is written by journalist and fantasy novelist
Narrelle M Harris.

It’s been said that life never feels more real than when it feels like you’re in a movie. On a recent business trip to Queenstown, New Zealand, it sometimes seemed like I could see how the special effects were done.

Several times a day I heard my fellow conference attendees comment on the mountains. Crisply outlined against a blue, blue sky, the mountains were sharply defined and dramatic. “They look painted on!” people said. “They look like a backdrop. They don’t look real.”

They had certainly looked real enough flying in through heavy turbulence on Saturday, when the more pessimistic (and possibly less experienced) travellers among us were white-knuckle-gripping the seats and praying that we wouldn’t inspect the snowy crags any more closely until we were on foot.

I had my own surreal experience walking back to the hotel after dinner one night. This was the dinner featuring the magnificent golden-sails-in-the-sunset dessert: a chocolate boat filled with ice cream and topped with pirate-ship masts and sails made of toffee. We were all so impressed we took photos.

Queenstown has a lot of hills in it. Actually, it’s easier to say there are very few flat bits in it. This night, walking up the steep hill, I was aware of a curving bank of lights hovering above the town, close enough to be teleporting up cows and hick farmers called Jed for probing.

I glanced up, startled, before realising that it was just the lights of the Skyline observatory. With no other lights on the pitch-dark hill on which it is perched, it just hung there. A UFO with a bar and a luge track that I could reach by cable car tomorrow, if I wanted to see what the aliens were up to. And possibly rescue the cow.

Another not-quite-real thing about Queenstown is its cast of thousands from other nations. The customer service staff in this town are a check-list of the United Nations. At my hotel I met staff from Argentina, Portugal, Italy (Venice – he was particular about naming his hometown) and a contingent of handsome young Dutch men who were studying hospitality and had come out for work experience.

In the town itself I was served decent coffee by a Yorkshireman, sated my need for the Internet at a cafe run by a guy from the Czech Republic and bought groceries from women who sounded like they came from somewhere in Eastern Europe. It was more like a casting call than a plausible local population.

I begin to suspect that Queenstown wasn’t a proper New Zealand town, but rather a sophisticated training camp designed to prepare Kiwis for life in Europe, where they have customs and cultures different from our own.

Even if it is a kind of multicultural movie set, you could do worse than visit Queenstown. If you are not inclined to fling yourself at speeds down snow covered slopes, or straight towards the craggy ground at the end of a big rubber band, there are more genteel pursuits in this lovely little Alpine town.

If you have engineer-geek tendencies, you can go on a cruise around the lake in a century-old steamship and sit on a viewing gantry watching the burly men shovel coal, and the gleaming pistons of the engine pumping up and down. And it’s warm down there, which is good, because it can be bloody cold out on deck.

Queenstown may well be too pretty and possibly even too contrived to be true, with its picturesque mountains and lookouts posing as flying saucers, but if you want an escape from your real, everyday life, this is surely the place to do it.

Find details of Narrelle's vampire novel The Opposite of Life at her website, along with details of her other books.