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Articles Blog

Filtering by Category: North Asia

Petropavlovsk, Russia

Karyn Planett

Kamchatka’s Hub 

“This is a city without style since it didn’t expect visitors.”

–Butterflybubbles, 2004 Journal.

Well, that makes sense if you know the city’s history as well as its geography. Historically, PK (as it’s called) had been shut off from the outside world especially during the Soviet Era when it housed Russia’s largest nuclear submarine base for their Pacific Fleet plus important military radar installations. PK’s Avacha Bay and Rybachiy Base were absolutely off limits to virtually all Russians and to definitely all foreigners throughout the Cold War. Truth be known, it’s only been open to outsiders since 1991. 

Geographically, PK is also shut off. As part of the Russian Far East, it’s nine time zones away from Moscow. Nine. And you know the old saying, “out of sight, out of mind.” In 1923, it had just three streets and 1,500 residents. But consider this... Petropavlovsk, though the Kamchatka Peninsula’s largest settlement, is today not even connected to the outside world by roads. That’s right. In fact, it’s the world’s second largest isolated city after Iquitos, Peru. 

In 1989, the population was 268,747. In 2002, only 198,028. But tourism is on the rise thanks to the fact that 1/3 of the peninsula has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing five nature reserves. The fishing industry flourishes. One-third of the entire catch is sold to Japan and fishing rights have been sold to other nations. Trekkers and fishermen come for sport. And an occasional cruise ship or two happens by. 

Bering and the Brown Bears 

Vitus Bering founded Petropavlovsk city. This Danish-born Russian explorer sailed into Avacha Bay July 10th, 1740 and proudly named this spot after his two sailing ships the Svyatoy Pyotr (St. Peter) and the Svyatoy Pavel (St. Paul). The Russian translation of “Peter and Paul” is Petropavlovsk. The following summer, Bering’s men set sail again with the task of discovering the Alaskan coastline. This historic journey took him to the Aleutian Islands and onto the Commander Islands where he sadly succumbed to the scourge of the seas, scurvy, in December 1741. The Bering Straits, that 53-mile-wide gap in the sea between Asia and North America, today still bears his name, a tribute to his great accomplishments.           

The Kamchatka Peninsula is home to the world’s densest population of brown bears. The first westerners to visit were stunned at both the bears’ size and their numbers. A mature male stands 9 feet tall and weighs a whopping 800 pounds. And, on a scale of relative nastiness, these brown bears are comparatively unferocious. Not friendly, mind you, but comparatively unferocious. Having said that, visitors should always heed all caution warnings and follow all rules set down by the local authorities when hiking, fishing, etc. 

Today, the bears are hunted for their fur plus their gallbladders, which fetch a pretty Yen in Asia. And, they, like us enjoy salmon as a source of fat for their long winter’s nap. The indigenous peoples of Kamchatka did hunt bears for food though they were of little interest to the Cossacks so their populations grew almost unchecked.  

The Ring Of Fire 

Kamchatka is the land of fire and ice. The two most active volcanoes nearby are Avachinskiy and Koryakskiy. There are a total of 68 active volcanoes on the Kamchatka Peninsula meaning over 10% of the world’s total land volcanoes are right here on this peninsula. The surrounding landscape is also dotted with hot springs and geysers. Mountains and volcanoes ring the city so that the horizon isn’t visible from any point in town. 

Local lore tells us about gomuls. They’re the mountain spirits who hunt whales and cook them at night, hence the visible sparks from the mountaintops. The indigenous people were so frightened of these spirits that they never scaled the volcanoes to determine for themselves if this tale was true. But, good always comes with the bad. Concrete blocks made of cinders from a nasty 1945 eruption of the Avachinskiy volcano now form the buildings of Petropavlovsk.

Mucking About, Literally

It rains often here, so visitors should dress accordingly. Ploshad Lenina (Lenin Square) is central to the city and worthy of a look. Like many cities across this vast nation, the names are often changed but this square is still known as Ploshad Lenina. Another place of interest is the small grey Chapel honoring the dead from the 1854 Crimean War. Though modest, it’s an important landmark. So, too, the Russian Orthodox Church and the local market where fish and produce are sold. Souvenir items include fur hats (sable, mink and fox), matrioshka nesting dolls, and hand-painted lacquer boxes. 

And, if you’re hungry, sample some borsch (beet soup) and blinis (pancakes) with jam. Of course, the salmon is fabulous as is the local beer, if you’re a fan, claimed to be so delicious due to the pure Kamchatka waters. Hot tea is available for all others. Maybe take a thermos up to Petrovskaya Hill for a nice view of the city below. 

Yantai, China

Karyn Planett

When it comes to China, superlatives fail. “Big” means nothing because everything is big, bigger, or biggest. Yantai, with 1.7 million people in an area in excess of 5,000 square miles, was hardly even a headliner. 

That was until the year 2004. It was then that China Central Television declared it to be the most “Charming City in China.” Finally, Yantai had gotten its proper respect, considering that it’s probably been in existence for 10,000 years. I guess we all missed the “ribbon cutting” ceremony.   

A Bountiful Stretch of Land 

Mother Nature has always smiled upon this stretch of land, except for the occasional monsoon that comes for a visit. The tropical type climate makes it ideal for bountiful gardens and farms, and the sea is rich with enough seafood to make any chef wild with glee. Some say this is due to the five dozen islands in this part of the Yellow Sea, which makes for a nutritious habitat for everything from crabs to sea cucumbers, scallops to abalones even prawns. And you probably already know about the winemaking here that dates back a full century, which is a mere blink of an eye in Chinatime. This successful industry caused Yantai to be anointed the “International Grape and Wine City”. 

Now, if these weren’t accolades enough, the UN has given Yantai its stamp of approval, as well, naming it as one of the world’s most habitable places. Perhaps the people believe the streets here are paved with gold. Truth be told, this region isn’t exactly paved with gold but it definitely is sitting on streaks of gold … meaning the country’s most productive gold reserves are right here underfoot. 

“Beacon Tower” 

That’s the translation of the name “Yantai” and dates back to the 15th century. It was then that this tower was constructed high atop a hill to be incorporated into the coastal defense system used as protection against Japanese pirates. Know, too, that the city was once named Zhifu, also spelled Chefoo. This was also the name for the island that offered defense for this important deepwater port. That’s what caught the eye of the Anglo-French in the mid-19th century who developed the port to service the international trade that found its way to this part of northeast-central China. 

Among other commodities such as apples and grapes, beans and silk were significant exports. In fact, Yantai was dubbed the “Silk Road on the Sea” with neighboring countries the beneficiary. It was through this thriving port that nearby nations such as Korea and Japan learned the skills and technology for such important industries as papermaking and silk processing. 

All this prosperity came to a screeching halt at the turn of the 20th century when neighboring Qingdao blossomed. Also spelled Tsingtao, it was here that the Germans focused their entrepreneurial attention. Deemed to be a superior port to Yantai, a rail line between the port of Tsingtao and the surrounding area was completed in the early days of the 20th century. The situation changed again mid-century when Yantai became part of the rail network, as well. Tsingtao is a name recognized far and wide for its famous beer. 

Industry flourished over time due in part to Yantai being declared an “open city.” This meant foreigners were encouraged to invest and establish commerce here. Among the many items manufactured in Yantai are such things as electronics and auto parts, wooden clocks and textiles plus all types of machinery. Locals claim that Yantai has been the biggest trading port in North China for more than 1,000 years. That’s a pretty impressive stat. 

The Early Days of Chinese Culture 

Historians believe that the Longshan Culture as well as the Da Wen Kou Culture had their early days in Yantai over 4,000 years ago. Also spelled “Dawenkou” this clan that lived from 3500 BC to 2500 BC left behind a wealth of cultural relics including 100 ruins of tombs, housing foundations and kilns. The Longshan Culture thrived in this region, as well. During that period, the people who originally were scattered about China in small autonomous villages began to settle instead in populated areas, with walled cities becoming the norm. Some of these cities counted as many as 50,000 inhabitants all living within the protective city walls. 

Well, all this will come to life as you explore Yantai and local guides fill in some of the blanks for the last umpteen thousand years. Should you choose, instead, to visit the local winery to sample some of China’s finest vintages, you can also carve out time for this activity. Remember Yantai is famous for its Changyu winemaking that dates back a century. In fact, in 1915 a local brandy, red wine and Riesling were award winners at the Panama Pacific Exposition. Do enjoy. 

Sanya, China

Karyn Planett

China’s Deep South 

Imagine that the entire nation of China was shaped like a giant, puffy potsticker with the rounded part on the bottom. Hainan Island would be a drop of soy sauce dripping off the very, very bottom. Or, a drip of soy sauce dropping off the very, very bottom. This island is to China what the Florida Keys are to the U.S. In fact, Hainan Island is so far south that it juts out into Sanya Bay and is found directly across the Gulf of Tonkin from Vietnam. And that makes for some very interesting isolation in many ways. Even the translation of the name Sanya says it all. It means, “the end of the sky and ocean” and “the end of the earth.” Well, not really but for some that, indeed, was the truth. For you, however, it’s just another notch in your see-the-world belt. And, for the record according to the People’s Republic of China, Hainan is China’s second largest island after Taiwan. According to others, Taiwan is officially known as the Republic of China and is a sovereign state. Let’s not debate that here. 

Oriental Hawaii 

Some tourism enthusiasts tout Sanya as the “Oriental Hawaii.” There’s truth to that. They both are approximately the same distance north of the Equator. In addition to being a recognized for its foreign import and export activity, it also offers a leisure life associated with a coastline dotted with attractive harbors and nice beaches. More importantly, a comfortable climate for the majority of the year is a magnet for those seeking sun and surf and a balmy climate as a backdrop. Visitors usually include a stop at the Nanshan Temple to gaze upon the Jade Kwan-yin Statue, covered in 221 pounds of gold and silver plus 120 carats of South African diamonds. Or, they partake in all the usual seaside activities or elect to do nothing more than laze about under a fringed umbrella with a gracious attendant offering food and drink on an international standard. As with other bustling seaside resorts, the fresh seafood is presented daily along with a sampling of tropical fruits. Oh, and if you like beach volleyball you’ll probably find a game somewhere. This is where the national team trains.     

The Many Faces of China 

Did you know that China is home to 56 different ethnic groups? Of course, the Han Chinese are the largest group by a long shot with more than 91% of the entire Chinese population. That leaves less than 9% for the other 55 groups. And please note that this vast nation with its enormous population has lots of grey areas. Ethnicity is subject to interpretation by different experts as well as official bodies, not to mention by the people themselves. Presented here is a basis for further review and study should you wish. Also note, we leave aside for another day the discussion about Tibet and its piece in this population puzzle. We’ll also leave aside the discussion about others groups claiming a distinct ethno-national identity but haven’t as yet received it. Having said all that, know there is some consensus that the people closely associated with this area are the Li, the Miao, the Chiyou and the Utsuls. 

The Li people call Hainan Island home and count more than one million in their group. It’s claimed that they had no written script until 1957 and speak a distinct language, though many speak Chinese, as well. Their traditional garb for the women include long, tight skirts and blouses without buttons. A few of the women still engage in the practice of tattooing their faces. Their hair is worn pulled back and into a bun that’s held in place with bone hairpins. As part of their dress, the women adore themselves with silver jewelry. For a type of make-up, the women chew a mixture of shell ashes, something called arica, and leaves. This concoction stains the women’s lips a reddish color. Many family members live together in thatched bamboo houses. Their diet consists of meat and rice and they practice herbal medicine very effectively. 

The Miao people number nearly nine million though they’re scattered about. Their traditional costumes are richly decorated with silver jewelry and headgear, as well as intricate embroidery. This needlework talent is passed from generation to generation with young girls being very proficient by the time the hit their teens. This is such a large group that their traditional dress varies from region to region but is always distinctly colorful and decorative. 

The Chiyou tribe has a complicated history and is debated endlessly. Nonetheless, their influence is here as well. So, too, that of the Utsuls who number approximately 5,000. In this country, they are considered an “undistinguished ethnic group”. An important discussion swirls around their origin. Were their ancestors Muslims who arrived here from Central Asia? Or, were they Cham refugees from what is known now as southern Vietnam? Language is key here to the scientists who study the migration of people, their origins, their ancestry, and their culture. And, with most studies, the experts aren’t in agreement. It gets rather controversial and DNA even plays a role in the discussions and discovery. Suffice it to say here, this is a culturally diverse area that you’ve come upon with a rich history and even richer heritage. Perhaps a local person can share a cup of tea with you and give you their version of the story. And, have them check their watch to make sure you get back to the ship on time. Beach traffic can be busy. 

Juju Island, South Korea

Karyn Planett

Something For Everyone 

You’re late for your hair appointment and if you don’t get there now Monsieur Jacques will give you the stink eye, the cold shoulder, tepid ginger tea and make your hair purple. You can’t find the car keys. Broke a nail on the fridge door trying to retrieve a cold bottle of Voss only to find out someone pinched the last one. Phone rings. Your best friend Dot’s crying over something you said at the ladies luncheon that she took totally the wrong way. School principal calls next. Johnny just got caught spray-painting graffiti on the gym wall, something about your neighbor’s cat. Hubby rings. There’ll be four extra for dinner. Tonight. 

So you’ve had a bad day. 

But when you think you’ve had a bad day, do some Zen breathing and remember the women of Jeju. 

Every Fish Tank Has a Silver Lining 

Traditionally, Haenyeo women are Jeju’s fisherwomen who free dive 60 feet down, no scuba tanks for these ladies, to gather shellfish and sea weed as have generations of women before them. That story follows. But, just know that as of now the times they are a changing. 

According to the Jeju Provisional Government and the Jeju Samda Museum, though Haenyo women have always been respected for their strength and courage, the practice is dying out as local women are now more educated and able to find work that is not nearly as life threatening. Dangers do lurk below in the form of sharks and other hazards and the veteran divers simply don’t want their daughters to enter this profession. As officials noted in their 2005 stats, of the 5,406 women divers 65.8 % are over 60, only 2% are under 30. 

As they sit in their “bulteok” dressing rooms, today’s women divers discuss everything from harvesting seaweed to pricing their catch. In fact, their seating arrangement around the bonfire indicates their rank within this extraordinary matriarchal community that’s kinda like the Yaya Sisterhood and their divine secrets but with wet hair. Once suited up and in the chilling water, they dive for octopus, conch, abalone and sea urchins returning to the seabed over and over during five-hour shifts. Over the years, the women have found other dive sites in Korea, and as far away as Japan, China and even the Russian seaport of Vladivostok. 

At the industry’s peak, there were some 30,000 female divers on this tiny island alone. It all started when the male divers were assessed a tax so women took up the profession. 

Hear their tales of courage, discover their customs, and learn about the specialized gear that includes picks and rakes, floats called taewaks, and swimming goggles known as eyes. Some say the Haenyeo can hold their breath for up to 10 minutes, though 2-3 minutes is more the norm. When they reach the surface, they make a whistling sound to expel carbon dioxide and take in fresh oxygen. 

Today, the women do have better working conditions. They no longer have to till the fields before and after their midday dives. The women are entitled to proper working conditions and income, time off for health reasons, reduced licensing fees, etc. They’re also entitled to operate their own restaurants where they serve their catch, bringing them significant additional income. These smart ladies are now revered as the island’s true feminists. They are the Haenyo, the Korean Grandmother Divers and, to some, even mermaids.

Other Things to Discover 

Jeju Island is 53 miles south of mainland South Korea. Though close enough for contact with the rest of the country, the Jeju people live rather independent lives and even speak a distinct dialect. If you’re confused, just know Jeju was once known as Cheju and is the capital of the entire island of Jejudo. This island, only 25 miles wide and 45 miles long, is popular with vacationing Koreans, honeymooners and others. They come to explore the famous lava tubes and Buddhist temples including Yateheonsa with its large bell. They also find waterfalls like the 23-meter one at Seogwipo known as Jeongbang Falls suitable for photos and a swim, plus some fine beaches and thermal pools. There’s a teddy bear museum as well as several sex museums. So you see, Jeju offers something for everyone, including shoppers. 

Visitors to the island usually take home some traditional fabrics dyed to a stunning color with persimmon juice, or jewelry fashioned from the local black coral. The real adventurers will sample the famous Korean dish of fermented cabbage known as gimchi, or kimchee, sometimes served with a sweet potato wine called Soju. You simply can’t find these specialties at your local hometown eatery, now can you?

Armed with all this knowledge and insight into a destination that’s away from the norm for Western travelers, you have the rare opportunity to experience another side of South Korea. That alone should impress the armchair travelers back home who come along with you on your magic carpet ride. They’ll thank you for the trip. 

Japanese Art

Karyn Planett

A Study of the Sublime 

A small, smooth hand mimics the refined yet tired movements of his elder. With an almost awkward attempt at precision, the student emulates the master drawing from him the wisdom of the ages. From one generation to the next passes a technique, a style, a craft, an art that has been coveted since times past by Japanese society.

Throughout the land, in airy studios and drafty workshops, wise artists nurture their talented pupils. Each senses an urgency to keep alive that glorious culture that defines Japan as a living treasury. 

Who Are These Artists? 

Governments around the world are faced with bottom lines and budget cuts yet Japan is one nation that still recognizes the need to nurture its traditional art forms. “Holders of Important Intangible Cultural Properties” are artists identified as living national treasures and provided for so they may focus their energies exclusively on their masterpieces.           

The concept of caring for those artists who perpetuate the traditional arts is reputed to have been the scheme of General Douglas MacArthur, the American five-star general who commanded the post-war operation in Japan. This military man recognized the tragic loss of fine examples of many art forms through the indiscriminate hands of war. It is said that MacArthur encouraged Japanese authorities to recognize, reward, and subsidize those artists who were the masters of their varied crafts, from drama to doll making. 

The Living Arts 

Kabuki is one of a handful of Japanese dramatic presentations. Unlike No (or Noh) performances that are often tragic, Kabuki is more musical and lively. Both, however, feature only male actors known as onnatgata. For more than 300 years, women were forbidden to portray Kabuki characters as the government had grown weary of jealous fans who aggressively vied for these actresses’ affection. The Treasury of Loyal Retainers is a popular Kabuki play. 

Tattooing is an ancient Japanese art form as well, but it uses the human body as a canvas. Many of these figures are reminiscent of ancient woodcuts. As early as the third century B.C., both Japanese men and women were tattooed on their faces as well as their bodies for decoration and for tribal identification. In recent times, this practice has been associated with the yakuza—the Japanese underworld—and people sporting tattoos are often denied entry into public places.

Fabrics and Dolls 

Throughout time, Japanese kimonos remained virtually unchanged. What did evolve, however, were the colors and patterns used in these garments. Some 1,200 years ago, weavers were already employing batik, tie-dye and stencils to decorate their fabrics. Gold and silver threads later enhanced these designs. The obi sashes became increasingly more elaborate. Some master weavers, even today, use only their sculpted fingernails to weave the delicate silk threads of these sashes. These artists are known as “fingernail weavers.” Samples of these delicate fabrics can be found on traditional Japanese dolls sculpted from kiri wood. 

Fashioned With Fire 

An expert swordsmith huddles before a blazing fire. With temperatures reaching a blistering 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, he creates a highly polished and richly decorated sword that would serve a samurai admirably. His craft evolved from that of Chinese swordsmiths of 2,000 years ago. 

Meanwhile, while squatting on an earthen floor, an iron molder creates magic where once there was none. From rough, unpolished iron his powerful hands fabricate such pieces as jewelry, dotaku bells, and traditional tea kettles that are used during formal tea ceremonies. 

And Japanese yaki porcelains and ceramics, as fragile as egg shells, are glorious in their exquisite simplicity.  

Flowers and Tea 

Ikebana is the Japanese art of floral arranging. Originally, only rulers enjoyed these colorful and delicate masterpieces. Slowly, over time, this art form was introduced into the quiet corners of small Japanese homes, as were bonsai’s. Though these diminutive trees can live for hundreds of years, they seldom grow taller than two feet for they have been expertly pruned throughout their long life. 

Japan’s tea ceremony is rich with pageantry and protocol. One must study for some time to master the discreet nuances of this ritual including the placement of the guests, the appropriate topics of conversation, and the acceptable manners for all involved. Tea masters provide this instruction at certain schools throughout the land. 

Fellow nations would be wise to examine Japan’s rich cultural heritage and the country’s desire to preserve it as well as its celebrated masters. A lost art is an irreversible tragedy. 

Seoul, South Korea

Karyn Planett

If you’re one who focuses on a nation’s history, its past, its moment in time, just know that South Korea’s people today are marching to the beat of a very different drum or, as in this case, a different buk. They’re techno, educated to a 98% literacy rate, motivated, and ready to write their own success stories. So, step aside or get caught up in their energized whirlwind as they fly past. Sure they can tell you about the city’s history that dates back to 1394. But, they’re more interested in today’s world markets and the price of gold. 

The Islands and The Sea 

The port of Incheon (also spelled Inchon) is 20 miles west of the heart of Seoul, draped along the Han River as it makes its way to the Yellow Sea. South Korea, about as big as Indiana, blankets the tip of the Korean Peninsula that clings to the Chinese mainland like an afterthought. All around are islands, 159 nearby. Off the southern and western coastline the count skyrockets to 3,000 seemingly tossed into the Yellow and East China Seas by some long-ago empress. The greatest of them all is Cheju, not only the largest but also the tallest. 

Also called the “Land of the Morning Calm” you’ve gotta beat the rush-hour traffic to discover if that’s true. Incheon’s three million inhabitants make their way to work daily, as this city is not only a vibrant port but also a major manufacturing area with factories for virtually all forms of industry – textiles, steel and chemicals, food processing and electronics, one could go on. 

A Brief Look At Seoul’s Long History     

It all began when some primitive, raggedy souls scratched out small hamlets along the Han River several thousand years back. That number, today, is nearly 11 million. Approximately 1,000 years ago, King Munjong emerged as the leader of the Koryo Dynasty and Namgyong, Seoul’s name then. The king’s descendents ruled the land for three centuries before the Yi Dynasty wrested control away. To preserve this control, General Yi Song-gye forced 200,000 workers to construct a massive wall around his city, remnants of which are still visible. Today’s population has spilled far beyond these ancient boundaries making Seoul not only the nation’s economic, cultural and governmental center but also one of the world’s most populous cities. 

Back to the past – subsequent rulers constructed opulent palaces. Invading Japanese forces laid many to ruin in 1592. Built again, they were destroyed only 40 years later, this time by the Chinese. A relative calm came to Seoul long enough for city fathers to create an infrastructure where once there was none. Electrical power. Transportation. Missions and monasteries. Newspapers. The face of present-day Seoul was emerging. 

Troubled Days Ahead 

Japan incorporated Korea into its realm as a colony in 1910. Further development followed including a proper Railway Station, government buildings, etc. Then World War II raged. Following Japan’s surrender, control over the southern portion of the Korean Peninsula was transferred to the U.S. while the Soviet Union took control in the north. In 1948, the two were officially separated forming South Korea and North Korea, two nations with different ideologies, different governing styles, yet with the same people separated by a line in the concrete. 

Within two years, their guns were trained on each other and the fighting began in earnest. The Korean War, also called the Korean Conflict, was on. The North invaded and Seoul fell. Chinese soldiers entered the melee. Americans too, plus soldiers from other nations. In 1950, General Douglas MacArthur and the U.N. troops landed in Incheon. When the guns were finally silenced three years later, people on both sides were left to tabulate their massive losses. Seoul wore the deep scars of battle. And, as we know, even today flashpoints remain, tempers are often heated, words are hurled, and the world watches cautiously. 

But You’re Here To See The Sights

And shop. Commerce has not passed Seoul’s 50 million people by. With a robust economy and Korean Won to burn, the local people go to Insadon Shopping District for art and antiques, even a Korean bar-b-q or tea at a traditional teahouse. The Sinpo Market is another option. But if it’s fish you want, visit the Yeonan Pier market.

Museum-goers enjoy the National Museum of Korea for relics and artifacts, the Modern Architecture Museum for photographs, or the Gyeonbok Palace and Folklore Museum. The last dates back to 1394 and was the main palace for the Joseon Dynasty. Also from this dynasty, which lasted from 1392 till 1910, is the Hawseong Fortress. It required 700,000 man hours to build and features a four-mile-long wall. Compare that to the Changdeokgung Palace, with its impressive Throne Hall.           

Everyone must visit the DMZ. The Demilitarized Zone that kinda isn’t. In fact, it’s the most heavily-militarized border in the world. In the world! In 1953, the DMZ was drawn up along the 38th Parallel following the signing in Panmunjeom of the Armistice Agreement. It’s 155 miles long, running between the Yellow and East Seas. Donning hard hats, you enter the Third Tunnel, one of the four tunnels discovered by South Korea since 1974. This one runs 1700 yards long. See the pictures. Hear the tales. Peer across into the north toward a nation sealed off from outsiders for generations. 

Perhaps tie a message for peace to the chain link fence like others before you. We must believe those on the other side do the same. And, hopefully, a deafening quiet will prevail so only prayers for peace will be heard. Remember, ten million family members were and remain separated after all these years. 

China Today

Karyn Planett

What a Difference Five Thousand Years Makes 

You know, Napoleon was a rather bright fellow indeed. OK, so he took a drumming, a right proper thumping at Waterloo and was perhaps poisoned in St. Helena. Never mind. It was none other than this historic French Emperor who knew a force to be reckoned with when he stumbled upon one. Take China, for example. Napoleon supposedly said, and I quote, “China? There lies a sleeping giant. Let him sleep! For when he wakes he will move the world.” 

Too right. China is now wide, wide awake and what a giant among giants is he. Let’s now examine some of this powerful nation’s riveting statistics. 

Size Does Matter 

Well, according to the US State Department’s official statistics, the mega-country of China measures 3.7 million square miles. The U.S. is 3,531,822 square miles from sea to shining sea, so there’s approximately the same landmass in the two countries. However, the current population of the U.S. is, give or take, 313 million people. China, on the other hand, has 1,336,718,015 people roughly. Do the math. That’s about four times the number of people in China compared to the US in the same space. Look around. Count noses. That is a lot, especially if you’re calculating mouths to feed. 

The Center for Disease Control says our life expectancy is 78.5 years. Not bad. China comes in slightly lower at 74.68. You’d certainly miss those last four years if they were talking about you. But, here’s an amazing statistic. China has a labor force of some 780 million people. The majority, 38%, are farmers or connected somehow to agriculture. Those involved in industry account for another 27.8%. The country is a huge producer of rice, wheat, potatoes, corn, peanuts, tea, millet and many other crops. It’s claimed they feed 20% of the world’s population though only control a mere 7% of the world’s arable land. 

If we compare the economics, the State Department tells us that China’s “per capita GDP is $7,600 (purchasing power parity)”. So all these details bring us to the point of where the Chinese people are today. 

They’re on the Move 

Those of you who managed to visit China when it first pulled open the bamboo curtain for travelers from the West to pass through, and haven’t been back since, will be absolutely bowled over. No… run over by the changes in China. No longer are the majority of her people shuffling along in padded Mao suits, making their way on age-worn footpaths with bundles slung across their shoulders, moving about almost as if they were lifeless automatons. Few owned so much as even a bicycle. Many others were transported by rickshaw, even water buffalo especially in the countryside. Hoards, masses, legions, cadres, virtual armies of people all scurried about their day, hurried about their day, in a lifestyle trapped in time. Everything was painted with the broad brush of Communism. Everyone was faithful to Chairman Mao. No one questioned, no one stepped outside the norm, no one wanted to be noticed as being different. For an outsider, a Westerner, the spectacle was too big to even begin to comprehend. But that was then, and this is now. 

The Road Ahead 

Beijing and Shanghai and a host of other Chinese cities showcase the dazzling veneer of the 21st century. Remember the Olympics? Her upwardly mobile, well-educated, multi-lingual business professionals don designer shades and shoes, have only the latest techno-gadgets, and zip about in expensive cars. Oh, yes, some of the older generations still do tai-chi in the parks as the morning sun warms the day while their grandchildren are cutting deals, assistant to assistant, banker to banker, broker to broker. Again, the State Department indicates that the US exports to China in the year 2010 accounted for $91.9 billion. Billion! 

But all is not great for this awakened giant. A significant percentage of her people remain trapped in a world where the burgeoning economy has passed them by like a Peking duck on the fly. Success for them is more illusive than a fluttering butterfly. Plus, there are also problems with basic resources as is the case with clean water. Water, and the lack there of, is one of the country’s most challenging problems. In addition to the sporadic droughts China experiences thanks simply to Mother Nature, there are also the problems of water pollution, water distribution, and so on. This, in turn, leads of crop failures, poor sanitation, and more. Nearly half the nation’s entire population is unable to access improved sanitation. This staggering statistic leads to the issue of health care for the masses.  The country’s leaders are working diligently to address these concerns and have provided for long-range planning to remedy the situation. 

What This Means To You 

This means, one must say, you have before you the very rare opportunity to witness this extraordinary country as it continues its emergence from the past much like a silkworm wriggles free from its cocoon. The guides will provide further statistics and projections filling in the data blanks. But it is the man, and the woman, on the street who can share with you their vision of China’s future. Take time to engage them in conversation, if you can snag one passing by. The future is in their hands, the chapters in history are theirs to write. Perhaps they’ll give you a preview of what’s to come.

                                                 Karyn L. Planett    

Kochi, Japan

Karyn Planett

Revolutionary and Pilgrim, Seafood and Paper

Of Japan’s four main islands, Shikoku is the most lightly populated as well as the smallest.  Found to the east of Kyushu Island just south of Honshu Island, it measures slightly over 7,200 square miles. Shikoku sits on the Seto Inland Sea almost wrapped in the embrace of Kyushu and Honshu Islands with the Pacific Ocean at its eastern flank.  And, it was this remoteness that made it an ideal place for political prisoners as well as spiritual leaders, hence a mixed bag of historical figures set in a dramatic, mountainous backdrop.

Revolutionary and Pilgrim

Sakamoto Ryoma is a name you’ll hear as you explore Kochi.  Born here in 1835 when it was called Tosa, Ryoma fled at the age of 28 without sanctioned authority from the officials, which was an offense in those days.  His goal was to convince warring factions to unite and rise up against the feudal military government of the shôgun. They did so and succeeded in creating an “Eight-Point Program” that installed the framework for a modernized Japan.  The emperor was ultimately given back his power in what was described as a bloodless coup.  These events are known as the Meiji Restoration of 1868.  Ryoma is recognized as an important revolutionary figure that spearheaded the demise of this 700-year feudal government, creating a new legal structure and parliamentary system as well as a diplomatic office.

Sadly, Sakamoto Ryoma was assassinated in Kyoto only one month later.  He died at the age of 33 yet his story lives on in the Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum found on the grounds of the Urado Castle Park in Katsurahama.  And note that Ryoma is so respected by his fellow countrymen that they refer to him by his first name only.  An impressive statue of Ryoma is an important highlight for most Kochi visitors.

Another important figure born on Shikoku Island is Kōbō Daishi (who was originally named Kukai) in 774.  He became one of Japan’s most famous citizens.  He was a trusted advisor to the emperor.  He mastered the art of calligraphy and is revered as one of the best three calligraphers ever to have lived, even introducing Japan to an innovative style of calligraphy.  He was a scholar, educator, poet and a priest.  It’s noted he also engineered dams.  And, at a young age, he began to seek “the truth” through Buddhism, eventually casting off his worldly possessions and retreating to the mountains.

Today, Kōbō Daishi is respected much like a saint and believers from around the world come to this island on pilgrimages.  Few actually walk the entire 1,400-kilometer route where the Great Master Daishi walked visiting all 108 temples and shrines.  Others prefer the 1,100-kilometer route to 88 main pilgrimage temples.  As they walk they recite the pilgrim’s motto, which is “Dogyō Ninin” (We Two, Traveling Together) seeking the path to nirvana.  It’s estimated 200,000 make some portion of this journey each year.  Some come just to visit the Cape Muroto cave where it’s said this monk gained enlightenment.

Seafood and Paper

The Japanese people love fish and Kochi is famous for a specific fish dish called katsuo no tataki.  Fresh skipjack tuna, also known as bonito, is lightly broiled then sliced and served with soya sauce-laced ginger and garlic dressed with fresh spring onions all with a splash of citrus and vinegar.  At isakaya eateries—casual places where locals drink and dine—this favorite is usually found on their menus.

Proper menus in formal restaurants, however, are sometimes handwritten on hand-made washi paper crafted locally.  The term “washi” means … “Japanese (wa) paper (shi).  It’s believed that Buddhist monks introduced the art of papermaking into Japan in 610 AD.  Until then, it was perfected by the Chinese and was not introduced to the Europeans until the 13th century.  And it’s claimed that some 100,000 families were crafting paper by hand in the late 1800s.  Mechanization and modernization have impacted this industry and few families today even engage in the practice.  Those who do still use the inner barks of a trio of indigenous plants … the delicate gampi, the strong kozo (paper mulberry), and the soft mitsumata that lends a graceful element to the paper.  The complicated process produces paper that is excellent for bookbinding, printing, umbrellas and origami, even paper jewelry.

And if all this isn’t enough for your travel journal, discover the story of a 14 year-old local boy named Nakahama “John” Manjiro who went to sea to help support his family following his father’s death.  Shipwrecked then rescued by a New Bedford whaler, the “John Howland” captained by William Whitfield, the boy sailed to Fairhaven in 1843 where he learned to read, write, even navigate.  After a stint in the California goldfields and time in Hawaii, he and former shipmates returned to Japan where he was arrested.  The Japanese government then recognized him as an important bridge to the west. He lectured on American democracy and even influenced Sakamoto Ryoma.  President Coolidge said of Manjiro’s return to Japan, “it was as if America had sent its first ambassador.”

China's Opium Wars

Karyn Planett

British Imperialism in China

The history of imperialism in Asia began with the Portuguese in the 15th century. They were the first to establish a virtual monopoly over the spice trade between Asia and Europe on the strength of their superior naval power. Prior to that time European economies had been largely self-sufficient but the trade of commodities begun by the Portuguese was a foretaste of today’s capitalist system.

By the 17th century the Portuguese had been eclipsed by the Dutch and the Dutch East India Company became the dominant trading force from their heavily fortified base in Batavia (now the Indonesian capital of Jakarta). The British weren’t far behind in recognizing the commercial importance of trade and with the rise of their own naval strength, they too established bases in India. Their Honourable East India Company (also known as the John Company) was given a monopoly over trade with Asia and they were soon operating out of Bengal (now Bangladesh). These fortified bases were never intended to be colonies, merely centers of commerce protected by private armies overseeing trade that stretched to China, Japan and Korea.

Tea Time

By the 1800s, Europe’s demand for oriental products had blossomed beyond spices to embrace a broad range of exotic goods from shimmering silk to precious stones. And in England the hottest commodity was the newest sensation—tea—a thirst that has yet to be quenched even today. The major source of tea was China where it grew in abundance and the Chinese were only too happy to trade heaps of it to the English.

Unfortunately, what the Chinese wanted in return wasn’t something England had in abundance, like coal or itchy wool clothing or British humor. They wanted silver, something the Chinese valued more highly than gold and which the British had to get from continental Europe at a decidedly disadvantaged exchange rate.

Desperate to find a valuable commodity closer to the source, the enterprising “Honourable” East India Company came up with opium—a product grown in profusion in India. But in the 1800s opium was illegal in China and virtually unknown to the general populous. There was no demand for it so the Brits created one by smuggling it in. In a few short years they had encouraged a nice base of over two million addicts and the value of opium soon reversed their trade deficit.

Qing Bling

Leaders of the Qing government (whose members were the primary drivers of Chinese silver lust) soon became alarmed by the drift of events, their people’s health, and the reversal of their silver trade. Attempts to crack down on the traders inevitably led to increasingly violent exchanges that, with the imbalance of military strength and resources, the Chinese were destined to lose.

British pressure increased to the point where they were able to mount military incursions (the First Opium War), soundly defeat outdated Chinese forces, and dictate a peace treaty. The Treaty of Nanjing became the first of the so-called Unequal Treaties forced upon the Chinese by more powerful western imperialists. In it, the Chinese committed to fixed tariffs on British goods, opened several ports to British merchants, and ceded Hong Kong Island to Queen Victoria.

The Arrow War

By the mid-1800s, many outposts established as trading centers had begun to morph into full-fledged colonies and western powers were pressing for the expansion of their overseas markets against still-backward Asian regimes. The British wanted all Chinese ports opened to their merchants, the legalization of the opium trade and the establishment of an ambassador in Beijing. The Qing’s court rejected these demands so the hunt was on for another “incident” that would provide the necessary excuse to force a result.

They soon had it when Chinese authorities detained a Chinese-owned but British-registered ship suspected of piracy. The British claimed that their ensign was treated disrespectfully during the seizure (not exactly a WMD event) and the Second Opium War was on. Meanwhile the Chinese attempted to poison the entire British garrison in Hong Kong by spiking their bread with arsenic. Unfortunately, they were a bit heavy-handed and the alarm was raised before anyone was harmed.

The Treaty of Tianjin further eroded Chinese hegemony by opening even more ports to western trade, allowing foreign embassies to be established in Beijing, and granting foreign travelers passage into the interior regions.

The humiliating military defeats and subsequent Unequal Treaties so shocked the Chinese people that these events led to the Taiping Rebellion in 1850, the Boxer Rebellion in 1899, and to the eventual downfall of the Qing Dynasty, replaced by the Republic of China in 1912 and bringing 2,000 years of imperial China to an end.

Taipei, Taiwan

Karyn Planett

The New and the Old

Type A. Face to the future. Well educated. Young. On the move. And true to the definition, the young people of Taiwan are competitive, work-oriented, driven to succeed. Other personality characteristics aren’t part of this review, just the broad brushstroke of a motivated populace. What’s noted here is the mobility of a youthful population. And, of Taiwan’s nearly 24 million people, less than 12% are aged 65 or over. For the record, everyone lives in an area measuring a mere 14,000 square miles, hence this is one of the world’s most densely-populated places. To compare, Taiwan is about the same size as Connecticut and Massachusetts combined. So you don’t have to do the math yourself, that means something like 1,600 people share an area equaling only one square mile. Think … really crowded. But in the nation’s capital, where you may be going, that number increases to a whopping 25,000 people per square mile living cheek to jowl on just about every square inch they can find. Thankfully, though, open space has been dedicated across the island nation so a day trip out of the city to a glorious mountain range is often just what the doctor orders. There are stunning peaks, dramatic gorges, ribbony waterfalls, and endless hiking trails.

More than 96% of Taiwan’s citizens can read and write. Perhaps that’s why fewer than 2% of the people live below the poverty line. In fact, you’ll quickly discover that the young people have a strong penchant for consumerism. Knowing about and owning the hottest designer handbags and spiky shoes, sexy sunglasses and winning wristwatches as well as the very latest techno-tricks no matter the cost is a must.

That is Now, This was Then

As a thumbnail sketch of thousands of years of history, just know that the vast majority of Taiwan’s citizens identify themselves as provincial people. Their name, benshengren, distinguishes them from the descendants of those who arrived on Taiwan’s shores in 1949 along with Chiang-Kai-shek. It was during those turbulent times in China that some two million people fled to Taiwan as his followers. They and their offspring are called daluren, meaning “from the mainland”. And let’s not forget the yuanzhumin whose ancestors were here first. They are considered aborigines and represent less than 2% of the population. They live mostly in the mountains and remote areas. And each of these unique communities has left an artistic and cultural imprint on this tiny island nation that measures only about 245 miles long, 95 miles wide.

Not surprisingly, this land is a temple to technology. Who can say what the up-to-the-minute stats are but just know that Taiwan is a major, repeat major, manufacturer in the computer world. Everything from laptops to desktops. And if you have a computer question, stop a-n-y-o-n-e on the streets and ask for help. These whiz kids do know it all.

Time is Short

Best get going if you’re in the mood for some great sightseeing. It’s hard to imagine coming to Taipei and not visiting the National Palace Museum whether you’re a museum buff or not. But be ready because this landmark holds the world’s largest collection of Chinese artifacts, though not all are on view at once.

Here’s the story. As long ago as 200 BC, Chinese emperors amassed a huge collection of valuable pieces including everything from bronzes to calligraphy, porcelains to portraits, sculptures and carvings, laquerware to jade. These artifacts remained in Beijing’s Forbidden City until 1931 when the Japanese forces overran Manchuria. Spirited out of Beijing, the majority of the collection survived even bombing raids. Shortly after the end of WWII, the public was able to view this impressive collection on exhibition in Nanjing for the very first time. Then, hostilities erupted again, this time between the Chinese Communist Party and the KMT (the Chinese Nationalist Party called Kuomintang) under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek. This civil war caused such turmoil that the art collection was moved again, this time offshore to the port of Keelung. As the original intention was to return to mainland China, the powers that be weren’t interested in creating a permanent venue for this art. Time passed. Ideas changed. Ultimately, in 1965, the pieces found a permanent home in the National Palace Museum. Four years of recent renovation has resulted in the museum you see today. For the record, there is a mainland China contingent that believes these items should be returned to their rightful home in mainland China. Best not get into that discussion. And, best put on your “patience” hat because the crowds here can be rather daunting.

Other sites worthy of your time, knowing that the National Palace Museum alone could take weeks to explore, are the National Martyr’s Shrine and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. The first is a tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice during China’s wars. The latter, also known as the CKS Memorial Hall, took its inspiration from Beijing’s Temple of Heaven.

Of course there are a million other important sites to see and neighborhoods to explore and designer shops to visit and restaurants to sample. Time is of the essence so a tight plan will serve you best. Remember, though, you’ve got to get back to the port before departure time to tell your friends all about your excellent adventures.