FAR EAST – PART 3
I’m finding big cities less intimidating. Having successfully navigated the Yokohama-Tokyo train and subway system shown on the diagram below, I guess we’re qualified to go anywhere now! While we’d been cautioned about the crowds, as I’ve written in an earlier blog, the Japanese are unfailingly polite, quiet and calm. Subway rules even require riders to silence ringers on their cellphones and refrain from talking on them. Damn civilized! While we’d never survive in such a congested environment, we learned to cope. And our theme for this cruise became: “Figure it out!”
Another thing struck us about the Japanese, and it hit home in Shimizu, a small industrial city. They’re glad to see us! As soon as the gangway was lowered, we were treated to a concert by a local drum band. In the cruise terminal, we found everything we needed: wifi, money exchange, and ample tourism information for independent travellers like us. We took a municipal bus to a seaside area for views of 13,000-foot Mt. Fuji and, back in the terminal, were coaxed into authentic Japanese costumes for a photo shoot. All courtesy of volunteer local women. The old samurai looks half decent next to his much younger and prettier geisha, n’est-ce pas?
Next stop was Osaka, a city of 1.5 million, medium-sized by Japanese standards. We’d read up on the area and decided our time would be better spent in the nearby city of Kyoto, capital city during the Shogun period from about 400 years ago until 1867 when power was ceded to the Emperor.
Four subway lines and a bullet train ride later, we arrived at Nojo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site notable for its large wooden palace complex and impressive fortifications. While the blossoming cherry trees signaled the coming of spring, my infected sinuses reminded me that it was a cold, damp day.We hopped on the subway again and made our way to the next stop on our Kyoto agenda, the magnificent Kiyomizudera, a revered seventh-century Buddhist temple and UNESCO World Heritage Site. We walked up a steep shop-lined street, meeting many young Japanese men and women, like the ones shown below, dressed in beautiful traditional costumes, obviously very proud of their heritage.
Not every port of call is worth the stop. And so it was with Hasoshima, kind of like expecting to find something in Portage on your way from Charlottetown to Tignish. Disappointing to say the least! But we gave it a shot, taking the shuttle to downtown Hyuga. It didn’t take us long to figure out that a U-turn was our best option.
After a day at sea, we awoke dockside in the Huangpu River, surrounded by the wonders of Shanghai. We’d decided to split the cost of a local guide with Josie and John, an American couple, experienced independent travellers. Caroline proved to be friendly, knowledgeable and competent, although her English was halting. She led us through the subway maze and took us to the places we wanted to see, Tianzifang and Yuyuan and, clearly her favourite, the site of the 1921 China People’s Congress meeting. While my knowledge of Chinese history is very limited, this historic gathering marked the birth of the Communist Party and the genesis of the economic superpower that is today’s China. Caroline chose lunch for us at an amazing buffet-style eatery featuring every kind of dumpling you can imagine. It was the highlight of our day.
Unfortunately, the weather worsened as the day wore on - cold and rainy. On our second day in Shanghai, we braved the rain just long enough to do the wifi thing as freeloading squatters in the luxurious lobby of the Fairmont Hotel before heading back to the welcoming confines of the ship.
We’d been in China long enough. We found the impatience of the mainland Chinese quite tiresome. Some of their habits go beyond anything I’ve seen in the snake pit at the Wellington Legion! And if queue-jumping were an Olympic sport, the Chinese would be hard to beat. I can even imagine a medal ceremony where the Chinese competitor in the queue-jumping event, having failed to win the gold, jumps ahead of the poor Canadian who did and pushes his way onto the top step of the Olympic podium!
Because of forecast bad weather, the Volendam had to skip its planned visit to Okinawa. Instead, we sailed directly to Keelung, the port city that serves Taiwan’s capital, Taipei. We spent the morning of our first full day riding the train and subway to the city’s attractions, starting with the impressive National Palace Museum. Its collections are equal to those of the Shanghai Museum, if not better.Since it was a clear day, we rode the elevator to the top of Tiapei 101, the country’s tallest building, and got great views of the city. Then we walked across the massive square below Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, flanked on both sides by the National Concert Hall and the National Theatre. I’ve not seen a nicer square anywhere in our travels and, as for the founding father’s memorial, it’s every bit as impressive as the Washington Mall’s Lincoln Memorial.
Our next two stops in Taiwan were at Hualien and Kaohsiung. At the first, we took a Holland America excursion, our first land tour with the company on this cruise, and enjoyed magnificent views of Taroko Gorge in the national park of the same name. In Kaohsiung, we pick up a city map from the tourist office and planned our itinerary. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I’d been given the world’s worst city guide, or at least the worst I’ve ever had to decipher. Taiwan’s second-largest city is not that impressive compared to other cities we’ve visited on this trip. But the in-progress Pier 2 development will transform Kaohsiung’s waterfront, making it a far more interesting place to visit in five years’ time.
My lasting impression of Taiwan is of a country seeking to establish itself as a regional economic player. Admittedly, its relationship with mainland China is complicated. Since 1949, when Chiang Kai-Shek led his defeated troops to the island, Taiwan has steadfastly maintained its claim to sovereignty, calling itself the Republic of China. However, it’s recognized as a country by only 21 other sovereign states, all of them small. Bigger countries are too afraid to offend the Peoples Republic of China by challenging its “One China” policy. Not even Donald Trump would be that stupid! But Taiwan is a democratic society, unlike mainland China, and I can’t see its people surrendering their freedoms without a fight. So, while Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, I choose to add it to the list of countries we’ve visited, just as I’ve counted Palestine.
Our evening arrival in Hong Kong gave us a chance to spend time with friends Donna and Dave Crocker of Alberton before they boarded the Volendam for a cruise that would eventually take them to Vancouver. We flew to Singapore the next evening and settled into our hotel after a very long day.
Of the many cities we visited during our seven-week Far East Adventure, four qualify as world class: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Singapore. But Singapore is our hands-down favourite. It has all the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, the amazing modern infrastructure of Dubai, and the beauty of Barcelona. All it’s missing is the history one finds in cities like Rome, London and Paris. Imagine a place where the world’s best engineers, architects and planners came together and were allowed to do their very best work, with public support and without corruption and political interference, and you’ve got Singapore.
Seven days there proved an excellent way to cap off our winter sojourn. We even ran into Jean-Paul Poirier, our École Évangéline classmate, and his wife, Galena Shelestova. Her Facebook post alerted me to the fact we were in the same city at the same time, and we spent a lovely day together at Bay Gardens and Marina Bay. The Gardens are world-class, as is the Singapore Zoo. My personal favourite was the night safari, a unique experience, an opportunity to get up close and personal with nocturnal animals I’d never seen before. And watching my first panda, Jia Jia, devour bamboo shoots was unforgettable.
Singapore the country is barely fifty years old, yet it ranks fourth in the world in terms of per capita GDP, behind only Qatar, Luxembourg, and Lichtenstein. The US stands at number 17 and Canada at number 31. If Prince Edward Island were a country, we’d be number 60, behind Trinidad and Tobago, with Slovakia gaining fast. But much of our wealth is in the form of transfer payments we receive from Ottawa. Without this, we’d be a poor country indeed. That Singaporeans are wealthy is quite obvious. You just have to walk through a mall and look at the cars they drive.
And that leads to another subject that interests me: sovereignty. How is it achieved, what does it mean, and what are the keys to success? Were Prince Edward Island, by far Canada’s smallest province at only 5,560 square kilometres, to become a sovereign country, it would rank 166th in the list of United Nations member countries, just behind Brunei and just ahead of Trinidad and Tobago. Thirty countries are smaller than our tiny province. Not all are successful economically, but some are very wealthy, including Singapore. With but few exceptions, their wealth comes exclusively from brainpower, not natural resources. On my Island, we have many things to learn.
As we say a reluctant goodbye to Singapore, these pictures are better than words. And after seeing the National Orchid Garden, we just ran out of superlatives.