As a four-decade Certified Travel Agent, international airline employee, researcher, writer, teacher, and photographer, travel, whether for pleasure or business purposes, has always been a significant and an integral part of my life. Some 400 trips to every portion of the globe, by means of road, rail, sea, and air, entailed destinations both mundane and exotic. This article focuses on those in Northeast Asia.
A trip to Hong Kong offered an opportunity to experience the destination while it was still under British rule.
Rising like modern monoliths of concrete, steel and sun-glinted glass skyscrapers occupied every inch of the city on both its Hong Kong Island and Kowloon sides, which were separated by Victoria Harbor. Bridged on the surface by frequent, Star Ferry crossings and below by traffic-and subway-boring tunnels, these bustling, commerce-concerned metropolises tried to blend modern and ancient, and western and eastern culture, yet retain a hold on its past. A walk up to an extensive breakfast buffet, for instance, meant the typically expected fare, but also featured Chinese offerings, such as dim sum.
My sightseeing strategy entailed an ever-expanded encompassment area.
Attractions included the Suzie Wong district of Wanchai; Deep Water Bay; and Repulse Bay with its beaches; the Stanley Market, once part of a fishing and farming village and now a residential area whose sprawling complex of shops and stands displayed bargain-priced commodities, such as designer clothes, porcelain wares, bamboo, and rattan. Aberdeen, fisherman-inhabited and water-littered with junks and sampans, certainly emphasized the city’s origins, and a tram ascent up Victoria Peak, which rose from 80-foot Garden Road to 1,305-foot Peak Tower, offering new perspectives.
The Sung Dynasty Village, a recreated, period-dress representation of Bian Jing, China’s capital during the Sung Dynasty (960 to 1279 AD), offered a return to the country’s ancient, cultural past. Entered through its time portal main gate, it afforded a multi-sense immersion by means of architecture, customs, food, and shops that sold everything from incense and fans to silks, handicrafts, and wood carvings in a layout of streets, a stream-spanning wooden bridge, and triumphal arches. Live performances solidified the experience.
Considered “the land between,” New Territories, 15 miles north of Kowloon’s bustling waterfront, office skyscrapers, and gleaming hotels, was an area of rolling, green hills, neatly terraced fields, rural markets, and fishing villages. It shared Hong Kong’s then-border with Communist China.
Visits here were to Chuk Lan Sim Yuen, Tai Mo Shan, the tallest mountain, and Luen Wo Market.
Lunch, in the Yucca de Lac Restaurant overlooking the Tao Harbour, included corn soup with bean curds, green kale in oyster sauce, beef and pickles in a yam nest, fried chicken with lemon sauce, spare ribs with champagne and tangerine sauce, diced pork with cashew nuts, fried rice with ham, and ice cream.
Two day-trips brought beyond-Hong Kong perspectives.
The first, to Macau–the “Eastern Monte Carlo” –required a 40-mile, jetfoil-bridged journey to the Portuguese community, which was founded more than 400 years ago by Portuguese traders and missionaries to serve as an entrepôt with Imperial China and Japan. Now a blend of Chinese and Portuguese cultures, it was awash with pastel-colored palaces, baroque churches, temples, cannon-sporting fortresses, and winding narrow streets.
Its attractions, an interchange between Eastern and Western cultures, included St. Paul’s ruins, the Ken Iam Temple, the Border Gate with China, and Penha Hill.
After lunch in the Hotel Lisboa, there was time for a pass through the casino.
The second excursion offered a taste of Communist Chinese life. A hovercraft trip to the Shenzhan Special Economic Zone-specifically to Shekou on the Pearl River statuary and west of Shenzhen City–provided personal inspection of the Terracotta Warrior and Horse exhibition, dating to the Tang Dynasty and now considered the 8th Wonder of the World, along with a visit to the local kindergarten, followed by a performance of its incredibly disciplined students.
A subsequent drive through Nan Tau to Dongguan, one of the oldest counties in Dongguan Province, was rewarded with a superb, multi-course Chinese lunch, and was followed by the continued journey to Guangzhou, formerly known as “Canton,” but still the center of political, exonymic, and cultural life in Southern China. Its own attractions encompassed the Guangzhou Zoo, the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees, and Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, an octagonal building designed in palatial style to honor the politician, physician, and political philosopher who served as the provisional first present of the Republic of China.
The experience was capped by dinner in the dining car of the Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR) during the return journey. But a sign of the earlier times was expressed by the tour guide, who, opening crossing the no longer existent border, blurted, “Relax, everyone. We’re in Hong Kong. We can breathe again!”
People’s Republic of China:
Beijing, gateway to the Peoples’ Republic of China, was in a state of flux. Still wrestling with the problems of modernization and struggling to balance rapid growth with environmental protection to preserve its cultural, architectural, and historical heritage, it strove to respond to the demands of advancement and westernize itself without losing the Chinese foundation upon which it was built.
Its rich sights offered mental, emotional, and psychological exposure to its past.
First and foremost was the Forbidden City, the largest ancient archaeological structure in China. Once the Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties where 24 monarchs from both ruled the Celestial Empire, and laid out according to the ancient principles of geomancy, it was the heart of Beijing and the proverbial center of the universe for the emperors. Its wooden structures were living examples of ancient Chinese architecture and retained much of the mystique of the rulers who once dwelled there. As a bastion of the Mandarin authority, it exuded size, significance, and magnificence, its pavilions and spacious courtyards both awe-inspiring and, at times, unfathomable.
Constructed as a result of a decree issued by Zhu Di in 1406 by an estimated one million laborers and completed 14 years later, it became the capital to today’s Beijing after it was transferred from Nanjing. But it was almost entirely rebuilt under the Manchu Qing Dynasty, which began its own reign in 1644.
Now surrounded by a ten-meter wall and a moat, it encompassed 72 hectares and contained more than 800 individual structures. “Wumen,” or its “Maiden Gate,” served as the entrance to its inner sanctum, beyond which a large courtyard opened up to a canal spanned by multiple marble bridges.
The outer palace consisted of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony.
Through the Gate of Heavenly Purity was the inner palace, comprised of exquisite buildings and a labyrinth of courtyards. It was the living location of the emperor and his entourage.
Located south of the Forbidden City and north of the old Front Gate was the famed Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest such expanse and the location from which Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the Peoples’ Republic of China in 1949.
In its center was the 40-meter-high Monument to the People’s Heroes and on its western side was the site of China’s national Congress, the Great Hall of the People. To its south was Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum.
The highly recognizable Temple of Heaven, located in a pristine park setting, consisted of the round temple itself, adorned with a blue-tiled roof and a gold knob. Constructed without the use of a single nail during the Ming Dynasty in circa 1420, it was rebuilt more than 400 years later in 1889 after a lightning strike destroyed the original one. It was visited every winter solstice by the emperor, who prayed for a bountiful succeeding-season harvest, and he offered sacrifices of animals, grains, and silk to the gods in exchange for it during the sun’s first ray-reach of the eastern horizon
The Summer Palace, constructed by the Manchu Qing emperors as an escape from the summer heat, was set in a classical Imperial garden of embracing hills and lakes. Despite its associated serenity, however, it suffered numerous attacks and partial destructions, such as those by British and French troops who marched on Beijing in 1860 during the Second Opium War.
“Hutongs,” a word that was Mongolian in origin and dated from the days when Kublai Khan used Beijing as the capital of the Chinese portion of his empire, were not considered specific sights or location. Instead, they comprised a patchwork of walled, single-story courtyard dwellings that were removed from the noise and chaos of the modern city. Local life slowly unfolded here: the elderly napped; children played; and women hung out their laundry to dry. Quiet and insular, they provided insight into the Beijing psyche.
The Great Wall, the most ancient and longest manmade structure and the only one visible from the moon with the naked eye, was one of the very symbols of China and a testament to is architectural achievement. Its sheer span and construction, especially during primitive-technology times, was staggering and mindboggling.
Built to protect the northern frontiers from nomadic steppe raiders, it represents many things to many people.
“To some, the Wall stands for the blood and sweat sacrificed by the toiling masses who built it in the service of emperors, while to others this de facto demarcation between the Steppe and the Sown represents an age-old struggle of civilization against savagery,” according to Beijing: The Insider’s Guide to the Best of the Capital (Chinanow.com, 2000, p. 24).
Qin Shi Huang, the ruler of one of the many rival Warring States, linked the various sections of it upon completion of his conquest in 221 B.C., creating the first Chinese empire and the definitive Great Wall in the process.
Although the original assembly was mostly a rammed earthen wall, none of whose remains exist today, the current crenelated, guard signal tower, and parapet-provisioned masonry rendition, erected during the Ming Dynasty, closely follows its contours, threading its way up and through velvet green mountains with stone steps like stationary railroad tracks, plied only by people.
“Most of the wall is about 25 feet high and 19 feet wide at the top, (sufficient for either a five-abreast mounted solider passage or a ten-abreast marching one),” according to Beijing: The Insider’s Guide to the Best of the Capital (ibid, p. 25). “It includes about 25,000 towers, spaced two arrow-shots apart so that the guards could defend its entire length, and extends-though not continuously-from the Yellow Sea to the Gobi Desert.”
I attempted climbs in two sections. The first, in the tourist-overrun Badaling section, offered a glimpse into Chinese values. My mother, not quite up to the trek, elected to remain behind, but several locals, strongly revering the elderly, quickly volunteered, “Go and climb the Great Wall,” they told me. “We’ll look after your mother.” And they did, with care, concern, and extreme respect. She felt very protected and safe.
The second climb, which can only be considered the effortless one, was to the top of the Simatai section in a gondola for a beautiful view.
Another area attraction was the Ming Tombs, the burial place for 13 of the 16 Ming Dynasty emperors and threshold to which was the marble archway erected in 1540. Three such burial sites were open to the public: Changling, the earliest and largest, which dates form 1413; Dingling, which was built in the 16th century for the Emperor Wan Li and was excavated in 1958; and Zhaoling.
My final sightseeing venture entailed an unleash at the expansive China Aviation Museum. Almost like a kid in a candy shop as an aviation author and photographer, I roamed the outdoor displays of rare, Russian aircraft once hidden from the West and still wearing the livery of their communist Chinese carrier, CAAC, with camera and notebook in hand, inspecting their cockpits and walking through their passenger cabins.
Although Japan could only be experienced during a single-day interlude, I felt its pulse in downtown Tokyo, particularly at its crowd-thronged railroad station, where the masses moved from platform to the shinkansen, or bullet trains. My hotel room was tiny. Prices were high. Signs in Japanese left little interpretability. And I was somehow infused with the subconscious desire to follow local etiquette and bow to those with whom I interacted.
Korea offered another oriental, almost dual-world experience between its bustling Seoul metropolis and the palatial serenity of its past.
My own hotel, only a ten-minute drive to the city’s heart in Bukhansan National Park, itself seemed a world apart with its verdant, velvet hills and waterfalls. The included breakfast buffet was sprawling and, in part, western, but its always-available kiimchi said “Korea.” The daily coverage of its attractions entailed a combination of shuttle bus, tour bus, subway, and foot.
Taking center stage was the Gyeongbokgung Palace, the principle royal one during the five-decade Joseon Dynasty. Constructed in 1395, it was consumed by fire during the Imjin War (1592-1598). However, all of the palace buildings were later restored under the leadership of Heungseondaewongun during the reign of King Gojong (1852-1919). As the most representative edifices of the period, its Gyeonghoeru Pavilion and the pond around Hyangwonjeong Pavillion have remained relatively intact. The raised dias and stone markers of Geunjeongjeon showcase the representative art style of their time.
Jogyesa, the main temple of the Jogye order in Seoul, was the center of Korean Buddhism. Built in the late 14th-century during the Goryeo period, it was later reduced to rubble by fire, but was subsequently reconstructed under the name of Gackhwangsa Temple in 1910 by monks, such as Han Yong-un and Lee Hee-gwang. Renamed “Tegosa” in 1936, it became the main Korean Buddhist temple. After a purification drive eliminated Japanese influence and revived traditional Buddhism, the present one was established.
Tranquility restored the soul at Changdeokgung and in its Secret Garden, the primary royal residence for 200 years, beginning in early-1600s, and now considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its intertwining paths, linking wooden slopes, lotus ponds, and pavilions.
Namdaemun, located in Jung-gu between Seoul Station and Seoul Plaza and presently known as the Sungnyemun, was one of the Eight Gates in the Fortress Wall of Seoul, which surrounded the city during the Joseon Dynasty.
The modern, geometric configuration of the National Museum of Korea traces its origins to 1945, when Korea regained its independence after defeat of the Japanese, and it planted its roots in the Joseon Government General Museum, adopting its current name. Now displaying more than 12,000 art and science artifacts in its six permanent exhibition halls, it has played a significant role in restoring the nation’s damaged cultural pride and correcting the false historical images of Korea.