Sunday, 22 March 2015

5 Ways to Travel the World, Without Leaving the House

I love travelling. But travel can be expensive, which often puts paid to best laid plans. Here, though, are 5 opportunities - some of my favourites - to visit the world, without leaving the home.

"Here we drink three cups of tea to do business: 
the first you are a stranger,
the second you become a friend,
and the third you join our family, and for our family we are prepared to do anything - even die."

Three Cups of Tea is the (semi-auto)biography of Greg Mortenson, an American nurse and mountaineer who in 1993 became stranded on K2, the second tallest mountain in the world. He stumbled, dehydrated and disorientated, into a remote Pakistani village. The villagers looked after him, and on his departure he made a promise to them: he would return and build them a school. The book tells of how he returned and built not one school, but fifty five.

The book has not been without controversy, but the moral core of the tale is of a fight for the power of education against ignorance and prejudice, both of which persist today and are found both on location and in the West as we look towards Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. This is a region of the world the West is (still) loathe to help, or even trust. The travel core of the tale is an insight into the lives and interactions of those who dwell in the remote Karakorum mountains. It is uplifting and revolutionary, and it should be read by all.

On 10 January 1992, the container ship the Ever Laurel  departed Hong Kong bound for the West coast of the United States. Somewhere en route, close to the International Date Line, a storm caused 12 containers to wash overboard, containing among them 28,800 plastic children's bath toys: red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and yellow ducks. Moby Duck is the story of those toys.

Donovan Hohn, a creative writing teacher, picks up the trail not only of the rubber ducks - sightings of which spanned the US West Coast, some traversing the North West Passage and even, reputedly, reaching the UK - but of the shipping trade, of plastic pollution in the oceans and the vagaries of the environmental movement. He visits the plastic factories of China, gets stuck in ice on his way from Halifax to Cambridge Bay, Canada, and joins researchers of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch south of Hawaii. Some have commented that the prose is overly wordy (he is, after all, a creative writing teacher), but it's a great story, an important message, and a great way to visit some alternative destinations.

Report from the Aleutians is an Oscar-nominated documentary from 1943. It is widely considered to be Second World War propaganda, but is nonetheless remarkable. The bulk of the footage was taken on the then uninhabited island of Adak, which is 1,197 miles from Anchorage on the boundary of the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. Even rarer, however, is the footage towards the end of the documentary, which was taken on board a bombing raid of the then Japanese-invaded island of Kiska, a volcanic island that is almost as far away from anywhere else on Earth as it is possible to be. The film is not only a  rare chance to see a part of the world few will ever see, but is colour footage from the 1940s, showing the everyday lives of ordinary people in an extraordinary setting. It can be argued that the film is a sanitised and corporate view of military actions, although a funeral is shown. Nonetheless, you cannot help but wonder how detached life might have felt during deployment to such a remote place: far away from the rest of the world, making daily bombing runs to an even more remote location, never seeing retaliation nor society.

Report from the Aleutians is currently available for streaming for free for Prime customers at Amazon Instant Video. Footage of the aftermath on Kiska is available on YouTube, complete with rusting wreckage of the Japanese occupation.

Imagine handing in your notice, leaving the Western world behind, and becoming the People's Lawyer of Tuvalu, the fourth smallest country in the world. This is the subject of Where the Hell is Tuvalu?, a memoir by Philip Ells. Told with reverence for a nation and its people, the book recounts legal episodes, cultural clashes and awkward liaisons with large doses of humour. There is also a brief visit to Kiribati, a nation with very different, and unexpectedly serious problems. This is one of my favourite books - it is fun and serious in all the right quantities, introduces some lively local characters, and shows a scantly regarded country to the world.

And, if you've neither time nor money to invest in a book or a film, there's always Google Earth. Many an hour have I lost to the cornucopia of satellite imagery on offer for free. I've found the scuttled ships of the Russian Navy (see also here and here) surplus to requirements after the USSR disintegrated. There's the non-existent Sandy Island, on maps since 1875, but not real. There are biodiversity hotspots previously unknown to science. This touching tribute to the passengers of lost UTA flight 772, deep in the Sahara. The Tucson aeroplane graveyard. The 'bullet holes' of the Nevada nuclear test site. And my favourite (because I haven't worked out what it is yet), there is this abandoned settlement on another remote Aleutian island, Amchitka.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Myeongdong (or, 12 Hours in Seoul)

“Do you have coat?”

The airline official looked concerned. It was, after all, minus 8⁰C outside. His observation was correct: I had no coat. Twelve hours previously I had been in a different hemisphere and an opposite season. Now I had neither coat nor notion as to what I was about to experience. What I knew was that I was in Korea, Incheon to be precise. Our airline, by necessity, was to provide us with a hotel. We knew not which hotel or where that hotel would be, we knew only to wait here, by this door, by the man so concerned by my lack of coat, until the bus was ready.

And so began a curious 12 hour visit to Seoul, in which we were given but fleeting glimpses of a curious city while being shepherded from pillar to post. As punishment for being pesky tourists who knew how to get a free hotel, we were at the mercy of a rigid, prearranged system — this bus, this hotel, this limited dinner menu. But this is not the moment to grumble: far from it. It was an exhilarating ride.

First, there was the bus journey. Blasted by an overly efficient climate control system, we sweated our way for an hour along — as it was evening — brightly lit motorway. Neon green and red signs directed drivers to unknown locations in indistinguishable Hangul script. Warning lights for road works not only flashed but swung on robotic arms, desperate to garner attention. Having had the fortune to travel a great deal, but mostly to English-speaking countries or, at the very least, countries using Roman script, this was a rare glimpse at the quite considerable rest-of-world. I knew my observations were simple, but I was mesmerized.

We approached Seoul. Everywhere were residential skyscrapers. Bridge after bridge spanned the straight Han River. On and on went the cityscape. The river itself was surprisingly wide, separating two halves of a city by so much that I could imagine two distinct cultures. (I later learned that the per capita income south of the river is double that of the northern bank: two cultures are indeed separated by the Han.) Every freeway was buzzing with traffic and both sides of the river were lit by thousands of windows reaching into the sky. And yet nothing was frenetic. Seoul was noticeably more built up than Incheon, but everything kept moving calmly. There seemed not to be overwhelming hubbub on either side of the Han — although it was hard to tell, given the river was so wide.

We turned inland, and that’s when we saw the colour. Everything was illuminated. True, indeed, that Christmas decorations, many flashing, many halogen, were still lit, yet even without them it would have been wall-to-wall vibrancy. Through these streets we weaved, straight to the Royal Hotel, in the centre of the shopping heart of the city — Myeongdong.

Given that we were at the mercy of the airline, it is at this point I should be saying that the Royal Hotel was rudimentary, that it did the job and that I can’t complain given that it was free. But I do not need to, for it was luxury. All staff were extremely friendly. Rooms were deluxe. There was even one of those fancy toilets with dozens of electronic buttons in a language I cannot read*.

A brief dinner later — free, if limited in options (we were clearly on the airline's menu, rather than the restaurant’s) — and we were ready to explore. To Myeongdong, without a coat!

Ten seconds later, we were inside again. As it happens, minus 8⁰C is not entirely comfortable when unprepared. But worry not, it was 10 pm and everything was still open. Myeongdong is wall-to-wall shops, some familiar, most not. We dipped in and out of them, each full of brightly colourful wares. Cosmetic shops lined the road of our hotel, full of products based on cute characters and unusual combinations. Outside, street vendors, swamped by overcoats, tended their stalls. Meats were being grilled. Pomegranates were being juiced. Everyone was friendly, if bemused by our inappropriate attire. Everywhere movement, sound or smells. Above us, hoarding after hoarding, illuminated, in unknown lettering and in every primary colour. All of our senses were stimulated.

We could last only 15 minutes, as the cold had cut through to our cores almost immediately. We returned to the hotel.

Breakfast was mushrooms, kimchee, bok choi and fish; cereals (Fruit Loops), fry ups and fruit. All, as we were coming to expect, were picture perfect. Not only was everything the colour it ought to be, but it was the perfect, most vibrant shade, and the archetypal shape too. The Royal Hotel was one for precision.

And then we were back in the bus bound for Incheon, a second chance to see what we had missed on the journey that previous evening — churches and cathedrals nestled among the skyscrapers, the mountains that frame the city and the islands that pepper the gulf between the mainland and the airport. The sky was perfectly blue and vast, untarnished by cloud. It was cold, but the sun smiled, just like the toddler in the seat in front of us as we played the hide-behind-the-seat-pop-your-head-up-and-act-all-surprised game.

It had been a whirlwind 12 hours, put where we were told and efficiently provided for in the gap between our flights. For most of it, we had been asleep. Yet our snapshot of Seoul had been tantalising — we had seen barely anything, but knew that it was a bright and exciting place. It was clean and extremely friendly. We were agreed, one day we will come to have a proper look.

*Yes, I did.

Practical Post: Free stopover hotel in Seoul on Asiana Airlines