Part VI Asia and the Pacific rim of mystery.
Treasured opportunities are still offered to those who visit the far rim of the Pacific. Yet 700 years after the great explorer made his journey, the Far East is still somewhat of an enigma, even though the nations of the Pacific Rim (as they have come to be called) have, in many ways, opened their doors wide to the world. For centuries, Europe has been a natural business partner to the United States across the Atlantic: So too, now, are the lands on the other side of the Pacific. A Rip van Winkle who went to sleep in the late 1950s would wake in culture shock. It's a very different world indeed: Japanese cars, Korean VCRs, Australian movies--these all would have seemed impossible just a few decades ago.
The Pacific Ocean is as large as all the continents put together--with room for another Asia.
With the growth in trade has come a major growth in travel. That Rip van Winkle would never even have given a thought to visiting Asia or the Pacific islands--not just because of closed cultures, but also because of the sheer physical logistics. However, with the advent of long-distance jumbo jets, the Far East is not much more than a half-day away.
In days past, even crossing the international date line was a major event--a celebration. Today, a pilot merely informs the plane's passengers--assuming, of course, that they hear him in their mid-Pacific doze.
Where the Countries Are
Tourists and geographers don't always think alike. For instance, where exactly does Asia start and Africa and Europe end? Most geographers consider everything to the east of the Red Sea and the Ural Mountains to be Asia--and that includes the Middle East, Turkey, and the majority of Russia.
However, the Middle East is usually seen as part of a trip to Europe or Africa. Few tourists ever visit Russia in conjunction with a vacation to China; more likely, a Russian vacation is tied to a trip to Scandinavia. And Turkey is most commonly accessed as an extension of a Greek island cruise. As a result, we've covered some of Asia's 40 or so countries in previous sections, to relate them to realistic tourist itineraries.
What's the most obvious place on a map of Asia? China, which physically dominates most of the continent. It dwarfs Mongolia, which borders it to the north, and North and South Korea, which take up the peninsula on its northeastern corner. (Communist North Korea is rarely visited by Westerners and therefore won't be covered here.)
Off China's east coast are a string of island-nations; from north to south: Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Continuing south, you encounter the multi-island nations of Indonesia and Malaysia, along with Singapore. On the Southeast Asian mainland are Thailand (a very popular destination), Vietnam (with its emerging tourism), and the less visited Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar (better known by its traditional name, Burma). Below China and to the west of Southeast Asia is the large area known as the Indian subcontinent. From west to east, it includes India, Nepal, and Bhutan (as well as less visited Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka). Also in Asia are five independent nations of the former Soviet Union. Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan are the most important of these.
No one knows how many islands are in the Pacific Ocean. Geographers guess there are at least 20,000 and there could be more than 30,000.
The islands of the Pacific may seem to be a great distance from Asia, but some of them are much closer to the continents of Asia or Australia than to the Americas: Papua New Guinea and Fiji (both parts of Melanesia) are relatively close to Australia and Indonesia; the Micronesian islands of Saipan and Guam are to the east of the Philippines. For this reason, visits to Asia can easily be combined with stopovers at Pacific islands. Though the tens of thousands of Pacific islands are clearly much too numerous to mention, the major ones are (from west to east): New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti (one of the Polynesian islands), and the state of Hawaii (which is closest--about five hours--to the North American mainland and which we cover in Chapter 7).
A Satellite View
Looking down on Asia and the Pacific, it would be easy to distinguish the larger islands that dot the area's oceans and seas. The Asian continent is another matter; it blends into Europe and the Middle East (and therefore Africa, as well).
Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the entire region is how flat much of it is. Most of western China is desert (notably the Gobi Desert), as is the western two-thirds of Australia. Much of Southeast Asia, too, is flat rain forest.
However, the exceptions to this flatness are dramatic and have an overwhelming impact on the region; to ignore the whole picture here would be folly. To properly plan trips to this region, it's essential to fully understand the lay of the land.
Bodies of Water
The deepest place on earth is in the Mariana Trench. It's almost seven miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.
As you would imagine, the Pacific Ocean is critical to this vast region. Moreover, the continent of Asia, being as large and geographically situated as it is, is ringed by an assortment of seas.
Beginning at the far west of the region, India is bordered on its west by the Arabian Sea, on its south by the Indian Ocean, and on its east by the Bay of Bengal. Farther east is the Gulf of Thailand, in the midst of Southeast Asia; the Gulf, in turn, flows into the South China Sea.
The Sea of Japan separates Russia and the Korean peninsula from Japan. The Yellow Sea--which forms a bay between northeast China and Korea--empties into the East China Sea, which in turn merges into the South China Sea. Bordering this whole region to the east is the vast Pacific Ocean.
The Pacific encompasses most of the South Sea islands. However, other major waters here bear note: the Timor Sea separates northern Australia from Indonesia; the Coral Sea lies northeast of the continent; and dividing southeast Australia from New Zealand is the Tasman Sea.
Asia, Australia, and the Pacific islands have only a few major rivers. The Yellow and Yangtze wind and twist their way through the center of China. They offer visitors a superb way of exploring the magnificent countryside. (There's also an important canal system in northeastern China that permits several popular excursions.) And the Ganges, which flows through the northeast of India, is perhaps the most sacred river on earth, for Hindu pilgrims immerse themselves in its waters to spiritually cleanse themselves.
The 2,000-mile-long Himalaya Mountain range is the loftiest range in the world. To put this in its proper perspective, Himalaya's Mt. Everest is the world's tallest mountain: It's 9,000 feet higher than the tallest mountain in North America, Mt. McKinley, and 7,000 feet higher than the tallest peak of the Andes. Of the world's 50 tallest mountains, virtually all are in the Himalaya. The challenging Himalaya are considered by adventurous travelers to be the finest trekking and mountain-climbing territory in the world. The Himalaya ripple through the top of Pakistan, northern India, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Tibet region of China, covering an area greater than all of Germany.
The correct term is Himalaya, not Himalayas. Climbers who reach the top of Mt. Everest spend an average of only 32 minutes there.
In addition, a spine of volcanic mountains runs down the length of much of Japan, the most famous of which is stately Mt. Fuji. There are also many mountains of volcanic origin in Indonesia (where the legendary Krakatoa erupted) and in Australia, with its Great Dividing Range down the east coast. The Southern Alps rise above New Zealand's South Island. Parts of western China are also somewhat mountainous--though few tourists visit there.
Since parts of Asia and the Pacific lie both north and south of the equator, two distinct patterns exist: north of the equator, seasons are the same as those in North America; south, they're the opposite. An important point to remember: though many think of this entire region as hot and humid, the extreme northern and southern areas have very cold weather. In addition, the Himalaya and other high regions are frigid. One more exception: western China and western Australia have largely desert climates.
The Indian subcontinent, most of China, the islands of Japan and Taiwan (all of which lie north of the equator), and northern Australia (to the equator's south) have a subtropical climate. Summers in these areas are very warm and humid; winters are drier and more pleasant. A fully tropical climate can be found in those countries that flank the equator-- most of Indonesia and all the South Sea islands--as well as in Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and Micronesia (north of the equator).
A final note: the region is famed for its monsoons, typhoons, and cyclones. Monsoons are long-standing summer rainstorms, usually associated with the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Typhoons are what hurricanes are called when they occur in the China Sea and west Pacific area. Cyclones (the generic name for hurricanes and typhoons) often whip along Australia's northeast coastal areas.
Some scholars now suspect that Marco Polo never actually reached China but made up much of his description.
Two words summarize the pattern of Pacific Rim tourism: explosive growth. It has not been unusual to see a doubling of the numbers of tourists in a matter of a year or two. China (and Hong Kong) is by far the most popular destination in Asia. Japan, South Korea, and Australia are also popular with American travelers. In addition to the leisure segment, business travel accounts for much movement across the Pacific between North America and the Far East.
What of the Pacific islands? The U.S. state of Hawaii, of course, is number one, but surprisingly, the Micronesian islands of Guam and Saipan are in second place (most of their tourists come from Japan, not the United States). Fiji is the most successful destination in Melanesia, and Tahiti leads the Polynesian islands in tourism. Hawaii, Tahiti, and Fiji are all common stopover points on trans-Pacific travel itineraries, both on planes and on repositioning cruises.
Asian and Pacific Distances
For traveling through Asia, the mode of choice for most tourists is the escorted tour. This has as much to do with transportation conditions as it does with language. Country roads are often primitive, and they can be washed out; city traffic may be impenetrable. Some trains are comfortable, but schedules aren't always adhered to. Buses--except those used on tours--are usually a challenge. An independent flight itinerary is probably the best alternative to an escorted tour, but even flying can't always eliminate that major bugaboo for Americans: Asian languages too often seem undecipherable to Westerners. It can make traveling on your own a bit intimidating, especially if you get lost and can't read the signs. Even though many in these countries do speak English fairly well, the language is still a critical--and very real--obstacle. One way around the problem: cruises, which have become a popular option for visiting key port cities in Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific islands.
Japan has the world's busiest rail system.
For those who are traveling on their own, distances in some Asian countries can be great--giant China and India being the obvious examples. However, in many Asian countries, the major destinations tend to be clustered in distinct, limited areas: in China, for instance, the sites typically visited are almost entirely in the east.
The Pacific islands, on the other hand, don't pose that much of a problem. The inhabitants of many of the popular islands speak English; for many (Fiji and Guam, among others), it's an official language. These islands are relatively small, so taxis, car rentals, and (perhaps) buses will do.
Certainly, roads on the smaller islands may be primitive, but again, distances are comparatively minor. The only modes of transportation of any great importance among the islands are airplanes that hop from one island to the next, ferries that weave their way among clusters of islands, and cruise ships that connect the islands.
Visitors must fly between sites in Australia that are far apart, unless they have a lot of time to spare. Australia is very big: it's about the size of the contiguous United States. Its attractions (except for a notable few) are along the east and west coasts. The majority of New Zealand's most popular attractions, too, tend to be conveniently clustered. Train and bus travel in both countries (as well as in Japan) is excellent. Trains and buses are less predictable elsewhere, though luxury trains travel through India, and between Singapore and Bangkok.
Some Miscellaneous Considerations
Asia and the Pacific are often thought of as exotic. Usually travelers to this part of the world look for some sense of security before they leave. Among the suggestions you can give are:
* Health conditions in some of these countries are far below the standard that most tourists expect. Travelers should check health advisories and visit their physician before leaving on a trip to Asia and the Pacific.
* Shopping in Asia, in Australia, and among the islands is of great allure to many tourists. The best prices on brand names can usually be found in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Singapore, while crafts are a bargain in almost all of these places.
Sixty percent of the world's population lives in Asia.
* The engines of commerce are powerful in Asia. Nowhere in the world, these days, is business travel more important. The industrial nations of Asia, by the way, are often called "The Dragons." A few of them have suffered economic setbacks recently, but this helps tourism, since costs there may become more affordable to foreign travelers.
* Bargaining on prices is extremely common, indeed almost expected, in many of these countries--though not in Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Check with hotel personnel about local customs.
* Even though many locals understand English, visitors who are having a difficult time communicating should write out their questions. It's not uncommon for someone here to read English better than speak it.
* Tourists who plan to take photographs in China and in Southeast Asia should check ahead of time to make sure it's not prohibited in the area they're touring.
* Some of the world's finest hotel chains are based in Asia: among them are Shangri-La, Regent, Peninsula, Mandarin, and Rihga.
* The water in Asian lakes, ponds, and rivers (including the mystical Ganges) is often filled with microbes that Americans have no resistance to. Swimming in Asian waters is generally a bad idea.
* Many of the regions here offer only the most basic conveniences. Certainly Australia, New Zealand, and Japan offer great luxury and comfort.
* Uninformed tourists often think all Asian nations have the same general customs. Not so. Differences among Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, and Philippine cultures are as pronounced as those among, say, French, British, Italian, and Greek cultures.
The words orient and oriental come from the Latin word for the East: oriens. Asia was to the east of the Roman Empire. This also explains the "Near East" (today's Turkey), "Middle East" (the now-Moslem nations beyond Turkey), and the "Far East" (China, Japan, etc.)
* Treks have become a popular form of adventure travel; several areas in China, India, Nepal, and Bhutan offer trekking tours, but know that only hardy travelers who are prepared to walk for hours at high altitudes and to sleep in a tent should consider a trekking tour.
* Costs in this vast region vary widely. For example, Japan is expensive, while China, Thailand, and Southeast Asia tend to be bargains.
TRAVEL TRIVIA Ten Top Tropical Islands (1) Maui, Hawaii (2) Bali, Indonesia (3) Kauai, Hawaii (4) Phuket, Thailand (5) Big Island, Hawaii (6) Fraser Island, Australia (7) Lanai, Hawaii (8) Bermuda (9) Oahu, Hawaii (10) Bora Bora, Tahiti SOURCE: Conde Nast Traveler readers' poll
NAME -- DATE --
CREATIVE ACTIVITY Based on the information in this chapter and in other sources, which 10 separate Asia/Pacific destinations would you suggest to someone looking for each of the following? Be prepared to justify your recommendations. (1) Hiking: (2)_ Dry, warm climate: (3) A river cruise: (4) A rarely visited tropical country: (5) Diving: (6) An exotic cultural experience: (7) A bargain vacation: (8) Luxurious accommodations: (9) A stopover between Honolulu and Sydney: (10) A country that can be seen on a one-day visit:
Marc Mancini, PhD
Department of Travel
West Los Angeles College
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|Publication:||Selling Destinations, Geography for the Travel Professional, 4th ed.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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