In May 2015 four of us, Craig and Sonia Wendy and I, bought a package deal: eleven days in Taiwan and Hong Kong - Wendy and I added two nights in China at the end. We had previously travelled together with Craig and Sonia in China; Russia, India and South America and this seemed like a good place to do it again and to learn more about the region.
Taiwan is one of the Four Asian Tigers, along with Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, achieving the fastest economic growth on the Planet during the past half century. Trying to understand that success was of equal interest with any ‘new sights’ we might encounter.
A quick glance at Google Earth or an old fashioned Atlas reveals that geographically Taiwan forms a step in the archipelago that that extends, down the Pacific Plate boundary, from north east Russia down to Japan and then to Taiwan and the Philippines. To the north is the East China sea; to the east is the Pacific; and to the south is the South China Sea, now an area of international tension. It is only about 140 km off the west coast of mainland China and sits on the edge of the continental shelf so that the sea off the east coast is quite shallow and sheltered, both from typhoons and tsunami.
Taiwan is around half the size of Tasmania (or Ireland) and is volcanically active. In geological terms it was formed relatively recently by the collision of more than one tectonic plates (refer to Wikipedia if you are interested).
The history of Taiwan is surprisingly linked to European exploration in the Far East, in addition to that of its larger neighbours.
Taiwan was a small province of China known to my generation when at school as Formosa. It became newsworthy in 1949 when the defeated Chinese Nationalists, under Chiang Kai-Shek, fled there after the Communists, under Mao Zedong, took control of the mainland.
When I was in high school Formosa was often in our news and not always positively, with dissidents fleeing the Kuomintang, the ruling party, to the United States and Europe.
Around 1958 I had seen the film Yangtse Incident at our local ‘flicks’. This stimulated my first interest in the Chinese Civil War.
It was a stirring story of British daring-do about an incident in 1949 when Communist People's Liberation Army overran the Nationalists along the Yangtze. The PLA opened fire on a British naval ship, HMS Amethyst, that was in the river. With the assistance of other British ships the damaged Amethyst eventually navigated the river and escaped at night, running the PLA gauntlet. King George (the present Queen’s father) acknowledged their tenacity and bravery: ‘Up the Empire!’.
Around the same time I also saw an entirely fictional Hollywood film, Blood Alley, starring John Wayne, about a similar escape under Communist duress. John commanded a merchant vessel that had to escape and overcome all sorts of Chinese treachery. This total fiction was presented as if it was true too.
The Korean War was fresh in our minds and the message was clear - the Communist Chinese were very dangerous and very devious.
By the 1960’s the Malayan Emergency then Vietnam dominated our news, confirming these perceptions. I was in the University Regiment as Vietnam escalated and our Adjutant, a Regular Army officer, went off with our ‘advisors’ and was killed.
From an early age I had a shortwave radio on which I could listen to the broadcasts in English coming out of China. These were full of bizarre tales and amusing abuse of the ‘running-dog capitalists’ that confirmed my suspicions that the Chinese Communists were as ‘mad as stuck pigs’.
Taiwan remained a bastion against these ‘madmen’, albeit with a single party government under the Kuomintang. Chiang Kai-Shek remained a military dictator who relied heavily on US support in his vitriolic opposition to Communist China.
Chiang Kai-Shek depicted in his office in Taipei
In those days we tended to overlook the human rights atrocities of our dictatorial allies. Think of Sukarno in Indonesia, Diệm and Nhu in Vietnam, Marcos in the Philippines not to mention numerous other tyrants and megalomaniacs we, as loyal allies of the US, have ‘turned a blind eye to’ in South America and the Middle East.
As long as they claimed to be anti-communist they were OK.
As with others of his ilk, during Chiang Kai-Shek’s rule martial law was continuously in place and any political dissent was viciously put down, particularly during the period known as the ‘White Terror’ and his attacks on leading business people described as ‘gangsters’.
He was neither a democrat nor a market economist – nationalising industries and suppressing free enterprise. But he was anti-communist and OK.
Early in 1971, Gough Whitlam, a naughty boy in the crowd cried out ‘Look the Emperor has no clothes!’ as Chiang Kai-Shek passed by. ‘He’s not the real leader of China yelled Gough – I’ll need to go to Beijing to find the real one!’ And so off to China went the Australian Leader of the Opposition.
It was soon discovered that Henry Kissinger, adviser to US President Nixon, had recently made the same observation. So that by October that year Taiwan had lost critical US support and was kicked out of the United Nations. China was admitted instead. Chiang Kai-Shek felt betrayed and less than four years later he was dead.
Since that time Taiwan has made great economic and social strides. It now has democratic elections, albeit they almost always re-elect the Kuomintang and the only time another party won the leaders ended up in jail, convicted of corruption.
But freedom of speech is allowed and there have even been mass demonstrations against nuclear power – good for Australia as we can sell them more coal.
As a result of educated and empowered women, and rising living standards, the birth rate has fallen to less than replacement level and Taiwan's population growth has dramatically slowed and is now entirely due to aging.
Today it has a population (23.5 million) similar to the whole of Australia.
We began with a tour of Taipei requiring several long bus legs both through the city’s opulent areas and larger areas of more traditional accommodation, not dissimilar to old Hong Kong.
First stop was the Presidential Palace. It looks colonial British but is actually colonial Japanese.
Compare this building with Burma's High Court building in Rangoon (now Yangon) - click here
The Japanese built it after they acquired Taiwan as war reparations in 1895. Taiwan remained a Japanese colony until 1945. As a result the US bombed the Palace in 1944 and then the Taiwanese restored it. Unlike the Koreans who had also come under Japanese rule until the end of WW2, the Taiwanese seem to quite like the Japanese.
There was an excellent presentation by a volunteer guide who gave us a potted history since 1945, effectively during her lifetime. She remembered that under Chiang Kai-Shek everyone lived in poverty, dependent on American Aid for survival and when the only new clothes her school friends and she had were made from the cotton bags that had held food relief.
She recalled the first economic plan when women were organised into collectives to make Christmas decorations and silk flowers for export.
Things were still dire economically for the next thirty years or so. Despite being a predominantly agricultural economy the country was initially unable to feed itself and continued its dependency on United States aid well into the 1960’s. One of the first economic initiatives was land reform and a program of import replacement.
Taiwan was one of the poorest places on Earth, despite a strong military investment with US support, dedicated to ‘retaking’ mainland China.
Our guide was reluctant to say anything negative about the oppressive government and economic mismanagement of that period but it was obviously a difficult time.
The Taiwanese ‘economic miracle’ is said to be rooted in the early land reform under Chiang Kai-Shek and of course where we are now always depends on the circumstances of the past, so it must be true. But more plausibly it actually arose out of the Ten Major Construction Projects plan by his son and successor President Chiang Ching-kuo, who invested over three hundred billion Taiwan Dollars in infrastructure between 1974 and 1979.
More of this later.
After the Presidential Palace our tour took us to the National Museum where they have two shiploads of treasures removed from Peking for ‘safe keeping’ by the fleeing Nationalists when they set up here in 1949 after losing the mainland to Mao and the Communists. They also ‘saved’ China’s gold reserves.
Posterity will no doubt see it as the greatest art theft and gold heist in History. Photographs were not permitted.
By now it was lunchtime. Our tour involved visiting the town of Tamsui at the mouth of the Tamsui River.
Note that a few of these photos - and obviously the ones with me in them - were taken by Clint, our guide
This was one of the sights of the early Dutch East India Company trading colony. Other early traders included the British who introduced tea and camphor, sugar and bananas - still important agricultural exports but unfortunately for us ‘packages’ more time was allocated to wandering down the tourist shopping street and sampling the street fare for lunch than for visiting such ancient points of interest.
After lunch we went to the huge Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial that does a similar job on him as similar museums do on Mao Zedong, Ghandi, Ho Chi Minh and so on.
It is topped by a large bronze statue of Chiang, enthroned like Lincoln in Washington DC, with patriotic quotations inscribed on the walls in three general areas: Ethics, Democracy and Science; to inspire visitors.
The museum contains a replica of his office (seen above) and a couple of his cars in addition to detailing his life history.
So how did he become the self-proclaimed leader of the whole of China?
Those of you who have seen the movie: The Last Emperor, will recall that the Qing dynasty collapsed as a result of the Xinhai Revolution, shortly after the death of the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi – see our visit to Beijing - click here.
Initial power struggles among the revolutionaries were resolved when Sun Yat-sen was overwhelmingly elected by the revolutionary representatives of 17 provinces, as the first provisional president of Republic of China on 29th December 1911.
This was not a general election by the people but by representatives of the the revolutionaries themselves. Six weeks later (on 12th February 1912) six-year-old Emperor Xuantong Puyi the last of the Qing, and the subject of the film, was forced to abdicate in his favour, ending thousands of years of imperial rule.
Thus Sun Yat-sen became the new Chinese premier. But his hold on power was anything but stable. Soon the Communists and Sun Yat-sen’s brother in-law, General Chiang Kai-Shek, leading the Nationalist faction, would be at each other’s throats.
A new civil war erupted. Chaing Kai-Shek was in command of the Nationalist forces and was generally regarded to be prevailing - until the Japanese invaded. Soon after the Japanese intervened he was reluctantly forced to join forces with the Communists against the common enemy.
This period of cooperation allowed Mao Zedong to outmanoeuvre him, gaining ground; additional support; and military resources. And the rest is history.
According to his memorial, Chiang Kai-Shek was a wonderful, inspired leader.
We learned how in later life he was a committed convert to Christianity, as a result of his marriage to his last wife, yet an inspired protector of Chinese culture, including the local blend of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.
Contrary to my previous misapprehensions he was not at all the sort, who although completely unelected, would maintain that he was the properly appointed ruler of the whole of China; or who would use martial law to suppress the slightest protest in his newly adopted home in order to reign supreme there throughout his long life; or attempt to establish a dynasty of his own by installing his son as successor.
Amazingly, one of the three international tributes to him inscribed on a golden wall is perfectly apt – maybe it reads differently in Chinese: All his life, the lean and ambitious soldier fought bravely, though in the end vainly, to shape history to his personal specifications. Time (Magazine) – April 14 1975 Vol 105 No.15.
Appropriately, we then went to spectacularly opulent Longshan Temple to see people engaging in games of chance to tell their fortunes.
I’m interested in the complexities of this. How can someone believe that the future is already determined and yet believe that they can do something about it by knowing what it will be? If they can do nothing why go to the trouble of finding out? If they can do something about it then it is obviously not yet determined and therefore unknowable. I’ve discussed this at length elsewhere on this website.
The day ended back at our hotel but not before we had some dinner at the night markets - Not quite Wendy paradise but heading in that direction.
Two of our party across the road - not inconspicuous - Clint's photo
Both at lunch and in the night markets we were something of a novelty. There are few Europeans about. But the people were universally friendly and didn’t mind at all big white people sitting in their little restaurants gobbling down their delicacies. Smiles all round.
The Hotel was fine, if a little out of the way and we could walk a few hundred yards past car parts places and other semi-industrial businesses, to the local 7Eleven to buy some wine, coffee and real milk. I considered buying a bike racing-suite and helmet, like the ‘Stig’ in Top Gear, from a shop that also had a Porsche parked inside, but decided that it would be ostentatious on the Number 30 bus from Mosman.
Rather strangely in this land of electronics, the Wi-Fi in the hotel was terrible and I was unable to send a simple e-mail.
The following day we arose early, prepared for a long drive South to the centre of the island. We were fully refreshed by the comfortable bed and fine shower and ample towels but I was disappointed by a breakfast making no concessions to European traditions. I foolishly tried the cornflakes only to find them, like all the cereal, coated in sugar – inedible. OK, congee and stir-fry it had to be.
Before leaving Taipei we were taken to the Shrine of the Martyrs to watch the changing of the guard (Alice is marrying one of the Guard…).
Like the Greeks and other guards we have seen, they had apparently taken lessons from John Cleese’s institute of silly walks. They carried ancient weapons for which ammunition is unlikely to be available, and would thus preclude the effective guarding of anything. But as the martyrs probably don’t require much guarding everything was as it should be.
As always on these occasions, the drill was immaculate and I was again reminded that the purpose of military drill is not to amuse an audience or fill in time but to instil an instinctive obedience to orders.
The martyrs include people how have given their time and energy to civil life, like our recipients of the Order of Australia, and I was reminded that Taiwan has never actually fought a war against anyone.
A consequence is that these young men are completely untried in battle, unlike our troops who are ready to fight in anyone’s war. Even during Vietnam Taiwan offered non-combat support to the US effort. But they are ‘armed to the teeth’ with very advanced weapons.
Unfortunately this together with their long stated aim of retaking the mainland, and their efforts to develop a nuclear weapon, simply caused China to militarise to a greater extent and earlier than they might have.
After the guard changing it was back on the bus for a hundred mile journey to the centre.
As we left Taipei we gazed out in amazement. Here was a city the size of Sydney with highways and trains and electricity transmission that would surpass the collective infrastructure of every city in Australia. And as we drove on into the country it didn’t stop.
Advanced fast trains cutting across the countryside and advanced six lane highways, many elevated, for miles on end. Vast new residential areas all very modern and some expensive looking low-rise lower density living.
There are also many planned industrial zones or ‘parks’ in which modern medium to large businesses, particularly in electronics, are established.
The use of concrete is both extensive and in the mountains spectacular. We’ve passed through a series of tunnels on a par with those in Switzerland – many several kilometres long – linked by roads held aloft by a forest of long concrete columns.
When travelling, I always look at the electricity transmission for an indication of technological sophistication. Here there is a very extensive high voltage grid. Almost all towers are set on rather bizarre, but functional, square concrete bases that are themselves held up by a single concrete pillar that can be: adjusted for height; safely hold associated high voltage hardware; and even be placed mid-stream in a river. Many lines appear to be running at 500KV or more.
In urban areas local distribution is almost entirely underground but transformers are often on elevated stands painted green and often partially hidden by trees,
The American influence is obvious everywhere. But they seem to prefer to think it is Japanese. Since 1971 the Americans (US) are out of favour, despite calling petrol ‘gas’ and using US electrical standards, unlike China. But like China they do, of course, use metric distances weights and measures.
Against this sophistication, the standard of commercial wiring, very visible on the outside of many older buildings, is quite often atrocious. Maybe it is associated with minimal regulations to encourage enterprise or the relative safety of 110V. But when voltages are halved currents are doubled, so I imagine electrical fires in these establishments are quite common.
As one would expect, there are a great number of small to medium businesses, many set within residential areas – very mixed development and short lines of supply.
Once out in the countryside agriculture becomes the principal economic activity. The predominant crop on the fertile plains of the west is rice interspersed with sugar cane and bananas as well as small orchards of other fruit – beautifully laid out like parkland and very attractive seen from above on our elevated highway.
From time to time superfast trains can be seen speeding past.
Once the Americans had deserted them in 1971 they would need to stand on their own two feet. Chiang Kai-Shek’s son Chiang Ching-kuo took some economic advice and, unlike his father, accepted modern economic theory supporting free enterprise, competition and free markets.
At around the same time Japan needed a low cost place to manufacture. Quite a few people still spoke Japanese and Taiwan was well placed.
Taiwan’s inadequate infrastructure was identified as holding the economy back.
Thus Chiang the younger’s ‘Ten Major Construction Projects’ plan. But how to pay for it? According to Clint, our guide, Chiang realised that Taiwan had an unusual asset – china’s gold reserves. These could provide security for loans of hundreds of billions of dollars. This allowed the following list to be implemented:
Steelmaking and shipbuilding began the economic miracle but soon electronics was identified as a developing industry and more industrial parks were founded together with some world leading research facilities.
Our tour this day took us inland into the mountains to Sun Moon Lake.
Although it seems to be natural it is in fact another example of Taiwan’s amazing infrastructure. Once a smaller natural lake it’s been enlarged with a dam and is used for pump storage to complement a nuclear power-station, located elsewhere. Thus it has a rising and falling tide line depending on the demand for power, in addition to local rainfall.
It’s notable for a shrine on an island, that we were taken to by boat, and for the Japanese fishing nets similar to those we saw in Kerala.
The local town has a strong Aboriginal presence and there are local craft markets that we were encouraged to visit.
Clint's photos - as are six of the following:
As we returned from our boat trip it rained heavily. So instead of wandering around the markets Craig and I found a weatherproof balcony overlooking the lake and then, bored with that, a tea shop that was not nearly so weatherproof.
It was interesting to see Betel Nut Palms (Areca catechu) growing wild and to learn that the Aboriginal people and some truck drivers are addicted to this stimulant that destroys a user’s teeth and causes them to spit red sputum constantly, among other unpleasant health issues that include cancer.
Our magical mystery tour bus then stopped off at a peacock sanctuary. But the birds were huddled indoors against the cold rain. That suited Wendy who is phobic about birds, particularly big ones with feathery display tails.
But we couldn’t leave the lake without visiting one last temple this time high up overlooking it. It can be approached by 366 steps, each representing a birthday and marked with one or two notable people born on that day, or alternatively by the road.
Fortunately we didn’t invest in the steps as the temple was only vaguely interesting, having some hair reputed to have been grown by the Buddha, and the view was marred by the bad weather. At least hair was a change from bits of the ’true cross’ or of some Saint.
Temples all done we spent the evening, for dinner and the following breakfast, at an hotel on the edge of, and partially suspended over, the lake.
Those who wanted to could visit a hot mineral spa. But as the weather was now quite pleasant and as our room had a balcony overlooking the water and sufficient chairs for four of us to consume a bottle or two of quite passable local wine, we skipped the joys of a communal bath.
I’ve mentioned that on several occasions we were taken to streets where there were local food vendors or small restaurants and set loose to find our own food of choice. But on others we were taken to larger establishments where the meal was part of our tour. At several of these restaurants some dozen or more local dishes were presented as a banquet to be shared.
The Taiwanese are very proud of their food and believe it to be the best in the world.
I’m on record elsewhere as saying that I don’t like spicy food. But Wendy and Craig do with Sonia on the fence. Others in our party were mixed as to taste preference.
But no one took to a special green soup that appeared several times as a delicacy. Having said that, most other dishes quickly disappeared into the collective digestive system, some with more enthusiastic praise than others.
I certainly didn’t starve but on the whole those of us who had been to China agreed that the food on the mainland, particularly in Beijing, is better.
By the end of the trip I was glad to get to Hong Kong and then to China to eat something less monotonously 'Taiwanese'.
Anyway, the local wine and beer was good and wine and beer from elsewhere was inexpensive too.
We had a big build-up on our way for a vegetarian lunch. This was enjoyed at an enormous Buddhist shrine and supermarket-like place known as the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Monastery.
This huge establishment is funded by international subscriptions, including some from Australia.
Our guide Clint would then pray there, as he had at every holy place we visited irrespective of the particular blend of eastern religion, and Wendy would come face to face with a giant chook.
That evening we reached Kaosiung City the second largest city in Taiwan. It’s much more industrial and down-to earth than Taipei. There is a pleasant riverside walk with coffee shops along the Love River that provided a relaxing respite from constant travel.
By now we were becoming acclimatised, so being set loose to find our own food for dinner in the night markets was fine. We found a dumpling place adjacent to the local park and watched the locals go about their evening wanderings.
The following morning it was up again early to set out for the southernmost tip of the island where there is, obviously, a lighthouse. On the way, to my distress, we failed to go past the heavy engineering of the City such as the steelworks and shipbuilding and passed one of the nuclear power stations at high speed.
One of Taiwan's nuclear powerstations - the two brown containment vessles to the right
The Eluanbi Lighthouse was originally built by the British with the consent of China as a result of frequent wrecks off the coast and had to be fortified against Aboriginal raids. During the war with Japan in 1898, that resulted in Taiwan becoming a Japanese colony, it was damaged then rebuilt by the Japanese. During the Formosa Air Battle in 1944 it was again seriously damaged by US bombing before being rebuilt in 1962 as a conical concrete structure and is now among the brightest on the coast: ‘The Light of East Asia’.
Nearby there is a beach and a bizarre bridge to a small island frequented by local tourists and holiday makers.
The scenery coastal in this area is quite spectacular and for much of the remainder of our tour we were to travel along the eastern shore with one spectacular view after another.
Continuing up the east coast in the morning we encountered some limestone caves that in eastern style had been usurped by religion as places of significance. I mistook the name of one for Yoni – it was something similar - that I presume had something to do with its appearance.
But the complex provided a much needed ‘rest stop’, so it was appropriate.
Close by there was a beach adjoing a giant fish farm, nevertheless enjoyed by the locals, and a bit further on we stopped at a 'marble carving factory' near the river below to see if we would like to buy very heavy Disney characters.
More beaches were to be visited along the coast.
All very stony and some quite dangerous.
Going to the beach Taiwan style - we were told that many people can't swim
We had only one remaining overnight stay before returning to Taipei.
Taitung is the third largest city and the largest on the eastern shore. The hotel that called itself a resort but was bizarrely placed adjacent to the sizeable regional jail. We could see into the exercise area from our window.
A local club, like a Taiwanese RSL club, gave our group a private room for dinner, we suspected to keep us out of view of the regular patrons. But they had Italian wine at a very modest price.
The night markets were nearby and I had a shot at archery but they only had right-handed bows and from childhood I’ve used a bow or a catapult left-handed so I had to make do.
On my last two shots I hit a couple of balloons and won Wendy a toy. Good fun.
The penultimate morning was spent in ‘Taiwan’s top tourist attraction’.
We spent some hours negotiating winding roads, that required buses to pass in single file while others waited on wider sections and gave our driver a chance to display his skills, with jagged rocks and other vehicles passing just centimetres from our sides.
There is a spectacular gorge in which the water can rise quite high.
During Typhoons can water volumes can grow sufficiently to sweep away bridges.
This bridge has been replaced several times
These narrow older roads were built by the army in Chiang Kai-Shek’s time. He needed to keep his huge army occupied and his son Chiang Ching-kuo understood that an army with time on its hands is a dangerous thing and proposed the Cross - Island Highway that gives access to this park. In 1956 serious work began with as many as 10,000 workers using hand tools and explosives. Many of the soldiers were veterans of the failed military campaign against the PLA on the mainland.
The soldiers and other workers had their pay withheld and were unable to leave. Thus they were effectively slaves. In excess of 450 were killed in the initial construction period, during which a single lane was built with passing sidings to allow traffic in both directions. The road has since been widened using modern machinery and methods but is still frequently closed by floods and earthquakes and there have been additional deaths. There is a shrine to the memory of the dead workers that is now a tourist focus.
Shrine to the dead workers
For lunch we went to a chicken place that roasts chickens en-mass in large spherical wood fired ovens and then presents them at your table to be ripped apart and the meat torn into chopstick manageable pieces by hand.
Heat resisting gloves and plastic over gloves are provided. Lots of fun.
We returned via Taiwan’s longest tunnel 12.9 km and several shorter before re-entering the amazing network of flyovers elevated highways and cloverleaf’s that is Taipei’s road system.
We were going to visit what was, when it was built, the world’s tallest building and in earthquake-prone Taiwan, the only really tall building: 101 Tower. It stands alone.
It's obviously a vanity project and can't be a viable business proposition.
But it is impressive.
Then we were taken to our last but not least hotel.
The entrance was unimpressive – almost like entering a factory.
The corridor on our floor was fine but unusual. There were two doors on the room an outer unlocked heavy sliding door screened off the corridor.
We were amazed when the bathroom was almost as big as the sizable bedroom and featured an elaborate shower with numerous jets and pressures a separate spa-bath and even a little garden. There was an elaborate sound system in addition to a large screen TV and push button lighting controls.
At breakfast everyone in the group was abuzz. It turned out to be a ‘sex hotel’, designed for lovers, illicit and otherwise. It was deliberately anonymous on the outside and apparently it could be entered directly from a secret car park.
But I was most annoyed to discover the others in our party had discovered much more interesting programs on TV than the CNN that we had watched.
C'est la vie.
The tour organisers had managed to locate hotels of a high standard not quite four star and some better than others but they were generally in less desirable areas. This was of little concern when we were up and out by 8:30 most mornings but from time to time we felt that we were not seeing the best of some of the places visited.
This was particularly the case later in Hong Kong when the excellent hotel, the best of the organised trip, was well out and away from public transport.
Against this, the very best hotel of the trip, with a full five stars and right on the metro, was the InterContinental Shenzhen China, that we found for ourselves.
The Taiwan portion was an organised tour. In Hong Kong the accommodation was paid for, including breakfast, and we had an organised bus tour of the City but most of our time was free, to use the metro the ferry and so on.
The advantage of these organised tours is that they are easy. They involve a lot less work: researching the places to go and getting the best deal on accommodation and transport. Lugging luggage about is minimised as is driving on the wrong side of the road. There is lest ‘wasted’ time. And in this case there were also significant savings.
But independence is lost and contact with the local people is limited to the guides provided and the guides have an agenda – to give the tourists their particular, usually positive, story.
Further, one becomes a package to be labelled, quite literally, and ‘despatched’ from one place to another for predetermined periods that seldom conform to the time that one would spent at that location if deciding independently. Some places, like an hour a jewellery factory or on a rock strewn beach would be by-passed entirely.
In addition to these uncalled for ‘sites’, inordinate periods were spent in temples and inadequate time was allowed for places of historical like the former Dutch East India Company fortifications or of economic interest. Even a simple drive-by of the nuclear power stations, steelworks or shipbuilding would have been welcome.
As part of the schedule we were taken to a marble factory, where I succumbed and bought a toy top for grandchildren's eventual amusement, and at another point to a jewelery factory where everything was a 'bargain'. This seems to be inevitable on an organised tour where hidden commissions get involved in the scheduling.
Nevertheless, as I recall from my first visit to Spain and Portugal in the eighties and particularly if travelling alone, if one has no idea where to begin in an unfamiliar country a local idea of what is best to see and visit may be a lot better than ‘pot luck’.