It's just past eight-thirty on Thursday evening in Beijing, and so in less than twelve hours my flight home will leave Beijing bound for Hong Kong, and with any luck I'll be on board. Just after sunrise on Saturday, I'll arrive home in Melbourne, and so my three-month adventure through Asia will be over.
Without getting too sentimental about the past couple of months, for my own self-indulgence (and for what my psychotherapist, if I had one, would call 'closure') I think it's worth reflecting on the good, the bad and the ugly from the trip.
When I look back at how much ground I covered in such a short space of time, I wonder how I did it. 9 countries (more or less, depending on your take on Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, North and South Korea) in about 12 weeks doesn't leave a lot of time for smaller towns, quiet wandering or time consuming distractions. After a while, travel at that speed becomes rather manic, with much of your time spent in transit, mentally stuck at your previous destination or already ahead at your next one. Having said all that, there aren't any destinations that I would have been happy to have skipped - even places that I wasn't 'enjoying' would still give me interesting experiences and a different take on the world.
For me the trip covered two very different sides of Asia. Much of it was the developing world - places like Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma - where life is tough but people are generally happy, and for me this provided the biggest culture shock. The other part of the trip was in the developed world - South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong - where things are humming along in relative peace and harmony. There is some category confusion in my mind, though: for me, Thailand is firmly a developed world country, at least in the big smoke, whilst China straddles the two categories. Though life is easy in the developed world, I found that the specialist memories and the highest highlights were in the developing world. It is in these poorer places that contact with ordinary people is more genuine, and material considerations give way to a deeper, cultural connection.
The good: undoubtedly, contact with people in Burma. Burmese people are amazingly sincere and welcoming to outsiders, and they have a natural, almost naive, curiousity about life outside their own country. Despite being the victims of a heartless and incompetent regime, people in Burma walk with their head high and work hard to make their lives as good as they can be.
The bad: a tough call, but for me Hong Kong is a economy without a society. Though the list of interesting tourist attractions is long and comprehensive, it is a difficult place to relax and have a good time. The bars require the drinker to rob the local branch of the HSBC before settling down for a good night, Nathan Road should only be strolled with the aid of a poison-tipped umbrella, and perhaps HK could be pitched as a weight loss venue for vegetarians, such is the lack of options.
The ugly: North Korea has all the aesthetic charm of a Kim Beazley exercise video. The buildings are square and concrete, public art has a monotonous and slavish Kim theme to it all, and the people live in such fear of the state that they often refuse eye contact with foreigners, let alone conversation. Having said that, I had a sensational time in that bizarre little world. The highlight. The climax. And now I'm ready to go home.