The year has seen some interesting new destinations, with my first visits to Uganda, Korea, Burma and Vietnam. I have also spent time in Malaysia, Singapore, China and Hong Kong on business. It is sad but more and more cities in Southeast Asia are just coming to resemble each other as major sprawling, traffic chocked, polluted metropolises. So much character and individuality is disappearing with more and more high rises, highways and international businesses found in every city of the world taking over.
One striking exception is Rangoon (Yangon), the capital of Burma. Incidentally, it is now politically correct to call it Burma again rather than Myanmar – that is if you support the return of the country to real democracy. After 60 years in the wilderness and international sanctions, it is now opening up again to international visitors and business opportunities. However, the city itself is still caught in a time warp. There is beautiful colonial era architecture – Victorian and Edwardian buildings – everywhere which are sinking into sad decline now that most of the government ministries have been moved up country to a new capital city. However the potential of these buildings – both architecturally and as a source of upmarket tourism – is starting to be understood with some fine restorations underway. There is a great, bustling atmosphere and some of the friendliest people I have met anywhere. Pagodas everywhere as well as Buddhist monks seeking alms on every street. And one of the weirdest things – all of the cars are right hand drive, reflecting the British colonial heritage – but they also all drive on the right hand side of the road. Only place in the world I have seen this!
I would certainly like to see more of Burma and spend longer in Rangoon – and hopefully, in the near future, power will be transferred from the cronies of the military to a truly democratic government. But I really hope that such transition does not result in the city just becoming yet another Southeast Asian clone city. It looks like they understand the heritage they have, which has been destroyed in so many other places and let’s hope they get the balance between development and preservation right. I hope to go back as there is a real thirst for learning and, as businesses look outwards, a demand for the qualifications which the institute offers and which are highly relevant locally. British qualifications are still held in high regard so there is something for us to build on.
Most of Seoul has been rebuilt following huge destruction in the Second World War and Korean War and more recently as a result of growing prosperity. There are still some particularly attractive old palaces remaining and an amazing secret walled garden covering many acres behind one palace right in the centre of the city. Very much a hidden oasis and absolutely beautiful in the autumn with the leaves turning colour. During the 1960s a river through the centre of the city was concreted over to build a motorway but this has been recently torn down to make a nice 5km riverbank walk through the centre. There is a highly efficient, clean and safe metro system which makes getting around the city easy.
I went up the demilitarised zone and looked over into North Korea – a fascinating experience: about 10 years ago there was a relaxing in tensions and the two Koreas had planned to set up rail services between their respective capitals. A brand new station was built on the South Korean side but as relations soured again, it was never connected. It is however fully functioning with trains announced for departure to the North Korean Capital – everything in full working order and staffed – except there are no trains! In effect, an expensive piece of propaganda until such time as relationships improve again – but also a powerful symbol of the continuing division of the Korean Peninsula. There are still a lot of U.S. troops in South Korea – indeed, you have to call the demilitarised zone or DMZ the “Dee Em Zee” in a broad American accent to be understood that that is where you are wanting to go – and the Americans have a huge barracks complex covering many acres bang in the centre of prime downtown Seoul. In the DMZ you walk through tunnels dug into South Korea by the North Koreans in invasion attempts right up to the point where it is bricked off under the border between the two countries. A very strange throw back to the cold war.
And of course Seoul has Cat Cafe. A normal cafe – except there are between 20 and 30 cats roaming around – I am not sure exactly how many because, as you know, herding cats is difficult. But you are encouraged to take your coffee and wait for one of the cats to come and join you. You are not allowed to approach the cat but if it wishes to come and sit next to you or on your knee -or, indeed, on your plate – that is fine. A very surreal experience which whiled away a couple of calming hours on a bitterly cold afternoon. The cats seemed extremely happy with their pampered lifestyle too! Mumu liked sleeping on my coat.
A visit to Kaliningrad was another throwback to the end of World War Two. Kaliningrad is the bit of Russia sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea. Until 1945 it was the German City of Konigsberg, capital of East Prussia. After the Potsdam conference, this area of Germany was incorporated into the Soviet Union and East Prussia and Konigsberg disappeared from the map. This gave the Russians an ice free port on the Baltic. The area remains part of Russia to this day – almost all signs of the former German 800 years of history have been removed and this feels very much like a typical Soviet city of the 1950s – although recently some of the old German buildings are being rebuilt. A very strange feeling however and, once again, something of a time warp and a reflection of the history of the last 75 years. Closed to foreigners until very recently, it is an interesting place to wander round and with some fantastic seaside resorts on the Baltic Sea itself – a nice place for a relaxing weekend break.
August saw me speaking at a conference in Sevastopol in the Crimea. Now part of Ukraine, it was of course at the centre of the Crimean War against Russia in the 1850s. Many places will be well known to anyone who has studied British history – Inkerman, Balaclava and other well-known battle sites. We stood on top of a hill (where the British generals watched the unfolding disaster) overlooking the site of the Charge of the Light Brigade – so easy to see how they charged down the wrong valley! Balaclava in particular is a beautiful unspoilt harbour village – what I guess the south of France would have been like before the advent of mass tourism. It was good to see another part of the world off the beaten track. Yalta, where the conference between the big three, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt, was held was another fascinating visit with the Livadia Palace preserved as it was during the 1945 conference. Another piece of living history.
Editor’s note: Sincere thanks to David Woodgate for this superb recount of his travel diary.