We left Darwin on the 4th of March and set sail for Asia. Our first stop was the Indonesian Island of Komodo the home of the notorious Komodo dragon the largest living lizard in the world.
On leaving Indonesia the character of the cruise changed. The long periods at sea disappeared as we sailed into South East Asia and into the most densely populated area of the world. In the next month we would visit seven out of 20 of the worlds most populated countries.
No longer would we visit small exotic islands like Madeira, Barbados Grenada, Polynesian Islands and Bay of Islands. Our destinations were some of the largest cities in the world including Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, Mumbai, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.
No more sailing for days without seeing a single ship we were travelling through the most congested shipping lanes in the world. Indeed it was fascinating to watch the passing ships of all shapes and sizes ranging from modern supertankers and container ships to Chinese junks and Arabian Dhows
In the South China Sea it is extremely common to see large fishing fleets. At night these ships use brilliant searchlights to attract the fish. I first became aware of this when we were sailing near the Philippines. Following my evening meal I went on deck for fresh air and was surprised to find the ship surrounded by dozens of very bright lights moving slowly across the sea. I later found out that they were part of a fishing fleet but at first sight it was rather eerie. This sight soon became a common feature as we moved through the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.
During the next month we visited many of the countries and major cities of East Asia. At each destination we had a local show on board the ship and were able to enjoy and appreciate the various cultures and traditions of the individual country. These shows included traditional music dancing and singing and were extremely colourful and vibrant with the Thai, Philippine and Vietnamese being particularly memorable.
However as we moved through East Asia and visited many of the capital cities I noted that at first sight they were all very similar. I was surprised how Westernised they had become and by the extent of their economic development and how they had adapted to the capitalist system. The city centres were surrounded by an army of cranes and all around there were building sites at various stages of development. Each city was claiming to have largest shopping mall – every new building had to be higher than the neighbours a sort of virility symbol. Ours is bigger than yours as Shanghai, Dubai, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh city and Kuala Lumpur etc compete for the highest building in the world.
In fact in these cities it was difficult to find the old city which has been buried among the hundreds of modern glass and steel skyscrapers erected to meet the demands of the growing economy. The character of the cities has been transformed although in most cases a section of the old city is preserved to facilitate the rapidly growing tourist industry.
Within a few decades many of these countries will be competing with Europe/USA country in financial services and economic development. The challange is clear to see although in the more rural areas many of the local communities continue the practises and traditions which had changed little over many generations.
I found Shanghai to be the most fascinating and surprising city. I was not sure what to expect of China. I still had images of Chairman Mao and his little red book. Would there still be evidence of police control, regulation and suppression? On the contrary, I felt completely relaxed and free and to go anywhere and I do not recall seeing a single policeman during our three-day visit. This was in contrast to a recent visit to St Petersburg where I found it difficult to relax as I felt we were being watched. While we as tourists enjoyed this freedom I fully recognise that Chinese citizens do not and are subject to many repressive laws.
Shanghai is already the most populous city in the world a global financial centre and the world’s busiest container port. I really loved it. In particular the contrast between the old China, the tea tasting, the dancing, exercising and gambling in the Peoples Square and new China with the multitude of skyscrapers, the vividly lit up waterfront and the new Disney World. However on leaving Shanghai we sailed past about 20 Chinese naval gunboats. A show of strength and ready to impose Chinese power where necessary.
Hong Kong was similarly impressive with its superb underground system and modern skyscrapers (317 at recent count) contrasting with the traditional night street market and ancient Buddhist Temples.
These cities were exciting but it was often enjoyable to get away from noise and hubbub to relax for the day on the wonderful beaches at Ko Samui, Chan Mai, Cochin and Aqaba. We also had the opportunity to visit some of the most popular tourist attractions in the world including the Great Wall of China the Taj Mahal, the lost city of Petra and the terracotta warriors. We did not go on any of these excursions as they were expensive and usually involved many hours of tiring travelling by coach. We did however go on some of the shorter excursions.
Every destination has its unique memories The Hindu and Buddhist temples in Columbo, the walk along the wonderful palm tree-lined Muscat seafront to the “Eggcup”, finding the coat of arms for Penang which was virtually identical to our own Bangor plaque, meeting the Cochin Veli Lions under 12s soccer team (wearing blue and gold Bangor kit).
On leaving Columbo we received a warning that we should not be concerned if we saw armed men on the ship as these were armed guards to protect us from Somali pirates
I particularly enjoyed our two ports of call in India. We have some friends from Kerala who had often praised the beauty and friendliness of their native state and it lived up to all our expectations. Our second visit was to Mumbai and to the Gateway to India. The atmosphere was just as we anticipated with tens of thousands of people enjoying the sights of the city. It was bustling with noise energy and colour. It was so hot that we had to retire to the very expensive Taj Mahal hotel for a drink. On leaving the harbour I noticed a strong Indian naval presence with at least two gunboats and thought back to Chinese naval strength in Shanghai.
Our guards left us as we entered the Red Sea and soon for the first time we landed in Africa (our 5th continent) at the Egyptian port of Safaga. Anne really enjoyed the visit to Safaga and took advantage of an excursion with Sindbad Submarines to examine in more detail life below the Red Sea. The submarine toured the multicoloured coral beds and a diver spread food to attract a vast range of colourful fish. The following day we spent a very pleasant day in the beautiful Jordanian port of Aqaba both rich in its heritage and its 4000-year history.
We continued North along the Red Sea towards the Suez Canal. The canal is 120 miles long and unlike Panama has no locks and speed is restricted to 8mph to prevent erosion. I found this quite a strange experience as we seemed to glide across the desert cutting through the sand with nothing to see but more and more sand.
Sometimes we would pass a small settlement which looked as though it was from the set of Arabian Nights and this made a wonderful contrast with the modern technology of the 21st-century bridge which transports lorries for hundreds of miles over the desert. Occasionally we saw a military post and this along with the burnt-out tanks, guns placements and other military hardware remind us of past battles on the canal .After 14 hours we reached the Mediterranean Sea and after 110 days at sea we were on our way home.
Mediterranean – Home (Part 4)