China, HK and Japan holiday comparison and analysis

The recent holiday to Hong Kong, China and Japan (hereafter referred to as HKCJ07) was our ninth overseas. Each trip is special for its own experiences, but I have favourites whose memories I savour. On each holiday I want to recapture the essence of what made those favourite holidays so special. Unfortunately, much as I enjoyed our recent holiday I don't think I can classify it as in the top three and I think it's important to find out why.

Without any doubt the gold standard in my holiday memories is our honeymoon in Paris. Nothing can compare to the joy of just getting married, the utter contentment we both felt. I doubt that we can ever recapture the amazement of seeing Paris for the first time either. One aspect that I thought contributed a lot to that trip was spending the night before in a good hotel overlooking the airport. By doing so we eliminated that last minute rush to pack and get to the airport, allowing us to savour the trip there. The outlook across the airport also served to whet the appetite.

On our previous trip to Japan, which is probably the second best holiday overall, we also spent the night prior to departure in a hotel. The last minute work completed in the hotel and the very early start somewhat negated the positive aspects of the hotel stay, but it still offered that crucial break before the journey's beginning.

I spend a lot of time considering the beginnings of journeys as I often find the excitement of being underway to be the most memorable aspect of a trip. We didn't stay in a hotel prior to flying out on our HKCJ07 holiday. Instead I spent the day at work furiously trying to complete my projects while B stayed at home. There was the pleasant aspect of a farewell lunch with friends as well as the feeling of the journey beginning as I walked out of my workplace into the late afternoon light.

My belief is that the late afternoon/evening is the best time to begin a journey. Our flight to Hong Kong departed at 10:20pm, arriving in Hong Kong early in the morning. Now I think about it, overnight flights, where one reaches the destination early in the morning, have never been the most memorable. They are okay on the way home, but you reach the destination exhausted, spoiling the first day. Also, you don't see the scenery below in the dark.

We flew overnight outwards on our honeymoon flight, but it began in the late afternoon and there was first an early morning stopover in Bangkok (memorable) and we ended up exiting Charles De Gaule airport in the evening anyway.

Interestingly, I also enjoy stopovers on the way out, brief or days long. Take the 2004 trip to Europe. Despite being horribly airsick we had loads of fun staying up late in Seoul shopping around the night markets. The 2005 trip to Europe included a few days in Singapore on the way out (and a few in Tokyo on the way home). Even the previous Japan trip had a few hours stopover in Cairns airport. There's the pleasure of a bonus interlude with the knowledge that a decent length flight to your destination awaits.

Technically Hong Kong and China were stopovers for us, but so extended were they that they lost their meaning. The overnight Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong was not memorable, primarily because it was overnight but also due to the lack of Hong Kong being a real outwards stopover. Good flight, but not one to stick in the memory.

I believe that Hong Kong would make an excellent stopover for a flight to, say, Europe. It's an easy city for visitors to get around and has good sightseeing and shopping potential.

Now for the big part of our trip: China. Our holiday in China started off well, with a very pleasant train trip to Beijing and some very memorable experiences in and around that city. As I reread my blog of the trip I can see the enjoyment starting to decrease from our departure from Beijing onwards.

Is it cultural shock? I think there is definitely an aspect of it, especially concerning the peasantry. I've been embedded in Cantonese culture for many years and have travelled through poorer areas of Malaysia before, lived myself in a variety of conditions (but never abject poverty). Yet we found ourselves confronted by the desperate competition for resources that pervades the life of most Chinese people. Over time it wore us down.

I think we were also troubled by the need to constantly arrange tours and taxis for most days, rather than just changing our minds on a whim and hopping on the nearest metro line. The tours were generally good, but you are constrained, from waking up early in the morning to where you stop for the evening. But it's very difficult to travel without assistance in China if you don't speak the language and don't want to go by overcrowded local bus (not fun).

When we were in Malaysia we were shielded from many of the same problems by family and friends, by the fact that it was "home turf" for B and that English is not uncommon in Malaysia. Spain was another country that we were glad to leave, despite its scenic beauty, due to the attitude of some locals in the service industry. But we were only a short time in Spain, whereas we spent about two weeks in China, more if you include Hong Kong.

Neither of us are very social people. It's nice to meet other people and spend time talking to them, but it is not something we want to do constantly. We like to wander around at our own pace and do our own thing. When I read many peoples' accounts of travelling in less developed countries they often cite interactions with the locals as one of the highlights. I don't think we are cut out for long holidays of that type.

Our time in China was also pretty "full on". A work colleague commented that she became so worn out during her China trip that she just spent the day in the hostel watching DVD's. Our 2004 Europe trip had taught us the need to slow down. We did this on the trips that followed by spending at least two nights in the same hotel and actually relaxing in our rooms on some nights rather than spending them out exploring. Long train trips also helped with "down time".

There were no one-night hotel stands (not counting overnight trains) on our HKCJ07 trip, but we rarely made it back before 9pm and then I would stay up late typing. There were supposed to be a few nights of enforced rest during the overnight train trips between Yichang and Shanghai and the night up Huangshan, where there would little to do. However, the awfulness of the Yichang to Nanjing overnight train lead to us ditching the rest of that section of travel and going straight to Shanghai, a city that definitely stays up late.

So our batteries never really recharged during our time in China, which made us even more frustrated I think. At least our return to Hong Kong and Japan relieved a lot of our stress. Both were known quantities now and easy to handle, though again we always stayed up late, though we often woke late the next morning!

One thing I enjoyed about our time in Japan was getting out of Tokyo and taking walks through areas of natural beauty. I love the skyscrapers and neon of Shinjuku, but also the cherry blossoms and maple leaves of the temples and the forests. On each of our last three trips we have wandered through aspects Japans natural and historical heritage and enjoyed Japan a lot more for doing so. Likewise in China, walking along the Great Wall and around Leshan's Big Buddha area were highlights, both for their beauty and for the lack of crowds.

Would I return to China? The answer is yes, but on a restricted visit, perhaps a short stopover. There are still many places I would like to see in China, such as Huangshan, Tibet, the South and Suzhou. But I still have no wish to join the flag waving couch tours that we passed so often. Nor, I have decided, do I want to go on a Geckos or Intrepid tour (maybe Peregrine... maybe) with basic facilities and local transport.

I'm going to be uncool and say that I don't really enjoy mixing it in with the locals in primitive facilities. I don't ask for five star luxury, but I do ask for a decent western-style toilet in a quiet, private hotel room and easy transport. That rules out a lot of places in the world. So be it. At least I have tried.

Overall HKCJ07 was an enjoyable holiday with many memories and many experiences. It just was not in my top 3 best holidays and not as inspiring as I had hoped.