Travel notes: Asia in the fall of '86

IF you are wondering where the travelers went who didn't go to the Mediterranean this summer and fall, the answer, in part, is China. A poignant memory from a month traveling through Japan, South Korea, and China is of a forlorn American couple in the dimly lit airport at Guilin, southern China, waiting while a Chinese-speaking friend telephoned one hotel after another trying to find a vacant room. Half an hour of telephoning had produced no result up to the time we left them behind -- the last travelers still there.

In other words, don't go to China without reservations -- unless of course you are a backpacker willing to sleep anywhere. China right now is bulging with tourists. By rough observation, about a third are Japanese, a third from Western Europe, and a third from the Americas and Australia.

Guilin is a popular tourist place. It is famous for its jagged limestone mountains rising out of a flat plain. The Li River runs among them. Daily a fleet of some 40 or 50 tourist buses load at the hotels and drive for an hour to a point on the river where the tourists swarm from buses to flat-bottomed river boats fitted with kitchens and tables. We cruise gently downstream through the jagged landscape watching fishermen using captive cormorants to bring up the fish.

We disembark twice, once to lighten the boat so that it can get over a shallow rapids, again at a river village where the army of tourists climbs through a horde of street vendors to the waiting buses. Somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 foreign tourists do this every day at Guilin.

A similar migration takes place daily at Xian, the other main tourist mecca of this season in China. Another caravan of buses takes a similar horde of foreign toursts from the hotels of Xian to the site, an hour or so away, where the Emperor Quin's terra cotta army is gradually emerging from more than 2,000 years of oblivion.

I want to go back to China 10 years from now to see whether the second decade after Mao brings as much change and progress as have the first 10 years. China is still in the bicycle age, but the motorcycle is beginning to be seen, and traffic in work vehicles and buses can even reach the congestion level.

Younger men and women are now mostly dressed in modern Western-style clothes -- women in well-tailored skirts of good material, men in shirts and fitted trousers. The necktie has not yet arrived in China (by contrast with Japan, where every ``businessman'' identifies his status by suit and tie).

On leaving China, my wife and I noted that never once while there had we felt that sense so familiar in Russia, of being spied upon. We never hesitated to ask a political question of our guides, and they seemed not to mind the questions or hesitate to give straightforward answers. They refer to the present as dating from ``the reform,'' when Deng Xiaoping took over command and instituted the changes that have invigorated the economy and are making China look more and more every day like another modern country, or rather a country on the way to becoming modern.

Obviously, China has a long way to go. Japan is so modern and thriving that some parts of the Western world seem backward by contrast. South Korea is in a boom condition. It reminds me of what Houston was like, before the bottom dropped out of the oil market.

China is a generation behind and hobbled by a shortage of exportable goods. But it is working, reaching, and straining toward becoming as modern as are South Korea and Japan. Right now China is moving ahead visibly faster than Russia. Perhaps that is why the Russians are trying to improve their relations with China.

In terms of prices, China and South Korea are splendid places this season for American tourists. The Chinese yuan has been going down faster than the United States dollar. The Koreans have tied their currency to the dollar. Prices in both are attractive to Americans. Japan is otherwise. Some of my frinds remember wistfully when the dollar would buy more than 300 yen. Last week I was getting just a little over 150 to the dollar. The amenities are excellent in Japan, tourist facilities are first class, goods of all kinds are plentiful and of first quality. But we came home in economy-class seats on the plane, while first class and business class were filled mostly by Japanese. There is no doubt about who has the money in these times for the luxuries of life. Americans once traveled first class. Today the Japanese do.

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