Roads Less Traveled
By NISID HAJARI
There are no direct flights from Sapporo to Surabaya. To reach the Indonesian
port city from the capital of Japan's northernmost prefecture, travelers
must change planes at least twice. The journey takes up to 11 hours in
the air, most of it over featureless blue seas. Few people have reason
to make the trip.
renowned Asian journeys have had greater purpose. Japan's Zen poets wandered
the length of Honshu looking for enlightenment. The Chinese envoy Chou
Ta-kuan made his way south to witness the mighty court of Angkor in its
waning years. Adventurers from Europe sailed from island to island in
the East Indies in search of spices, up the China coast in search of profits,
to the shores of Japan in search of souls. In our day the great movements
have too often been a sign of some awful upheaval: the bloody to-and-fro
that marked the partition of the Indian subcontinent, the Long March,
the flight of boat people from Vietnam. Or of a more timeless urge: Deng
Xiaoping gave the Chinese a saying, "To get rich, first build a road,"
and the centuries-old migration of peasants from the exhausted countryside
to vibrant cities has become a flood in every developing economy in Asia.
In those cities today the one road everyone wants to drive is the information
Girard/Contact Press Images for TIME.
TIME Asia's Hanna Beech quizzes a little sumo master, while in the
background, Nisid Hajari takes notes.
That is an all-too-familiar story by now, a tale of the dotcoms and mobile
phones and Palm Pilots that have overrun Tokyo, Beijing, Bangkok, Jakarta.
Yet barely 120 km outside the Indonesian capital there lies a cluster
of villages whose inhabitants refuse to use any form of transportation
other than their own (and bare) two feet: distance is measured not in
meters but in the number of clove cigarettes that can be smoked between
one point and another.
When we at TIME decided to embark on our own journey this summer, we decided
that those low-speed roads were the ones we wanted to follow. So we made
the journey from Sapporo to Surabayafrom one end of Asia to another,
through nine countries and three time zones and more than 12,000 km from
start to finish. But we avoided the direct pathsthe ones that lead
from airport to airport, to the center of thingsprecisely because
we wanted to explore the in-between spaces that cannot be made out from
above. We traveled mostly by road, sometimes by hydrofoil and longtail
boat and bullet train, and occasionally on foot.
We could well have borrowed a working title from the record of the final
pilgrimage of Basho, the 17th century Japanese poet: Narrow Roads to the
Interior. For the unexpected is to be found only down those quiet lanes.
And only there on the periphery, among communities both proud of and pained
by their distance from the places where things happen, can one map out
the many and variedand bumpypaths that Asia is following into
the future. Amid the rubber trees on the southern border of Thailand,
where a hundred brothels catering to Malaysian men sprouted in one dusty
town when a neighboring checkpoint closed down, an incredulous Singaporean
monk wondered, "How did you find this place?" We were just driving through.
One could ask the same of Sapporosmall
(pop. 1.8 million) compared to Tokyo, out-of-the-way, a cold place on
a hot continent. Some of the emptiness of Hokkaido seeps into its quiet
streets, some northern vastness into the size of the city's pachinko parlors,
which blaze above the otherwise dim skyline. The town feels like the ending
point of a journey instead of its start, a place far from home. Its most
famous inhabitants, the indigenous Ainu, were driven out of the rest of
Japan by the general who first earned the title shogun; in a country that
has long prided itself on racial homogeneity, they have been marginalized
ever since. Barely a dozen elderly Ainu speak their native tongue. Japan's
only Ainu restaurant is in Tokyo. Classes that teach traditional techniques
like basket weaving now cater to bored Japanese housewives in Sapporo.
Children of mixed marriages are referred to as nisei and sansei, like
those Japanese born and bred abroad.
Yet that very isolation can serve as a goad. Following the lead of other
aboriginal groups, Ainu activists have begun to press for the return of
tribal lands, the revival of old rituals. The youth of Sapporo have no
such heritage to mine, and like country kids everywhere they feel their
own remoteness acutely. "We have a complex about Tokyo," admits Midori
Yamanaka, a recent college graduate. So a few years ago one student brought
a dance festival from Kochi, more than 1,000 km to the south, back to
the city. Now on a cool weekend in early June, more spring than summer,
upwards of 38,000 dancers take to the streets decked out in yukata, fish
suits, blackface; some teams from snowbound Hokkaido towns have practiced
for six months to perform a single, five-minute dance routine. Their enthusiasm
is infectiousand native to the place. "Half the year the city is
covered in snow," Yamanaka, one of the festival organizers, says dryly.
"So when summer comes, we are very happy." Thus is newness bornout
of necessity, and a good dose of cabin fever.
For out-of-the-way places are, in a sense, also frontiers. Most of Japan
has only recently begun to grasp the need to open its borders: according
to the United Nations, the country will have to import more than 600,000
workers every year for the next half-century just to maintain the current
workforce. Yet already in the farmhouses of Yamagata prefecture, ringed
by the low mountains of northern Honshu, live more than 2,000 women from
26 countries. Some have been there for more than a decade, brought in
when the exodus of local daughters to the big cities had grown so dire
that sons taking over family farms could find no one to marry. Most of
the foreign brides expected the lights of Tokyo or Osaka, not the cacophony
of frogs that fills the night sky in Yamagata. But then, the area's obscure
hamlets had no choice but to look outward. "We tried all other avenues,"
says Shigeya Mori, a former local official who arranged the first set
of marriages in 1986. "It was a question of community survival."
Reaching out can take even stranger forms. South and west of Yamagata,
renegade monks and out-of-favor emperors were once exiled to the Sea of
Japan coast; even now the highway that hugs the shoreline and tunnels
through cliffs passes little more than windswept fishing villages. Near
the city of Kanazawa, where the desolate Noto peninsula pokes into the
sea, a Buddhist monk and former TV screenwriter has built, of all things,
a $48 million mushroom-like structure to serve as a ufo museum and "habitable
zone" for alien visitors. Even the fervent monk, Josen Takano, admits
the location may not be ideal for extraterrestrial flybys: "It's not like
there's a highway running through here," he says archly.
What he's seeking, however, is neither misplaced nor bizarre: a connection.
"People in Tokyo just do business with a mobile phone and a laptop. It's
a virtual world," complains Hiroshi Imanishi, director of public relations
for the game-maker Nintendo in Kyoto. Many would accuse companies like
Nintendo of encouraging that lifestyle, breeding a generation more at
ease with their gadgets than with the outside world. But only those who
are already enveloped in a web of connectionsdenizens of Japan's
vast urban sprawl, that line of behemoth apartment blocks and neon billboards
that stretches through Kyoto south to the hyper-modern port of Hakatahave
the luxury of cutting themselves off further.
More isolated folks crave exactly the opposite. Across the water from
Hakata, South Korean Lee Dong Soo moved to Koje Island to raise chickens
10 years ago. His wife and three daughters stayed behind on the mainland.
Until he began using a computer to do his calculations, Lee spent his
nights sorting out accounts in his office beside a thunderous rock quarry.
In the past year the Internet has revolutionized his chicken business
by leading him to cheaper feed, better equipment and bigger profits. Yet
when Lee fires up his ancient PC, a self-drawn cartoon chicken coalescing
on the monitor, the first sites he calls up are the newspapers he reads
each morning at sunrise, the editorials he has written for chicken magazines,
the newsgroups on which he has become a proud celebrity among South Korean
The new Golden Bridge is
a raucous, rolling party. From the Dickensian crush of third-class passengers
at the Inchon docks, to the hundreds of card games that quickly unspool
in lower-deck cabins, to the huddle of men crouched around a Korean action
movie playing in the lounge, the giant passenger ferry makes the 18-hour
journey to the Chinese port of Weihai in perpetual tumult. Many of its
more than 600 passengers are making the crossing for a fast buck: a sharp
young man can sail across empty-handed, enjoy a weekend of karaoke and
Weihai girls, then return with enough rice and chillies to pay for the
binge. Others bring clothes and electronics from South Korea and take
back garlic, peanuts and sesame oil. By some estimates the penny-ante
trade could be worth $500 million a year. "Look at this city now," says
the boat's skipper, Jeong Jin Gu, as the red roofs of Weihai take shape
on the horizon. "Ten years ago this was a small fishing port. Then this
ferry started running. Now it's a clean city, a developed city." Transformation
comes from motion.
The same is true all down the long coast of China, where former treaty
ports like Weihai and Qingdao and Shanghai have grown fat off the millions
in foreign investment that have poured into the country in the past two
decades. Foreign companies pledged to invest $1.7 billion in Qingdao alone
last year; in silvery Shanghai, more than double that. And while that
money may have paid to redraw the skylines of China's metropolises, the
actual work is done mostly by those who have themselves moved to the coast.
Some 3 million rural migrants live in Shanghai; the city streets are lined
with cranes and orange construction netting and makeshift camps filled
with men from the villages of Anhui, Hunan and teeming Sichuan. The transformation
of Shanghai is mirrored in those interior provinces, where the earnings
the men send back (50% by some estimates) pay for new homes they rarely
China's western regions are vast, howevermore than half the country's
land mass, housing a quarter of its peopleand Beijing has much larger
plans to remake the area. Near the Yangtze river town of Yichang, the
Three Gorges dam promises to be the greatest force for change in the Middle
Kingdom: once completed, the dam will create a 650-km-long reservoir that
will submerge more than a thousand villages and dozens of towns and cities.
More than a million people will have to move; already along the stretch
of the river that leads to Chongqing, massive white billboards mark how
high up the green, hilly folds of the Gorges the water will reach135
m in the first stage, 175 m in the next.
Ultimately, the floodwaters are meant to rise high enough to transform
Chongqing, perched on its famous cliffs, into a port with a deepwater
harbor. Yet the city's waterfront already looks new: a squat, pink-tile
building has been built into the cliffs, and a tram leads down to the
river. Along the shore the city's famous bangbangjie, "stick soldiers,"
still gather with their stout bamboo poles to lug baskets of ducks and
sacks of vegetables balanced on their shoulders to the road above. But
the men, migrants from the surrounding countryside, know theirs is a dying
profession. New roads have cut the time to some villages so short that
many no longer travel by river. Small trucks can drive down a ramp right
to the water's edge. "Once the water rises up, everything will become
more convenientcars will be able to drive to the waterfront. Then
they won't need us anymore," says 35-year-old Feng. And after that? "Mei
banfa," he says. "It can't be helped. We'll go back to the land."
The roads that are beginning to traverse the mountains and rice terraces
of Sichuan are meant instead to get Chinese like Feng off the land, where
they toil for a fraction of what their compatriots earn on the coast.
Beijing knows that reducing poverty in the western hinterlands is one
of its most urgent prioritiesand that means connecting villages
to cities, and cities to the coast. "The key to developing the west is
building roads," says Goldman Sachs bond expert Fan Jiang. "In the world
of telecoms, you can go wireless. But in the real world, if you don't
lay the roads, you will never get your products to market." Plans call
for 35,000 km of new roads to be built in the west over the next decade,
at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars.
Already in the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, four new expressways have joined
the older one that connects the city to Chongqing, including one section
of a planned Lhasa-to-Shanghai superhighway. Most of these are shiny and
wide and completely empty, as the few drivers who own cars hesitate to
pay the high tolls. But truckers do use them, at least when their companies
foot the bill, and they exclaim about how much safer and shorter their
journeys are now. Pilgrims can drive from Chengdu to the holy mountain
of Emei, once a three-hour trip, in half that time; when the road to Shanghai
is completed, drivers are told, they will be able to reach the coast in
Not everyone would welcome that transformation. "This place will never
be a center of politics or commerce. We'll always be at the edges of the
culture," says Chengdu painter Zhao Nengzhi. The shaven-headed artist
has shown his worksmonstrous close-ups of faces, their features
as fuzzy as cloudsin Beijing and Shanghai. But like a growing number
of artists in Chengdu, Chongqing and further south in the Yunnan capital
of Kunming, he prefers to work in the isolation of the interior. Rents
are cheaper, he notes, but more importantly, their very remoteness insulates
these artists from the fears and fads that are inescapable in China's
more cosmopolitan cities. "Here you can be quiet, only concerned about
the art itself," he says. Creation comes from stillness, not motion: "Our
situation makes for more pure art."
The train from Kunming to Hanoi
never actually crosses the border. For most of the night a blue Chinese
train whistles through a fairytale landscape of felt hills and steep gorges.
In the morning, at the border station of Hekou, all of its cars except
for the first-class carriage are detached. Most passengers walk across
to Vietnam. An engine pulls the first-class car across a bridge and then
returns to China, while a new, Vietnamese train is assembled around the
air-conditioned cabin. The change is dramatic. Hekou is enveloped in rain,
while the sun shines on the Vietnamese station of Lao Cai. The Chinese
platform is empty except for sooty-faced urchins and a couple of young,
sullen guards. Lao Cai is crowded, filled with conical hats and smiling
faces, girls offering thick, milky Vietnamese coffee and naughty playing
cards. The train that follows the Red River down to Hanoi, through fields
lined with bougainvillea and great-leafed banana trees, is a sweaty, cheerful
beast of the tropics.
Vietnam has always been a land of transitionbetween north and south,
between those cultures that look to China for their antecedents and those
that owe more to India, between the greater and lesser wheels of Buddhism.
Now the country, as any Vietnamese will tell you within five minutes,
is itself in transition. "Purple is for royalty, yellow for hope," says
Thach Tran Ngoc, 43, returning from holiday in China, as the express flashes
past narrow, gaily colored homes. Then he grins: "Red is for communism,
green is for capitalism."
The halting journey from one to the other is painfuland has carved
borders within a country that so much blood was spilled to unify. In smaller
towns like Dalat, professionals bemoan the long reach of the Communist
Party, the small-mindedness that means untalented cadres continue to hold
good jobs while others must pay to secure a lower position. Thach, tainted
because his father fought in the South Vietnamese army, has been a trainmaster
on the Danang-Hue local for the past 18 years and knows he will hold the
same position until he retires.
In brazen Saigon, on the other hand, a young Elite with no memory of the
war years has grown up with little patience for the rhetoric that comes
down from Hanoi. Some look resolutely forward, work for joint-venture
firms, enjoy a communist city that boasts a stock market and at least
two software parks on the drawing boards. Others, hit harder by the city's
10% unemployment rate, turn to An Duong Vuong park, where each morning
aid workers hand out their own version of Vietnam's generation gap: 2
ml syringes for the heroin users, nearly all of whom are under 30, and
5 ml ones for the older, opium addicts.
The divisions between Vietnam and its neighbors can be equally starkand
visible in the roads themselves. The highway that leads from Saigon to
the Cambodian border was once an emblem of connectedness, part of the
Highway 1 that once looped through French Indochina. Now renamed Highway
22, the road is better known as the strip of asphalt in Nick Ut's photo
of a girl fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. At the border,
where it becomes Highway 1 again, the difference between a country that
has enjoyed 25 years of relative peace and one that has known only about
three quickly becomes plain. Cars spend more time on the shoulder than
on the road itself, where yawning craters are filled only occasionally,
by men asking for immediate bribes.
Cambodia is itself a peripheryan entire country disconnected by
its lack of roads. Change is creeping largely because of the simple difficulty
of getting from one place to another. Less than 0.5% of the country's
total road surface is paved. Countless hamlets are cut off entirely except
by dirt track. Where there is a road there is often a sign warning not
to step off of it for fear of being blown up by one of the country's 6
million unexploded mines. The Khmer phrase for having good fortune is
literally mien plou, I have a road. Most Cambodians have neither, and
they say of themselves that they live like frogs in a well, seeing only
that patch of the sky directly above their heads.
A new road means opportunity, which is why so many of them are topped
with the five-towered archways of the ruling Cambodian People's Party,
which uses road-building to build loyalty among the masses. And why the
lone guard at the temple of Banteay Thom outside Siem Reap, reachable
only by motorbike across dry and unmarked fields, names as his most pressing
need a new road, so that his wife and children can sell soft drinks to
Yet the chisel marks made by thieves who hacked several sculptures out
of Banteay Thom earlier this year are still fresh: a road would make it
even easier for the looters to spirit away the priceless carvings they
can sell abroad. For that is the irony of opening up formerly closed communitiesas
the good flows in, so too does the bad. Past the delicate temples of Banteay
Srei, formerly the outermost complex visited by most Angkor tourists,
a road cleared of mines only two years ago leads up Mount Kulen to a waterfall
that has become a popular picnic spot. Another 10 km into the jungle,
looters have begun to excavate pottery from pre-Angkorian kilns. The forest
floor is littered with perfectly preserved bowls and column crests. But
antiquities officials can do nothing: the military controls the area and
even makes $20 a pop off foreigners who use the road.
One map of these countries could be drawn entirely in trails of cash.
Highway 6 from Siem Reap to the Thai border has a reputation as the worst
in Cambodia, largely because Thai trucks overloaded with smuggled goods
have carved deep gouges into the poorly laid roadbed. (In fact, it's faster
to take a boat south across the great expanse of the Tonle Sap lake during
rainy season, switch to a motorboat that speeds through the hairpin turns
of the Battambang River, then drive north from Battambang to the border
town of Poipet than to drive straight.) In Poipet, Highway 6 peters out
before even reaching the border, lost in a sea of mud and hand-pulled
wooden carts that themselves look pre-Angkorian.
The pristine highway that leads from there into Thailand says all one
needs to know about a tiger economy, one that led the world in growth
between 1985 and 1995. But the road also provides a caution: during the
boom years the country's most famous monk, Luang Phor Khoon, ministered
to thousands of devotees a day at his temple near the city of Khorat.
A weekday crowd now numbers only a few dozen people looking for the monk
to bless their contracts, wallets, lottery tickets. Attendants say that
since the collapse of the baht in 1997, pilgrims can no longer afford
to travel to the temple, 210 km northeast of Bangkok.
No motion, no transformation: in the capital one hears rosy talk of a
recovery, but in Thailand's rural northeast, farmers still earn as little
as $200 a year. The reforms needed to sustain a lasting recovery are stalled
like traffic on Bangkok's streets. What links most villagers to the capital
are thin strands indeedpoliticians looking for votes, or governors
and district chiefs who care more about their ministers in Bangkok than
their constituents. Little wonder that many have decided any meaningful
change will have to come from within. "No one helps us, so we must depend
on religion to help us," says Paiwan Pitak, a rice farmer in the hamlet
of Wang Pa Dun. For months Wang Pa Dun's villagers had sent letter after
letter protesting a mining company's plan to quarry the mountain that
borders their homes. Finally they wrapped a saffron robe 3 km long around
the entire hill and had it blessed by monks. The robe, frayed and bleached
by the sun, is still therea line not to be crossed. "No one will
dare to touch a monk," says Paiwan.
Borders are both barrier and invitationboundary
lines, but also crossings where countries blur into one another. Not too
long ago Malaysian authorities proposed building a wall along their border
with Thailand in order to keep out drugs and illegal immigrants (a section
of the wall was built and then forgotten). Yet where the two countries
meet, in a town that actually straddles the border, the streets of Thai
Changloon are lined with discos, karaoke lounges, cheap hotels and hundreds
of scantily clad women. The bordellos lie in Thailand's half of town;
they survive because of customers who drive across from Malaysia. In the
south, officials including Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad periodically
rail against the cross-border traffic. But those on the Thai side suspect
they are merely a foil to prove their neighbor's rectitude. "The existence
of the margins is indispensable for the existence of the main body," argues
Thai history professor Thongchai Winnichakul. "In this case, no brothels,
no proper and normative morality."
Malaysia and Singapore share that obsession with what is within and what
is outside the bounds. Driving through Malaysia the normal is obvious
in the American-style suburban housing developments that line the country's
blandly efficient North-South Expressway. The different is harder to find.
Up in a corner of northern Kedah state, a Hindu civilization flourished
in the Bujang Valley 1,000 years before the arrival of Islam. Yet the
only record of that pre-history are the piles of bricks on the slopes
of Mount Jeraithe remains of temples, picked up and gathered together
in one obscure place. A museum nearby acknowledges the Hindu influence,
but sniffs that a Malay culture predated the outsiders.
For tiny, neurotic Singapore, the future is more worrying than the past.
Its technocrats can see the way the world is heading, and the city-state
has poured millions of dollars into 14 high-tech research centers. From
the windows of Kent Ridge Digital Labs, you can see the heavy green cranes
of one of the busiest container ports in the world. "Before, Singapore
took advantage of its geographical location," says krdl's urbane director,
Juzar Motiwalla, pointing at the docks. "But in information technology,
location doesn't matter." What does matter is precisely the sort of creative
anarchy that has always seemed the technocrats' worst nightmare. Officials
now talk of creating a "Silicon Valley state of mind" in the city and
point with pride to a 73% jump in the number of start-ups last year. Yet
they continue to direct technopreneurship through labs like krdl and say
they will answer their critics on the Web by making the state's Web presence
Singapore at least has the luxury of waging its battles in cyberspace.
To the south, boundaries once again become more physical. Indonesia's
islands are disparate, far-flung, unstrung. Between the provinicial capital
of Pekanbaru and the islands of Natunaboth within the Sumatran province
of Riaustretch 730 km of ocean. Between Muslims and Christians on
the island of Ternate, only 20 km across, or between Madurese and Dayaks
on Sulawesi, there stretch even wider divides. The country is literally
a land of borders.
And after half a century of domineering rule from Jakarta, the tug-of-war
between those margins and the center may be Indonesia's most pressing
battle. Riau is a province blessed by nature; its oil alone accounts for
17% of Indonesia's gdp. Yet only about 2% of the $8.4 billion Riau contributes
to central government coffers each year flows back to the province.
From the port of Dumai on Sumatra's east coast, the consequences quickly
become apparent. An ominous oil pipeline trails alongside the road that
leads to Pekanbaru, looping up and down hills, through fields of still
smoldering palm trees burned in order to clear land. The pipe, used to
pump oil from Caltex fields to Dumai, has become part of the landscape:
each house along the road has built an arched bridge up and over the cylinder,
some made of packed earth, others just planks of wood. But the wealth
that flows within has not spread. In company towns like Duri, the neat
rows of Caltex housing stand like army barracks on one side of the road,
staring down a row of hovels on the other. "Quite a contrast, isn't it?"
murmurs a Caltex spokesman. More than 42% of Riau's population live below
the official urban poverty line.
What bridged those disparities for many years was the iron fist of former
dictator Suharto. The old man remains visible, although confined to his
home, the center of a swirl of corruption charges and pent-up anger. But
the more obvious signs of his rule are now hidden in a museum on the outskirts
of Jakarta, where his favorite relics are collected: the ship that carried
him into battle in Irian Jaya, a 1940s Harley-Davidson motorcycle, the
jade bed given him by his half-brother Probosutedjo, photos of him with
Haile Selassie, Ne Win, Marcos.
Indonesians know they must map out new bridges, new accommodations among
themselves and with the state. The road that leads into Surabaya traces
one such path. On the outskirts of town, Jalan Gresik passes a neighborhood
of rust: great coils of wire line the street, old hubcaps and tires, engine
parts, crushed metal. The area houses the city's scrap-metal yards, most
of which are run by Madurese. The fierce immigrantsknown for their
religiosity and their sharp daggersmake up 25% of the city's population,
and they have turned the scrap-metal business (along with other, equally
rough professions like ship-breaking and security) into a profitable fiefdom.
Another road runs from there to the sea. Just before the port, road signs
for Madura begin to pop up, as if the place lay just at the end of the
lane. In fact, the island stands 4 km offshore, although the round-the-clock
traffic of passengers and trucks and cargo is steady enough to form a
moving bridge of its own. Madurese have been leaving their dry and barren
home for centuriesto serve in the Majapahit armies, to work the
Dutch plantations of East Java, to collect junk in Surabaya. "Life is
hard on Madura," says Hamad Mataji, who runs Surabaya's largest scrap
yard. "The people there can survive only because others like us live abroad."
Indirectly at least, that journey, too, leads home.
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