Difference between revisions of "East Asia"
Revision as of 08:53, 4 February 2009
East Asia is a cultural and geographic region of Asia.
Countries and regions
East Asia, also popularly known as "the Far East" (especially when compared the the other "East", the Middle East) is what used to be known in the West as The Orient, a mysterious land inhabited by a race of inscrutable tea-sipping Orientals. Behind the caricature, though, is a uniting factor in the form of Chinese influence: China, as by far the largest and, historically, the most technologically and societally advanced culture in the region, has given its writing system (Chinese characters), religion (Mahayana Buddhism) and philosophy (Confucianism) to all the countries in East Asia.
However, underneath these superficial similarities lie a vast range of differences. The geography alone covers the gamut, from the arid steppes of Mongolia to the vast deserts of northwestern China, the lush rice paddies of south central China and the beaches of the subtropical islands of Okinawa. The upheaval of the past centuries has also led the countries of the region along strikingly different paths, with the hyper-modern skyscrapers and consumerist culture of Japan having little if anything in common with the Stalinist austerity of North Korea.
East Asia's major languages, including the many "dialects" of Chinese, are not mutually intelligible. However, while the spoken languages are very different, written Chinese characters can be puzzled out by Japanese and Koreans as well — although even these have wide differences from country to country. (The characters 手紙, literally "hand paper" and meaning "letter" to the Japanese, would be taken as "toilet paper" in China, for example.)
Overall, English remains a traveller's most useful language. When looking for English speakers, tourist areas tend to be a good bet and, in general, younger people or those around universities are most likely to speak at least a little. Outside of that you'll encounter many areas where no English is spoken, so patience and a good phrasebook come in handy. For longer stays picking up at least some of the local language is essential.
The main international gateways to East Asia are Hong Kong (China) , Seoul (South Korea) and Tokyo (Japan). Transferring through mainland China, though increasingly an option in terms of flights, is painful and time-consuming (you may also require visas) and best avoided. If arriving from Europe, transiting via Bangkok or Singapore in South-East Asia may prove cheaper than a direct flight.
Plane travel is the fastest way to travel between countries in East Asia, as well as within them. Plane travel within China tends to be cheap by Western standards, although there is some governmental price regulation to keep the prices from being too low. Most flights include meals, which can range from boxes with assorted snacks to steaming hot meals. Vegetarian meals are rare (depending on the airline and part of East Asia), but occasionally available. Delays are common in some places (like China), sometimes by several hours.
Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have extensive train networks, but for reasons of geography and politics none connect to the mainland. China also has an extensive network, which is used as the main mode of long distance travel.
Japan has a well developed high-speed rail network known as the Shinkansen, which covers most of the country except Hokkaido and Okinawa. South Korea and Taiwan have begun to develop their own high-speed networks, with a high-speed service along the main corridor between Seoul and Busan in South Korea and between Taipei and Kaohsiung in Taiwan. Services in China are more limited, and are largely confined to the areas around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Many long distance bus routes connect different cities within countries.
Chopsticks are the eating utensil of East Asia. Outside of restaurants specializing in Western cuisine, forks are rarely available and knives are not to be used at the table.
Rice is an East Asian staple, although in much of northern China and Mongolia wheat predominates.
Fried rice is another popular dish, prepared in a variety of ways in different regions. Fried rice usually has some combination of eggs, vegetables, meat, and/or seafood fried with the rice. Occasionally, some places have other varieties, such as a fruit fried rice.
Tea is the quintessential East Asian drink. Generally, green (unfermented) varieties are preferred over Western-style black tea, but the varieties available cover the entire color and taste spectrum.
Most of East Asia is quite safe, with stable politics and low crime. The main exceptions are China's restive western territories of Xinjiang and Tibet, but even there the heavy police presence keeps crime low and it's standard practice to block visitor entry at the slightest hint of trouble.
Large parts of China and especially Japan are at significant risk from earthquakes. If you're indoors and you feel a shake, stay indoors, as running outside during a quake is the most likely way you'll be injured. Extinguish gas burners and candles and beware of falling objects and toppling furniture. Shelter under furniture or a doorway if necessary. If you're outdoors, stay away from brick walls, glass panels and vending machines, and beware of falling objects, telegraph cables etc. Falling roof tiles from older and traditional buildings are particularly dangerous, as they can drop long after the quake has ended.