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The Roads Less Traveled

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.

Greg Girard/Contact Press Images for TIME.
TIME Asia's Hanna Beech quizzes a little sumo master, while in the background, Nisid Hajari takes notes.

The 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 superhighway.

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 Surabaya—from 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 paths—the ones that lead from airport to airport, to the center of things—precisely 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 varied—and bumpy—paths 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 Sapporo—small (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 infectious—and 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 born—out of necessity, and a good dose of cabin fever.

P H O T O  E S S A Y
From Sapporo to Surabaya
A photographic culmination of TIME Asia's road journey from Japan to Indonesia




To Our

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 connections—denizens 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 Hakata—have 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 farmers.

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 see.

China's western regions are vast, however—more than half the country's land mass, housing a quarter of its people—and 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 reach—135 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 convenient—cars 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 priorities—and 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 24 hours.

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 works—monstrous close-ups of faces, their features as fuzzy as clouds—in 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 transition—between 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 painful—and 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 stark—and 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 periphery—an 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 tourists.

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 communities—as 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 indeed—politicians 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 there—a line not to be crossed. "No one will dare to touch a monk," says Paiwan.

Borders are both barrier and invitation—boundary 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 Jerai—the 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 even bigger.

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 Natuna—both within the Sumatran province of Riau—stretch 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 immigrants—known for their religiosity and their sharp daggers—make 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 centuries—to 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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