Airstreaming in Asia

We are back in the USA after three weeks of travel in China, Korea, and Japan (and a stopover in Hawaii).

I had contemplated posting a series of day-by-day blog entries, but even then it would be hard to capture the breadth of the experience.  Traveling to places that are utterly foreign is at first intimidating, then exhilarating, occasionally overwhelming, and finally satisfying.  Much like other things in life that are outside one’s comfort zone, it will take time to process and absorb.  So instead of describing everything we saw and did, I’m going to put together a few essays about specific aspects of the trip.

Airstream-wise, the most obvious thing I learned is that Airstreamers don’t know how good we have it in North America.  Cheap fuel, open spaces, endless camping, minimal legal barriers, dealerships and service centers everywhere, and a large community of fellow travelers.  In Asia, Airstream is a luxury brand like Land Rover, affordable and practical only to a very small percentage of citizens.  Imagine if you had to pay $181,000 for a 23-foot Airstream, another $100k for the tow vehicle, $6 per gallon for fuel, and after that you found there were virtually no campsites in your country, nobody else to meet, and you had no room at your home to park it.

The Asian Airstream dealers have brought in Airstream as a luxury import, to places where there is little understanding of “RV culture.” As a result, they have to work hard to market Airstream and the concept of RV travel/recreation.  They can’t just sit at their showroom and expect customers to come in with much knowledge of Airstreams or what you do with one of them. It’s a tough challenge and I admire the effort that the dealers are putting into this. They bring Airstreams to events all over their region, spending the day showing the product and explaining what it does. The Beijing dealership has even opened a “try before you buy” camping facility in Inner Mongolia with six Airstreams parked near a golf course and ready for use. It’s the only campground in Inner Mongolia.

I was surprised to learn that the dealers hadn’t seen Airstream Life magazine yet, nor did they have much of a grasp of the strong Airstream communities that exist in North America and Europe. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Airstream Life is not published in their language, and the nature of the Asian Airstream community, if one ever develops, will undoubtedly be something unique rather than a copy of American culture. Airstreams have been sold in Japan for over a decade so there is a small owner community there, but it’s not much like ours.

One thing that is the same: the enthusiasm.  Everyone loves Airstreams. I’m sure that the dealers are gradually building an audience of people who now aspire to Airstream ownership, and that will serve them well over time.  The problem is that it will take a lot of time.  Wally Byam solved that problem by running high-profile caravans, which generated far more positive publicity for the brand than he could have done by any other method.  I think that if Asia is to become more than a niche market, caravans will become a key part of the marketing strategy eventually.

I knew that this trip would include just about every form of travel other than Airstreaming, but looking back on it I’m still amazed at the crazy procession of planes, trains, automobiles, and ships that we had to take to get around.  In sum, six flights, numerous taxis and shuttle buses, one ship, the Shanghai Maglev, bullet trains in China and Japan, subways in four cities (Shanghai, Beijing, Kobe, Tokyo), and light rail. (It would have been only five flights but leaving Honolulu we got a three hour tour of the Pacific and then returned to Honolulu due to a hydraulic problem with the Boeing 767.) And for the most part, we saw only the metropolises, rarely the beautiful countryside.

While riding the bullet trains and especially the Shanghai Maglev was exciting (the Maglev gets up to 288 MPH) I would have enjoyed the trip more if we were able to tow an Airstream around. Asia’s just not quite ready for that yet.  Massive traffic in the cities makes towing a trailer impractical, and in the country there’s not much infrastructure to support RV travel.  You can’t hope to find service centers conveniently, and the dearth of campgrounds means you have to be creative about finding places to stay.  (I am told by “Airstream Leo” in Beijing that he has sold one Airstream to a customer who is full-timing. I have no idea how that is working out.)

Each country has its own challenges. South Korea is essentially an island, cut off from the rest of Asia by that backward mess called North Korea, so while Korea has the most parks and campsites, road travelers are limited to a country only the size of southern California, with 50 million people to share it with. China is huge but good luck finding any sort of established RV campground. There’s also little precedent for licensing and regulating travel trailers in that country. Japan is the most organized and has the longest experience with Airstream, but it is also crowded and expensive. You’d want to think twice before towing in any major Asian city.

My assessment overall is that Airstream travel in most of Asia is practical only for the adventurous, self-supporting, and wealthy. But that will change. I’ll be keeping an eye on things to see how that’s evolving, with the hopes of being able to return and really see the countries the same way we’ve been able to see America. Despite the challenges, I don’t think that day is too far in the future.

Traveling to a new world of Airstream

Wally Byam never led a caravan in Asia as far as I know, but since his time Airstreamers have roamed around that continent a few times.  There was a very notable exchange program with China in the 1980s, where Americans were able to travel in the country by Airstream and some Chinese came here, but otherwise not much has happened there, Airstream-wise.

That has been changing recently. Airstreams have been sold in Japan in small numbers for over ten years, and in the past two years Airstream has opened dealerships in Shanghai, Beijing, and Seoul.  They are also selling Interstate motorhomes in Thailand, to wealthy types who spend a lot of time in traffic. Korea is interesting because there’s already an established RV culture in that country, but of course even though China has virtually no RV infrastructure you can’t disregard it. With billions of people and centralized policy-making, you never know. Tomorrow they could announce a huge initiative to build 100,000 campgrounds.

To me, the really interesting part of Airstream in Asia is that anything might happen.  Applying North American or even European expectations to Asia is an exercise in futility, so undoubtedly we will all be surprised by how the Asians interpret our “American icon.”  Already a high-end Airstream glamping site has been built in Inner Mongolia (next to the only golf course in Inner Mongolia, I’m told), and none of us saw that coming.

I decided last winter that this was the year to go to Asia and see the early sprouts of a new Airstream culture emerging.  We are leaving on Friday. I will meet with two or three of the Asia dealers and pick their brains about what is happening.  I’ll take photos and notes, and slurp noodles while contemplating it all.  I don’t yet know what I’m going to do with this knowledge (politicians call this a “fact-finding mission”) but I don’t think that matters.  Sometimes you have to go seek answers even when you don’t know the questions yet.

Planning this trip has been without a doubt the most intense trip-prep we’ve ever done as a family. It has been months of scheduling, saving, and research.  Our itinerary calls for seven major stops including Shanghai, Beijing, Incheon/Seoul, and Tokyo, plus lesser stops in Kobe Japan, Vancouver Canada, and Honolulu Hawaii.  And for most of it we’ve had to arrange planes, trains, automobiles, and ships from 12 to 13 time zones away.

I’ve got instructions for taxicabs in three different languages and hotel reservations in three different currencies, plus subway and rail maps for five cities, and meetings set up with people I’ve never met.  We’ve got new Passports, new luggage, Chinese Visas, trip insurance, an envelope full of renminbi (Chinese money) many useful apps on the iPhone, and typhoid vaccine in our tummies.

We didn’t do this much work getting ready to travel full-time for a year in our Airstream.  But I expect it will be worth the effort.  (I plan to keep telling myself that as we bounce through four airports for about twenty hours this weekend.)

People have been giving me lots of advice and warnings  for this trip.  I’ve been warned about protests in Hong Kong, typhoons in the Pacific, malaria in the countryside, dishonest cabbies in Seoul, air pollution and traffic jams in Beijing, crowded subways in Tokyo, and the importance of bringing one’s own toilet paper. Toilet paper, mosquito repellant, air-filtering mask: CHECK!

Some of the most useful advice has been regarding gifts, which are an important part of business in Asia.  After careful consideration, we are bringing some nice art for the people we meet.  I’ve selected some cover art from prior issues of Airstream Life and asked the artists to provide matted prints, which fit well in our luggage and are relatively light & unbreakable.  Eleanor wrapped them in red paper in such a way that border agents can examine them if needed without tearing them open.  I’ll be bringing works by Michael Depraida, Michael Lambert (below), and Don Lake, and they will be hanging in Airstream offices in Asia after we leave.

We chose red wrapping because it’s considered an auspicious color.  And speaking of colors, one tip that kept me out of trouble was about green hats.  Apparently there’s a saying in Chinese about a man who wears a green hat, which implies his wife is cheating on him.  Before I heard that I was very close to bringing a few Airstream Life hats (some of which are green), and even wearing mine while traveling, but I guess I’ll choose headwear that doesn’t malign our marriage.

It’s all very interesting to me.  The hassle of setting up the trip is really already worth it, because I’ve learned so much.  There will be much more to share as we go.

Internet will be at a premium during this trip, so my blog entries will be infrequent, but I do hope to at least post once or twice.  If that doesn’t work, I’ll post after the trip is over and pre-date all the entries as I did on last summer’s motorcycle trip.  I hope you enjoy following along!

Special thanks to Wally Byam

That Interstate trip I took last July in California wasn’t just for fun.  At the time I mentioned that one goal was to write a guidebook for Interstate owners, much like the Newbies Guide To Airstreaming.  Well, I’ve finally done it. It took a few months of research to put everything together, and another couple of months for Jennifer to complete the illustrations and layout, but I think the result was worth the time.

Airstream Interstate motorhome coverThe Interstate motorhome is a tricky machine. Not only is it packed with a zillion features that all need explanation, but Airstream continually modifies it during production, so it’s very hard to make blanket statements about anything. So once I started driving it around, I realized I was going to need to tread very carefully in order to explain it properly. That’s why the book has over 40 illustrations just to cover the basics, plus six essential checklists, and many more hints and tips. (Yes, that was a sales pitch, but hey, I’ve got to make a living.)

Even with the learning curve, the Interstate is really very easy and fun to use. I borrowed one for 10 days to do some first-hand research, and I found that it only took a week to get comfortable with it.  With this book in hand, I probably would have been up-to-speed in a day or so—which of course, is why I write these things.

The book is now published on Amazon Kindle and Apple iTunes, so you can get it as an e-book from either of those sources. (I’m not yet sure if it will be available in print format, but hopefully that will happen early next year.)

Newbies Airstreaming cover croppedWhile Jennifer was working on the illustrations, I was making final updates to The Newbies Guide to Airstreaming, so the Second Edition will be coming out in a week or so on Kindle and iTunes, and we should have printed copies later in October.

Lots of little things have changed about Airstreams since I wrote the first version, but I was surprised (and pleased) to see that most of the essentials haven’t changed at all.  If you’ve read the Newbies Guide, you might have noticed that it’s almost as much about the philosophy of Airstreaming, as it is about the practicalities.  In other words, it’s just as important to understand the “why” or even the “zen” of Airstream travel, as it is to know which valve to pull when you are dumping the tanks.  That zen of Airstreaming has remained constant since Wally Byam’s days. In short, relax, and explore.

Wally expressed this as his “Four Freedoms.”

    1. Airstream travel keeps you free from reservations and inconveniences of modern travel because you can make your own schedule and travel in your own vehicle.
    2. You are free from many of the limitations of age, meaning that young children and elderly people alike (and of course all us Baby Boomers in between) can expand their horizons and live healthier lives.
    3. Airstreaming gives you what Wally called  “the freedom to know,” meaning that you can explore the world intimately, meeting real people and experiencing things in a way the average tourist never gets to do.

And finally, they all add up to “the freedom for fun.” If you adopt the principles of Airstream travel fully, you can’t help but have a good time.  You are freed from your worries and ailments and schedules, so that your mind opens to new possibilities and new opportunities.

I’m glad none of that has changed.  I put a lot of effort into writing guides that help remove your worries about the mechanics of Airstreaming (whether trailer or motorhome) so you can relax and get the real benefit of traveling this way. But Wally Byam did the real work when he invented the philosophy.