The coming decade could see astrotourism skyrocket as regional nights outshine those in exotic locales
Text Rachel Genevieve Chia
Seven newly minted astrophiles are huddled on an active volcano, breathless and quiet. Among them: 29-year-old Garvin Goh Jiayu, who is having one of the best nights of his life. Earlier, the construction project managerial assistant traded in his hard hat for soft shoes to grip Mount Bromo’s rocky surface on the trek from his living quarters in sleepy Cemoro Lawang village up the most popular peak in Indonesia’s Tengger massif. Now, he watches his long-awaited reward take shape – a stunning, 30-minute exposure of the night sky – as all around, constellations wink and circle the caldera till daybreak.
It is the photography hobbyist’s first time shooting the heavens in their cloak of darkness, and success tastes sweet. But if seeking a studded sky, why that above humble Bromo? The inky wildernesses of Norway and America, after all, serve up scenes befitting their commanding popularity among astrophotographers worldwide. “Although those places are famous, they’re far, and trips are costly. I was happy just to go somewhere nearby,” says Goh. “Besides, Bromo is beautiful in its own right. There are so many stars, you feel so small, and they’re like heaps of glittering eyes. It’s already awe-inspiring enough for me!”
Goh is not alone in his approval of the heavens in Asia, or their convenience for astronomy aficionados here. The draw of the polar aurorae may never wane, but Asia is slowly finding that local sights make for more meaningful and economical sojourns than far-off locales. “I never really understood why ancient people were so into astronomy, or why our sailors used the stars as a guide, until I saw the whole night sky. Then it all made sense!” says Reina Kobayashi, who stargazed in a clearing near the Japanese village of Hinoemata, in northern Honshu.
Kobayashi is speaking of the region’s days as a centre of celestial study. From early China, India and Arabia unravelled a procession of calendars, astrolabes and (considering the times) stunningly astute calculations of heavenly movement, with the first astronomical records – studies of the so-called lunar standstill in 18.6-year cycles – courtesy of the Babylonians of the Middle East in 750 BCE.
Facilitating these discoveries is Asia’s ideal terrain. The vast Gobi, the Himalayas, and remote islands across the continent, till today, provide the clear skies scientists need for the best observations of celestial movement. Kobayashi hasn’t had her fill of these skies yet, so the 50-year-old lawyer is planning another stargazing trip to the countryside. “Because I’m just going somewhere nearby, I don’t need to spend much, but the feeling is priceless. It’s amazing knowing I’m looking at the very same stars as the people who lived here ages ago,” she says. “It makes me think of my roots, and where I belong in the universe. If every star is a planet, I’m just a speck among specks in the grand scheme of things!”
The Japanese have a word to describe this deep response to the immensity of the universe: yugen, which moved artist Yayoi Kusama to create her signature polka dot motif in an echo of how the stars dot the cosmos. “In the universe, there is the Sun, the Moon, the Earth, and hundreds of millions of stars,” she says. “All of us live in the unfathomable mystery and infinitude of the Universe.” This instinctual awe might also explain why the brightest cities often house those searching hardest for a glimpse of the primordial night.
“In our stressful lives, we can’t spare a moment to appreciate Nature around us,” says Dominic Teo, who while on a trip across the Mongolian Steppe revelled in “a starry sky that, for once, had no buildings blocking the view” after decades of city life. The sight summoned forth a surge of emotion in the undergraduate, who described the sky as as “majestic, powerful, untameable and never fully understood”. “I think people respond instinctually to Nature’s beauty,” says Teo. “It made me feel grateful for the amazing world we live in.”
In Teo’s homeland, Singapore – the most light-polluted city in the world – Albert Ho regularly witnesses the strength of this pull to Nature. The president of the nation’s astronomical society testifies that it has never publicised its stargazing trips, but the public often signs up – despite the higher fees for non-members – after hearing of these trips by word of mouth. Trip locations include stargazing strongholds like Hawaii and Australia, but the skies of Thailand, Malaysia, China and Indonesia serve the society’s needs just as well. Says Ho: “These places have dark skies that let us see fainter stars, galaxies, nebulae and star clusters not visible back home.”
But Asia’s astronomical history has always existed. After clocks and calendars aligned the world, the field faded from vogue and returned to scholarly study as Asia dreamed its dreams to neon-lit nights. So why has the region now begun to turn its eyes – and telescopes – back to the heavens in its own backyard? This story is a feature in ASIAN Geographic. To read the full story, check out Issue 129.