Day 1 & 2, to Hong Kong:
This trip snuck up on me both in terms of how it came about and how quick the time seemed to disappear between booking flights and leaving for the flight out. The latter being delayed out of Dublin by a solid 40 minutes. This pushed us closer to our connecting flight to Hong Kong. Mysteriously the pilot comes on the PA system during our crossing and tells us we’ll be landing in 10 minutes….5 minutes before we were originally due to land….what? So, I can only assume there’s now a singularity somewhere between Dublin and London over the Irish Sea. You have been warned.
Heathrow is crazy big. It takes two ten minute bus rides to get to terminal 5, to catch our A380 to Hong Kong. As the plane appears out of the terminal window, it epitomises the scale of the journey ahead. It’s easy to ignore how big a world it is when you can get from point A to point B, 10,000 kilometres away in under 17 hours with stoppages. Call me old fashioned, but that is fucking mind boggling. Walking a decent pace of 6 Km/h that would be a little under 70 days of continuous walking. Pointless numbers aside, the worlds a fucking big place.
British Airways do things well, the A380 has all the appearance of being box fresh. That new car smell. Plenty of entertainment with personal screens. I suppose what you’d expect with a flight time of 12 hours from London to Hong Kong. In-flight meal number one is ‘British Chicken’. I ask what this is, the stewardess checks, laughs and says ‘it’s chicken curry, so not British.’ It’s actually delicious considering it’s in a tinfoil tray. Hardly deserving of a star, but I’ve got a fierce hunger and it’s in front of me now, so dig in. The flight passes off fairly uneventfully, as far as I’m aware, having been asleep for a good portion. The last leg sees us in with thunder storms over Hong Kong on arrival, the pilot tells us he’ll be ‘ducking and diving’ a bit on approach. It gets a little bumpy for a while but nothing major.
I’m in the company of Eamon, seasoned traveller and a good friend, who has seen far more of the world than I can probably hope to ever see. Though it is very much my intention to try and challenge that fact. We’re not long on the ground when we meet loads of really great people who are friends of Eamon for a quick bite to eat. I’m introduced to many new faces, and to my shame, struggle to remember all the names and which faces they belong to. It’s a surprise for some of them, who didn’t know he was going to be in Hong Kong. We sit for a few hours over dinner, have a great laugh and it’s a really enjoyable first experience of life in Asia. A continent I have never set foot on before.
After dinner myself and Eamon wander around Victoria Harbour after dark. The lights are amazing and there is a really calm atmosphere with the glow from down town Hong Kong on the water. It becomes obvious that this is a very different world to the familiar surrounds of Europe, despite the influence of the British Empire.
Day 3, Hong Kong:
I’m on my own this morning and I take a stroll, in the crippling humidity, around the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. On my way down Waterloo Road, I see a man eating noodles at a purpose built café table in what appeared to be a barber shop! This is Asia. Brilliantly bizarre to me, utterly practical to every other person on the street.
Kowloon Park with is aviary and Chinese Garden, black neck swans and flamingos. Chinese banyans stand out as a sight I’ve never seen before. I cover a lot of ground in Kowloon. An amazing town, with an incredible array of sights and smells. A sea of people, like a tide coming in, gradually consumes the pathways of Nathan Road as the day goes on.
The afternoon is scheduled for a trip to The Peak. On arrival Hong Kong is shrouded in mist. The view is still incredible, I think, possibly, the clouds add to an already amazing sight rather than take away from it. It’s a popular spot and Eamon informs me that the prime real estate lies on the surrounding hills. Not hard to see why, with the views of the city and harbour visible even on a day like today. The place is heavily commercialised, Burger King, Starbucks and all the brand name shops adorn the summit which is actually quite fitting as I’d imagine it was the only place left to put yet more shops, which Hong Kong is far from short of. I shudder to think of Howth summit being treated with the same decorators brush.
It’s too hot for coffee so we grab a tofu pudding: a solid 4mm thick plate of chocolate between me and the tofu and only the worlds most flexible spoon for the job. This results in me being covered in the powdered cocoa and melting chocolate plate as I attempt to tackle the dish. My introduction to tofu pudding leaves me dirty and searching for somewhere to get my act together. It’s something I don’t muster the courage to attempt again. I’ll need a bib and a shower after the next time. A big commitment for a small treat.
Hong Kong falls quickly into night. It really takes me by surprise the first couple of days, throwing my sense of time out the window and before we reach the Star Ferry terminal, darkness has arrived.
We end up in Tao Chai, for a great dinner. Really fresh, deep fried fish with a spicy sauce, stir-fried chicken with water chestnuts and greens, eggplant with tofu and to my surprise, rice (which is served with everything…..even spaghetti bolognese, so just a pasta dish and a side of rice please). The chicken was not my thing, only because it had bones in it and I like my food fully prepared for me in restaurants. The rest was top quality. The Chinese way to eat is everything is ordered for the table. They don’t really do individual meals. It’s just; dig into whatever, whenever it arrives. It’s a very social way to eat. It takes no time at all for me to get used to and enjoy.
Day 4, Cheung Chau:
I’m up early, thinking I’m great, only to discover Eamon has been up in advance with enough time to have gone to the gym and the shops….my day is playing catch up and it’s like half 7 or something. We’ve planned to visit Cheung Chau Island today. The weather isn’t bad, a bit overcast but that humidity just seems to be ever present. Even when the locals start to comment about how ‘it isn’t too high today’ while I stand struggling to keep my brow mopped and my shirt dry!
We catch the Star Ferry to Hong Kong Central, nearly having to jump the distance between the gangplank and the pier. When they say 9am in Hong Kong, they mean 9am. A collective and sudden sprint by the crowd around me walking to the boat signals GO and the child bearing and elderly are left in the dust of all those capable. The Star Ferry looks a bit like an old steam liner. It’s a quick crossing between Kowloon and Hong Kong Central. We miss the slow boat to Cheung Chau at 9:30am, due to a key malfunction at the apartment, but make the 10:00am fast boat with time to spare. The glare has been incredible over the last few days and I desperately regret leaving my sunglasses in the Silver Fox. Little do I know on the Star Ferry, I’ll attempt, a few times, to purchase a pair to tide me over. Thwarted by being a ghost in a queue among the Chinese in Beijing and my indecision and distraction elsewhere I will never actually get there. I’ll spend the rest of the trip squinting, well until I get my amazing hat in Beijing, that definitely looks cool.
It doesn’t take long to get out to the island. After a quick hunt for some sun screen and the sighting of some, well….racist toothpaste, we head off on our trek. You can actually feel the heat and humidity breaking as you climb the hill on Cheung Chau. The noise from the birds marking their territory is immense. They do some serious chest beating for such small things.
We get away from the harbour and the real tourist trap, very few people seem to actually explore the island, which is a pity, despite the intense heat it is absolutely wonderful. I dip my feet in the South China Sea, safe in the knowledge that the sharks are kept away by a net which is probably well rotted by the salt water at this stage. Never the less I sit looking out at an island paradise. No major shark incidents to report. So, by magical thinking, the rotten net worked! Nets, a sharks one weakness.
We find a restaurant that only has Chinese writing on the walls and the menu outside. They panic a bit when we go in but we manage to communicate our order. I get some fried rice, Cheung Chau style. Being a fishing village this has plenty of seafood, prawns and an unknown fish (which I guess I’ll never identify). It was far removed from Chinese food in Ireland and definitely beats anything I’ve had there. All this from an off the beaten track, local, very small restaurant which I may never know the name of. I also get my first taste of Hong Kong milk tea, chilled. It’s like a strong Barry’s tea, with milk as you’d imagine, and sweetened. Very tasty in the heat of today!
Back in Hong Kong Central I check out the Bank of China Tower, Hong Kong Park and St. John’s Cathedral. Eamon informs me that I’ll see a load of Filipino people celebrating inside St. John’s thinking it’s a Catholic Church. I do see this. Shouldn’t someone say something……
I step onto the Hong Kong tram, only to be told it’s the ‘end of the line’. Ah well, I got a free go on the tram I guess. It didn’t move anywhere, but I was on it. I spend a little too much time wrapped in my own thoughts as I stroll around. I’m fascinated by the number of women sitting on flattened cardboard boxes in the over head walkways on Central. I’m baffles me, I assume their homeless and I find the sight a little sad. I’m later informed that these are actually immigrant housekeepers, minders and such on their day off. They congregate here and socialise with their people. A far more pleasant event than what I had imagines earlier. Lesson learnt, never assume to know what’s going on. Especially here. I have to sprint to catch the Star Ferry to get back, only about 100m and I’m absolutely pumping sweat when I get there. Lovely stuff. I’m running out of the t-shirts I brought. The cost of staying fresh in Hong Kong must be through the roof.
In the evening Eamon says Mass in Rosary Church. A full house, standing room only and I’m told this is a weekly occurrence. Catholicism is alive and well in Hong Kong. His standing amongst the congregated is incredible. A level of respect that is brilliant. There is truly a different idea of the Church here. It’s refreshing.
In the darkness the thunder arrives in Hong Kong, the rain is unreal. The whole place lights up with each flash and the roll of thunder shakes the ground. I’ve never seen rain like this. Curiously, there doesn’t seem to be much flooding. In a city this build up, with that volume of water falling in such a short period of time. Water must be different in Asia. Dublin would be the worlds largest swimming pool if this fell.
I sit inside another restaurant I don’t know the name of until the rain eases. Everything is in Chinese, but thankfully one of the waitresses speaks English, because I’m an ignorant fool with my mono-language mind. Taking my time over my first steamed buns and rice rolls. I’m disappointed. There isn’t really any wow factor. It’s a shame but I may be unlucky as I just walked into the most convenient door when the rain commenced. Even as it eases I get a bit soaked running home, but at least the temperature has dropped enough for me not to be sweating!
Standing in the worlds tiniest lift on Waterloo Road, heading back, it occurs to me that I haven’t really been listening to music when walking around alone. I’ve been enjoying the noise of the streets, finding the voices and accents relaxing. It’s nice to have absolutely no idea what’s being said. Not even a word recognised. No reference point. Also, no one asks me for directions here. A simple difference between here and home.
Day 5, Macau:
Another early start to get the ferry to Macau. The old passport is required as we even go through immigration. Macau being a separate special administrative region to that of Hong Kong, a former Portuguese colony. The ferry terminal is packed with people going to mainland China. All they purchased in tow, which is considerable. I’m informed Chinese people like to buy all they can in Hong Kong and bring it back to China. Like hoarding, it’s a bizarre sight to see women hunkered down rifling through their bags and redistributing purchases made to try and squeeze everything into a suitcase which appears to be nothing but new goods bought. They must travel with empty bags and just the clothes on their back to Hong Kong, optimising space for new things.
J.M. & Jason join us at the terminal for the trip. J.M plays drums in a heavy metal band called Black Night, Red Sky. They’re currently recording their EP and I get a brief teaser, which sounds quite good. I’m not into the vocals, but I never am when they’re like that. Screaming in deep, jutting jaw enhanced tones. The rest sounds great though.
Macau is famous for a few things, the Ruins of St. Paul’s, where there were two fires in which people lost their lives. The tourism board decided it had more impact as a ruin and decided not to rebuild after the second fire. It’s a beautiful place, just off Senado Square, where you’d swear you were in Europe but for all the Chinese writing and people. Then there’s the gambling. Apparently, Macau takes in multiple times the turnover of the strip in Vegas…..incredible stuff. I set foot in a proper, non-Ballybunion style, casino for the first time. The Grand Lisboa. Quite an experience, with plenty of people throwing their money away. I wouldn’t even know where to start. My goal is to get up to the highest floor I can to get a good view of Macau. I’m stopped by security on maybe the fifth floor. The rest of the floors being occupied by hotel rooms and the people with the real money.
We head for Fortaleza do Monte, the historic military strong hold of the Jesuits on Macau. A tough walk up in the heat and we need to stop for a cool drink and a shelter from the sun. Three cans of soft drink and a bottle of water, the equivalent of €3.20, and I get some Macanese Patacas back. Score. On the way back to the ferry we stop for a Portuguese Egg Tart, fresh from the oven. Another must on a trip to the peninsula. Apparently the best egg tart in Macau, Cafe Nata, and I wouldn’t argue. Delicious.
I head out to find the traditional Asian fare for my dinner. Mexican food in an Irish Pub…..in China. Perfect. To be fair, Delaney’s Irish Pub does decent fajitas. I say decent, a shovel load of chicken and veg on a sizzling plate. Six tablespoons each of sour cream and guacamole, and I think maybe ten tortillas. So, maybe loads is a better word than decent. There is a certain hint of Asian about the food though, in at least the way it arrives to me. Hot plates and bamboo steamers. I wash it all down with an average pint of Guinness, not that I came in specifically for this. It’s a proper pint though and seems to be pulled right. Just a shame the taste isn’t there, it is about 9,500 Km from home though I guess. I gave it a fair chance, ending up having several more with a few new American friends. Stereotypically Irish music pumping through the lack of atmosphere. We stroll around until about 10:30pm in the heat and sweat. Head to Mong Kok market which is absolutely swarming. Hong Kong has people, you have to give it that. So many people around. I’d say they’ve over-shot the population mark by about 4.5 million people. Absolutely crazy. I grab one more drink with the Americans before parting ways. Beijing tomorrow.
Café Nata (you could pass it thinking nothing of the dirty awning!)
Day 6, to Beijing:
For what now seems to be the theme for most days, an early start, in fact before dawn this morning, though the sun doesn’t seem to rise till later here. Out the door by 5:20am anyway. Grab the night bus, which is still running, to the airport for our flight to Beijing. We pass an absolutely hammered Chinese man, I’ve never seen anyone literally fall into a taxi before! Open the door, go to step off the curb, fly in through the open door and then just close the door behind you and proceed as normal.
The streets are the quietest I’ve seen them, though that still means there are hundreds walking them. Apartment living is the norm here and most of the people live in tiny accommodation and, with the ever closing sprawl, space between buildings is shrinking meaning air-conditioning units aren’t as effective. So the preference is to be out, and not slowly cooking in your apartment, for as long as is possible.
We’re served dim sum for breakfast as our in flight meal. Glutinous rice wrapped in a banana leaf, cracking stuff on Dragon Air. Dare I say, above the standard of BA. Airline meals are getting better and better. It won’t be long before you see the first Michelin Star issued to an in flight service! Well, it seems to be edible now anyway, that’s a start. Gone are the days when I saw a dense dark brown ball appear before me, upon asking it’s identification I was told ‘that’s stuffing’. Nothing else to say about that really.
Dragon Air, who’s mascot is a horse. Yep, seems like an opportunity missed there. Laughing like an absolute fool as I’m told it’s the year of the horse, so using a horse as their mascot makes perfect sense. My plan is to keep occasions of me looking the complete moron in China to a minimum. Going well so.
The 25 degree heat in Beijing is a wave of comfort compared to Hong Kong. Sitting in the lobby of our hotel planning our attack and outside a hail shower, pebble sized hail stones bouncing off the cars. A crazy sight to witness. The Chinese staff rush outside to see, with gasps and giggles. The storms have cleared the pollution though. Once the precipitation stops, the sky becomes visible for it’s three days of the year we’re informed.
We book ourselves in on the Great Wall Tour and settle in for a coffee. The cups arrive filled to different levels, both just Americanos, and we’re told they don’t have any almond tart. I change my order to chocolate cake. About 15 minutes later, two of the smallest pieces of cake I’ve ever seen arrive. We laugh and exclaim how large it is, sarcastically. 10 minutes later two more pieces arrive, this time decorated with fresh fruit and with some sauce, along with many apologies and an embarrassed looking waiter.
Out an about in Beijing, any eye contact you make has a local speaking with you in English. Asking where you’re from. It’s all very friendly, but he’s trying to sell you something, and she’s trying to sell you her body. What a pity. Of course, it’s not all the locals, in fact, very few of them. But, the few are the ones looking to make eye contact. And they’re not all trying to get you to part with you money. Some simply wish to practice their English. Seeing it as a way to rise above their current status maybe…
We meet Melchior, a friend of Eamon’s who goes with us to dinner. He’s good fun and insists we have a beer with him, Chinese beer. It’s not bad, but I wouldn’t order it over something else at home. Melchior spent time in Ireland and I’d imagine he has a certain image of how we behave.
We have an outstanding ‘hot pot’ meal. Thin slices of meat, like Parma ham but lamb, chicken or whatever and fish balls. There’s mushrooms, some kind of Chinese turnip and greens. You get a big copper pot which looks like a chimney which has a well with a kind of broth in it. They light up coals underneath and when it gets hot, you cook you’re food. Everyone just goes for it, dipping chopsticks into the well and pulling out whatever they can grab hold of. Sesame dip and boiled rice on the side. Very nice.
The weather is absolute bliss. Not even a fraction of the humidity of Hong Kong, and a great evening to have a wander around a street market or two, they sells all sorts of things. There’s a great atmosphere around and it’s the most likely place to bump into some other white faces. The vendors have an impressive array of unusual foods to eat. Mustering up the courage I go for a scorpion. Alive on a stick sit three small scorpions. Fried, still kicking, in a big wok of oil. I’m physically shaking as I summon the extra bit of courage needed to dig in. The taste is fine, like anything that’s been deep fried in oil. However, he texture is not pleasant. Legs, talk, head and all go down scratching. Strange place. Several hours later, we do a quick life test and I seem to have survived the encounter with the arachnids.
Eamon and Melchior leave me, and I take in some more of night-time Beijing. There’s coordinated crowd dancing outside St. Joseph’s Church……….To the Tetris music. Beijing is great. Though night doesn’t ease the threat of traffic, crossing the street is like high stakes dodge-ems. Green man? Grand, but a bus will absolutely plough you down! The hierarchy of traffic falling firmly upon the ethos of ‘might is right’. Human pedestrians being one notch above the wandering dogs here.
Making my way back to the hotel on my first day in Beijing, I stop and pick up a late night snack. I think it’s the first time I buy a drink which I have absolutely no idea what will be inside. The only word on the bottle I understand is ‘light’, the only recognisable form of writing to me in fact. Turns out it’s 435ml of Yacult, uuuggghhhhh. There is now about 425ml in this bottle, it will stay that way.
Definitely, strategy is the approach to Beijing traffic.
Scorpion – not as bad as it sounds.
Day 7, Beijing:
We somehow managed to book ourselves into a tour which brings us to the Sacred Road and The Great Wall at Mutianyu, despite me being in charge of the communication involved with the lady who operates said tours. It’s about an hours drive to the Sacred Road from the hotel (after a five minute walk to the bus that proves the liberal approach to the advertised ‘pick up from hotel’). The bus is perfect, and critically air-conditioned, as the temperature starts to rise again. Our tour guide is Diana or her Chinese name, Da’na. Hence the Diana. Her English is perfect and her humour is good enough to keep you interested. She talks about China, Beijing and the Olympics as we pass the still very new looking Olympic village. Everything she says is all very patriotic, at pains to tell us how proud every Chinese person was to have the Olympics held in Beijing. How delighted they were to be able to buy the apartments and other athlete accommodation once the athletes had left. Never once mentioning what was in the place of this huge development previous to the sporting invasion. It’s all very awkward though, as if she is aware someone (maybe the bus driver) is monitoring her every word. You can’t help but cringe at the greatest nation on earth approach she takes to her display. It’s all very false and rehearsed.
Great big statues of animals line the Sacred Road, both real and fantasy. The place is so peaceful, traditional music plays gently in the background emanating from somewhere unknown. All I can see is a garden surrounding the road, somewhere hidden is a tiny band calming us with their dulcet tones. We pass through the symbolic gate from life to death and feel much the same. There isn’t anything spectacular about the place, and Eamon jokes that the Chinese have only just created the whole sight recently for somewhere to go on the way to The Wall. It’s hard not to be cynical about the tour in general. You get what you want, to see some sights, but there is a constant undercurrent of bullshit about everything being fed to you. It’s just not coming from a trustworthy source I guess. I’m finding it difficult not to go into every situation with a tinted view in China proper.
As if to underline my scepticism, we visit a jade workshop where you could purchase a magnificent work for the low low price of $305,000. That’s USD too. Fuck, and there’s people parting with hundreds for small pieces of old rock. The place isn’t really cultural or interesting beyond the craftsmanship involved, though I wonder at the craftsmanship’s authenticity. We only see two people, very much on display behind a glass window, working the jade into some of the smaller pieces which are certainly mass produced, whether it’s by hand or machine. There’s something a little unsettling about the whole experience as our, clearly coached, tour guide exclaims surprise at us thinking the stuff is expensive. She ‘thinks’ it is extremely reasonable. Our disbelief is not at the cost of this jade but at the cost of jade, and the value of it. Yes it is beautiful, but what are we buying? The rock or the craft? We grab an early lunch, at around 10:30am, gas. It does turn out to be a nice break from the tour though, and we get talking to some of our tour companions. Everything settles back to normal for an hour or so, before we push on having been presented with some pretty decent food. Especially considering the venue. A jade workshop can make a good restaurant, in China anyway.
The Great Wall is an interesting place. Very peaceful, and not even half as busy as I had imagined it would be. We take the steep, but short, branch of the Mutianyu section. It’s a serious climb for about ten minutes in the heat, though it is still nowhere near Hong Kong and it’s humidity.
The views are spectacular, the effort it must have taken and the lives that must have been lost to get the wall here is obvious given the terrain. It’s an iconic place few would struggle to recognise. I head back and take the opposite side of the wall, a longer, less steep branch of the same part, the Mutianyu. It’s difficult to look in any direction and not see an incredible view. Without trying to sound ridiculous but obviously sounding so, I’ve wanted to come here for as long as I can remember, it didn’t disappoint.
There’s a toboggan ride back down the wall, which makes no sense really but sure why not. I hop in thinking it’s going to be a tame, gentle ride back down to the base. Push the lever down to go faster, pull it back to slow down. Simple. Lever to the floor. I absolutely gun it down the slopes. Brilliant fun, with the announcements to slow down and be careful. What’s the worst that could happen. Then I remember where I am, China, this is a country where I will be liable for any damage caused if I launch myself from the track. The way it should be really. Anyway, I may have been a bit over enthusiastic about the whole speed thing as I catch up with the people who went ahead of me. Which is fine, but I didn’t see anyone set off before I did. I didn’t even see people walking down the steps to the start point. Ah well, no real harm done. It’s a fun way back down but somehow doesn’t really fit in with the general atmosphere of the The Great Wall.
Back on the bus, and maybe a two hour drive back to Beijing. Our tour guide tells us that our feedback has an impact on her salary, so to be kind. I have a feeling it means more than just a salary to her. Obviously it’s her living and all, but bad at your job could mean blacklisted here.
We are obliged to stop at a silk factory en route back to the hotel. This is worse than the jade one. It’s an hour and a half drive on a bus after the Great Wall and no one was in the mood to even be there when we arrived. Some had been collected at their hotel at 6:30 this morning and we got to the silk factory at 5pm. Not the place you’d want to be unless you were absolutely mad for the silk. It’s the quickest tour I’ve ever been on. The guide, who also works the silk there, fires out the information at lightning speed before saying, ‘that’s all my information, if you want to buy anything at special price let me know’. No one buys a fucking thing from our tour group, sure how would you get a silk duvet back anyway. It would take up most of my bag. We also haven’t eaten since 10:30 this morning. Which is a problem. A lady who I can only describe as a ‘plant’ talk loudly about how good the quality of the silk is and how she is really delighted to be buying it. It’s a funny display as she is clearly Chinese, speaking poor enough English to the other Chinese workers, and wearing a blazer that is at the same time too small for her and too big for her, I’m not even sure how that’s possible, but it’s definitely not hers. We’re out the door heading back to the hotels by half 5.
I’ve made some Malaysian friends on the tour, Gilbert and Joy, who seem pretty serious on visiting Ireland. I invite them on a trip to Howth and for some food if they come. Gilbert insists on photos together and I get the impression I may be called on my offer sooner rather than later.
The hotel was a really nice sight at the end of a long day of people trying to sell you shit. I had to see The Great Wall, and you just have to put up with the obligatory state sponsored factory tours if you want to get there, so it’s not so bad.
Eamon suggests going for some Taiwanese noodle soup for dinner and I have no objections. I have the Taiwanese beef shank noodle soup with flat noodles. I make a complete fool of myself attempting to use the chopsticks with wet noodles and end up with splashes of soup all down my front. It’s absolutely delicious though, so totally worth it. We have some pickled cucumber as a side, which I am hugely sceptical of but turns out to be very tasty. I have my first squid in the form of deep fried balls. Let’s be honest, anything deep fried tastes good so no surprise there and there’s a boiled broccoli too which looks like it has been steamed in a chicken broth maybe. Also really good. All in all, Taiwanese noodle soup gets a big thumbs up from me.
Day 8, Beijing:
Running in down town Beijing is a dangerous but exhilarating experience. Dodging hordes of people, bikes and motorcycles on the path alone. Cars crossing zebra lines on green men, you need to be fully awake. I got a bit lost doing 5 Km which ended up being 9 Km. Dodging most obstacles thrown in my way, it wasn’t long until I was on the handle bars of an old man’s bike. I presume, terrified at the hairy, angry Irish man on his handlebars shouting unrecognisable profanities. I felt bad straight away and instantly backed down with a humble apology. Now he can add ‘mad’ to his thoughts of this Irish man.
Today we’re going to see The Forbidden City. It’s hot out. It’s tough work walking around but we manage to power through the length on The Forbidden City. I’m struggling to remember if I put sunscreen on my ears so I buy an umbrella hat to shield me head from the now 38 degree sun. I look like a fool, but better look a fool now then be a burnt fool later.
The Forbidden City is a beautiful place, but for the crowds. It looks every bit the extravagant palace and certainly doesn’t skimp on expenses with it’s 9,999 and a half rooms (apparently). Half less then that of the god. Interesting stuff, though I’m not quite sure what a half room is.
It’s a magnificent place. It’s a shame it’s so busy, but, you have to share. Just outside the far end there are many beggars, some severely disfigured and none of whom seem there as a result of any financial crisis. I see three or four men in a line spaced at about five metres and sitting cross-legged. All missing their left arm, shoulder down inclusive. It really puts the beauty of The Forbidden City into context. Part of me knows, you wouldn’t see these people at the entrance because you may not pay your ¥60 to pass through the first gate if you had seen them first. It really is a sad sight.
We make it through and get back to the cold comfort of an air-conditioned McDonalds. The cappuccino I get is actually really good. I walk around a bit more but I think that’s me done with anything major in Beijing for this trip. Low on RMB and I don’t want to change any more currency and end up bringing home some money I can’t use. There are plenty of things to do for free, and I’ll wander again tonight, when it cools down below 40 degrees, and find some.
I’m referred to as ‘soldier’ by more than a few hawkers at the markets. ‘Hey, soldier, have a look. Souvenir, good price!’ Odd, as they don’t seem to refer to any other foreigners or indeed locals in this way, that I hear. I’m not sure whether to take it as an insult or a compliment, or even to read into it in anyway at all. In any event, as soon as you stop someone is next to you shouting whatever English words they know in order to make a sale.
The cultural difference is obvious in restaurants too. Waiters and waitresses bring you a menu, hand it to you and stand there until you order. No leaving you to browse or giving you a moment. I don’t mind it, but throw in the language barrier and it can lead to a stressful ordering process. Beijing seems no where near as crowded as Hong Kong, despite it’s superior population count. That said, the main city streets do come alive at nigh. A surprising atmosphere of locals, tourists and sellers. Stalls lining streets selling all-sorts, I grab a fried banana, coated in a light crumb and sugared. Gas looking thing and I manage to get the vendor down to a little over half price. He said ¥15, I laughed and walked away to him motioning ¥10 at me. When I was passing by on my return, he said ten again. We settled on ¥8. Washing this down was my Assam Latté Frappé – an iced tea, which tastes like a sweetened green tea. There’s a little cream on top. Mad sort of a tea. It’s more like a tea flavoured milkshake. So, no, not worth ¥24. It actually grows on me toward the end, and I could be tempted by a second. Fearing an absolute sugar overload on top of my sugared banana, this trip has been rough enough on my body thus far, so I don’t and decide to make one more pass through the sights, sounds, smells and tensions of the markets.
Instead of scorpions on a stick, I went for the fried, sugared, breaded banana on a stick healthy option.
Day 9, back to Hong Kong:
We’re told that to be in the airport for 8am, we need to leave at 6am. Madness we think. The girl at the desk says, ‘with traffic, you just don’t know. We wait, and get breakfast at 6:30 when it opens and head by 6:45. We’re in the airport and through the slow, very slow and thorough, security checks before 8am. Two hours to get there my arse!
The flight is fine, passes quick enough and before you know it we’re back in the Special Administrative Region fully intact. Hong Kong is absolutely packed. I mean it seems to be always swarmed, but tonight it seems especially busy. There appears to be more market activity and the hawkers can be really beaten down on price. Even by stopping to look at something and not agreeing straight off the bat on price will probably knock about 20-30% off. Walk away and hear them half the price, then you can haggle from there. It’s all a big dance around the inevitable.
We go for a quick meal around the Temple Street Markets in a place you’d swear you’ve seen in a war film about Vietnam. No walls, not totally clean and full of locals. The food is good though, and the price is great. I grab some egg waffles after for desert. A Hong Kong original, basically waffles, but looking like giant bubble wrap. Delicious and a snack that can be consumed while wandering through the hundreds of street stalls. The place is absolutely buzzing. Maybe it’s the sugar talking but it really is alive.
Day 10, Lamma Island:
You’ve got to love the transport system in Hong Kong, everything works and everything is bang on time. If you miss a bus or a boat, there’s probably one in the next 10 mins or so, great stuff.
The ferry to Lamma Island takes about 25 minutes from Hong Kong Central. The sea is a little choppy and to be honest, I love the motion. While others hold their breakfasts, I find the movement of the ocean relaxing. It’s a short crossing anyway and I don’t see anyone eject!
Around the harbour there’s an interesting set up. Smaller vessels fitted with cranes pull up alongside cargo ships and take some containers on board from the much larger ships. Maybe it’s a practical way to deliver to the many islands which may not have deep enough harbours themselves to accommodate international cargo delivery ships.
Lamma Island is deserted by comparison to Hong Kong. We walk an 11 Km trail around the perimeter of the island and encounter very few people. We do see spiders in abundance, huge and camouflaged in the dense flora. Suspended along the path between the trees and at head height, there are some very close encounters. Walking the narrow trail, head down watching your feet, you suddenly feel a presence. Looking up, suspended in front of your face is a spider the size of your hand. I later find out that they are a species of golden orb-web spider and are one of the biggest spiders in the world. They are venomous, causing blisters and scarring where a bite occurs. Between that and me chasing a snake down the path, I’m probably lucky to have escaped Lamma without any major medical attention required. Silver linings and all that. The snake in question being about 4ft in length, dark coloured, slithered across the path only metres from us. I chased for a closer look, but it disappeared. Into the overgrowth, and to the relief of the others, as they looked on powerless to stop this idiot from doing himself harm.
It must be the season for butterflies, they crowd the pathways in all their vibrant colour. It’s incredible how far removed this island is from the madness of Hong Kong. Before lunch, it is really possible to feel like you’ve escaped the hustle of the city. I say before lunch, as at about 12:30, a boat carrying maybe 250 mainlanders arrives. The small village of Sok Kwu Wan is overwhelmed by tourists and it’s time for us to make our escape. Luckily there’s a boat back to Kowloon in 10 minutes. It’s a shame, because there are some really great looking seafood places along the shore. The fish so fresh, it’s still alive, in buckets out the front. There’s even a sea snail the size of a golden melon. It looks like you could get about four portions out of it.
Having no real plan for food today I grab a pork floss bun on the way home from Lamma Island. The pork floss element is nice, but it’s ruined by a ridiculously high ratio of bun over floss. Shame really. I then grab a ‘meat on a stick’ and I’m disappointed again with the toughest, rubberiest, chicken I’ve ever had. Today is not going my way for food so I may as well give up. Coffee and a Quest bar. Done.
I retire through the markets again on Saturday night to attempt to pick up some curiosities before one or two chilled ones with a couple of Scandinavians I met over the common question of ‘have you been to China proper yet?’ A question I’m asked by, basically any other white person I meet. All in English, no matter where they hail from. Handy for me, as I am the ignorant mono-language type. I head back relatively early. I’ve been up before 7 for the last fourteen days, so I plan on getting a large sleep in.
Day 11, Hong Kong:
I’ve had a total lack of success when it comes to the markets so far. I’ve ended up walking through them twice now on my way home the last couple of evenings. I find the whole process a little uncomfortable. You display any level of interest in the items on display at a particular stall and suddenly you’re harassed by the keeper, telling you to buy, grabbing your arm and saying they’ll give you ‘good price’. I just find myself wanting to get out of there. They sometimes follow you for a couple of meters tugging your t-shirt, asking how much you’ll pay. I was just fucking looking, leave me be a minute. Maybe they don’t want people examining their goods, not sure why that could be, but I could give a decent guess. Anyway, tonight I have to make buys, otherwise I’ll be going home a little light in the gift department.
One cultural difference strikes me, in that, it is not only removed from maybe a Western outlook, but it has become obvious that it drives the people of Hong Kong nuts also. It is the insistence of those referred to as ‘mainlanders’ in dragging their suitcase everywhere with them. Last night, on Tsim Sha Tsui Promanade, there must have been ten thousand people strolling the board-walk. So, little room for manoeuvres as you would imagine. Yet, a sizeable number of, I assume, mainlanders dragging bulky suitcases behind them on wheels. You didn’t have room to stretch out your arms and yet, here we were, the others, dodging and jumping over obstacles which seem utterly out of place. It seems so much hassle to drag your belongings with you on every excursion. Anyway, it takes all kinds I guess.
Today is Sunday, and will be the second Sunday in a row I will have been to mass. It is also the second time I will have been to mass since last November, a wedding mass. Before that, I cannot remember. I feel awkward at mass because I do not believe it is where I belong and I feel like everyone else knows this. All in my head I’m sure, but that does not change the feeling.
After mass, I’m treated to a dim sum lunch by Mario and D’Ann. Absolutely lovely people, and so generous. D’Ann is afraid I won’t get to try everything and serves me tasters of most of the dishes. I don’t know how many things I try, it’s all delicious. From fried tofu, Singapore noodles and cha siu boa (Cantonese barbecue pork buns, steamed) to a black sesame soup and Jin deui (sesame balls) for dessert. All an incredible experience as well as hitting the mark flavour wise. It’s all quite humbling, everyone is so nice. Mario offers to show me around the ‘computer store’ after and I take him up on it.
We hop on the MTR and hop off, somewhere. There is a hive of activity on the streets and Mario explains that we are in the local markets, not the one the tourists go to. Here the prices are marked and there is no deviation from that price. You don’t need to ask for a price and you don’t really haggle. He says things are a bit more transparent here.
The ‘computer store’ consists of a couple of buildings, each with three or four floors and small traders taking up shop space selling…….everything electronic. It’s like a scene from Star Wars. Busy, noisy, overwhelming…but brilliant. We grab a herbal tea, drinking it at a stall, between buildings, and from a proper bowl before moving into the second phase of the assault. It’s a fascinating place. Generations of computing hardware and software, wall to wall. Brand new and second hand, at very reasonable prices.
Mario is a great tour guide, he gives me the history of the surrounding sights at exactly the right moments. I even get a lesson on the formation of the MTR, the building process and ongoing integration. An extremely interesting man.
Mario and D’Ann insist we join them for a Peking duck dinner at ‘China House’ as, they tell us, it’s the best Peking duck around. We start with a wanton soup, with dumplings. Pork, I think. But amazing anyway. We head straight for the duck next, which is carved next to our table by a happy looking chef. He seems delighted to have his photo taken with me and the duck. Well, they were not lying about the big ole bird. Incredible. Even the plum sauce, which I’m usually not a fan of at all, I couldn’t get enough of it. Leaving the restaurant feeling I’ve done real damage. It was worth it though. The heavens open and we run for cover and the MTR.
I’m not sure why I find this so bizarre. Live fish in bags, hanging from walls and doors. Everywhere.
Day 12, Lantau Island:
Off to Lantau Island today, we get the MTR out to Tung Chung. It’s a standard fare of HK$150 for the cable car up and down. A bit more if you want a glass floor view, which I doubt makes any difference at all. We’re waiting for about 20 minutes in a queue for the cable car, having arrived at ten to ten. It’s actually not too bad but I think I would have preferred the five hour hike up.
The sight to see on Lantau, unless you’re going to the airport or Hong Kong Disneyland, is the Big Buddha. Hidden by mist on approach, the haze clears intermittently and you get some good enough views now and then. It’s a bit of a let down, little did I know it was only constructed in 1992 and there’s a very unashamed and obvious commercial side to the whole affair. It’s impressive, and it’s a nice peaceful walk up to the Buddha itself, but there is an overwhelming degree of cashing in on display. The best part turns out to be sitting chatting to Eamon over a banana chocolate frappacino outside Starbucks. Major sugar rush though. The diet will have to get back on track when I go home. Because it has gone to shit here.
When I get back to the apartment I feel like crap, the apple I had for lunch did nothing. It’s time to kick start the regimen. A 7 Km run, well, I move as fast as the 35 degree heat and crippling humidity at 14:30 will allow me. I manage to find some relatively quiet streets, they just happen to rise at ridiculous angles. No wonder they’re clear of people, no one else is stupid enough to use them in this heat. The incline is a killer. I sweat more than I thought it humanly possible to do so, but I feel it….and the better therefore. Worth it. Though it’s another 30 minutes before I cool down and can have a shower that will take. Hong Kong is bloody wonderful, free hot yoga, free sauna and your coffee never goes cold.
We’ve been invited to a Sri Lankan families home for dinner. The promise of some traditional Sri Lankan foods sounds like a real treat to me. It’s an incredible opportunity and I’m really grateful to be asked along. D’Ann suggests we meet at Prince Edward station for her to bring me to a shop she goes to for scarves and Pashminas before making our way out to meet the other. Her kindness is humbling. There was a mention of gifts for home and she was immediately making suggestions of where to go for what. D’Ann shows me a few hidden gems of shops, as well as the ‘Fish Market’ where hundreds of fish hang in bags of water from the doors of shops, a strange sight, but really very beautiful in some way. We see the ‘Flower Market’ where the smells are intoxicating and the range of flora on display is astounding. Then we stroll through the ‘Bird Market’ and D’Ann explains how it has moved location and lost a lot of the atmosphere it once held. It is still a unique and brilliant place.
Dinner was a wonderful experience, beautiful food and a welcoming family. Samanthi and the kids were there, but the father, Roshan (who I did not meet) was out doing whatever he could to make ends meet. They cannot work, they cannot leave Hong Kong. If they do, they lose their status. They are trapped in a sort of limbo, awaiting the ability to live free and for themselves. Receiving about half what it takes to live here from the authorities who hold them in suspense. It was an experience as well as an eye opener. The family live in a balcony which has been converted into a small apartment. One bedroom, a tiny kitchen and a small living area. It really puts things in perspective that Samanthi went out of her way to put such an amazing meal on for us. Working since 11am to get the job done. It actually makes me feel a bit bad that I only brought a few chocolates as a gift. Pretty pathetic, but no changing it now. The food, wow, out of this world. I recognise some dishes which look similar to things I’ve eaten before, but honestly, I have no idea what it is I’m eating but I like. Stuffed with some quality, home cooked and authentic Sri Lankan food. Topped off with a cup of ginger tea, made with freshly grated ginger, a hint of heat as you swallow, very refreshing. One thing struck me as odd though, Samanthi did not eat with us. She insisted we try everything and help ourselves to seconds, and thirds but did not eat anything herself despite there being more than enough food and D’Ann and Mario saying several times that she should eat too. This was unusual, but, I put it down to a cultural thing. Great evening though, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Day 13, Last day in Hong Kong and travelling home:
It’s a bit of a shame, I won’t miss the humidity, or the crowds. But, this city has a real buzz. There’s always an atmosphere, and despite all the battling through the crowded streets, I love it. Even just strolling through the tightly packed markets, or grabbing a snack at a corner, it’s both easy and cheap to live in the atmosphere here. The best place to be is in the packed restaurants, streets and tea houses.
I’ll be heading to the Guangdong Hotel later for lunch. Another invitation and some new faces to meet. I’ll struggle to remember the names of all the people I’ve met here but most, maybe not all, have been a pleasure to meet. D’Ann and Mario’s kindness and generosity, in particular, have been almost unbelievable. Truly great people. D’Ann and Mario, are of Portuguese descent. Mario lived in Macau before moving to Hong Kong. They reminisce about the old Hong Kong, it’s simple restaurants where you would hunker down and eat off a bench next to a closed shop. The food being cooked in portable stalls. Mario says it was the good old days of real street food. Mario tells me of the time before the MTR and how he used to see the drill digging the tunnels, the buildings already there had to be propped up with supports so they didn’t fall into the holes dug for the new underground rail system. Fascinating people.
Lunch in the Come-Into Chiuchow restaurant. Award winning cuisine from Chiu Chow. Food that is indescribable. This trip really has been a treat for the taste buds, a culinary tour of Hong Kong and Beijing. I’ve sampled an incredible array of cuisines from Asia. Food at a level I would have otherwise had no chance of tasting.
Albert has treated us to lunch today. A generous man, who brings me to his tailor afterwards where I can purchase quality shirts at reasonable (unbelievable) prices after Albert negotiates with the tailor. People are amazing me at every turn here.
Albert has visited Ireland and enjoyed it, telling me he does not like the Guinness in Hong Kong, but very much enjoyed it while in Ireland. I agree with him completely there. It just is not the same here. Not that it leaves Hong Kong lacking, if they master Guinness we’re fucked.
I take one last stroll up Nathan Road, which I regret when I reach 71A Waterloo Road as once again, shockingly, Hong Kong is hot and humid. I seek refuge in ‘The Squirrel’ coffee shop and it’s heavenly air-conditioned comfort. I know it’s polluting the world quicker than we should be, but right now, I don’t care. It’s hard to focus when you’re standing in this humidity and having walked even 2 Km in what is effectively a sauna. I get a really good cappuccino and I’m instantly relaxed. We’re treated to a home cooked stir-fry in the apartment and it’s the last thing I experience in Hong Kong before I’m travelling again. It’s a nice way to say goodbye.
My flight is at 23:45, which is perfect for sleeping most of the way home. Going through the ‘visitors’ channel of immigration, there’s a changing of the guards and suddenly I realise I’ve handed my landing card (the third I’d filled out at this stage) to the girl without my flight number, destination or signature. I say nothing, she says nothing and everyone goes about their day. I work out, somewhere between security and the seat I find myself collapsing into, that when I land I’ll have been in the air for just short of 35 hours. In the last two and a bit weeks. A personal record.
Sitting sipping my McCafé cappuccino, knowing I’ll regret not ordering a decaf, I’m already thinking about my next journey. The travel bug has bitten and I am not opposed to it’s effects. It seems a bit greedy to be in the airport, heading home after a two week break from it all in such a location but there’s too much to see and no time to waste I guess. I’ve seen and experienced some great things, but I’ve barely started I hope. This trip has thought me that you can be welcomed anywhere, so why wouldn’t you go. Even feeling somewhat of a novelty at times to people, they’re still incredible and certainly don’t mean to make you feel that way. Nothing wrong with being a novelty either.
The plane takes off, destination London. The pilot tells us he expects a smooth journey and suggests it will be a great chance to get some rest for the next 12 hours and 50 minutes. About an hour into the flight, the plane hits some gentle turbulence. I say gentle, the craft bounces around the sky. Movements that shouldn’t happen, that don’t seem physically possible. Service is suspended and we get a very different announcement from the pilot. While others rock in their seats nervously, I find myself becoming hungry and angry. Thinking this is a pain in the arse, not because of the uncomfortable jolting of the plane, but because my in-flight meal is being delayed. It’s a good hour before the ride settles down and we can be fed……finally. Curiously, a lot of people don’t seem to be hungry any more and I debate with myself the social acceptance of asking complete strangers from a different continent ‘are you going to eat that?’. I decide against it, feeling a breakdown in communication and some missing translation could have me escorted from the plane in Heathrow with my hands in shackles!
I’m almost home and passing through the city of Heathrow, five security checks including a biometric scan twice and about a ten kilometre walk. You never know what time draining obstacle you’ll have to hurdle here at any turn. It seems to have grown in size in two weeks as well. It’s lunacy. The scale is just nuts. But, you have to put up with it and soon the familiar green uniforms of the Aer Lingus cabin crew come into view. I’ve only been gone for two weeks, but I’m kind of happy to be getting home. If only to put my body back together!
Although I’m fully aware that I haven’t even begun to look through the window of the world, my introduction to Asia has been interesting and beautiful. I’ve been incredibly lucky in the people I’ve been given the opportunity to meet. From such diverse backgrounds and locations. It’s been wonderful and despite the cliché, it’s been emotional. It really has only been that though, an introduction. I guess, without spending most of a lifetime anywhere, you’ll never really know it. Even spending a lifetime there it would be pretty pretentious to assume you did know it. Nothing ever stays the same, thankfully.
Some timeless advice here;