I spent my final night across the harbour at the interestingly named ‘Pandora After 80s’ at the same cost as the two nights in Kowloon, but the even better location, double bed and excellent view justified this.
On the sleeper train just past Shaoguan on Guangdong’s northern border; I’ve started this blog post six hours into the day-long journey to Beijing. Having left punctually from Hung Hom station, Hong Kong, at 15:15, we should be a quarter way into the journey now but it looks more like an eighth on the Google maps tracker. But I wouldn’t argue with the Chinese on such things – they seem to have a knack of getting things done. I’m quite happy lying here typing in the 4-berth cabin I have all to myself, with a can of Tsingtao and 20p bottle of water.
I am proud to confirm that I closed my whistle-stop tour of Hong Kong with passport in hand, Chinese Visa successfully obtained and nothing else going drastically wrong in my time there.
A sense of moving – forwards, upwards and occasionally sideways – has characterised the first leg of my ‘Travels Take Two’.
After getting through nearly 3 films (12 Years A Slave, Walter Mitty, Captain Phillips) on the relatively turbulent-free and only half-full Moscow to Hong Kong Aeroflot flight with plenty of space, I enjoyed an efficient airport arrival, smooth Airport Express train link, free connecting shuttle bus, 2 minute walk along Nathan Road, and 15 storey elevator climb to reach my first hostel in Kowloon.
Having settled into my room, I walked the ‘Avenue of Stars’ Promenade and, naturally, quickly got lost in Hong Kong’s street networks. (I did the same when what was supposed to be a light 30 minute morning jog turned into an 8 mile hour and a half confused tour of Kowloon.) I took the star ferry across and around the world’s deepest natural harbour and found my second hostel off of Gloucester Road, Causeway Bay, via a comfortable but relatively pricey at HK$60 (£5) Mercedes taxi ride – basically the opposite to Lesotho’s 6-30 Rand (30p – £1.75) but hardly in-tact 4+1 death drive.
The old tram carried me between Causeway and past Central where I then stood proudly as I moved up the world’s longest escalator at Mid-Levels. I sat at a 45 degree angle to reach Victoria Peak on the world-famous tram and then on the front of the top deck of a 45p (HK$5.30 – which I accidentally ended up not paying due to some confused communication between me and the driver) bus ride to Aberdeen (Aberdeen, Hong Kong).
A bit of dusk-time haggling with an older lady introduced me to a traditional, exclusive (but still overcharged at HK$60 (£5) in comparison to other tourists’ reviews) Sampan ride around Aberdeen harbour. I took a very quick bus journey back to the hostel through the Aberdeen tunnel under Victoria Peak. I completed the full Hong Kong tunnel experience with a bus trip amongst heavy congestion under the Harbour to reach the Visa agency, before walking over to Hung Hom station via the pedestrian overpass network.
Except for the heavy road congestion and lack of cyclists or cycling infrastructure (could a reverse in the latter be part of a solution to the former?) the compact, dense Hong Kong is a bit of a Transport Planner’s playground! And who wouldn’t want to be part of that playtime?!
Three days is a short time to spend anywhere. There’s still more to discover but I managed to cover some ground which threw up some experiences…
That first time in approaching Kowloon’s promenade to be confronted by Hong Kong Island’s skyline – the more attractive product of our financially driven world – is quite something.
Park Guest Hostel was, to me, better than the reviews give it credit for. Yes, the room was tiny. But it was functional, well thought out, clean, quiet, well-tended to and included the necessities – much like the shower above the toilet in the shared bathroom that the pleasant host Monica laughed off when showing me around. A friend’s sister who lives near Shanghai, warned me about the hostels in Chungking Mansions as it “can be a bit dodgy”. Unfortunately my booking preceded that email. This was on my mind as I negotiated the street hustlers to find my hostel via the elevator in the arcade.
I asked Monica if it was safe at night. “Yes it’s Ok. Well there are black people”, she quite innocently concluded. I think Monica understood my ‘humour’ when I dryly reassured her that I like black people. I don’t know if she’s mainly referring to the Indian traders who dominate Chungking Mansions. The arcade took me back to my previous time in India – the first Nathan Road hustler I came across was indeed from Kolkata – and after a few rides in the well-monitored elevator and coming across an emergency escape plan for this 15th floor hostel, I felt safe enough in my little £23 a night prime location spot.
When it comes to views, Victoria Peak was up there… After smugly boarding the tram without the hour-long queues the reviewers warned of, I found out why there were no queues once I got to the summit.
But biding my time with a coffee, donut and free WiFi in one of the Peak mall’s numerous establishments, thankfully the mist cleared and I returned to the Sky Deck. The longer I stayed, the more the sky cleared and dense spread of high-rise buildings revealed themselves, the more I was feeling a real sense of freedom and happiness, achievement for getting this far, and even elation. Looking over the view, I felt at peace. So I took some selfies.
Going with my Gut, not Alfonso the Argentine
I think there was one more reason for those feelings. Alfonso the Argentine. Or rather, his absence. I met the tyre-recycling entrepreneur at the hostel lift on the morning of Day 2. Before I went to sleep on Day 1 I mentioned to a friend, via Whatsapp, that this adventure was feeling a little bit lonely at times. So meeting Alfonso and agreeing to go around with him made a nice change. Although his English was quite limited, we talked as I showed him the promenade, we took the harbour cruise, ate lunch, and watched some music performances and the Symphony of Lights. We agreed to meet up again to visit Victoria Peak the next day.
Since my Lesotho days I have occasionally woke up at 4am and end up in deep thought, over-dwelling on often trivial things but also sometimes with real clarity. The dominating trivial matter that night was that of the impact of Alfonso’s company on my experience. Would my last full day really be fulfilled if it comprised of compromise and trying to make conversation in broken English? Selfish, I know. But there was still a lot to do and some of it quite complicated logistically. I remembered Dad on the way back from last weekend’s 5-a-side mentioning a similar scenario for his hitchhiking experience in Germany. I tried to think of win-win solutions but finally managed to get back to sleep.
Having sorted out my Visa application early on Day 3, as I was clearing out my room and still dwelling over my dilemma, it hit me: I’m on an adventure. I’m not bound to anyone or anything in this foreign land. Sometimes in Lesotho I tried to base my social life around others – rather than going with my gut feel – only for it not to be reciprocated. I can’t afford to not go with my heart and risk missing out on experiences, especially on such a short trip. Surely one day is enough to spend with someone? With that, and a quick Whatsapp message to Alfonso, I checked out with Monica and made a run for it to the Island. I did feel guilty, but…
Other highlights have included the morning run (at least the first half!). There’s something about being up and about early in a new place. The Nathan Road streetscene at that time of day reminded me of that of Kolkata. A different kind of air fills the almost empty streets and the promenade and parks were filled with a mix of early-rising young professionals and pensioners exercising, stretching or meditating. They were not filled with other tourists and their selfie sticks. Another highlight was the quick trip to ‘Happy Valley Racecourse’ that I squeezed in before collecting the Visa on my last morning. Unfortunately there were no races on during my time here but it was great to be able to find myself in the middle of the course where Michael Palin’s scene was shot around 20 years ago, triggering my awareness of Hong Kong.
Safe But Not Sound
Other than not having the time to do more, I can only think of three not-so-highlights, all based around one thing. Entertainment. The Symphony of Lights are unique and good to watch (once), but I can’t help but think more could be done with it. More flow, more buildings involved, with those not involved switching off lights for the 15 minute show, better sound quality…Then there’s the singer-guitar-keyboard-cajon busking combo in the area before the Symphony of Lights starts, all playing (or rehearsing) painfully sung, poorly amplified, four-chord western love-ballad drivel with big pauses and ‘sound-checking’ in between pieces. For such a world-famous attraction, there should be better. And then you go back to the hostel and switch on Chinese TV…
I feel far away from the harmonies of Setsoto Stadium’s stands. I even almost appreciatethe production quality in my Christmas viewing of the UK X-Factor and believe Britain, or at least London, is lucky for the quality and diversity of live, free, entertainment on show.
Having said that, some dance performances on the other hand were very impressive, especially two young groups, and I came across three decent bands (two of them mimicking a Japanese cross-dressing gothic genre…) at a planned music event – but also more bad ones…
But what Hong Kong’s public spaces maybe lacks in live entertainment relative to its world attraction status, they more than make up for in safety. No doubt I was a little complacent and rosy-eyed but there was no obvious abusive or aggressive activity anywhere in my short time here. At night people of all ages, especially young people, were eating together in restaurants or wandering about the late night malls, rather than drinking in bars or hanging around in the street. Apparently there is a high level of respect and patience in China, and lack of physical aggression, resulting from the strong and extended family unit, prioritising the collective state over the individual, and decades of financial struggle. Hong Kong certainly seems to be proof of this. Maybe there is a slight touch of old-school ‘English etiquette’, along with the occasional colonial buildings, road signs and lining, sports grounds and tram systems, in the cultural mix too. Hong Kong seems a good place for a lone British traveller to start on a China journey…
I bumped into a Korean girl in the lift on leaving my hostel today and walked with her to the bus stop. She looked confused when I answered her ice-breaker question by telling her I was traveling to Beijing, and even more so when I told her how. “It will make a nice change from flights”, I explained. “And I quite like trains”. Not sure that’s the best line I’ve come out with – I didn’t have time to add that I was a transport planner… My brief Korean acquaintance – waiting for the bus to get to the airport for a month long language course in Vietnam – did agree that flying can be uncomfortable. “Especially when packed with the Chinese who smell”, she reasoned… She couldn’t understand why I was going to Beijing, especially as I don’t speak Mandarin, and was adamant that I will get ‘cheated’ by the taxis. Well, I’ve not been disappointed by the Chinese so far (now ten hours in we seem to be on track distance wise…).
I’m enjoying this traveling thing. As it turns out, getting lost in the streets of Kowloon and the public transport networks of Hong Kong Island turned out to be a good way of getting to know the place in a short amount of time. The same might be said for travelling and getting to know yourself and the world around you. You’ve got to do a bit of searching if you want to find something.
So only a couple of days away from catching up with the original ’30 Stops’ itinerary, let’s see what travel in Beijing will bring.