Have a look at some of the pictures we took in Hong Kong, Yangshuo, and Shanghai this summer here:
We were flushed out like sewage onto the station forecourt in the steaming afternoon sun, stinking. The place was awash with people; hawkers, beggars, the misplaced, the lost. What were we? The impractically luggaged. Everyone seemed to be glaring at us, many asked for money or tried to sell us something right there in the searing heat. A women approached us with a tiny baby. She spoke gravely and gestured to the baby's mouth.
"I've eaten, thanks" I said.
We tried frantically to find the bus station with a connection to Yangshuo, the "backpacker's paradise" that we were aiming for. There seemed to be several bus stations, none with clearly delineated boundaries. We tried asking a few passers-by, they looked bewildered, we grew in bewilderment. We split up to share the work, one of us waiting with the bags, the other eloping light and bouncy towards signs and exits. One sign had me walking round in a giant circle; another pointed directly into a cupboard. We were close to breaking point.
We put on our backpacks again and staggered out into the sunshine. Amid a crowded shopping area we corned an official-looking chap in uniform and hat and pointed desperately to Chinese words in our guidebook, gaping the pathetic syllables, eyes wide and glazed. His answer, "Yang-shu-o no bus". We looked tearful, some others stopped to join in the drama, exchanging words with the official. Something was written down on a scrap of paper and passed around. A name, "N..... bus station" was whispered, "Yang-shu-o". Hope. Here was a glimmering gift of hope in the form of an illegibly scrawled series of Chinese characters, we felt renewed and vigorous. How to get there.
"How to we get there?" we gesticulated. The word 'taxi' may or may not have been mentioned, but this was good enough for us as we raced down the stairs toward the underground parking lot. Now we had a plan. We waited patiently for a taxi amid the glaring and the shouting, and thrust our paper before the driver's face, our own faces brimming with nervous anticipation. He nodded, or grunted, which we took as affirmation, and we heaved the swelling bags into the boot and jumped in. I noticed a group of Chinese behind us pointing and laughing. Let them laugh, I thought. Let them have their fun.
We had been led to believe that there existed, within walking distance of Shenzhen station, a second bus depot which would have our bus. We hadn't dreamed this, the guide had been quite clear; so now as we zoomed down a highway passing trucks heaped with rubbish we began to feel a little anxious. Where exactly were we going? After twenty minutes or so we pulled up to a large, clean-looking building with buses circling around it. Was this walking distance to some? Little did we know this we to be the least disturbing aspect of our journey; oh ye Gods!
19.05.05 Leaving Hong Kong for China
We left the room early, wandering out into the teeming street heat with our possessions which seemed to have swelled and blossomed in the four short days we had stayed. It is of course Sunday and we need to change our money into Chinese Yuan, and though most of the banks' headquarters are in town they don't do Sunday trading. Pervading influence of the British perhaps. We foresee a problem and begin to bicker, the heat and the weight don't help this, and we can't find anywhere that looks even half promising for breakfast. I'm fantisising about two crisp Weetabix splashed with ice-cold milk. We come across a cafe which looks open and exchange an optimistic glance. A man rushes out at us with a broom, chasing a fat rat out into the street; we both scream.
Hong Kong is one of the worst places in the world to be lost with a heavy bag. Third to Kabul and Skegness respectively. The heat, the crowds, the dirt and the crazy traffic systems make it a dizzying experience. On the other hand, Hong Kong is a place that provides. Whatever you want you can usually get, whether legitimately or on the black market, or at least that's how it appeared to us. In the end we changed out money at a little glass booth on a back street by a man with a laptop and a calculator (it's not clear why he needed both) and got a jolly pleasant exchange rate at that. This was the first indication we had of the massive economic differences between the HKSAR and mainland China. We shed crisp new Hong Kong dollars and grew wrinkled, flaccid Yuan from the stumps; like exchanging an apple for a turd, one had been made wretched by its journey through the system. I can't remember whether or not we ate breakfast, though it's probable that we went to McDonald's and I've simply removed the information from the hard drive so as to not mistakenly tell other travellers about it and be sniggered at. The truth is that McDonald's was a great relief to us on many occasions. Breakfast is one of those tricky arenas in which deeply rooted beliefs and prejudices assert themselves, and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain such dinner-table pretentions as preferring a 'jus' to ketchup. The bacon and egg muffin will always be preferable to a bowl of rice and some fish heads, at least before 11am.
Anyway, we found our way to Mong Kok (ahem) station and jumped on the train for Shenzhen, so far so good. The train was clean, fast, and efficient (the British don't get everywhere) and took no less than an hour to reach its beloved destination. We alighted and made our way through immigration, no problems, our visas were genuine, we waited among strange Russian families in dark glasses and combat fatigues. We followed the crowds through some dimly-lit hallways and along carpeted walkways and eventually towards the front entrance of the station which opened like a wound onto a vast and teeming square. Shenzhen is a city that only its mother could love. Our first experience of China proper was one that bordered on Bedlam.
This summer we left Japan and travelled home through China, Mongolia and Russia. I tried hard to keep a journal throughout, though much of the following was pieced together in retrospect. "Emotion recollected in tranquillity", or something.
"RHIANNON, THOMAS, MOSCOW TRAIN TERROR…..BOOM!" He pauses from slicing a bamboo shoot to gesture exploding train carriages with both hands. We try to reassure him that we will be safe, not having the slightest inkling as to what he is referring.
Oh! The sun-dappled images I envisaged, the soft bubbling beers and fragrant mists! The dark-eyed peasant girls trilling as they gently milk the morning cow, smelling of warmed hay.
15.6.05 Tokyo to Hong Kong
15.6.05 Tokyo to Hong Kong
We boarded the plane for Hong Kong at about 3pm Tokyo time, the weather was pretty grim; cold, damp, grey and drizzly. It didn’t seem to suitably mark the beginning of our vacation.
Were we a little panicked, having met our Japanese friends for lunch and not allowed enough time to make it through immigration and get to the gate in time to board. Hence, we had to rush lunch and run for it, making hasty snatched goodbyes. In a way it was better, the sense of urgency quashing any feelings of melancholy at departing. In the end we had to sit and read Time magazine for nearly an hour at gate D98 while we waited for the Dragonair engineers to ok the plane’s outside temperature sensor (we didn’t learn of this until later though).
Chinese people, so far, have good shoes. It bodes well for a nation. I’m filled with a sense of plasticky superficial excitement. I’ve yet to form any solid ideas about trouser style/cut. The Japanese (and I’m speaking of those who really matter) wear the trouser a little tapered, bulging at the waist. Works well with a pair of converse sneakers. I think it would be disastrous on a western frame, accentuate the hips and arse too much. Two immediate thoughts: Who is the leader of Hong Kong? King Kong? Does a strange logic lie behind the losing and finding of objects? Last week I lost my digital wristwatch. I searched the usual places first, I grudgingly checked the kitchen cupboards. I made a mental survey of all its recent possible locations, trying to picture it everywhere. I gave up and decided to buy a new one in china, forming style criteria. It appeared four days later when I emptied the washing machine.
It’s lunchtime on Dragonair flight HK0361. This is the best time for me. I’m soothed by the cheap red wine and altitude, the jet engines become less threatening and take on a paternal roar. I don’t mind too much that people keep leaving the toilet door open.
16.6.05 In Kowloon
16.6.05 In Kowloon
We rose early and walked through downtown Kowloon in the direction of MoonSky Star’s office, stopping for omelette on route. We met a man called Kelvin in his tiny apartment office and paid the balance of our Trans-Siberian trip, a relief. We strolled down to the bottom of the Kowloon peninsula in the pouring rain and caught the misty view of Hong Kong Island looming on the other side. I am frequently harassed by men from the Indian sub-continent offering me ‘fine tailored suits’. ‘No thank you’ I reply, which they interpret as ‘Yes probably, why don’t you try asking me again’.
The museum was closed. It was our only indoor option. We decided to go north to a temple, taking the very clean, very new, very cheap subway. It continued to rain, but our attention was diverted by women engaged in an interesting religious practise. Kneeling on a mat facing the main alter of the temple, they rapidly shake a container filled with flat wooden paddles until one paddle works its way out of the container and lands on the floor. This paddle is then inspected and its markings noted down in a book to make some kind of list or narrative. Thus a story is born of chance, and no doubt patterns and sequences can be found within the list, affirming or denying the wishes of the believer.
Afterwards we visited the wondrous street markets: fish, flowers and birds, in that order. The bird market turned out to be a very new reconstruction of the ‘Bird Street’, which must have been bulldozed to make way for a new McDonald’s or something. The new recreation smelled so appalling that I was glad they had demolished the original, which could only have smelled worse. We also saw a man with two giant grasshoppers on his back. He was blissfully unaware and we felt that our current grasp of the Cantonese dialect might be insufficient for dealing with such a situation. Perhaps they were pets.
The fish market had dozens of bizarre creatures puffing away breathlessly in tiny plastic bags, as well as some spiky looking crabs. We happened upon some rather strange orange and white fellows with goggly silver eyes and what appeared to be large inflated testicles attached to each cheek. The flower market was somewhat disappointing after that.
The evenings in Hong Kong are deliciously alive. The humid air crackles with the neon and warms the nostrils, everything is splashed with shards of light and the streets bubble with activity. Sensual stimuli abound, a cacophonous roar of colour and stench. We found a fantastic seafood restaurant on a street corner and peeled hot sticky prawns with our fingers, quenched our thirst with icy beer, crunched broccoli.
At Temple Street market we didn’t by fake Rolex watches or get our passports stolen, which are the staples for most gangly beer-filled foreigners.
17.6.05 On Hong Kong Island
17.6.05 On Hong Kong Island
The old and the new. We rode the funicular railway to the top of the peak. ‘How old is it?’ I asked nervously as the tram stopped abruptly and swung backwards on its cable. It was old, built in the 1930’s, I don’t know if this is good or bad. We had a shady walk around the top of the hill, cowering under branches to avoid two monsoon-like downpours, emerging again to dry off in the benevolent sunshine. If we had arrived eighty years earlier we would have been carried up the hill by serfs in a wicker chair. As it was we visited a colonial tearoom, housed in the old holding shelter for those same chairs. The serfs brought us pots of steaming earl grey, and we paid them handsomely.
We caught one of the old wooden trams from Central to Wan Tai, snaking through the glistening towers and frenetic street scenes. We wandered through some of the older market streets, drinking in the hazy rustic charm and strong incense. A glass fronted Arthouse cinema on the waterfront had a cool record shop and sold Joy Division t-shirts.
18.6.05 On Lamma Island
18.6.05 On Lamma Island
Today we visited Lamma Island, one of the many outer Islands of the Hong Kong area, most of which are sparely populated and semi-rural. A 20 minute boat ride from Aberdeen (itself a smallish port on the south of HK Island) found us swinging into old fashioned looking harbour clustered with small stone and wooden houses. Once we’d managed to ignore the towering power station on the eastern shore the Island was something of a treasure. Quiet, pleasant, laid back and scenic. We stopped in the harbourside village and ate lunch in a vegetarian café, which sold huge salads and natural juices and had slogans like ‘give peace a chance’ posted on the walls. It stank of upper-middle class hippy westerners, and was replete with the ubiquitous ex-patriate British, all pasty bloated features and public school accents. They had a good collection of books and excellent food.
We walked the length of the Island in blistering heat and sweated gallons of precious liquid, though all the Chinese we passed looked as cool as bitter cucumbers. We saw a man wearing jeans, his shirt was blackened with sweat, clearly a lunatic.