15.05.2010 - 21.05.2010
It's funny the difference a border can make, I thought as I walked effortlessly through the modern and organised Chinese side of immigration. Only five minutes before I'd spent an hour being pushed and barged in a disorganised Vietnamese departure room, stuck fast by the animalistic behaviour of travellers and the sub-par passport checking system of the officials. I noticed in that barnyard of elbows that the Chinese weren't a particularly short race of people; many of those men were a good few inches taller than me, a feat not unusual in itself, but for an Asian country, quite a surprise, and made the experience all the more unpleasant due to sweaty armpit-to-face proximity.
The bus rolled into the city of Nanning, where both modern and classic designs took form in the buildings around us. Cranes stood next to gigantic cuboid structures covered in scaffold and green mesh. Smart, new apartment blocks of bold angles and glinting sunlight. Cars I'd never seen before rushed the roads; Chinese characters glistening in silver plastic upon their boot lids. Small electric scooters with pedals for extra zip dodged in and out of traffic. Off the bus I found myself following three German girls who were in turn following one Chinese man to Nanning train station. He turned politely every half a minute to make sure we hadn't been left behind or caught by a tricky piece of pavement. I don't know how, that without a map or an English-speaker anyone could have found that place. Everything that mattered was in Chinese. For all I knew I could have been standing in a giro queue. Which incidentally is exactly how I ended up standing in line at a sorting office trying to buy a train ticket.
Inside the correct building, I purchased my train ticket. It was startling to me that as a major global power and rising financial market I had no idea what the Chinese currency was called. Ask yourself now and see if you know the answer to that one. What is the currency of China? The world's most populous and historic of all nations. If you got it without the aid of a search engine, credit to you. It was the first time I'd heard of it. It was the Yuan; roughly ten Yuan made one British Pound, and with my newly acquired Yuan in hand I walked straight past the weird-looking meat fast food restaurant and into the mock-KFC where I felt I knew what was what. As soon as I sat down I was joined by the same three German girls who strolled in, as I did, swerving away from the weird meat place next door. They sat down at a table opposite. 'Erm, what is the time?' one of them asked me. 'Ten to six,' I replied, looking down at my cracked, fake watch from Chiang Mai night market. 'Nein, es ist zehn vor sieben,' I heard another say. 'Ten to seven? Is it really? I didn't know there was an hour difference,' I said from the edge of my seat. If that was the case then what I thought would be a leisurely hour and a bit wait, was now a rush for the train. I grabbed my food and quickly deciphered the platform number by loose logic from the departure screen, making it onto the train with a few minutes to spare. Had those girls not fancied some fried chicken, I'd be cursing that ticket and my timekeeping with a few bad words and a mouthful of chips.
While I managed to get aboard the train, I was still without a seat. Buying a ticket at the last minute was apparently a bad idea in China as seats regularly sold out, leaving only a few spaces for standing passengers. I was one of those. This was a fourteen-hour journey. This was going to be painful.
All seven people in that standing area stared at me. I crouched, leaning against the wall while everyone else stood, and I tucked hungrily into my bag of fried bird. As the people stared more and the obviousness of their conversation became clear, they asked questions between my mouthfuls to establish my name and nationality. After some time the ticket inspector promptly closed the door on our little single-person pygmy-sized box, with four of us within, and the questions continued as I chomped voraciously on a portion of French fries. My face was just inches from one man's crotch standing opposite; I later suspected him as gay for reasons imminently explained.
Those first few questions were put to me, unusually, by typing on a mobile phone. The standard of written English is often better than spoken English, as the students who learn it cram the information in from textbooks rather than formal practice, leaving them rather sheepish is conversation. But, bravely and affably Tan put down his mobile phone and spoke to me in stumbling sentences. He was a young chap, who, by being so open, had already established a BFF status with the other Chinese man in our makeshift booth. As one man left, the three of us and my backpack sat crouched on the tiny floorspace. The space was so small that two people next to each other would be bumping elbows, and two people opposite each other would have a knee firmly dug between the other's open legs. I can't tell you how relieved I was to be sitting diagonally opposite the camp Chinaman. Friendly as he was, he looked at me with gleaming eyes from above his knitting hands and displayed a pursed smile that I felt awkward to return. Soon I would be in Guangzhou, and soon after that Hong Kong. Through a combination of that thought, plus my crushed bones and the vague feeling of self-preservation, I stayed awake through those fourteen hours. I could see how prisoners would go crazy in a cell that was just too small to lay down in. Any longer and I'd have been out the window.
As far as cities go, there are not many as populated and built-up as Hong Kong. Ceded to the British after the first Opium War, which began when the Chinese burned a large shipment of British-imported Bengal opium in 1841- causing Britain to lash back in force and grab Hong Kong for itself in the Treaty of Nanking- Hong Kong remained separated from China until July 1st 1997 when unification became a reality and this Special Administrative Region was handed back to its former owners. Hong Kong still enjoys an intensely Westernised style of life and a greater GDP than that of mainland China, and one only need fly over Hong Kong Island to see that.
Upon my arrival in Hong Kong, I couldn't help but feel surprised that the traditional urban sprawl of dark alleys and crazed marketplaces I was expecting to see, was in fact not a reality at all. Instead, grand, modern buildings, tatty apartment blocks, busy roads, pedestrian-packed pathways, red taxis and shop after shop after shop made up the general appearance of this sprawling metropolis. I felt no stress arriving in Hong Kong, but I was unsure of how much that was down to how long I'd been away from home or the fact that I had a contact in Kowloon area with whom I would stay and save some money. Elaine- a friend of mine for the last three years- lived with her parents and Sister in Mong Kok (get the laughs out of the way early,) a large, densely populated area on the opposite side of Victoria harbour to Hong Kong Island, and had kindly offered me a place to crash at the little apartment on the tenth floor of a residential building on Bute Street. I had a week. I could see some of the city at a leisurely pace and catch up with my friend over rice and noodles.
The view of Hong Kong Island from Tsim Sha Tsui is a wonderful sight. At night the illuminated structures of money and ambition rise from the ground, casting their brilliance on the darkness of Victoria Harbour. The International Finance Centre is the second-highest of all the skyscrapers here-the first being the International Commerce Centre in West Kowloon- and it's a real beauty of subtle curvature and streamlined bullet-like stature; towering above its siblings like the lanky kid in class. The world's largest permanent laser show began at eight every evening and saw swords of light punch into the sunless sky for ten minutes or so as high-tech music was pumped out of the speakers from the Tsim Sha Tsui viewpoint. But if you pre-empted yourself and thought this was an amazing sight, (the laser show aside, which was lame,) you haven't seen anything yet.
Elaine and myself made the steep journey up on the funicular railway tram to Peak Tower Leisure Complex, a ultra-modern mall of shops, restaurants and a quaint Madame Tussaudes where I told George W. Bush exactly what I thought of his foreign policies. The weather had been iffy all day and as we waited for the rain to stop a huge collection of mist formed between us and the view that defined this little excursion. I stood out in the open, greeted by a fair breeze and thick fog. The white haze was a drawn curtain on one of the world's great cityscapes. I waited, disappointed by nature's refusal to let me see anything but a blank canvass. Resigned to the fact that the tram ride was a waste of time, we prepared to leave just as the wind began to pick up. From the corner of my eye I saw a light through the fog. A few moments later, a second light and then a third. The mist grew thinner. Within thirty seconds the fog had been blown away to reveal what I can only describe as possibly the grandest sight I have ever seen. The air was crisp and clear; the rain had helped disperse the atmospheric pollution and several thousand lights shone as cleanly as a still-wet painting. I stopped breathing momentarily and just exhaled a gust of air in disbelief. 'Wow,' was all I could manage. The might of the Commerce Centre, the grace of the Financial Centre and the support of several hundred other buildings set down on this green and hilly coastal landscape, all lit-up in whites, yellows, reds and blues, commercial but beautiful, pompous but appealing. Lightning struck the ground with silent wrath, illuminating the black sky; showing mankind that she can match his electrifying brilliance from the palm of her hand. Once, twice, a hundred strikes those bolts unleashed. In those thirty minutes I felt I had seen civilisation from an new angle; she seemed silently elegant, pretty as a picture, and from atop that hill I wanted to swoop down on her and float in her midst before she lost her charm by morning.
Elaine's family had been generous and accommodating, her Father left for the Philippines to get back to work and on the day of the Big Buddha's Birthday and Bun Festival I joined Elaine's Mother, her Sister Mion and Elaine herself on an excursion to Cheung Chau for the parade and festival. It seemed a million other people had the same idea as on the train and Star ferry we were herded like animals through doorways, and walked the streets as cows in a mass farming programme.
In Cheung Chau we hauled up to a doorway in the main street of the parade and waited for the celebrations to begin. I was unsure of exactly what to expect. Within half an hour the first in a long line of people had begun walking through the streets as part of the procession. Huge right-angled triangle flags were flourished down the street, Chinese dragons with a highly-active soul inside skipped along, followed by brass bands, dancing children, waving adults and everything in-between. The crowd cheered and clapped at the slightest hint of entertainment, a group of ten kids dancing inappropriately-sultry moves to the addictive Korean pop song Nobody but you, a famous face, a decorated flag, it didn't take much to extract awe.
Then came The Float, several children dressed-up and paraded like candy on a stick, propped up on an optical-illusion set that made the balancing child look super-human, when really their pristinely positioned vestment just hid a supporting thin metal frame holding the child in place. The traditional dress was mostly fine, but the plaster-thick make-up struck me as a tad over-done on what were sub-seven-year-olds made to look like China dolls.
After two hours the streets were still alive with the resonance of celebration, and as the drums and cymbals continued, several million people walked the same path to join the same line for the same ferry from Hong Kong island back to the mainland. We literally walked for more than thirty minutes to join the back of the queue, it was that long. I've never seen a queue quite like it. Hong Kong was a busy place, it was a mixing-pot of old and new, but never did I feel uncomfortable or lost. There was something inexplicable about its character that made the experience manageable for the Westerner, and for the British in particular. Whether it was the bilingual road signs, the pristine modernity of its many, many shopping malls, or the precedence of English speaking locals, Hong Kong was a place unto itself and I felt as comfortable on its streets as anywhere else in the world.