Free China

Trip Start Sep 11, 2010
Trip End Aug 19, 2011

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Thursday, July 7, 2011

The American lad and I were both bound for Hong Kong so we took off from the hostel together. We were however heading for different ports on different ferries so we parted ways there.  I had almost forgotten I was in a different country and had to go through passport control again before boarding the ferry.  90 minutes later I arrived to Hong Kong Island and navigated my way on the metro to Causeway bay.  The Hong Kong metro during rush hour is something to behold.  People flow like water through the stations and when changing lines in a major hub you better hope you get into the right flow otherwise you might end up on the wrong train.  Just as we were flowing from one train, and I thought there would be a crush, and second arrived with perfect timing to take the crowd onward.  The trains run every 2 or 3 minutes, although when you factor in-station time I think it seems more like every 90 seconds.  With great difficulty (due to a mistake on a lonely planet map) I managed to find my hostel, again a sweaty mess by the time I arrived.  Once I had settled in had had 3 very important missions to carry out: 1) Pick up my ticket to Shanghai, 2) Apply for my Russian visa and 3) Buy a new camera.  It looked like 1 & 2 would be too easy with the Russian Embassy less than a kilometer away and the ticket agent a few hundred meters beyond that.  In the Embassy I got the cold and abrupt service I would expect from a Russian. 'Zee we-sa clossss, com murning-ghe'.  The agent however was the ying to that yang… the friendliest smilest girl, asking me all about my stay and travel in China before presenting me with my ticket and receipt, showing how I had paid about 40% extra for using their service… a rip off with a smile.  After that it was time for dinner and I hopped into what looked like a fast food meets traditional Japanese.  It was delicious and surprisingly cheap for Hong Kong.  After showering off the thick layer of sweat from the day I set out to tick box number three on the list, the camera.  I asked around and checked a few forums online and discovered the ‘Mongkok’ was the place to be, something of a Mecca for electronics shoppers.  I jumped on the metro and got off right in the heart of it, emerging into the masses under a canopy of neon lights, florescent lights, LEDs… really it was a bombardment for the eyes.  The street was lit up so brightly that your body actually thinks it is day time and in a way loses touch with reality.  It was strange to look up at the black night sky beyond the lights.  I spent almost three hours wandering around there, feeling like an ant, trying to hash out the best deal I could between the dodgy looking shop owners to spotty teenager sales assistants in the big chains.  I managed to pick up a fairly decent camera, one which was a display model they were flogging for just over 100 Euro, not a bad deal at all. 

It seemed that I would only really have a single day to fully explore Hong Kong.  I even still have to visit the Russian embassy before I could get on the tourist trail.  Again I was met with abrupt service, telling me that since I was not from Hong Kong they would not be able to process my application.  Instead I would have to go to Beijing (the start point of my travel through Russia).  Typical Embassy that they couldn’t have noticed my white skin and paddy Irish man accent and told me this the previous evening, I wanted to make a fuss about that but figured it would help nothing.  I also wanted to get my laundry done and I have hardly encountered someone in such a mood in my whole life.  She ripped my bag from my hand and slammed down a receipt with an eligible scribble on it.  As I was trying to decode it she barks 40 at me.  I ask what her problem is and she said ‘it’s so busy’… I gave her a huge smile and said… business is good, lucky for you!  It actually cheered me up in a way…. Maybe when I think life is shitty I’ll think about that lady who cleans peoples underwear for a living… how she was trying to spread her bad feeling but instead cheered me up.  Just after that I bumped into Helga (the name game girl from Yangshou).  Even though I had only a day I had to join her and some others from the hostel for a coffee and to catch up.

It was bout 11 by the time I actually started sightseeing.  I jumped on the metro to the end of the line to explore ‘old’ Hong Kong.  I had a walking tour in my book which I followed from the pier up and down a few narrow streets with small traditional shops mostly selling dried fish and the infamous shark fin.  I found a small shopping center which was very much in an old London style before heading along Hollywood street and stopping in a small park to let the sweat dry.  Then it was a bit of a Taoist temple trail, the first two were unimpressive but the third was quite big and had the Chinese equivalent of a graveyard.  I showed respect to the temple in the traditional way; lighting incense holding it between the hands and placing it in the incense bowl before the statues.  The sandal wood rubbed off on my hands, giving them a yellow colour that made them look Chinese.  I thought that maybe I was really getting the yellow fever.   I browsed through some nick nack (i.e. junk) stands and gazed at some exquisite expensive antiques that I could never afford nor carry in my backpack.  After about two hours of walking I was tired and sweaty so I took refuge in a chic café for a very expensive lunch. From there I jumped on the century old tram network and was lucky enough to get the front seat on the upper deck.  It took me through the central business district where some of the most impressive skyscrapers are.  I hopped off in the Admiralty district and headed up towards the peak of the island, popping into St John’s cathedral (the oldest on the island) along the way.  I had no intention of climbing to the peak but instead rode the super touristy peak tram.  The tram was quite a nice ride, and was so steep that you are given the illusion that the surrounding skyscrapers are slanted.  At the top the tram dropped us in the middle of some kind of shopping center.  I thought it was pretty sad that they have developed these kinds of sight to the max in order to squeeze every cent from the tourists.  I veered away from there to a small park on the top of the mountain which was unimpressive but nice since I had it almost to myself.  Before heading back down I had an ice cream and enjoyed the view from different vantage points.  Walking down the steep mountain I found myself in the middle of the jungle which was quite cool, although a bit strange with the skyscrapers visible through the trees.  Again there were no tourists only the odd hardcore local walking their dog up the slope.  It was something of a maze but I managed to navigate my way back down to the centre.  Pacific place, one of the chicest shopping arcades in the city was worth a look although I had no intention in splurging.  It was really spacious and futuristic, all white without a single sharp corner in sight.  There was a ubiquitous smell of perfume and calming sounds of the sea being played.  Time was catching up on me and I wanted to make it to the Convention Center to watch the sun set over the harbor.  I did make it there on time but ended up lost inside the connected buildings, I think I was in a fancy hotel when I gave up and settled for a slightly less spectacular sunset from a nearby park.  I headed home and after freshening up I headed out to catch some night time views of the cityscape. A friend I had met all the way back in Singapore had told me was a particularly beautiful spot.  I followed his advice and jumped on a ferry across the harbor (which was quite pleasant in itself) to Tsui Sam Tsham.  The view was indeed spectacular.  It was fabulously romantic, which when you are on your own ends up being quite depressing.  There were lots of cuddling couples to make things worse but I was given some comfort to see a few other lone western tourists getting intimate with their cameras.  It was already almost midnight and I paniced a bit about getting stuck on the wrong side of the harbor so I rushed to the metro to get back across.  I jumped off the metro in Wan Chai as I had heard there was some night life in the area.  It was like I had transported to one of the more seedy areas of Bangkok with go-go bars and massage parlors with hookers trying to drag me into either.  After all the walking that day I could have actually used a massage, but the vibe was too dodgy for me so I headed back home.  With legs like jelly I suddenly realized I hadn’t eaten since lunch so ended up scoffing a Mc D’s on the way before hitting the sack with that distinct Mc D’s feeling of being satisfied and disgusted at the same time.

Macau… and even more so on Hong Kong you might first think that the people are just rich Chinese with a superiority complex.  Rich they are and they may too have a superiority complex.  However the are fully right to as they have something invaluable that 1.4 billion mainlanders lack… freedom!  Grant it this freedom is provided and protected under the wing of the Red Giant and could be forcefully withdrawn at any time.  You really notice these people exercising their free speech… petitions against China along with graphic photos of army torture and the like.  The internet is wide open and you can get all sorts of hits about the motherland which would be blocked.  They are in effect sovereign states having control over their boarders, their own flag, currency and police force.  In fact they both have a pact from China which guarantees their autonomy in all maters (except militarily and foreign affairs) for 50 years.  I wondered about these places, why doesn’t China seize them to milk them dry.  Then I realize that these are the geese which lay the golden eggs and China benefits so much more keeping them autonomous.  For Hong Kong it’s the gateway to the western world.  So many companies have their Asian business bases in Hong Kong while their manufacturing bases are just across the water on the mainland.  In this way the businessmen can operate practically under western law (with nice clean hands) while the actual production can be carried out on the mainland for minimum cost without the ‘thorn’ of human rights.  Macau is a different story… here is the playground of the Chinese elite.  The casinos, illegal in China (of course a people’s state wouldn’t allow it) are an easy way of milking cash and (I guess) channeling it back to the mainland.  Strangely the immigration controls are even stricter for Chinese citizens than for western tourists.  But you see a influx of Chinese citizens is probably the greatest threat to these prosperous places.  They are only allowed to remain for 7 days in either of these places while a scruffy western backpacker like me gets a free 90 day visa.  So long as these states keep providing China with so much cash and opportunity I guess they will remain separated and together with the People’s Republic.               
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Mam on

I like your pic called Hong Kong and I it makes you look like a fat cat surveying his kingdom. Glad you seem to leave the touristy stuff and wander down the roads less travelled where real life abides.

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