Strangers in the Night

Trip Start Mar 11, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2006

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Friday, April 7, 2006

After a mad scramble to catch our train out of China's capital on time (that extra duck sat particularly heavy during said scrambling), we settled into our full day of travel to Hong Kong. The Asian budget airline craze not quite having hit China as hard yet, ground transportation was still far and away the much cheaper way to get ourselves down the country. Though we felt bad skipping everything inbetween Beijing and Hong Kong (jilting amazing sights at X'ian, Chengdu, Shanghai, Kunming, and more), our developing travel sense told us that more time fewer places would be much more satisfying, even if it means long hauls inbetween those places.
Anyhow, our 24-hour ride was fairly uneventful, the main event being given loads of peanuts and some questionable oranges by the folks below us on the cramped triple-decker sleeper car; normally 2 beds stacked just atop one another is already a tight fit, here our option was to pretty much lay in stasis for a day and emerge a beautiful butterfly. We arrived at Shenzen the next night and had only to hit the internet cafe before retiring to the sweltering hotel to watch soccer (in fact the same match over and over, in English and then Chinese) in boxers and crashing ... who knew that just laying still for a full day could be so exhausting!
We enjoyed a free breakfast of dumplings and pastries and then walked across the border and through customs into Hong Kong. Although HK is part of China, it is labelled as a Special Administrative Region, having only been ceded back by the British in 1997. It was returned under the condition that the city-state be allowed to retain its unique capitalist system for at least 75 years and now flies under the slogan "One Country, Two Systems". It is enough not a whole part of China that we had to get multiple-entry Chinese visas before we left the States in case we did end up visiting Hong Kong, and as a matter of fact a visa is not even necessary at the moment for a US citizen to visit HK alone.
We caught a train down the peninsula to Mong Kok, the "cheaper" part of Hong Kong, though that is not saying a whole lot: for a few travellers used to and relying on incredible bargains in much of the rest of the world, the prices there that rival and in some cases surpass the US can be a tough pill to swallow, though still well worth it. My directions to the taxi driver got a bit garbled in the translation, and instead of King Wah Hostel we ended up at Kwong Wah Hospital :) We were confused how the driver could not know the place offhand, as it was one of only a few places listed on, but it became apparent as we arrived at the place we'd booked the night before on the Internet (which coincidently happened to be on the next street to the similar-sounding hospital). Much different from other hostels I'd seen, this one was just one of loads of copy-cat establishments, pretty much rearranged groups of apartments in huge high-rises, and there were 10 more just like it in the same building.
Settling in, we took off to explore the city a bit, stopping to sample the McDonald's Rice Beef Fantastic (hey, cheap food is cheap food) and restocking on supplies to make me a normal hygienic human once again. We also made a trip to the infamous Chungking Mansions, another high rise down Nathan Road towards the water. As we later learned from the Lonely Planet, the place has been captured for time immemorial in a movie depicting the run-down, sleazy (but much cheaper!) high-rise featuring dozens of identically low-rent places to rest your head. As further described in LP: "This huge ramshackle high-rise dump," and "There is always the less-than-salubrious stairs, which support a large amount of wildlife, including rare species of aggressive flying cockroaches. Be grateful for the stray cats, as they keep the rats in check," and lastly "You may be put off by the undercurrent of sleaze and the peculiar odors - a potent mixture of cooking fat, incense, and shit." Needless to say, we booked our remaining two nights in HK with Johny straight away. We then knocked off pizza for China, walked a bit in the sweaty humid warm drizzle, and took refuge in Starbucks to plan the rest of the weekend.
I awoke early the next morning to prepare to meet our special guest in Hong Kong. Back in my Hiroshima, Japan entry I mentioned a bit about a girl called Casey who I met through my Cal dorm buddy Jeff. Strange that we hadn't met before as she also was a 2005 Cal grad, we had dozens of mutual friends, and she even sat right in front of me on stage at Commencement, but we hit it off pretty well in Japan and I left for Mongolia thinking that it was a great 24 hours but wouldn't amount to anything more. Somehow, a series of emails while I was travelling through Mongolia turned into a sincere, long-shot invitation to join us for a bit while we were still in Asia, turned into her actually, inexplicably arranging a few days off work (teaching English in Kabe, a suburb of Hiroshima) and buying a plane ticket to meet us a few weeks later in Hong Kong, where she wanted to visit anyhow. It was to be sure a touch crazy but international flights to meet up with someone cool for the weekend seem to make a lot more logical sense when you are living out of a backpack for months. Anyhow, not to put my whole personal life on the table but I thought just a little background was necessary :)
Casey decided to make things a bit interesting by emerging from the other terminal, so a good near-hour was spent wandering, unable to get in touch with each other, and both convinced that the other had not shown. Reunited at last, we excitedly headed back to the palace I'd procured at Chungking. We dropped her stuff off to be guarded by our rodent, feline, and cockroachian friends and headed over to Hong Kong Island proper. Victoria Peak loomed and we caught the train that takes you up a 45-degree (much steeper than it sounds) incline to the top where we were rewarded with a magnificent view of the HK skyline. Once we got our obligatory pictures and made the mark on our mental checklists, we leaned back on the way down, stopped by the Ritz Carlton to see if the rumor about even the urinals being made of marble was true and had a ballroom dance for a moment to the tunes crooned smoothly by the lounge singer, and had a taxi to Lan Kwai Fong, the bar and entertainment district. As a number of good things had already come of meeting up with Cal alums abroad, we were headed to join the Cal Alumni Club of Hong Kong to big farewell to two of their members who were moving back to the US, but to Palo Alto (booo!). We couldn't find the group at first until we wandered to the back room, and while musing the irony of a private party for a public school, were met by Travis who introduced us around. Though I'd forgotten the Oski bobblehead doll I carry for photos in situations like this, we had a great time and left eventually with a good tip for a bar with cheesiest cover band where we happily danced the rest of the night away.
The next morning it was time for the culinary phenomenon: dimsum. For those uninitiated, it is a meal where cart after cart wheels by your table, tempting you with small morsels in bamboo baskets until you stop waving them over and have a moment to contemplate both how much you just put in you and how much they'll take out of your wallet. Unsure of the origins of many of the meats set before us, I opted on the safe side in assuming that everything was chicken. Except for the fried squid tentacles, chickens don't have suckers.
Seeking to knock off the next item on our checklist, we embarked in search of the 800m moving outdoor escalator that we had heard so much about and I believe was even featured in 1,000 Things To Do Before You Die. Somewhat underwhelmed by the actual reality of just standing on some moving stairs for 800 non-consecutive meters, we headed back to Kowloon. We caught a cool kung-fu demonstration in the park (at first disappointed that it wasn't an event for us to battle with kung-fu ourselves, though it was redeemed by the dancing, drunken, sake-gulping dragon) and continued north for the markets.
Hong Kong is known for its shopping, and while we were far from high-enders, there were some neat bazaars to hit clustered relatively closely together. Beginning with the Jade Market, where the authenticity of the green stuff was demonstrated by setting it on fire and the guy running the booth I bought from called me the devil to Case and Ryan for my mad bargaining skills, we then wandered through the goldfish market and flower market (just how they sound, long streets selling prety much only that) to the bird market because what would a trip to Asia be right now without dancing with the bird flu devil in the pale moonlight. Before rounding out the shopping we jet back to the water to catch the light show from Avenue of the Stars and then hit the Night Market (I for a pair of knock-off iPod speakers for $10 that still work as of Russia and Casey got two watches, no word on whether they still check in more than twice a day) and popped into a corner restaurant to suck the heads out of a few whole cooked shrimp before calling it a night.
Sad to see morning break, we packed up and Casey and I headed out for a quick breakfast before a fond farewell, probably for good. Though the circumstances and timing couldn't have been worse to meet, it was still surprisingly wonderful to be that excited about a girl again, even if this was the end of the line ... or was it? (that's the teaser for you to keep reading this travelogue ;)
Snapping back to travel reality, Ryan and I embarked on the most confusing day of transportation ever. We made it to the train station just in time to hear our train to Guangzhou taking off because we were of course about 2 minutes long and a dollar short for the ticket, putting us on the next one that, after racing across Guangzhou from one station to the other, had us just miss the direct to Hanoi! Never ones to miss out on an opportunity to make lemonade, we made a friends in David who took us to the bus station and got us on one made of cots bound for Nanning, where we arrived at 6AM to get to the train station where we were happily informed that there was no train to Hanoi today but we have one to Pingxiang (border town) if you like. Too confused to object we were whisked to the border by train, caught a motorized rickshaw almost to Friendship Pass, walked to and across the border, left China no problem but on the Vietnam side the guy pulls out the "medical check service fee" sign as the Vietnamese and Chinese pass and Ryan walks up, paid double in Chinese yuan because we had no Vietnamese dong, caught a taxi to Lan Song, bargained with the bus driver for a direct and quick ride to Hanoi before climbing aboard and spending two hours driving slowly around town filling up the rest of the seats (and kept being told we'd be in Hanoi by 2 even as 2:30 rolled around and the driver continued to yell out the window for more passengers), and finally, well towards sunset were on our bumpy way to Vietnam's capitol!

Moral of the story: Hong Kong was a fine city but ask me later about anything particularly memorable I saw there and I'd need a minute. It was some of my time best spent because infinitely more than what's there, the important thing is who's there. People make the place.
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