Strangers in the Night
Trip Start Mar 11, 2006
45Trip End Aug 01, 2006
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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 ..
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 Hostelworld.com, 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)
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.
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
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.
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.