23Feb2013

And to Hong Kong We Go

My child goes ape with the kung fu weapons. Excellent.

By now, we should be in a flat in northern China, with Zac in a Chinese school, plotting a sneaky bit of skiing over the upcoming school holidays while I get on with some work.

But we’re not.

We need to head 2000k south from Beijing to Shenzhen, cross the border into Hong Kong, get our visas sorted, then travel 3000k or so back to the north to whichever city it is we’re going to live in — currently TBC.

The great migration is about to begin, one billion Chinese all taking to the trains and buses to visit family for New Year, and the folk I talk to are dubious about whether we’ll even be able to get out of Hong Kong or whether the trains will already be standing-room only: hotels in Harbin, for that matter, are apparently booked solid.

Tense? I am, a little.

I can’t book tickets north from Hong Kong until I know whether we have the visas or not, and the only cheap trains south now available take almost three days solid, so I bite the bullet, drop £200 (over $300) on train tickets to Shenzhen, and cross my fingers.

We love China. This is where we want to be.

And, in her way, China is being difficult.

So too, is combining work and travel. Because, gentle reader, to the inexorable sod’s law of freelance writing I can add this travel rule: when unexpected expenses start to rack up and you’re location independent, that’s because something’s gone wrong, which means you won’t be earning.

Birch gives way to stark fields. The snow turns grubby, and finally fades. We whizz through anonymous, grimy suburbs, tower blocks clustered like lego, past factories, the engines of new China, sere agricultural landscapes a dull grey-brown, waiting for spring.

That said, even if you’re not a train geek – and I’m the kind of person that will inflict seven hours on Bulgarian narrow gauge railway on my spawn because it’s a beautiful train journey – it’s hard not to marvel at a train that can transport you 2000k as the crow flies in barely ten hours.

We leave an icy Beijing, with temperatures at ten below zero, breath clouding the air, and whizz through endless expanses of snow and birch, the landscapes of the Gulag, through vast industrial cities, places the size of London and larger, whose names we do not know.

I snooze, and every time I wake we’re in a different climate, the carriage speedometer displaying an almost unvarying 300kph.

Birch gives way to stark fields. The snow turns grubby, and finally fades. We whizz through anonymous, grimy suburbs, tower blocks clustered like lego, past factories, the engines of new China, sere agricultural landscapes a dull grey-brown, waiting for spring.

We rediscover the joys of Chinese snack foods, of ramen filled from the hot water tank, pickled peanuts with spicy green chilli, tofu packed in five-spice and scarlet with pepper, hardboiled eggs simmered in tea and soy.

And the land turns green. Miraculously. We have gone from lakes frozen hard enough for skating to liquid paddy pools in the space of a bare few hours, from icy smog to warmth: there are bananas growing here, under plastic.

A whirl of spaghetti junctions, interlocking roadways like something out of Crash, tower blocks of an incongruous terracotta pink. We’re here! Shenzhen.

I check. No, we’re not here. This is another gigantic southern city.

One more hour to go.

We don’t, either of us, feel alien here, even when small children’s eyes almost pop from their head at seeing the laowai on the metro, particularly the lady laowai, loaded down with 35kg (80lb) of bags.

Shenzhen is the terminus, the ne plus ultra of mainland China. We catch the metro to the Hong Kong border – like so many Chinese cities most outsiders have never heard of, Shenzhen has a vast and efficient subway network – and make our way across.

My heart sinks as they stamp out our visas, the ones I’d spent a week on in Kathmandu.

What happens, I think, if the visa agency’s lied to us? We might never come back here again.

I love China.

We are, I think, the pair of us, desensitized by now to most of what makes the country difficult: the elbows, the invasion of personal space, the horrors of Chinese bathrooms, the spitting, the floods of people, people, everywhere.

I actually like these surging hordes of people. Their dynamism, their energy, their no-messing attitude – and, yes, their warmth. I like this ancient culture, surging forth into the twenty-first century, its gigantic cities and tranquil rural landscapes, its heritage, its crazy.

We don’t, either of us, feel alien here, even when small children’s eyes almost pop from their head at seeing the laowai on the metro, particularly the lady laowai, loaded down with 35kg (80lb) of bags.

“You very strong!” someone volunteers in English.

“Not really!” I reply in Chinese.

And we’re through. We’re in Hong Kong. Another day, another currency, another metro system, although this time one we’ve navigated before.

We shed our layers blissfully, swapping thick socks and winter boots for sandals and flip-flops, shedding fleeces and down jackets in favour of jeans and T-s.

“I wish we didn’t have to stay in Mirador Mansions,” says the boy, as we struggle to find the right exit from Tsim Tsa Tsui metro.

“Look,” I say. “I don’t have much money right now. We just need to get the visas sorted.”

I, too, would rather stay elsewhere.

I guess the kindest thing you could say about Mirador Mansions is that it has character. It’s a tall, knackered building, set amid the grimy John Woo high-rises and purpled neon sky of Kowloon, with labouring lifts and infinitely grubby tiles.

We run the gauntlet of touts offering tailoring, Indian food and money changing, and enter the welter of tailors, money-changers, fake electronics shops, cheap bag stores and dubious import businesses. We duck the lift queue and lumber up some litter-strewn stairs to the Garden Hostel (by the time three longterm China people have told you it’s the best budget place in Hong Kong, you kind of have to believe them).

They remember us! And, oh my god, they’re even pleased to see us!

We shed our layers blissfully, swapping thick socks and winter boots for sandals and flip-flops, shedding fleeces and down jackets in favour of jeans and T-s.

Zac heads to the kung fu studio that functions as a communal rest area to clown with their armoury, while I stare at the “wanted poster” for a man who managed to escape owing rent and can’t believe that I met someone who knows him in Beijing.

Did someone say red wine, white-bread packet sandwiches, three packets of Frutips, two packets of Fruit Gums and a Maltesers chaser is not a nutritious evening meal? I’m sorry, I can’t hear you.

I want to eat Indian food. Zac has other plans.

“I want to eat packet sandwiches from the 7-11,” he says.

“WHY?!” I say.

“Because it’s going to be my last chance at sliced white bread Western-style packet sandwiches for the next few months,” he says.

Fair enough, I guess.

I’d also like to go and find us hairy crab, which I’ve seen advertised, although I thought we’d missed the season. But, to be frank, with several nightmarish days of travel quite potentially ahead of us, I’d rather keep my travel companion happy.

And, further, the 7-11 has Western sweets. Including, but not limited to fruit pastilles (Frutips), Fruit Gums (YAY!), Starburst (which I still think of as Opal Fruits) and Maltesers!!!!

Did someone say red wine, white-bread packet sandwiches, three packets of Frutips, two packets of Fruit Gums and a Maltesers chaser is not a nutritious evening meal? I’m sorry, I can’t hear you.

“Pay later,” she says, with Cantonese briskness. “Pick up at 6pm.” SAME DAY?! That can’t be right! I know that’s what they said on the phone. But there has to be a catch, right?!

Our visa agency is on the 9th floor of a rather more swep’-up building than Mirador Mansions.

“I called before,” I say. “I want the 6-month F with the junior 6-month L for my son.”

She hands us the forms.

I fill them out. We’re out of passport photos, so they do one for me. I print out Zac’s birth certificate, which I’ve managed to leave somewhere in Nepal, so I’ve had to get a duplicate mailed to my parents’ home in the UK for scanning.

“Pay later,” she says, with Cantonese briskness. “Pick up at 6pm.”

SAME DAY?!

That can’t be right!

I know that’s what they said on the phone.

There has to be a catch, right?!

We find an Indian place for lunch, then pootle off to the Hong Kong Museum of History, which is, despite its always-embarrassing-for-Britons focus on the Opium Wars, an absolutely splendid museum.

Tomorrow, Zac has decided, he’ll take his Christmas present, in the form of a trip to Ocean Park, his all-time favourite thing to do in Hong Kong.

In fact, I figure, as visa runs go, this has the potential to be really rather pleasant. If only we didn’t have to rush to get back…

4 Comments

  1. Catherine Hartmann says:

    Now Hong Kong is fun, well if you are there because you want to be anyway.

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