Sunday, 19 June 2011

China (and Hong Kong and Macau)

Hong Kong
I left Lhasa on the two-day train bound for Chengdu, the highest train in the world. Tibet had left me without a proper Chinese visa – the ‘punishment’ for entering Tibet is to grant visitors less than three weeks in China, including Tibet. So it was going to have to be a quick skip through!

The train was modern and comfortable, even with there being six people to one cabin including the obligatory weird human who doesn’t seem to need as much as sleep as you. There were just two other tourists on board (well, non-Chinese ones anyway) and the three of us spent as much time in the restaurant car as possible. We became obsessed with our new game of trying to order something we actually wanted to eat. An ‘English’ menu existed, but whenever the food arrived it was the polar opposite of the written description. And pointing at other people’s food was, bizarrely, also useless: we would point, the waitress would point, we would nod, and she would nod in confirmation; but then instead of a bowl of noodles with pork, a plate of grizzly chicken laden with chillies would appear. It was a source of constant amusement and frustration.

One of the most endearing things about China is its inability to translate anything into English totally correctly. Of course, I don’t expect there to be English everywhere (or even anywhere), but when something is translated, why does it have to be so comically wrong? For example, there’s a hot water dispenser at the end of every carriage and above it, engraved into a metal plaque, is a notice that probably warns people of the danger of said hot water. It’s translated into English underneath; it simply says, “Care bear.” How has this happened? I’m convinced a man in government somewhere is having a long, hearty chuckle to himself.

As the train crossed the snowy Tibetan plateau everyone began to feel the effects of altitude again. The Qingzang railway reaches a high point of 5072m, making it the highest railway in the world. Oxygen is provided on board and several people, visibly sick from AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), had to make use of it. Finally, after 42 hours and bang on schedule we arrived into Chengdu, the largest city in Sichuan province. I headed straight to my CouchSurfing host’s flat, the penthouse suite of one of the many new high-rise buildings in the centre of the city. The views from the 42nd floor were magnificent and the sofa long and comfortable, but best of all was the hospitality shown towards me. I was treated to a tour around all the old (not many) and new sights (many) of Chengdu, sampling its culture and food. We wandered through the ancient streets and over the vast central square where Mao still looms, the arm of his statue stretched out in a greeting. My host looked at him and said, “He made many mistakes.” Quite.

View over Chengdu centre with the Funan River running through it.
Chengdu is thousands of miles from the sea in all directions but you wouldn’t guess so: it’s modern, clean and has a progressive feel to it, as if the people are going somewhere. The Sichuan food is incredible and a big relief after the tasty but repetitive Tibetan food. It’s famed for its hotpots and spicy meat dishes. It’s the kind of spice that doesn’t overwhelm you, just makes you salivate incessantly, leaving you desperate for more no matter how full you are. The old clichĂ© is true: the greasy Chinese food at home just doesn’t compare. As in the rest of China, all parts of the animal are eaten. I was pushed into eating a rabbit’s head from a street stall: it’s not that bad, just hard to get at the meat and you have to poke the eyes out from the back, using your little finger to push through the bottom of the jaw. It’s just a bit fiddly.

That evening we went for drinks in a bar on the banks of the Mother River (Funan), where the young, educated locals come to relax. Every bar provides everyone with a cup and five dice. It wasn’t long before I found out why, being dragged into a simple but addictive drinking game involving counting (something that becomes decidedly harder as the game progresses). The sound of shaking dice and thumping as cups hit tables went on long into the night. Back at the flat we watched the city from above, just as busy in the middle of the night as it was during the day.

I boarded another two-night train heading south. It was just as modern and comfortable (I’m certain Chinese trains are the best in the world) and provided the same guess-the-dish entertainment, as well as people wearing hilarious Engrish tops saying in bright, big letters things such as, “Anniversary: a yearly date to be remembered for something important.” I think it’s good that dictionary definitions of English words are broadcast on clothing. Maybe next time I come back they’ll be up to z. The scenery was now hilly, lush and green, with pronounced pointy hills punctuating the landscape. We shot past lone farmers working the rice paddies and small wooden villages with their unmistakably Chinese curved roofs.

Landscape as viewed from the train window between Chengdu and Guangzhou.
I arrived in Guangzhou, Guangdong province early in the morning but it was already insanely hot and humid. After months in the mountains I’d forgotten what Asia was really like and now I was being reminded. It’s like being repeatedly slapped in the face by a hot fish. My host here didn’t have AC but I suppose it was a good way to reacclimatise myself! I spent the day sweating my way around the city, through its parks (one of which had a sign on the grass saying “Dear, don’t trample me!”) and across to tiny Shamian Island, once occupied by both the French and British (they had opposite ends, only a few hundred metres apart). Somehow Guangzhou doesn’t feel as clean or as modern, but it certainly has more of a soul, an obvious history to it. That evening my host came up with the perfect idea: to go swimming in the local open-air pool. It took me a while to figure out all the rules (must wear very tight shorts, must wear a hat, etc.) but it was a big relief from the oppressive air.

The old colonial buildings of Shamian Island, Guangzhou.
My final stop in mainland China was Shenzhen, just an hour by fast train from Guangzhou. This part of China is just city after city, all rolling into one. I didn’t have long here but it was enough time to consume as much Chinese food as possible before walking across the border to Hong Kong. My lack of visa caused an issue at the Hong Kong border post: my Tibetan permit was stamped and taken off me at the Chinese exit point, leaving me with no Chinese stamps in my passport. The Hong Kong officials were more than a little confused but, as I explained to them, I couldn’t have arrived from anywhere but China.

Shenzhen, the last city before Hong Kong.
The difference between Hong Kong and China is strange. Although it’s now officially part of China, the laws and freedoms in place during the British era are still there. The cars drive on the left again, and the internet is not blocked. On the first evening I met up with my brother and his girlfriend (on their way back from Australia) and we went along to the 4th June Tiananmen Square remembrance event in Victoria Park. Whereas the massacre that took place in 1989 is barely known about in mainland China (one of my hosts didn’t know what I was talking about), there is a huge night of speeches and a candlelit vigil every year in Hong Kong. The same goes for other things the Chinese government would rather keep quiet: there are constant protests and displays about various Chinese atrocities/torture/imprisonments. I don’t know what will happen when it’s finally absorbed back into China proper (the Chinese government says it will be allowed to have autonomy until 2047), but hopefully China will be somewhat different by then.

Candlelit vigil in Hong Kong to mark the Tiananmen protests of 1989.
I spent a couple of days wandering around. On Sunday all the Filipino housemaids take advantage of their day off to come out on to the streets to socialise. There are open air masses, dances and lots of bingo – quite why this all has to take place in the middle of the road I don’t understand. In the middle of Hong Kong Island is something handy yet weird: a series of escalators running up the hillside. I got off at various points, at one of which was a mosque. A local man showed me about, explaining the finer points of Islam to me. He asked me if I believed in God. “No,” I replied. “Great!” he exclaimed, “In Islam we always say two things. The first is, There is no God. The second is, Except God. That means you’re halfway there!”

Before my brother and his girlfriend left we spent a morning at the Dragon Boat races, the annual Tuen Ng festival where too many men get into colourful little boats and row them frantically down a river to the beat of a drum. It’s like the Oxbridge boat race, but with better weather and less Pimms.

Dragon Boat races at Sha Tin, Hong Kong.
I went to Macau for the day, the casinos looming large on the horizon, beckoning the punters from Hong Kong and China where gambling is prohibited. It’s rather Vegas-esque, with huge golden palaces and shoddy recreations of famous landmarks – the Potala had me laughing! But venture into the old centre and one finds authentic Portuguese buildings, peaceful parks, Buddhist temples and colonial fortresses. Although it’s crowded, it feels much more liveable than Hong Kong, whose huge buildings lend it a rather claustrophobic atmosphere. In Macau, the low skyline and crumbling, colourfully terraced buildings give it a relaxed, welcoming air. Best of all, the shops still bake Portuguese cakes: I walked up and down the same road twenty times tasting the free samples of almond biscuits and egg tarts. Us foreigners all look alike, you see.

Old Portuguese buildings mixing it with huge casinos in Macau.
Back in Hong Kong, I had a wonderful end to my short Chinese trip, staying with an old friend and his fiancĂ© in their apartment. Despite their wedding being just days away, they looked after me and went out of their way to take me to huge family dinners. I relaxed in their air conditioned apartment until it was time for me to leave – a short flight to Indonesia, back to Asia proper.

Hong Kong Island


  1. Nice to recognize some of your funny remarks about the Chinese way of English writing: we had the same experience when we were there. By the way, should you ever want to go back to Chengdu Vincent would like to join you! Love from Holland, Esther

  2. It is pity that you were here for only one night. Next time you go back to Chengdu, I would like to invite you to hotpots and many other amazing sichuan foods. To see the pandas, the Leshan Giant Buddha (the largest Buddha in China), and to join our parties for drinks! Cindy