As the plane touched down in Hong Kong we prepared ourselves as we knew it would be different from anything we’d experienced so far. However, we had made it a bit easier on ourselves by choosing to go first to a bit of China that still has a British connection and where English is widely spoken. Hong Kong was a British colony for 100 years until 1997 when it was handed back to the Chinese. The agreement was that China could have it but it would maintain its separate economic system, currency and more western freedoms for at least another 50 years.
We arrived at 10pm into a humid night and caught a bus into the city. It was exciting to speed through the modern city across bridges between islands crammed with skyscrapers. We got off in central Kowloon which is on the mainland just across the water from Hong Kong island. Although it was after 11pm the street was a wide neon lit strip of bright shops. We eventually located our hostel which we got to by walking into a dark run-down shopping mall and taking the elevator to the 12th floor where the elevator doors revealed a dirty passageway open on one side and ringing a central space where you could look right down to the rubbish bins on the 1st floor. A few other grim-faced backpackers were scurrying into various doorways. The receptionist, dispensing with any small talk, straight away told us how much it would be and demanded the money. We paid up and headed to the room. It was the smallest double room that it would be possible to construct.
A tiny entranceway lead to a bedroom that was almost completely filled by a small double bed. There was a gap about 5 inches wide along one side of the bed to stand. The only place to put our luggage was in the entranceway which meant having to climb over it to get in or out of the room. A look under the bed revealed that potentially useful space full of old TVs and other junk. The bathroom was a marvel of miniaturisation. The room was about 3 feet by 3 feet in area and contained toilet, wash basin and was itself the shower room. The door to the bathroom opened inwards so actually getting into the room was a physical test of stepping one side of the toilet, closing the door partially, getting the other leg in, twisting around then closing the door. The bedroom was decorated with white tiles from floor to ceiling so it felt like you were sleeping in a bathroom. We went to bed and struggled to sleep in the heat. There was an aging air-conditioning unit but it struggled and failed to cool even this small room. We had booked for 4 nights but were already thinking about finding somewhere else.
The next morning we woke and got ready to go out which was a game of “You move over there while I climb over the bags and try to get to the bathroom”. Despite the room we were excited to be in a new country and new continent. Stepping out into the daylight we were hit by the sights, sounds and smells of China. It was busy with shoppers so we went down a side street to find some food. In the humidity the smells of food, exhaust and dirt combined in one intoxicating ever-changing soup of thick air that we pushed through, passing many shops selling unusual products, dried fish and meat, or strange vegetables we’d never seen before. We saw a restaurant that looked busy and walked in just to have a look at a menu as we were a bit nervous about the Chinese food but before we new it we were shown to a table and sat down – “Guess we’re eating here then”. I had beef and rice and Jenn had a mushroom and celery dish. We had heard stories about how bad the food can be in China but our first sample was not too bad although my beef was rather chewy and tough and surprisingly spicy.
We took the train to Hong Kong island then transferred to a very old-fashioned wooden tram that took us to the old part of town. Shops selling Chinese medicine or dried seafood integrated strangely with the skyscrapers above. We went into a café for afternoon tea and cakes which is a little different in China. The tea was served in a jug and was free and unlimited. We saw three different deserts on the menu for less than a pound so ordered them all. Two came in bowls and were like sweet soup, one hot and one cold. The third was a kind of jelly with petals in it.
In the evening we went to Soho, an area of bars and restaurants where the expats and foreign tourists hang out. It consists of many small roads built into a steep hillside complete with an outdoor escalator to take people there from the metro station several blocks downhill. It suddenly felt like the Soho in London with British pubs and many people standing outside with pints of beer in their hand talking loudly just like back home. Jenn homed in on a Mexican restaurant and couldn’t resist the call of the burrito. The food was good, Jenn had a burrito and I had a very spicy chile con carne and we thought that this might be our last mexican food for a while.
After another hot and sticky night in our little room we decided to move to another hotel for the last two nights. We phoned around and located one on the nearby island of Lamma. Unfortunately they had only one room left and they wouldn’t hold the room unless we did a bank transfer into the hotel bank account. We explained that this is difficult to do from a UK bank and takes two days to go through and that we would be there in a couple of hours to check in and could bring cash. Credit cards are not really done in China. They said to get the ferry to the island and call them from the ferry port and if the room was still available they would be generous enough to hold it for 30 mins until we got there. So we caught the ferry the 25 minutes to Lamma island which is only accessable by sea.
There was a great view of the Hong Kong skyline from the ferry with dozens and dozens of skyscrapers lined up by the water’s edge and then piled up behind up the hill until it gets too steep to build on and the concrete gives way to hills and forest. It’s a kind of old modern city, great towering buildings that have had time to fade and show signs of grime and flaking paint. We arrived at the island and phoned the hotel. The room we wanted had been taken by someone else in the time it took us to get to the island and they were now full. So here we were on the island but with nowhere to stay.
We walked into the village of Yung Shue Wan and saw a small hotel. They had one room left which we took. It was a little add-on built up on the roof of the three storey hotel and slightly bigger than the one in Kowloon but much nicer with its own huge roof terrace overlooking the harbour and sea. The island is rural, quite and peaceful without any cars as the streets are just narrow paths.
The village was a low-rise collection of old ramshackle but charming houses, most looking like they were built by the owners out of whatever they could find; corrugated iron, wood panels and occasionally bricks. Walking through the village, it has a very laid back relaxed feel with locals and tourists wandering around the maze of pathways.
There are many shops and cafes selling traditional chinese food but also some catering to a western palate, so you have boiled seafood on one side of the street and chicken and avocado baguettes on the other. Today we chose the western side and ate at the very pleasant Green Cottage Cafe. We walked out of the village along one of the many walking trails that wind up through the hills and forests. We arrived at a very inviting beach with many locals going for a dip. We joined them in the water, a welcome relief from the heat. If you stand on the beach and look to the left the white sand beach gives way to the blue sea in a shallow bay with wooded hills rising from the water. However, look in the other direction to the right and the view is dominated by a huge coal power station on the water’s edge but the locals didn’t seem to mind. Also the swimming area was protected by lifeguards and a shark net which I wasn’t sure made me feel more safe or less safe.
Later on I began to feel a bit sick, probably from one of the meals or from accidentally drinking the water or maybe from something lurking in our Kowloon hotel room. The next morning we headed to Hong Kong island where Jenn had arranged for us to have an aromatheorapy massage each. It was my first ever massage and I came out feeling more loose if a little sore in places.
After the massage we went to a local indoor market which had a whole floor of fruit and veg stalls selling some things we recognised and some we didn’t. On the floor above was a big canteen style restaurant, a real locals place with the kitchen in the same room as the tables. Around us the other customers were spooning and slurping mouthfuls of noodles, rice and meat into their mouths. I ordered singapore fried rice as it is something I’d heard of and Jenn order a chicken dish. Mine was OK but again far more spicy than I was used to from my local Chinese takeaway and I don’t think it was helping my sore stomach. Jenn’s chicken was cooked by hacking up a whole chicken and cooking it bones and all. In fact the Chinese prefer it with bones as it proves the meat is real and gives more flavour. Sometimes they put every part of the chicken in the pot including head and feet. Jenn found it hard to eat as she often got a mouthful containing shards of broken bones. Leaving much on our plates, we headed off to find an internet cafe. Not for the first time this became a wild goose chase of going to cafes that existed in the guide-book but not in real life. We spent some time in a local park where they had free internet and used our phones to search for an internet cafe as we needed an actual computer to update our blog. It started to pour with rain so we sheltered with the locals and watched the heavy raindrops explode on the dusty ground.
After a few hours in an internet cafe we caught a night ferry to our Lamma retreat. We ate at a friendly Chinese restaurant where it seemed the owners and whole extended family were relaxing in there watching TV. We ordered two dishes which again turned out to be some of the spiciest food we’d ever eaten. After trying to cool down my mouth with beer we went back to the hotel to sleep.
I got up extra early in the morning as I wanted to explore the trails further inland before we had to leave the island. It was 6.30am and the village was already awake with the local cafe doing a roaring trade in steamed seafood breakfasts. Leaving Jenn in bed, I walked through the backstreets of the village and out into the hills as the day warmed up along a path that wound through a landscape of trees and shrubs.
I pushed on towards the village of Sok Kwu Wan located in a bay. As I approached I passed very rural dwellings little more than shacks. An old man was sweeping in front of his house and an old woman was sitting in a small field planting crops. The village itself is down by the waters edge and I saw a collection of small shacks on stilts out in the water where the locals fished and stored their boats. The village has a row of fish restaurants along its main road. Outside each is a tank of live fish – it’s one way to keep the ingredients fresh. I bought a bottle of water to see me back and set off. It was very different to walk on my own, just me and the surroundings and the three-hour walk and was a real experience as I saw a rural side of Hong Kong that I never knew existed.
After breakfast we set off to Hong Kong island where we took a train towards the border with China proper. From there we planned to take an overnight train 600 km north to Guilin. Our local train from Hong kong island went north into Kowloon, which is on the Chinese mainland but still part of Hong Kong, and then further north passed tower block after tower block until we reached Shenzen 40 km away and the border between Hong Kong and China. We got off the train and went through the Hong Kong passport control and then finally through to the Chinese immigration control. We were a little nervous as they are fairly careful who they let in but with our visas in place we went through with no problem. It felt psychologically very different to be in the Peoples Republic, gone were the signs in English, and serious looking officials lurked here and there. We muddled our way into the Chinese part of the train station where we found the specific waiting room for the train to Guilin. It’s disconcerting to see a departure board completely full of chinese characters but thankfully they do use normal numbers which helps a bit and occasionally the destinations are in both Chinese and English. Suddenly everyone in the waiting room got up and we followed them down to the platform and got on the train. We had booked our ticket in advance in Hong Kong and written on it is the number of the carriage and sleeping birth.
We had booked a soft sleeper which is one up from a hard sleeper and the compartment had four beds and was quite luxurious compared to the European sleepers with a fancy tablecloth on the table, quilted covers on the beds and even a flask of hot water to share. There were two others in our compartment and both of them spent most of their time playing games on their mobile phones. A lot of people were eating giant Pot Noodles that were being sold on the train. We bought one and one of the guys in the compartment helpfully explained using hand gestures that we can use the hot water from the flask. Later we went to the dining car which has a full restaurant and kitchen. I ordered beef with green peppers which I thought would be bell peppers but turned out to be chile peppers. I couldn’t seem to escape spicy food and my stomach was still not too good.
As night fell we got into our bunks and were rocked to sleep dreaming of what was to come in China.