You could say that landing in Hong Kong by night after thirteen long hours spent eating highly questionable airline food, watching ruthlessly edited in flight movies and breathing cold, dry, recycled air whilst Faye lay with her head on my shoulder, gently drooling onto my shirt collar felt like something of a relief. But that would be like saying that George Best liked the odd glass of wine with friends. I quite simply couldn’t wait to get off the plane. My intensely irrational fear of flying had kept me both wide awake and bolt upright for the duration of the journey, painfully aware of every tiny shake, quiver and judder of turbulence the aircraft experienced. My hands had been gripping the rigid plastic armrests so tightly and for so long that I was unsure as to whether I would be able to let go of them when the time finally came to get off the plane.
I also seemed to have once again developed what I call my ‘spidersense’, a phenomenon that occurs every time that I set foot on a plane. This consists of an almost superhuman sense of hearing, the tiniest sound amplified in my mind to some precursory indication that the wings were about to fall off and we were all going to plunge, screaming into the side of a mountain, to die in a ball of flames or survive for a few more painful weeks, cold and hungry in the unforgiving, isolated wilderness of some far flung dictatorship.
Luckily for me, I had already planned for this eventuality by watching endless long hours of Ray Mears and the Bush Tucker Man happily surviving, in fact thriving, in some of the harshest environments in the world, accompanied by the gentle noodlings of some dreadlocked, pot smoking acoustic guitarist who always seems to be just off camera.
This somewhat heightened state of mind was probably eased slightly by my excessive alcohol consumption since arriving at Heathrow about fifteen or sixteen hours earlier. Not to mention the two packs of seemingly totally pointless nicotine gum that I had chewed my way through whilst on board the plane. However if it was then it was an imperceptible chip out of what was otherwise a mountain of irrational anxiety.
Interestingly, since banning smoking on all flights, airlines have saved a hefty fortune recycling the air that we breathe in the cabin. Before smoking was banned by airlines, the air that we breathed was completely replaced every three minutes. Now they use a mixture of fresh and recycled air, saving a not insignificant six percent on their fuel bills. The downside to this is that levels of carbon dioxide in the cabin are significantly higher, causing various unpleasant side effects, not least a sizeable increase in airborne bacteria and an elevated likelihood of ‘air rage’ incidents. This in turn means that the majority of modern day travellers leave their flights in a bad mood and are quite possibly ‘coming down with something’ too. 1
However, all of this is very suddenly forgotten as Hong Kong finally begins to slowly creep into view like a burning beacon on the dark horizon. Edging its way closer until before you know it you have flown right over it and are now watching it out of the cabin window. The plane then banks steeply around on itself, allowing you a momentary glimpse of the vista below and joins the stack of aircraft waiting for their turn to touch down.
The view from the cabin as the plane begins circling the city is nothing short of phenomenal. Neon clad buildings reach into the clouds in juxtaposition with the tree covered slopes that enclose the city like a huge, natural medieval curtain wall, all starkly silhouetted against the dark horizon. Huge billboards advertising familiar western brands tower alongside their more exotic cousins which stand beside them, equally as colourful and splashed with Chinese characters, serving to illustrate the influence that one hundred and fifty six years of British rule has had on the city’s culture. From the air the city appears infinite, sprawling and twinkling below you as if the stars themselves have fallen from the sky and carpeted the ground beneath. Yet, at the same time Hong Kong appears insurmountably finite, hemmed in by the hills and ocean that surround it like a beautifully iridescent jewelled egg nestled snugly in the majestic landscape.
As the city has developed over the last thirty thousand years from the collection of small Stone Age settlements uncovered by archaeologists beneath the foundations of the city into the vast metropolis that it forms today, these obvious topographical limitations have had to be overcome. Instead of sprawling endlessly outwards as many modern cities have, Hong Kong has had no choice but to build upwards. As a result of this almost every building in the city is at least ten stories high.
As the plane embarks on its final approach it becomes apparent that the runway in fact stretches out into the sea. This is not a pleasant realisation to dawn on a person, particularly when that person is mortally afraid of flying. Thankfully though, as I’ve mentioned, I had been wise enough to get drunk in the extortionately expensive Irish bar in Heathrow airport by sharing more than a few beers with family and friends who had come to see us off on our big adventure. Outwardly, of course, I endeavoured to appear cool and relaxed although it was probably fairly obvious that I was trying to consume as much alcohol as was humanly possible before the last call to board the flight. I continued along a similar vein once on board the flight and nearly fifteen hours of Dutch courage coupled with the magnificent vista stretched out beneath the plane seemed to ease the stress of grappling with my irrational fears for over half a day more than a little.
Singapore Airlines had also presumably pre-empted my nerves and decided that in order to help me to clear my mind of any unwelcome images of every disastrous plane crash I had ever seen on the BBC news, that they would crew the plane with a harem of stunning oriental beauties instead of the usual effeminate ‘bachelors’ that serve refreshments on the majority of long haul flights. This pleasantly surprising upgrade in scenery allowed me to steady myself enough to keep the yelps, cries and shouts that usually punctuate any flight that I take to a minimum, even during take off and landing, managing to only lose control momentarily during a couple of particularly bumpy bouts of turbulence.
Only about twenty minutes after Hong Kong had appeared on the horizon the plane touched down gently onto the tarmac and taxied up to the terminal. Waiting at the end of the tunnel was an extraordinarily stern looking gentleman dressed in what appeared to be the kind of dark green military uniform preferred the world over by despots and dictators. A small pistol was holstered on his belt in what seemed to be a deliberately visible fashion. Naturally I nodded at him and smiled the ridiculous smile of a tourist embarking on a new trip from under the wide brimmed leather hat that I had been wearing, perched on top of my head since leaving the house the previous morning. This gesture was met only with silence and an almost imperceptible increase in the intensity of his stare and so I took Faye’s hand and we made our way swiftly past him to the luggage carousel to see if our backpacks and my guitar had been kind enough to come to Hong Kong with us.
Thankfully they had. So we joined the crowd of people, not really knowing where we needed to go next, and let ourselves get swept away by them in the hope that they had a little more idea of where they were going than we did. Sure enough after swirling and eddying our way through a maze of corridors the crowd became a queue. The queue for customs in fact, which turned out to be a surprisingly painless affair considering that we had just arrived in what some suggest may be a communist ‘Police State’.
Having made our way fairly effortlessly through customs we walked out into the main building of the airport. A huge modern glass structure enclosed this part of the terminal like an enormous greenhouse. It was one of those buildings that are very aesthetically pleasing but you can’t help but wonder why they have made it so big. And when I say big I don’t just mean big. I mean enormous, cavernous, colossal even. At ground level it was a triumph of engineering that Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself would have been proud of. Everything had clearly been meticulously thought out in order to arrange things in a logical and useful manner. However it seemed to be about thirty times taller than it really needed to be, as if the comrade who had designed it was perhaps trying to make up for certain shortcomings in other, more personal areas of his life.
And speaking of over compensation, that brings me neatly on to the subject of the airport security. As if the cheerful chap who greeted us from the plane was not intimidating enough, then the airport police most certainly were. As wide as they were tall, sporting mirrored aviator sunglasses, clothed in blue combat uniforms reminiscent of a hundred appalling Jean Claude Van Damme movies and carrying machine guns that would not have looked out of place bolted to the side of H.M.S. Invincible they stood dotted around the building ominously eying every traveller with a worrying degree of suspicion.
We made our way past these humourless, posing sentinels, through the airport and towards the exit, eager now to get to the hotel that I had booked online some time before. It was not long until we were accosted by a friendly man who asked if we needed a taxi. Obviously he had noticed the huge backpacks we were pushing along on our luggage trolley, the lost looks on our faces and of course the big leather hat that all inexperienced tourists feel obliged to wear and decided to come dashing to our aid. Faye argued that there was probably a much cheaper bus that would take us to our destination but I insisted that we should trust this man as he was nice enough to have already taken control of the luggage trolley for us and so in my infinite wisdom we followed him out to the taxi rank, loaded up the bags and hopped into the back of the taxi.
Oddly the man who had taken us there was simply a passenger and the driver himself, who looked strangely like a Chinese version of Lee Van Cleef in ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’, was waiting in the car for us. He looked into the rear view mirror at us and smiled, obviously impressed by my big leather hat and so I smiled back with pride. The journey didn’t take nearly as long as expected and we passed the time chatting with the driver and his companion about the pros, pros and further pros of David Beckham who for some inexplicable reason seems to be considered as some sort of deity in China.
When we arrived at the Hotel, the prestigious sounding although in fact triumphantly middle of the road Ramada Kowloon we paid the driver $600 which it seems after further research was in fact just under twice the going rate, although of course we had no idea at the time. We realised the next day as we took a walk around Kowloon that we could account for this discrepancy because we had driven along pretty much every road on the island en route to the Ramada before finally turning into the one where our hotel was situated.
I had heard terrible stories from all the usual sparsely travelled doom-mongers back in England about taxi drivers dropping you off and then making off with your bags before you reached the boot of the car so I was almost pleasantly surprised that he had simply realised that we had no real idea of where we were or where we were heading and taken the piss a little bit. Something that we weren’t unfamiliar with from years of experience dealing with cabbies in London. Faye suggested that perhaps my big leather hat had incurred some sort of penalty charge but of course I knew that couldn’t possibly be the case because it was my hat which had secured us the taxi in the first place.
The hotel was rather nicer than I had secretly expected given the decidedly modest price I had paid for the room. The room was basic but clean and the view from the window across the city was outstanding. Even though it didn’t incorporate anything particularly remarkable or beautiful the view typified Hong Kong with its bright lights, tall buildings, endless crowds of people and as it turned out in the morning, fabulous sunsets. We took a quick shower and then headed down to the hotel bar for a quick drink. Faye had a glass of wine and I opted for a pint of Guinness which had most likely travelled as far as I had to get to my table and tasted like it had too. By now it was about half past eight in the evening so we drank up and headed out into the night to explore the city a little and get something to eat.
I had been quite excited by the idea of trying some of the local delicacies but unfortunately Faye’s vegetarianism proved a hindrance to this plan and instead we found a little café where we could enjoy jacket potatoes with cheese. Although a little disappointed by our extraordinarily anglicised meal, I was pleased that it looked and tasted like a jacket potato with cheese in stark contrast to the tasteless grey food we had eaten on the plane hours before.
The air was heavy with humidity in Hong Kong at this time of year. Clouds hung over the city, constantly threatening to rain. This kind of humidity heightens the inevitable fishy smells of any international port and Hong Kong was no exception. If anything I quite liked the smells that wafted through the streets but Faye was somewhat less enthusiastic about them. The strong fishy aromas disagreed with her sensitive vegetarian nasal palate, something that she wasn’t afraid to mention on a number of occasions. Much to my embarrassment.
Once we had polished off our dinner we headed back out into the night in search of the legendary bargains that Hong Kong has to offer. We had read in the tourist guides that the street markets were full of clothes and souvenirs that could be picked up for next to nothing as long as you weren’t afraid to barter with the sellers. We both found this idea quite appealing and so we asked a local couple where the closest market was. Following their directions we realised that the market was conveniently just around the corner from our hotel. Faye’s mother’s birthday was coming up in the next couple of weeks and we thought it would be nice to send her something back from our travels. At this point we were on a strict self imposed budget designed mainly to minimise unnecessary spending on extortionately priced taxis and other such frivolities.
After a preliminary wander around the stalls we decided to try our hand at bartering and so we went into a little canvas canopied stall which was selling traditional Chinese clothing and picked out a beautiful red silk blouse, patterned with tiny flowers and cut in that classically elegant high necked Chinese style that is recognised all over the world. I asked the stallholder how much he wanted for it and was surprised when he said only $30. At the time the only thing I had to compare that with was the taxi fare from the airport to the hotel earlier that evening and based on that it seemed to be a pretty reasonable price.
Faye reminded me that although it may seem reasonable I had to bear in mind that I was still wearing my big leather hat which seemed to carry with it some sort of ‘headgear levy’ that would at least double the cost of any transaction, and so taking that into account she took over from me and expertly persuaded him to part with it for only $10 instead. Pleased with our purchase we walked back out from under the canvas and into the warm sticky night air again before Faye turned to me and whispered,
‘You might want to leave that hat in the hotel room tomorrow.’
As it happened, Faye, the Big Leather Hat and I didn’t see very much of tomorrow as our confused body clocks kept us awake until seven o’clock the following morning. We went for another drink in a bar near the hotel before heading back at about one o’clock in the morning. We tiptoed past the sleeping concierge and headed back up to our room from where we watched people milling around in the streets below.
Eventually we realised that sleep was not going to happen so we went back out and took a stroll around the still lively streets. People in Hong Kong don’t seem to rest unless they are at work. The streets were full of people wandering between bars, cafés and late night eateries enjoying themselves into the early hours of the morning and beyond while occasionally you would catch site of a group of labourers sleeping around the edge of a hole that they clearly should have been digging, a telephone engineer asleep in the bottom of a phone booth that he is clearly supposed to be fixing and of course the sleeping concierge in our hotel lobby whom we crept passed for a second time just before seven o’clock in the morning as we finally made our way to bed.
We awoke the next afternoon at around 3 o’clock and decided to try and make the most of what was left of our only full day in Hong Kong and go and explore the local area some more. As Faye had suggested the night before, I chose to leave my hat in the hotel room in an attempt to save us some money and in its place I picked out a fetching orange bandana to keep the hair out of my eyes.
We walked for hours around Kowloon with no real idea of where we were going or indeed where we had been but it was exciting just to spend some time wandering around a city so different from any that we had visited before. Huge buildings towered either side of the long straight roads and stretched across the streets, starting about thirty feet up and going on upwards to the full height of the buildings were wires bearing colourful Chinese characters. Hong Kong is as colourful during the day as it is by night. And at street level thousands upon thousands of people flowed through the valleys between the high rise buildings as a river flows through an ancient gorge. Everywhere we went it seemed as though all of China had come with us.
Indoor shopping malls teemed with people shopping in surprisingly familiar retailers, but unlike the sprawling out of town shopping centres we are used to in the West these were compact shopping areas built around the inside of the skyscrapers, each floor connected to the next by escalators and elevators. Commerce seemed to be central to Hong Kong’s existence which was odd as it is ruled by a communist government. I suppose that this odd mix of communism and capitalism is yet another manifestation of Hong Kong’s recent British colonial history.
After grabbing a bite to eat from one of the many stalls selling noodles in the street we ducked into an internet café, bought ourselves a cold drink and spent an hour emailing friends and families to let them know that we had arrived safely, were having a good time and that apart from the taxi debacle everything had gone pretty smoothly so far.
When we got back out into the street, darkness was beginning to descend and so we decided to start making our way back to the hotel. We asked a busker for directions, partly because he was white and so there was a fair chance that he would speak English but mainly because he was playing some fantastic Hendrix style chops on a beautiful Fender Stratocaster and I wanted to have a closer look. He pointed out where we were and where we needed to go on our tourist map and we began to make our way back across town. Unfortunately even with the map we had very little idea of where we actually were and proceeded to wander around fairly aimlessly for the next half an hour. This began to frustrate Faye who was worried that we would never find our way back to the hotel. She also seemed to be convinced that the map was some sort of forgery, printed by some maverick cartographer, eventually deciding that it was of less use to us in the situation than a copy of War and Peace, promptly screwed it up into a ball and deposited it in the nearest litter bin. I was slightly annoyed by this as I felt that if anything it would be detrimental to our predicament and I didn’t particularly fancy chancing another taxi. Miraculously though, just around the next corner was the market we had visited the night before.
Pleased by this unexpected providence we started to wind our way through the stalls towards our hotel. As we neared our destination it started to rain. A kind of rain that neither of us had experienced before. A tropical rain. It seemed to arrive from nowhere, a torrential downpour that lasted nearly three quarters of an hour before stopping as suddenly as it had begun. It was warm but refreshing after the humidity we had been experiencing before and for a few hours after the air was fresher, sweeter and less stifling, cleared and temporarily refreshed by the rainfall.
We stopped at a seven eleven on the way back and I grabbed a fresh packet of cigarettes and a couple of cabbage flavoured pot noodle type snacks to eat (which although hardly ‘cordon bleu’ were not as disgusting as one might have expected them to be) before we made our way back to the hotel for a quick drink in the bar before bed as we had a plane to catch in the morning.
A quick drink turned inevitably into a few more as we began to set a boozy precedent for ourselves which we were to studiously honour for the rest of the trip. Eventually the barman politely reminded us that the bar was about to close and that if we wished to continue drinking then there was an excellent selection of beverages provided in the mini bar in our room. We duly obliged to his suggestion and headed upstairs where we spent what remained of our last night in Hong Kong watching the endless ebb and flow of the sleepless crowds as they ate, drank, shopped and generally did everything but sleep until we could keep our eyes open no longer and we finally turned in.
In the morning we packed up our limited possessions and waited outside the hotel, where we had been told by the concierge that every half hour a bus would stop and pick up passengers en route to the airport. The cost of this bus…two dollars. Needless to say I felt like a bloody fool.