Archive for June 30th 1996

Hong Kong Harbour

Boy, these late nights and early mornings are starting to get to me… I spent last night doing a last-minute pre-China email-check at the cyberpub then found some munchies to eat while I caught up on my journal. I woke bleary-eyed at 6am and grabbed a taxi to the airport. For once I actually got one for a reasonable price, only 250 baht. Of course, it was the last taxi I’d take in Thailand on this trip.

I have to say, Thai Air get the award for the slowest check-in so far. They took fifteen minutes to clear the three passengers in front of me, requiring several phone calls and long chats with the girl to the side. At least I had some entertainment as one of the guys behind the desk worked out on the baggage conveyor. Not too hard as there was no baggage going anywhere. Another 250 baht airport tax. I’m not used to this, as tickets between the US and Europe usually include the taxes in the fare. This is becoming a very undesirable drain on my finances.

Landing In Hong Kong

Changed my baht to Hong Kong dollars and wandered the airport for a while looking for something to spend my eight baht change on. Before I changed the money I’d wondered if I should keep some for drinks but didn’t feel thirsty, within a few moments of changing it all I did. Could have guessed. I looked for Yui but couldn’t see her, guess she didn’t make it.

There’s something strange about money. It seems that the money I have in my pocket determines the country that I think I’m in. When my pockets are full of baht I’m intellectually in Thailand, Hong Kong dollars and I’m in Hong Kong, etc. It’s another strange feeling that’s hard to explain. I suppose the ritual money-changing just seems somehow more of an end to my visit than immigration and customs.

Flying into Hong Kong airport was a real experience, even more so than the time I landed there myself in a 747 simulator. There’s a ninety-degree turn just before the runway, and as we flew in to land we were so close to the buildings and other planes that I felt as if I could almost reach out and touch them. At least this wasn’t as exciting as a few decades ago. I once spoke to a guy who’d been in the Air Force back then and flew into Hong Kong on supply flights. The approach path actually came steeply down the mountainside and they’d send the radio operator back to sit on the toilet in the tail and inform the pilot if he was about to hit the ground.

Chungking Mansions

Hong Kong was hot yet again. I picked a guest house at random from the ones I’d underlined in my travel guide and gave them a call. The Kowloon Hotel (actually a Kowloon Hotel, there’s another across the road charging ten times the price) said they had rooms from HK$150 to 350, and I arranged to visit. Changed some more money and took a bus to the hotel, in Tsimshatsui near the infamous Chungking Mansions, where the really cheap travellers’ hostels are. I would like to have saved some money, but I was rather put off the place by the tales I’d heard of the rats being afraid to go out at night for fear of being mugged by the cockroaches.

Touts immediately surrounded the bus, trying to get me to go to their hostels. One followed me all the way while I tried to find the arcade where mine was located, and took a lot of shifting. Two more tried their hand when I got inside.

Took a lift to the 13th floor. The `hotel’ is really a group of flats which have been split up into individual rooms and dorms. Cheap, but not bad for Hong Kong prices. She showed me a HK$180 room, which was small with two beds, a shared bath and a fan rather than air conditioning. Even had a view of the harbor between the skyscrapers, and a view of the vegetable life-form which was engulfing one of the delapidated buildings below like something from a bad fifties SF movie.

A Room With A View

I was grateful to grab a shower, and wished I still had some clean clothes to spare. I had no time for laundry and would need at least one set in China. Blurgh. As soon as I returned to my room rain began to fall outside. I watched the streets for a while, the interesting mix of dirty and rundown skyscrapers and streets packed with neon signs in Chinese and English. Being the tourist area most were for Rolex and expensive Japanese electronics.

Slept for a while, as I hardly had the night before, then got up to catch up on writing. I spent about an hour and a half wandering around the local area getting a rough idea of what was where, then found a Circle-K to grab some munchies and a Citibank machine to take some money out of my bank account. I returned to my room clutching my prize, a bag of potato chips (some strange Japanese seaweed flavor), preserved mango, Sprite and chocolate cake. I dozed off around midnight and woke up again at 4:45am to pack and head for the airport. After a hot night in the room I was glad to be able to shower and change my clothes.

Getting out of the hotel was a bit tricky, as all the doors were locked and when unlocked one was barely wide enough to fit through with all my stuff. Travel light, remember. I took the lift down and stood on Nathan Road (the main drag in Tsimshatsui) looking lost. While I was looking for somewhere with no yellow lines so that a taxi could stop to pick me up, one slammed on the brakes and ushered me rapidly in. I threw my bags in the back, then followed.

The driver was mad, completely and utterly. He stopped for a moment to grab a packet of cigarettes, then we zoomed off. He asked me where I was going and I told him I was visiting a friend who was teaching English in Beijing for a year. He said he was also an English teacher – he taught English to his daughter during the day and then drove taxis at night. He rushed along the roads, sliding the car sideways on corners into the outside lane, forcing the other traffic to get out of his way. `Don’t Worry’ seemed to be his mantra.

For a few moments we discussed the relative insanity of London and Hong Kong taxis, and he was amazed that London taxi-drivers could make enough money if they didn’t drive the way he did. We also thought that perhaps the city should do something like Monaco. Each year they could close off the streets and have a Taxi Grand Prix; `This car Formula One’, he assured me.

I was glad for the seatbelt as he threw the car round the last corner into the airport with squeals from the tyres and brakes. I jumped out and dumped my bags onto the pavement, then with a hint of wheelspin he roared off into the night in search of his next victim, oops, I mean passenger.

Yet another US$15 departure tax. I thought I’d saved money the day before, but now all my savings had vanished. Oh well. Changed some Hong Kong dollars into Chinese Yuan just in case I couldn’t do it in China, then waited for the plane. Took the bus out to it and climbed the steps in front of the idling engine, hoping noone would fall on the throttle and suck me in. A group of Japanese tourists followed, all with expensive video cameras. They filmed each other leaving the bus and walking up the steps and one had to be physically restrained by the stewardess as he tried to film the engine from close up. Like practically inside it…

Yay, a chance to sleep at last. Next stop China!

This travel business is strange. I mean only a few days ago I was in Bangkok, then two flights later I’m back again and Singapore seems just like a dream. Soon I’ll be Hong Kong and I guess that Bangkok will seem just the same.

But then this whole trip feels quite strange. I first decided that I wanted to visit all these countries over ten years ago now, and back then I thought I’d do it between school and university. I never organised that, so all through university I thought I’d work for a year or so afterwards and then do it. Then of course every year my expenditure would approximate my income and I’d pull down the travel guides from my bookshelves, flip through them and think ‘well, maybe next year’.

Now here I am. After all that time I’m sitting in my hotel room writing this, drinking Sprite, munching on potato chips and doughnuts, and listening to the cleaners laughing while they put up the curtains that my room didn’t have last night. Geez, this place is like Grand Central Station at the moment…

Back to the point. For so long these places have just been marks on maps or photos in guide books and now I’m living in one. I’m two weeks into my trip, one country is just a memory and another will join it in a few days. Before too long it will be over and I’ll be back to work with nothing but a few photos and videotapes, souvenirs and memories to look back on. Time is very odd.

Still, I’m glad in some respects that it was delayed for so long. If I’d travelled before now I wouldn’t have been able to meet up with all my net.friends and see all these places from the local viewpoint. That’s certainly adding a nice touch to this trip.