Heaven in Hong Kong, Hell in Shenzhen
Our holiday during the Spring Festival had many levels. They spanned the most extreme ends of the spectrum. Pure elation. Complete and utter misery. It was all there. For twelve days, we got the hell out of the frozen wasteland that is Daqing and booked it down to the 70°F haven of Hong Kong. Kate's parents were flying in from London and would be spending five days with us, then we would head out to the New Territories for a glorious buffet of mountains, ridges, hills, beaches, trees, wildlife and basically everything we've been missing in Heilongjiang. That was the plan.
The Good Part
Day 1 - After being cheated by taxi drivers for a second time, but too exhausted to fight back, we make it to Harbin's airport. Hahaha, Harbin's airport. It consists of a singular shop with a string of sausages draped over it, even before it opens. I stepped into the bathroom to find myself an inch deep in shit-water. Someone already managed to flood it with 15 minutes of being open. Arriving in Shanghai, which has a motherfucking Subway, was like arriving in Manhattan after spending two years in Somalia. That's what I think about Harbin's airport.
Day 2 - If you’re going to be in Hong Kong for any amount of time, I suppose an obligatory trip to the Big Buddha on Lantau island is in order. On the way there, we are awed by the city's MTR system. Kate and her parents even admit that it's better than London's Tube. Even a country bumpkin like me can figure it out. We take a scenic, air-conditioned cable car through the mountains and mock the people that decided to walk up, although I wouldn't mind being one of them. The Buddha is impressive and has, for less enlightened people, a huge swastika emblazoned on its chest. And if you're a true believer, there's a bone relic inside. I was personally more interested in a vegetarian lunch within the monastery.
Day 3 - I expected Hong Kong to be a heaving mass of metal and concrete, but as we moved about to the different areas, the more amazed we were at how well the nature and the city are meshed. The Peak is a great example. The bus journey from Central alone validated the Hong Kongers' nickname for the place, the City of Life. It was there between the peaks, on the ridges and in the valleys, both urban and natural. The shopping mall on top of the Peak was a little much, but interesting to say the least and probably one of Starbuck's most unique locations. Forget your venti-soy-double-first-world-sludgacino, the reason to be on the Peak is the 4km path around it. It's more work than the Star Ferry, but the panorama of the city from above will be your reward.
Day 4 - We tackle our first real hike of Hong Kong, the Dragon's Back. The ridges resemble the shape of - wait for it - a dragon's back. A Chinese dragon though, not the Smaug variety. I can't express how invigorating it was to actually tackle some elevation after the sucking inertia of Daqing's complete flatness. Later that evening, we hiked through the red light district in pursuit of...burritos. There's not one, but TWO Mexican restaurants in Hong Kong! I tried to maintain at least a baser level of civility while destroying the rarity of non-Chinese ethnic food.
Day 5 - I broke off from the group today to work on an interview for my hometown heroes, AMPLIFIER zine. After basking in my Q-list blogger fame, we regroup for Chinese New Year fireworks over Victoria Harbor. I thought New Year's fireworks in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland were pretty spectacular, and they are, but Hong Kong just takes the cake. There were flowers, blasts in the shape of the number 8 (8 is lucky) and "Happy New Year" written in Chinese characters. Already overachieving, the pyrotechnics send up blasts in the shape of horseshoes and horse heads (it's the year of the horse). That's nice, moving on...wait, really? You're going to time the echoing of the blasts across the harbor to sound like a galloping horse? Come on now, too much (it was amazing).
The Bad Part
Day 6 - We parted ways with Kate’s parents. They were heading back to London and we were, inexplicably, heading for the other side of the border to Shenzhen. Okay, it is explicable. Hong Kong was pretty fucking expensive during the Chinese New Year and it would be interesting to see if it’s full-on China just across the border (or if some civility had seeped in from Hong Kong). The crossing is easy with a Chinese Residence Permit, but you can buy a temporary 5-day visa if you really want to.
And yes, it was full-on China, but I’ll talk about that in another post. Fast-forward to our hotel room after dinner. You know that feeling when you’re not sure if you have to burp or puke? I’m dealing with that. I lay down, drink some water. I try to puke but a gurgling sound just comes from my stomach. I lay back down. I jump back up, run to the toilet, grab the trash can and assume the position. I proceed to erupt - from both ends, I might add - with the force of 5,000 Krakatoa’s (that’s a volcano). Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. Then, literally, rinse because there’s a pathetic amount of toilet paper in Chinese hotel rooms.
Day 7 - I awake from a fever dream in a cold sweat. I’m aching all over from being so violently ill the night before; honestly the sickest I’ve been in my life. Kate goes out on a supply run. Water, bananas, crackers. It’s all I can do. Kate sits on a beautiful, sunny beach in the New Territories while I stay back, eat five crackers, puke them up again and watch prank videos on YouTube. Of course, all of this is punctuated by shooting water out of my ass every 15 minutes. She did say that she missed me, so I guess I have that going for me, which is nice.
Day 8 - Kate has it. I told her it was all in her mind until it was in the trash can instead. The maid knocks on the door literally just as she’s being sick, but we desperately need our room to be disinfected and have to retreat to the lobby bathrooms. God have mercy on the poor souls we may have infected. I poop my pants a bit in my sleep later on and the holiday has hit a decided low point. But…I did eat a whole thing of crackers AND a banana. Kate proceeds to make The Exorcist look like amateur hour.
The Great Escape
Day 9 - My strength is returning, even if I look like a stone’s throw away from an Auschwitz victim (calm down easily offended people with no sense of humor). Somehow, Kate’s is too. We decide to make a break for it. “It” is the Hong Kong border. Fuck Shenzhen. More like “Shit-zhen”. We pack in slow motion, sitting down for long pulls of water between every three articles of clothing. That’s nothing compared to the looming challenge of the border crossing.
Because the Peoples’ Sha-mazing Republic of China makes no allowances for disabled people, I carry our 2-ton, non-minimalist bag down three flights of stairs to the metro. I tremble with pathetic weakness for a few seconds and we get on. We cross the border without incident, and we ride the MTR all the way to Kowloon without shitting ourselves. We walk through a sea of Indian hawkers trying to sell us SIM cards, watches and suits and take the lift to our sketchy, new hostel, back in the safety of the SAR of HK. It’s the size of a shoebox and we can’t even stretch out on the bed.
Day 10 - The hostel is actually terrible, so we throw money at the problem and book our last three nights at place we can actually enjoy. We move again. This day is all about recovery. We eat a sandwich at Starbucks. We eat another sandwich at Subway. We watch Bondi Rescue, a show about Australian lifeguards for a couple of hours. After that, we realize we’re actually ravenous, take the MTR to Wan Chai and completely devour two whole pizzas at Pizza Express. I guess you could say we’re better.
The Best Part
Day 11 - I take my first solid shit in four days and suppress the urge to walk out of the bathroom, arms raised, shouting “I did it!” Then we’re on a ferry to Cheung Chau, one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands, pretty much determined to have a good time for the rest of the trip no matter what. It's about what you'd expect: pretty close to paradise. No cars, few tourists IF you know where to go and no shortage of little cafés to have a Blue Girl Lager while looking out at the stereotypical colorful boats that had seen better days, bobbing up and down in the harbor.
We manage to find a completely deserted beach after hiking to the other side of the island, thanks to (for once) the Lonely Planet. I sit down and think about all the profound stuff you're supposed to think about when you find a deserted beach: what am I doing, where am I going, what's next? Soul-searching works up an appetite, so we decide to find some fresh seafood on the harbor-front. Fresh shrimp, calamari and grouper with a beer would have been revolting two days earlier. The holiday is back on.
Day 12 - The plan was to wake up at 7 and take on a 12 km section of the MacLehose Trail in the New Territories. We leave the hotel at 11… I know, I know, but one does not bounce back to 100% from debilitating food poisoning overnight, so we decide to enjoy some more sleepy island life at Sai Kung (although technically a peninsula, not an island, but beside the point). There are more rustic boats, seafood markets, and something we've never seen in mainland China: craft stores. Stores that actually don't sell shitty quality, mass-produced goods.
Then, something I had given up hope on so long ago that I hadn't even bothered to look for. The sign read "The Bottle Shop: Craft Beer and Wine." Maybe when I tell the story now it seems like embellishment, but I swear I heard the Hallelujah Chorus as I walked through the doors. IPA's, Imperial IPA's, stouts, porters, ales, pale ales, Trappist beers - as far as the eye can see. I pick up two of my favorites and walk out with a stupid grin on my face.
I'm drinking one now, and it tastes like home. That's good, because as weird as it sounds, I have to ease back into China after two weeks in Hong Kong, even if it is technically part of China. It's just that different. The trip made me think a lot about what I'm going to do after I finish up here. Maybe, perhaps, Hong Kong? We'll see.