It took a few days, but on the evening of Friday 4th May you could see the bright lights of Hong Kong from the bridge of the good ship MV Mell Sembawang. Congestion in the port meant we wouldn’t be coming alongside until the wee small hours of the following morning, but it did mean we would be treated to the most epic thunderstorm I have ever seen which was silently taking place over the city. Where the Mell Sembawang was circling like a plane waiting to land there was no rain, no wind and the sea was eerily still – something that seems to happen quite a lot in The Pacific, hence its name I guess.
And when I say this thunderstorm was epic, don’t think I’m exaggerating – this was a storm that could send ecliptics into a fit – strobe-like flashes were going off every second across a vast swathe of the sky. It was like an early 90s rave only far less depressing. I stayed up until way past my bedtime, but eventually I realised I couldn’t waste any more tape filming lightning for a Hammer Horror movie that I’m never going to make.
The next morning I said goodbye to Kenny, Arka, Captain Dagaman and the crew of the MV Mell Sembawang and wandered out onto the arena of scurrilous land-lubbers known as Hong Kong.
There’s no customs at the port so I just walked out, which seemed a bit odd. You know how much of a pain it is at the airport when they search your bags? Honestly, it’s more disquieting when they don’t search your bags – you start thinking well, if they aren’t checking me, who else aren’t they checking?! But I still needed an entry stamp as the lack of one can cause a real arse-ache when you want to leave.
So I decided to walk to the nearest train station. Hong Kong, like many modern cities, isn’t built with me in mind. It’s built around the needs and desires of cars. Which is probably why Ford Prefect thought cars were our dominant form of life when he first arrived on Earth. Now one thing you learn very quickly when you get to Hong Kong a) you are going to sweat like you’ve never swot before and b) being a pedestrian is the most foolhardy and frustrating experience you can imagine. After following the train line in the hope of a station for over an hour, over underpasses and under fly-overs, clambering over barriers like some crap (but infinitely more dangerous) version of The Krypton Factor, I gave up and decided to get a cab instead. But in this concrete jungle all the cabs were either full or just didn’t bother stopping, no matter how destitute I looked.
Eventually one stopped. I asked him to take me to Central Hong Kong Island. Bit of geography for you if you’ve never been to Hong Kong. Hong Kong, like Singapore, is an island. However, unlike Singapore, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region also incorporates the Kowloon Peninsular to the north. So you’ve kinda got the ‘mainland’ and the ‘island’. The port was on the ‘mainland’, I wanted to go to the ‘island’. I don’t know why I’m apostrophising those words, they’re absolutely valid.
But first I needed some Mad Moolah. Some Robert DeNiro. Some Wodger Wabbit. Some Baron Greenbacks. Some Johnny Cash. I told the driver and he took me to the nearest ATM – at the train station I was trying and failing to walk to. Ahh, this’ll do, I says. So onto Hong Kong’s rather excellent (and CHEAP!) underground system and under Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong Central. But again it was Machines 1 Human 0 as I was forced to walk about 7 parsecs out of my way in order to get to the Government Pier building. I wished for the first time since I was a child that I had been born with wheels.
Eventually I made it to Government Pier and I went up to the 7th floor where the guy behind the counter looked a bit surprised to see me. He reckoned I was supposed to be chaperoned by the ship’s agent. I pointed out to him that the last two hours of my life would have been much more pleasant if he had done. Oh well, no problem, just give me my entry stamp so I can boogie on out of here. A couple of days ago I asked my mum to buy a cheap but fully refundable flight out of Hong Kong – I’ve done this a few times on the journey as you never know if they might ask for your ‘exit strategy’. But he wasn’t interested. I even tried to force the print-out into his hands – look! I’m leaving! Let me down the metaphorical gangplank! He didn’t give it a second glance. It was just Biff Baff Boom and I was stamped in for a whopping six months. NICE. Hear that America? SIX MONTHS!! For FREE!!!! Go stick your ‘visa waver’ bollocks up ya bum.
Next things next, and I had to meet with the sterling chap who had agreed to take me under his wingdings for the next few days. On this occasion, it was a guy called Michael from America. Works for Bloomburg by day, a stand-up comedian by night. We met at the Western Market, a fine old brick building from the 1800s, a metal roof held up by cast-iron beams. Was in constant use until 1988, then defunct for a while, then lovingly brought back to life, presumably by Griff Rhys Jones. People used to sell fish here. Now people get married here. Could you imagine in 100 years time people getting married in ‘that wonderful old Asda supermarket’? No. Neither can anyone. Because everything we as humans build these days is shit. But then you know that because you live in the world.
Michael had a surprise for me – a receipt from the post office for MY NEW HAT! My delightful (and extremely patient) Mandy had bought me a new one and sent it over to Hong Kong while I was on the Mell Sembawang. So we popped over to the nearby mail depot and picked it up. SMART!
After dropping my stuff off at Michael’s gaff, we headed out, accompanied by Michael’s other CouchSurfer (cos one just ain’t enough!) for some lunch. It being my first time in China for 18 months, we thought we’d treat ourselves to some Japanese sushi. We travelled the length of north Hong Kong island on the fabulous skinny little double-decker trams that are – seriously – over 100 years old. Costing only 23 pence (30 cents) for a trip of any distance, these wooden-sided trolley-cars are the most cost effective public transport in the world (being crammed into the back of a pick-up truck in West Africa with a bunch of dead goats is not what I’d call ‘cost effective’!).
After lunch, I scooted off to the nearby library to write to some more shipping firms to beg them to allow me on their ships going to Sri Lanka. Afterwards, Michael and I met up before heading out to Wan Chai – the go-go girl capital of Hong Kong – to visit Stuart Jackets, the owner of the Queen Victoria Pub. Stuart had kindly invited me along and – let this be a warning to you all – if you invite me over to your place I have a very bad reputation for turning up.
Stuart was an absolute legend. Not only did he supply Michael and I with free booze all night, he contacted his mate in the shipping industry and on Monday I have a meeting with him at his office. Who said nothing great was ever achieved down the pub, eh?
Thanks Stuart! A banner link for The Queen Vic will be added soon!!
That night, since it was my first time back in China for so long, I had lasagne for dinner. In a British pub.
After the lunacy of last night, it was time to get back on track. Myself, Dino and Mandy have written to numerous shipping companies with a view to getting me to Sri Lanka before the end of the month, but all have either rejected the proposition outright or said that there isn’t enough time to organise something.
This leaves me in a bit of a bind. The best option for me would be to head down to Singapore overland. There are plenty of ships leaving from Singapore for Sri Lanka, and since it’s a much shorter trip, the odds of me getting on a ship will be greatly improved. However, to get to Singapore means travelling through China. A Chinese visa costs a wodge and if I put in for the ‘standard’ visa, I won’t have my passport back for three days – if a company says ‘yes you can get on our ship out of Hong Kong on Wednesday, I’ll be stuffed.
Since I had already arranged a meeting with Chris from the Wallem shipping agency, I thought it best to wait and see what happens – in any case, the visa office isn’t open on Sundays.
It was 11.30am before I woke up on Michael’s floor. I couldn’t remember getting home. I know it’s not a power that would be much use to the X-Men, but it is incredibly handy to have the gift of auto-return on the magic beer scooter, even when I’ve just arrived in a foreign country. What’s more remarkable is that I got into the apartment complex and into Michael’s flat on the 20th floor without a key and without waking him up. It’s a riddle that I may never be able to solve.
My friends from Liverpool, Chris and Debbie, have been living in China for as long as I’ve been on The Odyssey Expedition. But while I’ve been wasting money and risking my life, they’ve been making money and – more recently – babies. Well, one baby – it’s due next Wednesday. So Michael and I shot over to the mainland to go meet Chris and a very, very heavily pregnant Debbie.
Now had Debbie been Chinese, she wouldn’t have been allowed into the Hong Kong SAR. The reason for this is that Chinese childbirth ‘tourists’ have been streaming over the border at the end of their third trimester in order to use the improved health care system of Hong Kong. As it was, Deb was taking a hell of a risk – if she went into labour and had the baby there and then, she would have been stranded in Hong Kong until they could get a passport and a visa for the baby before she’d be allowed to go home to Guangzhou, just two hours away.
So, shaking off the hangover that by rights should have been much worse, we raced over the water onboard the Star Ferry – in operation since 1888 – to Tsim Sha Tsui station in Kowloon. There we found Chris and Debbie and Bump. After catching up (I haven’t seen Chris and Debbie since I cut through Shanghai like a man possessed almost two years ago) we jumped the train back to the island to go meet up with some of Michael’s stand-up comedy buddies. After a beer and a stolen burger we went for a mooch around Hong Kong Central and I was taken aback at just how many Filipino women were sitting on the streets. What the bloomin’ eck is going on? Asks I. It turns out that Sunday is the Filipino maids’ day off – and, since they have little money to spend shopping or playing LaserQuest, they spend the day sitting on pieces of cardboard on the pavements of Central having a good old natter with their mates. Why they don’t populate the parks or the free-to-enter botanical gardens is anybody’s guess. Maybe they do and this was just the overflow. But seriously, it was like an urban music festival, only without the music. I could hear the Karl Pilkington in my head dying to ask ‘what do you think you’re doing?!’, but my polite Michael Palin voice was telling me (nicely) not to make a fuss.
After saying ta-ta to Chris and Debbie (‘twould be the last time I’d see them as non-parents) I went to meet up with Cherry, one of Michael’s mates. Cherry is a Hong Kong girl who studied in Canada. She does a weekly podcast about everything Hong Kong and she had asked if I would like to have a chat with her. No problem, always happy to chunder on about any old bollocks (as fans of this blog well know!). You can listen to the podcast here:
Now Hong Kong is one of those great places in the world – and there’s not many of them – that sell freshly popped SWEET popcorn at the cinema. I know this seems like a trivial thing, but to me, going to the cinema without chomping through an entire bucket of popcorn would be like going to see Celine Dion live without your bombvest. But I don’t like salty popcorn – it just doesn’t do it for me, sorry. So it’s either sweet or nuthin’ and all too often in so-called ‘civilised’ countries – like Australia and US – the chances of me enjoying the latest blockbuster while stuffing my face with the sweet stuff are slimmer than an anorexic stick insect. Which is why truly great places – step forward Fiji, Singapore and Sierra Leone (strangely enough) – have the edge over their continental counterparts: they are the lands of sweet sweet popcorn and I salute them for it.
Why am I telling you all this? No great reason, but after saying goodbye to Cherry, I met up with Michael and we went to see The Avengers. I thought it was a damn good film (although that could just be the popcorn talking) – although what’s the with title ‘Avengers Assemble’ in the UK?! Seriously? What they think we’re going to get it mixed up with that Uma Thurman turkey that came out in the late nineties? Oh ple-ease.
Up early for a meeting with Chris at Wallem Shipping, a friend of Stuart Jackets from the Queen Victoria pub in Wan Chai. We sat down and had a good natter about all things ship-shaped and were joined by Elizabeth Vella, the Group Media Manager. If anyone could help me get to country 198, Sri Lanka, it was these guys. However, the news was not good. They had nothing going south this week, everything was going north – to Shanghai, to Korea, to Japan or to Taiwan. Nothing even just down to Singapore, I’m afraid. Oh well, time for plan B: overland it down to Singapore and take a ship from there.
But before I could put in my Chinese visa application (it standing between Hong Kong and my dreams of Singapore), I was due on the radio – another media op arranged by my magnificent CouchSurf host Michael. I jumped the Underground (yes I’ll call it an Underground, Metro is for the French, Subway is for the Yanks. I’m British and I like ‘Underground’, mkay?). I didn’t realise the radio station would be so far up a steep hill. Or that it would be so damn hot. I arrived looking like the trampish wretch that I am, the sweat literally dripping off my face and my otherwise nice clean shirt clinging to my body in a desperate un-sexy re-enactment of Mr. Darcy’s emergence from the duckpond. Luckily, the host of the TV show, Phil Whelan, was outside having a cheeky bifter and recognised me.
In you come, Graham, you scruffy bugger. I had a good half hour before I was due on so I got to cool down in reception’s splendid air-conditioning. There I met Meaghan, a blogger from HK who was interested in doing an interview with me for her site. All this attention for a drunken braggart, stumbling around the world in a manner ill-befitting the legacy of the great gentlemen adventurers of yore – I’m really not sure that I deserve it. And then I catch a glimpse of the latest Charlie Boorman tosh and I change my mind. The two main things I wish to get across for you wonderful Odysseans out there are that a) the world isn’t such bad/scary place and that b) travelling the world doesn’t have to cost a fortune. If I’ve convinced at least a handful of people that this be the case, then my work here is done. Anyway, here’s the interview:
Afterwards, I was chatting with Phil, the host, and he said he had a contact in the shipping industry for me to chase up – a guy called Tim who runs the Wah Kwong shipping company. I called him up and (sorta) explained what I was attempting and managed to snag a meeting with him tomorrow morning. I therefore decided to put Plan B on hold for the moment in order to see what came of this.
That night I returned to the Queen Victoria primarily to thank Stuart the Landlord for his help and secondly to win the pub quiz. But (as always seems the case) our team came a close second. What is it with pub quizzes that my team ALWAYS seems to come second? Except for one time… the P&O cruise from Australia to Fiji where my team won three times a day. Methinks the lack of ze googles might have something to do with it… jus’ saying…! Stuart was a total gent again, this time giving me my din-dins on the house, and the night ended in boozy hilarity, the highpoint being when one inebriated fan of ‘Graham’s World’ asked me what I thought happened at Pearl Harbour. After making some lame joke about the movie, I suggested that it was my understanding that the Japanese had perhaps, maybe, (I wasn’t there, but I’m fairly sure this happened), you know, bombed Pearl Harbour…?
This seemingly uncontentious piece of newsreel from 1941 was met with a verbal lashing the likes of which I had not received since school (or at least since I last went on a date with Madame Whiplash). Apparently, I been to all this f—ing countries but don’t know anything! I’m a dick! A DICK!! Cue crazy guy storming out of the pub and a look of bewilderment spreading across the faces of my fellow quiz teamers. Erm… what is the correct answer to that question? Is this a test? The Japanese seem quite adamant that they did, indeed, bomb Pearl Harbour. But maybe the Americans bombed themselves eh? Sort of thing they’d do, right? Urgh.
The rest of the night was taken up with hilarious re-enactments of the scene we had just witnessed taken to its most ludicrous extremes. You think the French blew up Rainbow Warrior I? YOU’RE A DICK! You think Macbeth killed Duncan? YOU’RE A DICK! You think Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star? YOU’RE A DICK! et al etc ad nauseum.
I stumbled home to Michael’s at Godknows-o’-clock. I wish people would stop plying me with free alcohol. By that I mean I love it when people ply me with free alcohol.
Tue 08.05.12 – Wed 09.05.12:
I never let a late night get in the way of an early start, and Tuesday in HK would be no different. Up with the lark and bounding over to the offices of Wah Kwong Shipping In order to meet with Tim Huxley, the man who could help me get to Sri Lanka before the month is out. He had no ships of his own leaving HK any time soon, but he kindly gave me contacts of people who might be able to help. I raced back to Michael’s and made some phone calls and shot out some emails. There were two ships leaving at the end of the week that could conceivably get me to Sri Lanka. They looked like a good bet (even though this was mondo short notice), so again I held off getting my visa for China. I then gave myself some time to recover from the night before: I wouldn’t be doing anything too crazy tonight. Instead I did that interview I promised to do yesterday:
Michael’s other CouchSurfer, Maryanne, was due to fly home to Singapore today, so we said our goodbyes and I said I’d see her at Raffles for a couple of Singapore Slings next week. Whether I get a ship or go overland, there’s a 1 in 1 chance I’ll end up in the Land of the Merlion before this Odyssey is through.
The next day I spent waiting for a yes or no to come through from the shipping company. I don’t think I’ve pressed ‘refresh’ so much in my life. I really can’t stress how much of a real-life Chose Your Own Adventure book this is turning into. Turn left and I’ll be in Sri Lanka this time next week. Turn right and I’ll be muddling through Thailand, four overnight buses in a row, on the way to Singapore with no definite plan of how to proceed.
Unfortunately, no email arrived, so by 5pm it was obvious that I would have to get myself a Chinese visa and dart down to SE Asia overland.
By the way, if you’re wondering why I don’t just go back over the Himalayas to India and take the ferry to Sri Lanka, it’s because a) more visa trauma – I’d need a permit for Tibet and a visa for India and b) it cost a bloody fortune the first time, I don’t fancy doing it again. If you’re wondering why I don’t just go through Burma, it’s because the border between Burma means more visa woes and in any case the border with India is closed.
Tonight it was Open Mic night at the Hong Kong Brew House. Three minutes to crack a joke or two and in return you get a free pint of beer. Free pint of beer? I was there, man. Although if you watch my (rather hyperactive, even for me, STAND STILL you big ginger nonce) performance you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were handing out free ecstasy on the way in.
I chuckle now to think when I got my Vietnamese visa back in September 2010 that I honestly thought it would be my last. But no. East Timor changed its rules and then Indonesia wanted me to get a visa in Dili in order to return to West Timor. Papua New Guinea then (hilariously in hindsight) made me jump through a series of hoops to gain entry. Even we-have-the-Queen-on-our-money island continent of Australia was in on it, forcing me to shell out $29 for a visa that I really should not need (they’ve now made it free, I like to think because of me). Then the US leads an assault that could only be termed as ‘friendly fire’ and orders me to pay $100 for a visa ‘waver’ before I would be allowed to sully the doorsteps of either Saipan or Guam.
And now, China. Obviously. You’ve needed a visa for China ever since Confucius first say, something I always find a bit odd when it comes to incredibly over-populated states like China, India and Nigeria: are they that worried about Brits coming over there and working for a dollar a day in a sweat-shop owned by an American tyrant billionaire? I mean, Australia I can (kinda) understand: young Brits do have a naughty tendency to overstay their visas, especially since the minimum wage is worth twice what it is in the UK. But China? India? Nigeria? Seriously? They say it’s a reciprocal thing, but there are 5 times more Nigerians than Brits, 15 times more Chinese than Brits and 20 times more Indians than Brits. We could probably fit the entire British population in a single state of India, whereas if every Indian popped over to the UK for a cup of tea, it would soon be standing room only.
But quietly rage as I may, I’m not going to change anything, so today I bit the bullet and made my way over to the China Resources Buildings and threw in my application for a visa. It took me about an hour to fill out the damn form. Asking me about my great-uncle’s shoe size and what my favourite dessert might be on a rainy afternoon, it was pretty in depth. The 1,000-word essay on the use of form and light in Picasso’s Blue Period was, I thought, a little over the top, as was asking me to detail the rise and fall of the Roman Empire without using the word ‘Cauliflower’. But somehow I prevailed, the visa would be ready tomorrow.
That night I was on my way to meet up with Michael when I got a tweet from a British chap named Tim. Now Tim had invited me for a trip on a Chinese Junk last Sunday morning, but as I don’t believe in Sunday morning, I sadly couldn’t take him up on the offer. As he would be in the Lan Kwai Fong area of town tonight for ‘a drink after work’, I thought what the hell, eh? Thus began the descent of your humble narrator into the comatose wreck left sprawled out all over Michael’s living room floor the next morning. Needless to say, it was a good time had by all.
Fri 11.05.12 – Sat 12.05.12:
This would be my last full day in Fragrant Harbour, or as you know it, Hong Kong. It started late (as last night had ended), but before long I was up an’ at ’em, collecting my Chinese visa and heading over to the Queen Vic for a bite to eat.
I won a free meal at the Queen Victoria for coming second at the quiz on Monday, and if there’s something I’ve learnt in life it’s that you should never pass up the opportunity for a free lunch. Therefore I dropped by, and although Stuart wasn’t there, helped myself to a generous steak. See kids? Being a smart-arse sometimes pays dividends. I don’t see you getting a free lunch for being good at football, fellow schoolmates of mine quite possibly picked before me ARE YOU READING THIS?
The rest of the afternoon was whiled away playing on the longest escalator in the world, going to the free zoo, mooching around the botanical gardens, all very pleasant. In the evening, I had half-planned to have a night out in Macau, but with Michael not keen and me running short of Mexican jumping beans as it is, I thought I’d be better off having a well-deserved night in for a change – you know, an early one. This was the plan until Michael returned around 11pm and demanded that I play Arkham City until some ungodly hour of the night. An early one! As if!!
By 9am the next day I was on the ferry over to Macau. It takes an hour and I’m not coming this close and not ticking it off my side list of territories. Macau would bring the running total up to 18.
Macau was a Portuguese colony up until 1999, and is remarkable as the only one (with the possible exception of Goa) that they didn’t leave completely in the shit. Reference: East Timor, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome & Principe and Cape “Bleedin’” Verde. As Macau is the only place that the gambling-obsessed Chinese can legally bet their children’s futures on black, it is now truly the Las Vegas of the East. In fact, sod Las Vegas – for the past five years, Macau has routinely brought in more money than that glitzy American trash-heap in the desert. And Macau has something Las Vegas doesn’t – a soul. You see, Macau has been around for donkey’s years and has the bootiful ol’ buildings to prove it. So while Las Vegas has to make do with aping (badly) some of the more glorious examples of human endeavour, Macau has the real thing.
Plus – get this – even though Macau was never a British colony, they drive on the LEFT!! Yippee! Civilisation at last!!
I can honestly say that Macau really knocked me for six. I was half expecting an ugly set of tawdry concrete skyscrapers rendered in the most appallingly tasteless gold plastic shite, the architectural equivalent of Sylvester Stallone’s mum, and while there is some of that, you mercifully cannot see it from the old town – which was (for me) an adventure playground of old churches, monuments and temples. And so long as they remain, the developers will never destroy the heart and soul of Macau.
I jumped the ferry back to HK to pick up my things. Unfortunately, Michael wasn’t around for me to say ta-ta, so I just left him his brand new toilet seat (I broke his old one!) and was on my way.
Guangzhou is just two hours from Hong Kong on the train and it was about 8pm before I arrived. I met a lovely girl from Russia called Lena who helped me pick the right Underground line to get to Chris and Debbie’s place. Thanks Lena! Chris was staying at the hospital with wife Debbie and their newborn daughter, Talia, so after meeting me and showing me the ropes I was left alone in this swanky apartment in downtown. Determined to finally, FINALLY get an early night, I put all my things on charge and set about sorting through my bag for things I could dump on Chris and Debbie (such as my Lonely Planet guidebook for the South Pacific) and stuff that I could throw away.
All done, I settled down in front of the telly to wind down and became engrossed in ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ a made-for-TV film starring Al Pacino and Susan Sarandon about Jack Kevorkian aka ‘Dr. Death’. Terrible moniker aside, it was really good, and before I knew it it was 1am. No problem, I think as I’m about to turn the telly off, but then NEXT: SENNA. Damnit, I *really* want to watch this film.
Although being nothing more than a fair-weather armchair supporter of sports in general, I grew up with the Grand Prix on the telly every Sunday afternoon – my Dad, an ex-racing driver himself, is an avid fan. I still can’t hear the wasp-like drone of an F1 car without thinking about Yorkshire puds and gravy. I remember watching the San Marino Grand Prix on that shocking day in 1994 when Ayrton Senna, one of the best F1 drivers of all time, crashed into the barrier at 300kph and literally died live on camera. Freddie Mercury, Kurt Cobain, Princess Di – yes they were tragedies, but as Heysel, Hillsborough and 9/11 taught us – when we watch, helpless, as terrible events are beamed into our living rooms as they happen it adds a rawness and a grim connection that stays with you for the rest of your life.
So I stayed up to watch Senna. It was a damn good film. A damn good film.