I spent the summer of 2002 working on my PhD in the astronomy department at PKU in Beijing. I had an amazing time in China and so I was very happy when an opportunity to return arose - a conference to be held in the outskirts of Beijing. So, on a Sunday evening in April I headed to Heathrow to start my journey back to China.
Disaster struck early in the journey. Although it was a Sunday there were a few thesis-writing PhD students in the office, and I got a call from one of them saying I'd left my laptop behind. It was too late for me to go back. I tried to persuade them that they could catch the Heathrow Express and get to the airport before me (I was taking the tube) and save me the embarrassment of turning up for my first ever conference talk without said talk in my possession. But they didn't feel like racing across London on account of my forgetfulness, so I went to China without the main reason for my going.
I was tired and jetlagged when I arrived in China. I got a taxi from the airport to the conference venue in the Fragrant Hills, near where I'd climbed Incense Burner Peak with a People's Liberation Army engineer on a fearsomely hot August day five years earlier. I managed to transfer my talk from college onto a computer here in China, and so I was able to give my presentation the next day when the conference got under way. A constant supply of green tea kept me awake when necessary during the three days of conference.
Often when I revisit places I've been before, I somehow find it difficult to see anything new. It's too easy just to visit the familiar. I avoided that possibility in Beijing by leaving immediately after the conference. I took a very cheap flight to Nanjing. Lauren, who I'd met on the train to Istanbul a year earlier, was spending a year in China teaching English, and so I decided to spend a couple of days in Nanjing on my way towards Hong Kong.
Nanjing was incredibly different to Beijing. It's a city of 7 million people but still seemed quite small and manageable compared to the capital. And it is vastly more cosmopolitan, with a huge expat scene. I liked it a lot as soon as I arrived, because I managed to work out firstly how to get a bus from the airport to the city, and then more importantly, where to get off. I left myself with just a short walk down a leafy avenue to get to the university.
I spent a day exploring the city. I thought I would walk from the university to Purple Mountain, which didn't look far on the map, but turned out to be far enough that I didn't make it. In Beijing on my first trip there, I'd assumed that city blocks were quite small and that it would take less than half an hour to walk from one corner to the next. I'd been wrong then, and I was wrong again here. This city wasn't designed to be walked across.
In the morning I was woken at 7am by a thunderstorm, and felt disorientated to find myself in a strange room. I couldn't sleep, and no-one else was up, so I decided to just hit the road. I'd thought about heading out to the river to see if I could get a boat down to Shanghai, but with heavy rain falling I decided just to get a train. I got the metro to the train station, taking note of the signs instructing me to 'wait in safe-line' and 'care the gap'.
The station was a scene of chaos, and I felt that my lack of Chinese and shattered state was going to make things tricky. But the queues were fast moving, and the English-speaking girl behind the window sold me a ticket for a train leaving for Shanghai in ten minutes. I got on, found my way to a seat, and then slept all the way to Shangai, dreaming crazy dreams.
It was 4pm when I arrived in China's biggest city, and I hadn't eaten all day. I got on the metro, assisted by a friendly local who I thought might be after a tip like the woman at Beijing airport had been, but he wasn't. He asked me where I was going, showed me how to buy a ticket, and was gone before I could say 'xie xie'. And so I headed from the train station to Henan Zhong Lu, and walked down to the Huangpu River.
It took me a while to buy my ticket to Hong Kong. The easy bit was knowing I needed to ask for 'Jiulong', the Mandarin for Kowloon. The much harder bit was finding the ticket office. After lengthy periods in three different queues in two different buildings near Shanghai train station, I finally got my hands on a ticket.
While I'd been in Beijing, watching China's English-language news channel, one of the stories was that the national rail network had just been upgraded and all journeys were now quicker. If I'd taken this train a week ago it would have been a 24 hour journey, but today it was down to 20 hours. I got a China exit stamp and boarded the train. We headed out of Shanghai, and for hours we passed through its vast suburbs. I didn't see any significant area of green land before the sun set.
It had been sunny when I left Shanghai. In the morning, we were in the rice fields of southern China, under heavy skies and with rain lashing down. I watched the terraces go by and we approached Hong Kong. I went in search of breakfast, and found the restaurant car just as they were packing away what looked like a magnificent feast. Luckily there was a small shop selling snacks, and I bought some small cakes to see me through the rest of the journey.
We stopped in Guangzhou for a while, then pushed on towards Hong Kong. Soon after Shenzhen, we reached the border, which couldn't have been clearer - the concrete of Shenzhen abruptly stopped, and the green forests of the New Territories started. The train wound through the mountains, past small villages which became larger villages and towns and eventually the suburbs of Kowloon. At 1pm, on time to the minute, we pulled into Hung Hom Station.
Hong Kong was nearly a disaster. I walked through Hung Hom station, found a cashpoint and realised I didn't have my wallet with me. I searched around for a lost property office, working out what kind of a plan I might have if the wallet was lost. I was imagining getting around by walking, and eating a slice of bread once a day, but luckily when I found the office, they radioed the train and someone found my wallet on the floor of my compartment.
I would have like Hong Kong anyway, but having seen my trip come back from the brink of disaster I was in an excellent mood as I walked out into Kowloon. I headed for Nathan Road and the Chungking Mansions, an incredible rabbit warren of restaurants, shops, currency exchanges and cheap accommodation. You can't walk into the mansions carrying a rucksack and not get hassled by hotel owners, and I allowed myself to be persuaded into a place on the third floor. For a negligible cost I got myself a spot in a tiny airless room with two stainless steel traders from Bombay and a traveller from Melbourne.
It was cool and humid. As evening fell I walked down to the tip of the Kowloon peninsula, for my first view of the skyline of Hong Kong Island.
I got a ferry to Macau. As I boarded at the Kowloon ferry terminal, I noticed a sign saying "Dumb walkway swaying. Passengers up-and-down be careful". Normally I think it's a bit churlish for foreigners to mock the "Chinglish" which is quite common in these parts. After all, our languages are radically different, and it's just nice for English-speakers to have signs approximately understandable. But this one was really a good one. The dumb walkway didn't sway and I got onto the boat without needing to be particularly up-and-down careful.
It was a wet squally day, but I was still disappointed that there was no deck to go out and stand on as we powered across the Pearl River Delta. We docked at Macau just after midday, and it began to rain as I walked towards the centre. Soon it was wildly torrential downpour, and as I took refuge in the doorway of a megacasino I chatted to two passing Bangladeshi students visiting from Shenzhen.
Eventually the rain eased off, and I headed for the Fortaleza da Guia, a Portuguese fortress on the highest point in the city. I'd imagined that Macau would be quite similar to Hong Kong but it had an incredibly different feel to it. The number of colossal tower blocks was staggering, and most of them looked to me like they might crumble and fall at any moment.
Back in Hong Kong, I went for a walk around Hong Kong Island. I took the escalators from Central to the Mid-Levels, which took about twenty minutes. Then I wandered slowly back down towards the harbour. I passed the Man Mo temple and had a look in.
It was a sunny day outside, but in the temple the atmosphere was choking. Hundreds of incense coils were burning, and the air was dusty. Only a few shafts of sunlight found their way into the darkness. A few people were making offerings to the effigies of Man the god of literature and Mo the god of war. It reminded me a bit of when I visited San Simón in Guatemala.
I couldn't stay inside for long. I took a few photos which came out blurred, came out gasping for fresh air, then went back in for another try. I got the picture I wanted, left a small offering to the local gods, and then headed on.
In the evening I took a tram up to the Peak. At the top was one of the most horrifically commercialised places in a horrifically commercialised city - a towering arcade of shops and cafes, which it took ages to climb through to get to the viewing area. And I was not the only one to make the trip up. Hundreds of eager photographers were jostling for position as the sun set and the city began to look spectacular. Politeness was not rewarded and so after a while of trying to take photos through the sea of heads and arms, I elbowed my way to the front and took in the view for a while. Eventually I was barged aside and shoved towards the back again.
Despite the crowds, the view was pretty breathtaking. The forest of skyscrapers looked incredible as it lit up. I had never had a particular sense of urgency about visiting Hong Kong and had only come here as an aside to my China trip. But now I was here, I was loving it. It was like nowhere I'd ever been before. It was compact and incredibly easy to get around but there were endless things to do and see. I only had one more day left but I thought I could fill weeks.
As I tried to leave, so did everyone else, and it took me an hour to get onto a tram back down.
I went to Stanley on my last day in Hong Kong. I didn't have any particular aim in mind, I just wanted to see a part of the island outside the city. I wandered through the market a few times, bought some souvenirs, then walked along the sea shore and watched boats passing. I liked the place; the city was just over the hill but the town was very tranquil and relaxed. The market was busy but it was nothing like as crowded as the Peak had been the night before.
After I'd seen enough of the market and the sea, I headed back to the city. I had an idea that I'd go to Lantau island and see what there was there, but it was already 4pm. Lantau is twice the size of Hong Kong island and I thought a couple of hours wouldn't really do it justice. I'd liked Hong Kong so much more than I'd expected that I knew I'd be coming back. I decided to leave Lantau for the next time.