Happy New Year from the Far East!
Apologies for not writing before Xmas but I hope you all had a good one and wish everyone a ‘prosperous’ New Year…
I’m writing this from Hong Kong, probably the most iconic city in Asia and aside from being terrible for a vegetarian (they even use powdered chicken rather than salt) definitely gets placed as one of the greatest cities in the world for me, it feels like a wondrous amalgamation of New York, Rio and Singapore. Its acquisition is one of Britains most shameful moments in history; basically the Chinese wouldn’t buy British goods so the Brits tried turning the Chinese into addicts by illegally flooding the country with opium instead as they owned huge poppy fields in Bengal and elsewhere. When the Chinese authorities tried to stop this the British responded by sending a huge fleet and if they weren’t otherwise occupied elsewhere in Asia could have taken up the whole of China as a colony. However, when Britain handed it back in ’97 they handed back arguably the single most successful colony of anywhere in the world. The Chinese had long been looking jealously across at the territory’s success and anxious not to lose its momentum and agreed on a ‘one country, two systems’ approach where they won’t change any political or economic aspects of the territory for 50 years.
It’s reminiscent of Singapore in that everything works perfectly, from the street cleaning to what’s widely considered the best public transport system of any major city in the world and even the novelty of the mid-level escalators which take you up the slopes of Victoria Peak behind the city. When you get to the top, looking out on one of Manhattans only rivals for the best skyline in the world and its entrepreneurial, hardworking citizens you can’t help but feel it’s a city Ayn Rand would look on approvingly at.
But it’s also an incredibly beautiful place, most of the territory is made up of forested mountains and like in Rio you have 7 million people living both very densely but with superb access to nature. I spent the days wandering around the various districts of the city and at 30 cents a journey taking the best value cruises in the world- the local ferry system across the harbor. New Year was made up mainly of an OK rather than amazing firework display but I made the slightly strange decision to get up at 7am and walk off my hangover doing the 100km MacLehose trail that runs through the New Territories (so called since the British acquisition in 1898). The trails in HK are something of a walkers dream with abundant signposting and starting at the beach before crossing the mountainous spine behind Kowloon the trail was a great way of seeing some more of the territory. I did have one very scary moment when crossing through a nature reserve at night however when for the 2nd time this month I got surrounded by some stray dogs. Like that scene with the Rottweilers in The Omen when they noiselessly get into an attack formation it’s really quite terrifying. When it happened before in Tibet we ran down a hill into the nearest village but this time I was 3km away from the road so could do nothing more than arm myself with a rock (the method of animal discipline across Asia) run, and hope for the best. Thankfully only one of them came after me and he gave up after 50m or so. Whilst I’d been traveling with other people for most of the last 3 months and was quite enjoying being by myself again sometimes solo traveling isn’t always for the best and sleeping out rough is definitely one of those times.
Before I came to Asia if I was to pinpoint any moment when my yearning to go traveling again was at its strongest, it was in the slightly surprising form of when I first heard the BBC theme tune to the Beijing Olympics; in truth though probably since the age of 17 or so whenever I hear Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence the desire to come East is definitely awakened and I feel just very happy to be fulfilling it.
After recklessly never taking any anti-malarials yet always drinking the water I left South Asia with no doubt a fair few parasites for company, I first went to Tibet (which I'll write about when I leave China) and then headed to Sichaun and Yunnan in China's South West.
Unfortunately the agency we had to take the Tibet tour with lied to us about being able to extend our Chinese visas (we couldn't) and so we had to travel rather quicker than we would have liked through one of the most interesting parts of China. Yunnan is a beautiful mountainous province on the edges of the Himalayas which contains most of Chinas ever marginalized ethnic minorities, as you get near to the borders with Vietnam and Laos it felt like I was stepping back in time by a year as the ubiquitous Han Chinese identity faded amongst the different hill tribes. As in the border areas of Laos and Vietnam the people don't speak much of the national language, dress totally different wearing their luminously colored traditional clothes and just generally don't fit into the national identity. The most enjoyable way to get round and seeing some life was by renting a bicycle and meandering through some of the local villages, perhaps the most memorable part was seeing a Bai (tribal group) funeral which looked uncannily like a KKK procession as a standard bearer is followed by the coffin then the family all wearing white (the color of death in China) bed sheets around their head with the triangle shaped hoods! On this side of the border they're are also famous for their incredible terraced farming techniques. I saw some incredible rice terraces near the beginning of my trip in The Philippines and whilst the ones in Yunnan weren't as steep they were far more expansive in scope and at this time of year made for a fantastic photo spectacle as the combo of perfect blue skies and the crops being underwater made it look like thousands of individual infinity pools going down the hillsides.
Another equally impressive landscape was the breathtaking (and Eh? named) Tiger Leaping Gorge in the North of the province.
Depending on how it's measured it's one of if not the deepest gorge in the world and hiking through it is probably the most famous trail in China. After how tough the ones in Nepal were it felt very easy physically but looking down at the roaring Yangtze then up the near vertical cliff sides to 5500m peaks is a view which you really won't see many places in the world, although the trek will become lodged in my mind for one of the strangest incidents I can remember on my travels anywhere.
... We'd been walking for about a day and a half along the gorge and the previous night our guesthouse owner had warned us that ahead some villagers had commandeered parts of the path (after the government had already charged a fiver for entry to the gorge) and effectively demanded a toll for you to continue, if you didn't pay they'd been known to get violent (but only with foreigners). After a few hours an oldish woman tried getting us to pay 80p but we stepped beside her and carried on. We only got a few mouthfuls of abuse off her but a bit later I'd got ahead of my companion and came to a very narrow part of the path just above the water where I was met by a woman a couple of years older than me. She stepped in front of me and asked for 10 Yuan (= $1.35 or 2 loaves of bread) I tried stepping round her at which point she pushed me hard enough to knock one of the lenses off my sun glasses, unsurprisingly I wasn't too happy so gave her a mouthful then stepped forward to pick up the lens. At which point she started really laying into me, as in hauled me back by my t-shirt then started throwing as many kicks and punches as she could. At this point the path was no more than 4ft wide with nothing but a sheer cliff 50m or so down to the river below, but even thinking back to it makes me gasp was that she was doing this with a 4month old baby in her arms!!!
I've always been quite good at staying out of trouble and have never got into a fight but baby or not (it soon went flying) she genuinely seemed to be trying to kick me off the edge and as I had visions of Holmes and Moriarty above the Reichenbach Falls I was in a bit of a moral quandary as to whether I should fight back. Thankfully I just about had enough presence of mind to stop her (she was only a small Chinese woman) rather than hit her and pinned her back at arms length and screamed my life time's quota of 'What the f**k are you doing(s)?!! at her to try and get her to stop. It didn't work. I tried walking away but then she threw a baseball sized rock which hit me on my back then spat at me, when she did this again and picked up another rock I thought that's enough and gripped her by the back of the neck to stop her so she bit me in response (I still have the scabs). At this point I made a more successful getaway and with my whole body shaking in a state of shock just thought I hope I never see such an act of extreme greed as to risk your own baby's life for the sake of a quid. Truly one of the strangest incidents of my life.
Because of the visa issues I had to make a long journey to Macau where I made the Wildean error of being in a Communist country for the 2nd Christmas in a row, but in Macau 'The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning" which makes a neat summary of my very enjoyable Christmas. Macau was a Portuguese colony until as late as 1999 and is a fascinating place to see where East meets West in its religion, food, architecture blah blah blah- the real attraction are of course the casinos. I don't really get gambling in the sense that I know the odds are stacked against me and therefore feel no urge to play but the Chinese don't see it the same way. Wherever you are in the world if you want to find some Chinese- head to the local casino. Perhaps no other nationality seem to enjoy gambling as much as they do, one of the most frequent sights you see all over China are people playing and gambling at cards, checkers or lotteries at all times and in all places. They’re bewilderingly superstitious and all over China you see shops selling nothing but lucky charms as well as shops, restaurants named things like 888 hotel (it’s a very lucky number here). Apparently it stems from Confucianism where the best thing a man can be isn't honest or hardworking etc but lucky. Probably right, but unlike drugs or alcohol it is a hidden but genuine social problem and stories abound of family fortunes being lost in one night as well as supporting much of the business for the Triads. Either way in a culture where so much emphasis is placed on long term goals and the accumulation of success over time the obsession with gambling does feel more than a bit out of place.
Macau has been a casino resort town for over 150 years (and coincidentally has had a thriving pawn shop business for just as long), whilst most of the punters are from Hong Kong it is truly 'Asias playground' and there's a fortune being pushed around. Whilst it's been termed the Vegas of the East the term really should be applied the other way round as Macau has long since overtaken LV as the worlds premier gambling spot. The minimum bet on any of the tables is $25 but most of them are $65 and seeing one guy lose around $250 in 4 bets in the space of 2 minutes I was tempted to nudge him and say "You do know the odds are against you?".
And they were soooo much fun to wander round and people watch, like all the best drugs the constant visual stimulation felt very moreish and I had a bit of a mental struggle to convince myself to leave as staying up til the small hours in a casino every night probably isn't good for you. A few years ago they let the big American ones come in, from the slick Sands, Wynn and MGM Grand to the very touristy but wonderfully over the top Venetian. They contained everything you'd want in a casino- lots of very rich men chaperoned by lots of very beautiful women, ATMs everywhere and empty, overpriced designer stores where the staff look like the most bored people in the world, and all in overly ornate surroundings. Fantastic, although I also loved the grimier, old fashioned Lisboa where the rougher looking punters get ever more raucous as the night wears on under a thick fog of cigarette smoke. One area where Macau really does lack in comparison to Vegas is entertainment; in Vegas the hotels, restaurants and shows etc have now become so developed that the actual gambling only constitutes around a quarter of the hotels revenue- in contrast in Macau, it's all about the gambling. Whilst they've tried unsuccessfully introducing the Cirque de Soleil and a couple of other acts I just don't think the Chinese would be interested in Siegfried and Roy style acts or even bars/nightclubs when there's gambling to be done- I spent a particularly pathetic 20 minutes in the Wynn searching for a bar, when eventually found it consisted of nothing more than 3 small tables...
..But I have enjoyed a few beers this month as culturally, in a lot of ways I've definitely enjoyed the switch to the Far East...
Whilst I haven't quite become a dipsomaniac yet, being in a country where a beer doesn't cost more than your bed for the night and where 'nightlife' involves something more than listening to stray dogs barking has just been wicked and joyously taken advantage of. After so long with no real opportunities for going out it turns out I really quite like getting drunk and certainly being in a club with a beer in one hand, a tab in the other and a huge smile on my face whilst I Like It by Enrique Iglesias blares out has been a great part of my first few weeks here. Some races react really badly to alcohol (Mongolians, Aborigines, Maoris etc.) but the Chinese seem to go up about 5 gears; one of the main differences of the last month compared to my previous visit to China in 2003 is how much less interested the people are in me. Back then people would crowd around you and try and speak to you all the time but this time round they've been almost totally indifferent; until they start drinking and then they become immensely friendly and generous. I love how sociable the experience of eating and drinking is in China, you don't order a dish for yourself but one that can be shared amongst all your companions and they do the same, similarly you don't buy a drink for yourself but beers are gradually shared into smaller glasses and you do rounds of communal toasts. And they just will not let you pay no matter how much you drink, complete strangers who speak no English will drag you over and just refuse to accept money- on one long and drunken night out in Kunming we didn't pay for a single drink between us. The ability to indulge my embarrassing musical tastes aside it has been nice being somewhere a bit more relaxed too where people don't stare at you for minutes on end and after 9 months where I had I think one conversation with a local woman (the daughter of the family I stayed with in India) it does feel noticeably different walking around and interacting with people under a more relaxed unwritten behavioral code.
Some things haven't changed all that much though; when abroad it's long been a policy of mine that ‘when in Rome act like a Chinamen’. This has been very useful as it gives me carte blanche to spit, piss or perform virtually any other bodily function in public without a trace of shame. Having been in Asia so long I'm not exactly unused to seeing manners that would disgust my Mum but in China it feels more than a bit out of place. It's starting to become debatable as to whether China can still be considered a developing country, there are great road, rail, electricity and water systems and people have much better clothes and far more disposable cash than virtually all of the bigger countries I've been to on this trip but as my traveling companion described it "It's like cavemen with mobiles". When you're on a fairly comfortable train and the guys on the seats opposite you pick at a dinner consisting of nothing but pig hearts or chicken feet (both fried of course) washed down with moonshine like whiskey, throw the remains on the floor then spit and burp repeatedly for the next hour you can't help but think 'come on guys'! And 'offences' can be committed by anyone, more than a couple of times I've heard a hawk and spit that a Clydeside docker would be proud of only to notice it's been performed by a dainty looking girl clad in D&G. They are trying to change things, the local government in Beijing gave the locals lessons in how to behave in a more civilized way in front of foreigners before the Olympics and HK has a smoking ban whilst Macau now has a $75 fine if you're caught spitting on the street but, with their disgusting bathrooms and eating habits I think it'll take a few years for their manners to catch up to their wallets.
Whilst things are somewhat more expensive here, after 9 months in South Asia I'm really appreciating being in a more developed country. Having 24hr electricity, running water, pavements and a road system that works very much ups your quality of life, the 'intensity' of everyday life is much lower and I find myself much calmer and relaxed than in S Asia.
Tomorrow I’m heading back into China where this increasingly epic trip continues.
From Hong Kong,