China 2016 Part 1 – Hong Kong, Macau & Shanghai

Posted on October 18, 2016

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Last November whilst I was away in Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands, a friend who moved out to China 6 years ago sent me a message out of the blue inviting me over and visit him. At first I thought, I didn’t know how seriously to take his offer. About a couple of weeks later he messaged me again offering me to come on over. This was when I had that gut intuition tell me ‘why the hell not?’ I mean, why not right?

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A couple of months later, I put down a deposit for a flight to Hong Kong with a stopover in Dubai and I’d pay the rest off in the next 5 months. What could be simpler or more convenient? As I prepared for the trip, I watched YouTube videos on anything China related, learnt a little Mandarin and asked anyone who knew anything remotely Chinese to give me some tips.

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September rolled around and with everything seemingly prepared I boarded my flight on the Monday evening and arrived on Tuesday evening with a stopover in Dubai for a couple of hours. I didn’t feel particularly well throughout the flight due to my nerves before boarding the plane. I felt a little jittery in my stomach for the past couple of days and when a woman sat next to me gave me a piece of ginger, all hell broke loose. As did my stomach as it refluxed with me filling two bags full of vomit. It became so horrific with my disturbing convulsions that every passenger put on their headphones with the sound turned right up.

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Hong Kong

Hooking up with my friend who met me at the airport, we caught a double decker bus to his place. My first impressions of Hong Kong were that it was hot, humid and that Britain had very much left its mark on the place from its rule over the place. People drive on the left hand side, road signs are the same, the aforementioned buses, ice cream vans and British stores such as Marks & Spencer are just to name but a few things left behind. My timing couldn’t have been worse in terms of weather though – I arrived during monsoon season, which meant torrential downpours at any given time, i.e. when I stepped out of my friend’s 47th floor apartment.

 

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View from the 57th floor of my friend’s apartment

We went out into the local neighbourhood in Kennedy Town on Hong Kong Island and bought umbrellas. I opted to buy a cheaper one for HK$10 (about £1). The second I walked out of the store, the top broke off.

 

“That’s lesson one about Hong Kong and China: you get what you pay for.” My friend laughed.

 

Mishaps, clumsiness and things falling apart are a common thread on this adventure. After that, we went out to eat at a local unnamed dim sum restaurant, which seemed pleasant enough – you picked out your own food. I had custard buns, beef balls, prawn dumplings and jasmine tea.

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A selection of foods from a local dim sum restaurant

With us both feeling satisfied, we decided to head to the Chinese embassy to get my visa prepared to head into the Mainland.

 

“Prepare for the world of Chinese bureaucracy.” Said my friend.

 

“What do you mean? It can’t be worse than Egypt or the Middle East?” I replied.

 

“Oh you’ll find out.”

 

And sure enough I did. Through routine security checks, I wasn’t even allowed to bring bottled water into the embassy. When I got in and filled a 4-page form, with a passport photo, copies of the form and photo and the fee for an entry visa. Waiting for what was seemingly hours, it was my turn to be seen to. I was asked what I did for an occupation as I wrote that I was self-employed. To which I replied, “journalist.”

 

Yousif, you complete and utter IDIOT. Even writing this now has me looking on in complete disbelief at what I said. I could’ve said I shoveled shit for a living and there’d have been no problem.

 

“Sir, can you step this way please as we’d like to ask some questions.” Said the woman with my passport.

 

Half an hour later, an elderly woman came and sat in front of me and took my passport. She began asking the following questions:

 

“Is this your first time to China?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“What type of journalism do you do?”

 

“Music. I write about bands and guitars, stuff like that.” I said whilst strumming an air guitar and motioning from side to side.

 

“Do you plan on going to Xinjiang or Tibet?”

 

“No. Not at all whatsoever.”

 

“Where are your parents from?”

 

“Why were you in Turkey last year?”

 

“You said in your form that you were in Germany, Spain, Italy and Hungary in the past 12 months, where are your stamps?”

 

“You don’t need any for other European Union countries with a British passport.” I replied. “For now” I muttered under my breath.

 

It goes on, but in the end they took my passport and told me it’d be ready by Monday. As I needed to get into Shanghai for Sunday, I needed it for Friday, to which I paid HK$200 for the privilege of express service.

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Later that day, we strolled around Hong Kong with no real plan as such when we had a little game called Spot the Mainlander. A Mainland Chinese person fits certain stereotypes for being loud, rude, standoffish, lacking social etiquette and politeness. So a woman with a suitcase walks towards us and knocks my drink over when she passes and doesn’t flutter an eyelid or look back for a second as she strolled on.

“Mainlander.” Me and my mate acknowledged.

A few days later with a Chinese visa attached to my passport, I pretty much saw what Hong Kong had to offer in 4 days. Including the skyscrapers, shopping streets, restaurants and the view of Hong Kong Island itself from the Peak Tower.

 

Macau

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The Far East’s answer to Las Vegas. Casinos, hotel resorts and Portuguese colonial architecture dominate the small province, which I spent an evening. I took a ferry and took just over an hour to get there. Technically, because its another country, we had to take our passports to fill in immigration and departure forms for Macau and Hong Kong respectively.

Looking around, there’s not a lot else. Unless of course, you like to gamble. I nearly got thrown out of a casino for taking a picture of gamblers. Within seconds of taking a snap, two heavies in red coats ordered me to delete my photo or else.

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But if bright lights, humidity and old Portuguese colonial buildings are your bag, do come and visit. Recommended that you stay just for a day though.

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I thought of Hong Kong and Macau as a warm-up to Mainland China. Nothing could prepare me for what I was about to encounter. Hong Kong was practically England by comparison and I was about to get out of my comfort zone further than I’d ever gone.

Shanghai

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A 2 hour and 45 minute domestic flight brought me into the world’s most populous city, with 24 million inhabitants. To get into the city centre I opted to take the Maglev train, the world’s fastest commercial train, reaching speeds of up to 430 km/h. Looking outside felt like a blur and within 20 minutes I was at a nearby metro station to complete the rest of the journey to my hostel.

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What’s my first impression of Shanghai? Smog. The pollution problem here is as bad as everyone says it is. I could barely see beyond a few kilometers into the distance. As for the city center itself? It’s a business commerce minded place and fairly western looking with the traditional slowly being shunted away. It’s a huge concern for the locals too.

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Arriving at my station and getting out, I was met with rain and noise. China is intense in every sense of the word. I then began asking people with my extremely little Mandarin where the address to my hostel was. Thankfully after 20 minutes wondering around drenched I located it. After unpacking in my room and drying myself off I met a Scottish couple and a guy from New Zealand who later came along with me for dinner in a local restaurant nearby after much arm-twisting.

 

At the place itself, we walked in and were given English menus as luck would have it. We ordered chicken noodle soup, Shanghai-style dumplings that had vinegar so hot it burnt my tongue and a soft drink and all for around 50 Yuan – basically £5. Try eating for that amount of money in London.

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I was warned about a common scam used on tourists by some Chinese commonly known as the teahouse scam. This usually involves a middle-aged woman speaking very good English to you at tourist attractions. Which is pretty much what happened to me. They invite you back to a teahouse and the place will often charge you per drink or even by the sip of a drink, which can often lead one to pay upwards of anything from US$90 to $1000. I’ve heard of stories where some situations had got pretty nasty and have ended holidays as a result.

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I on the other hand was having none of it. I was well prepared and walked away after being pleaded to come along to have drinks with this woman. Let that be a warning to any prospective travellers to China.

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Another story from Shanghai involved the following situation when asking for directions:

 

“Ni Hao, do you know where the French Concession is?”

 

“No, but I can sell you a good watch or get you good massage..”

 

“Thanks but I’m feeling sick and can barely stand up.”

 

“Yes, good woman have sex with you and massage..”

 

“No, I’m SICK. Not SEX.” I replied as I mimicked coughing with my tonsils in flames and sweat dripping from my forehead.

 

I’m keeping this Shanghai section fairly brief because well, the city a) isn’t renowned for its tourism b) I caught a throat infection from a woman who coughed at me without covering her mouth c) I didn’t stay there long.

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Other points of interest included the People’s Park, various temples and a visit to the Mosque to celebrate Eid-Al-Adha.

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