(This is part 1 of a 5-part series)
Hong Kong: A delay, a rainstorm and a night ride through the mountains
The journey all across eastern China has just ended, so before posting pictures I’m going to try to recall everything I can about the 14 day trip here.
My family’s visit to China took place at the beginning of summer, just a day after I wrapped up the last bits of my teaching work for the semester. My mother and father would be flying to Hong Kong from Boston, and my uncle and cousin (mother’s side) both flew in from San Francisco. I was pretty much flat-out busy for two weeks before they came, booking tickets and hotels at the last minute and administering final exams and giving grades. So when the time finally came to take a train to Hong Kong to meet my parents, I was exhausted and had developed a bit of a cold, but I was ready to go. I had been living in a small city in southeastern China (Sanming, Fujian Province, right across from Taiwan) for several months without leaving for more than a couple of days, and I hadn’t left Fujian since February, so I was ready to get out of the area for a little while and see what the rest of China had to offer.
The first destination was Hong Kong. I left Sanming on the 23rd of June to go meet my parents, submitting final grades that morning and then buying a sleeper bus ticket to take me the 14 hours to Shenzhen, which is a major industrial city in the Chinese mainland just a few miles away from Hong Kong Island. From Shenzhen I could literally cross the border from mainland to Hong Kong by subway. I had originally planned to go by sleeper train, which is much more comfortable and in this case faster, but all across southeastern China over the past month it had rained, and floods and landslides had shut down the train route. So I boarded the bus in the afternoon and we set out west.
The only notable thing from the bus trip was that the bus’s dinner stop was several hours away from Sanming, at a broken-down-looking roadside restaurant where they served bad chicken soup and fried vegetables and rice and charged an outrageous 15 yuan for the meal (about $2 USD; normally this kind of meal would cost 7 or 8 yuan). But the place was obviously in the middle of nowhere and supported at least a few families, who appeared to be living in total poverty. Connected to the dining hall I could see their living quarters, which consisted basically of half a dozen beds crowded together and shrouded in mosquito nets. The place is hard to describe; it was just the kind of place that you know at a glance is inhabited by people who make no money and have very little, so it was easier not to feel cheated as I forked over my money. It was a bit of a racket; I took my food and they told me to pay later, and after I started eating they asked for the money; that was how I got tricked. But there was nothing to do about it; I had already started eating so I couldn’t barter. I paid my money and reboarded the bus.
As the sun was coming up I arrived in Shenzhen. Shenzhen is a huge manufacturing city that is full of modern, brand-new buildings, and it would look like a modern, well-developed city except that everything in it appears to be under construction, recently under construction or about to go under construction. There are piles of dirt, brick, metal, and other building materials everywhere — in parking lots, on sidewalks, in roads — and everything gives a feeling of being sort of haphazardly placed — as though the entire city were a sort of giant sandbox or playpen for designers and builders toying with the idea of a city. Buildings seem to not really line up in neat blocks; parking lots are incomplete; restaurants sit awkwardly next to factories and warehouses crop up next to shopping malls. The whole place seemed surreal as the bus drove through it, periodically stopping to drop off passengers, one at a time, until the bus was almost empty when we finally arrived at the station.
When I walked out of the Shenzhen station there were about 20 cabbies surrounding the exit, trying to usher me to their cabs. I didn’t think quickly and let one of the cabbies take me to his cab before I started to barter with him for a ride to the Shenzhen train station; I should have haggled cab fares when I was surrounded by 20 cabbies, but wasn’t sharp enough in the dazed blue dawn. So the 20 minute ride cost me more than it should have; about 70 yuan. The city started to redden as the sun came up and my cab approached the train station. After about 20 minutes we arrived at the main Shenzhen rail station and the cabbie told me that the subway would open in about 30 minutes, at 6:30 a.m.
As I was nearly arriving at the Hong Kong border crossing, where my cell phone would stop working (for some reason mainland China cell phones don’t work in Hong Kong), my mom called me up and told me that their plane had been delayed for reasons unknown, and that they would arrived at least 12 hours late; they were stuck in their connecting city, Detroit. This was fine because we had 36 hours in Hong Kong before we would fly to Guilin, to begin our travel in mainland, but it was a bit of a downer. She also told me that immediately before leaving San Francisco, my uncle had had to take his daughter (who was also coming to China) to the hospital because she had been complaining of strange stomach cramps, but that the hospital had cleared her to fly and they had successfully taken off. So I should still go to HK to connect with them. I wished my mom luck and said that I would try to find a calling card in HK so that I could get in touch with her and confirm her new arrival time later.
Arriving in Hong Kong was less dramatic than it was the first time I traveled from mainland China to HK, probably because this time I knew what to expect. I knew that I would suddenly find myself in a much wealthier, cleaner, more orderly, more familiar in a way and yet also unfamiliar environment. I knew that I would suddenly become more aware of my own body odor and clothing and that everyone would suddenly be better dressed and wealthier and just generally moving at a different pace (faster pace) than I had become accustomed to. So it wasn’t that much of a shock, and it felt really good to be back on the streets of Hong Kong (I spent 10 days there in the spring waiting for a new visa), cruising around on their super clean and efficient subway system and walking down the streets, digging the Western city vibe.
I only had the morning and part of the afternoon to get organized before I had to go to the airport to meet my uncle and cousin, so I immediately found an internet bar to search for the address of our hotel so I could check in and figure out how to get a calling card.
I settled on a calling card in one of the 711s that are all over Hong Kong (this is one of the major differences between HK and mainland; mainland really hasn’t figured out the magic of convenience stores, and it really does make life less convenient) and figured out how to check into our hotel, which was the plush and comfortable City Garden Hotel a few subway stops east of Central HK. I took a shower in the hotel’s bathroom and sat in the hotel room for 10 minutes and suddenly felt cleaner than I had felt in months. There is just something about being in HK that is that way — it’s the subtle noxious smell of mainland hotel bathrooms, or the dirty smell of the water, or the fact that laundry drying machines are not allowed in southern mainland — there is some indefinable way that life in mainland is dirtier than life elsewhere, inevitably dirtier, and once you are accustomed to it you don’t really feel it or sense it again until you leave mainland completely. And that is what I did in the hotel — just sat there and felt cleaner and fresher than I had felt in a long time, and then put on a fresh shirt and headed off to the airport.
At the airport I met up with my cousin and uncle and then we headed back to the hotel pretty much immediately, and after about 20 minutes of walking around we ate at the best restaurant I have tried in Hong Kong yet: called Little Chili. It was a small Sichuan-style restaurant only a few blocks away from the City Garden Hotel specializing in (as the name implies) spicy Sichuan dishes including hot pot, shui3 zhu3 (I don’t know what that dish is called in English) and spicy fried meat dishes. We ordered Sichuan-style spicy fried chicken, fried Chinese greens, fried Chinese boiled dumplings and an eggplant dish and everything was ridiculously good, and way cheaper than you’d expect in Hong Kong. The 20-oz Qingdao beers were only 10 HKD! In the 10 days I spent in Hong Kong in the spring, I scoured the island for good food deals and I never found anything like this place. If you’re looking for good, cheap food in Hong Kong, Little Chili is definitely the place to go.
Unfortunately I screwed up ordering food and mistakenly ordered two orders of the spicy chicken dish, even just one of which would have been too big for the three of us. This was because I pretended to understand the waitress when I really didn’t understand the last question she asked me. After the confusion and the slight botching of what otherwise would have been an excellent introduction for my cousin and uncle to Chinese cuisine, I realized I would have to be stubborn and persistent in getting Chinese speakers to help me understand them through the duration of the trip, which would eventually result in me really getting much better at sticking to a conversation in Chinese, even when things got bungled or were difficult to understand. Which is of course essential for really making progress in the language.
The next morning, my parents came. It had been about nine months since I had seen them, which is one of the longest if not the longest period I’ve gone without seeing them. It was really joyful and almost tearful. In a way, I was almost nervous to see them again because it had been so long and I had missed them — I was nervous about the emotional ups and downs of seeing them for a good period of time and then having to say goodbye again. But seeing them again in person overwhelmed those worries and after a few minutes we got headed on our way to getting a taxi back to the hotel.
Connecting away from home
The next day, in Hong Kong, it rained, and it continued to rain throughout most of our time in the South. Our one day in Hong Kong we spent walking around — we went to the Man Mo Temple, and shopped for the necessities we would need for the rest of our trip, and did some antique-shop browsing. My cousin and uncle went to the old nunnery in Hong Kong and gave it great reviews, although I’ve never been myself. And for dinner we found an excellent and fairly cheap Chinese restaurant in SoHo, a little bit away from the escalator where all the overpriced food is. But it was quickly time to leave the expensive hotels and restaurants of Hong Kong — we only had about a day there, and then we took the bus across to the Shenzhen airport. I was a bit nervous to cross the border with my family — I knew everything would be fine, but I was anxious anyway — and then border crossing by bus was not as clean or easy as it is when you go from HK to Shenzhen by subway. But we all passed through mainland customs without a hitch, and after a delay of a few hours in the Shenzhen airport because of heavy rain, we took off for Guilin, our first destination in mainland China.
In the shuttle bus from HK to the Guilin airport, right after the border crossing, I encountered something of a major coincidence. There was another young guy on the bus, sitting next to my father and I, who I started talking to soon after we boarded after the crossing — a German guy a couple of years older than me who was also setting out with his mom to go traveling around China. The coincidences were this, in the order that I realized them:
1: He had also been teaching English in China, only he had been at it for two years and in Xi’an, and he had also been teaching German
2: He was also just starting out on a tour of mainland China with his mother
3: His mother had arrived in Hong Kong on the same day as my parents, and she would be leaving Beijing on the same day my parents would be leaving Beijing
4: They were also planning to travel to Guilin at the same time as us, and in fact had the same flight
5: They had been staying in the same hotel as us and the German guy, whose name was Jan (pronounced like “Yen” in English), had noticed us in the hotel
6: Jan was planning on traveling south through China after his mother left, just as I had planned to do, stopping in Xi’an and then continuing toward Taiwan
7: Jan and his mother’s seats on the airplane were actually directly behind my and my parents’ seats
There the coincidences (perhaps mercifully) stopped. Needless to say I ended up talking to Jan for about four hours straight and learned that he had spent about 3 years living in India studying Buddhism, that he studied sociology in university in Germany, that he was more or less sick of China and wanted to leave, and that he wanted to move to Taiwan to continue his study of Chinese, and that he was planning to go to Massachusetts in the fall to practice silent meditation for three solid months. He was a vegetarian and a non-smoker and I was able to identify with almost all of his views, except that he seemed to have been traveling and studying and meditating long enough to be far more calm and understanding of certain situations than me. And he was able to provide a lot of insight on life in China, particularly with respect to friendships, relationships and women — something I talked about with almost all the foreigners I met along our trip throuhgout the country (the foreigners who were living or had lived in China, anyway) since as I plan to sign for another year teaching English in mainland the reality of establishing and maintaining real relationships here becomes more of a necessity/reality.
Eventually, though, it got late, and I was exhausted, and I passed out in my airplane seat as Jan turned to his mom for conversation in German. My parents were already fast asleep on the plane; because of the delay, we wouldn’t make it to our hotel in Yangshuo, a small mountain town in the famous karst peaks in south-central China, until at least 2 in the morning.
Arriving in Yangshuo
I had booked a van to take us the hour and a half from the Guilin airport to our Yangshuo hotel, and when the lights of Guilin finally slipped behind us after the van reached the highway, we couldn’t see much out of the windows, except the occasional karst mountain floating by in the hazy dark like a phantom cloud. The karst mountains are plane mountains — they rise in great multitude from what appears to have once been a flat plane, not very tall or massive but sharp and jutting, like the image of a sound wave suddenly interrupted by a shout. They are so famous and beautiful that they are featured on the back of the Chinese 20-dollar bill. Everyone I spoke to who had seen them said they were one of the most beautiful places in China. But in the night they were just vague dark shapes moving slowly in the distance.
We arrived in Yangshuo and checked into our hotel, and just as we were settling down to go to sleep someone set of fireworks in the park across the street from our hotel, and I saw the chrysanthemum-like explosions of fireworks outside at 3 in the morning. The next morning we woke up and stepped onto the balcony and looked directly out to the LiJiang river outside our balcony (we stayed at the Riverview Hotel, cheap, comfortable, with great service) and huge karst peaks to either side, towering over the little town and carpeted with green.