Monday, December 21, 2009

Hong Kong - c'est tout ce que j'aime

I'm loving it. You just can't beat a chicken-grilled sandwich, fries and coffee to go from those lovely smiley folk at McDonald's. Ahhh - the adventurous life of the traveller. And ahhhhhh - Hong Kong! You just can't beat the price either. It's the cheapest food around. Thankfully there's the Cafe de Coral too - a Chinese fast food chain that serves up the healthiest food possible in stark contrast. And speaking of stark contrasts. Well, there's the hot sunny weather when we emerge from the station at Kowloon. There's the smoke-free public space along the promenade with the great view of Hong Kong Island. There are the helpful and informative signs in Cantonese and English advising what you can and cannot do for everyone's safety and peace of mind. (Too many signs - the British have left their mark.) And a Falun Gong display of photos with accounts of China's brutal repression and human rights abuses. These are shocking in their own right, but we are doubly shocked to see such a display in public, after three months in China.
We take the best boat-ride to be had - the public Star Ferry across the harbour to Hong Kong Island - and go straight to the post office to collect a parcel from Poste Restante. My Mum and Dad have sent our camping equipment out to us along with some rather tasty chocolate which we sample while unpacking and repacking our rucksacks. Then it's a late lunch at the aforementioned global junk food emporium before we take another ferry to Lamma Island, an island without roads or cars. We've come here to couch surf with Adrian, a charming young Romanian who works in the city and lives alone in a small flat on the island. It turns out that Adrian is a very generous host and once he learns that we have come to trek some of Hong Kong's trails, he kindly invites us to leave excess baggage with him and to return whenever we like. Adrian thinks of Hong Kong as 'a London in Asia', but thinks the Chinese are ruining it. I'm not sure how. The locals he works with meanwhile refer to the mainland dismissively as 'The Farm'. There is certainly a sense that Hong Kong locals seem more sophisticated than mainland Chinese but I'd be hard-pressed to pinpoint why. Is it in their haircuts???

After a couple of days pootling about we buy supplies for trekking. Getting petrol for the stove seems to be a problem at one petrol station. After saying no, none of the staff gives us eye contact. We were never treated like this in China. Still, there is the super-efficient Tourist Information staff who track down a place where we can buy some and off we go to walk some of the MacLehose Trail which runs along the ridge of hills that separate Kowloon from the rest of the New Territories on the peninsula. Our first day's walk takes us over Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong's highest peak at about 950 metres, which promises great views over the whole area. Unless the cloud drops and you disappear into the thick mist, that is. It turns out to be the worst weather day, and from then on we have sun and light cloud as we cross eastwards above the skyscrapers and appartment blocks of the townships. It's good walking and there are some campsites with toilets, but on our second night we end up carrying water and having to camp right on the trail beneath a high-security radar station. I am spooked by troops of monkeys on some stretches of the trail that is forested, and occasionally we pass silent packs of dogs. These animals are pets that have been dumped in the national parks by locals. At one point we pass a group of vets in white body suits sterilising the monkeys - a rather weird sight. In the end we don't make it to the beach at the end of the trail - it's cloudy and trying to rain and we opt to return to Adrian's. It's the weekend though and there are hundreds of locals of all ages out on the trails and off to the beach with their tents.

Our other hike is on Lantau Island. We climb Hong Kong's second highest peak which promises great views over the whole area. Unless the cloud drops and you disappear into the thick mist, that is. We descend to a campsite above a monastery and a huge sitting Buddha statue, which serves as a pilgrimage place and a tourist attraction. The Buddha faces eastwards looking out towards the new airport, as if he's looking out for the Cathay Pacific flight from Singapore. Our second day takes us along rolling hills and down to a beach campsite where we can relax in solitude. Its hard to imagine we're in Hong Kong, having spent so much of the time in the national parks well away from the hustle and bustle.

When we get back to Adrian's for the final time we discover a full house. He seems to welcome everyone and we've already met a few other couch surfers there. On this evening there is also a Moldovan man who is bumming his way around Asia with an old bike with no gears or brakes. His stuff is in plastic bags tied to the handlebars and he looks like he spent the last night sleeping under a bridge. He probably has. He's already spent three years like this visiting every country in Africa, but in Asia he keeps having problems entering countries. No wonder really as he looks penniless. Adrian is as kind and generous as ever and wants to help him along. It strikes us that couch surfing hosts seem to have something special - to open their doors to complete strangers, demonstrating such trust and hospitality - it renews our faith in humanity, after witnessing in Hong Kong what seems to be only relentless consumption. Speaking of which, anyone for McDonalds??

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