Sunday, December 20, 2009

Yet Another Visa Trip to Hong Kong

Click the pix for larger picture.

The paperwork came back from the government giving me authorization to get an official working visa. However, this is done through a Chinese consulate in another country, so I got to make another trip to Hong Kong, this time alone. I needed four days, two for travel and two to process the paperwork.
I decided to do it low budget, so I booked a low cost room online. 200 Hong Kong dollars a night (about 25 US dollars), with a shared bathroom. We would see what that got me.
I stuffed 3 days of clothing, toiletries, my umbrella, a jar of peanut butter, a book, camera, visa crap and Ipod into my day pack and off I went.
I wasn’t going to do another sleeper bus, so I took a nice express bus to Shenzhen. The seats are big and comfy with lots of legroom, and you are seated high so you can see well. The trip is on a 4 lane freeway and takes about 7 hours, with a stop for lunch. The lunch was included in the cost of the bus. Basically you stop at one of the various roadside places that give you a big Styrofoam container with a massive pile of rice, some veggies and a smidgeon of meat.
The scenery is nice, mostly farmland and mountains, until you get to the area nearing Guangzhou and Shenzhen, then it becomes endless Chinese city.
I got to the bus station around 5:30 and had to take a taxi to the train station. That was a fun, traffic clogged creep. Once I got to the train station it was the usual customs drill followed by the train ride that put me at the southern tip of Kowloon at about 7:30. I exited to subway to an assault to the senses. Wall to wall people, traffic and neon. Lots of Pakistanis, Indians, Sikhs, Africans and various middle eastern types. There were also Chinese and a few white folks, too.
I had my Chinglish instructions on how to get to the “Taiwan Guesthouse:
“If you come from Lo Wu (Shenzhen, China), please get off at the last station - East TSIM SHA TSUI. Get off from K gate - Middle Road. After comes out walks towards Nathan Road direction, walk to the intersection right extention, walk 100m, obviously Chungking Mansions main entrance, It takes about 2 minutes on foot.
You will find the huge TV screen paste at the wall, that just the Chungking Mansions. When you make sure you are at Chungking Mansions, walk into the Block A (just be close to the Chungking Mansions front entrance). You can see two lift, take the right hand
side one (stop at odd numbers floor), press the 3rd floor button, when you are out, you can see our reception should be within your sight.”
That got me to my destination. “Chungking Mansions” is basically a lie. There is no mansion, just an entryway into an older 15 story building with a warren of money exchanges and tiny shops selling clothing, food, watches, electronics, groceries, sundries, and cheap Chinese crap. The place was packed with all of the aforementioned ethnic mix, plus a few white travelers. There was the lift, with a line and a guy controlling the whole thing. It was a tiny thing that crawled along, I made the overload alarm go off when I got on, so had to wait for it to make the slow ascent to the 15th floor, then back down again. The “hotel” is a low ceilinged place that’s pretty clean and has really friendly Chinese owners. The lady offered me an upgrade to a room with a bathroom for only another 100 HKD for the three nights so I took it. She also let me use her phone to call home since my cell phone doesn’t call out in Hong Kong.
My room was more like a cell, about 1 ½ by 2 meters with a comfy single bed, dinky TV, deskette, A.C., and a closet like bathroom. The bathroom is really a shower with a sink and toilet in it, a really cramped version of most Chinese bathrooms, except for the western toilet. A mirrored window opened to a black three foot gap to the next building. However, it was clean and quiet. Much to my delight, the shower gave a powerful blast of hot water, so I washed the travel grime and stress away, then went out for some chow. Exploration of the downstairs warren revealed all kinds of commerce and lots of different Indian and mid east eateries. I got some curried lamb with saffron rice that was pretty good. I wandered around the neighborhood outside. There were lots of people and umbrellas to negotiate. There are also lots of touts trying to sell watches, massages and tailors. Best to totally ignore the touts. I mostly got hit up for tailors. Were they trying to tell me something? I headed back to the mansion’s caverns, and took in the culture. Lots of the shops were staffed with non Chinese, probably Muslim owned, since most of the fridges had juice and soda only. A few touts were in there, too, including one offering hashish. I opted for a couple of cold San Miguel pilsners and headed up the lift to unwind in my nook.
The next morning was chilly and grey. I headed over to Hong Kong island on the metro to deal with the Chinese consulate. It was easy to find and deal with. The key was to get there before opening and beat the crowd. It would be ready the next day.
By 11 I was ready for brunch and a nap. Food is really expensive there, about double the price of the mainland. I got some bread to go with my peanut butter and had a lovely repast. I was really pooped and since my den in the mansion was pitch black with the lights out, I managed to sleep for about 3 ½ hours. Time for some exploring and dinner, but first another high test shower. I found a good noodle and dumpling place with a bowl of noodles with soup and shrimp dumplings for 22 HKD. It’s really easy to spend a lot more eating there. There are a lot of restaurants with food for over 100 and way up. My family of four can have a great restaurant dinner for a 100 RMB at home. (110 RMB is worth roughly 100 HKD.)
After some crowd mingling on the sidewalks and a little window shopping, I headed back for some reading and resting. Pretty much a lazy day.
After picking up my visa the next day I went to a travel agency and booked a direct bus from Hong Kong home. Noodles for lunch then off to explore. I found the waterfront overlooking the straight and the island of Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Art Museum was there, but it was closed on Thursdays. I went to the Space Museum instead. It was a little rinky dink, but only 10 HKD, and it gave me a much needed basic physics tutorial.
The waterfront was a nice break from the claustrophobic city. The weather was a little chilly, and the crowds were scant. I spent a lot of time enjoying the view of the island with its skyscrapers and steep forested hills behind. I came back in the evening to see the lights and wasn’t disappointed.
This city is a great people watching place. At the waterfront, there was a guy sitting on a bench in a giant parka with the hood hiding his face swaying and singing to something coming through his earbuds. There are beggars, Sikhs, well dressed ladies, fat Europeans, skuzzy looking white guys (who knows what they do in their little rooms), black Muslims with white beards, white Muslims with black beards, fat Indian women, fat Chinese, and a few young backpackers. The folks commuting on the subways in the morning are dead quiet, in contrast to the loud chatter I hear on my bus going to work in Zhanjiang. The streets are clean, there are no motorcycles and everyone, including pedestrians, obey the traffic signals. When you ride an escalator, you stay to the right, so the people in a hurry can walk past you.
Yali called and when I described my room she said, “Oh like a jail”. I couldn’t get that out of my head. Hong Kong feels a little like a giant penitentiary with lots of privileges. I was getting a little edgy and happy to depart. In my final stroll around the neighborhood I found a Burger King. I had a Whopper. We only have McDonald’s in Zhanjiang, and their burgers suck, just like home. This Wopper was also just like home, with onions, and dill pickles, too much mayo and ketchup. 32 HKD and worth every teeny penny.
My bus ride home was great. Customs from a bus is quick and easy, get off, get through, get back on. There were only about 15 or so passengers, so there was plenty of room. This bus stopped every two hours for a stretch, smoke and pee break. Lunch cost a little extra, but was at a real restaurant, and was quite good with about 10 different dishes. I sat at a table with some Hong Kong folks who spoke English and we had a nice chat about this and that while scarfing chicken, steamed fish, pork tongue, mushrooms, veggies, sweet potatoes, soup, and chicken gizzards. The best meal I had in days.
I returned home to the wide open spaces of my city. It doesn’t feel as crowded, everyone is Chinese and they all seem a little seedy and scruffy compared to the folks in Hong Kong. I had to adjust again to the damn motorbikes going every which way they want, but I’m glad to be home.