Last days in China - Guangzhou and Hong Kong
03.05.2012 - 07.05.2012 30 °C
"So what is your best advice for someone who's going travelling?" Three months into to our trip, you would think that the answer would come easily. The question has been asked by Elizabeth, friend and flatmate of Grant's cousin Abigail, who's about to embark on a long trip around China after having worked in Hong Kong. Unable to mention one single piece of advice, we mention the importance of allowing yourself days off, not trying to do everything, getting recommendations from other travellers... Until the most important advice suddenly dawns on us - of course, there's one thing that makes more of a difference than anything else: "Let everyone know where you are going travelling and ask if they know anyone in these places. Try to meet up with friends and friends of friends wherever you can - nothing beats meeting up with "a local"."
In the last few days, we have been very true to our own advice. Throughout our last days in China and Hong Kong, we have managed to meet many old and new friends which has resulted in many more highlights to add to our trip.
Meeting the Poe-Gorman family in Guangzhou
We knew that we would like Mike and Jean - as they are good friends to our top pal Olga, so anything else would have been surprising. Having taken the overnight train from Guilin, we arrived in Guangzhou early morning and took at taxi to the compound where Mike and Jean and their two kids, Jacksan and Malena, live. We were met by Jean who took us to their house which was fantastic - spacious and beautiful, and situated in the quietest and cleanest place we've seen in China. The first thing Jean got us was some tea and home made bread, which was simply delicious. Anybody who's been travelling knows how difficult it can be to find good bread! As if that wasn't enough, we had some home-made dumplings for lunch - easily the best we've had - ever!
After lunch we went into central Guangzhou. It's a truly huge city and due to the heavy rain we only covered a tiny part. It was however obvious that this is a booming city with much more money than other places we've been to in China. Following a recommendation from Jean, we visited a furniture shop selling both antique and new furniture, which is very popular with the expat community in Guangzhou. The owner gave us plenty of time to look around, even though we arrived just after closing time. The shop was full of beautiful antiques - unfortunately the freight of any purchased items would quickly more than double the price so we left emptyhanded, but it was nonetheless a great stop (and maybe one day...).
Back at Jean and Mike's house we got to meet Mike, Jacksan and Malena. Jacksan (who kindly let us sleep in his room) and Malena are both incredibly charming little people, full of energy and and it's impossible not to laugh when you're with them. Mike works for the US state department at the consulate in Guangzhou and Jean works as a banking consultant. We had a really nice evening with the family, great dinner and nice chat and we so enjoyed being in a nice home for a change (as opposed to all the hostels and hotels). It was great hearing about Mike and Jean's experiences as a diplomat family in Honduras and now Guangzhou - we can only hope we can go and visit them at their next posting too! Before then however, we hope that their travels will bring them to Sweden.
Grant with Jacksan who kindly lent us his room!
Dinner with Jean and Mike
The next morning we were off early to take the train to "Asia's World City" - Hong Kong.
On the train to Hong Kong
No sooner had the train pulled in at the station than we could feel that this was something very, very different. While Hong Kong might have been returned to China in 1997, it is by no means like China. It's clean, calmer, quieter (but not necessarily calm or quiet), hardly any noises of spitting, and there is such a thing as personal space here. Another big difference is the people. While the population in the places we'd visited in China is quite homogenous, Hong Kong is a true melting pot. In addition to Chinese and Cantonese, there are Westerners, Indians, Nepalese, Arabs, Africans... Which just makes it such an exciting place. Hong Kong really feels like its slogan - a world city. Walking the streets of SoHo in Hong Kong island, you can have food from all the corners of the world, and newsagents sell publications from everywhere. And that's perhaps the most important difference - there is still freedom in Hong Kong. No censorship, nothing blocked on google, Facebook works, and you can buy the Economist and feel like you're in touch with current affairs again.
The Hong Kongers are guaranteed to keep this freedom though the "One country, two systems" arrangement, until 2047, i.e. 50 years after the handover. Who knows what then will happen; it all depends on what direction mainland China is taking. It is obvious that the freedom is pivotal for Hong Kong's wealth and vibrancy. Without freedom, Hong Kong simply wouldn't be Hong Kong. Guess you've realised by now that we like the place. A lot.
Exciting sightseeing around Hong Kong
This item strangely did not make the cut
A lot of hills in Hong Kong, luckily the "travellators" (like conveyor belts) do the work for you
As mentioned, Hong Kong would mean a very social few days. However, the first meeting was not even planned. After our arrival and check in our hostel in Tsim Sha Tsui, we did a bit of sight seeing in HK island before heading back for some afternoon tea at the famous Peninsula hotel.
The Peninsula - it's tea time!
In the queue Helena suddenly recognised Michaela, a former colleague from the Swedish Foreign Ministry. Michaela is posted in Pyongyang but was in Hong Kong over the week-end to visit her colleague Amelie, who works for the consulate general in Hong Kong. Having chatted all the way to our turn, we decided to have tea together. It was massively interesting to hear about Swedish expat life in Hong Kong AND Pyongyang!
Afternoon tea at the Peninsula
The tea was a real highlight and we're glad we treated ourselves to this rare luxury - delicious scones and cakes, a live orchestra, a beautiful restaurant... What more could you possibly ask for?
After tea we only had a few hours to get our appetite going for our next meal - dinner with Grant's cousin Abigail and her friends. Lecturing at Hong Kong university, Abigail has been in Hong Kong for about a year and will stay for another year. She clearly likes it here and it is easy to see why. In addition to enjoying the perks of being in Hong Kong, she also manages to spend time with her father's family. Between hard work and a busy social life, she's also managing to study Cantonese and impressed us greatly by ordering in Cantonese at the restaurant!
With us at dinner were boyfriend Robert and friends/flat mates Elizabeth and Bill who also lecture at the university. Just like Abigail, they're Yale graduates and scholars. We had a great evening with them and it is obvious that there are many reasons why Abigail is having a great time here.
Dinner with Abigail, Robert, Bill and Elizabeth at a great Indonesian restaurant
The next morning we took a bus to Aberdeen Harbour. The days are over when the harbour was full of "boat people" living their lives on the boats, but there are still some houseboats and there is plenty going on. We took a tour around the harbour with a nice lady in her sampan which also is her home. Her husband is a fisherman who's off for months at the time but our friend didn't seem to be lonely. During our half hour tour she pointed to two of her sisters, who also live in the harbour.
She explained that after a big fire around 30 years ago, many of the boat people were moved into apartment complexes by the local government, and pointed to some tall, pink buildings overlooking the harbour.
Our guide and the owner of the boat
The kitsch interior of the sampan
[i]Many of the people previously living on boats, now live in these buildings
A tour around the harbour really shows that it is bustling with life. There are fishing boats, kitchen boats that cook for the fishermen, repair boats, boats that sell fresh water, and plenty of houseboats. We saw lots of lovely dogs and learnt that most boats have one for security. Our guide knew exactly who had the biggest boat, how many people lived in the different boats and who had the best domestic appliances on their boats. We assume that there are very few secrets within the harbour.
Aberdeen Harbour also hosts the yacht club, which makes for a pretty stark contrast to the distinctly simpler houseboats. When we went passed the huge boats in our little one, we could see young men tidying and cleaning the ships. Our guide was a good source of information also here "That boat costs 70 million Hong Kong dollars!", she said, pointing to a beast of a boat. Hopefully the owners have the time to enjoy them.
The Yacht Club in Aberdeen Harbour
One of many boat dogs
The famous floating restaurant "Jumbo"...
...and its less impressive rear
It was very cool to go around the harbour in the boat and fascinating to see that there is still lots going on, although it's not as busy with houseboats as it used to be. Before continuing our sightseeing, we had a quick look at the fish market.
Fish market in Aberdeen Harbour
Next we took a bus to Stanley. On the way there we got a first taste of how beautiful and green Hong Kong is.
Very happy after sunglasses purchase at Stanley
After getting ourselves some new sunglasses, it was time to head back to central for one of the most anticipated meals of the whole trip - Dim Sum with the Cheungs! Together with Abigail we met with Abigail's aunt Helen and Helen's husband Roy for the most delicious lunch ever. The beauty with Dim Sum is that you get to taste lots of different things. We went a bit bananas with the ordering and it was all fantastic food. A new high point to add to our trip!
It was great to meet up with extended family so far away from home. Helen and Roy were happy to tell us about life in Hong Kong and very interested to hear about our trip. Roy surprised us by telling us that his parents used to run three Chinese restaurants in Gothenburg, where Helena went to university, hence he had been there several times. After lunch, Roy, Helen and Abigail took us on a short sightseeing tour around Central which was very interesting - we discovered very cool areas which we otherwise would have missed completely and we got to know more about the history of the place. In SoHo lots of expats were out drinking beer, chatting, watching sports, almost like a Place Lux - only a bit older, wealthier and tropical.
Dim Sum with Roy, Helen and Abigail - simply delicious
Tour around Central
After lunch Helen and Roy dropped us off at the Peak Tram and after waiting in the long queue for a while it was finally our turn. The Peak Tram is a famous Hong Kong landmark and it was a pretty steep ride to the top! Here we unfortunately missed out on the view due to the extremely thick fog.
Waiting for the Peak tram
Not so much of a view but the pictures were interesting...
Our last meeting in Hong Kong was with Grant's university friend Pete Sabine. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Pete studied in Edinburgh and then returned to Hong Kong. In his spare time Pete DJs and after catching up over a few drinks we were keen to join him at the club and hear him play. The theme of the club was funk and while perhaps not our usual type of music, Pete's set was definitely the highlight. It's no exaggeration to say that he really put a lot of energy into the gig! This was our first real "authentic" experience of expat life in Hong Kong and we couldn't help feeling a bit jealous - Hong Kong just feels so cool.
Grant and Pete...
...Pete and Helena...
...and Pete on stage, giving it his all...
...and Helena and Grant
Sunday was our last day and we decided to go to the beach. Yes, that's right, Hong Kong has lots of beautiful beaches and the water is clean enough to swim in. We opted for South Bay on Hong Kong island. The water wand oil, the shark net reassuring, and it cured the light hangovers we had acquired - we're not used to late, boozey nights anymore!
Enjoying Hong Kong beach life
Last but not least in Hong Kong, on our last evening we went down to the waterfront to see the the daily light show. It was very smart and does the impressive Hong Kong skyline justice (wish we could say the same about the music, but it sounded more like a very old video game).
Hong Kong light show
To conclude, Hong Kong is an awesome place and we were particularly lucky to have friends who could show us around and give us a "real" feel for the place. As mentioned many times before, that makes a big difference. We are very excited that we soon will have even more family in Hong Kong, and will hopefully be back to visit Jo and Iain in no time!