Conversationless in China (From Hong Kong to Guilin)

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THE SINGLE MOST stressful part of travelling is arriving somewhere new. You step into the airport, or the bus station, or the train station, and you’re either mobbed by people trying to sell you a taxi, a hotel, a ripoff scam; or everyone ignores you, the signs are incomprehensible and you have no idea how to get where you need to go. Arriving in Hong Kong was none of these things – our bags were on the carousel when we arrived, I was able to pick up a map of the city for free, and there was helpful signage telling me exactly how to get where I wanted to go (American airports please take note).

Stepping off the bus at 10 o’ clock at night onto busy, bright Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui we were all smiles. No one tried to sell us a tuc tuc ride, no one gave us a second look. “It’s so nice,” we said to each other as we wandered towards the hostel. “It’s like London,” meaning, of course, not that Hong Kong is anything like London (because it’s not), but that the people here were wealthier, the place was more cosmopolitan and we were just another face in the crowd, rather than The Clueless Tourists With Matching Backpacks. Yes our hostel was on the ninth floor of a building, just above a brothel catering (it seemed) exclusively to drunk Indian men, and yes our room was only the size of a postage stamp whilst costing considerably more than anywhere else we’d stayed, but we were happy to be in Hong Kong.

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Because we needed a visa for the mainland, our first day was sacrificed to Chinese bureaucracy, including what seemed like an inordinate amount of time asking people if they had change because the photocopying machine in the visa office only accepted $1 coins. It was maddening, but at least it was warm in there, whilst outside it was 8 degrees – downright freezing after the heat of Bangkok.

The rest of our time in the city we spent walking. Hong Kong was clean and bright and full of people walking with a purpose. Actually, that’s a lie. Hong Kong was full of people strolling with a purpose. The people of Hong Kong, even the ones in suits, had an unhurried air about them. Yes, they were going for a business meeting, but what was the rush?  I don’t know Hong Kong, maybe the fact that it’s cold in your city and I’ve packed a wardrobe that, in hindsight, might be considered a little optimistic, consisting almost entirely of shorts and T-shirts? But the people of Hong Kong were deaf to my inappropriate clothing predicament, and instead we bobbed around behind people, trying to squeeze past, trying to walk fast, but mainly shivering in our matching his and hers long sleeved thermal tops (purchased during a similar clothing crisis just before going backpacking in Yosemite, California. I really don’t when BK-C and I started buying the same clothes, but it has to stop).

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There we are, together, wearing all of our clothes that we brought with us, with our Special Hiking Gear and our Nearly Matching Buffs wrapped around our heads to keep us warm, BK-C with her Special Reflective Coat on so that she’ll be Safer Crossing the Road. For some reason, the Chinese people with us at the time of the photograph found us to be extraordinarily funny.

We visited Hong Kong Park, a very orderly place with asphalt paths, an aviary cleaned four times a day and a botanical house with lots of different plants from around the world and free wifi (as all Government buildings have in Hong Kong); we went on a Feng Shui course and a tea appreciation course provided for free by the Hong Kong tourism board; and we failed to get up to go for the free Tai Chi classes at 8am. All in all, we were very much in favour of the city.

Lens-size comparison club at Hong Kong Aviary.

Lens-size comparison club at Hong Kong Aviary.

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It’s not the size of your lens that counts, it’s what you do with it.

The wonderful thing about travelling, though, is that you can be completely anonymous. It doesn’t matter if you have matching clothes which are probably a bit smelly. Nor does it matter if, after spending 24/7 together for 2 months, you start finishing each other’s sentences or, worse, just stopping half way through a sentence because you don’t need to finish it:

“Have you got the…?”
“Of course.”
“Ah. I was looking…”
“Yes, but I’ve put it in the other one now.”
“How did you…?”
“I moved the bag with the things.”
“So where are the things?”
“In the other bag.”

All of our conversations are now thus. Or, more recently (after we’ve fought over the seat with the better view of the restaurant so we can stare at other people whilst pretending to listen to what the other is saying), because we’ve exhausted all our other topics, we’ve taken to comparing things, people, places, foods (“if you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?” or “what’s the worst place we’ve stayed in?” or “where do you stand on croissants versus pain au chocolat?*”)

So when we met up with my old friend from university, Jenni, who’s now teaching in Hong Kong (“Honkers”), we were relieved that she was too polite to comment on the fact that we were wearing the same clothes, or that there was a faint edge of desperation in our desire to talk to Other People. It was nice not to be anonymous for a night, to have a common history and a shared future.

With our mind on the next stage of our trip, we talked about the differences between Hong Kong and the rest of China. Jenni told us that Hong Kongers consider themselves to be quite different from “mainlanders.” “They don’t like the mainlanders,” she said. “Hong Kongers consider them to lack decorum, like their spitting all the time and doing a poo in the street.” (For the record I have never seen anyone taking a shit in the street in mainland China, though the unique nature of Chinese toilets does mean that I’ve shared that intimate moment a little more closely with some than I would like). “When we set critical writing for the students [at school],” Jenni said, “they always complain about mainlanders.” Since the handover in 1997 Hong Kong has been part of China but has operated under a different economic and political system, which by the terms of the handover must continue until 2047. “One country, two systems,” is the Chinese mantra when it comes to this former British colony. But Hong Kong is quite different to mainland China – there’s no censorship, internet sites aren’t blocked, and capitalism has a freer reign.

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I was thinking about these differences as we took the Hong Kong metro as far north it would go, so that we could cross over into the city of Shenzhen, in mainland China. The border crossing was easy; the other side, though, was dirtier and more bewildering than Hong Kong. At the exit to the metro station (which, mercifully, was also the train station) we were met by a man in an old, moth eaten uniform. “Train ticket,” he said to me as I passed. I stopped to talk to him, momentarily duped by his uniform. “Railway?” He said to me uncertainly, then more enthusiastically when I stopped. “Railway, railway!” At that point, I realised that he had none of the confident, bored authority of an official; he was just a tout, trying to scam unwary tourists into handing over their train tickets, probably so he could charge them an extortionate fee for showing them where to get their train from. In China, if someone looks like they’d rather be somewhere else, then they’re probably the person you need to speak to. If they offer to help, then they’re almost certainly not (although I must add that when we’ve asked someone for help, we’ve always found them to be unfailingly polite, if someone bemused by our attempts to mime what we’re after).

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FROM SHENZHEN WE caught a sleeper train to Guilin. We shared the carriage with three generations – grandmother, daughter, and toddler. They spoke no English, and we spoke no Mandarin, so we did the soon-to-be familiar routine of hellos, smiles and blank looks of incomprehension. Every time I looked at the little boy he hid his face behind his grandmother, and refused to return my smile. His mother tried the usual routine which all parents seem to do in China when they see us, of man-handling their child into a wave and repeating, “hello! Hello! HELLO!” I have never seen a child do this independently.

We disembarked from the train at 5.45am on a Sunday to find Guilin dark and wet. We were faced by the usual barrage of taxi drivers and touts, firmly telling them that no, thank you, we did not want a taxi, despite our body language desperately screaming that there’s nothing we’d like more than to climb into their warm, dry car. Instead we walked 45 minutes from the train station to the hostel, through dark, deserted streets, arguing all the time about whether it was the right way, searching endlessly for a toilet, and being startled occasionally by an electric scooter appearing out of nowhere from behind us (they’re all over China: swift, silent, and – as with the scooters in Vietnam – deadly because they’re ridden as frequently on the pavement as on the road).

It rained for the entire time that we were in Guilin. We sat in the hostel common room, bundled up against the cold, and read our books and surfed the internet. Occasionally we wandered out to get some noodles at a local place where you ordered from a grumpy woman at a cash register by the front entrance, before going inside to present your receipt to two angry ladies who either shouted at the chef or threw together your noodles themselves. We wouldn’t have been able to do this unless a kind lady we met at the hostel had written down for us what we should order. Each time we went there, I pointed at the Chinese characters she’d written in my notebook and held up two fingers. One time, we sat next to a Swiss-Chinese man who wrote down a different dish for us to try. But we preferred the first one, because it cost only 3 yuan (30p).

And, yes, we also went for a ride down the River Li and took lots of pictures of the limestone Karsts which the area is famous for, all eerie looking in the rain and the mist which clung to their peaks.

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“Some people they say to me, will we see anything because it is raining?” our guide said to us on the bus on the way to the river. “I say to them: yes! You are actually very lucky. Because when it is not raining, there is no mist, and it is not beautiful. So congratulations for choosing to come today, when it is raining!” At the end of the trip down the river, we all trooped up to a vantage point and were ordered by our guide to take photos of the view. She held up a 20 Yuan note to show that this landscape was on the back, but the Chinese tourists didn’t need any telling and were already pushing each other out of the way to get the photograph. So we stood in the rain, and watched them, and felt very lucky. And that was Guilin.

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*This last conversational topic was suggested by our good friend Benny Chastney, after hearing of our conversational dearth. Personally, my head says croissant, but my heart says pain au chocolat. If you’d like to send us new conversational topics just fill out the comments box below. Write now, don’t delay – we need your help.

This post was written on the train from Beijing to Shanghai. It was uploaded in Taipei, Taiwan.

NEXT TIME: I visit Yunnan Province in South West China, and discover that there really are parts of China that aren’t cities or farms.

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3 thoughts on “Conversationless in China (From Hong Kong to Guilin)

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