After nine days in the wilderness, rafting the River of Gold, I spent three days in Thamel, the tourist centre of Kathmandu. The first night back, the rafting group took a few of our guides out for dinner and drinks. The rest of my time in Thamel was occupied with travel admin, catching up on emails and Skyping home – looking even more beardy and bedraggled than on previous calls.
Thamel is so ghastly that I don’t even want to write about it. The fact that this is all a lot of tourists see of Kathmandu and sometimes of Nepal (and that this is what Nepalis think tourists want), is even more depressing. I was glad to leave.
And what a chasm I was about to cross. Here was ending a chapter of my quest: one in which I had experienced nature’s beauty and wrath; had scaled Himalayas and collided with their cold waters; had seen religions and ways of life so different from my own; and had experienced poverty and generosity, and heard about corruption, all so far removed from home.
All of this I left behind as the Sun was setting and the rich peach light cast long shadows across the garish colours of Kathmandu’s ghettos and suburbs. My Kingfisher flight to Delhi (and then Hong Kong) took off pointing south-west, but quickly turned almost north-west and my window seat on the right of the plane was given a final farewell: the entire Himalayan range, illuminated by almost horizontal pink-orange sunlight, as we lifted above the low clouds that embraced the hills and fields around the Kathmandu valley. Such dramatic lines, so fundamental, continued to pass by my 600mph window for nearly half an hour. I said aloud,
This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
It was incredibly difficult to take a photo through the tiny, pressure-proof but apparently not grease-proof or scratch-resistant, aeroplane window; and there was no way I was going to be able to get a picture that could transmit the majesty of the experience; but here are some photos of the Himalayas, taken from three-quarters the height of Everest.
This was the first time I’d taken a flight that did not involve the UK as either the initial or final destination. From one foreign land to another. Away from poor, corrupt, stuck-in-the-1970s-brown Nepal and towards mega-rich, luxury, recently-given-back-to-China Hong Kong. I’d read that Westeners say how Chinese Hong Kong is and Chinese say how Western it is. It seemed an ideal place to visit for a Londoner with a mild case of sinophilia.
Originally, my stop in Hong Kong was simply to avoid the enormous cost of flying direct from Kathmandu to Australia. I knew I wouldn’t have much money left by the time I got there and I was off to earn my first Australian cash and pay Australian taxes as an Australian citizen – exciting! As it happened, a not-too-distant cousin on the Dutch/German side of the family has been living in East Asia for eleven years (four in Tokyo, the rest in Hong Kong) and was astonishingly generous to let me stay at his apartment while he was away on business. I’d never met Godard (pronounced GO-D’T, not GOD-ARD), but my father had stayed with him and his family in Germany when they were both in their late teens. That was pretty much the last major contact we’d had with Godard until we knew I was coming to Hong Kong. As seems to happen often with family, however, in the twenty minutes I was able to meet him as we crossed paths in Hong Kong International Airport, we instantly got on and felt so familiar and comfortable in each other’s company. I am so glad to have rekindled that contact.
With accommodation kindly provided by my cousin, I’d extended my stay to a week, which meant now Godard would be coming back before I left and we could spend more than twenty minutes at the airport getting to know each other. While I was looking forward to that, I was also looking forward to getting some sleep, so I made my way straight to Godard’s apartment.
In Nepal, one of my favourite rooms was a plywood box at nearly 3,000m. I was genuinely happy in that room. But here was a new experience: the Four Seasons. Next to the Four Seasons Hotel is an identical tower called Four Seasons Place, which houses their serviced apartments. Where I was to be staying, alone and for free, for the next week. As I walked from the incredibly clean and efficient airport shuttle service, through the incredibly clean and mega-expensive IFC shopping mall, towards the incredibly clean, green and brass Four Seasons Place lobby, I stood out like a donkey in a zebra herd; with a crumpled M&S white shirt, red-clay-and-oil-stained trekking trousers, a beard, long hair in a colourful hair-band and a blue-duct-tape-covered rucksack still depositing sand inconvenient places. Bentinck had arrived.
Mercifully not intimidated by being under-dressed, Bentinck collects his room key and takes the black marble and brushed steel lift to the fifteenth of sixty floors (noting, on his way, the rooftop pool and gym). Gliding through the over decorated corridor, he spots his room/apartment and deftly wiff-waffs the keycard and plunges himself and his bags in to a suite. A suite in the Four Seasons (with a kitchenette). A suite in the Four Seasons with floor to ceiling windows in both the sitting room and the bedroom. With a bath AND a shower in the bathroom that’s bigger than the kitchenette. That has a bloody dining table, coffee table and desk. Oh and a flatscreen TV in the sitting room and the bedroom and the bathroom. Perhaps “astonishingly generous” was an understatement.
Without a functioning phone and with a distinct lack of practice at luxury hotels, I wandered off in search of an internet café to let my parents know I was safe. (And to brag about my accommodation.) Finding a Starbucks about 20 feet from the hotel in the IFC mall, I secured my free 20 mins of Wifi by buying an over-priced coffee. Managing to flirt so outrageously with my cute red-bobbed server-girl that I almost had an out of body experience. I was really tired. She asked my name to put on the cup so it wouldn’t get mixed up with the other fifty thousand cups of coffee they were making. This had never happened to me, so I asked if she wanted my number as well. If I was in a film it would have been super-smooth. I was in a Starbucks.
Emails sent, I went back to the hotel to sleep for a bit before assaulting the streets of Hong Kong with my I’m-not-a-tourist face. TRAVEL TIP: If your only way of accessing the internet is your Kindle and the only light entertainment you have is your Kindle, then you shouldn’t sleep with your Kindle under your arse. Especially when you’re not in the UK, so they can’t replace the Kindle you broke by sleeping with it. I had somehow managed to sort of wake up and use my Kindle for something and then dropped it on the bed in my no-sleep-for-32-hours slumber, before rolling over on top of it and cuddling up with the duvet; enjoying dreams of delightful Kindle-use in a meadow, no doubt.
That bed was a vicious temptress. You entered the room to find a glowing white quadrilateral of heavenly softness, bordered by angelic nymphs, beckoning you to lie with them. As you rest your weary body among their glorious coos and alabaster heartsong, you dissipate your soul and it mixes with the bedclothes until you feel as if sleeping in Aphrodite’s bosom. Then you wake up and find you’ve broken your fucking bastard Kindle.
So I had something to do that afternoon. Adopting my favourite way of discovering a place, Wander Around Aimlessly (WAA), I quickly found an electronics shop and asked politely if they fixed Kindles… Still dizzy from the shock of the Hong Kong attitude to service, I left the electronics shop with a map of Hong Kong, detailed directions of how to get to where they fix Kindles and the number of all the buses I could take, which stop to get off at for the metro and apologies for not being able to take me there himself.
Continuing to adopt my favourite way of discovering places, it took me a while to get to the place where they fix Kindles and I was quite tired by the time I got there. Trekking in walking boots through jungle and mud is easy compared to walking on concrete or other hard surfaces for me. I get a very tired, achey lower back after an hour or so due to my rubbish feet. So when I found that the place that fixes Kindles was now a place full of rubble, dust, broken strip lights and builders doing nothing, I was a little irked. So I had a McDonald’s.
If you have ever thought Wouldn’t it be awesome if McDonald’s delivered? OR Man, I’m really stoned OR Man, I’m so fat I can’t go outside, then you should go to Hong Kong – where McDonald’s is 24 hour, delivers and is really really cheap. Large Big Mac Meal = £1.80 (this, apparently, is much more expensive than it used to be before it was 24 hour). If, however, you have ever thought I like drinking alcohol then be wary of going to Hong Kong – where alcohol is more expensive than in London.
After my wander round Hong Kong island (I’ll get to the geography of the place in another post, so you can feel equally as lost as I did at the time), I somehow managed to find my way back to the hotel to have a shower and get ready for going out. I’d actually had a really lovely day, despite breaking my Kindle. I was amazed to find that it simply hadn’t broken my incredibly good mood at all. I thought I really love Hong Kong, why is that? and I couldn’t answer myself. I was determined to find out.
I’d walked along main roads with skyscrapers before, I’d seen signs with Chinese characters on them before – perhaps I liked Hong Kong because it reminded me of Chinatown in London, where I’d worked and partied for years? I’d seen skyways and incredibly futuristic-looking transport systems in sci-fi films and in my mind’s eye while reading sci-fi – perhaps it was the Blade Runner feeling that caught my heartstrings? I’ve lived in a big city all my life and I’ve always liked Chinese culture and language – perhaps the British occupation has made this city undeniably, but subtly familiar? I couldn’t work it out there and then. Anyway, I had a date.
Being an International Man of Mystery, I’d organised, whilst in the Himalayas, to meet with a Shanghainese girl, in Hong Kong. Being now a Luxury Backpacker, we met at the Grand Hyatt hotel, in the restaurant above the entrance. The entrance is so big that there is space to put an entire restaurant above it. The lobby is as big as a train station. But, being an International Man of Mystery, I sat in the restaurant, waiting for my slender, pretty young Chinese date to arrive, sipping on a glass of tap water because the booze was so expensive. Then she arrived and made her excuses to leave again; she worked at the hotel and things were going on a bit longer than expected. Dream shattered. International Man of Mystery credentials shot. I waited for hours, reading the (very interesting) Hong Kong newspapers, eating the absolutely most delicious buffet ever and slugging back relatively cheap wine, all at her expense, thanks to her staff account/discount.
I’m still not sure whether I actually did well out of this exchange. It felt great for the first hour or so, then I thought Bugger this, I’m off, then realised that, of course, I had absolutely nothing better to do and so sat and read more of the paper. I went for a cigarette, leaving a note saying that I’d gone for a cigarette. I came back to find a note, helpfully telling me that I’d gone for a cigarette. I read some more of the paper and drank some more wine. I would have eaten some of the really expensive chocolates I’d bought her (two of each) if she hadn’t taken them away and put them in her office, never to be seen again.
She was jolly pretty though.
Once she finally finished work, she told me to meet at the staff entrance in five minutes. I took this opportunity to have another cigarette. Outside, a very pretty young Chinese girl came up and asked my name. Then asked where I was from. I obliged and found, after a few attempts, that her name was Cherry. Right. I asked her Chinese name and was startled by how startled she was that I knew what a Chinese name was, or how to pronounce one. I was even more startled when she asked if I wanted to take her number immediately after asking which hotel I was staying in. Either “Oh, the Four Seasons” has incredible pulling power, or she was working that night. Thanks to discussions with Godard later in the week, I’m now beginning to think that my automatic assumption that it was the latter might have been wrong and that it was a third option – I might have had an interesting time, albeit one where I was guarding my passport(s), with Cherry. Either way, I made my lightning quick excuses and legged it.
I had a midnight tour of Hong Kong island from a nervous and closed-off girl, who had been so open and forthcoming in Nepal. Tired and clearly not getting anywhere, I went to bed. This time without any company, not even my Kindle.