Tales of a Middle-Aged Traveler
It is a 13-hour flight from London Heathrow to Hong Kong, and I am trembling as I disembark the Super Jumbo, unsure whether this is down to exhaustion or sheer excitement. I look up at the overhead signs, relieved to see that squiggly Chinese letters are accompanied by English translations. After retrieving my duffle, I exit over a glass and chrome bridge that floats above the voluminous arrival hall. Above me, the ceiling is a succession of wavy arches, which seem to be spun from sunlight and glass.
I exit into the steamy Hong Kong heat, which even at 7:00 a.m. seems to smother me with its oppressive density. “This is an amazing airport,” I say to my taxi driver as he stows my bag in the trunk.
“It is biggest airport in world,” he says. “Made on land reclaimed from sea.”
I soon spot Mickey Mouse on an overhead freeway sign. The driver catches my eye in the mirror. “Ah,” he says. “Disneyland. Very popular with Chinese.”
“Coming up is Tsing Ma Bridge,” he continues, a few minutes later. “Second longest suspension bridge when it was completed in 1997.” It looks like the bridge has been suspended by silvery strings and hung from the clouds.
Soon, the Hong Kong traffic snarls, and eventually stops altogether. All I see now are buses and cars in a disorganized sprawl.
“Much traffic,” the driver explains. “Hong Kong big place.”
He tells me Hong Kong has three parts: New Territories, Hong Kong Island, and Kowloon.
“This is Kowloon,” he continues, “was second most densely populated place on earth. Still thirty minutes to hotel.” He drums his fingers on the wheel, and I close my eyes.
My eyes snap open when we reach the hotel. I enter and walk towards a row of blinking computer screens that light up this gloomy space.
“Sorry, madam,” says the receptionist, “your room isn’t ready.”
He leads me to the lounge area, and soon I’m enveloped by a sumptuous white leather sofa. I look up and see that windows line one side of the room. I am drawn from my jet-lagged stupor by the vista before me. Hundreds of multi-colored skyscrapers, disparate in size, shape and color, punctuate the Hong Kong skyline, each standing watch over the blue gray waters of Victoria Harbour. But I am looking at Hong Kong through a translucent haze, as if my eyes are bathed in petroleum jelly.
“Your tea, madam.” I am interrupted by a waiter in a starched white jacket.
“Is it always this smoggy?” I ask as he sets out the tea on the glass and chrome table.
“Ah, you are surprised at the mist we are seeing today,” he says. “It is caused by humid air coming from South China waters. Better tomorrow.” He slips away silently.
I wince at the $18 bill the waiter has placed on the table and turn toward the harbor where oversize cruise liners, top heavy and bulging with tourists, majestically transverse the calm waters. I see blue, red, and green barges dredging the seabed with great metal jaws. Zigzagging across the water are what look like traditional Chinese junks, fashioned in wood, with pointed bows, propelled by a series of red, lopsided sails. They seem out of place in this modern harbor.
“Madam.” I turn to look at the receptionist. “Your room is ready.”
“These junks are magnificent,” I say, extracting myself from the sofa.
“Most are new,” he explains, “for tourists. But for past 2000 years, China used junks to trade silk and tea.” He leads me to my room where I fall face down on the bed.
The next day, I awake with my body clock firmly on North American Eastern Standard Time. I dress quickly and head down to the buffet.
“Would you like hot American breakfast?” says the white hatted chef. He points to the frying pans bursting with softly curdled scrambled eggs. “Or perhaps you would like Chinese style.” He shows me the woks, which are hissing as oil and rice hit the hot metal.
“I’ll have both, please.” My mouth waters in anticipation of my international meal.
After breakfast, I exit the hotel, and it feels like I’m immersed in an oven. I shrug off my cardigan and grab my sunglasses from my bag. Taxis are lined up like rows of ants. I ask a driver to take me to the Ladies Market, at the other end of Kowloon. I leave the taxi at Tung Choi Street and stare open-mouthed at what looks like an American street market on steroids. There are streets and streets of stalls selling everything from clothes and bags to food and souvenirs. As I enter this labyrinth, I am assaulted by the colors pulsating from neon signs, which hover awkwardly above me. Banners are strung over my head, covered in indecipherable Chinese characters written in red, green, and gold. I am glad to be wearing my sunglasses. I am drawn, like a teenager to her phone, by a kiosk selling rows of brightly colored necklaces, coiled like turquoise, orange, and green snakes. I stroll past food stalls where open cooking pans are infusing this crowded space with the pungent aromas of oils, spices, and roasting meats. The hotel breakfast has been a pale imitation of the feasts set before me.
The streets begin to narrow, and muggy air and jostling tourists are making me feel claustrophobic. Then a hand grabs my arm and I look down to see a tiny Chinese woman who is emerging from the dark confines of her stall.
“Madam, madam,” she cries. “Handbags, handbags. I have the best. Come see.”
I peer into her tiny emporium and see rows and rows of every knock-off designer handbag on the planet, in a rainbow of different colored leathers.
“I can do deal,” she says, releasing my arm. She pulls down a bright red bag and shoves it into my hands.
The little shopkeeper then pulls a cigarette lighter out of her buff colored apron and I flinch as she runs the flame over the bag’s surface. “See,” she gloats. “Not plastic. Not melt.” She scurries over to the wall of bags and selects a green one this time. I smother a smile because the little brass badge is sewn on upside down.
Undeterred, she grabs another bag and is about to click open her lighter when I say, “No, I believe you. I will take the red one.”
After negotiating an amount that is a fraction of the original, she wraps my purchase in a gray plastic bag. My little Chinese lady turns to the next customer, lighter at the ready, and I scuttle off, longing to lounge by the infinity edge pool.
Off to mainland China today. It’s only 7:30 as I head out the front doors and board the coach that will take me to the Skypier fast ferry service to Shenzhen, just over the border. Expecting an interrogation by the Red Army, our tour group, instead, is whisked onto another coach where we are met by our Chinese guide, known as Richard. Thirtyish and bespectacled, he is buzzing with passion and enthusiasm as he bundles us off to a nursery school where we are met by a gaggle of giggling preschoolers. The smells of cooking cabbage and unwashed knees permeate the air. But the little ones’ smiles seem to be at half-mast, as if they had seen this all before.
We are back in the coach and driving through Shenzhen. With its miniaturized skyscrapers, set in a hilly, pastoral landscape, it’s nothing like the jammed, towering skyline of Hong Kong. Richard tells us that workers were brought here from all over China to work in the factories in the 1980s. “But things not so good now,” he says. “Factories closing. Every day, heads of factories kill themselves. They are so ashamed. So ashamed.”
That’s when I realize two things about Richard. Firstly, he likes to repeat himself. Secondly, I don’t think Richard is going to toe the Chinese government’s line, and this I am looking forward to.
After a few minutes, we stop to see the pandas at the Shenzhen Safari Park. Sadly, they are asleep, so we head out on freeways that will take us to Guangzhou, the capital of the Canton region, and then Richard gets into his stride.
“Let me tell you something about China,” he says, proceeding to explain China’s one child policy. “This is a good thing,” he continues, “as China has too many people. Too many people. I think 1.3 billion. 1.3 billion.”
“Richard,” I ask. “Is the one child policy working?”
“No,” he says. “We now have too many old people. Old people. Too much of my money goes on taxes to pay for all these old people. All these old people.” He sighs and looks down at the floor.
“Richard,” I ask. “Are you married?”
“No,” he says, “but have you heard of the mother-in-law approach to economics?”
When I say no, he continues. “So the privileged ones get the jobs, and the mother-in-law likes these guys. These guys. Problem is, there’s not enough girls left over for the rest of us.”
As Richard finishes his monologue, we enter Guangzhou, and with the commuters rushing up and down freeways that look like plates of tangled spaghetti, we could be anywhere. We are bustled through a street market, where farmers crouch on the ground next to bushel sized bags of pungent, perfumed spices. Live, squawking chickens are penned in low, rectangular cages. It feels like I’m seeing the uncensored China for the first time.
The coach takes us to the train station to wait for our aerodynamically-designed bullet train that will take us back to Hong Kong. With still an hour to wait, I sigh and then glance at an electronic message board, which in orange neon letters is warning us: “Do not distribute or attempt to organize or subvert the power of the state.” I shudder and think about Richard, who has been so flippant about the Chinese regime.
Hours later, we arrive at the Hong Kong train station. I am surrounded by people whose lower faces are covered in white gauze. They look like an army of surgical-masked warriors, battling germs and disease. As I near the exit, a hand grabs my arm and I look down to see a small, masked Chinese woman wielding what looks like a fever thermometer.
“Stop,” I think she is saying, but I pull away as I know I’m not ill.
“Stop,” she repeats. “We must take temperature.”
She thrusts the thermometer in my ear, removes it, shakes her head, and then sticks it in my other ear.
“Have I got a temperature?” I ask in a wobbly voice.
While it isn’t clear whether being ill is construed as subverting the power of the state, I do fear being taken into Chinese custody. But the woman does not respond and turns to her next victim instead.
I climb aboard the coach, headed for the hotel, and think about my close call with the Chinese government. Suddenly giddy, I sit down in my seat and realize that, although it’s only three days since my arrival in this exotic place, I’m already having the time of my life.
About the Author
Not long after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Kathy Dunkerley was tugged from her Midwestern roots by her English husband. She spent the next years of her life in the UK, bringing up her children and lecturing in psychology at two English universities. Kathy now plans to nurture her creative side by writing about adventures in foreign climes.