A Disastrous Christmas in Hong Kong!Emma - 23 October 2016
Back when I was living in China, I was facing my first Christmas away from home. My friend M and I had decided to have Christmas in Hong Kong for a long weekend break. This is a short cautionary tale as to what happens when you’re so desperate for a Christmas dinner that you will do anything to get there!
It got off to a bad start. On Christmas Eve (when I would usually be having a fondue and board games with my family back in the UK, and putting presents under the tree) M and I were wandering around Shenzhen, hopelessly trying to find our hotel. Eventually I spent the first hour of Christmas Day sat in a Muslim noodle restaurant, talking to an English speaking Sri Lankan Hindi we had met there. Long story short, we found the hotel and collapsed into the beds. A peculiar start to Christmas!
We were staying in Shenzhen because it was much cheaper than Hong Kong, just a quick hop across the border. The plan was that we’d spend Christmas and Boxing Day in Hong Kong. Then, in the evening we would get the bus to Huizhou, a city in Guangdong where M’s friends had invited us for a Boxing Day Christmas dinner.
Christmas In Hong Kong
To get to Hong Kong from Shenzhen meant taking a metro to the border control, getting about 1001 important-looking red stamps in your passport, and then getting a train into Hong Kong. The train in Hong Kong was meticulous. I hadn’t seen anything so clean in the last two months in China. It was around midday by the time we got there, so we dove headfirst into the hustle and bustle, as I tried not to think of my family having their Christmas morning without me back home in Oxford.
We started in the Mongkok markets, which includes the Goldfish Street Market, Flower Market, and Ladies Market. I was told that Goldfish Street Market was full of exciting creatures, but it was just, well, fish. I was afraid of seeing horrid tatt like turtles in key chains, but there was none of that. All the markets were great fun, with nonsense like belly dancing skirts, mah-jong sets, decorations, jewellery, coats, chopsticks, USBs in the shape of cartoon characters. And about 80% of it was covered in Angry Birds. Purses, watches, towels, coats, everything. It’s a national obsession!
I caved and bought a set of mah-jong tiles (I’ll learn one day!). I caved again and bought a beautiful set of chopsticks. This is shopping at its most fun (and I’m not a shopping person!) and we spent a long time finding useless knick knacks and haggling with the shop keepers. We found ourselves a ‘German’ restaurant for a sad imitation of a Christmas dinner, and agreed that we’d left it too late for ice skating in Central. Instead we’d head straight to the Avenue of Stars to watch the Symphony of Lights.
The Avenue of Stars is a kind of Asian version of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, but it’s a lot less fun when you’ve never heard of most of the celebrities! The Symphony of Lights is a light display by the skyscrapers across the river. It was a fantastic sight, but I think my favourite part was the fact that literally everyone around us had their camera phones out and were clicking away rather than watching. It felt like I was standing in a stereotype.
After a leisurely dinner, we hopped on the metro again and went to Central to see the Christmas tree. The tree is usually sponsored by a luxury brand (Swarovski, Tiffany’s, BVLGARI, etc) and is a perfect glitzy summary of the attitude to Christmas in Hong Kong, where the season is little more than a reason to ramp up consumerism.
And all at once, Christmas was over. It stuck midnight, and I realised with horror that the border back to Shenzhen closed at midnight. We were stuck in Hong Kong, with our hotel on the other side of the border. We managed to get on the last metro, and scramble through all our train connections back to Mongkok, in the hope that we’d be able to find a bus to take us to a further away border crossing that was open at this hour. So that’s how I ended my Chrismas Day flying along in a minibus driven by a kamikaze maniac!
Boxing Day in Hong Kong
On Boxing Day, with only a couple of hours sleep, M and I agreed that we would head out to Lantau Island to see the big ol’ Buddha and monastery that sit out there. It sounded like a pretty quick trip, which would leave us plenty of time to get to Huizhou in the afternoon. So we got the train to the docks, clambered onto a ferry, and off it went. And kept going. And going. And going. We were panicking, as we’d read on the sign that the ferry took a very precise 13 minutes. The ferry had been going for at least an hour! Where were we going?! Our anxious inquiries fell on uncomprehending ears, until one kindly man explained that we were on the correct ferry to Lantau, but that the ‘13’ on the sign was the time the ferry left (1pm) not the time it took! Oops! All in all it took us four hours to get to Lantau Island, and we still needed to catch a bus to take us to the right bit of Lantau!
It was now a little after 2pm, and we were meant to be catching a bus from the Mainland side of the China-HK border at 3pm to get to M’s friends for 5pm! Even if we turned around now we’d never make it back in time! What was worse, M didn’t have a phone and could only talk to her friends via email, so we had no way of telling them we would be late.
We agreed that, since M had been to Lantau before, she would turn around and go back on the next boat, get our suitcases from the hotel and go to her friend’s house. I would have a quick look around the island, since they wouldn’t miss me so much, and I would get a later bus. They ran until 11pm, so there was plenty of time.
M got on the boat, and I suddenly felt spectacularly alone. M had been living in China for a couple of years already, whereas I’d only been there for two months, and this was the first time I’d been truly left to fend for myself. Trepidatiously, I found my way onto the correct bus. To my horror, it then took an hour to get to the Tian Tian Buddha. I had not expected Hong Kong to be so big!
The monastery was lovely, an archetypal Chinese temple. Incense and bright colours and incredible statues. I also took a wander along the ‘wisdom path’ (much good it did me!).
A quick bus took me to Tai O, a nearby fishing village. It’s built entirely on precarious-looking spindly sticks, and is rather impressive in a ramshackle kind of way. Apparently it built this way because the locals are scared of water. So they built their homes dangling on the top of the sea. And they’re fishermen…
It was surprisingly peaceful and quiet there, as the sky was darkening. There were fish markets galore. As I tend to, I wandered until I was in the quiet, rickety backstreets. I came across a toothless, enthusiastic elderly woman down an alley who was cooking up some tofu pudding outside her house. She sold me some, drowned in ginger syrup. While this may not sound all that inviting, it was similar to custard and a lovely snack.
I was increasingly aware that I needed to rush back, and dragged myself away from Tai O, and headed back to the bus stop where I’d been dropped off. To my absolute horror I saw an enormous queue of people waiting for the little bus. There must have been 200 people. Evidently Tai O was more touristy than I realised. And evidently I was going to be very, very late!
Finally, after waiting for the bus, and waiting for the boat, I was waiting for the metro. From here I only had to get to the border crossing, and then I would be able to catch the bus. It was 8pm, and I had loads of time. Phew.
Then M called. She’d finally got to her friend’s house in Huizhou, and it was the first time she was able to call me since she had left. Apparently, for mysterious Chinese reasons, the buses were only running until 9pm that day. I still had to get across densely packed Hong Kong, make it through border control, and find the bus station!
So of course, I missed the last bus. Typical. Not only was I alone on the Hong Kong / China border, M had taken my suitcase with her to save me time. I had nothing at all with me.
A man approached me and asked where I wanted to go. Apparently all sense deserted me, and I decided to hell with it. It would be cheaper than a hotel. I negotiated a price with him (200 yuan) and he began towing me by the arm. We headed off down a side alley, and he sat me down on a dingy stool and told me not to move. He ran off, leaving me in the dark road. A stray cat mewled at me, then ran off.
The man came back, this time with another man. He sat the man down with me, then went off to the side, making urgent sounding phone calls. I tried chatting to his friend, who spoke Cantonese, and barely any Mandarin. I just wanted to be in Huizhou, where there would be food, clothes, and a bed! It became apparent that the man sat with me was there to babysit me and make sure I didn’t change my mind or go with someone else while the original man phoned around to see if anyone else wanted to go to Huizhou.
Yet another man arrived, and told me to get in his car. My babysitter didn’t seem to mind, and the original man (still on the phone) nodded. Moronically, I clambered into the backseat of the car, which was definitely not a taxi. There was a shadowy figure in the back, so I figured they must know it was safe (I now realise that this logic is flawed, to say the least).
Neither of the men spoke any English, and didn’t seem to be willing victims of my attempts at Chinese, so I sat back and tried to relax. Extraordinarily (and stupidly) I fell asleep, head pressed against the window. An hour later, the driver shook me awake and told me to get out. I looked out of the window. We were on the side of the road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
“Erm.” I stalled, as I woke up “Here?”
He nodded, and I grabbed my shoulder bag and climbed out of the car. I hadn’t paid anyone yet. Was this some kind of bizarre system, or was I about to be murdered?! The car drove off, suggesting it wasn't the latter.
There was another car in the lay-by, and the man ushered me over to his car. With resignation to the fact that I couldn’t get myself into a worse situation, I got in pliantly, and we trundled off. This guy was chatty and enthusiastically (but unsuccessfully) tried to breach the language barrier. Eventually we settled for watching a film together on his sat nav. He would glance at me after every joke to make sure I was laughing.
He dropped me off in a town. With a flourish he pronounced that it was Huizhou. I paid him, and he drove off. Yet again, I found myself flummoxed. In a completely alien place, with no concept of direction. A taxi drove by and I nearly flung myself in front of him. I gave him the address and finally FINALLY arrived at the door to M’s friend’s house. It was about 1am, and I was stupendously late for my 5pm invite. I hadn’t eaten anything except the tofu pudding, and had been on my feet for much of the day. I'd had eight hours sleep in the last three nights combined. Christmas dinner has never tasted so good.
This is probably the story of the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. If any of my friends ever did this I would be livid. The trouble is, that China can ease you into a sense of safety. Violent crime is extremely low compared to most countries. If you compare China to the US, America has 6 times as many robberies, and 18 times as many violent crimes. This seems especially true of a Westerner in China.
To complete the weekend of woe, the cherry on top. After a great day in Huizhou exploring West Lake, seeing the most gruesome market I hope to ever see*, and eating heavenly dan bingy we got up at 4am to get a bus to Shenzhen Airport. It was going to be a long day anyway, consisting of:
- A taxi to the bus station
- A bus to Shenzhen airport
- A plane to Chongqing
- A bus to Fuling
- A taxi to work
All with the purpose of getting to school by 1pm, when I was meant to start work.
As you can probably guess by now, I did not make it!
The bus driver from Huizhou to Shenzhen airport forgot his authorisation card to get onto the motorway, so we sat at the ticket barrier for an hour waiting for someone to bring it. We missed our flight by minutes. A disastrous weekend all round!
* I'm not squeamish, but the livestock section was truly horrible. Lots of tiny metal cages filled with badgers, warthogs, dogs, cats, rabbits, and loads of other animals I couldn’t recognise. They were either looking defeated or they were going crazy gnawing at the metal bars and making their mouths bleed. And there was something in a plastic bag, jumping around in the street. It jumped like a rabbit, but it could have been a fish...