Saturday, 16 November 2013

Hong Kong: Escalators

Before I relay all the details of my adventures in Hong Kong - the sights, the places, and the food - I need to tell you about my quest to reach my hotel. Because when you suffer from topographical disorientation, every mundane journey becomes a riveting experience.

Arriving in Hong Kong: So Far So Good...

As mentioned in a previous post, I am slightly apprehensive at the prospect of trusting a random stranger with my life, and therefore prefer to walk or take the metro whenever I arrive in a new city. 
Before reaching Hong Kong, I had carefully planned out my route: I would take the metro from Mong Kok to Yau Ma Tei station and onward to Central station, where after I would walk the 3 km to my hotel on Hong Kong Island.

Hong Kong Metro Map

But upon arriving in Hong Kong, I made 3 fatal errors, in alarmingly quick succession:

1. Deviating from The Plan

After a late afternoon meeting in Mong Kok, I allowed myself to be talked into taking a taxi to Hong Kong Island. In peak hour traffic. 
It was mentioned, as an after-thought, that the taxis might not be going from Kowloon (where I was) to Hong Kong Island (where I needed to be, preferably before dark), but that I would quite likely find my way since I was resourceful, wasn't I? (Wait... what?!)

Peak-Hour Panic

After waiting in line with approximately 134 people for an equally unbelievable duration, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that no taxi in Kowloon would be going to Hong Kong Island at that hour. I was, however, welcome to wait until midnight, when all taxis would be making their way back to Hong Kong Island for the last journey of the day.

Hong Kong Taxis

And so, viciously angry at myself for deviating from The Plan, I headed to the Mong Kok station. By then my heavy suitcase and I were in the midst of full-on Hong Kong Friday afternoon peak-hour traffic. It felt like all 7 million locals were out on the sweltering streets of Mong Kong, with the single aim of trying to run me over. 
They mostly succeeded too.

Mong Kok Madness

2. Underestimating the Distance

By the time I had made it to Central station, night had fallen. I was tired from walking, shoving and dragging my suitcase. And I still had 3 km to go. Even so, thought I would easily walk (or perhaps even skip) the last 3 km. I had, after all, run distances of 3 km x 7 numerous times before. No sweat.

Jogging 3 km in the cool of the day with shorts and state-of-the-art Asics, is something completely different to walking 3km, in 30 degree C heat, in a skirt and high heels, while dragging a by-then enormous, humongous suitcase. 
It. Was. Torture.
It did not help that my suitcase and I had to cross numerous streets bursting with foreigners in the Lan Kwai Fon area, all smartly dressed for after-work drinks and a night out on the town.

No-So-Happy Hour

3. Outsmarting Googlemaps

Through all the shoving and dragging, I had noticed that Googlemaps was directing me along a certain, longer path up the hill but I kept to (very steep) side streets in the hope of reaching my hotel sooner. 
No such luck. 
Eventually, halfway up a dangerously steep path, I stopped and threw my hands up in despair. 
And that was when I saw it: The world's longest, covered outdoor escalator system, beckoning from right above my head.

Before: Struggling Up Steep Streets

After: Escalating with Ease

If a first-time visitor were to ask me what to do in Hong Kong, I would say: "Look up!"
This seemingly inconspicuous act would make your introduction to Hong Kong much more pleasant than, although definitely not as memorable as, mine. 

Above Board: Hong Kong Walkways Throughout the City

Friday, 1 November 2013

Hong Kong: The Difference

When I told my South African friends that I planned on travelling the 40 km from Shenzhen in Mainland China to visit Hong Kong, they often replied in puzzled tones: "But, isn't Hong Kong in China?"
Or they would smile and nod excitedly, which either meant they were cognisant of the big difference between Hong Kong and the rest of China, or that they had no idea where Hong Kong was.

Either way, I do not blame them at all. 
Hong Kong is an interesting city indeed.

Hong Kong

During World War II Hong Kong was occupied by Japan, but was liberated by Chinese and British troops in 1945. For fourty-seven years, from 1950 to 1997, Hong Kong with it's 600 000 post-war inhabitants remained under British rule. An influx of people followed suit due to the manufacturing trade and high-rise buildings emerged to house the growing number of people. In 1997 the city was handed back to China under the "One country, two systems" principle and is therefore a city within China, but very different from mainland China.

Today, this city of 1100 km2 is home to 7 million people - it's smaller than Johannesburg's 1600 km2, but with twice as many inhabitants.

Busy Bodies

So, what is the difference between Hong Kong and China?
Here are a few I have come across in my brief visit to the city - some are evident, cannot-be-overlooked, in-your-face differences. Others are more subtle.

Crossing Over

  • Visa requirements: South Africans don't need a visa to visit Hong Kong, but they do for (mainland) China. Crossing the border entails filling in forms, standing in a queue, getting your passport stamped, etc., etc. In other words, it is much easier to travel from Paris to the Netherlands than to travel from China to Hong Kong.
  • Currencies: The currency in Hong Kong is Hong Kong Dollar, while in China it is Chinese Renminbi (Yuan). Neither "foreign" currency will be accepted once you cross the border. Yes, I have tried in vain.
  • Traffic regulations: In China you drive on the right. In Hong Kong, on the left. If you have requested a taxi to take you from China to Hong Kong, the driver's steering wheel will be on the right, which means in China the driver will drive on the right side of the road from the wrong side of the car. Luckily, as soon as you cross the border to Hong Kong, the driver will find himself on the left side of the road and therefore on the right side of the car again. Yes, it is as confusing as it sounds.
  • Language: In China everyone (except me, it seems) speaks Mandarin. In Hong Kong, the native tongue is Cantonese and (happy days!) most people can speak and understand English.
  • Legal System: Regulations from the number of children you are allowed to have (one in China and unrestricted in Hong Kong) to the number of Facebook friends (none in China due to the Great Firewall and unrestricted in Hong Kong), and anything in-between changes as soon as you cross the China-Hong Kong border.

Look Right

I found this BBC article very interesting as it mirrored many of my at-first-glance experiences.

When speaking to Hong Kong locals, many of them view Hong Kong as culturally different from mainland China, as explained in this video:

As for me, the more different the places that I get to visit on my journeys, the happier I am. 
Therefore I am looking forward to further exploring this city in, but different from, China.

Sparkling Skyline

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Shenzhen: Chinese Chopsticks

The act of consuming food in a Chinese restaurant.


The act of consuming food in a Chinese restaurant. With chopsticks. During a business meeting.

Visiting a local restaurant in China is always an eventful and interesting occasion. Besides the challenge of chewing a slimy/bony entity not intended for human consumption, the mere act of getting the questionable object into your mouth is a tremendous task.

In China it is not uncommon to receive a big bowl of noodles or soup with a side of two, thin chopsticks. After numerous sideways glances to the locals occupying the surrounding tables, I have decided that there are three ways to overcome the problem of balancing unruly strings of noodles, flaky grans of rice or liquid on an area the size a pinkie nail.

  1. Lift the bowl from the table and bow your head until your nose touches the noodles/rice/soup. Slurp, smack and suck down the contents of your bowl by making plenty of loud noises. Use the chopsticks to enhance the speed and volume of said act.
  2. Ask for a spoon. Repeat step 1.
  3. Do not eat at all. Keep yourself entertained by observing everyone else's slurping.
There is no other way. I have tried the subtle, non-slurping option by sticking both my chopsticks into the bowl at a right-angle to the table and rubbing them between my hands, not unlike the way in which we were taught to make fire in the Voortrekkers. My hope was to twirl the noodles into a meaningful bite, but the chances of concocting a fire in my soup-bowl was probably better. After drenching myself with splatters of soupy liquid I decided to call it a day and surrendered to the slurping. Even using the spoon did not help and I was starting to suspect that Chinese spoons were especially designed to further enhance your spluttering. 

Slurp-Enhancing Spoon

Although these unappetizing eating noises would've resulted in a hiding during your childhood years or being sent to bed without food (in your childhood or any subsequent years), no one in China will even take notice of your slurping. Because they will be too busy conducting noises of their own. In fact, in China, you should slurp your noodles to indicate your enjoyment of the food!

When going for lunch at a Chinese restaurant, many dishes will be ordered for the table and everyone will share the food. Usually you will be presented with two sets of chopsticks as well as a chopstick stand. One set for transferring the food from the table onto a small plate in front of you, the other for eating.

As one dish after another was brought out to our table during a business lunch, I felt the panic rise in my throat: I hadn't even mastered the art of using chopsticks to get the food into my mouth. How on earth was I going to transfer it from the middle of the table, to my plate, to my mouth by using two sets of chopsticks, whilst managing to converse in an intelligent and cheerful manner? Oh, and apparently you should refrain from resting either set of chopsticks vertically on your plate as it is a harbinger of death.
Death by chopsticks vs. lasting humiliation by chopsticks.

Balancing Act

In a few minutes our table was sufficiently stacked with sweet-and-sour fish, bean curd, miniature ribs, fried rice, and other bizarre dishes - an even number, so as to avoid death yet again. Just as I was strongly contemplating to play it safe and only touch my Chinese tea throughout lunch (perhaps I could keep myself occupied by refilling everyone else's tea cups, as this is an indication of gratitude and much less ominous than death), one of the locals reached for a dish and lo and behold! sent a lobster-ball of sorts flying. The slippery ball landed with thud in another colleague's teacup, spraying him with hot tea. For a second everyone stared in silent horror and then we all burst out laughing, even the tea-splattered colleague.


With the ice adequately broken by the flying lobster-ball, I dug in for a happy meal, splattering, slurping and all.

Chopsticks for Dummies

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Shenzhen: Dubious Dishes

I might live in "wild" Africa and thoroughly enjoy exploring all that nature has to offer in this - and other - countries, but I still prefer viewing a snake from behind its enclosed, sturdy, reinforced (yes, the more adjectives the better) glass cage, surrounded by numerous warning signs.
In China, it seems, you are more likely to find these slithering reptiles in your glass than behind glass.

Snakes in Oklahoma (2006)

When it comes to life and food, my motto is "try everything at least once", but occasionally, for the sake of survival, this rule has to be bent. 
In South Africa my What Not To Eat list includes licourice, mopanie worms, walkie talkies, smileys, tripe and the worst of all: Future Life cereal. I don't care if it now comes in strawberry and chocolate flavours. I don't care if it contains the 217th vitamin needed for longevity and a superior quality of life. I don't even care if Chad le Clos eats it every day, swimming goggles casually positioned around his neck at the breakfast table.

In China my What Not To Eat list has been vastly extended to include crawling, jumping, and sailing reptiles. You can apparently select your snake from a cage, after which it will be specially prepared to your liking. This process gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "pick your poison".

Combine the Chinese's lunchtime preferences of slippery snakes and colossal toads with their inability to communicate in English / my inability to converse in Mandarin and you are bound to turn every lunchtime outing into a Fear Factor extravaganza.
Every lunchtime I would saunter out to some or other Chinese Mall, pick a random Chinese restaurant (if there's a queue the food must be at least moderately appetising, right?) and try to order something edible. 

Chinese Mall

There is one prerequisite when selecting a restaurant: The menu must have pictures of the dishes. Otherwise the ordering process starts to resemble a circus spectacle - the role of the clown being played by the person who cannot speak the local tongue. Me.
This obstacle can be overcome if the dishes are displayed, but there is a risk that viewing the raw food will put you off eating altogether. For a week.

Interesting Meals

Once you have selected a suitable lunch establishment, do not under any circumstances peer into the kitchen when going to the restroom. Of course, the restroom is always positioned next to / on top of / basically inside the kitchen, making it virtually impossible to not see what's cooking. But for the sake of your sanity, try nonetheless. If you do catch a glimpse of the kitchen, be prepared to loose your appetite. Possibly for ever.

The ordering process usually consists of big hand gestures (you), a scattering of Mandarin (the waiter), a lot of pointing (you), followed by more pointing (the waiter) and a few alarmed and concerned facial expressions (the other customers). 
I would select a picture on the menu (please let it be chicken this time!) followed by one finger. And then I would wait and hope that I will be presented with 1 x Dubious Chicken Dish, instead of 1 x Human Finger.

If I am accompanied by another non-Mandarin speaking person, the process gets even trickier since the order would now consist of 1 x Dubious Chicken Dish + 1 x Dubious Beef-Noodle Ensemble. Try explaining that without using words.

"And two Tsingtao beers, please," we would try, thrusting two fingers in the air. Because surely Tsingtao stayed "Tsingtao", whether you are speaking English or Mandarin?
After several confused glances, more pointing and a rapid downpour of foreign words by a borderline frantic waiter, we concluded that it did not. So with our best charade-like gestures of "drinking" and "menu", we summoned the drinks menu and pointed to the Tsingtao.
"Ah! Tsingtao!" the waiter exclaimed.
"Yes! Tsingtao!" we bellowed and threw our hands in the air in exasperation. But, alas, the big hand gestures further confused the poor waiter and we had to start all over again. With the restaurant manager.

When the food arrived, one dish had an alarming number of resemblances to an illustration of a vertebrae in my high school Biology textbook. So I steered clear and apprehensively chose a safer option: a dumpling of sorts.
As I was taking my second bite of the surprisingly tasty dumpling, a local colleague walked past and we summoned him to join us for lunch.
"Great," he said and reached for one of the dumplings. "I love tripe."


Dangerous Dumplings

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Shenzhen: Trusting Your Taxi Driver

Life is a labyrinth. A twisted maze with delights and horrors lurking around every corner, waiting to expand our life experiences, develop our personality and grow our character. Every day we navigate our way through this maze, exploring and experiencing.
Travelling is the lamp which illuminates hidden tunnels and overgrown trapdoors in the labyrinth of life, leading you on paths you never knew existed.
It is on one of these concealed pathways, lit by my travel stint to China, that I discovered one of my deepest fears: The fear of taxi drivers.

I know all South Africans reading this will be rolling their eyes, thinking that you can discover this fear by merely taking a two-minute drive on the streets of Johannesburg - and save some time and money in the process. 
I'm not talking about the fear of taxis, which, as a peak-hour highway user in Johannesburg, I have encountered many moons ago (along with many other intense emotions towards these four-wheeled death traps). 
My newly exposed fear is the very real fear of the drivers of these vehicles.

Maybe it is due to cautionary childhood warnings that I should never "get into a stranger's car" - even if it has a colour TV in the back and Gangnam Style blaring from the speakers. Maybe it is my inner, paranoid South African voice, warning me of the many potential evils that could accompany an inconspicuous taxi ride (wasn't a taxi driver involved in the murder of Anni Dewani?).

I am quite content to use any other means of transportation in a new country and will happily travel by metro, bus, train, tram, cable-car or on foot. 
Think about it: By using one of these options most of the following variables are known:

  • The departure point.
  • The route (on foot, a few unscheduled detours might be included).
  • The arrival point.
  • The travel time.
  • The cost.

When using a taxi, none of the above factors are predetermined! 
To catch a taxi driver's attention usually requires you to dart into oncoming traffic, waving your arms wildly and shouting "Taxi! Taxi!" at the top of your lungs. Only to realise that the taxi is already occupied and about to run you over. 
When a taxi miraculously does stop, at which point in your journey do you raise the alarm that the driver might be a psycho killer about to abduct you? Or worse, leave you stranded in a dodgy neighborhood, without enough money to get back to civilization?

In China, the whole frightening experience is heightened by the fact that your taxi driver does not speak English. Or understand English. Or even read English.
Before getting into a taxi, you therefore need to find an English-speaking, Mandarin-fluent, trustworthy saint to translate your destination into "龙华镇".

Chinese Taxi

It was on a rainy, misty afternoon that I had no other choice but to catch a taxi in peak-hour Shenzhen traffic. After a sigh and the necessary 30-minute arm-waving, shouting and shoving, a taxi finally stopped and I dove into the backseat. I breathlessly handed the taxi driver the card with my destination and he regarded the 布吉镇 thoughtfully. Dusk was falling fast and the greater evil at that stage was trudging along dark roads in a foreign, non-English speaking city. After a minute, in which I held my breath, he handed the card back and sped off like a bullet out of a gun. Which meant he knew where to go. Or at least, that was what I had told myself. I exhaled slowly and held on for dear life.

After twenty minutes of driving, the radio, TV and the driver's phone blaring in unison, he turned around and said something in Mandarin. I smiled, my heart beating in my chest, since whatever he said could have been either "Guess what? I am a psycho killer! Hehehe." or "Here we are!". Both messages were equally horrific news, since we most certainly had not arrived at my destination and night had fallen in the meantime.

I peered out the windows to see if I could recognise a landmark, but the misty clouds had enclosed everything that stretched more than five meters above the ground and all the tall, small-windowed buildings looked like they had been cloned. 
"No! No" I squealed to indicate my disagreement with either meaning of his sentence. Then, to add to the gloom, it started to rain.

The taxi slowed down as we turned a corner and then came to a complete stop while the driver said something else in Mandarin. Or he might have repeated his previous sentence. I shook my head and pointed to the buildings around me: "No! No!" 
Then, suddenly, I spotted my building though the mist, a few meters from where we stood . I pointed with a shaking finger, relief flooding though me. 
I had arrived. And could afford the taxi fare.

Needless to say, the next day I opted for the metro. But I quickly discovered what a French colleague meant when he said that "zee maps in China does not speek English." 
All the metro maps were in Mandarin.
Defeated, I headed back into the streets of Shenzhen and proceeded with the flailing of my arms. 

For now, I will have to trust my taxi driver and discover this part of my life's labyrinth from the backseat of his taxi.

Shenzhen Streets

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Shenzhen: Parasols

I had been exploring the East, with it's heavy humid days, for the past few days and had arrived at the height of typhoon season. 
These tropical cyclones typically start in the South China Sea or Pacific Ocean, making the city of Shenzhen an ideal location for it to unleash all of its fury. This, of course, I had only found out after arriving in China. In high-devastation, typhoon-prone weather.

Shenzhen, China

Ominous Clouds

Then again, back in 2006, I had basically learned upon boarding the plane to Oklahoma, that tornadoes tend to frequent the Sooner state. So I was just going to have to hope for the best this time round too. And pack an umbrella, just in case.

Tornado Shelter in Oklahoma

I soon realised that a Chinese women's parasol was to her like a braaitang to a South African boerseun: Home is not left without it. Especially not when a hot and sunny day awaited.
Every morning, a kaleidoscope of colourful parasols lined up by the side of the road, floated to work, or assembled on park benches.

Pretty Parasols

Sunshine Day

Parasol stands are found outside every office or restaurant; including a lock and key to secure these prized possessions.

Parasol Stand

So far, the rain and wind have stayed away from Shenzhen, but it doesn't mean that my umbrella was not put to good use. In true Chinese fashion I have used it to ward off the gleaming sunlight everywhere I went. Had I not done so, I would have surely melted, disintegrated or evaporated from the heat.

Thank you, China, for learning me to put my umbrella to good use. And thereby protecting me, if not from a typhoon, from the sun at least.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Marblehall: Mandela Day

On 18 July 2013, South Africa (and the world!) celebrated International Mandela Day by spending 67 minutes to "make the world a better place." 

Why 67 minutes? 
Because Nelson Mandela has devoted 67 years of his life to actively changing the world. He started his first human rights campaign in 1942 at the youthful age of twenty-four and 67 years later (26 of which he spent in prison) the world celebrated the first International Nelson Mandela Day in 2009.

What did you do with your 67 minutes?
In South Africa, you need to only take a single, literal step to encounter someone in need. A neighbour, friend, gardener, or beggar at the street corner. Sixty seven minutes are mere drops in the ocean of time, but the comfort, support and hope provided during these precious minutes can spread to 67 days, months, or even years.

On 18 July a group of us spent the day building, painting and planting vegetables at Mokgwaneng Pre-school, close to Marblehall where 80 children from the area attend the pre-school and receive a meal every morning. For some, this is their only meal for the day. Many small feet walk the endless dirt roads between the local communities and the school daily for the enjoyment of wheeling old tyres through the dusty playground.

Mokgwaneng Pre-School

As we drove up to the school, peering out of the car windows, a parent turned to his 8 year old son and said in a paternal manner: "Imagine what it must be like living here."
With a frown his son smartly replied: "Why would I imagine that?"
Why indeed. Unless you are not privileged enough to imagine otherwise.

Before: The Classrooms and Playground

At the pre-school there was no water supply, no toys for the kids to play with, no green grass. Only a few scattered trees and classrooms with paint peeling under the sun's burning rays. 
We grabbed the tools, brushes and supplies we had brought and set to work straightaway.

Painting the Classrooms

By the time our paint supply had almost dried up, we still had a whole wall to cover. Luckily a smart problem-solving engineer (who knew engineers could be this creative!) devised a brilliant plan to turn the few drops we had left into a work of art.


A Welcoming Sight

More and more kids turned up as we worked, staring at the vibrant paint with fascination, clapping their hands and singing songs they have been taught at school. 

The Children

The end result was magnificent. 
After 5 hours of work, 20 people had accomplished more than we could have imagined: Supplying water to the school, planting two vegetable gardens, painting 3 classrooms inside and out, and even building a jungle gym.

After: Classrooms, Vegetable Gardens, Jungle Gym

Then, my favourite part of the day: Playing vroteier with the kids. Because how can you fully appreciate being a child if you have never played vroteier?

Fun and Games

And so another happy, blessed Mandela Day had come to an end. 
Although, in South Africa, it is easy to make every day a Mandela Day.

"We must use time wisely and forever realise that the time is always ripe to do right" ~ Nelson Mandela.

Saying Goodbye