china-ward and back

lotus lanterns, macauToday in our junior youth group here in Hanoi, we studied a lesson in which Rose, a fifteen-year-old girl who is training to be a nurse, travels to a small village by bus to visit her cousin Musonda and her family. The participants—all Vietnamese junior youth of various ages—learned words like “travel”, “arrive”, “greeted”, and so on. It gave me the idea that I should write a little bit more about my own travels of late, especially to and from China, so here’s yet another not-a-travelogue for you all to read.

After returning from Sapa in the mountainous Vietnamese northwest (look for a not-a-travelogue on that trip soon), my fellow travellers and I were greeted by appallingly hot weather back in the ninth level of Hell, uh, I mean the centre of the Earth, uh, I mean Hanoi. Still battling an infuriating air-conditioner cold, I spent the next few days resting up and packing my bags again (more tightly this time) for a nine-day trip through Hong Kong, southern China and Macau.  My schedule was fairly basic: after the flight in from Hanoi, three days in Hong Kong; then a train to Guangzhou, China to spend another three days; then a bus to Macau for another three days, after which I would fly back to Hanoi and settle down for a long nap—or a long quarantine, judging by the H1N1 paranoia. Arrival in Hong Kong greeted us with the odd spectacle of infrared images or ourselves displayed on a coloured screen, allowing security staff to weed out those who were running temperatures of 38 C and above—if your face showed up in oranges and reds, you were fit for the infirmary. (Sneaky H1N1 carriers used fever-reducing drugs to circumvent this system, giving Vietnam its first few cases in June.)

banyan tree roots, kowloonHong Kong airport was full of free wireless internet access, even before going through immigration—much better than Narita airport, which seemed to require convoluted procedures for wireless access past the arrivals lounge. Imagine my surprise, then, when, after coming from a country where free wi-fi is ubiquitous, and after being treated to an airport full of free wi-fi, I arrived in a city with no free-wifi at all, anywhere. Many friends and relatives laughed as I bewailed my plight in frustrated moans and tweets, taking my anger out on the Indian fellows hawking tailors on Kowloon’s Nathan Street. I soon sucked it up and got over it, of course, and ended up purchasing a wireless access card from PCCW, HK’s all-around broadband provider. Hong Kong seemed a lot like many other big cities I’d been to, like New York, London, Tokyo, and so on—full-colour advertisements stretching up whole buildings; ornery traffic frequently punctuated by double-decker buses (good ones, too); smooth metro service with slick, attractive stations; neon signs everywhere. I never actually went to Hong Kong Island per se, only stayed on Kowloon peninsula—but it was enough to give me a good taste of the city. Wearing surgical masks seems to be a fashion that’s in Hong Kong to stay, and everyone there has something to say about the latest pandemic. Washrooms are entirely automated, no-touch affairs, elevator buttons are disinfected every hour, and no-touch disinfectant dispensers are attached to walls everywhere. Hong Kong is antiseptic, and I suppose for good reason—it’s one of the busiest population interchanges in the world, bridging Asia, North America and Australia; a lot busier than little old Vietnam. I managed to do a little shopping in Hong Kong, netting myself a Hatsune Miku figurine for 80 HKD, among other things. I checked out a few nice restaurants in Kowloon, including an amazing (although extremely busy, seeing as it was dim sum hour around lunchtime on Sunday) vegetarian restaurant called the Three Virtues. My only complaint about it was that the service was very slow, but that’s probably my fault for coming at the busiest time of the week. They were actually quite accommodating and wore nice suits.

streetscape, guangzhouSecuring a (single-entry) visa into China wasn’t hard, just expensive since I needed it pronto; it turned out to be about 900 HKD, which is around $133 CAD—comparable to what I paid for my visa to Vietnam. With that in hand, I mosied (or metro’d) on over to Hung Hom train station for a ride to Guangzhou—you probably read about my exciting shoe-wholesaling exploits in a previous post. In Guangzhou, I was struck by China’s enormity—the scale of everything there was quite simply huge, from the landscape to the buildings, from the markets to the streets. I was also struck by the kindness and receptivity of her people—the people of China seemed even more genuinely pleased to meet and talk to me than the Vietnamese, and that’s saying a lot already. I had great conversations with most of the people I met there, and was wowed by their openness to spirituality—when I mentioned I was a Baha’i, their eyes lit up like a display of fireworks, wanting to know every last thing about this new phenomenon. Of course, my visit to Guangzhou involved a fair bit of walking around, sightseeing, eating and shopping—I bought souvenirs for most of my family and the Baha’is in Vietnam—but I’d have to say that meeting the people is my fondest memory of China, one that I won’t forget any time soon.

'heritage' shopping district, macauAfter such a blessed time in Guangzhou, arriving in Macau was utter shock. Macau, for those who didn’t know (like me), is Las Vegas Asia; filled to the brim with casinos, millionaire developers have even “reclaimed” land from the South China Sea to build even more casinos on the tiny nation’s scarce territory. While there, I met some of the local Baha’is, who introduced me to the city-state’s rhythm of life and local buzz—in which the casino developers’ schemes and machinations figured prominently, as well as the native population’s concerns with the welfare of their children and youth—who wants their children to grow up to be gamblers? Out of a personal sense of disgust and sympathy for these concerns, I pointedly refused to set foot into anything that had the least trace of poker chips (or mahjongg tiles). My time wasn’t wasted of course—I had plenty of great conversations with the Baha’is, to whom I told stories of my recent trip into China, and who regaled me with their own stories; we also went out to sample a few of Macau’s varied selection of restaurants, serving every sort of cuisine from Mexican to Portuguese (yes, Catherine, Macau was a Portuguese colony) to Cantonese to, uh, donuts and pizza. OK, we didn’t eat donuts and pizza. I didn’t come to Macau to eat donuts and pizza. Speaking of Macau’s Portuguese influence, I also had a chance to visit a few of Macau’s many World Heritage sites, named as such by UNESCO; Macau’s curious mix of Oriental and European cultures does indeed make for an interesting visit to an eclectic place.

One more short observation about everyone’s friend, H1N1—thanks to the medication I took for my cold, the only place I was asked any sort of question regarding my health was when arriving by train at the Eastern Railway Station in Guangzhou. Upon seeing my Canadian passport, the border officer asked me how long I had been outside of Canada, to which I answered that I had left at the end of March. “OK,” she said, “go ahead,” and handed me back my passport, stamped and cleared.

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