Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Thursday 30th March 2006

The notion of 'Hong Kong' varies from person to person, but present it to enough people and before long some themes will develop. Take your pick from a spread offering a neon city tottering with Blade Runner-esque skyscrapers, an oasis of fake designer watches and handbags, a belching fume filled metropolis crawling with capitalists in the brutal pursuit of a quick buck. Or perhaps a pearl of enlightenment and clarity perched on the edge of the confusion of China, a heady mix of clubby expat society, incense infused temples and dim sum. And this weekend, chubby rugger buggers vomiting barely imbibed beer over delighted fellow hedonists.

However, for most, verdant countryside and literary indulgence probably wouldn't feature in an imagined snapshot of the territory. But over the last month I've enjoyed both - but the literature is for later.

About three-quarters of Hong Kong is undeveloped. There are 23 country parks packed with jungle, rivers, small mountains, snakes, reservoirs and lots of monkeys. The majority of the 220 odd islands that, along with the Kowloon peninsula and the New Territories, make up Hong Kong are rural, often largely uninhabited. As a result the territory is full of hiking trails. With all this wilderness surrounding me perhaps I was lucky to stumble across a bookshop and pick up a book detailing a few of the routes.

I decided to head to Po Toi, one of the most southerly islands in Hong Kong. From the description in the book, half the effort was in getting to the place. As the ferry only left St Stephen's Pier for Po Toi on Sundays, this was the day on which I chose to go. Unfortunately the last ferry to leave the pier is scheduled for 11:30am and, as actually getting to the jetty required some thought, the first hurdle was getting out of bed.

This achieved, I set off on the bus. In the middle of Wan Chai, it took an unexpected turn, and so I alighted and wandered through the Sunday morning streets, to find the bus to Stanley. I walked up the narrower section of Wan Chai road. The butcher's were doing a solid trade and the street stank of raw meat. Cages bristled with chickens and recently fished creatures flipped vainly in buckets. Soon I was on the bus to Stanley, a pleasant ride to the other side of Hong Kong Island, past the tourist market to the terminus at the prison. From there it was a 15 minute walk to the quiet St Stephen's Beach and jetty. By the time I was standing on the jetty, my eyes straining to see through the haze sitting over the water, I wondered if I had done enough exercise for the day. But the ferry arrived before I had a chance to contemplate heading back to bed. A choppy 30 minutes later I was walking up to the only notable collection of houses on Po Toi, past piles of seaweed drying on the rocks around the bay. Most of the houses seemed deserted. I had read somewhere that the population had fallen in the last 30 years from thousands to only a few hundred, the inhabitants drawn away by the flashy promise of the city. I followed the path out of the village and took up the route recommended by the book, passing the first of many batches of twitchers, weighed down with telescopic lenses and bird whistles.

The path headed up hill through dense bushes and squat trees. Halfway up the hill, an animal track heading right from the path was blocked by a large red stenciled sign: 'You Will Be Penalized For Trespassing Private Property'. However, my book and recently purchased map indicated that this path was the quickest way to Mo's Old House (alternatively known as the Ghost House) an abandoned dwelling used by Japanese soldiers during the occupation. I gingerly ducked under the sign, and headed through the undergrowth, until I reached the dilapidated house. Windows and rooms were still intact, but the roof had largely fallen through and gaping holes in the masonry exposed the corners of dingy rooms. The final scene of The Blair Witch Project jumped into my mind, and I nervously took a couple of photos before heading back to the main path, pursued by the sound of a door banging in the gentle wind.

A bit further up the path and the undergrowth suddenly stopped and barren rock took over, covered only by thin green scrub. Reaching the top of the path, it was clear that the majority of Po Toi was similarly rocky. I could see all sides of the small island - back down to the village and to the other sides, where the sheer rock face smoothly descended into the foaming sea. At this point a signpost presented me with a choice. A 'Rugged Path' to the left, or a more leisurely stroll to the right. For some reason, although day tripping families were dotted along the right hand path, I chose to take it. Laziness I guess - along with the fact that this was the route the book suggested. Although the stark granite landscape was a pleasure to stroll through, the fact that the route was along a thick concrete path (and steps where steep) was a shame, as was the copious litter strewn along its length.

I passed families picnicking at the base of unusual rock formations, optimistically named after what they apparently resembled (Monk's Rock, Buddha's Hand Rock and the carelessly christened Tortoise Climbing Up The Mountain Rock). The path weaved down to a grassy plain. A few boulders had rolled onto it, and they sat in between about 20 unexpected tombs. Meanwhile huge freight ships slid past, cutting their way through the South China Sea, presumably heading up to Hong Kong harbour.

Despite the concrete and the litter I felt pleased with myself as I completed the circle and found myself back at the village. I was well exercised, and headed through the houses and restaurants up to the Tin Hau temple on the far side. A brief inhalation of the joss sticks' aroma and I was ready to try the Rugged Path, which both my map and a signpost told me I could join from here. I looked at my watch. 70 minutes until the last ferry headed back to Hong Kong Island. I followed the signpost, pulling myself up a steep rock face and around a corner. The path was blocked by a small electricity sub-station. I tried again, taking an alternative path. Suddenly I was walking on soft grass between low trees. The sun was shining. A black and white butterfly fluttered in front of me. This was more like it. I turned a corner. And was back at the village. Perhaps the electricity sub-station path was the right one - I don't know. I had lost 10 minutes and didn't want to miss the last ferry.

I found a busy restaurant, called Ming Kee, and shyly asked for a table for one. I was placed on a large empty table in between bellowing British come ashore from junks moored in the bay. I don't mind eating on my own, but a definite disadvantage is that you can't make conversation in order to drown out that of your neighbours. As I sucked down my seaweed soup and scallops I tried to ignore the hearty colonial talk of team sports and 5 star hotels across Asia. To be fair I'm sure that they, likewise, didn't appreciate the presence of a lugubrious young man frowning over a book.

While waiting for the ferry to take me back I bought a large circular pie of dried seaweed, which I ate profusely over the next few days. A subsequent night of desperately painful stomach spasms preceded by particularly noxious wind suggested that this may have been a mistake.

88 - posted at 16:43:24

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Thursday 9th March 2006

Being just off the boat, I couldn't really back out of my company's annual party. As a lazy, anti-social and shy sort the mere fact that I didn't know anyone and would have to head to the venue on my own meant that I was powerless to stop the vague feeling of dread building throughout the day. The event was meant to kick off at around 7:30pm with a drinks reception. The meal was to start at 8:30pm. I decided to avoid the drinks. I could stomach the idea of sitting safely at a table but mingling, spouting stinking chat and worrying about whether I was meant to be circulating were to be avoided.

So I remained at my desk, finding trivial little tasks to do, making sure I was too busy to leave the office. Finally I logged off and headed over the road to the Ritz-Carlton, barely allowing myself to hope that it would be OK. I didn't need it to be the best night of my life - or even fun. OK would do me. In the event, it was OK. And a bit fun too.

As the event coincided with the turn of the Chinese new year, each of the 20 or so round tables crowbarred into the Ritz function room was named after a breed of dog. At one end of the room was a small stage, and to the right of that was a projection screen which flashed through various office-related photos for the entire evening. True to Hong Kong's love of cameras and taking photos, over the three hours I was there, I never saw the same photo flash up twice. The meal was a Chinese banquet of around 13 courses. During the food various people got up on stage to sing songs. In between the singing there were games (match the person with their mutt, charades) and a raffle, the main prize of which was a large gold dog. I felt like I was at one of those weddings where you know no-one but to have anything less than the time of your life is sacrilege. With a perma-grin plastered on my face I began to drink heavily and became a little less curmudgeonly.

Luckily, as my resolve was beginning to falter, I was presented with an escape route: some colleagues were off to Karaoke. My relief at leaving with them was increased as someone turned up the cheese and fellow gweilos took to the dancefloor.

Causeway Bay is a vibrant shopping area, east of Wan Chai. It's more upmarket than Mongkok, but seems no less packed - squeezed in between the clutch of department stores, malls and restaurants are shops selling clothes, watches, luggage, electronics and mobile phones, from the lowliest corner shop to designer boutiques. It's always rammed with young Hong Kongers, and during the evening, when the neon flickers to life making the night brighter than day, the hordes don't let up.

At the top of a shopping mall in Causeway Bay is the Green (or is it Red?) Box Karaoke Centre. I followed my colleagues behind the reception desk into a warren of narrow corridors, past countless doors, through which muffled crooning filtered. We reached our door - inside was a dark room with a sofa running along one wall facing a large TV screen, at the far end a small bar and beyond that, a bathroom. The others quickly got to work, ordering drinks and nibbles and programming songs into the Karaoke system. Soon more people joined us, exiles from the party. As they passed the microphones around, producing pitch-perfect renditions of Cantopop ballads, I got stuck into what seems to be the latest fashionable drink, whiskey and green tea. I had been in this situation before, both in Taipei and Hong Kong, the only non-Chinese person in a room full of well-practised Karaoke singers, all of whom seemed to be flicking through the English language songs in the library, entreating me to sing. The last occasion had brought to an end any farcical notions I may once have entertained that could emit a sound which had any relation to Boethian notation, let alone sing. The only solution was to get even more drunk and jump in.

Naturally, it was a shameful display. In my defence, the choice of English language songs was hardly inspirational. I won't demean myself further by listing what I "sang" - let's just mention that at times I probably say it best when I say nothing at all and that there are still some lipstick marks left on a coffee cup. Oh, and I heard that Backstreet was back. Luckily, I had the videos to distract me from the horror. Invariably, when the others expertly motored through Cantopop, it was to a bland video of the relevant performer singing to an adoring audience. However, the English language songs were accompanied by bizarrely incongruous films. Boyband classics, old Beatles songs and cock-rock power ballads were accompanied by, amongst other things, footage of a dog show, a barge holiday in the Norfolk Broads and what looked like a tourist board promo for Southend-on-Sea.

Before I knew it, we were all out of whiskey and green tea, it was almost 5am and there were only 4 of us left. I have a vague recollection of most of the others leaving when I picked up the microphone to sing Sweet Child O' Mine.

87 - posted at 07:59:49

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