Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Wednesday 21st April 2004

I've been back in London a month. It's still a bit bizarre, but many elements of life in this city are reassuringly familiar. How easy it's been to slip back onto the grey and rainy streets with the rest of the expressionless white collar workers, all of us trudging to work, lost in our individual worlds of headphones and conundrums about whether to go for the Ham and Pickle or Chicken Tikka sandwich at lunchtime. And there was a comforting predictability about sitting on a motionless District line train in a tunnel the other day, staring numbly at my face in the reflection of the opposite window, as I'd already read all the adverts half a dozen times.

No more opening my curtains in the morning to the sea and distant hills, no more being whisked across the city in a taxi for the price of a Ham and Pickle (or Chicken Tikka) sandwich. No more wandering the S.A.R. (or other choice Asian destinations) wide eyed and alone. But, then again, no more 60 hour working weeks, no more tedious ex-pat lager conversations and no more the ache of wishing I could see someone, knowing she was thousands of miles away.

Three DHL boxes and a large bag came back with me from Hong Kong - and distributed through them, along with various Chinese teas, chops and cut-price goods, I packed a hundred or so DVDs - so if the distinctly non-sub-tropical climate of EC1, or the prospect of the PM completely losing control of his mind and the country, or a football team disgracing itself get too much, I can hide away with another random film. And if I'm lucky, it won't feature the silhouetted shapes of Chinese cinema goers popping to the loo every now and again.

45 - posted at 16:17:14

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Thursday 8th April 2004

Come Home Billy Bird

Despite the distant prospect of 2047 and the opinion of Beijing, Hong Kong often isn't seen as 'China proper'. I resolved therefore to get into that country before I lost the opportunity - brief forays for counterfeit goods into the den of vipers that is Shenzhen don't count. With only a week to go before the end of my Hong Kong life, I caught a plane which took me an hour inland to Guilin, in the Guangxi province of China.

Just before the plane's shaky descent into Guilin's shabby airport the air hostesses came and took everyone's newspapers, bundling them into black bin liners, while the P.A. system told us this was because of local laws. It was a good indication, along with the sign greeting me as I left the plane that said " el ome to Gui in A r po t", that whatever I may have naively supposed while exploring the remoter areas of Hong Kong, 'China proper', even if only a short flight away, was radically different.

I met Oscar, my guide, as I left the airport. In addition to his exclamations regarding my youth, he told me he had chosen the name 'Oscar', because he liked American movies, and while reading a dictionary had discovered the word could be used as a first name, as well as an award. He also seemed to be some kind of amateur Confucian - when I asked him about the local climate he told me, "Sometimes it is warm, then suddenly it is very cold - like a girl's heart".

We drove 40 minutes or so into Guilin. Once I was installed in my hotel, I decided to go for a brief evening walk along the river, a walk which was soon curtailed, as I grew tired of the constant offers of 'massages' and 'nice Chinese girls'. Is there anything that could induce one to pay for sex less than having it suggested by an odd little man, digging around with his tobacco stained finger in a hole made by the loosely closed fist of his other hand?

The next morning a very early start - before 10am I found myself on a large river boat, cruising smoothly down the Li River, surrounded by stunning scenery - the giant limestone mountains that characterise the region stretched into the mist, each one, completely independent of its neighbour, rising out of the thick forest like a giant crumbling tooth. The boat weighed anchor at a town I can't remember the name of - the boat usually goes all the way up to Yangshuo, but Oscar apologetically explained that the river was too low, and the rest of the trip would have to be made by car. But the car journey turned out to be the best part of the day - the mountains still dotted the countryside and in addition, I also got to see villages and agriculture, cows roaming the roads, diminutive ancient women, bent double under a burden of sticks, three times the height of them, old men lounging by the road in Party uniform and caps. It was these sights, from the car window, that were the highlight of my trip to Guilin, as opposed to the half-hearted visits to a gallery or replica fort - I don't see why places that already pull in the tourists, by virtue of their natural beauty or colourful history, feel the need to artificially create more 'attractions'.

Yangshuo is a backpacker refuge, and the main street reminded me of the infamous Khao Sahn Road in Bangkok. I briefly admired the flood plain and a restaurant advertising rat hot-pot, before getting back in the car for the drive back to Guilin.

Perhaps I wouldn't have noted the rat hot-pot as keenly if I had previously been to the Guilin restaurant I visited that evening. Among the cages of pigeons and chickens, a cage of gently writhing snakes attracted my attention - not for its contents so much, but more for the four decapitated snakes' heads sitting on top of it, the blood of the creatures having been drained into a couple of glasses, which waited for a thirsty diner's patronage. I think it was the dog, skinned and roasted, hanging up in the kitchen window which intrigued me most. I asked Oscar later if he had ever eaten dog. He told me a story about when he was a child, growing up in Yangshuo. He said that when he was about 8 years old, he had befriended a stray dog. Over time the two became almost inseparable, and after school he used to run home to play with his canine friend. One day he returned from school to discover that the dog was nowhere to be found. He asked his mother where it was - his mother told him that their neighbour had sold the dog to the local butcher. Oscar was distraught, and went for a long walk through the countryside, tearful and inconsolable. Eventually, after he had calmed down a little, he dolefully returned home. His mother told him that their neighbour had given them some meat for their supper. It was the dog, of course.

"Did you eat it?" I asked.

"It was delicious. I had seconds" he replied.

Other highlights of Guilin included a trip up one of the mountains via a chairlift, for magnificent views of the region, with Oscar and I taking the option to travel back down the mountain by way of the incongruous toboggan track, which spits you out at sea level after a high speed three minute journey on wheeled toboggans, as well as watching the cormorants used for fishing and visiting underground caves, crowded with stalactites and 'mites.

But it was over very quickly, and soon I was back on the Airport Express being efficiently transferred from Chek Lap Kok airport to the centre of Hong Kong - and then, five days later, it was shipping me out again.

And then suddenly China was done, and Hong Kong too, my time there over for now.

44 - posted at 16:23:00

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