CHASING THE DRAGON

HONG KONG | CHINA

WHAT DO YOU DO IF YOU WANT TEA BUT THE GUYS WITH ALL THE TEA WON’T SELL IT TO YOU? WELL OF COURSE YOU’D FLOOD THEIR COUNTRY WITH OPIUM CREATING A NATIONAL CRISIS THEN INVADE AND TAKE THE TEA WOULDN’T YOU? THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT THE BRITISH EMPIRE THOUGHT TOO IN RESPONSE TO CHINA’S TEA HORDING ANTICS, AND THE MEGA-PORT OF HONG KONG WAS THE RESULT.

Alright so my history is a little rusty. That’s the gist of the Opium Wars from what I understand and how Hong Kong ended up in British hands until 1997 when it became a special administrative region of China.

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Found it. Now what?

Hong Kong is famous for many things..Finance, it’s stunning Victoria Harbour, having the world’s highest number of skyscrapers, and hard boiled action / kung fu movies. In fact Hong Kong was once the world’s third largest exporter of movies after Hollywood, and Bollywood, and was followed closely by Trollywood, Gollywood and MorningWood. It produced the movie which lent the hard boiled genre it’s name, and also the movie which lent the shaolin soccer genre it’s name. I was looking forward to seeing some Bruce Lee wannabes kicking the crap outta each other in steamy, neon back alleys. That didn’t happen, nor did a table flipping slow-mo gun battle. Hong Kong is a city of disappointments.

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The Tian Tan Giant Buddha. Plus minion.

The region is split into two main parts – Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. I spent my time exploring Hong Kong and nearby Lantau Island, home of the famous Giant Buddha. You can take a ferry here, but the best way is via the glass bottomed cable car which takes you over the mountains. On the other side a whole different world awaits. A bustling neon metropolis gives way to old monasteries and temples, and even hiking paths along the hills and cliffs. From the peak of the mountains you can already see the enormous buddha facing the impressively colourful Po Lin Monastery.

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The six statues surrounding the Buddha are called the Devas, but the good kind, not the Mariah Carey kind.

The Tian Tan buddha here is one of the world’s largest buddha statues, and it’s peculiar in that it faces north instead of south like all other giant buddhas. Maybe they’ve had a row and Tian Tan is delivering an epic burn. From here it’s a short walk across to the Po Lin Monastery, which is over a century old but looks so well maintained that it seems a lot more modern. Outside the monastery insense is lit and placed in the shadow of the giant buddha. I get the impression the city dwellers here love coming to get some peace and quiet from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong life. It was certainly refreshing to get out of the labyrinth of skyscrapers for the day. There is also a small, old-timey fishing village called Tai O nearby, for those like me who prefer living in the past. I thought Tai O was the theme song for Slumdog Millionaire?

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Intricate carvings at Po Lin Monastery

After a few minutes of getting lost and constantly picking the wrong turn when presented with more than one option, I’d finally found myself on the Wisdom Path. On the hills overlooking the South China Sea, it is a series of 38 giant steles containing verses from the Heart Sutra, beloved by Confucians and Buddhists alike. To be honest after a walk through them I found myself no wiser, but that’s probably because I can’t read Chinese.

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An inflatable fish has shit out a string of Chinese lanterns. Now that’s something you don’t see everyday.

I’d been living a very sheltered life, socially, while traveling. Back at the hostel a few of the guys were showing me an unheard of app called Tinder. It’s like a cattle market for horny people. Girl’s pictures come up (no one writes, or reads a profile) and you swipe right on those you think would have sex with you, and swipe left on those you know that wouldn’t. I decided to go for a walk that night instead.

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All board for Pirates of the Carribbean Asia Edition. Wait wasn’t that the third one? Ok forget it then.

While I was in Hong Kong I really wanted to catch a glimpse of the traditional Chinese trading ships called junks that plied Victoria Harbour in the golden age of sail. I’d gazed at so many old engravings and tapestries of old China depicting their jagged fish-fin sails and red markings, weaving in and out of sleepy fishing villages and bustling harbours. So far I’d had no luck. Apparently they are very rare these days to the point that there are actually only three left in existence here. That night, down by the pier, and among the giant neon Ferris wheels and technicolour dragons I found her. All lit up with her blood red sails proudly billowing in the salt wind. I scrambled down to get a closer look, that’s when my ears exploded. BOOM BOOM BOOM! I forgot to mention that the once proud junks have now been whored out as tourist attractions and are available to rent as party boats. It sadly pulled away from the jetty, it’s blinking lights almost apologetic as another shirtless yuppie cracked open a bottle of champagne to a dozen cheers. In a way it summed up modern China a little for me. I watched the iconic dragon boat sail away silhouetted by the glare of the Hong Kong skyline. Despite my whinging if I had the money I’d definitely be up for that.

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One of the few remaining Chinese junks / floating discos to sail Victioria Harbour.

Speaking of iconic, I took the bus (yes the bus not the tram) up to Victoria Peak one night. It was a semi-foggy night, but Hong Kong’s cityscape would probably be able to illuminate a volcanic ash cloud. Word of advice. Once you’ve arrived at the short walk to the viewpoint don’t continue walking down that pathway at night. I’m not sure if it’s particularly dangerous, but it’s dimly lit and scary as hell. The views of the Blade Runner-esque skyline below is certainly worth a trip up here.

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The view from The Peak.

It wasn’t that long after Chinese new year that I visited Hong Kong. Remnants of it were apparent in the parks, where Chinese lanterns were still strung up and I even came across a dragon head, apparently left abandoned in a corner. Even on the streets, mini celebrations were taking place, including a troupe of dancers performing an amazing dancing dragon routine outside a shopping centre. I probably should have told them there was a spare head lying in the park.

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Like socks in your bedroom there’s always one of these lying around in Hong Kong.

All these dragons were all very well but there were still no spontaneous kung fu shenanigans, so I got pissed off and flew to the Philippines.

Next time: Rivers that are underground and coffins hanging from cliffs, the Philippines does things a little differently.

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