The rain was torrential when we finally arrived at Guilin train station after our 10hour journey. It was the first time I had been on a sleeper train and the experience was one I can highly recommend, apart from the ladies who talked at full volume late into the night and early in the morning. And now we had arrived in China proper, another first for me. The rain did little to dampen my spirits though it did add to the difficulty of keeping rucksacks and their contents – vaguely dry. Magically, an umbrella was offered as we searched for a bus to take us to the next destination.
‘Langshuo, Langshuo?’ our brolly provider wanted to know. ‘You going Langshuo?’ Everything took on a degree of urgency as he hurried us through the rain and poured us onto a waiting bus.
‘Wasn’t that lucky?’ says I to loving daughter.
My daughter Catherine just smiled back at me. Poor kid – somehow she had ended up with me as a temporary gap companion.
The ticket tout boarded the bus with us and sat himself in close proximity; the better to keep his voice low as he tried to sell us overpriced tickets. This was the first time I had encountered the skillful art of the tout. It seemed that my ‘firsts’ were accumulating in rather rapid succession and if my partner and I along with my daughter and her boyfriend were to survive our 19 days backpacking together in China, I had better get street wise quickly.
It wasn’t necessarily meant to turn out like this really. My daughter I should say is something of a professional gapper as she was now on year three of exploring exotic countries with a rucksack on her back. She is no slouch though and has very respectably interwoven a first degree in English and work for a travel company along with it all. Now a budding travel writer, she had already covered Australia where she worked on cattle ranches plus Thailand, Lao, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Africa, Cuba and New York. In addition to which, she had just completed a year’s teaching contract in South Korea and was now heading to South America via New Zealand. Not bad for a 26 year old who is not only clever, beautiful and extremely witty but is also lucky enough to have a Mother who will fly across the world just to spend a short time in her company. Well, that’s what I told her anyway.
On that basis, we decided to ‘hook up’ in Hong Kong. Booking us all into a small, 3 star hotel seemed quite an innocuous thing to do but I can assure you that going off the beaten track into deepest China was not on my wish list. In fact, going to Hong Kong was a huge step for me, having never undertaken a flight anything longer than 6 hours and with certainly no idea why anyone would even want to visit the Far East. It is simply not normal, is it? With an 11 hour flight looming, I thought I should surely be as mad as a frog in a box and would have to be escorted off the plane in a straight jacket.
But no, I can say it all went off without a hitch. I sat and behaved, ate all the meals I was given, accepted (almost) all the drinks I was offered, watched 5 minutes of every film from the large selection available, stretched my legs as advised and went to sleep when I was supposed to. And when I woke up, I was almost there.
Lantau Island, where the airport and the hotel are located, is a very gentle introduction to Hong Kong. Life is slow, the beaches are golden and the restaurants are the sort where you get to meet and greet your fish before you eat it. You can also tick off items on the tourist itinerary: the largest, seated, bronze Buddha in the world in all his glory and then take a reality check as you peer at fishermen’s tiny tin houses constructed on stilts over the water. From Lantau, you also get to jump on a ferry and check out the small neighbouring islands such as Pang Chau, Lamma and Cheung Chau where the use of a map will hardly bother you. Here you can explore, eat, walk, eat some more and start to flex your shopping muscles in the completely un-touristy markets.
For Hong Kong Island and its neighbour Kowloon are full-on shopping. If you have ever dreamt of shopping on a grand scale in the top shops where a white-gloved doorman silently greets you, or haggle in downtown Mong Kok in the denizens of fake everything, then you are in the right place. And you can do it for days on end and still barely scratch the surface. By mid-afternoon I was begging for mercy and of course you can only window-shop for so long. And any new purchases would have to replace existing ones in the already full rucksacks, as we gapper-girls know. But one thing was clear; we needed to move from our beach-side retreat on Lantau and get into the jungle of achingly tall skyscrapers and crowds of people with their vibrant clatter that is the very heartbeat of Hong Kong itself.
Staying at the hotel had been my treat, but now it was time to put Catherine and Paul back on a diet of tough love and let them pay their own way. This meant, quite fairly, that they got to choose where to stay as obviously they were on a tight budget and like the groupies that we were, we would tag on. So, rucksacks packed up again and thinking I felt sure that if the accommodation was alright for them, it would be OK for us, off we set. The first hostel we located using the traveller’s bible was mysteriously keeping their accommodation to themselves. I was pleased. It was in a mean looking building with a mean little man who spoke to us through a small and mean looking sliding hatch. It was a world away from our smiley receptionist at the hotel who told us she was ‘happy’ to see us whilst also slightly bizarrely declaring her love for melon. The next hostel was in an even meaner looking building. But worse still it had a huge notice on the door saying that rooms were not available, that this was not a hostel, that they could not legally let rooms, that they did not have any insurance should they mistakenly let any rooms and that we should probably all die even if we so much thought about renting a room. It was just then, on our second reading of the dire consequences that a bright young girl swept us through the door with the cheerful promise of, ‘I find you room, lady. No problem.’ We got as far as the lift which also carried the same threat of death by room renting before we came to our senses. Well, at least Catherine did I was still thinking that this came under the heading of jolly capers and is what ‘we backpackers’ and brave mothers did. We headed back out onto the street pausing only to nod to the doorman who had seen it all before, all day and every day.
It was after that, we found ourselves on the ferry to Kowloon which those that know felt would give us more accommodation options. Travel bible at hand again, we found the delightful Chungmin Mansions situated in busy Nathan Road. I had read about this place whilst sifting through the many forums on Hong Kong and it was difficult to imagine what type of place it could be with talk of ‘just start at the top and work your way down until you find rooms that you like.’ Dodging the brigade of Rolex sellers who more than made up for their lack of genuine items by their numbers and enthusiasm (if there is a look that denotes ‘I badly need a watch’ then obviously we had it big style), we paused at the entrance to this magnificent building. That prompted a seamless change of touts as we were then implored to take up the offer of what once was esteemed accommodation. On entering the spacious, open hall of the Mansions, it is like a world gone mad. Booths abound selling anything from currency to clothes, to bananas, mobile phones, suitcases for every occasion and Indian spices above which were located 13 floors of rooms for rent.
‘Our’ tout ushered us to the designated lift which in complete contrast was ridiculously small and there seemed hardly any excess space after the 4 of us plus rucksacks had squeezed in. Floor 7 declared that we had arrived at the inspirationally named ‘Pay-Less Guest House’ which looked more like a cross between a laundry, an abandoned hospital wing and a deserted bus station after a busy night. But to be fair, the tout was polite and the rooms seemed clean although of cell-like proportions. At least there was no danger of falling either out of the window which was heavily barred or out of the bed which was a snug wall to wall fitting. Interesting, but at 11 a night, what can you say?
Ah, the night. If I thought the market area downstairs looked like a mad house earlier, it was only having a bit of a turn. We squeezed our way out of the building past the restaurant touts who now descended on us like vultures at a meat fest, we dodged the hundred million shoppers and out into the dizzying street with neon signs and bustling traffic. If you are looking for a place to stay that is in the heart of the action, albeit potentially dubious, then this was it.
Returning to our guest house, we encountered the down side of our bargain accommodation. Being on the 7th floor generally meant that the lift was a handy option but this was not for the faint hearted. A security guard handled the queuing system and advised you if there was ‘room for one more’ or not. We discovered that around 12 people was an acceptable number and if you weren’t related at the start, then you would be at the end. With that in mind we decided to take the stairs. Mistake. We wound ourselves in and out of the rubbish, dodged the broken floor tiles and carefully avoided touching the encrusted handrails. After 2 floors, we found ourselves in another part of the building which was being demolished, before the stairs started again in an entirely different place. We didn’t like to imagine what would happen if there was a fire and we had to try and navigate a smoke-filled stairway.
That was when I first started to realise what our young people experience in their quest for knowledge. The going is tough, the pitfalls are almost constant and, unlike the accommodation, it doesn’t always come cheap.
And for me? We stuck the prison cell out for 2 more nights, travelled into China experiencing some of the most fascinating sights I have ever seen and some of the worst toilets which surely were courtesy from the bowels of hell.
But every moment was a total privilege. To share time with my daughter, to see what she sees, to feel what she feels and just to be with her. This child of mine who is more grown up than I would ever dare to be.
And what is more, I have been invited to join them on the South America leg in 1 year’s time. I can’t wait. Huh, and me a mother!