3 Years In…

Ring the bells! String up the bunting! Gird your loins! Today marks an anniversary, of sorts: 3 years to the day since I arrived in Hong Kong. March 28th 2012, sometime around 9pm, on a iron-bird from Dubai.

Except time difference makes it a weird anniversary (if indeed it is any kind of anniversary at all) to mark. I could just as easily commemorate March 27th as the day I left the UK behind. I remember it well: the train ride from Edinburgh to Manchester Airport, the countryside blazing in freakishly gorgeous spring sunshine. It was as if dear old Blighty was putting on a show – a kind of ‘look what you’ll be missing!’ – to make me think twice. Except, when I returned for a visit, exactly a year later, I was met with a snow and -6 degrees welcome that made me desperate to return to the steamy tropics.

I could now write about ‘what I’ve learned’ in these 3 years, or make a listicle type thing of my ‘Top 5’ moments, but instead I’m going to remember the Swiss guy I sat next to on the final leg of my journey, from Dubai to HK, three years ago. He was my age, maybe a bit younger, and he was arriving without a fixed plan, no hotel booking, without any idea of how long he would stay in the city, hoping to meet with a friend and asking me where the best places to booze it up in Hong Kong were. He seemed to think that I, having visited once previously, was some sort of oracle on Hong Kong nightlife and I told him, very vaguely, that Wan Chai was the best place to go out. And it turns out it kind of is, if you have fairly low-brow expectations of a night out (which I’m guessing this guy did have – no offence, my Swiss friend.)
We said goodbye at the baggage carousel, and I’ve not thought about him much over these past three years. But thinking about that journey reminded me of him, and I’ve been wondering where he went, if he ever met up with his friend, and how long he ended up staying here. Maybe he’s still here, visa long expired, wandering the back-streets of Wan Chai, several debts owed to various scary triads, cursing that twat from the plane who ever put the idea of coming here in his mind. Maybe.
Anyway, to celebrate this semi-important anniversary I’m going to see a Spanish language film then have a German dinner. Which could be argued is the least ‘Hong Kong’ thing to do with your Saturday evening – I should have hot-pot and play a round of mahjong – but could also be argued is an incredibly ‘Hong Kong’ thing to do because here you may be in China, but it also often feels like you’re at the centre of the world.

Travels in Asia Part 2 – I’ve Got Seoul, But I’m Not a Soldier

My second most recent Asian vacation was to Seoul, capital of South Korea: Asia’s official number one exporter of ‘soft-power’.

I went to Seoul as a stop-over on a mammoth journey to visit friends in Washington DC. It was a chance to visit a new country, albeit one that felt very familiar. Hong Kong is crazy about Korea: K-POP, K-fashion, K-movies and even K-BBQ… The Korean wave has washed right over this city.

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One thing that always hits me when I arrive in a city that’s not Hong Kong is a sense of “Wow, there’s so much space! I can see the sky! I don’t want to use my umbrella as a club to clear the crowds.” London, Shanghai, Bangkok… its always the same. Nowhere on earth is as crowded as the centre of Hong Kong, and that’s a fact. But Seoul seemed that little bit more low-rise even than other cities of its size and standing. It’s huge, and I was never under the impression that it was a small place, but it just had so much space to sprawl lazily out along the Han River. The first thing I did was hunt out some toppoki – the rice cakes in a creamy, spicy sauce seen below. They’re basically thick, short noodles, and are complete comfort food.

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Seoul was one of the few places to which I have traveled alone, and spent the entire time there by myself. OK, my ‘entire’ time there was all of two days. But still. It’s the sort of thing one should do, travelling alone, if one reads the travel section of middle-brow newspapers, and I’m not against it. You really get to know oneself, you know? Plenty of times I’ve been travelling with someone and wished intensely for just five minutes of solitude. But two days of me is my limit. After two days I start to realise that I don’t want to get to know myself any more, and would like to get to know someone else.

When you are travelling alone you do a lot of walking too. I trekked all over Seoul, along the surprisingly bleak riverbanks and up the tower in Namsan Park, following a stream that runs below street level all the way to Dongdaemun, the city’s ancient eastern gate. My wanderings also took me to a fish market, as my wanderings often do, called Noryangjin because I have a thing for seeing giant squid writhing under a fisherman’s scalpel.

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It could be because the K-pop stars all look so plastic, and have futuristic silver hair, and wear clothes that look like what we mere mortals will be wearing in the year 2115, but I expected the capital of this country to be more teeming and gleaming. More in my face. Just a little more… cutting edge. Maybe I didn’t do it justice. Two days were not enough, perhaps. Maybe I’ve just got big-Asian-city fatigue and can’t tell my Tokyos from my Taipeis. But Seoul didn’t quite stand out from the crowd.