This is an incomplete, work-in-progress description of my travels from 1990-2009 in the China-Tibet borderlands, following in the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock. Will be adding chapters and pics when they are ready - expected completion date November 2009. Contact me on mutikonka [AT] gmail,com
Monday, July 13, 2009
I first came across Joseph Rock's articles about China and Tibet in the early months of 1991, soon after I arrived in New Zealand from the UK.
I was bored and spending a wet evening in the old Takapuna public library on the north shore of Auckland. In the upstairs reference section, overlooking the Hauraki Gulf, where boats bobbed in the windswept grey sea, it all felt very far away from the China I had just passed through and which had captured my imagination.
My interest in China had been piqued by my recent brief visit to the mountains of Yunnan, and I looked up "China' in the contents section of some very old back issues of the National Geographic magazine that I found on the shelves in a side room. I was curious to see what the armchair traveller of the 1920s would see in China.
Opening the pages introduced me to another world, the interwar years of America, where the advertisements were for Chrysler Imperial Eights, Palmolive Shaving Cream ("7 free shaves"), Furness Prince Lines ("12 days to Rio") and Hires Root Beer for Growing Children.
It also showed how we viewed the world differently back then. Articles telling me about "Syrians - the shrewdest traders in the Orient"...and "Seattle - A Remarkable City".
But it was the China articles that caught my attention. Or more precisely, it was the articles about remote areas of south west China and Tibet that intrigued me, with titles such as "Seeking the Mountains of Mystery - an expedition to the unexplored Amnyi Machen" in which the author, Joseph F. Rock declared himself to be 'the first white man' to approach this area, 'where no Chinese dares venture ...'. The photos were of spectacular mountain country, Tibetan warriors wearing leopard skins and posing with matchlock rifles, and primitive Yi tribesmen preparing to cross raging rivers with inflated pigs bladders.
In another article, "Konka Risumgompa - Holy Mountains of the Outlaws" the author declared that there were still areas of China that were most difficult of access and "whose inhabitants had defied western exploration".
I wanted to know more.
I looked at his hand-drawn maps and compared them with a modern Lonely Planet China guide that I pulled off an adjacent shelf, to see which areas he was writing about. But on the modern maps there was nothing there. Just a white blank space to the north east of Lijiang. The same with all the other Chinese guidebooks and atlases that I consulted. I was hooked - I wanted to find out more about these places in China that had been explored in the 1920s and had now apparently receded back into obscurity into oblivion.
But first let me explain how I got to New Zealand and why I shared with Joseph Rock an interest in south-west China.
In my late 20s, I was living a peripatetic existence as a medical journalist, drifting from one job to another, not really sure what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be in life. All I knew was that I craved travel, adventure and exploration like my literary heroes such as Patrick Leigh Fermor, Eric Shipton and Graham Greene.
I wanted to be or a modern-day Eric Newby, walking nonchalantly into the Hindu Kush and climbing a few peaks after a bit of farcical practice in Wales. The only problem was that I had no money. And besides, had I set foot in the Hindu Kush in the early 1990s I would likely find myself on the unfriendly end of an AK47 wielded by either the Russian special forces, a Mujahadeen or a member of the nascent Taliban.
China, on the other hand, seemed to be a good place to go for a bit of adventure. It was still Communist, it was still cheap and there were large areas of the country that were officially off limits to westerners, but which were slowly opening up.
When I first considered going there I was working in London as a reporter for a medical newspaper for GPs, based in Woolwich. For various reasons, I was thoroughly miserable and unsettled, both with London and my job.
I was not a professionally-trained journalist but had 'stumbled' into medical journalism after failing in just about everything else that I had turned my hand to since graduating with a degree in pharmacology from Liverpool University in 1984. I had tried the pharmaceutical industry and spent a surreal year as possibly the only 'alternative' medical representative to hit the doctors' waiting rooms of West Yorkshire on behalf of Astra Pharmaceuticals in a baggy suit resembling that worn by the Talking Heads' David Byrne in Stop Making Sense. Or in my case it should have been Stop Making Sales.
I had fared equally badly in the marketing department at head office. It seemed too much like Reginald Perrins' Sunshine Desserts for my liking. Like 'CJ' we had marketing managers who referred to each other by their initials.
My lucky break came when I was eventually given an introduction by my former university tutor to a fellow alumni who had become something in medical publishing in London. I thus gained my first toehold in the world of journalism, on the basis that I was one of a select few people who could not only spell medical words correctly but also understand enough to write a news story about them.
And so it was that I found myself working for 'the UK's leading magazine for doctors', based in a tower block in windswept Woolwich. It was a tenuous existence because I was not a member of staff. I was employed on a casual week-by-week basis depending on the whim of the editor. Every Friday I would be summoned into his office, where he would add up the number of hours I had worked that week and write me out a payslip in silence, always seeming to find some reason to deduct a few pounds worth of earnings.
He was a formal Jewish man who would then dismiss me with an awkward:
"Thank you. We won't be needing any help next week, but stay in touch ..." And I would, because I had nothing else.
The work, when I could get it, could be quite interesting. It might entail travelling to central London for a drug company press briefing at a swish venue such as the Naval and Military Club, followed by a nice lunch. Or attending a medical seminar held in a Regent's Park villa on the latest in contraception techniques conducted by erudite and witty professors of medicine.
Like most journalist jobs, though, it mostly involved sitting in the office and trying to chase people up on the phone to comment on the big stories of the day. And while I was reasonably confident about discussing medical matters with doctors, I still felt like an idiot because my northern accent was often misunderstood or greeted with condescension.
I couldn't even pronounce the name of my own paper correctly on the phone.
"You're from where ..? Pools ..?" the southern person on the other end of the phone would say. I had to start calling it Pals magazine, which after being processed by my northern vowels, came out something like how a southerner would expect to hear the word Pulse pronounced.
Being a recent arrival from up north, I didn't know anyone in London, and so even after a 'good' day at work I would return home on the tube to a lonely evening listening to Prefab Sprout in my bedsit in Clapham. I felt such a fraud in my Burberry raincoat and my flowery 90s tie, swaying along with all the other Londoners on the tube with their Booker Prize novels and their studied avoidance of eye contact.
I tried joining a few clubs, evening classes and playing in a football team, but like that other northerner Alan Bennett, I wasn't really a 'joiner'. I would occasionally go out to a comedy club or to see a band, but there is nothing so folorn or desperate as drinking by yourself in a London pub, surrounded by people who all seem to be having a great time.
Again, my accent didn't help. When I opened my mouth I sensed that everyone in London despised me as a yokel from the sticks. I missed the friendliness and directness of the north of England, but also its open and wild spaces. In the flat, grey concrete maze of Woolwich council estates I yearned for the moors and the dales. I read Wainwright's fellwalking guides and almost cried with homesickness at times. "The hills are my friends ..." he wrote. I felt that way too.
But there was no work for me near the hills. I had tried that many times before, on the last occasion forced to eke out a living working the night shifts at a phone bill processing centre for a wage that was barely enough to survive on.
And so it was that stuck in London I would seek solace in books, and daydream about going away on some challenging foreign adventure, to the hills.
I don't know where the notion of going to China came from, but it appealed for several reasons. Firstly, it was one of the last surviving major Communist states left in the world. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Soviet domination of eastern Europe, China seemed to retain a perverse desire to remain a die-hard Communist state. And it was literally die hard, as only a few months earlier we had seen the bloody suppression of the 'Tiananmen spring' in June 1989, and a seeming return to orthodox Communist totalitarian rule.
I had visited East Berlin and Prague in the late 1980s, before any inkling emerged that they may not last for another 50 years, and I had experienced that strange frisson of revulsion and fascination in being a voyeur from the 'free west' travelling in an Iron Curtain socialist state. I wanted to see what socialist China would be like, before it too became more capitalist. And I especially wanted to see what rural peasant China was like, rather than the grey industrial cities of Eastern China.
I also wanted to see China because I had read about it some exotic sounding places in a dog -eared guidebook entitled South-West China Off the Beaten Track that I found while passing a lonely rainy evening in Woolwich Public Library.
It described a China that sounded quite grim, very remote and in terms of entertainment utterly primitive. Not that different from Woolwich, really. The towns in Yunnan and Sichuan hat it described in pencil drawn maps generally had one hotel open to foreigners, one or two shops, a few noodle restaurants and if you were lucky, a bank where you might be able to exchange the Foreign Exchange Certificate 'funny money' that foreigners were meant to use instead of the people's money, renminbi.
Despite the recent 1989 crackdown, I sensed that this was a country emerging from 40 years of being a closed society. It appeared to me to still have the austere and monolithic framework of a socialist state, but the bonds were loosening and there were now opportunities to travel back into some of the previously out of bounds areas and to literally go off the beaten track.
Some of the descriptions in the guidebook gave tantalising glimpses of how the remote parts of the country had appeared to the first westerners to see them a hundred years ago. One passage in particular, described an impressive and previously unrecorded 18,000 foot peak on the upper reaches of the Yangste river near Leibo.
"As far as we know, nobody has ever DONE this region since ..." the authors wrote, after their own failed attempt to reach it, when they were turned back by police from the 'closed' area.
I was committed. I wanted to go to South West China. Little did I know that this would be the start of a lifelong interest.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
Joseph Rock first arrived in China for a brief visit in 1913, when he was almost thirty years old. He was taking extended leave from his position as botanical researcher at the newly-established University of Hawaii. At a relatively young age, he had already achieved a great deal – in fact his accomplishments to date would have been regarded by many other men as sufficient reward for a lifetime’s work.
From humble beginnings as the son of a Viennese servant he had settled in the US and become a respected university academic and the author of several scientific publications that had garnered international acclaim. One of these, The Indigenous Trees of Hawaii is still a classic reference text on the subject.
How had he done it?
Josef Franz Karl Rock was born in 1884 in Vienna, at that time one of Europe’s great cities, the sophisticated capital of the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire. He had an unhappy childhood as the only son of a widowed kitchen servant who worked for a Polish aristocrat. His father was a fanatical Roman Catholic who hoped that his son would enter the priesthood.
But young Josef had other ideas. He had a keen intellect and yet was also stubborn and egotistical. His inquiring mind was stultified by the rigid Austrian school system and he took to teaching himself languages and studying books alone to satisfy his need for scholarship. He often skipped classes to wander the streets and parks of the wonderful city of Wien and dream of great adventures. He mixed with the Arab and Turkish traders at the Prater Park and taught himself to read and write Chinese characters, imagining that he would one day travel to Peking.
Living in the household of a Count, he developed an appreciation of grand clothes, high culture, music and civlised manners, even if he didn't have the means to enjoy such fine things or mix in such company. Josef Rock was a pauper and could barely afford a decent suit, let alone to go to university.
Rebelling against his father’s insistence that he enter a seminary, he instead took to drifting round Europe, picking up odd jobs here and there and living off remittances from his older sister back in Vienna.
Like many impoverished people of that era, he developed tuberculosis, a disease that was to shape his destiny in many ways. A spell in the warm Mediterranean climate of Malta seemed to help his lungs, but the jobless Rock was eventually forced by penury to work his passage back to wintery Hamburg, where his consumptive, blood-stained cough returned. When his father died, the young Rock inherited a pitiful few artefacts such as a gold watch, that he was able to sell and scrape together the cost of a passage by ship to New York.
In the turn of the century United States, he continued his drifting lifestyle, working as a dishwasher, interspersed with periods of studying English at college and stays in hospital for treatment of his tuberculosis. Wandering alone, living on his wits but making no friends, he moved from New York to Waco, Texas, passed a few months in Mexico and eventually ended up in the earthquake-shattered city of San Francisco in 1906.
Still plagued by tuberculosis, he decided that the climate of Hawaii was his only chance of better health, and he took a ship to Honolulu. It had only been 25 years since American Marines had landed in the subtropical kingdom of Hawaii and usurped power from Queen Liliuokalani in favour of US sugar plantation owners. The islands were still an undeveloped and relatively unexplored backwater, with a small and scattered population of little more than 150,000 people.
As a seemingly educated European, Rock was able to talk himself into a job at a local school, teaching Latin and natural history. Despite having no formal training in science, he excelled at the latter subject, in part due to his enthusiasm for teaching himself through field trips. He enjoyed being out of doors, and found that it was good for his lungs. After a year, with his tuberculosis still flaring up during his classroom spells indoors, he left the school took up an outdoor job with the forestry department, hoping it would help his lungs.
The legend here has it that Rock barged his way into the Hawaiian department of forestry and told them that they must have a herbarium - and that he was the man who going to create it for them. Whatever the truth, he was engaged by the department as a botanical collector, and tasked with collecting seeds and specimens of rare Hawaiian trees an shrubs.
The now anglicised Joseph Rock applied himself with diligence, enterprise and scholarly enthusiasm to his new role. He was fortunate in arriving at a time when little was known about the flora of the Hawaiian Islands, and the other two foresters working for the department seemed to have neither the ability nor inclination to get out and collect, classify and study the native plants, trees, flowers and seeds.
Joseph Rock had found his vocation. Over the next three years he threw himself into wide-ranging plant-hunting trips around the islands of Hawaii, on which he pursued botanical investigations for the forestry department with zeal and scholarly thoroughness.
He believed in being out in the field rather than cooped up in an office as an “armchair botanist”. In remote corners of the islands he would seek help from ranchers and plantation owners, charming their wives and children with his European manners and regaling them with exciting stories of his travels and adventures. He also studied the botanical textbooks and taught himself from the scientific literature.
Within a couple of years he had published his first botanical paper and mounted an award-winning exhibit of local flora. After another year, he believed he had accrued enough experience in botany to try a move into academia.
In later years he styled himself as “Dr” Rock, and some have portrayed him as a charlatan who faked his qualifications and conned his way into a role that he was not qualified for. Perhaps there is an element of truth in that, for the servant’s boy from status-conscious Vienna must surely have craved the prestige of being a Herr Doktor. Nevertheless, Rock’s scholarly achievements in botany alone, not to mention his later anthropological work, would surely merit a PhD, even if he was never formally awarded one.
He joined the College of Hawaii – forerunner to the university – in 1911 and was to spend a very productive decade of research and scholarship there, rising to become Professor of Systematic Botany. He continued to spend much of his time in the field, collecting specimens and getting to know every inch of the islands and their plants.
In the years before the Great War, Joseph Rock published prodigiously in scientific journals using English – his second language – and he wrote three major books on his subject. Rock also had a few students, but proved to be a hard taskmaster with a reputation for moodiness and an explosive temper.
After a couple of years at the college he felt sufficiently secure to take time out to make a round the world trip. Travelling via Guam and the Philippines, he arrived in Hong Kong in October 1913 for a brief stopover en route to Europe.
In Kowloon, the young visitor thrilled at being taken for a ride on a rickshaw pulled by a fellow human being, and like modern day visitors spent time shopping in the densely packed streets of the young British colony. Rock then visited Guangzhou to see the ‘real China’. He disembarked at the Anglo-French traders’ enclave of Shamian island on the Pearl River in the centre of the city, and was taken over the small bridge, past the Chinese sentries to enter the new Republic of China.
It had been only a year or so since the Manchu Qing dynasty had been overthrown and the Emperoro Pu Yi forced to abdicate by military forces following uprisings that started in Guangzhou.
As Rock toured the streets of Guangzhou, he was delighted to find that it matched all his childhood expectations. The warren of streets, the smells, the noise, the markets and craft shops … the bustling crowds ordered by his rickshaw collies to “make way for the foreign devil”… and Rock noted that his presence was resented by many, who cursed at him and kicked at his rickshaw chair.
It was the most interesting place I have seen or hope to see, he wrote in his diary.
And he would certainly be back.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Like Joseph Rock, I didn’t linger for very long on my first visit to Hong Kong.
In 1990, the British crown colony of Hong Kong was said to be living on borrowed time. The clock was ticking towards the 1997 handover to China, and the city seemed to be working overtime to make the most of the good times while they lasted.
I flew in from Gatwick on a Cathay Pacific 747, via Bahrain and Dubai, and experienced all the usual thrills of arriving at the cramped Kai Tak airport in Kowloon, with its runway jutting out into the sea. My first sight was the craggy peaks of Hong Kong island dotted with high rise flats, and the surrounding waters in which I lost count of the number of cargo ships, lighters, dredgers and ferries.
We flew low over the tenements of Kowloon on the approach, close enough to see into people’s cramped rooms, and close enough, it seemed, for the slipstream to stir the washing hung up outside the windows.
Then after the notorious last minute swerve to the right to avoid a large cliff, the Jumbo plonked down onto the runway and screeched to a sudden halt at the waterline, almost as if landing on an aircraft carrier.
The smell of Hong Kong pervaded the aircraft cabin – that humid sour-sweet warm breeze that seemed to carry elements of sub-tropical vegetation, diesel oil, joss sticks and sewage. We emerged down the aircraft steps onto the tarmac and into the hazy sun and were quickly bustled through the busy customs and passport control.
Before I knew it I was on the A2 airport bus, travelling through the same jungle of high rise tenements and flyovers that I had just flown over. It was the hanging gardens of Babylon, but with Chinese script everywhere, and almost every square inch of space given over to merchandise: shrink-wrapped cameras and running shoes, strange varieties of mushrooms, dried fish tins of tea. If it wasn’t a shop it was probably a restaurant.
Up close, the streets appeared dirty and scrappy, and yet with shopfronts and facades that were made from gleaming clean chrome or marble. The local Chinese were smartly dressed in business suits or conservative casual wear, and looked cool, despite the warm weather, unlike the very visible western tourists who in comparison looked florid and gaudily overdressed.
I humped my heavy bag off the bus at the Kowloon Star Ferry Terminal and took the ferry across the heaving, rubbish-strewn greenish waters of Victoria harbour to Central. What a strange place – a bit Manhattan, a bit London and a lot of Chinatown. The famous trams rumbled down Des Voeux Road and the pavements thronged with people.
There was incessant movement and clamour – the whole city seemed to zing along with an almost audible electric hum of commerce and industry. It was all so foreign and yet dotted with familiar British symbols. Parking wardens wore the same dull two-tone brown uniforms as those in Leeds, with caps bearing the Queen’s crown. Chinese children wore neat British school uniforms with metal Prefect and Librarian badges pinned to their blazer lapels, and the road signs were the same familiar symbols that I had memorised from my Highway Code.
I took a Routemaster-style light blue and cream coloured double-decker bus on a boneshaking journey through the western market district until the road curved away round a corner to run south along the western side of the island. Then I hauled my bag up 293 steps past concrete villas and though what seemed to me to be thick tropical jungle to the Mt Davis YHA hostel.
The spartan white-washed blocks contained little more than iron bedstead bunk beds and cold showers, but the place offered glorious views across the smog over the western harbour approaches of Hong Kong. I sat on the balcony and had a very welcome San Miguel beer while surveyeing the fleet of ships in the harbour below. It was good to be away from bloody Woolwich.
It was at this hostel that I met the first of what would become a long line of western weirdos who seem to gravitate to certain corners of Asia. In this case it was a one-time hippy with a bad scalp condition and a strong Lancashire accent, who was now almost old enough to be an old age pensioner. He was thin to the point of emaciation and complained half heartedly about how he’d been ripped of in China. There was also an inquisitive American who interrogated me about my plans and said “God Bless You” reflexly after every remark.
I was too jet lagged to care, and fell into an exhausted sleep disturbed only by the snoring religious American on the bunk above me.
I spent only one full day on Hong Kong Island, and even that was sufficient for me to tire of the jostling crowds, the humidity and the incessant noise from jackhammers and traffic. But Hong Kong was a good place to get things done. Woken early by the ships horns, I skipped back down the steps into the western district and took off for the China Travel Service office in Tsim Sha Tsui. With matter-of-fact efficiency they were able to arrange a China visa for me for the next morning, and at a very reasonable price compared to the extortionate and atherosclerotic bureaucracy of the Chinese consulate that I had tried in London.
I spent the rest of the day taking buses on a counter-clockwise circuit around Hong Kong Island. I placed my exact fare of a few Hong Kong dollars and cents (exact change only) into the receptacle by the driver and foolishly went upstairs ‘for a better view’.
It required nerves of steel to sit at the very front seats on the top deck as the driver flung the bus at seemingly suicidal speed around the narrow and congested roads. I had several near heart attacks as he overtook Jaguars and minibuses on blind corners or drove headlong towards oncoming taxis as if playing a game of dare. I was flung around the hard, uncushioned seats, banged my elbows on the walls and had to hang on to the silver bars that round around the inside of the windows.
In Aberdeen I was not much impressed by the shanty town atmosphere and the ramshackle feel of the harbour, where modern day versions of junks brought in nets of flapping fish and shrimps. From the ferry, Hong Kong looked like a sleek and futuristic city, but close up, at ground level, it was a make-do, utilitarian mess. I wandered the streets, pretending I was a foreign correspondent and taking in the local colour. I’d thought about dining at the famous Jumbo restaurant boat in the harbour, but on close inspection it looked squalid and tawdry. Instead, I found a café with a few cramped formica tables where I was served with a small plate of ham sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and a cup of curdling thick brown tea that was made with condensed milk.
Onwards, via Repulse Bay to the relatively quiet lotus tree -lined streets of Stanley. There I saw a British Army officer in his neatly pressed tropical khaki uniform, accompanied by a tough-looking Gurkha driver, standing by a Land Rover. The Union Jack still flew over Hong Kong, and it was strange to see some of the long term expats, like extras from Howard's Way, swanning around as if this were in some exclusive corner of the south coast of England.
Monday, April 13, 2009
When Joseph Rock arrived in Yunnan on a plant-hunting trip from (Siam) Thailand in 1922, the province was in a sorry state of anarchy. Like other southern provinces of China, it had slipped out of the grip of control of Peking and was ruled by a succession of corrupt warlords. These figures, who styled themselves as scholars and nobles, were little more than the leaders of local army of looters and gangsters.
Their rule was centred on self enrichment from the province, not self government of the province. Tang Chiyao, who was nominally governor of Yunnan in 1922, for example, had disposed of his decent predecessor by execution and allowed his soldiers to roam the province like official highwaymen, ransacking the mule caravans and extorting taxes from wherever they could.
He presided over a province whose main crop was opium, from which he derived most of his money and power.
His reign would last until 1927, when he was overthrown and killed by a more politically astute rival, Long Yun, who made some attempts to contain the banditry, paid lip service to the rule of Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek in distant Nanjing and managed to retain a grip on power into the Second World War.
At a more local level, Joseph Rock would have encountered minor officials and magistrates, who owed their positions to the tributes in opium and silver they paid to the provincial governor and his cronies.
Lower down the scale would be merchants and tradesmen, with the peasant farmers or coolies at he very bottom of the scale.
As Rock and other western visitors to Yunnan at that time would observe, the province was home to many non-Chinese ethnic groups such as the Lolo (Yi), the Naxi of Lijiang and the Bai or Minchia of Dali, who existed in varying degrees of independence from or assimilation with the Han Chinese. There was also another recent migrant minority – the handful of western missionaries who had set up churches, schools and clinics in far flung communities.
Yunnan also had a significant Muslim population, which had risen up against the Qing Manchu rulers in the late 19th century and conquered towns such as Dali. The Muslim uprising had been put down with great ruthlessness by the Qing troops, leaving whole districts slaughtered without mercy. The entire Muslim population of Dali, for example, were slaughtered when the town was besieged. The nearby lake Erhai was reputed to have been full of corpses of women and children who tried to flee.
The capital of Yunnan, Kunming, was then known as Yunnan-fu. It was a backward provincial town, with few amenities, and yet had foreign presence in the form of French, British and American consulates, due to its proximity to Indo-China, British Burma.
I arrived in the ‘modern’ Kunming in early November of 1990, after a 30-hour hard sleeper train journey from Guilin. It had been a hard journey, during which I had become so sick of the smoking, spitting and staring that I spent much of it sequestered on my top bunk, trying to avoid contact with fellow passengers.
Arriving at 5am, we were turfed off the train into the bitterly cold pre-dawn darkness. I sheltered in a café by the station forecourt for an hour, before attempting to take a minibus into the city centre as it got light. With virtually no Chinese language ability, I found it confusing and frustrating – especially when the bus I chose circled round for about half an hour trying to attract enough passengers to fill all the seats.
After we set off, I gradually realised that we were heading out of town, not towards the city centre. But all my gesturing and speaking attempts to have the driver stop and let me off were ignored. The female conductress just nodded. It was only when I got up, started shouting and trying to wrestle the doors open to try to jump off the moving vehicle that he pulled up. The other passengers were all snickering and talking about the crazy foreigner, as I dragged my bag off the bus, cursing the driver and cursing China. I later guessed it had been a tourist minibus going to the Stone Forest at nearby Shilin.
Why had they nodded in agreement when I kept repeating “Kunming” and pointing to the city centre on my Chinese map?
I eventually managed to flag down a taxi, and the driver was able to compregend enough to take me to the Cammellia Hotel, one of he few that was officially open at that time to accept foreign tourists.
It was a shabby, Soviet-style institution, with dim cold corridors guarded by a female ‘key keeper’ on each floor. On my floor, the young women concierge sat rugged up behind a shonky desk, tapping out a tune with one finger on an electric organ. She rose only reluctantly and sullenly to open the door to my dorm.
When I had dumped my gear and went for a walk about the city I wondered why it had been so highly praised in my guidebook. After the exotic peaks and tropical foliage of Guilin, Kunming seemed to be the grey, soul-less city I had always expected to encounter in Communist China. There was little colour: the people of Kunming wore Mao suits of blue or green, or shabby black and grey suits with white shirts. The shops seemed drab and even the Vietnamese coffee shop mentioned in my guidebook seemed to be little different to all the other basic hole-in the wall noodle shops. It sold bitter coffee form a jug and rock hard bread rolls. I ended up instead eating a lunch of dumplings at the Soldier-Worker-Peasant canteen.
I inquired at the teeming, chaotic bus station about travel to Dali and discovered that this would involve an overnight trip on a ‘sleeper bus’. So be it. Anything to get away from Kunming.
Back in Rock's time, Dali had been ruled by a Chinese local warlord called Chang Chieh-pa or Chang the Stammerer. A local Minchi man and former muleteer who turned to banditry, he baosted of having murdered 300 people and eating human hearts. He led a band of up to 5000 plunderers and thieves in the Dali area, keeping them in line by forbidding opium and punishing them with cruel practices such as cutting off the lips of liars. He in turn was tamed by the provincial governer, who brought him on side by apppointing him a 'general' and sub-governor of Dali district. he still continued his plundering of all traffic travelling in the area, three days from Yunna-fu.
It’s hard to believe now, in the days of motorways and luxury coaches that whisk you from Kunming to Dali in time for lunch, that the trip used to be a real kind of purgatory. In 1990 the roads weren’t so good and I took the overnight sleeper bus to what I thought would be China’s Shangri-La. Even with a ‘bed’ seat, earplugs and a eye mask I got no sleep whatsoever that night as the bus jolted over a road that seemed to be 95% roadworks while the driver kept us awake with his constant blaring on the horn. Just when I thought that I might actually nod off, the bus lurched to a halt at 1.30am for a rest stop at a roadside noodle restaurant.
So it was not surprising that my first impressions of Dali were coloured by my crankiness from lack of sleep.
At 7.30am in the morning in November, it was freezing and still dark. I was not a happy traveller.
Things picked up once I had negotiated myself a room at the only hotel in town open to foreigners – the Number two Hotel, which was ridiculously cheap at seven yuan for a dorm bed. I then found a cosy café nearby that was obviously targeted at westerners: Jim’s Peace Café. Jim was a laid back Chinese guy who spoke good English, which he seemed to have learned at Woodstock. Maybe he had been partaking of the marijuana that grows freely around Dali, but he certainly had quite a few mannerisms of the stoner. It was such an odd thing to find, in a country where a billion people don’t appear to be able to speak even one word of English, that the first fluent speaker spoke like a dude, man. I wasn’t complaining. He ran a nice café – pretty much the only café in town – that catered to my squeamish western tastes. I didn’t want rice gruel or beef noodles for breakfast, and Jim was able to offer toast, muesli, banana pancakes and something that passed for coffee. That is cool, man.
As I began to feel like a human again and walked the streets of Dali, I began to appreciate its charms, and understand how the town and its beautiful surroundings could attract travellers for extended stays. The sun rose and bathed the long ridge line of the Cangshan mountains to the west in a golden glow. There appeared to be a dusting of snow along the higher peaks. The fabric of the ancient Bai town was still intact – the wooden framed stone buildings were evidence of Dali’s reputation as a centre for builders and masons. The narrow cobbled streets echoed to the sound of hawkers and traders, and the brown-skinned Bai themselves seemed a tough but friendly people.
Most of the men wore the same blue or green Mao suits that I ahd seen in Kunming, but many of the Bai women still wore the traditional blue Bai capes and had colourful turbans fashioned out of what looked to my eyes like tea towels.
At the western end of town, as I walked up to view the famous trio of nine century pagodas, I passed Bai workmen cutting slabs of marble with primitive power driven saws driven bya belt from the two stroke engine of the ubiquitous tuolaji tractor. Bai women were hauling cabbages from the fields into wicker baskets on their backs, which they ferried to a waiting truck already piled high with the vegetable.
My gaze kept going back to the mountains, and as a compulsive hillwalker I searched out a likely walkable route to the highest summit, on top of which I could just make out a small building with an aerial. I decided to try tackle it the following day, and retired back to jim’s for a beefsteak and chips, a cold remedy tea and an early night.
I was woken early the next morning by two contradictory sounds: scratchy Chinese erhu music being played through public loudspeakers accompanied by a solicitous female Chinese voice which sounded to my uncomprehending ear like it was encouraging the whole town to wake up and face the day with a good socialist spirit. The other sound was that of a man hoicking and spitting in the bathroom. It was a fellow resident at the Number Two Hotel, who was making repeated and very audible attempts at clearing his throat and expelling the contents in a very echoey concrete chamber.
This seemed to sum up the constant dichotomy of China: a land of ancient culture, ritual manners and dainty music, that simultaneously offers up revolting habits such as spitting, shoving and pissing in the street. Is it just a communist thing, I wondered?
After breakfast I bought a few snacks and hiked uphill, across the main road and out of the old town. I passed the pagodas again and followed a cobbled road past some vegetable fields until it twisted through another small village and transformed into a dirt track that ran up into the pine woods, and the serious uphill hike started.
It was a relatively peaceful walk up through the trees, but I could still hear the sounds of truck horns, quarry blasting and some sort of factory machine press. I arrived, knackered, at the Zhonghesi temple, which was a beautiful serene spot with great views over the town and the lake Erhai beyond it. The square shape of the old town and its grid like street pattern was now evident.
I was invited by gestures to sit down with a friendly group of walnut-brown men who were dressed in a mixture of police or army uniforms and civilian black trousers and white shorts. They made me drink some bitter-tasting green tea from a cracked flowery enamel mug, and I couldn’t work out how they were able to drink it without swallowing the big tea leaves and stalks that floated on top. Using my phrasebook they explained that they were local police – gonganju – and that they had been looking for two porters who had not returned from a ferrying trip up to the TV station two days ago, presumed lost in a snowstorm. They then rose to leave, taking a basket full of pine cones and a primitive-looking single bore rifle with them.
I set off to carry on up the track through more forest, but not before a woman attendant at the temple tried to warn me about something up there. The track was well worn and became quite steep, emerging into the open to wind around rocky outcrops and the occasional grand viewpoint. I plodded on upwards, and it just seemed to go on for ever. I started to feel the effects of altitude – it must have been between 8,000 and 10,000 feet up and I was taking longer to recover on my regular pauses to get my breath back. It became chillier and damp, and the going was harder because the grass covering parts of the track was slippy. I didn’t feel too isolated though, because I could still see the town below me, and also hear local people working nearby in the hills whistling and calling to each other.
I continued on, for hour after hour, occasionally getting a good vantage point, but never seeming to be getting any nearer to the elusive TV station at the summit, which still looked as distant as ever.
I was now above most of the trees now and was beginning to get worried about the time. The sun was moving over to the far side of the mountain ridge and I would soon be in shadow and unable to benefits from its meagre warmth. I set myself a ‘turnaround’ time of 3pm and plodded on. The scenery was superb. The grey rock outcrops had that strange jagged appearance that I had seen in Chinese ornamental gardens – but here writ in large scale. There were occasional fir or spruce trees breaking the skyline and what appeared to be rhododendron bushes. The sky was clear and the air was sharp – and I was losing my stamina.
Just after 3pm I stopped when I encountered a handful of Bai people working in the long grass around the track, cutting wood and bamboo. This made me lose heart. After all my hard work I still hadn’t even attained a height beyond which these people spent their working day. After a pause to have a drink and eat some of the strange greasy pancake-her thing I had bought for my lunch, I turned around and started on the great knee-jarring return trip back down into Dali. It was dispiriting because the age it took me to get down to the temple made me realise how much upward effort I had out in for nothing. The temple was now all but deserted except for an old lady and a cockerel that attacked me from behind. So it was nice to eventually get back into Jim’s Café, for a well earned fried rice and a beer.
When I told Jim where I’d been he smiled and said I should have told him what I was doing. He could arrange transport to get me to the end of a service road which runs half way up the mountain, almost as high as I had hiked that day. Despite my tiredness, I decided to take his advice and have another crack at the mountain the following day.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
Undaunted by the failure of my first attempt to knock off the peaks of the Cangshan mountains, I succeeded by cheating. I got together with a group of other backpackers and hired a tractor to take us most of the way to the top.
I made sure I was prepared this time, by spending most of the intervening day lazing around outside Jim’s Peace Café, soaking up the sun and partaking of beer, chips and whatever other western indulgences I fancied. I met some Brits, a Jewish Mexican guy, a Swede and two Germans who also expressed interest in taking a trip up to the top of the mountains the next day.
Leaving Jim to make the arrangements, we hired bikes and freewheeled down the lanes out of Dali to see Erhai Lake.
It was a lovely cool and clear day. Away from the town, the scenery around the lake was almost biblical – a couple of traditional sailing boats drifting around on the mirror-like surface of the lake, with the mountain backdrop . In the surrounding fields the Bai peasants laboured away at ploughing and planting crops by hand, while we decadent westerners sat around drinking Coke. The houses were decrepit and the locals had spread rice and grain out on the road to dry it out.
Early the next morning we all assembled in the cold street outside Jim’s café and he marshalled us past a young PLA soldier stood as if guarding the city gate, gripping an AK47 like he meant business. The tractor-bus took us up an increasingly rough switchback dirt track, never out of second gear for the whole hour it took. I was terrified of the sheer drops and wild exposure on each of the hairpin bends, but managed to control my panic until we reached the end of the track, more than half way up the mountainside, and seemingly about the same level as I’d reached by the tough all day uphill slog two days previously.
We had nice clear weather to begin with, but some cloud soon built up around the peaks and threatened to envelope us. Soon we were climbing up through the swirling cold clouds, along a well cut track through the long brown grass, and before we knew it we were then above it all and actually looking down on a sea of cloud. The summit looked a long way off and the altitude started to kick in again, rendering me breathless after only a short period of exertion. My lungs felt they were fit to bust and I thought my heart would pop, and it took us more than two hours to get within striking distance of the summit, to a grassy plateau.
Here, where the birds sang and the sun shone it felt like I was ascending into heaven.
The last thousand feet of ascent was relatively easy and before we knew it we had reached the “TV station” – a concrete blockhouse festooned with aerials and TV satellite signal receivers.
We plonked ourselves down on the leeward, sheltered side of the building to have lunch and a drink. A Chinese workman dressed in the usual blue Mao suit came out of a door and glanced at us with a blank expression, as if it was nothing out of the ordinary for their remote perch to have visitors, let alone foreign ones. He emptied a bin of rubbish down the slope and went back inside without saying anything. Another worker later re-emerged bearing a thermos flask of hot water, from which we filled our mugs and bottles, and I was able to make a cup of Earl Grey from a few teabags that I had brought along.
The views were absolutely breathtaking on all sides, looking down on the pine forests as stretching down the ridgelines until they disappeared into the clouds. To the north and south, dark razorback ridges of rock snaked menacingly towards other peaks in the Cangshan range. And in the distance, the snow peaks of the Jade Dragon mountain range near Lijiang were visible. And yet immediately below us, Dali was obscured by cloud.
After posing for a few pictures, we split up.
The Germans headed back down to the track, while the rest of us decided to explore a little further along the ridge, to the south, where there appeared to be a slightly higher peak about half a mile away.
The path petered out and we soon found ourselves scrambling up a steep hillside covered in knee high scrub until we cam out on to a narrow platform of rock that formed the summit. We were rewarded by spellbinding views down into a series of sheer gullies and gorges that dropped off to the west. I felt giddy and lacked the courage to even stand up on such an exposed spot. Instead, I sat and rebuilt a small stone cairn that previous visitors had piled up.
We reluctantly left the summit and headed down towards a small tarn on a plateau, where we rejoined a well –formed track. From there it was another knee-jarring descent, back down into the clouds and towards the tree line, where we crossed paths with a party of local workmen who were busy hacking away to widen the overgrown track. No sigmnn of the missing two porters, they told us.
From there is was a long and leg torturing descent for more than an hour, over now familiar territory back down to the temple. We paused for a very refreshing cup of strong and bitter green tea before continuing, almost limping back down into Dali and a peak conquering victory drinking session at Jim’s Peace Café.
After the initial ‘mission accomplished’ euphoria, the rest of the evening was a dull anticlimax.
The rest of my brief China trip was also something of an anticlimax. This was partly because I was now back-tracking through the same places: Kunming, Guilin and Wuzhou, back towards Hong Kong, with the consequent feeling that my trip had past its high tide mark and there were no more new places to see. On later trips I was to find this a common feeling – that once my goals had been achieved I soon lost interest and enthusiasm for China travel and just wanted to move on. Once I had mentally set my mind on being in the next place, my patience with the minor irritations of Chinese life quickly ran out.
The things that had seemed novel or funny in the first few days and weeks of travel were now often just a reminder of what an alien environment I was in. I soon got tired of the long list of annoying ‘S’s’ that marked China out as a world apart: the spitting and staring, the shoving and shouting, the slurping of tea and the incessant smoking.
When the bus stopped on some rural road for a toilet break the male Chinese male passengers would adopt a peasant squat by the roadside and eye me impassively as they puffed on their cigarettes. They dressed in cheap black and grey suits that still had a big label sewn onto the sleeve, as if fresh from a bespoke tailor. They would hoick up a throatful of phlegm and spit without taking their eyes off me – was this a calculated insult? I couldn’t understand what they were saying to each other as they stared and snickered at me, except for the constantly recurring word ‘laowai’ – foreigner.
Sometimes I felt like I was a character in Planet of the Apes - a weak human who had fallen into a new post-apocalyptic world populated by beings who were both smarter and yet more callous than myself.
And yet at other times the Chinese people I met were touchingly open and generous. Sat on the back of the bus wedged between a bunch of teenage kids who were already hardened manual workers judging by the dirt on their suits, I was prodded into sharing their snacks of monkey nuts and mandarin oranges. They spoke no English and I spoke no Chinese, but I understood their gestures when they flicked through my paperback book and gawped at the English words and gave me the thumbs up sign. “Zhen hao!” (‘Very good!’)
I left China via Hong Kong in November 1990. A sign of how cut off China was: it was only when I arrived at the Tsim Sha Tsui ferry terminal in Hong Kong and bought a newspapers that I learned that Margaret Thatcher was no longer the British Prime Minister. I had missed the whole changeover while I was in the China news blackout.
From Hong Kong I flew to Perth in Australia and did the whole backpacker tour of the big continent, up to Darwin and through the red centre to see Alice Springs and Ayers Rock. But even though I saw some amazing sights, I felt unsettled and unsatisfied with Australia. I didn't realise it then, but I had caught the 'China bug'. I wanted to see more of this amazingly different country and I missed the feeling of adventure that comes with being on the road in China. I was no longer the centre of atention, no longer the big tall guy in a crowd. In fact I was now the weedy pale European guy compared to the big bronzed Aussies.
I moved on to New Zealand, where I found a job as a journalist and settled down for a while, indulging my love of the outdoors with a lot of tramping and mountaineering.
I was to spend the next four years in New Zealand ... getting married to a girl from China (that's another story), teaching myself some Chinese and slowly building up a curiousity about Joseph Rock and the places he visited. It would be 1994 before I returned to China to see for myself ...
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Three weeks before I was due to leave for China I gave up my job as a medical journalist in Auckland and went shopping tor camping gear. After three years of writing about constipation and cough remedies, I was free to fulfil my ambition to be an explorer of sorts.
My immediate plan was to spend a couple of weeks trekking in New Zealand's Southern Alps, testing my gear and getting myself fit for the Chinese adventure. I traipsed round the camping shops of Auckland, feeling guilty as I handed over money for extravagant items such as a bladder water bag ('developed by the Israeli Army'), a head-torch, two pairs of Thorlo socks ("Satisfaction guaranteed or your money refunded'), and a set of extra small billy cans.
There were some larger items I'd had my eye on for some time: an MSR International stove that could burn on almost any kind of fuel, and a Thermarest sleeping mat. I also treated myself to a second-hand Olympus OM10 camera, with a polaroid lens filter for mountain pictures. These items I added to my existing inventory of outdoor gear: a MacPac Eclipse lightweight tent, a bulky English sleeping bag, ice axe, crampons, fleece jacket. And thus equipped, I set off for Mount Cook.
A Mount Cook Airlines Avro 748 turboprop dropped me off in -d field at Lake Pukaki, about 12 miles from Mt Cook village. This airport consisted of a shed, a windsock and a Maori coach driver who doubled-up as air traffic controller with his headphones and table-tennis hats to see off the plane. He dropped me off in the rain at Mt Cook village, from where I trudged up to a campsite full of Germans.
The talk was all about a young Japanese woman who had gone missing while on a day walk up to the Mueller Hut with her mother.
The next morning, when the rain cleared, I did this walk myself. It was a steep, slippery track up through the dripping bush to a couple of ponds wishfully known as the Sealy Tarns. Beyond was a tussock and scree slope that led up to the ridge of Mt Ollivier. Just before the Second World War, this had been Sir Edmund Hillary's first real peak.
I found the going quite tough, especially with my heavily loaded backpack. But after a while I established a steady rhythm of breathing, counting 1-2-3-4, which enabled me to proceed slowly hut without stopping every five minutes. Nearer the top of the ever-steeper slope I passed a party of what I took to be Japanese climbers: short, stocky, tough-looking men with an English leader.
On reaching the ridge-plateau I discovered how easy it must have been for the Japanese woman to have disappeared: the plateau was basically a collection of huge boulders and rocks piled on top of each other, creating many spaces and hidden crevasses, some up to 30 feet deep. It would take weeks to search every
single nook and cranny. The Japanese woman had probably wandered off the track and fallen down one of these many holes.
Meanwhile, the mist blew in and I carried on the last few steps to the Muelier Hut. It was an exhilarating feeling to be the first to arrive. My only company was a group of mischievous green keas, the New Zealand alpine parrot. They hopped about on the hut's water tank and peered curiously through the window at me, tilting their heads intuitively.
Within a couple of hours several other hikers had arrived, including the 'Japanese' party, who turned out to be a squad of Gurkhas from Hong Kong, on a training holiday in New Zealand. The hut was soon jammed with sweaty trampers brewing up tea on roaring Primus stoves, and the atmosphere was cosy. Outside, the mist lifted slightly to reveal the menacing ice walls hanging from Mt Sefton opposite. Every ten minutes there would be a roaring noise as huge chunks of ice broke off and avalanched down into the valley. Now I could understand why climbers feared avalanches so much.
That evening trampers from Germany. Britain, Israel, and France huddled round candles in the hut. New Zealand's mountain huts were well equipped: cutlery, stoves, mattresses, and even a radio link to the National Park HQ. As we sat in the nickering gloom I asked the English Gurkha captain if the British Army in Hong Kong did a lot of expeditions into the Chinese mountains. Apparently not, he told me. Serving soldiers were discouraged from visiting communist countries such as China while on duty.
The next morning I did a quick dash up to the nearby 'summit' of Ollivier, which was actually nothing more man a dimple in the pile of rocks, and then fled back down to Mt Cook village. That evening, I sneaked into the posh Hermitage hotel, where rich Taiwanese parties dined by candlelight, able to admire the mountain views while safely insulated behind large windows. No primuses there.
Over the next four days I attempted the Copland Track, an 'alpine tramp' that led from Mt Cook over the Main Divide to the lush West Coast rainforest. In typical macho-kiwi understatement the route was described as 'exposed in places'. This meant it was a full-on mountain climb up a very precarious ridge. The first time I tried it I took the wrong route out of a steep gully and had to retire, exhausted and bleeding, minus my watch, back to the first hut. The next day I tried again, accompanied by a middle-aged couple from Christchurch, who turned back after three hours when they saw how steep the route was.
After a lot of floundering round in a stream, I managed to scrabble my way up a scree slope out onto the slabs of the narrow ridge, from where the route led up a thousand metres to a barrel-shaped emergency shelter. On either side of the ridge were sharp drop-offs, with little chance of arresting a fall. I managed to reach the shelter by lunchtime and retired inside, my hands shaking, to brew up some tea. The going so far had been scary, and when I saw the gradient of the final snow slope ahead I wanted to chicken out. But I couldn’t turn back: that would be equally hazardous.
So I set off alone and reluctant with my ice axe and crampons, for a terrifying 40 minutes of 'plugging' up the soft snow. During the whole time I did not dare look down or behind me, but kept my eyes firmly on my boots as I followed a zig-zag pattern up towards the sharp ridge. Just when I thought I'd reached safety, when the snow flattened out to meet the razor-edge ridge, I faced another problem: the snow had melted back about three feet from the rock, leaving a gaping crevasse about twenty feet deep. After putting my foot through the snow at the lip, I managed to leap these last few feet. to land bloodily on a small platform of rock. I was on top. Behind me the pyramid of Mt Cook dazzled white against a clear blue sky, almost near enough to touch. Ahead was a yawning valley that led down into the mists and foliage of the West Coast.
Going down the western side was a lot easier: no snow slopes or steep drops to contend with. Many hours later, on the verge of nightfall, I staggered into the Douglas Rock hut in the middle of the Copland valley, absolutely worn out. I had crossed countless streams and hobbled down miles of mountain track to reach this point, still two days walk from the West Coast highway. And when I eventually did emerge into the sunshine and coffee shops of Fox Glacier township two days later, I felt like a superhuman, definitely superior to the mere tourists taking their twenty-minute tea breaks from their coaches.
Three days later I met disaster. Recovered from my Copland rigours, I hitched down to Mt Aspiring National Park and attempted a track known as the Cascade Saddle. The scenery was more Scottish than Swiss: brooding crags and long tussock grass, forests and streams. After a restless day cooped up in a hut because of rain, I rushed out up into the hills, eager to reach the 'Saddle'.
The track led up through a beech forest before opening out into a steeper hillside of scrub, gullies and crags. The tops were still shrouded in wet cloud and the knee-high grass underfoot was slippery. But after the perils of the Copland, this was straightforward grunting, I thought. My guard was down.
I made good progress up to lunchtime and had almost reached the 'Saddle' when I stopped for a breather and slipped off the straps of my rucksack. Leaning back to stretch my aching shoulders, the pack toppled over and rolled away down the slope. I leapt to my feet 10 chase after it. but the bag picked up speed and disappeared over the lip of a gully. Only Just in time I managed to stop myself going over the edge with it. I peered over into the gully hut could see nothing beyond a hundred foot drop. My stuff had gone, just like that; all I had left the ice axe I was using as a walking stick.
Stunned for a few seconds, I couldn't believe what had just happened. I rushed back down the track in search of my pack, but soon realised there was no hope of finding it. The gully was deep and inaccessible, and my bag had probably carried on rolling right down into the forest. The vast expanse of hillside was dotted with holes, any of which might have swallowed by bag. My bag, and all my newly-acquired, uninsured kit, was gone for good - over the edge.
'Come back in four years. A flood might have flushed it out by then,' laughed the policeman in nearby Wanaka when I reported my loss. I had returned to the Mt Aspiring mountain hut and cadged $50 off the kind warden to live off, until my wife wired me some funds down from Auckland.
“Not a good start” she said over the phone.
I woke up in a single-bed room on the 13th floor of Mirador Mansions, Kowloon. The room was a tiny box, with only a one-foot space between bed and door. Outside it was still dark. The window, barred like all in Hong Kong, gave onto a central shaft cluttered with corrugated plastic canopies, drainpipes and rubbish that blocked out all light.
Having flown in from New Zealand the night before, my body clock was four hours ahead of local time. I thought it was about 9am, but the darkness of the shaft outside suggested it was much earlier. So I lay in
bed, running over the images of my arrival still fresh in my mind: the eggy smell of the humid air as I stepped off the 747 at Kai Tak; then standing in the long queue for Immigration, watching the other lines go down more quickly than mine, and hearing two western businessmen behind me sighing and swearing:
'Come on, get a move on...'. Later, there was the disinfectant smell of an empty airport bus driving through the Kowloon streets at night: a Buddhist monk sat opposite me in a grey toga reading a Berlitz Hong Kong guidebook. And the Pakistani hotel tout who jumped out at me as soon as I got off the bus in Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, offering cheap rooms for $100 a night.
I don't know how long I had slept, but now I was unable 10 resist the call of my bladder any longer. I edged myself out of bed and squirmed into my clothes within the close confines of the four walls. The toilets were three floors up, via a grimy open stairwell. Outside it was suddenly daylight, and way below Nathan Road glistened in early morning drizzle, reflecting a few neon signs still lit up from the previous night. It was a chill, damp, spring morning and I was in Hong Kong, quite different from the placid autumnal Auckland I had left behind the day before. Already I could feel a hollow rumble of energy in the air.
For breakfast, like many foreigners travelling on the cheap in Hong Kong, I sought refuge in a place where I knew I could find a vacant seat, an English menu and a handy toilet: McDonalds.
Hong Kong was a city without seats, a place with nowhere to rest from the constant push of people, machines and noise. It was not a place to relax and smell the roses. Even at its most famous scenic spots like the Peak and the Star Ferry Terminal there was nowhere to sit and admire the view: lingering was not
encouraged. Likewise, there were no outdoor restaurants to while away an hour or two watching the world go by. Restaurants were for eating, meeting and doing deals, not relaxing.
Despite Hong Kong's affluence and budget surpluses, its public spaces were spartan, functional and unwelcoming - if not undergoing redevelopment. The parks were designed by somebody who hated nature: they had more concrete than grass, and the few park benches were rendered uncomfortable by iron dividers to prevent dossers.
Hence McDonalds was my refuge that first morning, squeezed into a yellow plastic corner reading my copy
of the South China Morning Post, with its amazing stories of hijacked ships, grenade attacks on jewellery
-shops and refugee camp riots. From here I couid plan my first day's mooching.
Hong Kong had been my home for a year in 1992. when I worked in the territory as a medical journalist. Now I was back, passing through on my way to China. On my first day I took a walk up Nathan Road to visit my old haunt of Yau Ma Tei, where I had once spent several weeks living in a cheap dormitory hostel.
Back then, I had been one of the lucky ones who had been able to move out into a flat. The other transients with casual jobs teaching English had no choice but to stay, living permanently in the dormitories with their private space demarked by towels and carrier bags.
This time round, my first impressions of Hong Kong did not agree with the previous jaded recollections I'd had of brash, cold and acquisitive people. The city seemed more subdued than before, not as arrogant or show-offy as I'd remembered. Perhaps it was just a hangover from the winter, but the locals definitely seemed paler and goofier than the bland, smug migrants who drove their Mercedes and BMWs round the posh suburbs of Auckland.
The office and shop workers marching 10 work looked Tired and more down-to-earth than their languid emigrant cousins in New Zealand. These were the ordinary Hong Kongers, the working people, not the flashy 'big-face' entrepreneurs with the hundreds and thousands of dollars needed to buy into another country and a better passport.
And to me, coming from the sunny colours and cheerful pastels of New Zealand, the people in Hong Kong seemed to dress in greys and blues. The only exceptions were the near little kids in bright uniforms skipping hand-in-hand with their Filipina amahs on their way to school.
The Kowloon streets had little touches of England, which together with the hustle and bustle, reminded me of London: the drab colours and dampness, the school uniforms and pasty faces, the double decker buses barrelling down Nathan Road, and the traffic lights that changed slowly from red-amber to green.
Yet amid all the Japanese department stores and plastic fast food chains there were still Chinese rough edges. Coolies in vests and rolled-up trousers pedalled stout black bicycles in among the traffic, ferrying toilet brushes and squawking chickens, while others trundled flat trolleys of wicker baskets full of rubbish.
Further north, lying on the seedier streets of Yau Ma Tei, were the worn-out bodies of homeless old men, with their greasy black necks and ankles protruding from under a piece of cardboard. They slept rough on camp beds in front of shops, under, cages of twittering birds, or amid the concrete 'recreation areas'. But Hong Kong's street-sleepers were not like London's 'Price of a cup of tea, guv?' beggars. They dossed but they weren't destitute: they still had work, but couldn't afford the sky-high rents, not even for the cheapest
caged-bed dormitory. There was no booze, glue or drugs, and the only beggars were the blind and hideously maimed.
Sleeping out in Hong Kong would be easier than on the cold, hostile streets of European cities. The humid heat of summer means there is little need for blankets and boxes and newspaper. Just the noise of the streets
to contend with: a crescendo of engines, pneumatic drills, the metal saws and the police sirens. And Hong Kongers were immune to noise: during my working days in Hong Kong I saw commuters dozing next to the open door of the engine room on the morning ferry, oblivious to the 100 decibel roar emanating from
This was how I spent my first two days in Hong Kong: tramping the streets of Kowloon and Central, looking for nothing in particular. I went to visit my old office, where my former colleagues now regarded me as a hopeless eccentric, not to be taken seriously- They couldn't understand why anyone would want to visit
China for fun.
Two years previously, my workplace in Hong Kong had consisted of 30 Chinese, two westerners, three Filipinos and a Pakistani messenger. The westerners lived up to the acronym FILTH: ‘Failed In London, Try Hong Kong', and had a singular tack of interest in things Chinese. For example, my boss, who had lived in Hong Kong for seven years, would not eat rice and had never visited the mainland, forty minutes away by train.
'What would I want to go there for?' he had said. 'It's a dump. If I've got any free time I'll go to Thailand or the Philippines, not waste it going to that hole.'
Yet it was possible to pop over the Chinese border on a Sunday afternoon, explore the beaches and villages around Shenzhen, and be back in a Kowloon pub drinking John Smiths bitter and eating a Cornish Pasty by the same evening.
In our office there was an unspoken taboo among the 'gweilos' about socialising with the Chinese staff. In my first week at work, fresh from friendly New Zealand. I made the mistake of suggesting that our little section of secretaries and editors all go out for lunch together. This was met with dark looks and mutterings of 'He'll learn', from the old hands.
'They like to do their own thing, we do ours', they said later.
And so it was. The Chinese had been equally baffled by my suggestion, and proved impossible to get to know. During my year at the Hong Kong office I didn't make one acquaintance among the Chinese staff.
I might have put this down to language and cultural barriers, had I not been conducting a romance with a mainland Chinese girl across the border at the time. On my frequent visits to my girlfriend's home in Guilin, I would strike up conversations with all kinds of people, who were only too willing to tell me everything about themselves and invite me into their homes, or join their table for dinner. People on the mainland could be noisy and ignorant, but they could just as easily be frank, charming and endlessly hospitable.
Often I would return from such a weekend in China, full of enthusiasm from these encounters, only to hit a brick wall of indifference from the Hong Kong Chinese staff. I would try to start conversations about Chinese life, only to see them fizzle out within seconds – in the end I gave up and became another patronising gweilo.
The Hong Kong Chinese staff had a chip on their shoulder about the British. They regarded us as a separate species to be humoured, tolerated and obeyed. They put gweilos on a pedestal as the people who gave the orders and accepted all the responsibility. At the same time, they resented us foreigners and could not bring themselves to treat us as equals.
Attitudes towards work were also very different. When given a task, the Chinese staff would expect to he given exact instructions, which they would follow to the letter. They were industrious and uncomplaining,
but would never use their initiative, even to correct the most obvious mistakes. It was not uncommon for me, the rookie, to have to tell staff with 12 years experience how to do their job. "Don’t stick your neck out” seemed to be the unwritten rule.
The reunion with my old colleagues didn't last long. We said hello and swapped gossip, and I realised how small a place Hong Kong was for its 50,000 expatriates. They talked about their amahs and their little scams and their cricket teams, and between the lines of their conversation there was a sense of guarded isolation, as if a secret enemy was eavesdropping, everyone had their own little circle and I was out of the picture.
After two days on the streets of Hong Kong I tired of the incessant pace and the head-down, go-for-it rush. Everybody tore past me looking like they knew where they were going. The local Chinese would glance at me with bemused curiosity, as if thinking: 'Who is this nutter in the lumberjack shirt and big hiking boots?'
Some of their looks seemed almost pitying. It was time to visit Lantau Island.
An hour and ten minutes away by ferry, the barren hills of Lantau beckoned me away from the congested streets and exhaust fumes of Central. Lantau island is actually bigger than Hong Kong island, yet its population is a minuscule 50,000 villagers, fishermen, boat-builders and a few long-distance commuters. It
is a lush green island of beaches, mountains and holiday villas, with a few prisons, Vietnamese refugee camps and monasteries on account of its relative isolation.
Most people visit Lantau to see the huge bronze Buddha statue squatting on the top of the hills at the Po Lin monastery. Some go to visit the fishing-village-on-stilts at Tai 0, or to walk the empty hills on the Lantau Trail. I wanted to see how much Lantau had changed since I had lived there three years previously.
The Outlying Island ferries were a great mini-cruise experience in themselves. HK$6.50 to pass through the turnstile from a heaving waterfront throng of newspaper stalls and taxi stands, into a cramped caged pen to await the boarding of the ferry.
Once through the press of bodies over the gangplank, the choice was between the earthy lower deck, or for a few extra dollars, the air-conditioned refrigeration of 'De-luxe' class. My favourite spot was the sun deck at the stern of De-luxe. There I could sit watching the ripples in my condensed milk tea as the rumbling black and white ferry backed away from the jetty, out into the harbour traffic.
On the murky water there were craft of every description: small blue hovercraft wallowing in the swell, returning from Tuen Mun or Discovery Bay, red and white Jetfoils picking up speed on their way to Macau, large sleek hydrofoils waiting 10 pick up passengers for Shenzhen airport. There were dredging platforms and mainland tugs flying ragged red flags, their bridge railings draped with shirts and trousers hanging out to dry. There were flat barges with cranes loading containers, and there were sampan style pleasure craft (kai-do) and sluggish grey police patrol craft. There were the fishing boats; motorised junks without sails, flying the pennants of the sea gods.
And, as the ferry slipped away from Hong Kong island, the city's development came into perspective: the high rise buildings perched on a narrow strip of shoreline, above which rose the steep verdant hillside culminating in the Peak. A select few luxury developments peeped out from the higher slopes, and the peak was crowned by radio antennae. From a distance, Hong Kong island appeared neater and more modern than the noisy sprawl of street level had suggested.
Eventually Hong Kong island and Kowloon receded in a haze of smog, and the Lantau ferry wended its way through an armada of merchant ships at anchor. We passed a handful of small, overgrown islands, mostly rocks and bushes, though some concealed prisons or treatment centres for alcoholics. I spent the journey practising Chinese characters in an exercise book, to the hemu.sement uf a few Hong Kongers who stood watching behind me.
At Lantau I disembarked with a crowd of day-trippers and local residents pushing motorbikes and baskets of chickens. The tourists sprinted for the bus to Po Lin monastery, whereas I strolled over to a squat, yellow and red bus going to Tung Chung.
This bus, like all others in Hong Kong, had bars on its windows – I wondered what they were for. Someone had once told me the bars were to prevent damage in typhoons. But maybe they were just part of the Chinese obsession with security.
After depositing my fare (exact change only), I squeezed into one of the hard seats and held tight as the driver shot off up the hill. Lantau's bus drivers, I thought, held a key to understanding the Hong Kong psyche. Here on this sparsely populated island where the roads were relatively quiet, they still drove like
the clappers: foot hard on the floor, braking tightly around corners. I could understand this sort of behaviour amid the hurly-burley of Hong Kong island, but not here on this empty, bamboo-lined road where svelte Chinese cattle would occasionally meander over from the paddy fields. There was no tight schedule to keep: when the bus reached its destination it would sit idle for half an hour before returning. The rush was just the Hong Kong obsession with squeezing as much activity out of the minimum time. Time is money.
The bus skirted the southern coast road of Lantau, from where the sharp green-brown hills rose up gradually from the beaches of the South China Sea, up to the rocky barren tips of Sunset Peak and Lantau Peak. The thick bush of lower levels giving way to the scrub grass and occasional crags of the upper slopes.
The Tung Chung bus forked right and strained up a mountain road. over a cleft in the 2,000 feet hills, bringing into view the huge coastal airport development on the northern side. Where there had once been a sleepy fishing village -sheltered by a deserted islet called Chek Lap Kok, there was now a vast sprawl of
earthworks and reclamation, a huge swirl of cranes, trucks and portakabins. The small island had been flattened into a muddy brown smudge, and the once-peaceful shore of north Lantau now reverberated to the sound of engines, diggers, generators and the regular crump of rock blasting.
Surprisingly though, when the bus reached the centre of Tung Chung village, the small community appeared untouched by the multi-billion dollar development taking place next door. I sauntered over a walkway across the silty harbour, past fishing boats at anchor, and stepped into a maze of narrow alleys. Tung Chung was still the shonky. Jerry-built mess of concrete and hardboard I had first seen five years ago: poky little shops selling dried fish and shrivelled fruit, each shop protected by a little red box for a temple, with joss sticks and old oranges fur offerings. Old ladies in black smocks still peered suspiciously at me from their doorways, and I hurried through the narrow lanes, to emerge into the fresh breeze of abandoned paddy fields behind the village.
Beyond the coastal plain stood Lantau Peak, dark and gloomy against an overcast sky. Through the open fields I followed a ribbon path of concrete past a water buffalo, back towards the main road, noting the new developments: three-storey holiday villas with newly-tiled walls, and a large police station flying the Union Jack, looking so out of place. The police station looked enduring and slightly overgrown. But it hadn't been there a year before.
My plan was to walk up from Tung Chung up to Po Lin monstery and then climb up to Lantau Peak, where I would camp out for the night in the hope of catching a sunrise,
But first I stopped at the remains of Tung Chung fort, built by the Chinese in the last century to control pirates in the surrounding seas. Now all that was left were a few old ramparts and some restored cannon. The rest of the building had been converted into a primary school.
There were no other sightseers that weekday, other than a group of mainland Chinese officials, on a visit to see the progress of the airport. They were being taken in a Hong Kong police van and given a deferential commentary by their government minder.
We stood together and watched the school kids in their neat pale blue uniforms, line up and troop out of the fort like little soldiers. And I wondered how Lantau would change when the Union Jack was exchanged for the red flag.
The path up to Po Lin passed several smaller monasteries hidden in the bushes. I had always wanted to visit these mysterious places after seeing their feeble, lonely lights high up on the hillside one night.
The first Buddhist monastery was the largest of the Po Un satellites. Its yellow prayer hall was emblazoned with a large Buddhist swastika, and gave out onto a forecourt with a sweeping vista of the Tung Chung plain. Nobody was about, so I sneaked round to a side door to look for a dining hall which I had heard
served vegetarian lunches. But everything was locked up and deserted: all I could hear was the slow Cantonese chatter of two nuns in the kitchen.
The path continued uphill through dense trees and bushes, passing several smaller temples. Some were locked and barred, others echoed to the sounds of daily household chores. Outside one of the larger temples, a Buddhist nun with a shaved head and a grey robe, looked up from tending a row of vegetables. She saw
me and looked away.
The bush around the track was alive with dragonflies and butterflies, while other insects hummed and squeaked in the undergrowth along with a few whooping bird noises. The track crossed a stream and I startled a pair of wild dogs scavenging from a rubbish bin.
I met no-one else on the track to the top, where the path levelled out below the crags of Lantau Peak and passed through an engraved yellow archway announcing the boundaries of Po Lin.
Po Lin had changed. It had always been a hit touristy with its small bus terminal and gaudy buildings. But now, thanks to 'Buddha fever', it had mushroomed into a mega-circus of sightseeing. The concourse beneath
the newly-opened giant statue of Buddha had been developed into a wide circular coach drop-off point that reminded me of the end of Mall at Buckingham Palace.
The roadside was lined with noodle stalls and trinket sellers and hawkers selling joss sticks. Chinese tour groups disgorged from coaches and snaked after their megaphone-toting, pennant waving guides. Each group wore identical baseball caps and name badges. They paused for solemn snapshots at the base of the statue before rushing to rejoin their group ascending the steps of the Buddha.
I turned my hack on this scene and walked hack into the trees, past a riding stables and a tea plantation, towards Lantau Peak. My guidebook described the path to the summit as steep and hazardous and said it was easy to fall off and kill yourself. But after my recent hiking escapades in the South Island, I found it a doddle.
Within an hour I was at the top, sat among grass and rocks in the doorway of a flea-infested public shelter, sheltering from the drizzle and cold wind. Everything was below me: the cluster of monastery buildings,
a smoggy outline of the hills poking through low cloud, a half-empty reservoir and the distant coastline.
Airliners would sporadically break out of the mist above to circle towards Kai Tak. There was no other noise apart from the patter of raindrops on the roof. At odd intervals a tannoy voice would echo up from Po Lin, hut otherwise I had the place to myself.
I felt rather lonely, watching the clouds close in below me, then dissipate to reveal a darkening landscape. There didn't seem to be much likelihood of a decent sunrise the next morning, but I wanted to stay and try out my new camping equipment.
The public shelter was squalid, nothing more than a six-foot high wall of rocks topped off with a roof of wooden planks. Inside, it was muddy and sprawling with rubbish in one corner. There were rat droppings on the bench. I wouldn't sleep in there.
As the light faded I chose a site just below the peak, a large flat rock ledge sheltered from the prevailing south-easterly breeze by a huge boulder. I pulled out my Thermarest air mat, stuffed my sleeping bag inside the bivvy bag, and climbed into my cocoon. It was 7.30pm and still raining.
The bivvy bag was nothing but a nylon body bag to keep the sleeping bag dry. In theory, k was made of breathable fabric that would prevent condensation. When I zipped myself in it felt dank and claustrophobic. There was just enough room to stretch out my arms and read a paperback by torchlight.
The wind and rain increased in force as the night wore on, and I couldn't sleep because the bivvy bag flapped and snapped in the wind - and I began to imagine I could hear rats chewing at my backpack.
Some time after midnight my worst fears were confirmed. I heard 'eek eek' noises and felt a small rodent body slither over my bivvy hag, scratching its claws against the nylon. I poked my head out of the bag and shone a torch into the mist. Under the rain-cover of my backpack, I could see a small body wriggling, just like the mouse under the carpet in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. 1 walloped it with my torch and it disappeared with a squeak. Wearily. I lifted up the cover to discover a three-inch hole chewed out of my backpack. The rats had been eating my muesli.
I didn't get much sleep after that. I dragged the backpack into the bag with me to protect it, which was a very light squeeze, and passed the rest of the night worrying whether rats were now nibbling through the bivvy bag. I glanced at my watch throughout the night: 2am... 3am... 4am, and the rainstorm increased in intensity. By 6am the wind had risen to such a strength I thought it would blow me off the ledge. I crawled out into a pre-dawn greyness and dragged the flapping bivvy bag, contents and all, through the teeth of the gale and into the relative peace of the shelter. Here I managed to snatch a couple of hours sleep on the bench, then awoke to a misty morning as the storm suddenly abated. There was no sunrise, but I consoled myself that despite the storm I had stayed warm and dry in my bag.
Bone tired, I packed up my wet gear and descended back down to Po Lin. The concourse was deserted and smothered with fog: silhouettes of temple buildings loomed out of the mist. I was the only customer at the noodle stalls when they opened at 9am, and the stallholders gave me suspicious looks: who was this dishevelled gweilo just descended from the mountain? I felt wasted. I needed a rest.
Before I first went to Hong Kong. the word 'expatriate' conjured up images of young ex-public school types in sleek suits living the colonial life in Their well-appointed Mid-Levels flats. These kind of people still exist in large numbers in Hong Kong but the other side of the coin is the Lamina expat. Lamina island is the haven of the down-at heel in Hong Kong, the home of drifters who came for a three-week visit and ended up staying three years.
Because of its low rents and relaxed lifestyle, Lamma attracts a diverse crowd of casual workers: teachers, waitresses, journalists and artists. In recent years the regular community has swelled with an influx of economic refugees from the recession-hit west. By 1994 the peak time ferries were bursting, and the narrow lane that served as a main street became one long conga of gweilos, making the local Chinese look like a minority on their own island.
After my wet, sleepless night on Lantau Peak, I went to spend a couple of days unwinding on Lamma. As if to bless my visit, the sun came out as I sat on the upper deck of the ferry on the way in. I looked around at the other passengers, contrasting the composed Chinese with the clapped-out, cynical expats. The gweilos looked so ungainly and sloppy beside the Chinese.
This contrast was typified on our arrival at Yung Shue Wan, the Mediterranean-like harbour on Lamma. As the crowds of Chinese commuters strode impassively along the jetty, they were suddenly thrust aside by a group of expats “GET OUT OF THE FUCKING WAY!' they screamed. A small group of pissed-up young expats pushed through, wheeling one of their mates on a home-made barrow. The Chinese continued on their wav, paying no attention, and I felt embarrassed.
On Lamma I stayed with a couple of friends whose flat was located on the first floor of a villa somewhere up a labyrinth of by-ways at the back of Yung Shue Wan. It felt good to be able to clean myself up, dry my clothes and then sneak out to hang out at the Waterfront Bar.
There were few Chinese faces in the bars of Lamma. It was mostly Brits, with a few Americans and Australians. Over their beers, the young expats grumbled about their lives in Hong Kong: how rude and unfriendly the local Chinese were, how the ferries were getting too overcrowded and flats more expensive, and the neighbours too noisy.
There were grumbles too, about work, although most expats were in Hong Kong simply because there were opportunities that didn't exist in London, Glasgow or Melbourne. In Hong Kong, the so-so could get a break into their chosen field of publishing, design, engineering or whatever, whereas at home they wouldn't even
have had their CV acknowledged.
Every so often a beeper would go off above the chatter of the bar, and somebody would sneak out to the phone, to find out about their next day’s schedule.
There were a few pseudo-westernised Chinese in the bars, but they looked out of place and over-the-top. In place of the neat yuppie wardrobe of the average Hong Kong Chinese, they wore exaggerated hippy or trampish clothes. And their behaviour was equally confused, picking up on the worst aspects of the western rebel image and bandying around 'fuck you’s'. It was as if by abandoning Chinese self-control for western freedom, they had lost everything.
The Sunday before I left for China, the weather was untypically clear and fresh. Recovering from hangovers, we went for a walk up the concrete paths of Lamma, out over the grassy hills to a vantage point overlooking the Lamma Channel and Aberdeen on Hong Kong island.
'Those are English clouds', my friend Paul said. looking up into the blue sky. 'I love clouds...', he said, and his scouse accent gave it a finality that made everything make sense.
I felt freshened up and ready to go to China.
- ► March (19)