What do you do when you live in Luanda and your wife’s birthday is coming up — falling on a Sunday? Why, you fly to Hong Kong for the weekend of course! Yes, I agree, it is a totally mad idea but we were in need of a treat and Karen’s best friend (also called Karen, confusingly) is working there so we decided to have a bit of a splurge. And what a splurge it was.
It was a relief to finally get my new Blackberry firing on all cylinders once we got to the midway point in Dubai. I really wish O2, or Unitel, or ideally both, would get their act together and let me access the internet in Luanda. Anyway, much sync’ing of email and downloading of apps ensued and that quite nicely helped to fill the five hours we had to wait for our next flight.
So, 22 hours after leaving Luanda (7+5+7.5+three-ish hours to and from airports) we arrived at Karen and Adrian’s flat. With the important formalities (Veuve Clicquot) out of the way and jetlag-propelled we headed out on the town. We weren’t the oldest people wandering Lan Kwai Fong in search of a shisha bar but we were clearly sliding down the wrinkly side of that bell curve. But, what we may have lacked in tight skin and spots we made up for in energy and enthusiasm, and embraced our first night out in Hong Kong like it was our last.
Around 0230 my stomach started grumbling — it was my dinner time, after all — so Adrian (it was probably Karen but I don’t want him to feel left out) suggested we go to The Flying Pan: an all-night greasy spoon cafe upstairs above a shop. They’d been before and knew where it was (sort of), so we jumped in a taxi. The taxi had gone about ten yards when the driver was pulled over by a motorcycle cop and fined $40 (not sure if that’s US or HK) for stopping in the middle of a junction to pick us up. We pretended we didn’t understand. The taxi dropped us in an area that… well, let’s say the lights had a distinctly pinkish hue. We alighted outside a nightclub with a short queue of people outside, and several mini-skirted young ladies on the kerb, facing out. On seeing that Adrian and I both had hot dates already, said Ladies ignored us, and we left the scene in search of The Flying Pan. We turned a corner or two but our hosts were a bit lost, falling back on phrases like, “I know it’s around here somewhere but last time we didn’t come that way”. Karen (my one) looked around and then straight up, and, pointing to a large sign saying “Flying Pan” directly above our heads said, “Is that it?” You can’t beat a full fried English Breakfast complete with black pudding and a pot of tea at three in the morning.
After a lie-in on Saturday morning we set off again, and the ensuing weekend consisted of taxi rides, MTR (Tube) rides, walking around the city and nice lunches during the day, and rooftop cocktail bars and cool restaurants at night. The city is shoulder-to-shoulder skyscrapers everywhere you look. It looks like a giant bar graph. There’s also the occasional older, lower structure to remind you of its colonial past dotted around. It’s hilly too. Very hilly. I had no idea it was hilly til I got here. Take the Manhattan skyline and plonk it down on top of San Francisco and you’ll start to get a picture of the place. For a teeming metropolis it’s also remarkably well-behaved: everywhere we went the queues were orderly, no-one dropped litter or played their iPod too loud, and shop assistants seemed to actually want to serve you rather than scowling at your interrupting their day. Whether this is because Hong Kong people are nice and proud of their city, or whether they’re silent slaves of an oppressive regime, scared to burp in case they’re set upon by night-stick-wielding enforcers, I’m not sure. But I’m pretty sure it’s the first one.
Public transport is excellent: buses and subway trains (MTR) are frequent, clean, and air-conditioned. It’s cheap too, a journey across town costing around 30p (50 cents if you’re American). They have a payment card system called Octopus. It’s a bit like London’s Oyster card, only better. There’s no online registration, no linking it to your debit card, no dispute process if you think you’ve been overcharged. All such things are symptoms of a system that is too highly-priced. If you charge less everything gets easier, and more people use it. BoJo take note. Your Octopus card, once charged up with dosh, gets you into the MTR, onto buses, buys you a newspaper at the kiosk. You can even tap it against a vending machine and get a can of Coke. It’s like plastic cash so you have to treat it accordingly — lose it and you make someone else’s day, but it’s so easy to use. No signature, no holograms, no chips, no PINs. Brilliant. Adrian taps his against the lift panel in his building and we’re taken to the right floor automatically.
We had fun in taxis. Red, purpose-built, tinny, slightly sticky seats, and with cockpit personalised to the driver’s own taste. They reminded me (again) of New York, only red instead of yellow and with nice drivers. One had every square inch of his dash populated with colourful items — drinks holder, cologne dispenser, small fan in the shape of a windmill, toys. Another had a box of tissues fixed upside down to the passenger’s sun visor. The tissues were hanging out and obscuring my view, and when I tried to blow them out of my field of vision for a joke the (female) driver pulled two out and gave them to me. It was funny at the time. A third taxi ride had us feeling like we were on a rollercoaster. The driver had a habit of rhythmically tapping the accelerator with his foot, causing we four passengers to spend the whole journey rocking back and forth with the G forces. It was a bit like that Bohemian Rhapsody scene in Wayne’s World but without the music.
We celebrated Karen’s birthday on Sunday with a sumptuous Champagne Brunch at a very cool hotel called The Mira. It was truly wonderful, from the caviar and chilled vodka to the Crispy Roasted Suckling Pig — hold on while I hoist my stomach off of the space bar… ah, that’s better.
I think I’d better shut up now and show you some pictures:
might probably will almost certainly will post more. When I can remember it.