Hong Kong on the cheap

February 18th 2012
Published: February 18th 2012
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"Hong Kong on the Cheap"

The train ride is a long one and my first recommendation is to completely abstain from such a journey if you are even remotely claustrophobic. My second recommendation is that if you have any kind of unhealthy attachment to your material goods, best leave them at home, along with any of your neuroses, pet peeves or conceptions of personal space.

The 18 hour excursion from Shanghai to Shenzhen, non-sleeper, is a meager 236 RMB, and I am certainly getting my money's worth. I manage this by simply not sleeping. It is one strategy among many, I have found. Others include negotiating an amiable position out of the cushioned but upright chairs, creatively assembling your luggage into makeshift sleeping quarters, sitting on the ground, lying on the ground, lying on other people on the ground, and, this is my personal favorite, curling up around luggage that <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">isn't actually your own (and guess who's it is?) on the ground.

And to think it wasn't eight hours ago (2:30 A.M. now, by the way) that a young man quite matter-of-factly related to me how (allow me to translate) "at least it isn't crowded" and "that it's great we aren't traveling during New Years" when, presumably, the slightest consideration of leg room would be a God given luxury.

The people around me are not wealthy people. They are laymen. Many work with their hands. Food, drink and conversation is their entertainment of choice, if they choose to entertain themselves at all. Honestly, I feel out of place here, busily switching from activity to activity--now I'm studying, now I'm reading, now writing; time for me is a thing to be plundered. Time exerts no such pressure on them and I can see it plainly in the stoic, unbothered expressions that stare blankly ahead. The journey is a familiar one to these migrant workers, set within a familiar patter of life. It is a simple means to an end, taken yearly perhaps twice yearly, and so their minds rest easy, undeterred, patiently waiting.

Still, it isn't long before I am approached. With the general drop in socioeconomic status since the streets of Shanghai came a significant drop in the number of foreigners. In fact, I have not seen a single other 外国人 (wài gûo rén), as we are usually called. So a lone American becomes something of a celebrity, to whom one or two ambassadors are appointed to collect information. A few brave, curious souls embark on broken conversation with me, and relay the knowledge won to our bystanders. Personally I am delighted for the cultural exchange and relish the opportunity to practice my Mandarin.

A friend of mine in Shanghai once illustrated to me in a discussion about language how there are three basic Mandarin speakers: native speakers (or people for whom language was spoken in the household), college taught speakers and everybody else. The remark was mildly self-promotionall as he himself had studied Mandarin in college, but it carried weight nonetheless. It's easy to imagine how foreigners may come to China thinking they will just "pick up Chinese" after a few years of living and working there, as they may well do in many European countries. Their hope is quickly extinguished as they realize how distant and self-involved the language actually is--unforgiving, really, to those who only casually visit it--and many simply resign themselves to a few practiced words and phrases. I would belong to such a category were it not for these kinds of encounters with native speakers who know next to no English. They jar me out of a small, complacent bubble of Mandarin and I am glad for it. I talk with two young men for a few solid hours and with each passing topic and each unfamiliar word hastily brought to a dictionary, I grow more and more aware of my limited handle on the language. That tantalizing ideal--fluency--is dangled before me and I know it will be some time before both it and a truly rounded understanding of China are within my reach....

Language is the key to culture, dùi ba?

In Hong Kong, where I am now writing this, one of course needs no Mandarin.

The city has a special flavor to it. Coming from China to Hong Kong is kind of like being treated to a really nice vegetarian restaurant after days of monotonous beef and rice. Hong Kong is integrated, it's liberal, it's a charming, flourishing confluence of British, Asian and culture. Subway station names vary from "Admiralty" to "Mong Kok." Chirping little "tickers" are found on both ends of most all public escalators--convenient aids to the blind. Sidewalk posters appear every few blocks announcing CIA conspiracy theories and the like. You'd be hard-found for someone who isn't bilingual. The idea of a foreigner is anything but foreign. I wouldn't so much describe Hong Kong as grand--I'll let Shanghai retain its description as such...perhaps "cosmopolitan" will suffice.

Narrow, sloping streets snake through and around each of Hong Kong's separate locales (To refresh my readers' memory: immediately below Shenzhen, China is the border to Hong Kong. Below that are the New Territories--a large, sparsely populated region. Touching the coast is "Kowloon"--where much of the metropolis resides. Below that is Hong Kong Island itself. To its left and right are a series of smaller, less peopled islands, including the one I am writing from--Lantau island.) You can't help but gush over the trademark double decker buses, just one testament to the city's superb public transportation system. Hong Kong is remarkably green as well--everywhere is a park or nature zone and apartment complexes frequently trail off into abounding tropical forests. This is due in large part to the geography of Hong Kong: ubiquitous mountain terrain ensures that at least a few towering green patches will always stand aloof of the encroaching metropolis.

I arrived in Hong Kong sleep-deprived, famished and mired in sweat and cigarette smoke. Shanghai seemed only a dazzled memory of friends bade farewell to, the general calamity of the Spring Festival, and the last minute attractions I squeezed into my trip before leaving Shanghai for good. Standing in the train terminal, I was badly in need of sustenance and a shower, and looked longingly to rest my pack in a hostel before meeting the Australian.

The Australian: a potential hiking partner, who was planning on accompanying me on excursions into southern China. We met in person once I paid a visit to my hostel, and she told me to call her Maddy. Maddy is a short, gay 20 year old girl, just arrived from Melbourne. Though she never set foot in Asia, Maddy is rather robust in nature and has a good deal more hiking experience than myself. We would spend the next 5 days camping together in Hong Kong before parting on separate paths.

I believe it was Hemingway who said "never travel with those you don't love." I think he meant that it is no small accomplishment if two people forge a sturdy enough bond to withstand the raucous demands of life away from comfort and familiarity. In this respect, solo travel also has its merit: because of the general lack in companionship, one is tasked with the rather different business of learning to love oneself.

We had fun exploring Hong Kong together, and I had the opportunity to be something of a tour guide and mediator between her and the culture. But Maddy and I harbored different travel philosophies (I believe she put it like this: "Chris you hike for the fun of hiking; I hike to get from point A to point B), and our personalities ultimately shot off in very different directions. To her, I seemed an overtly philosophical, headstrong, naive adventurist (only somewhat true--I swear!). To me she seemed a rather blunt, even-keeled, intelligent young tourist.

Neither of these descriptions were negative, we understood--only different, and sometimes destined to be opposed. With an only mild degree of discomfiture, we wished each other good luck and went our separate ways--she onto mainland China and myself, well, I wasn't quite sure. The parting left me with a complete selection of camping supplies, a momentarily empty itinerary, and a massive, predominantly Buddhist island (our latest camping spot) on which to consider it all....

Sometimes, in the life of a young man especially, something particularly memorable happens. It's a moment wherein all his doubts, worries and fears evaporate instantaneously and to him, it would seem, forever. In many cases, this is <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">à cause d'une femme.

After deciding that the rest of Lantau Island was worth exploring, after busing over and around Lantau peak with several dozen pounds of backpack, after selecting what could or could not have been an amiable place to camp for the night, and after finding, to my delight, that this place was more favorable than I could have hoped, I experienced such a moment.

The spot I had chosen was secluded on a minor peninsula, and once I alleviated myself of my pack, I foraged farther and farther, running nearly, to the head of the promontory, until a great concrete "H" revealed itself. A one might expect, the bush around this helipad was routinely cleared and so I, in nearly every direction, bore witness to ocean ocean and ocean. It was one of those precious days in Hong Kong where the weather is neither foggy nor blisteringly hot, and so the sky, the cresting sun, and everything under them shone with crystalline definition.

I laughed, loudly, and from the soul.

The high passed not long afterward, but it was enough to root me to the spot for at least a few days, I knew.

A few days now borders on a week as I write these very words. Of all the settings I have lived in since this trip commenced--and there have been many--I admire this quaint, removed peninsula the most. To it's right is a collection of small, unassuming houses--too small to be considered a village--that are inhabited by working Buddhists. There is a beach just beyond it that always seems to be inviting me for a swim. To the left and below the peninsula, maybe a kilometer off, is a small prison I hear more than see. Sometimes it is alarm bells, sometimes marching, sometimes the raucous delight from a competitive basketball game. Its nearness doesn't so much frighten me as it--dare I say it?--accentuates any sense of my freedom. At the very least it keeps freedom in perspective. Hardly a soul passes through here--indeed I am the site's only resident--and if cars drive by on a nearby street, their sound is immediately drowned by the incessant ease and advance of crashing waves. If my solitude is broken, it is usually for an excursion into the city or local fit of monasteries, or perhaps a wild cow or two will wander in close, as they are wont to do around here. Besides that, it's the birds, crickets and bush.

When I lament life here, it is for lack of a likeminded compatriot. When I enjoy life here it is because I fancy it a faint echo of the life Thoreau endeavored to live at Walden pond--for the stillness and solitude which seems to resurrect some simpler happiness; for the intimacy infused into daily, previously mundane tasks; for the general closeness to nature; for the ample time to exercise my life as I see fit--whether it be by meditation, exploration, or work, of head or hand. Indeed there is something to be said for living within a sphere of utter self-governance, where responsibility, that thing which both bolsters and burdens us, is stowed away; where relationships are poised neither to infect or inflate vitality; where I am left to contend with nothing other than myself...and my cooking skills. These are themes which have lighted the whole trip, no doubt, but they now impress themselves with welcomed poignancy.

And, I'll add, it gives me inexpressible pleasure to see stars after three months of living in Shanghai.

I awoke at a decent hour, cooked a delicious pot of oatmeal (honey, walnuts and dried cranberries are expensive additions, but worth it!), went through morning workouts on my favorite spot, the helipad, and gathered things for a trip up the mountain.

My goal: find a Buddhist monk and have a conversation with him.

I didn't have time to walk the distance, so I caught the twenty-three bus for a small sum.

I was welcomed by tourism ad nauseam. It is a strangely symbiotic relationship monastic life has with the tourist industry. On one hand, tourists bring healthy curiosity and heavy wallets, to be steadily lightened by souvenir venues and donation boxes. This certainly helps support the monastery. But tourists want their <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">impression of Buddhism to be reflected in what is actually presented to them. So the largest monastery here on Lantau Island, Po Lin temple, becomes something like a resort, complete with "Zen Noodle" restaurants, "Walking With Buddha" exhibitions, and fake Bodhi trees. The monastery itself is flooded during opening hours with camera flashes and bustling consumers. At what point does an utter mockery of one's religion--and a noisy invasion of one's religious practice--become more disagreeable than a healthy financial stream is agreeable?

I resigned myself to a nearby Starbucks cafe after failing to find even one monk in the famed Po Lin temple. I was taking advantage of the Internet and electrical outlets--the first hint of either in a few days--when a group of nuns, five of them I think, walked in.

Some branches of Buddhism outlay different paths for men and women along the road to Enlightenment. The school these ladies belonged to did not appear to be such a branch. They had shaved heads and heavy robes, as it had been a particularly cold and foggy afternoon in Hong Kong. They bought some pastries and drinks, then sat and talked amongst themselves.

It took a moment to gather enough courage to speak to them. And once I did, I felt like an utter fool. There was one white lady in the bunch, and despite the fact that they all spoke English, she was wordlessly elected to talk to me. I sputtered a few simple questions--Do you belong to a local monastery?--What sect of Buddhism do you practice under?--and she answered with a simplicity that somehow embarrassed my anxious and enthusiastic demeanor.

I remember specifically that if there was a lapse in conversation, I would uncomfortably rack my brain for a question, whereas she just stared at me. Her friends seemed content with silently eating, occasionally glancing over in my direction. Things stumbled along in such a fashion until Sister Onion, the white lady, asked me a question.

She had just finished explaining how they were members of a newer Vietnamese Zen Buddhist sect.

"Do you know Thich Nhat Hanh?"

I furrowed my brows and shook my head, and was about to say no, when something clicked.

"What was the name again?"

"Thich Nhat Hanh" (pronounced Tic Nat Han).

If you went to a bookstore, looked up the "Religion" aisle, and found the "Buddhist" section, I can guarantee you would find a bundle of contemporary literature written by this famous Vietnamese monk. He is almost as prolific and well known as the Dalai Lama himself. I had read one and a half of his books midst my own studies. I didn't recognize what she said at first because I had only seen the name in print. Needless to say, I now expressed animated recognition.

"He's our teacher" she said casually. Of course, she meant teacher in the sense that the Pope is a teacher to Catholics.

She then proceeded to draw on a Starbucks napkin a picture of the house they were currently studying at, along with a few of the characters that would appear on its entrance. She gave me a complicated series of directions and told me that if I was looking to talk to some monks, I could find their mentor there.

I thanked her profusely.

"If he is there, you won't find him outside, and you probably won't hear him inside. Inquire after him from the door; maybe mention that you met us. If he's available, he'll be happy to talk to you and answer your questions. If he's busy, well, you probably won't hear anything."

The Tian Tan Buddha statue, situated less than a kilometer from that very Starbucks, is the largest sitting bronze Buddha statue in the world. Check out the pictures at Flickr.com--it is quite a sight. Broad and serene, Big Buddha sits over Lantau Island, garnering the attention of tourists, the homage of pilgrims, and the worship of monks and nuns.

I couldn't see one bit of it.

The fog made anything fifty meters out completely imperceptible.

Nonetheless, with the good Sister's directions I realized that behind the chain of stucco, faux-ancient gift shops--the so called "Village"--a real <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">village was situated in completely unpretentious surroundings. It is, I realized, purposefully hidden from trains of incoming tourists. It isn't barricaded from them. It's simply unstated.

Combing my way through this wholly unmanicured outpost, I found labyrinths of dirt roads, dilapidated houses, and construction sites. Cows roamed. Dozens of dogs--charity cases for monks, I supposed--bark and yipped at my arrival, some caged, others free. The fog left an ominous taste on that unannounced visitation.

There were houses for the monks, schools you might call them, and soon the building portrayed on my guide-napkin appeared. It was a nicer area with a yard and a gate, though the gate was left wide open. Show me a picture of that house in two months or two years, and I can guarantee I'd not only recognize it, but relive its solemn, portentous impression.

I knocked--no answer.

I made my way to a door that was open and called out--no answer.

Looking inside I saw framed quotes on the wall--"Mindfulness is happiness" ... "Happiness is here and now". The whole encounter turned a few knots over in my stomach. P<em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">eople really study these ideals, I couldn't help but think to myself, <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">these aren't just words in a book--they are the pillars of an entire lifestyle.

The monk I wanted so badly to converse with was clearly either not in or not receiving. In any case, I meditated in the yard for a short while, and began to make my way back down the long road to the peninsula....

I'm not sure exactly when I'll find myself back in mainland China, hiking the southern provinces or elsewhere. But when I depart, I'll be sure to have taken in the good of my time here. I'll probably pay that house another visit, see if my luck is any better.

But there's no rush...

Dare I remind us?

--Happiness is here and now--

Chris Stasse,

Lantau Island, Hong Kong


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