How Grey Was My Valley


“If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.” – Frank Zappa

When I first arrived in Hong Kong the reflection of the crescent moon was dancing across the harbour. It was so bright and spooky that it took me almost a minute to figure out what the bloody hell it was (it looked like an armoured demon tring to rise up out of the water). When I took the airport express (with my arse still smarting at the insertion of a $100 ticket), the water was again crystal clear under skies of azure. If life came with a soundtrack, it would have been that irritatingly catchy song by Sugababes or Destiny’s Child or whoever the hell it is. That one about being on a beach.

In contrast, when I arrived at PEK the visibility was so poor that its no exaggeration to say that I couldn’t see the runway until we’d landed on it. The soundtrack was now The Hunt For Red October. I was almost immediately fighting my way off the subway at rush hour. When I got to Happy Valley, the lift in my apartment building smelt suspiciously of shit (presumably because something or someone had recently shit in it).

The following day I decamped to foggy Zhongguancun to drink strong black coffee, draft a blog entry and wonder if I was insane just for using the return ticket from Hong Kong.

In the Arthurian legends, there’s a moment when the knights of the round table gather at the edge of a forest to begin their search for the Holy Grail. They all draw swords and begin hacking their way through the woods. Each knight enters the forest at a point of his choosing, and a point where there is no path.

That’s the schtick: you gotta choose your own path and your own point of departure. I’m far from the first person to admire the metaphor behind this moment (mythologist and philosopher Joseph Campbell, the most misunderstood of Hollywood ‘content creators’, draws attention to this in a lot of his writings).

The guidance of others is, as always, not only useless but against the rules. Listening to other people is about my least favorite way of spending precious time. I take everyone’s advice with at least a dash of salt (a whole shaker full if the other guy’s a Baby Boomer). Nevertheless, I have a couple of pointers that could be useful for anyone who ever plans to visit the Kong:

The Bank of China handily issued me with HK notes of $1000 and $500. The subway machines don’t even take fifties. When I tried to pay for a curry, the bewildered chap at the till asked “don’t you got no change?”

Before you go, stock up on those little metal coins (most of which look like cogs in some fiendish steampunk machine).

The subway was my chosen mode of transportation for pretty much the whole trip. I’d heard too many horror stories of lying taxi drivers wildly inflating prices at the end of journeys.

Beijing Metro, although packed to the gills and stinky as hell, is easy to use. I would almost certainly go so far as to say that it’s less complicated and more user friendly than the London tube. No zones, no long-winded line names, just numbers and bilingual station announcements to help you navigate your way around the behemoth.

Alas, the HK metro is a baffling rabbit warren of idiocy. When I left for the airport in what I assumed would be plenty of time, I found myself stuck in some Kafkaesque purgatory of complex interchanges and misinformation.*

I didn’t meet anyone during my trip who didn’t speak English. Most of them used their skill in this fascinating language to try and sell things, usually suits or cocaine. I’ve mentioned this before**, and I still find it hard to believe anyone would be foolish enough to enever a bar or a tailor’s shop or a watchmaker’s with someone who just chatted them up in the street. Still, too many travelers have returned from Hong Kong with tales of scams and rip offs.

I had a great trip, even if it was all too brief. I haven’t seen the sky since. But it is, as always, good to be back.

*The soundtrack at that point was the Joker’s theme from 60s Batman.