Seoul Searching


“Passengers for Incheon International Airport please use the train for Incheon Internationl Airport.”


I didn’t go to Seoul just to ‘look for my voice’ (see previous entry). I had arranged a trip anyway, it was just shitty timing that I had to arrive without being able to say anything. I shouldn’t really have gone travelling while I was so run-down, sounding like Jack Palance, but the flight was only an-hour-and-a-half.

The directions to the guesthouse weren’t quite up to snuff, I got lost on the subway and in the local area before asking some Korean hipsters for assistance. Let’s be honest though, getting lost was something I had a pretty good chance of doing even without a fuzzy frame of mind.

I climbed straight into a rickety bunk and fell asleep for three hours, briefly considering spending my whole trip there. In the evening I had something to eat and some more Chinese pills before exploring the part of the city that I’d already lost myself in. After a hot shower I was soon fast asleep again.

The following day, feeling quite a bit better, I wandered the streets of Gangnam*, visiting the packed Buddhist temple at Bonguensa and then the packed capitalist temple at the Coex centre, largest underground mall in Korea. I checked out the Coex Aquarium, where I saw 150 different species of shark (every single one of which freaked me the hell out).

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The nearby SM Town turned out to be a media museum devoted to the sort of pretty boy K-pop sensations that the gf and her friends are always gushing about. I became trapped in this candy floss dystopia until I could find somewhere to break into a 50,000 Won note for subway change. I can recommend the passionfruit ginger ale at the SM café for those with a sore throat.

What was left of my evening was spent eating sandwiches and planning the return journey. As always, I wish I could have seen more. But, as always, I was travelling on the cheap.


*(of ‘Style’ fame)

Selfies in the China House

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“It’s very European style, yes?”


Clocking up two new* Chinese cities in as many weeks is not too shabby, really. This weekend I took a 35-minute journey from Beijing South Railway Station to our southeastern neighbour, with the gf as my enthusiastic guide.

Tianjin is so close to the Jing that it isn’t too difficult to imagine them one day merging together like the municipal equivalent of a supermassive black hole. But it’s a slightly different world; one of European architecture, polite taxi drivers and lower wages. A world where a stroll along the river Hai acts as compensation for the fact that the air is still thick enough to taste.

We arrived fairly late at night, grabbed some food from the finest establishment we could find (7-11), and drank a glass of rosé with our cheap Korean noodles. In the morning we had some French cakes and listened to The Clash** before hitting the streets of northern China’s largest coastal city.

Tragically, the city is best known (if it’s known at all) for randomly bursting into flames a couple of years ago and killing 173 of its hardworking citizens. But there’s more to this place than chemical explosions and online conspiracy theories about American missile attacks in the wake of a decreasing yuan (shh!)

Tianjin is a hipster’s paradise: antique shops, pretty gardens, clean one-way streets with bicycle lanes that people actually stick to; half an hour away from the big smoke and not in danger of becoming cool anytime soon.

We packed a lot in over a weekend, strolling through the Italian Style Town, taking a river cruise to Ancient Culture Street, shopping in aleys that could easily have been Oxford or Exeter. We had coffee in Wu Da Dao, surrounded by world architecture (Tianjin has a huge English, French, and Italian influence, adding to the weird sense of otherworldliness). I sipped a couple of G&Ts in a bar near the hotel, and we sampled BBQ tofu at Liao Ning Lu snack street.

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The China House was a highlight: a AAA grade tourist attraction (whatever that may be) and Tianjin’s ‘Selfie Central’. The building incorporates pots and pottery into its design, including snaking tentacles of porcelain throughout. I’m not quite convinced it was worth the ¥50 entry fee (or required quite so many uniformed private security people), but it was worth a visit.

Hopping on he train to somewhere that is closer than London is to Northampton is an absolute no-brainer,*** and we’re very likely to take a return trip in the not too distant future. Not bad for someone who’s comfort zone once ended pretty much on the doorstep of the Racehorse pub.


*(‘new’ for me, that is. I hear they’ve been around for quite awhile. This one since 1404)

**(“What is this? Pervert music?!?”)

***(at least with a Chinese speaker to book the tickets!)

Walking to Hollywood

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“You went to Macau and you DIDN’T get in a junk boat? Who goes to Macau and DOESN’T get in a junk boat?!?”

– Loud American douche


I took the subway out to Hong Kong island. Actually, I first took the subway absolutely nowhere, dropping HK$9.50 for a two way trip through a turnstile. But, eventually, I wound up in Central Hong Kong.

I didn’t do anything special there. I walked, sipped a coffee, watched birds wheel over skyscrapers in the hills, lived a little bit more of my life.

I saw a film being shot, in an alleyway behind the appropriately named Hollywood Road, with what would be considered a skeleton crew in the West.

I found an HMV, where I bought some rock and roll books. I sat reading about a young Lou Reed under the Hong Kong Observation Wheel. I sipped another Japanese beer, listening to an American loudly berate his companion over his choice of transportation during a recent trip to Macau.* It made me glad to think that I’ve hardly spoken to a soul all day (and that whatever else I may be, at least it isn’t American).

My brief trip to the Kong will soon be over. By tomorrow evening I will be back ‘home’, probably on the couch watching a Stephen Chow movie while the gf bubbles excitedly about weapons she’s bought in a fantasy video game. My tacky plastic sunglasses will be in the drawer. My passport will have another red stamp in it, and I will be dreaming up the next adventure.


* “Hey, let me just stop you there for a second. [answers phone] Hi. Yeah, just got back from Macau. well, to be TOTALLY honest I found the whole thing a little… PROBLEMATIC, ya know…”

Chungking Express

 

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“Junk boats and English boys
Crashing out in super marts”
– The Gorillaz


As the landing gear came down, the theme tune to Enter The Dragon was in my head. The flight was turbulent, the meal was rubbery and – at the very point when I was expecting to descend – the pilot swung out across the ocean and begged the question “so are we off to Thailand then?” before he eventually did everyone the courtesy of actually landing the plane.

The bags arrived 40 minutes after the plane did, but I still made the very last metro all the way to the hotel (which is not the place to stay if you ever want to swing a cat).

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But, hey. Who am I to complain?

The Cantonese translates as ‘Fragrant Harbour’. The Mandarin, slightly more prosaically, as ‘Smells Good Bay’. To us Westerners, it’s Hong Kong. Beijing was never somewhere I dreamed of visiting (much less living), but this always was (second only to New York on the list of places that I only believe in because I have actually seen them). Like that other fairytale city, HK is my kind of place.

Tacky, scruffy, eccentric, formerly British. If the Kong were a person, it would probably be me. There are shades of the Imperial past here, but it also feels like the model for Beijing in the future: somehow multicultural/globalized/capitalist and yet still Chinese as fuck. Maybe the sun never set on the Empire after all. Indian food, African music, American toilets, British manners; they’re all here. You can’t cross the street without being offered a watch, a three piece suit or hashish. People even queue here. A Beijinger in a queue is like a hen with testicles.

I woke myself up this morning with a strong glass of coffee and a quick scan of Facebook and Twitter (which have become novelties these days). I breakfasted, like the middle class wanker I aspire to be, at a Starbucks overlooking my first port of call: Chungking Mansions, star of arguably the greatest of HK movies.* The ‘mansion’ is a horseshoe-shaped hellhole of pawn shops, guest houses, eateries and other rip-off merchants. I loved it!

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I then did what I always do, set off on a walk with absolutely no plan whatsoever. I wandered some of the other arcades and visited the Garden of Stars, where I discovered I have the dainty hands of Brigitte Lin.

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I took a single poorly framed photograph of the Peninsula hotel, headquarters of the invading Japanese army in 1941.

I strolled along the seafront of West Kowloon, watching women do yoga on the beach and men fishing in the harbour (my eyes lingered on the yoga a little more than the fishing, let’s be honest). Then along Temple street, home of cheap DVDs and blatant prostitution.

All this before lunchtime. I had lamb tikka masala and then sampled something that I hope will reach Beijing sooner rather than later: buy-one-get-one-free Japanese lager.

A long weekend is not enough time to get to know this place, but the first impression is that it mixes most of the things I like about China and Britain and has filtered out a lot of the stuff that I don’t. It’s cleaner than Beijing. More cosmopolitan. More comfortable.

But, at this point, I wouldnt go so far as to say that it’s more interesting.


*If you have never seen Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express, I urge you to do yourself a favour.

Being There

“To the Journeyers to the East” – The Glass Bead Game


So the first month of 2017 is screeching to a halt, and the new lunar year has arrived. Cue the usual predictions of apocalyptic doom & gloom as well as the occasional, equally useful, comment such as “cock year gon’ be lit af”. An interesting thing about Chinese New Year is that it gives everyone a second chance at that ‘new year, new me’ bullshit. I spent not a single day in the gym during the year of the monkey, and there’s no reason to assume there’ll be any regime change while the chicken is pulling the reins.

I’ve not made any New Year’s resolutions. Not because I expect that the fearmongers are correct and we’ll soon be running along the beach fleeing apes on horseback, but more because (although I do currently consider myself someone who’s essentially just killing time waiting for the world to burn) I’m happy ‘just’ travelling, exploring urban sprawl and living in the moment, despite the western world doing its best to scare the living crap out of me.

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I met an American fellow back in China* who said “travelling isn’t even what I do, I just move to different countries and try to experience as much of their culture as possible before moving somewhere else!” To me, that kind of sounds like a pretty good Oxford definition of the gerund ‘travelling’, but whatever.

I was recently looking at some of my old photos, including several taken during my first trip to Beijing. Although I often looked bored as balls at the end of a Batong-sized shaft, I also looked young and happy (and handsome as a mo fo, in my opinion). That’s because I was doing my best to roll with the punches and live in the present moment.

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I’m very aware that not everyone is lucky enough to be able to travel. Current world events have proven that. I’m also aware that many who are lucky enough simply don’t have the inclination (living in Kazakhstan, it seems, is often met with the same ignorant crap as living in China. “But why?” “You must miss England really!” “I’m never visiting you know, I couldn’t be that far from civilization!” etc.)**

I’m glad that I, as someone who spent seven years in a dead-end job and fifteen in a dead-end town, had the sack to move to China (twice) and that I’ve already used Beijing as a springboard to visit somewhere else, while a lot of people I know are grumbling in the same bedsit they lived in when I left.

I don’t know what awaits us in the year of the rooster (doom, gloom or otherwise). I don’t know where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing. But I’ll be there.


*(like several Americans abroad, he introduced himself with “I just want to apologize on behalf of my country”)

**People, on the whole, being unaware (a) that them not visiting is probably part of the appeal; and (b) of the irony in referring to somewhere like Northampton town centre as ‘civilization’.

Our Man in Kazakhstan

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“Windy enough for ya?”


Having seen Spring Festival (or Chinese New Year) in Beijing once before, I decided to do something different this time. Beijing pretty much grinds to a halt over the holiday and although the fireworks at Houhei lakes are indeed a sight to behold, I was ready for something different this year.

Two of my best friends live in the city of Astana. One is the head librarian at a private school, the other is a musician & filmmaker. This month, Kazakhstan has changed the visa requirements for Canadians, making it easy to visit visa-free, so I recently packed my bags and prepaired for a journey to the second coldest capital in the world.

I changed some money at the Bank of China, which was the usual Gilliamesque nightmare; I finally bought what seemed to be the only pair of reasonably winter-ish boots in Chaoyang district that were pretty much my size;* I packed a couple of weeks’ worth of clothes into my battered suitcase and then took the Airport Express line to PEK.

Shortly before the subway stopped running for the night I arrived at Terminal 3, the world’s second largest airport terminal and sixth largest building. It was a true beauty to behold: a majestic, cavernous,  well-oiled transport hub. Such a pity that my flight was leaving from Terminal 2. Still, a wild shuttle bus ride over shitty terrain would soon fix that.

The best thing to be said about  Terminal 2 is that it has TsingTao in its vending machines.** I sank a couple of cans’ worth while waiting (and waiting) for check in to open.

Almost all of the duty free shops were closed for the night but some cafés remained stubbornly  open. I had a glimpse of the future when I saw how much a sandwich will cost in 2037.

I fell asleep before takeoff and I slept through a fair chunk of the flight, arriving in the City of Peace looking and feeling like Tom Waits’ dehydrated ballbag.

I hadn’t seen my friend for over a year but within seconds of exiting the terminal and climbing into a taxi we were shooting the breeze (in something much stronger than an actual breeze) as if we had never left our joint hometown…

With the noticable difference that we were surrounded by snow and some of the most unique and ambitious architecture I’ve ever seen, with Kazakh radio blaring at us.


*i.e. only one size too big, not too shabby when padded out with an extra pair of socks.

** Beijing is remarkably chill when it comes to drinking in public spaces.

Once Upon a Time in China 2

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“He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

– The Lord of the Rings


It’s two years to the day since I first touched down in Ring Road City, and one year to the day since I flew out again. This week, I returned. After the first snowfall of the season snafued me on the runway at YVR, I had a mad Richard Curtis-style dash through Seattle-Tacoma International and made it, with moments (very few moments) to spare, onto the connecting flight to Beijing.

It’s good to be back in a land where tipping really is just a town (maybe not so good to see a man wiping his dog’s arse while you’re out for your morning constitutional). As someone who was raised in sleepy English villages and smaller-than-small Albertan towns, I must admit that the rural will always have its Thomas Hardy, H.E. Bates-y, Andrew Kötting-esque charms, but I for one have always been a sucker for the Big Smoke of the big city. And when it comes to Bigness and Smokeyness, Beijing can’t be beat for five chubby fingers of sensory overload. Although lacking the fresh air of Vancouver, the Jing makes up for it with a sooty, soil-y metallic-tasting charm of its own (even if I have been carrying around the selected writings of Henry David Thoreau in my back pocket).

I haven’t been back long. Just long enough to meet some new people, drink plenty of hot water and get an eye/nose/ear/tummy full of the world’s third most densely-populated city. Just long enough to snap a few photos, scribble a handful of journal entries and tap out a very short blog post.

Just long enough to make me glad I didn’t move to Shanghai.