29.11.2014 - 29.11.2014
Packed like proverbial sardines, the occupants of concrete row alight from their beds generally in my wake. I have been up since early morning, toying with options endless for how to spend my half-day before I am due to meet up with Johnny, a local make-shift guide. Mildly appalled by the return fare to Macau I de-list it, deciding instead to head in search of knock offs at a large local market. Calling it a draw with the shockingly crowded shower leaves my hair in a soft wave, a charming contrast to the litany of bruises inflicted by the now-soaking bathroom. Down once again to the MRT, still marvelling at the elegance and accessibility it affords, I am slightly shaken to think that my impending trip to Japan will cause an efficiency-aneurysm. One line change later and I am up in the liminal zone that separates Tsim Sha Tsui from it's slightly seedier cousin Mong Kok. I consult my offline maps repeatedly, beetling around what I take to be market town and stumped at the lack of spending options.
There be Dragons
A single metal shutter goes up, a beacon in the stillness that brings a small clothing seller who manages to pack flammables more densely than a fire log. I find what I seek, a belt to hoist a sad looking pair of floral trousers which seem to have wilted in the subtropical climate to hang loose on my equator. I spend the few dollars happily, emerging back to the street where there is now a small regiment of men assembling metal carts. Most shops still shuttered I finally twig that I am on Asian time, prowling in a district known for late night markets at the ungodly hour of 0900. Spying a cart with phone cases, I peel a partially shifted tarp back delicately with one aqua claw, bringing a tanned bundle of life with a pepper curl set shuffling up. "Naw open!" she exclaims, and I apologize, showing her a photo of a Juicy Ipad case, asking if she knows where I might find an illicit cousin. No is the gist, and I move on untroubled, deciding that it is time to abort my early mission.
I make a few more inroads before it is back to the MRT, up to my suite to thread thin blue faux-suede between belt loops and make final arrangements with Johnny. We decide on Exit J from the Central sub-station, an alphabetical appending I have only just now noticed. Bucket list in hand, I ride the one station over and twist through corridors to emerge at J-town, the most appealing vista yet. The heart of the financial district rises up above me, backed by the lush green Victoria peak. No sooner have I cleared the escalator then I am the target of a leaflet-ing, for a cause I can't discern but meet with gentle recoil. Seeing no one familiar, I take a seat on the concrete bench that runs around the verdant plaza and study my prospects. One man is something of a fixture, an older gentleman with a craggy complexion and wandering eye. Remembering Johnny only as a mid-twenties dish who self described as both cheerful and "a little bit dumb", I let my eyes too wander in search of more verdant pastures. A few faces come and go and I begin to worry that Bachelor Number One is indeed the not-quite avuncular figure by the escalator when Johnny approaches. Broadly kind-faced, his cheer and kindness are apparent immediately, a full assessment of his intellectual capabilities still pending. We make small talk as we head up the garden path where I am enlightened to learn that the leaf-letters are part of the Hong Kong protest movement. There is a visible police presence at every corner despite only a trickle of polite protesters, but we are careful to avoid lingering with any questionable company despite my temptation to grab a yellow umbrella and charge. A counter protest movement shows greater numbers just up the way, megaphones out and preaching. Johnny's English is good, and it is not long before we decide to first tackle a trip to the Victoria peak, the famous pinnacle of Hong Kong island. Approaching the line for the scenic tram route reveals a scene just as likely to be bargain day at Snake Blood Emporium. We decide after only a few moments that it is not worth the trouble and set on the idea of taking a relatively affordable cab ride instead. Seizing on Hong Kong bucket list item the second, Johnny promises to find a local hole in the wall famous for their turtle jelly. The first subway ride and walk prove fruitless, the holy grail apparently closed temporarily or indeed defunct in some way. Searching out a second best option, we come across another stop shortly after, a typical Hong Kong establishment that counts about 3 tables behind a steel door for its ambience. We are only two, drizzle beginning to hang outside the rusty pull down while we move in on two bowls of dark green jelly, chilled to perfection. Bitter but inoffensive, it reminds me of grass jelly, and we both finish quickly after applying drizzlings of honey.
To Shell and Back
I intone some gracious words in Cantonese to the hostess, earning a surprise smile and pronunciation praise for my tonal troubles. Sure that my Qi is aligning with each moment, we set out with the task of finding a taxi to the top. Drizzle is now a slowly drifting fog of rain, bringing all manner of locals and tourists out like rats to the curb for the safe passage of a car. After failing to secure any of the multitude of cars that pass it begins to seem that we are in a losing game. Not to be bothered with something as tiresome as a phone booking, we are caught in masses of people moving up and down glittering roads in the dark of the commercial centre, at the mercy of cab drivers who apparently have little interest in a relatively short trip. "That's illegal" Johnny bites, explaining that denying a fare because of a small commission is against the law, but apparently part of a syndicate of shiftless drivers and corrupt police who allow the silly situation to continue. We try main roads and small thoroughfares, so hopelessly outgunned that the sight of a cab without a "reserved sign" causes my breath to catch in my throat. Playing hero, I run full tilt out into oncoming traffic, the sound of screaming sidewalk-goers in my ears as I weave past moving cars to pursue the golden fleecing. Rattling at the cab window, I am rebuffed, and make a walk of shame back up to Johnny's position past stunned locals teeming at the curb-side. It strikes me as ridiculous to be standing in the richest part of one of Asia's richest cities, constantly in danger of getting clotheslined by the ubiquitous Dior and Chanel shopping bags, thrown together like we are all in proverbial steerage with nary a car stopping. Our nerves both going, Johnny and I stalk up a small street, taking point on opposite sides of the road when a taxi finally slows. The passenger making his way slowly from the car is literally in a full leg brace, but I take a defence stance regardless, shadowing his exit with a distinct lack of taste to ensure the prize doesn't slip away. No sooner is the velcro-wrapped boot and stiff limb out the door than I am in, no longer asking after a ride, but simply telling. Hand forced, the driver rounds and begins back up to the peak with the human equivalent of two wet cats in back.
The ride takes us up a winding path, astronomically expensive condos dotting the hillside that lies largely shrouded in mist. From what I can make out it is beautiful, albeit going off a few feet ahead of the car that can be revealed. Reaching the top, we disembark where I find, not entirely to my surprise, that "The Peak" is another shopping extravaganza. A multi-level mall is busy with shoppers, the outer decks for viewing tacked on like an afterthought where only a handful of people move in and out of fog. Johnny and I join them, savouring the thin air, if no view to speak of beyond a bizarre giant floating bear filled with colourful baubles. Knowing when I'm beat, we slip back inside and find a small dessert shop with a promising display. Johnny opts for Mango pudding, I for durian-cream filled pancakes, a delicious toast to our exciting taxi quest and mountaineering. After failing to secure some shin guards in Adidas for his late night soccer game to come we get back in a taxi queue, this time bound for Mr. Bing, a Beijing crepe restaurant I have set my gaze on.
We arrive in the small cafe, the lack of real seating making our decision to take-out, two peking duck "Bings" hot and steamy in our carry-out ware.
Peking, a Friend for the End of the World
The subway brings us back to Sheung Wan where I find that the allure of duck has overwhelmed my faculties and I struggle for a good 15 minutes to guide us back to my simple abode. I pass Johnny a tissue, not for the first time noticing a sweat-drenched forehead, and wondering about the balance of his elements. Presuming that turtle jelly and chilled mango are no antidote to an excess of fire, we settle in with our still slightly steamy crepes as Johnny contemplates out loud whether his unprotected shins are up to a late night soccer game after all. The crepes are delicious, the taste of duck lingering with other local flavours. The late game suffers a few strange fumbles, Adidas ego guards a glaring omission in the catalogue as Johnny makes to catch the last half of the game. He over-eagerly re-confirms our plans to meet again on Monday for drinks at the Ritz, doubly cheerful as before while I fold laundry with a studied disinterest. Applying a smile worthy of a Malaysian air hostess, I bid him a grey goodnight, letting his hand be the last on the door.