The Liar and The Lizard

Flip a coin?

I’m not sure if the political tremors have reached Europe yet but it’s currently election season in Australia and I can’t same I’m envious of the choice facing the electorate here:  For the incumbent Labor party is the Welsh-born, curiously reptilian Julia Gillard whose horrific nasal drone completely obliterates the actual subject matter of anything she says.  The main challenger, the leader of the Liberal Coalition, is the London-born, equally charmless Tony Abbott – a man who oozes arse from every pore; the very epitome of a slippery, untrustworthy politician who recently admitted in an interview that he doesn’t always tell the ‘gospel truth’.

Frankly it’s an uninspiring decision – how do you choose between a lizard and a liar?  Faced with such a dilemma in the UK, there would be a clear winner – apathy.  For better or worse that isn’t an option in Australia where compulsory voting is enforced and that raises an obvious problem with this system – who do you vote for when there’s no one deserving of your vote?  Can the winner really claim a popular mandate if the electorate is actually forced to vote?

On the plus side, compulsory voting is a great way of engaging people in the political process and making them think, even if it is only once every three years, about how they are going to be governed.  The majority of Australians that you speak to will have some sort of opinion on current political issues compared to the indifference that a lot of people in the UK feel towards the system.

Who would I vote for?  I don’t hear you ask, but I’m going to answer anyway:  Personally I would probably go for Gillard if you held a gun against my head (or a $150 fine for not voting) mainly because Abbott is too ludicrous to take seriously as a gameshow host, let alone a Prime Minister.  That said, the relentless barrage of negative TV adverts against him (literally one in every advert break at the moment) is actually making me feel a modicum of sympathy and I can’t deny that the prospect of him as a prime minster isn’t without some comic possibilities:  In statesman terms Tony Abbott makes George W Bush look like Winston Churchill.

I will give Gillard credit for one comment though:  During a debate in the Australian parliament she likened Abbott to a “snivelling grub” and when the speaker ordered her to apologise for and withdraw the mark she added “If I have offended grubs I withdraw unconditionally”.

You just can’t imagine David Cameron pulling out a line of that quality.

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Many Happy Returns

Church-type activities aside, is there a more excruciating ceremony than the singing of happy birthday?  It’s a legitimate question and not one that I am asking just because I happen to be hurtling towards a particularly unwelcome milestone myself.  I have recently been working for a company where it is a monthly tradition that all the staff who are celebrating a birthday that month gather in the middle of the office and the section manager leads the rest of the department in a rendition of the aforementioned song.

It’s impossible to tell who is more embarrassed – the birthday victims who are subjected to a very public reminder of another year passing and spend the duration of the singing carefully avoiding eye contact with anyone else in the room or the singers who try to deliver the words without drawing too much attention to their congenital inability to hold any sort of tune.  On particularly ugly occasions after the song has, to the relief of all concerned, come to an end, some bright spark might even launch an attempt at “hip, hip, hooray” or, even worse, “for he’s a jolly good fellow”.  It makes me wince thinking about it.  The fact is that nobody enjoys the occasion so why bother doing it?  Public executions were banned for much the same reason.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for celebrating a colleague’s birthday if they so wish – four hours in the pub at lunchtime is always welcome – but not by joining in with the forced jocularity of twenty adults tunelessly serenading them.

A few years ago I was in a club where, midway through the night, they actually stopped the tunes and asked everyone there to sing happy birthday to the DJ who was on the decks at the time.  No doubt this was an emotional moment for the DJ and one that he will tearfully recount to his children in years to come.  For everyone in the club it was five minutes of irritation before the music came back on and they could get back to the serious business of getting off their heads.

There’s a time and a place for singing Happy Birthday and that is at a party for a five year old nephew surrounded by discarded wrapping paper and jelly and ice cream, not in an office surrounded by filing cabinets and humiliation and certainly not at four in the morning in a nightclub.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating making the song illegal per se just completely socially unacceptable like drink driving and reading the Daily Mail.

Is that really too much to ask?

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Livin’ the Dream in Bondi Beach

The Most Famous Beach in the World?

Unbeknownst to me when we moved here, it’s a massive cliché for the English (and Irish) to move to Bondi when settling in Sydney, along the same sort of lines as Aussies moving to Clapham.  If I had a dollar for every time an Aussie had rolled his eyes after finding out my chosen location I’d be able to afford a much better flat…but I’d still live in Bondi.  Frankly it’s an awesome area, even in ‘winter’.  Imagine an English seaside town but with pretty much constant sunshine, an amazing night life and some very cool inhabitants.  Actually don’t imagine an English seaside town at all – it’s nothing like one.

Attractive, leafy suburban roads lead down to the centre piece i.e. the beach which is every bit as astounding in real life as you would imagine; a kilometre of golden sand looking out on the Tasman Sea with spectacular (and spectacularly expensive) apartments gazing down on it at either end.  As you would imagine there is a huge surf culture here and the wet-suit clad lunatics can be seen at all times and in all conditions doing battle with some ferocious looking waves.  I have to confess that I haven’t exposed my near-translucent skin to either the surf or the beach as yet but will have to endure the laughter of the locals at some point I suppose.

Luckily for me, Bondi has much to offer aside from the ubiquitous beach culture:  There is a constant buzz to the area provided by the many bars and restaurants that run along the beach front.  Particular favourites so far include the Bondi FM Café which actually contains the recording studio for the eponymous radio station and the Beach Road Hotel, a cavernous back-packer style bar which was open continuously for one of the recent world cup weekends.  In truth I have been here for a couple of months now and I’m still discovering new venues; I really can’t imagine that I will get bored anytime soon, much less before my lease is up in November.

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The Latest from Down Under

It’s been a while since I updated you on my Antipodean activities and, knowing how you all worry, I thought it only right to fill you in on the latest on my life down under.  At the end of my last report I was happily working for a web hosting company, the weather was absolutely appalling and Fabio Capello was a coaching genius about to make our team of underachieving multi-millionaires finally deliver at a major tournament.  How quickly things can change.

Where to start?  Being English I suppose the natural choice is the weather and firstly I have to apologise for and, embarrassingly, withdraw my previous statement that the ‘Australian winter is not much better than ours’.  By way of mitigation that comment was written in the midst of Sydney’s wettest May for seven years (I was delighted that I was able to witness that particular record being set) but things have greatly improved since then.  It’s still very much the middle of winter here and you often see the Australians heading to work wrapped up in gloves, hats and scarves but I would class it as being the equivalent of a decent British spring – by no means scorching but some very pleasant days with temperatures around the twenties.  Sydney reputedly has 315 days of sunshine per year – just as well seeing as their city literally grinds to a halt at the first sight of rain – and I can well believe that having experienced the ‘depths’ of their winter.

Amusingly Waverley Council (which covers the Bondi area) has tried to capture some of the seasonal spirit with a special winter festival on Bondi Beach – lucky attendees can (for

Ice skating on Bondi Beach

a, naturally, exorbitant price) drink mulled wine, eat Sauerkraut and even ice skate surrounded by a traditional Alpine-style snow scene complete with log cabin.  There’s only one minor problem with this otherwise impressive display – it’s not bloody cold!  It’s not even close to being cold!  I have to admit that skating on an ice rink that overlooks a beach bathed in beautiful sunshine and an ocean reflecting a glorious blue sky does have an enjoyably surreal feel though.

Other than my heroic, Christopher Dean-like efforts around the Bondi ice skating rink the big sporting talking point of the summer (or winter) has obviously been the World Cup.  I was slightly concerned, prior to my arrival, that the coverage here would be extremely limited (if non-existent) but I need not have worried – SBS provided pretty much continuously rolling coverage for the duration of the tournament although the standard of commentary and punditry was not the most inspiring; their chief commentator made Clive Tydlesley sound like Kenneth Wolstenhome.

As for the natives, the Australians surprised me with their level of interest and passion for the game which continued even after their national team, the Socceroos, were despatched in the group stages.  As a side note – is there a worse nickname in world sport (let alone football) than the Socceroos?   I can’t decide if it makes them sound more like an under-ten tiddly-wink team or a gaggle (if that’s the right plural) of cheerleaders.  Nonetheless the majority of the Aussies seem genuinely interested in the football although I can’t imagine that it will ever overtake rugby, cricket and AFL (in the more southern states) in terms of popularity any time soon..

Unfortunately the fact that Sydney is eight hours in front of South Africa did somewhat cloud my enjoyment of the World Cup; it was something of a novelty at the beginning of the tournament to get up at or, more likely, stay up until 4.30AM to catch a game but that initial excitement soon wore off, especially considering the horror show that England were producing and I was almost relieved when the tournament ended and I was able to resume something of a normal sleep pattern.

As a footnote to the World Cup, I must give props to our landlord who went well beyond the call of duty when summoned to our flat at 5.30AM to remedy a power cut that occurred during half time of the England-USA game.  In hindsight the decision to run three heaters, the TV, the stereo, and every conceivable light simultaneously was perhaps not a wise one in our prehistoric flat and the fateful decision to attempt a half time cup of tea and slice of toast proved too much for our antiquated wiring, plunging the entire flat into darkness.  Luckily our Landlord is also a football fan and took our pleas to come round and fiddle with our switchboard to restore the electricity in good grace.

He was less sympathetic, however, when I made exactly the same mistake during the Germany-Argentina quarter final and pretended not to hear his phone on that occasion.  Understandable really I suppose.

Aside from the footballing festivities I have managed to undertake a few trips in the New South Wales area and plan a whole lot more – some local, some further afield.

First up was a three hour train trip north to Newcastle accompanied by Cameron.  I won’t waste too much of your time on this particular excursion, needless to say if Australia ever get round to producing a version of the UK’s ‘Crap Towns’ book, Newcastle will be a worthy entry.  The main reason for the journey was to check out the local beach so, naturally, it pissed down the day we went there.  Newcastle, like Sydney in truth, is very much a summer town:  When the rain starts to fall there isn’t a huge amount to do and we were forced to retreat to a wildlife park which at least afforded me the chance to take a few obligatory Koala pictures before heading home.

More successful was our road trip up to Hunter Valley –  a huge wine region about a two hour drive north of Sydney and a five hour drunken drive back (that’s a joke by the way Mum).  Carly and I were fortunate enough to be chauffeured around for the day by my housemate Greig who was generous (and foolish) enough to agree to ferry two inebriated idiots around.  I did agree to drive up there, a decision that I was beginning to regret when the engine of our hire car started making some alarming noises on the motorway after about an hour of driving.  Carly then helpfully pointed out that I had in fact driven the first hundred kilometres stuck in third gear (it was an automatic if that is any sort of defence).

Damaged transmission aside, we reached Hunter Valley in one piece and it was a worthwhile journey.  The scenery is absolutely astounding – valleys covered with

Carly and Greig on their way to taking to taking the piss in another winery

vineyards as far as you can see enclosed by a stunning mountain range.  There are literally hundreds of wineries to choose from all of which are happy to provide free samples to prospective buyers so we spent the day travelling from vineyard to vineyard pretending to be interested in buying their wares before inevitably disappointing the winemaker and leaving with nothing more than a slightly rosier complexion.

In fairness there were some excellent wines on offer and the winemakers were generally friendly although my observation that one particular Cabernet Sauvignon tasted like “burnt hair” was not altogether warmly received – it was met with the first (and surprisingly last) “get out” of the day.

It was a hugely enjoyable day out though and the alcohol, doubtless combined with some lingering sense of guilt at taking so many free samples led me to buy some cheese which I

Giving the $22 cheese the respect it deserves

convinced myself was the finest I had ever tasted.  The fact that it tastes slightly average on reflection combined with the fact is cost $22 suggests that I didn’t make the decision with an entirely clear head but at least I had some sort of souvenir of the trip, other than a pounding headache the next day.

The next weekend Carly, Greig, Pete and I travelled north again – three hours up to Port Stephens.  Port Stephens is basically a seaside resort but is surrounded by some spectacular sand dunes which are the largest of their type in the southern hemisphere, fact fans, and are in constant motion, moving inwards at a rate of about ten metres per year.

There are a number of activities that you can indulge on the dunes and first up we had a go at sandboarding which basically involves hurtling down the dunes on a glorified tin tray.  We were driven to the top of a large dune in a four wheel drive vehicle where we were met by Brad from Neighbours who would be supervising our efforts that day.  Obviously it wasn’t the Brad from Neighbours but if you imagine the stereotypical bleach blonde, outdoors-type Aussie bloke and you are just about there.  Standing at the top of the dune with some trepidation I asked Brad if there were ever any broken arms or legs suffered on this particular run.  “No” he replied, comfortingly.  “A few collar bones though”.

With Brad’s reassuring words ringing in my ears I began the first of many ill-fated attempts to actually stay on the board until the bottom of the dune.  I’ll save you the humiliating details but I can safely add sandboarding on to the list of outdoor activities that I am no good at.  All good fun though but with the inevitable consequence that I ended up literally covered in sand and I was still finding sand in places where I didn’t even know I had places for days afterwards.

As it is currently off-season we were able to afford to stay in a pretty luxurious resort which came complete with gym, steam room, a huge swimming pool that circled the entire

Living the High Life in Port Stephens

resort and hot tub.  We headed to the hot tub on our return to the hotel and I would like to tell you that we sat in the hot tub all evening drinking lager and recounting the day’s excitement.  In reality we sat in the hot tub for five minutes before a security guard kicked us out but at least the thought was there.

The hotel room also featured excellent cooking facilities which was a major result as the standard of cuisine in Port Stephens is not the highest; again I will save you the details but serving up Smash instead of mashed potato and tomato puree instead of a salsa is surely a firing-squad offence for any chef?  Luckily Carly cooked us a fine roast dinner – my first in three months and something that the English will always do better than the Australians I think.  After a few dozen beers we retired to bed, still slightly aching but content with the day’s activities.

The next day’s sand-based activity was quad biking across the dunes, something I have not tried before but will certainly be doing again.  It’s certainly not cheap – $90 for an hour – but worth every cent in my opinion.  It takes a little while to get your confidence up but once you get the hang of the bike it’s enormous fun and you soon find yourself hacking along the dunes at 70KM/H with ease.  The landscape is extremely surreal; we would negotiate up a 100ft sand dune and, when reaching the top, find ourselves looking across an alien landscape with nothing but sand and blue sky as far as you could see.  It was amazing to think that you were literally a few kilometres from a reasonable sized town when, to all intents and purposes, you could have been in the middle of the Sahara.

The hour flew by and we were soon heading back to the town for a final culinary atrocity before returning to Sydney.  This time not only was the food crap, the waiter surly and the bill extortionate but the for some reason the restaurant was playing ‘Stand By Me’ by Ben E. King on a seemingly endless loop – we heard it at least five times whilst sitting there.  A recipe for insanity if ever there was one.  Self-catering is definitely the way forward in Port Stephens.

That’s pretty much it for this instalment but just to tie up a couple of loose ends:  I am working again after quitting the first horrific telesales job that I rashly took as soon as I got here.  I’m now doing Sales Co-Ordination for a ATM company called First Data, a pretty easy job and the company is excellent  – I’ve been there a month and have been out on three (all expense paid) drinks already.  I’m only contracted until the start of September but I’m desperately hoping that they extend my stay there for a couple of extra months – and not just for the free alcohol.

The past month has also seen a blitz of trip-booking:   I have weekends away in Melbourne and Brisbane planned in September and October to see friends and from November onwards, the fun really begins.  First up I have three nights in Los Angeles with Carly before driving to Las Vegas for my cousin Simon’s wedding.  We stay there for five days before returning to Sydney for a couple of days and then I am off to New Zealand for a month with my other cousin Paul and his girlfriend, Lou.  We then return to Sydney and hire a camper van to drive up the east coast to Brisbane over nine days and spend Christmas with friends before flying to Thailand on Boxing Day to catch up with some mates for three weeks of debauchery.  From Thailand I’m then off to China to stay with another friend who lives in Shanghai before retuning to Sydney around the end of January.  Jealous?

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Sydney – So Far, So Good

The Coat Hanger

After an action-packed, all-too-short stay in Hong Kong, I found myself boarding a Qantas flight bound for Sydney.  Once again the flight was remarkably smooth although the greeting at Sydney airport was slightly less hospitable than I would have liked: – I had to endure no less than four separate inquisitions by various customs and immigration officials, part of which involved the ignominy of emptying out my entire suitcase although I did have a chuckle to myself at the customs officer who spent a few minutes rummaging through my dirty laundry bag.

After managing to convince my interrogators that I was not involved in international drug smuggling, nor was I intending to introduce some new, potentially toxic species of flora or fauna to the Australian environment I jumped into a taxi and headed for my hostel.

My accommodation was located in a peaceful and attractive suburb of Sydney called Glebe.  Think of a quieter version of Fulham or Putney and you are just about there.  I ended up sharing a dormitory with an American and a Frenchman (I know what you’re thinking but they were actually alright).  Rather childishly, I was amused to find out that the American guy was called Cameron Camp the Fourth.  Little things please little minds and all that.  Through Cameron I also met a Belgian and a Scot (I know what you’re thinking but ditto) and we all ended up exploring the city together.

Sydney has much to offer the visitor – the stunning architecture of the Harbour Bridge, the iconic Opera House, the majestic Blue Mountains but obviously we ignored all that in favour of spending the next couple of weeks staggering from one pub to the next with the odd trip to the beach for recuperation.  Good times though and I’ve become quite an authority on the various lagers available in Sydney.

Peter, Greig and Cameron Camp IV - another wholesome night out.

As much fun as it was, it soon became apparent that spending every night in the pub was unsustainable both financially and physically.  My intention was always to start work in Australia as soon as possible and after hearing mixed reports about the strength of the employment market here I decided to start applying for jobs straight away.  I figured that it would take a while to find something suitable thus giving me a bit more time for relaxation and exploration of Sydney.  As fate would have it I ended up getting the first job that I applied for – a sales job for a web design company.

It was clear from my interview that I had wasted valuable space in my suitcase by including a suit and five shirts – I turned up at their office wearing my freshly dry-cleaned outfit only to be greeted by the sales director who was wearing shorts and flip-flops.  Nobody does casual like the Australians.

The following week I escaped from the hostel by moving into a flat with the Belgian (Pete) and the Scot (Greig).  Our flat is nice and modern or certainly was in 1971 when it appears that it was last decorated but is literally five minutes walk from Bondi Beach which makes up for a great deal.  Location, location, location indeed.

I’ve pretty much settled into a normal work/life balance now which, whilst good for my sense of routine, would make pretty tedious copy so I thought I would try and bulk out the rest of this despatch with a few random observations I have made during my short time in Australia:

  • The Aussies absolutely love a gamble.  New South Wales has ten per cent of the world’s poker machines (‘pokies’ as the natives call them) and they are completely ubiquitous in all the pubs.  I even noticed that one bar’s smoking area featured an outdoor pokie area, just so you can keep feeding the ridiculous machines whilst lighting up.  If they aren’t playing the pokies, they find something else to gamble on – most of the pubs have a built in TAB (bookmakers).  Betting whilst drunk – what could possibly go wrong?
  • They shorten every possible word i.e. Pokie (as above), Bikie (for biker), Garbo (for garbage man) and Pommy Twat (for Richard – not much of a shortening but it still seems popular here).  Their use of language is also extremely slangy and their journalistic standards sometimes leave something to be desired – one paper I saw described an Australian footballer’s disbelief of the extent of Michael Ballack’s injury with the headline ‘Ballack’s Talking Bollocks’.  I kid you not.
  • The standard of television is disgraceful and as we have yet to have the internet connected at our flat, I’ve had to endure quite a lot of it.  This may not sound particularly surprising for a country whose major contribution to the genre is Neighbours but you really need to experience how epically awful it is to believe it.  Literally every show is imported from the UK or the US and they don’t even import the good stuff – The Bill anyone?  Didn’t think so.
  • They are massively into their sport; unfortunately their sport is also bloody awful.  Actually that is a bit unfair as I have got into the AFL (Australian Rules Football) a bit since I’ve been here but it’s difficult to take a game seriously where a final score can be 155 – 83.   The World Cup has been getting a lot of coverage though but it will be interesting to see how long that interest lasts when they get knocked out in the group stage (or, better still, by England in the second round) especially as most of the games will be kicking off at around 5AM Sydney time.
  • They lack creativity when thinking up place names here – Oxford Street, Hyde Park, Kings Cross, Guildford, Brighton, Ramsgate, Greenwich and Woolwich are all featured in Sydney. That said, when left to their own devices the Australians have managed to conjour up atrocities such as Wollongong and Wolloomooloo which sound more like nefarious creatures from a Roald Dahl novel e.g.

Charlie:  “Why did you have to rescue the Oompa Loompas Mister Wonka?”

Wonka:  “Because their homeland is a dangerous place full of deadly beasts –  Oompa Loompas are no match for the fearsome Wollongong and the terryifying Woolloomooloo”.

Anyway, I digress.

  • Their winter isn’t much better than ours.  Somewhat stupidly I announced on the Facebook invitation for my leaving drink that I would be leaving England ‘and it’s never-ending winter behind for sunnier climes’.  Typically, after a couple of weeks of glorious sunshine when I first got here, the weather has been relentlessly terrible.  Not as cold as an English winter but certainly as wet, there have even been some flash floods in Sydney since I’ve been here.  Naturally I have been blamed by every Aussie I have spoken to for bringing the British weather with me.

It may sound like there are a few complaints in the above comments but would you expect anything less from a whinging pom?  Seriously though, Sydney is a great city.  It’s enormously picturesque in places, the people are much friendlier than Londoners (not difficult, admittedly) and I love the fact that I look out on Bondi Beach and the Pacific Ocean when I wait for the bus to work.

I’ve no idea how long I will stay but I’m fairly settled at the moment and it certainly wouldn’t be right to leave without experiencing a few months of the Australian summer.  The job will be providing some much needed income (as well as keeping me out of the pub) but I can’t imagine it being a long-term proposition.  We shall see how it pans out – after all I had no idea a few months ago that I would be sitting in a flat straight from the George and Mildred set on the other side of the world writing this – but there is certainly a lot more to see and do before I even consider the return flight.

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A Gwei Lo in Hong Kong

Evidence of its colonial past is all over Hong Kong

It’s almost certainly a cliché to write that Hong Kong is a city of contrasts but it’s true so I’m going to write it anyway. It’s a city where east meets west, colonial past meets financial hub, Chinese proverb meets conspicuous consumption, Mr Miyagi meets Gordon Gecko. You get the idea anyway.

The build up to the trip started over the weekend of 17th / 18th April with some trepidation as I was glued to Sky News watching the unfolding disaster of the Icelandic volcanic eruption and its after-effects. I was extremely fortunate in that UK airspace was reopened the day before I was due to fly otherwise I would probably still be sitting in the UK now cursing the civil aviation authority. As it was I sat in the Heathrow departure lounge feeling even more trepidation about two things:

1. The impending journey ahead.

2. The fact that the BBC weather forecast for Hong Kong was for torrential downpours all weekend.

I managed to reduce my nervousness on the first part by two swift double vodkas and need not have worried about the latter as the BBC forecasters are obviously as incompetent in Asia as they are in the UK – Hong Kong was bathed in gorgeous sunshine and very pleasant 20 degree plus warmth for my three days there.

The flight was uneventful and I can highly recommend Cathay Pacific – they had at least one hundred films to view and double that in albums to listen to. Initially I did wonder of the flight was going to be long enough for me to see everything that I wanted to although the novelty had well and truly worn off by hour four though.

I landed in Hong Kong to face the traditional Asian greeting of banks of immigration staff wearing surgical masks, as if I had inadvertently landed in a leper colony. I managed to clear these without too much incident and made my way to the very modern and efficient airport express which took me to the centre of town, it was a bonus that the train contained a TV for in-journey entertainment but less of a plus that said entertainment consisted of an endless loop showing highlights of the recent Crystal Palace v QPR match. Luckily the journey was mercifully short and, after negotiating the equally smooth, efficient and cheap (around 30p for a short journey) MTR (underground) system I arrived at the location of my hotel, Wan Chai. It is worth pointing out at this stage that Wan Chai was recommended as a desirable location by my Hong Kong friend Melissa who subsequently pointed out that

1. She had only been to Wan Chai once and that was when she got off at the wrong MTR stop and quickly rushed back down to the station again after taking one look at the place.

2. It is well known for two things – Triads and general seediness.

Fabulous.

From the outside, my hotel looked alarmingly (or enticingly, depending on your perspective) like a brothel. A perception that was seemingly confirmed when I discovered that the password for the Wi-Fi was ‘Fanny’. I needn’t have worried though – there was no way my room could have been used for any bordello-type activities as there was no physical way that two people could have fitted in it. It was tiny – a bed and a very small bathroom plus about a postage stamp’s worth of floor space was all I got although I didn’t plan on spending any reasonable amount of time there so it scarcely mattered.

I quickly dumped my bags (or rather piled them up on my bed) and headed out to discover what horrors lay in store in Wan Chai.

To be honest I probably do the area something of a disservice – it is a reasonable part of the city to stay in – close to the centre and with a certain amount of appealing Asian bustle to it. That said I am used to living in Bow so a hotel in downtown Baghdad would be fairly appealing. I intended to do the Lonely Planet ‘walking tour’ of the area but after wandering round aimlessly trying to find the start of the tour I gave up, happy that I had seen most of what Wan Chai had to offer i.e. block after block of convenience stores and an interesting, albeit slightly disturbing, wet market where locals shop for fish that are literally flapping around on stalls at the side of the road. So far, so Asian. I decided to head a few stops on the MTR to Central and discovered a whole different side to the city.

Central is the CBD (central business district) of Hong Kong and has a very modern, almost European feel to it. Astonishing high rise office blocks are sandwiched between designer stores of almost every hue you can imagine with Bentleys and BMWs constantly cruising past. I’m a slight building geek so I was particularly impressed by some of the skyscrapers on display – the HSBC, Lippo and Bank of China buildings are worthy of particular mention; they laugh in the face of the sterile offerings of Canary Wharf.

After a few hours looking in shops and at cars that I will never be able to afford I decided to check out one of the ‘must-do’ Hong Kong experiences – The Peak.

The Peak is basically a viewing point that overlooks the dramatic Hong Kong skyline and is accessed via a gravity-defying near-vertical tram that climbs the side of one of the mountains surrounding central Hong Kong. It is an impressive feat of engineering that is slightly cheapened by three floors of shops selling the ultimate in Chinese tat that you have to negotiate before you reach the viewing area. Worth it though – the city is stunning when viewed from this height. I was disappointed that the conditions were not really good enough in the evening to justify a second trip up there to see the same view by night.

Whilst marvelling at the display I fell into conversation with an American guy who excitedly told me that his company were soon moving him to London as part of his job. I asked him which part of London. “Slough” he replied. I didn’t have the heart to tell him.

Me at The Peak. Picture courtesy of the Slough-bound American.

After I descended from The Peak I headed for a well earned couple of beers before the effects of jet lag as well as twenty four hours without sleep began to hit me and I returned to my shoebox for a couple of hours of rest.

Fifteen hours later I awoke in sheer panic that I had wasted some of my precious time in the city and immediately jumped in the shower and headed out again.

I spent the first part of the day in Causeway Bay whose notable feature (apart from endless rows of designer shops) is the Noonday Gun which is fired across the harbour each day (no prizes for guessing at what time). The gun was apparently made famous by Noel Coward’s satirical song ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’. No, me neither.

After being deafened by the gun I headed off to Stanley which is a small coastal resort

Stanley

about nine kilometres out of the city. This was a welcome break from the frenetic pace of Hong Kong and there was also a market to explore if you like that sort of thing (which I don’t, but still).

After a few hours here I made tracks for the hotel and prepared for my evening’s entertainment courtesy of Melissa. We met in Tsim Sha Tsui and went to a Korean barbeque, the novelty of which is that you are presented with the meat you order raw and then you (or more specifically Melissa) cook it at the table. All very good.

We left there around 8PM to go and see another of Hong Kong’s ‘must-do’s’ i.e. the light show. This basically involves the various skyscrapers around the harbour being lit up via lasers in time with classical musical pumped out around the harbour. Call me a philistine but I have to say I was slightly underwhelmed by it all and left after about five minutes. Apparently it is an unspoken secret amongst Hong Kongese that the light show is a bit, well, shit.

Me and the Hong Kong skyline - one of the most spectacular in the world.

Never mind, we soon managed to mask this disappointment with several bottles of wine at a bar on the 25th floor of the Princes building which offered stunning views of the Hong Kong skyline including the aforementioned HSBC building. We were soon accompanied by Mel’s husband Jonathon and a friend, TC. It was here that I learnt that white westerners are sometimes referred to (in a not altogether complimentary manner) as ‘Gwei Lo’ which literally translates as ‘White Ghost’; I think it has similar connotations to ‘Farang’ in Thai. Not to say that the locals aren’t unfriendly – I found them to be very welcoming and hospitable in general.

Anyway all in all it was an excellent night which my sore head the next morning attested to. My pounding head, combined with the on-going jet lag that I was suffering from meant that a nice relaxing final day in Hong Kong was called for. My to-do-list for the weekend had other ideas though and I soon found myself in a terrifying (or at least terrifying in my hungover state) cable car carriage on the way to Ngong Ping Village to see the famous Buddha statue. Whilst the Buddha, standing at over twenty six metres tall, was impressive, the Hong Kongese once again showed that they never miss a chance to fill an area (no

The Buddha at Lantau Island

matter how holy) with tourist crap:  The road up to the Buddha was littered with dozens of stalls and shops offering all manner of buddha-related tut.

Apart from one other harrowing experience where I became trapped in a seemingly inescapable shopping centre in Kowloon which was too traumatic to recount here, that was pretty much me done in Hong Kong.

As it turned out I had nowhere near enough time, mainly due to the jet lag which I couldn’t shake off, so I will definitely have to return. It’s an amazing city with a huge amount to see and do and, after hearing how much a Gwei Lo can earn teaching English there; it is also an attractive place to live and work.  Cheap it ain’t though – my shoebox hotel room was £70 per night, a mid-range bottle of wine in the bar that I went to with Mel was about £50, another bar I managed to end up in sold local bottled beer for over £5 a pop and the copy of The Economist (check me out) that I bought at Hong Kong airport for the flight to Sydney was £7!

That said, I still think it is worth every penny. It’s a very good introduction to Asia for the uninitiated as there’s still plenty of touches to remind you of home – three-pin plugs, signs in English and the fact that they even say “Mind the Gap” on the tube but the Chinese influence is also obvious: Feng Shui is huge (before the construction of any building is started, a Feng Shui master is consulted) and the fact that ninety five per cent of the population are of Chinese descent means that you are always aware that you are many miles from the west.

I will definitely be returning at some point but for now – next stop Sydney.

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