Thursday, 31 December 2015

Don't touch wild camels

"Don't touch wild camels" warned the tannoy announcement as I arrived at Hong Kong airport. Slightly confused, I boarded the train to the city centre, safe in the knowledge - I assumed - that my trip would be entirely camel-free.

What with the food, the people and the language, Hong Kong feels quite, you know, foreign. Until, that is, you charge your phone with a British 3-pin plug and it blows your mind, or you go for a drink at a pub called The Globe in the heart of Soho and you're surrounded by pompous, white city boys. It's little wonder so many expats feel at home here.

Hong Kong © Ryan Chapman

After all, this identity-muddled corner of China was under the thumb of ol' Queenie until as recently as 1997, when the British Empire completed its imperial liquidation by handing Hong Kong to the Chinese. That's more recent than such culturally signifiant events as Arsene Wenger taking charge of Arsenal and R Kelly believing he could fly. My point being, it wasn't very long ago.

On my flight from Heathrow I had sat next to a very helpful lady who took it upon herself to recite the entire Hong Kong Lonely Planet guide into my face. As a result, I had a fairly in-depth knowledge of all the tourist hot-spots, but ended up doing exactly what I usually do in foreign cities: wandering around aimlessly, taking photographs and drinking beer.

I stopped regularly at food stalls and snacked on a variety of local favourites from roast duck on a stick to curry fish balls on a stick and from grilled squid on a stick to chicken cartilage - the bits you’d usually spit out - you guessed it, on a stick. The stick, of the latter combination, being the more edible of the duo. 

Hong Kong © Ryan Chapman

On my last evening before moving on I took in the harbour view from The Peak (because everyone said I shouldn't leave town before at least doing that), caught up with some old friends who I belatedly remembered lived in Hong Kong and watched English football in the only bar I could find not screening the Rugby World Cup. All, I feel compelled to add, without any encounters with camels. The next morning, I headed north over the faintly drawn border to Shenzhen.

Hong Kong and Shenzhen are linked by their metro systems: it's like getting the Tube up to High Barnet on the Northern Line, crossing the road, and then being at the Morden of an entirely different, but equally large city. Small and insignificant until as recently as 1979, Shenzhen is a product of China's effort to prove that a capitalist economy can thrive under a communist government, or "socialism with Chinese characteristics" as they put it. Whatever it is, it's boomtown: growing from the size of Dover to the size of London in just a few decades.

I was in Shenzhen to point cameras at people talking about cameras in exchange for money. My accommodation was sorted for me by the client and, as such, didn't bare the usual hallmarks of somewhere I'd usually choose to book myself, such as damp walls and stained carpets. To the contrary I found myself in the ridiculously luxurious surroundings of the overtly five star Langham Hotel.

Greeted at the door by four people – two to open it and two to smile – my first impressions were accompanied by the gentle plucking of a harp. Suitably impressed, I dumped my bags on the polished marble floor, sweat dripping from hauling them across the city, and was tempted to ask the immaculately presented receptionist whether this was the backpackers hostel.

Thinking better of it, I handed over my passport to Sunny, who checked me in, and was then shown to the lift by Sunny's colleague, Rainy. I really hoped that the next employee I encountered was called Windy but I forgot all about that when I entered my room and found a pillow menu awaiting my perusal, along side a note telling me what the weather was like today (in case I couldn't work out how to open the curtains). I could tell most of these luxuries were going to pass me by.

Every morning my cables were tidied
(which was actually quite annoying)

Settling on the normal pillow-shaped and normal pillow-sized lavender scented option that came as standard - albeit tempted by the alluringly named full-body pillow - I went for a drink in the hotel bar where I was soon to discover the annoyances of five-star Chinese hospitality.

As I sat, watching Shenzhen go by from the 21st floor, I was overcome with horror when my perfectly measured Cuba Libre was flooded with Coca-Cola by the over-eager resident topper-upper. Luckily for them, there was no openable window or else they may have found themselves being ejected through it.

The next morning at breakfast, exasperation levels were only marginally lower when, half-way through my morning cup of tea, along came a waitress who topped it up with coffee. Such was their desire to serve guests their every whim, the only option was to greet such travesties with gratitude and a smile. Anything else would have no doubt seen some lower-lips begin to tremble.

On another night, when a glass broke near me and I bent down to help pick up the pieces, the look on the waiter's face was one of terror. I stubbornly continued to help until I was literally man-handled out of the way.

Somehow avoiding death after daring to touch broken glass with my bare fingers, and surviving the incessantly hindering helpfulness of the hotel staff, I finally got the chance to explore Shenzhen on my last day and found it to be a much greener, more pleasant city than I had expected. One thing I was particularly keen to check out was a park containing replica landmarks from around the world that filled a huge site just outside the city centre.

Copy of Venice, Shenzhen © Ryan Chapman
Divided into zones, visitors can enjoy the morning in South East Asia and the afternoon in North America. Though it got boring quite quickly, I stayed long enough to find the area depicting England and was amused to find locals particularly enamoured by a replica of Stonehenge.

I've heard it said at home that Stonehenge is "just a pile of stones", which is definitely true if you take away the historic and spiritual context, like here. However, that didn't stop people photographing themselves, selfie-sticks at full stretch, in front of the pseudo-ancient rock formation; safe in the knowledge they'd now never have to go to Wiltshire.

Copy of Stonehenge, Shenzhen © Ryan Chapman

Copy of Paris, Shenzhen © Ryan Chapman

The place had replicas of a whole lot more: from the Vatican City to an almost-life sized interpretation of Paris, complete with a Parisian cafe serving croissants. And then, just when I'd forgotten the advice from Hong Kong airport I entered the Egyptian zone and there, standing by The Sphinx, staring into my soul whilst munching on hay in an all-too sinister fashion was a very real and very large camel. And I swear, at that very moment, it winked it me.