Transsiberian, Day 20: A quick night in Hong Kong

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

I woke up at 7am to head off, since Kelsang arranged for a van to pick me up to bring me to the airport at 7:30am. I gathered my things and woke up Mihaela on my way out to bid her farewell.

I just want to take a moment to say Mihaela was an awesome travel buddy on this trip. I met her in Mongolia about halfway through the trip, and from the first moment I met her, she was cracking me up. I also am biased on my attitude towards Mihaela because she always laughed at my jokes, no matter how lame ("Is this the great wall of China?" I facetiously said while passing the walls bordering Xi'an, much to Mihaela's amusement), and once even complimented my humor by saying "How do you come up with this stuff? You're so quick!" Her laugh always lightened everyone's mood, and even earned her the nickname "ROFLOLMAO."  It was a shame when, last night, she lost her voice, reducing her warm laugh to a soft humming "hehe." But it was still amusing to hear her vocal chords struggle to still push it out.

I loved her "this sucks but it's not a big deal" attitude with so many things, from the dangerously bouncy backseat in our Mongolian van to the watered-down corn porridge in Beijing. She wanted to see everything and experience it all with such passion (to the point of getting teary-eyed at the beauty of Tibetan temples) but if things didn't go according to plan, she happily brushed it off. She had such a great attitude, which is something that's very important in travel, because you never know what to expect, especially in a foreign country. She was my roommate in Lhasa and during our down time, we bonded while bundled in bath robes, snacking on gelatin candy and sipping on cups of tea. Travel inherently grows a deeper bond in people, more than any other chance meeting, and I'm glad to have met her.

After hugging Mihaela goodbye, I grabbed my bags and headed out. I went outside just before 7:30am to find a van waiting for me. It wasn’t our usual driver, or our usual van, but in very good English the man said, “You’re going to the airport, right?” Sure, that’s enough for me to get in this stranger’s car, why not? Strangers in cars seems to be a theme on this trip.

We drove in the darkness to the airport, and it was so strange to see the streets of Lhasa without cars or pedestrians. It was eerily quiet, soundtracked by the Hans Zimmer music quietly playing from the driver's speakers. It was drastically different than yesterday, with hordes of cars and people and mopeds and trucks all honking and shouting their ways through the sidewalks and streets.

I get to the airport at 8:30am, go through the “explosives check” before entering the building, and then check in for my mystery flight, as I had issues checking in yesterday. The place is utter chaos, and at least four people try to cut me in line, but I aggressively push them aside with a wide stance and a stone-cold stare. Good news: the airlines have a record of my flight. Bad news: apparently they can only check me in for the first leg. The guy I have at the counter keeps deferring to another guy at the neighboring counter who speaks better English, but he’s not much help. “Why can’t I check in for both flights now?” “You check in at Chongqing. We don’t have it.” Sure, makes PERFECT sense. Luckily I have a three hour stopover in Chongqing!

While waiting in line for security check, I see the obligatory bin of lighters just before the metal detectors. A Chinese man a few people in front of me talks to a nearby security officer. I can't understand Mandarin, but here's what I presume is the conversation:
Man: *holds up lighter* Excuse me, I have a lighter, can I bring this through security?
Officer: Sorry, sir, there's a bin to your left where you'll need to toss it.
Man: But can I bring the lighter through, just this once?
Officer: Have you traveled before? Or even left your house, to enter through any one of our country's multiple security checks? Every security check has the obligatory lighter bin, for the 800 lighters that we collect every day. Please place it in the bin.
Man: *puts lighter in bin* Oh, alright. 
I go through a painless security check and get to my gate at 9:05. Boarding begins in 25 minutes. Thank god I insisted the driver pick me up at 7:30 instead of 8am…I can’t imagine if things hadn’t gone so smoothly and I got on my flight midway through the boarding process.

I arrive in Chongqing and wait in line for the check in desk only to find out that I am in T2 and my flight departs from T1! I ask the man where that is and he gestures in a general direction northeast, and I say “where” and he says "there." “But where?” He pauses extra-long between single words, as if looking for me to fill in the rest of the blanks. “Walking ten minutes, train twenty minutes.” Sounds like the most inefficient train system ever, so I decide to walk.

I can’t find anything marked as a transfer train, and before I get on something that looks like the local metro to the city center, I ask for help again from two young female store vendors, only to hear embarrassed giggles at the language barrier, so I decide to figure it out myself. I exit the security and head outside to a booth that says "airport transfer bus." Not a train, but a bus. The map shows nothing about terminal one. I ask the woman behind the counter in the booth, and through gesturing, she tells me the T1 bus is down to the right, but after I ditch her, I discover no bus signs and instead signs indicating the distance in meters to T1. I guess I’ll walk. I should have checked the weather in Chongqing since I didn’t realize I’d be WALKING OUTDOORS 400 METERS TO MY CONNECTING FLIGHT.

I go through the customs line for the international terminal that takes all of three minutes (but I had to wait 45 minutes for the customs area to even open) and get in a speedy line for check in. I warn the woman that my passport may not be linked to the flight information. “It’s here!” she says with a smile. “Would you like a window or an aisle?” Not only is this connecting flight a non-issue, but I get a seat preference! Amazing.

I was originally thankful for the three-hour layover time due to that obnoxious walk, but everything else goes pretty quickly. I zip through passport control and then through security (the only thing that they look at twice is my padlock. Hand warmers are safe once again!). There is basically no food in the international terminal, which consists of five sad little gates, unless you count a "cafĂ©" that sells bottled water and Oreos “real food.” I end up digging through my food bag and settle on some beef jerky for lunch.

I luck out and find not one but TWO outlets and sit for the long wait for my flight, as it turns out to be delayed. We finally board, 80 minutes behind schedule, and upon landing I race through the customs like a bat out of hell. Of course, I miss that I need to fill out an arrival card, so I have to then get in the line that formed in the three minutes of me filling that out. I then run like a bat out of hell through immigration and customs to the main entrance of the airport. I race past a row of pamphlets listing the free WiFi password, grabbing one in my speedy stride. While I speedwalk, I enter the password, rushing towards ground transport. But then I'm out of the Wifi zone and have to rush back into the airport to message Chris to let him know I arrived. COME ON, LET ME GET TO HONG KONG AS FAST AS POSSIBLE!!!

Chris is someone I met on the Silk Road trip I took with Monsoon Diaries last year, and he lives in Hong Kong so I made it a point to see him while I was here. To be honest, I had several stopover options for my way home, but Hong Kong seemed the most interesting, and I'd get to see an old friend. Two birds, one stone!

I message Chris, then rush off to the ticket counter, get on the A11 bus and FINALLY I am on my way.

I get to my hostel around 7:45pm and let Chris know I've arrived, and of course he is just around the corner so I scramble to change and not look like a person who ran through three airports in one day and ate beef jerky for lunch.

Chris meets me at the hostel, bringing his friends Viney and Ryu along with him. Ryu is impressed I knew how to spell his name. Uh, hello, Street Fighter? That game/franchise clearly prepared me for future interactions with half-Japanese friends made in Hong Kong during adulthood.

We head off and now that I am in my non-frenzy/rush/panic-to-get-to-the-hostel-asap state of mind, I take in my surroundings a bit while we hail a cab. The weather is drizzly but warm (50*F/10*C, balmy compared to the freezing temps I've been accustomed to), and wow, this city is bright and alive, like NYC. It's like a flashy, foreign NYC. It's weird and wonderful.

We cab it to Ying Kee Hot Pot Seafood Restaurant, which appears to be Harley Davidson-themed, with a glass case in the lobby filled with belt buckles, salt and pepper shakers, hats, collectible coins, and other HD memorabilia, sitting across from four large fish tanks housing our dinner options for the evening.

It's a hot pot restaurant. Calvin mentioned hot pot several times in China but we never made it happen. As we're walked to our table, I see more Harley Davidson logos emblazoned on the mirrored walls, and I look around at families and friends sitting around round tables enjoying their DIY meals.
Me: So is Hot Pot like Korean BBQ--
Chris: No.
Me: --but with boiling water?
Chris: Oh, yeah, I guess. Yes it is. 
We sit at our table and a waitress comes by to turn on the burner in the center, placing a bowl of broth over it. The broth is split into two sections, regular and spicy. Spicy is a dead giveaway based on the number of red chili peppers floating at the surface. Chris and Viney order everything, and soon we're brought our meal. We're provided two sets of chopsticks, one black and one white (one for the raw food handling, one for eating), along with a pot of green tea. The waitress shortly returns with a tray of four kinds of meatballs (cuttlefish, beef, pork and shrimp), a plate of thinly-sliced beef, some spam, noodles, and crispy bean sprouts that look like deep-fried wonton papers but I assume are perhaps healthier.

Viney tells me the meatballs are ready when they float at the top, and off I go, cooking and eating and cooking and eating until the table is cleared of meat. I learn more about Ryu and how he lived in Austria, and how he's half-Japanese, so I of course tell him my favorite (and only known) phrase in Japanese, which is "I eat like a bulldozer." It's a phrase that comes in handy all the time. We have a lovely meal and I enjoy the cook-it-yourself aspect, much like the experience of Korean BBQ.

Around 11pm I ask if they have to head out or if we have time to go anywhere else. Chris already has a place in mind, so we grab another cab and head to The Iron Fairies, a REALLY COOL BAR. At least, that's what kept repeating in my head as we entered the curtained doorway, walked past the short tables filled with little iron fairy figurines and surrounded by tufted leather stools, under the hanging-butterfly-adorned ceiling, past the rusted chandeliers and rows upon rows of blacksmith tongs to the riveted iron-clad casting rooms, one of which Chris reserved for the four of us. We climb through the wrought-iron door into the tiny candlelit room that had a couple stools and a couch surrounding a reclaimed wood table. Right beside me is an opening to the stage, where a jazz flutist freestyles to a DJ's chill wave track. THIS IS SO COOL!

We settle in and get our cocktails, which are similar in price to a fancy place in Chicago (about $15 each). I order a "Smoke in a bottle #1" which is house-infused blueberry vodka, elderflower liqueur, homemade sage cordial, freshly squeezed lemon, and creme de cassis with smoked cacao nibs. It's served, as its name would hint, smoking in a bottle, and poured over ice in front of me. It is sweet but has a smoky, earthy taste to it as well.

At the bar I ask Chris and his friends about Cantonese and its difference from Mandarin ("Mandarin sounds angry and ugly," says Chris), how Hong Kong has an international appeal (and residents), and how despite all the suggestions of things to do in Hong Kong, I ask for a suggestion for tomorrow morning and am met with blank, off-in-the-distance "thinking" stares accompanied by silence from Chris, Ryu and Viney who all cannot think of a single thing for me to do before 10am. Everything is closed tomorrow morning, even the very cool street market that I've only heard good things about. Bummer. I will have to return to Hong Kong again, since these brief hours didn't provide me with time to do much of anything.

We finish our drinks and take photos with the fairy figurines before heading off around 1:30am in a cab back to my hostel. I bid them farewell, and thank them for a lovely night!

Back at the hostel, in one last desperate attempt, I ask the hostel staff for morning activity suggestions. The woman tells me that stores don't open until 10am, so I'm out of luck there, and all the cool sights are also only hopping starting at midday. The one thing she suggests is going to The Peak, but for me to get there, have time to walk around and enjoy myself, and return, I'd need to wake up at an excruciating 6am. Not going to happen, sorry.

I head back to my room, defeated, and drift off to sleep. As I drift, I notice a pungent smell. The reviews did not lie. This room does smell like feet.