I spent my next few days playing local in Hong Kong. We dined in a cafeteria above a wet market where live produce is sold by day and workers eat and relax at night. The cafeteria was huge, stark white and reminiscent of a BINGO hall. We were the only Westerners around, there was no English anywhere and we loved it. All around us people enjoyed their food, drank beer from bowls and chilled wine in huge plastic buckets right on the tables Before we ate, our chopsticks, bowls, cups and spoons were sterilized for us in steaming tea and then we joined right in toasting Hong Kong with beer-in-a-bowl and munching on deep fried pig elbow. I attempted to hike on Victoria Peak but the day I arrived threatening clouds were hanging on the western horizon. As I walked along, a short man came running in the opposite direction shouting something that sounded like the Chinese version of “ay-yi-yi!” He motioned for me to turn around and when I rounded the corner and saw the view I knew why. Victoria Peak gives a stunning view of the skyline, but the entire western side was engulfed in a sheet of grey rain. It was impressive and I snapped a few pictures before high tailing it to cover.
I also spent an afternoon in the kindergarten where my friend works. The school was obviously affluent and there was even a miniature climbing wall for the kids. But in the end rich four year olds are still four year olds and I had a great time pounding play-doh with them.
Hong Kong can have hellish air pollution, but during my stay the air had been very clear. However, as my train neared Guangzhou and I got my first glimpses at mainland China the sky became a yellowy brown and although it was still a sunny day, the sunlight became diffuse – as if struggling to shine through a veil. The source of the pollution was evident in the many factories we passed as well as from the cars stuck in gridlock in the city and the many garbage fires necessitated by a lack of trash collection. I have seen such trash fires before in Ecuador, Peru, Panama and even in the Netherlands, but never have I seen air pollution blot out the sun. Though I had read and heard about it I was stunned. The rivers were also astonishing with the water running black or brown or red or fluorescent yellow and mixing like paint where tributaries met. The sun set blood red that night disappearing into a cloud of grey haze well above the horizon, and as the train rumbled past factories in the darkness I felt a deep sadness for what we are doing to our planet. Sure it is easy to blame the Chinese and to say that the sky and the rivers are still blue in Canada or the Netherlands, but pick up any manufactured good and read the label. If it says “Made in China” then we are just as guilty as they are – if not more.
I entered Beijing around noon and after the initial shock of seeing hundreds of people sprawled out asleep on the floor in the train station (not homeless just taking a midday nap) I headed to my hostel. Beijing is an interesting contrast to Hong Kong and in terms of urban planning they seemed to be polar opposites. Hong Kong is a vertical city with towering skyscrapers, raised pedestrians walkways and expressway flyovers everywhere. In contrast Beijing is a sprawling city with huge expressways crisscrossing its centre in a neat grid. I considered these huge roads a hazard to my health and not just because of pollution. There are a few pedestrian underpasses near tourist sites in Beijing, but for the most part crossing the street amid bicycles, buses and taxis (all with horns blaring) was a cross between a 100 meter dash and a game of Frogger! Also, Hong Kong is ringed by green mountains and hiking is easily accessible via the subway. Beijing on the other hand appears flat and dusty, and although there are mountains nearby, they are completely blotted out by smog, which obscures even nearby buildings. Still, though Hong Kong wins hands down in terms of livability, Beijing wins in terms of cultural history. On my first night I was brought to tears as I got my first glimpse of Tiananmen Square – vast, lit by flood lights, and ruled by a huge portrait of Mao Zedong. The history of the place, both revolutionary and repulsive, was overwhelming. I wandered the square for about an hour and as I left via a rare pedestrian underpass I was startled by the sound of gunfire. I gazed in amazement at vendors selling robotic toy soldiers that crawled along the ground firing very realistic sounding machine guns. Whether this was an inappropriate way to make a buck or a carefully disguised reminder of the past I don’t know, but the sound chilled me.