Incredibly, over six months had passed since we had left the UK, and now we were in our final destination prior to returning. Hong Kong was to be something of a cultural departure for us, with it being a rather unique city containing a blend of capitalist western and traditional eastern cultures. It was an intriguing proposition. Being as our flight was an overnighter, we arrived rather bleary-eyed in Hong Kong's shiny new Lan Tau airport at an unholy time in the morning. Dunc was mildly disappointed that the old, world famous Kao Lak airport was now closed and had already been built over, as the prospect of cruising a couple of hundred feet over the city in an enormous jumbo jet was an exhilarating one. Vickie on the other hand, was rather relieved that we wouldn't be attempting such a hazardous descent and would instead coast into a relatively unpopulated (by Hong Kong standards) outlying island. We were given a brief taste as to the hospitality of your average Hong Konger (they really are called this, the Rough Guide told us so....... And yes, we thought that was a funny name as well), when upon landing, a miniscule local woman popped her head up from behind her seat, grinned widely at us and loudly enquired "You come here befo'?". We replied in the negative to which she chirped, "Ah, We'come to Hong Kong!". Bless her.
Fortunately for us in our sleep-deprived state, Hong Kong still maintains much of its former British history, specifically with regards to street signs so at least we were in a position to find out where we needed to go to catch our bus into the city as most notices around the airport had both British and Cantonese translations. Some brief procrastination with regards to which method we should use to get into the city eventually led us to an airport bus that would supposedly drop us off very near to our hostel. As soon as the bus pulled out of the airport, we immediately got the feeling that we were now in a very different place. A bright red sun was lazily warming up the morning sky, rising over the back of what can only be described as the biggest Lego set in the world. The Lantau hi rise suburbs suddenly sprung up all around us, and rose a considerable distance into the sky with each building never being more than a couple of feet apart. It was an arresting and slightly intimidating sight, feeling rather akin to an Orwellian future society, or at least a scene from Blade Runner.
Incredibly enough, this was one of the more spacious islands in Hong Kong and as our bus rolled over what was actually the longest suspension bridge in the world, we suddenly had that fact thrust upon us as the concrete jungle of Hong Kong island hoved into view. There was not a patch of greenery to be found, and the multitude of roads looped, divided and stretched off into the distance like a series of meandering rivers that had carved their way through the concrete valleys. Hong Kong is actually one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, and it is well known that the only place anyone can get any space is by building upwards. This, combined with the fact that many major international finance houses have their Asian HQ's here, meant that the skyline had attained such epic proportions that much of it was lost in the low hanging fog. It was all very apocalyptic near future sci-fi film.
We stared slack jawed out of the bus window at the scene before us, with our tired brains struggling to readjust to the change of scenery. Vickie absent-mindedly commented that at least the Chinese graffiti splashed all over some of the buildings and underpasses looked quite intricate, artistic and pretty. It could have spelt "Kev + Shaz 4 eva" for all we knew. It was a tickle before 8am when we pulled up at the wonderfully monikored "Wang Fat" hostel. We had sniggered enough to each other when we first booked it, and now we were more interested in getting our heads down for some much needed shut-eye. Which, oddly enough, was exactly what the owner was doing when we arrived as we caught him napping on a bed in one of the hostel rooms. Some polite throat clearing soon roused him from his slumber, and we attempted to check in. Things were not supposed to be that simple though, as our room would not be ready for another three hours. Grr.
There was nothing for it, but to reassure ourselves and bask in the comfort of those familiar golden arches. It was McBreakfast time. After we had stopped marvelling at the fact that part of the McMenu was the option to buy such Cantonese alternatives as sweetcorn in a tub to accompany your meal, we plumped for a standard brekkie and sat staring out of the window onto the streets below as Hong Kong slowly began to wake up. Feeling better, we headed out for a bit of an explore, only to narrowly avoid blundering underneath a tram that was rumbling up the middle of the road. This over-tall and skinny contraption immediately reminded Duncan of the London bus in the Harry Potter movies. Vickie stared quizzically at the tram for a while before clicking her fingers and announcing, "It looks just like a bourbon biscuit!". Indeed.
Our explorations were curtailed slightly when we noticed that none of the shops, indeed, very few things bar the McDonalds, were open before about midday, so we sulked off back to the hotel, pausing briefly to ensure that we got ourselves lost for a few minutes on the way. We finally managed to check in and fell onto the bed.... Only to simultaneously let out a rush of air as our ribs buckled beneath us and we winded ourselves on the hideously firm mattress. To be frank, calling it a mattress is probably a touch unfair to mattresses around the world, as it was more akin to a polished marble floor. Vickie peered underneath the bedsheets, assuming that they'd simply forgotten to put a mattress down for us. But no, apparently Hong Kongers like their beds on the solid side. That explains why we hadn't seen anyone walking with a slouch since our arrival.
We attempted to get a touch of kip, and managed it briefly only to be awoken by a series of pins and needles in various limbs due to the cutting off of circulation. Once we had established that we weren't in fact suffering simultaneous strokes and it was just down to the bed, we staggered up and attempted to get ready to head out. This task soon turned into a Krypton-Factor-esque challenge as not only was there only enough space on the floor for one person to stand up at a time, but we were both still missing vital circulation and motor control over several of our more essential limbs. Several minutes of cursing and pratfalling later, we were finally ready to venture out and hit the streets properly.
Our explorations the previous day had revealed to us two things. One, Hong Kong is a simply insane city in terms of volume of people, lack of space and general business. Two, they seemed to be suffering from rather a large amount of drainage/sewer problems at the time. Vickie in particular was struggling a little having come from the space and relaxed pace of Australian, New Zealand and Fijian existence, to this life at the opposite end of the spectrum. To that end, we elected to head back out to Lantau Island and check out one of the more serene attractions Hong Kong has to offer, the Big Buddha and Paolin monastery.
To get there, we hopped onto Hong Kong's gloriously cheap, clean and efficient MTR system, and caught a train to our destination. The good folks at London Underground and GWR could certainly learn a thing or two from these chaps about how to run a decent public transport system. Along the way, we saw a stark reminder of just how precious space is around these parts, a multi-story cemetery. We kid you not. This incredible construct was sliced into the side of a mountain, and sprawled up towards its peak containing hundreds of concrete coffins stacked on top of each other. It seems that the residents of Hong Kong still have to live in blocks of flats after they have shuffled off this mortal coil.
45 minutes later, we transferred from our train to a local bus that was to take us the rest of the way to our destination. The seats on said bus were, it has to be said, clearly made in the same toy-town factory as our room and were somewhat less than spacious. Dunc in particular was struggling for leg space and bum cheek room, and Vickie was nearly catapulted into the aisle every time we negotiated a tight corner. Nonetheless, we were treated to some wonderful scenery on our winding road through the green and mountainous valleys, and visibly began to relax and breathe a little more freely the nearer we got to our destination.
The Big Buddha is a truly colossal construction, and something that really has to be seen to be believed. He towers a huge 34m tall, weighs more than a jumbo jet, is made completely of bronze and sits serenely atop a huge peak gazing out over the whole island. We enthusiastically decanted from the bus, glanced around and immediately noticed the car park full of tour busses and hordes of people traipsing up the steps to get a closer look at the Buddha. It appeared that this was as peaceful as Hong Kong got without actually joining a monastery oneself. The whole area did contain a certain charm though, and as we made our way over to the Paolin monastery to investigate, we soon stumbled across many large furnaces containing hundreds upon hundreds of burning incense sticks. It smelt both spiritual and kind of like a students bedroom at the same time. Whilst Dunc recorded the scene on our camera for posterity, Vickie busied herself by warming her hands near one of the fires. We were having to readjust to temperatures that weren't in the mid 30's any longer.
After a fascinating hour spent strolling around the monastery taking in the sights and smells and enjoying copious amounts of people watching, we stumbled across a back room where several actual monks were performing a series of ceremonies. Dunc studied the group closely, secretly hoping that they would soon leap from their chairs and start hitting each other with blocks of concrete and large wooden sticks. Alas it was not to be - apparently that only really happens in old kung fu movies and stage shows - and instead the monks maintained their reverie and rhythmical chants long after we had moved on.
The entire monastery was adorned with brightly coloured decorative lanterns and flowers, and Vickie hungrily took photo upon photo whilst repeatedly commenting on how pretty it all was, and, rather more mundanely, how they'd be quite handy to use as props in any RE lessons she may have to teach in the future.
We decided then to head over to the Big Buddha for a closer look, and began the long trek up several hundred steps to the base of the statue. Rather pitifully, we only managed to get about ¼ of the way to the top, before concluding that we would probably not see anything there that we couldn't already see from here, and spun on our heels to depart instead, unrepentant at our uselessness.
Back in the city, we decided to hit the shops for a little. We had deliberately been squirreling some money away from our travel budget to allow us to have a bit of a shopping splurge on our last few days, and now was the time for us to start taking advantage. During our wanderings, Dunc noticed a tiny tailors shop sign on the 2nd floor of a non-descript building, and promptly dragged Vickie in for a closer look. He stumbled across a mini-treasure trove of finely tailored suits, and wasted no time getting in amongst them to see if there was anything for him. Having found a suitable specimen, he then spent a comical few minutes attempting to converse with the little non-English speaking shop lady, much to Vickie's giggly amusement. This kindly woman was so keen for a sale, that she even accosted a passing local, found out if he spoke any English and dragged him over to use as a translator to help seal the deal. It was all wonderfully entertaining stuff, and we eventually parted company a suit to the good and a surprisingly small amount of cash worse off (god bless the struggling asian economy).
We were pretty tuckered out by this stage, and had been looking forward to a decent nights sleep despite the inherent discomfort caused by our bed. Alas, it was not to be. At around midnight, we were woken by a ruckus out in the corridor, and a deep voice hollering "Hong Kong police! Open up!" whilst rapping on each door in the block. Curious and slightly concerned, we debated as to whether this was a genuine request or just some local criminal trying to rob the tourists. Eventually, Dunc got up and peered out of the door, to be greeted by a slightly red-faced and official looking chap, who promptly demanded to see some form of id. Still wondering as to whether this was a scam, Dunc glanced over the mans shoulder to see the hostel owner looking sheepish and repeatedly telling the official "I just run a guest house. Just a guest house". Ok, this looked official, which was probably just as well because Dunc had to admit that his Kung-Fu rock-em, sock-em defence technique was probably a little less Bruce lee and a little more Bruce Forsyth.
Dunc slowly showed our passports to the growling policeman, who peered closely at the picture, then over Dunc's shoulder to Vickie, then, clearly satisfied, gave us our documents back before stalking off to the next room despite the pleas of the hostel owner. The joys of regime change, we supposed.
The following morning, Dunc awoke early, still slightly troubled by the previous night and an increasingly spiky Vickie, and sloped off to one of the hostel internet terminals. He came back noticeably more chipper and declared that he had booked the pair of us into a posh, more spacious 4 star hotel on the other side of Hong Kong Island, with views out over the harbour. When Vickie began to complain about budgets and not having any money, Dunc placated her with a gentle "Shut up, its my treat". As it turned out, he had a slightly more Machiavellian reason for this, but that will have to wait until later.
Before we moved abodes, we journeyed out to across Hong Kong harbour to the Kowloon peninsula. Apparently, this is where the "bargains" are for the discerning consumer. As we sat chugging across the water on the star ferry, we glanced back towards the Hong Kong island skyline and it has to be said, it was quite something to behold. Whatever else you may think of the place, you have to appreciate the crazy feats of engineering that have taken place to allow such a huge amount of people to exist in such a small space. It was certainly one of the most impressive cityscapes we had seen, rivalling Manhattan Island in its shiny silver grandeur.
No sooner had we stepped foot off the ferry, than we were accosted by several dozen leaflet wielding salesmen, all endeavouring to get us back to their tailor shops and sell us some clothes. It was quite a gauntlet to run and it took us some time before we managed to escape their irritating clutches and find the first of many shopping centres in the area. If there is one thing that Hong Kong does better than most places, its shop. The rampant consumerism might not be to everyone's tastes, but it certainly makes for an engaging time. Our first discovery was a cheap watch store, - just the kind that the authorities are attempting to crack down on at present - this'll do nicely. We tried on lots of different styles and colours, with Vickie eventually plumping for a couple of different watches, both of which needed a bit of adjustment to fit. Once the first one had been sorted, Dunc lost control of himself a little, and began to talk English with a Chinese accent when he handed both watches to the stall-keeper and asked if he could have them "Made same si'". For some reason, Vickie found this hysterically amusing, and lost all ability to speak for a good few minutes afterwards whilst Dunc grinned sheepishly and said "Well at least he knew what I was on about".
The lower end of Kowloon, a district called Tsim Sha Tsui, was a maze of neon signs, cheap outlet stores and dodgy Indian fellows trying to sell you more watches. Although as a shopping experience it was less straightforward than we had hoped, we couldn't argue with the sheer volume of things available to buy. A brief stop at the notorious ChungKing mansions - home of many low budget Hong Kong gangsta flicks and cheap guest houses - pointed out to us that we'd probably made the right choice by not staying there, and we decided to get back on the ferry and head back to Hong Kong Island for some tucker.
So far, we had been in Hong Kong for three days and had not sampled any true Chinese food yet, so we figured that our final night would be an opportune moment to do so. We checked into the very plush Lai Kwan Fong hotel (which cheered Vickie up no end partly because it had a toilet larger than the ones you used to get in nursery school, and a bed that didn't cripple you after 30 minutes), and elected to go on a search for some genuine local food. This turned out to be quite the adventure.
After peering into and dismissing several restaurants, hunger got the better of us and we stopped at a small place that had several cooked Ducks, Chickens and other more unrecognisable things hanging in the window. This'll do nicely we both thought, and proceeded to browse the menu for possibilities. Once we had chosen what we wanted, there followed a brief but intense (and pretty hysterical) period of negotiation when the serving lady - whose grasp of English was only slightly firmer than Dunc's grasp of Cantonese - attempted to offer us an entire duck (beak, feet and all!) and when this didn't go down well, suggested which sections of the duck they could hack off for us for a certain price. Eventually, we managed to get a ¼ Duck - the back end because apparently that was nicer - a roast pork with rice and a chunk of Chicken atop what appeared to be super noodles. We left thinking that we'd probably not ordered the finest cuisine they had to offer.
And so it proved, as we glumly dissected, chewed, spat out and generally discarded the majority of our meal. Dunc lingered on the irony that possibly our worst Chinese meal ever had actually been ordered and consumed in China. We had already put a contingency plan in place for just such an occurrence however, and instead tucked into the bottle of sparkling wine and large box of very tasty chocolate chip cookies procured earlier in the evening as we gazed out over the lit up and splendid looking Hong Kong harbour, which lifted our spirits no end.
The final night of our trip was now progressing nicely, and things took a turn for the even better when Vickie decided to have a well-earned and luxurious soak in the palatial bathroom, leaving Dunc to channel hop on the in room Cable. As if things weren't pleasant enough, he stumbled across a Blackburn Rovers game in progress! Score. Unfortunately for him, he was unable to concentrate too hard on the game because he had one or two other things encroaching on his mind at the time.
Exactly what this was soon became clear when a refreshed and chipper Vickie returned from her bath and sat herself down on the Chinese window seat. Dunc suddenly sprung into action, and spun round on the bed to face her directly, before talking to her in a most odd manner. After a couple of minutes of earnest conversation (of which the details will be kept forever private), he sunk to one knee and, producing a ring he'd purchased some three months earlier in New Zealand, politely enquired as to whether Vickie would be interested in marrying him.
If this had been a soap opera, then now would have been the "Dum, dum, dum dum dumm" moment.
Vickie's face lit up as she slowly grasped what was being proposed, and she responded with a resounding "Yes!". This was now officially the best day of our trip. When she initial hugs and hollering had calmed down, Vickie sheepishly said "So you want to marry me even though I've been such a miserable *****?". At this juncture, this sentence probably needs a little explanation. Dunc's original plan had been to take Vickie to the top of Victoria peak and, looking out over the magnificent Hong Kong skyline lit up at night, propose to her, "Sleepless in Seattle" style. However, a combination of the poor weather, lack of sleep and Vickie's continuous complaints about said weather and sleep issues, as well as the crowds, smell, the fact that we were going home soon, and the fact that she wanted to go back to New Zealand, had kind of put paid to any such romantic idealism from Dunc. However, as the sage Del Boy often uttered, "He who dares", and Dunc swiftly rearranged his plans and instead focussed on improving Vickie's disposition to create a better atmosphere for the most important question in their lives (hence the cookies, sparkling wine and posh hotel).
The next couple of hours went by in a blur of calls home to the family, and repeated shoutings of "Oh my god, we're getting married!", before tiredness overtook us and we fell into a happy and restful sleep.
Our final day was to be focussed primarily on one thing. Ring shopping. This led us to many of Hong Kong's million jewellers before we eventually found one we liked and cheerfully purchased. As an aside to this, we were frantically attempting to spend our remaining shopping money on several more clothing items for both of us, necessitating some dashing between stores as garments were ordered, altered and purchased. Just when we were getting into the swing of it, it was time to gather our bags and make our way to the airport express train to board the final flight of our journey.
At the airport, Vickie consoled herself by spending some time in the bookshop thumbing through copies of the Lonely planet and building an exhaustative list of places and adventures that we needed to experience in the future - including already sorting out a honeymoon short list. Our flight back was not a turbulence free one, and getting off the plane at 4:30am in a soggy and cold Heathrow almost caused us to about turn and order the crew to take us back. However, our spirits soared when we were greeted in the arrivals lounge by a camera wielding Dad Finlay, and a wildly grinning Mum Finlay, who was almost completely invisible behind a huge placard with "Dunc and Vickie" on it in home made letters, and several balloons with "Welcome back" and "Happy engagement" on them. As we returned home, it all began to feel familiar and rather comfortable, and with the wedding and house buying on the horizon, perhaps getting back to the UK wasn't too bad after all. Seeing the joyful reactions of our families when we greeted them once more spelt out one thing to us very clearly. It may not be warm, it may not be spectacular, but one thing is for sure......Home is definitely where our hearts are.
The End (for now)