“That’s not a holiday” people cried out once we booked our New Year holiday last April. “Only” four days in our main destination Hong Kong, whilst taking 34 hours to get there and 38 to come home.
Our chosen (yep, we actually chose it!) trip included eight hours in Amsterdam and a 23-hour layover in Beijing on the way, with 19 hours in the latter on the way home. To me you see, that’s three holidays in one.
My first experience of making the most of a layover was in Singapore in 2015. It was always on the cards but looked unlikely when I reached the airport with 10 hours before my flight. Luckily a few regular eBay customers were Singaporean so convinced me to go in to the city, which I did, and loved it, and from that point I always look at flights and see where we can go ‘for free’ when transferring. Straight after Singapore came 7 hours in Zurich, Switzerland and since Bangkok, Helsinki and Warsaw have been ticked off my list. There’s a fine line between the hassle being worthwhile or pointless, which I think depends on the size of the city and the things you want to do. Never regret going, as long as you get back for your flight! This trip was Mikayla’s first insight in to my ludicrous trips between flights as the past two years we had been lucky (?) enough to fly direct to New York and Toronto.
1 – Home to Amsterdam
The Christmas Tree was boxed up and in the attic by 9pm Boxing Day as we relaxed in front of Netflix having packed earlier in the day. We were picked up bang on time and set off to Bristol Airport at 2am. Little known to us in the west side of Newport, everywhere east of us were experienced snow and by the time we got to Bristol there was a good 2 inches settling. We decided to follow the SatNav through the lanes and mile by mile witnessed bigger and larger trees crippled on to the road. It should have only been a matter of time then until we came to a stop thanks to an immovable trunk blocking the way.
After the third detour we found a clear run to the airport and the vision of warmer climate was in our sights. The nice gent swiftly took our luggage and printed off our boarding passes needed to get to HK and off we toddled through security. It was here where I bumped in to Kay, a regular over the County and the chat we had about our trip and theirs to South Africa took a good chunk of the waiting time before we boarded the 6:30 flight to Amsterdam. We said our goodbyes to Kay, only for her and her husband to be sat next to us on the same flight! I delegated conversion to Mikayla during the flight as I swiftly nodded off until we set down in the Netherlands.
2 – Amsterdam
For one reason or another I have passed up a few opportunities to visit the ‘Dam before this point, and when I did think I visited in 2013 by staying in an airport hotel it turned out that I was actually in another town close by! We had already decided the best way to get around was to first jump on the sightseeing bus, which for €21 each wasn’t great value for money but did the job in taking us to key parts of the city. I must admit that it didn’t strike me as a place so many people want to visit – with or without spacecakes – but still it was very pleasant and I got the feeling we could have seen everything we wanted to see within a couple of days. The one thing we specifically did want to visit was the Anne Frank museum, situated in the actual house she lived in when the Nazi’s came knocking. Due to refurbishment work the only way you could get tickets was to buy online, with the earliest time being a little too late for us. With mild disappointment, we completed the rest of the tour route on foot stopping for a magnet for the mother and lunch before our train took us back to Schipol well in time for flight two of the day.
Amsterdam airport does feel rather welcoming and spacious considering it’s the fifth busiest airport in the world and there was no trouble in finding comfortable seats five minutes away from our gate. So comfortable in fact, we both managed to catch forty winks and it was only by chance Mikayla woke up as the flight was boarding and rushed as fast as we could to the gate. I’ve come close to missing flights before and regularly end up in Cardiff after sleeping on National Express coaches. There was no reason why we couldn’t have slept for that extra ten minutes and missed the flight but who cares? We were on our way.
The KLM flight to Beijing was perfectly acceptable. A simple rice and chicken dish for dinner before watching Dunkirk and Despicable Me 3 on the entertainment system was enjoyable, if not slightly annoying as we both knew we should have been getting sleep. Nevertheless the trip was over before we knew it, shortly after a breakfast serving of omelette and scrambled egg. As someone who doesn’t like egg I thought that was a bit of a piss take to be honest.
3 – Beijing
One of the big red flashing danger signs of the trip was regarding entry to China. We booked the holiday not even considering a Visa, so months followed looking around and was confident that we could enter using a 24 hour visa-free pass but trying to find something from an official source was impossible. The flight attendant on the plane certainly didn’t help things – the Hong Kong national was quite sceptical (horror) but after speaking to his colleagues finalised the possibility of being unsure.
The process is in actual fact quite simple should you be stopping at Beijing airport for under 24 hours, you just need to fill in an a4 form at immigration, ensure you have your ongoing flight details and wait while the one member of staff gets through thirty people in front of you. For this reason we hadn’t made a single plan on how or what we were going to do should we be allowed in, and we quickly agreed that first priority should be the Great Wall some 60 kilometres away. Having arrived at 10am and in a taxi at midday to the Great Wall we were doing rather well. We approached the information point after security and the lady quickly provided us with a private taxi to take us to the wall, wait for 3 hours and take us to Tiananmen Square. 1200 RMB worked out at around £150 for us both yet was so convenient and probably the only option as direct airport-to-wall layover tours leaves early morning.
The ride to the wall was fascinating. Only half the journey was spent on a dual carriageway before we meandered through small villages without any sign of the wall in sight. Dozens of family run restaurants adorned the streets and I did wonder who actually eats in them as the villages were hardly a tourist hotspot themselves, and apart from the odd person selling fruit at the side of the road the communities did not seem very populous. During the ride to the Wall, the most popular Mutianyu section, Kay repeatedly drifted off to sleep. Harshly I found myself irritated, almost annoyed that we were going to see one of the wonders of the world and she decided to have a nap, but bearing in mind we had been going for 28 hours with minimal shut eye it was more than understandable. Whenever Kay was able to nod off on the ten-hour flight the flight stewards soon decided to come around with a drink or food she didn’t like – quite humorous looking back!
After an hour give or take we pulled in to the car park and our driver tried his best to tell us where to buy tickets, with me failing miserably trying to suggest I wanted a ciggy before we go any further. Thankfully the lady at the kiosk spoke good English and ensured we had our entrance ticket, shuttle bus and cable-car ride. All for about £18 each. The shuttle bus was a welcome addition to the package once we swam through the masses of souvenir stalls that could spot ‘tourist Chris’ a mile away and this dropped us at the base of the walk to the wall. Only at this point did it strike me that the wall is indeed up a bloody big hill. It took us a good 15 minutes to reach the cable-car departure shed. I remember on the way seeing a few tourists taking photos of a few cats on the way. Not the biggest animal lover in the world, I did mutter to myself my discontent “you’re at a wonder of the world and you’re taking photos of bloody cats!”
The cable-car journey was without doubt scarier than most UK rollercoasters. Steep and brushing amongst the trees below. I was thankful that I had been on a car in Georgia the previous October, but still. Chuck me in an aeroplane any day. It was a bit naff that the smog limited views to a mile or so, which seemed to lift once we reached the end of the cable car journey feeling smug looking at the peasants who decided to walk up to save a few quid (usually me).
The Great Wall is I believe the second world wonder I have visited having been fortunate to go to Niagara Falls twelve months prior, I’m not sure where Stonehenge or Rome fits in. And it didn’t disappoint. Granted the area has gone through considerable renovation work yet you it still felt genuine, given the fact your on top of a mountain plus a 20 foot man made structure. Hazard a guess that the original architects didn’t have a cable car either!
The time on the wall was limited but we had ample opportunity for a look around, some photos and a genuine sense that you were on an amazing structure. I braved the uneven surface and walked about 1km along the wall trying to avoid other people’s snaps before turning back, having one last ‘moment’ to take it all in and descended back down the mountain side on our trusted cable-cars.
After the trek back to the taxi we met our driver and headed in to Beijing. Destination Tiananmen Square. Mikayla and I both took this opportunity to catch up on some sleep which provided one of the funniest moments of the trip looking back. We were woken up by the driver about five minutes before we were due to arrive at our destination, yet this didn’t stop us taking it in turns dropping back off, completely helpless.
Cars are not allowed to pull over at Tiananmen Square since a vehicle attack in 2013; all pedestrian walkways are guarded by heavy, gold coloured metal barriers. Therefore the driver was able to drop us off around the corner. Our first port of call was to get WiFi at a café so we could access Google Maps and figure out where we were and a plan of action. Our extortionate six quid refreshments yielded no results from Maps, Google, Facebook or anything else I put in the address bar (I find out why later on…) so we went it alone, walking from the north-west point to the north-east. Security scanners are placed at pedestrian entry points on the square and people were everywhere. We thought that there may be some sort of event happening but it turned out that it was just a peak time and the security posts are a permanent thing. Considering the unexpected cold weather and lack of a plan, we walked past the forbidden temple to the square’s eastern subway station and on to the impressive National Arts Centre.
We had only been going for about an hour before we gave our visit to the city up as a bad job and agreed we would make a better go of it during our 19 hour layover on the way home. Airport bound.
No directions, no maps, no phone service, no WiFi, no-one who spoke English. I remember thinking that I had never felt that lost for a long time and probably decided not to mention it to a Baltic Mikayla to make her panic. Our task to get the subway back to the airport was bloody difficult but perseverance eventually paid off and we had tickets and correct route.
After a change of line and half a dozen stops we travelled past a few busy stops and guessed that if we got off at one perhaps we could find some food. The gamble paid off and when we reached Chaoyangmen station and rose to find busy streets, high rise buildings, a shopping mall and a cluster of restaurants. The bright lights signified the end of the tunnel after a really miserable few hours.
We could be both classed as fussy eaters and on too many occasions during past holidays have we decided for deep-fried American ‘cuisine’ rather than trying something local – or even different. Nevertheless as Kay loves a cheeky chow-mein at home we went in to a busy concourse with a number of Chinese fast-food outlets and grocery store where I was happy to pick up some water and ciggies (I think 20 Marlboro were £1.50 but there were some as low as 90p!) We devoured our dishes consisted of three meat options and rice and was super impressed at the ease of using chopsticks, although maybe that was down to hunger.
Satisfied and cheerful, we jumped back on the subway and arrived at the airport around 10pm, not far from the time we originally expected. Just the ten hours to go until the next flight.
4 – Beijing to Hong Kong
Beijing airport is what you’d probably call… a bit shit.
Nothing to do, hardly any seats (zero offering some level of comfort) or even a plug socket. When watching Wales last year I often visited a few of the premium lounges to pass the time but the single ONE the airport offered was past security. After two hours we tried to go through but being still eight hours early the important security people said no. China doesn’t strike me as the place to question authority.
Back to the arrivals hall and on several occasions I managed to fall asleep, only to wake up and discover I was out of it for a total of 25 minutes if lucky. It was at this point I decided to invest in premium WiFi and furious when I found that I still couldn’t access Facebook or even search for things on Google. What was going wrong? Well… after managing to find out that some sites worked such as my email and the BBC website I used Yahoo for the first time in years and searched for “Facebook in China”. It was only then I found that China does not allow access to a load of popular websites they don’t agree with. They have their own social media platform, their own maps/GPS applications and it was apparent how much of the world works through google (even this blog is part of the google family). Preparation was required for the re-visit on the way home!
We took it in turns to say how many Harry Potter characters we could name which expressed a) how bored shitless we were and b) how brilliant we are at naming Harry Potter characters. 135 not too shabby.
4am finally came around and we moved hurriedly from our pre-security-uncomfortable seats to post-security-only-slightly-more-comfortable seats, although we did appreciate the power stations and can of fizzy drink. Delighted to say the following three hours didn’t provide us – and therefore you – anything of note and we boarded the three hour flight.
We were going to Hong Kong.
5 – Hong Kong Day 1
Beaming sunshine welcomed us as we arrived on the man-made island that is Hong Kong International airport. We were instantly relieved to recognise a lot more English signage and the queue through customs was a work of art. A zig-zagging queue of 300+ people moving at an extremely fast paced. We were at the front and processed within five minutes whereas I’d still be waiting at Heathrow now.
We gathered a few maps from the information station and asked how best to get to our hotel, which we knew was based on Tsing Yi island outside of the centre. With a plan in hand and a hefty ATM cash withdrawal we were let out into the humongous arrivals hall. I tried for five minutes to find a way out to go and have a ciggy, failed, and went for lunch before getting a taxi to the hotel. That lunch was sadly in McDonalds, but when you can get a 9 McNugget meal for fewer than 3 quid then one has to make the most of these opportunities. Re-energised from the hearty meal (citation needed) we jumped in to a taxi and sped off to the hotel. Hong Kong only uses one model of taxi, a Toyota Comfort –coloured red, green or blue which indicates certain territories where they can work. The most popular red taxis are able to work all over, including our 27km drive to our hotel.
I realised the potential VISA issue quite quickly after we booked the holiday but it was only a few weeks before the trip I became worried at the location of the hotel and even more so the reviews. As you can see on the TripAdvisor hotel page, the pool was a big attraction rather than the reviews, not least that there wouldn’t be any Wi-Fi in the rooms. Not fearing the worst but at a slight unease we pulled up to the festively decorated reception and queued to check in and receive our room cards. Room 11 on the 26th floor. The lifts were working.
The hotel room was tiny but we got to enjoy it over the course of the trip. It was big enough and had a nice shower and panoramic views of a huge dockyard. There is something quite relaxing about seeing massive cranes with massive magnets pick up massive shipping containers. No? Maybe just me. Who needs a nice hotel room when we would be out exploring all of the time? (I say this days after we’ve booked a 5-star Prague hotel in the summer…).
How we still had any energy left in us at this point defies belief, yet after a 90 minute nap we were washed and ready to head in to the City Centre. We didn’t do any homework or read a guidebook beforehand; our diary for the week was set on the plane over using the screen to find out what actually there was to do. Plan of action for the evening was to tick off the Clock Tower, maybe a temple and some dinner.
The aforementioned reviews did highlight a lack of transport and distance to the centre so we were pleased that the hotel offered a shuttle bus to the MRT station a few times throughout the day and the last one in the evening was at 19:30. A short five minute drive later and we were at the station. I say station, the MRT was built into a mall twice the size of say St David’s in Cardiff, complete with a M&S, Pandora and approximately 711 7Eleven’s that are kind of the international corner-shop. After playing with the ticket machine for a few minutes we asked the helpful gent at the information desk the best way to get around using the MRT and were handed three-day passes for about £25 each that also included a trip back to the airport (which had earlier cost us the same amount). If we weren’t already before Beijing we were metro/underground/MRT experts now, easily finding our way to East Tsim Sha Tsui station.
I did think while on the MRT the difference in the young people we were travelling with. The kids in HK were a lot more ‘westernised’, smiling watching videos on their phones wearing their branded gear or favourite European football team. A stark comparison to Beijing where people seemed quiet, uniform, sucking as much enjoyment as they could from whatever social media platforms their Government said they were allowed to view.
We arrived at the Clock Tower after a five minute walk from the MRT. Nothing outstanding in itself, the declared monument was part for the main Kowloon train station, and when this was moved in 1975 but protests resulted in the clock tower being preserved. To get to the clock tower, we couldn’t ignore our first glance at the famous harbour, lit up by skyscrapers reflecting in the water. Certainly one of those moments when you wished that you invested in a decent camera.
Pleased we had already ticked something off the list, we went in search of a ferry across the harbour and conveniently found the public shuttle within a few minutes. I can’t recall how much it cost but it was either 3p or 30p. Now on the island, the next thing on the list was Man Mo temple, based on Kong Kong’s first road Hollywood Road. The temple was expectedly closed after our long walk, but worth a visit and peek through the gates. Before we returned home we found a cute little English restaurant and enjoyed fish and chips whilst catching up on the weekends Premier League goals, promising ourselves that we would have someone rice or noodle-based tomorrow. We caught one of the last MRT trains back and was happy to pay £4 for a taxi back to the hotel. Once back in the room I was curious as to what else the hotel offered. I had noticed the pool was in fact closed at this time of year (it wasn’t because of the weather) but didn’t see any breakfast, bar or conference facilities you usually would. Enquiring with the tired concierge at reception he told me that there were numerous places downstairs to have breakfast. Downstairs? I went to have a quick look and surprised to see a whole shopping centre, including a mini supermarket, gift shops, massage parlour and a collection of restaurants. Kay probably thought I managed to stop Brexit given the excitement on my face when I relayed the menu options for breakfast – I had better calm down and get to bed… and book tickets for Disneyland on New Year’s Eve.
6 – Hong Kong Day 2
Not one for experiencing jet-lag, I was a bit concerned that I was awake and fresh at 6am the following day. What four days without a cider does for you, eh? We had breakfast in a canteen style restaurant that we would enjoy for the remainder of the holiday. While Kay was satisfied mainly with toast, I went for the most lunch-like breakfast I could, usually option for breaded pork cutlet, sausage, ham slice and toast.
Knowing that we wouldn’t have a lot of time to do things tomorrow because of Disneyland, top of our list was certainly to visit the Buddah statue. Without having a grasp on the tube map or scale of HK, we found the MRT stop easily enough not too far from the airport and headed to the ticket office. With a danger of this post turning in to a cable-car appreciation society, we purchased tickets to ride rather than walk the four hours (yeah right – more like 4 weeks) to Ngong Ping where the Tian Tan Buddah was situated. We were nice and early and if we queued it was for seconds. We shared a car with a family of four from Northern England and set off on the 3.5mile(!!) journey.
After our mesmerised minds settled down we were able to enjoy the transit and briefly talked (or had no option but to listen) to the family we were trapped with. They seemed pleasant enough, yet I felt a bit sorry for the Dad as the wife and two kids did not stop bloody moaning. They had similarly arrived the day before and after telling them of our travels to date this week, I did get slightly offended when the Dad said “but do you have any time to see stuff” regarding his tone on our country-hopping (albeit correct concerning Beijing!). Confidently explaining that perhaps our budget was not as extensive as theirs may be, I was extremely thankful that “at least I wasn’t experiencing my trip with those three miserable *expletive*’s” which brought a scour from Kay when I told her my thoughts once we departed the car, just out of earshot of the family. Woops.
I was disappointed to see a Burger King when we visited the Great Wall and similarly un-impressed to see Starbucks and Subway housed in the quaint purpose built village between the cable car station and the heritage site. Still, it was a lovely sunny day, busy but not overcrowded. The walkway towards the statue was adorned with interesting sculptures signifying the different animals of the Chinese years (I’m a dragon, don’t hate the player hate the game…) and shortly arrived to the main square, looking up at the statue dominating the landscape, thanks to it being on a mountain, at the top of a few hundred steps and being 34 metres high. Every few levels we stopped to take a photo, hoping that at least one wouldn’t be dreadful and before we knew it we were at the top. The sense of calm was prevalent, and again I got that happy feeling to visit such an iconic landmark. After some time taking it all in and a lap around the statue we descended back down and visited a collection of temples that were impeccably decorated to the finest detail, one of which was the Po Lin monastery. The frequent waft of incense got the better of me and I vividly remember sharing with Mikayla that it was the most ‘zen’ I had felt for a long time. As someone who isn’t religious, being at peace, calm and happy within is about as good as you’re going to get me.
The impromptu hunt for some artwork for the house almost came to fruition but not quite, so it was time to take the long journey back to the hustle and bustle. Thinking back I compare it a bit to a computer game, and this being a bonus round. What a wonderful experience.
Although this was probably my highlight of the trip we still had a lot more on the agenda, and once we got back on land and walked past the queues that were now two hours long, next up was a recommendation from a few friends to in the centre, to visit Victoria Peak, which we were told provided the best views of Hong Kong.
The intention of taking the old fashioned tram didn’t last long with queues taking two hours, so we were delighted to call a taxi from the nearby rank within five minutes. Even though the first one tried to charge three times more than the set limits indicated, our second driver was a decent human being who didn’t overcharge, spoke good English and actually knew where Wales was, having studied in Southampton decades ago. His honesty and helpfulness was rewarded with a hefty tip (don’t tell my friends) once he dropped us off at the Victoria Peak mall. We went straight to the top floor to the viewing platform to be greeted with… sea and hills. Why was this recommended? It was nice and all that, but nothing that we hadn’t seen prior.
Disgruntled we made our way through the mall to hopefully catch the tram back down the hill, having our first argument of the trip. We found a shop that sold previously mentioned artwork of Hong Kong, which would have looked lovely in the bathroom back home. Having agreed on the colour scheme of the skyline photo we both liked, we just couldn’t agree on what size to buy. Kay was holding out for something the size of a postage stamp whilst I wanted the biggest size possible. We couldn’t find any middle ground so we still have to put up with some £9.99 rubbish from The Range. If you ever use the facilities in our house, don’t blame me for the quality of décor whilst having a wee. Nevertheless, we were very ‘adult’ in our argument and there was no time to sulk, as when we came out of the other side of the mall we accidentally reached the ACTUAL viewing point. Silly us. These views certainly didn’t disappoint. Hong Kong has more skyscrapers than any other City in the world, and most could be seen here in one snapshot.
We got the bus back down the hill and – now knackered – caught the MRT from the island to the mainland (Kowloon side). We were very tired at the point but did want to witness a lights show that the skyscrapers put on every night at 8pm. Our 90 minute wait was helped by a walk around Salisbury Road which housed one of the country’s best hotels The Peninsula, situated next to an impressive YMCA building I couldn’t help but have a nose around at. A search for a toilet, roam around HMV and a hot dog later we were back harbour side anticipating the lights show.
The trip so far had been ‘better than I thought’ on every expectation. This was an exception. 8pm came and a few buildings shone a laser around for ten minutes. Never mind, New Year’s Eve tomorrow would be spectacular.
Back to the hotel we popped in to our beloved breakfast restaurant for dinner. We weren’t disappointed as we scoffed a whole chicken, pasta bake, corn on the cob, mash potato for a poultry-paltry eight quid… and a diet coke, just to balance out those calories. As Kay went to bed I found a quiet corner in reception to follow the 3pm kick-offs including Newport away at Cheltenham using a variety of mobile phone and tablet. The eight hour difference meant that I finally got in the room at 1am, happy with the point we picked up.
7 – Hong Kong Day 3
It’s no surprise that I was the lesser excited of us as we descended in the lift to breakfast before Disneyland Hong Kong. I thought Disney parks were only in Paris and Orlando too, until I drove past the Japanese version from Tokyo to Yokohama in 2015. I forgot to mention the previous night, the dreadful banter Kay had with the concierge and hotel manager. Wednesday morning we booked on to the shuttle bus to take us to Disneyland, but now pro’s at using the MRT we had hoped to get a refund on the tickets. With me well out of the way, Kay spent a good fifteen minutes trying to get a refund – unsuccessfully – which rather frustrated her, only to find out we only paid £4.50 each for the ticket, not £45 she somehow expected me to agree to initially!
In the grocery store that evening we were also being eyed up by an obvious pickpocketer (thus not a very good one) who freaked her out a bit. Apparently I’m the only smelly, scruffy person she is happy take money off to go towards alcohol. This, and her feeling “a bit of a dick” regarding the shuttle bus meant she felt a tad down, but nothing dopey, bashful and grumpy couldn’t sort out… and I refer to the dwarfs in Snow White, not the current Liverpool defence.
We enjoyed our staple breakfast of battered pork and toast before boarding the shuttle bus, every ride an opportunity to take in Hong Kong’s surprising vast forestry landscape.
We arrived at the resort and made our way down the long promenade in beaming sunshine for a good twenty minutes, not coming to terms with Christmas jingles still being played on what we would consider a mid Summer’s day. We quickly passed security, delighted at a sign banning the use of selfie sticks and made our way inside.
We were greeted with the main street that adorns every Disney park leading to the castle. Immediately forgetting all of life’s worries. The place bleeds happiness. Once we walked up to the castle and had a few photos we went to the Tomorrowland area. Being that the queues were short I decided to go on Space Mountain – now called Command Post in line with Disney buying the Star Wars franchise, and I have to be honest, it was decent, at least for a roller-coaster kids can go on. An hour walking around half the park we did some shopping and picked up some lunch. As it was our nine (f***ing NINE!) year anniversary tomorrow, I hope Kay was pleased with the Pandora charm I bought her, an exclusive to the park.
Lots of walking, lots of smiling, another decent “Runaway Mine” roller-coaster and a visit to Toy Story Land filled the next few hours. As a lad, I couldn’t possibly have a favourite Disney character, but if you put a gun to my head I would have to say Rex from Toy Story. Body too big, not the highest IQ and crap at computer games. I relate to you Rex.
We picked up our complimentary popcorn and ice cream before strolling back to the MRT station as the sun set. The designated MRT train itself was something to behold, with mickey mouse shaped windows and character statues inside. We eventually caught the public minibus back to the hotel from the MRT, had some food from our local – a disappointing steak – and went for a siesta before New Year celebrations.
We should have known better than to not leave until 10pm after seeing in the New York New Year in Central Park rather than a full times square two years before. It was no surprise that when we departed the station at 11:15pm, five minutes from the harbour we were greeted with road closures and a lot – a lot of people. Still, we persisted through the crowd to get as close as we could before settling at a spot on Salisbury road, away from the harbour front but with a sight of the huge countdown projected on a building and panoramic views of the sky.
I’ve often annoyed Kay due to my lack of interest in fireworks – if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all – but this didn’t disappoint, mostly down to the sheer quantity of colour explosions which lasted a strong quarter of an hour. Can happily go the rest of my life not seeing another firework, as I doubt it would compete with that. Before we knew we were back on our hotels island, waiting in vain for taxis now that the public buses had stopped at 11pm. Tired but unwilling to wait any longer after half an hour we rose to the challenge of walking home, adding zeros on to my phone bill using GPS, but arriving back at the hotel in half an hour happy to welcome 2018 and share with our friends back home six hours in the past, who at that time were probably just opening the first bottle of bubbly after dinner.
8 – Hong Kong Day 4
Four days in Hong Kong isn’t very long I agree, but we had easily seen everything we wanted to see in the first two days (plus Disneyland the previous day). This allowed us to have free reign on the last day so I persuaded Mikayla to make the most of our free travel passes and visit the far ends of the country.
To begin we headed furthest south on the map, to South Horizons which is an island off the main HK island. Ascending from the underground we were greeted with countless apartment blocks, although just a few minutes away from the coastline where we enjoyed a few minutes away from the traffic.
Next we went to an area just down the road called Lei Tung, and after walking through the modern MRT station was greeted with what certainly looked like the main areas where a lot of aboriginal Hongkongers resided. It was satisfying to see numerous boats arrive along the promenade, the success of their fishing exploits evident from the smell. As we headed between the streets we walked past a few empty spaces, shop floors but with no walls, and only after midday did we see the floors fill up with plastic storage units holding the morning’s catch. Loads of different fish, eels and crabs were no available for sale, and it was truly fascinating seeing them transferred to storage bins, still swimming, not knowing their lives would come to an impromptu end very shortly, providing a local family that evenings supper. Realsing this, we moved on – making sure we’re better human beings not to be re-incarnated as a shrimp.
We headed back to the Central district, a different world to Lei Tung, and walked under the impressive Government building and along the harbour past a mobile theme park which included some rides that really shouldn’t be extended from the back of a lorry. We turned down the chance to go on the big ferris wheel to get some lunch and rest our feet – the first McDonalds since arriving – and picked out where we were commuting to next.
That place was called Tin Hau, the nearest stop to the Hong Kong library. Mikayla likes books as much as I do football and libraries are generally impressive buildings – which this was too – although we didn’t consider it being closed on New Years Day. We just couldn’t retain this information walking around in shorts and t-shirt at the start of January.
The soles of my feet were paining now but I had one more thing I wanted to do that didn’t require much of an able body. The most northern station on the line seemed very close to the Chinese border, a city called Shenzhen. Perhaps not familiar, the city has a population of 12 million(!!) people, 3m more than London, going to show how bloody huge China is.
The commute north was neither picturesque nor entertaining and took a lot longer than we thought, and we had to stand all of the way there. To make matters worse when we arrived at the station Lok Ma Chau, we couldn’t actually depart it, as the station was actually part of the customs area for people entering China. Not wanting to be a bother, we made the long journey back to the hotel and went for some tea. Not the most wonderful final thing to do, but a chance to reflect on how brilliant everything else had been.
Back at the hotel, back for tea, and back downstairs at 11pm to listen to the County, this time winning 2-1 at home to Exeter, this time with real time updates from my friend at the match and that last 10 minutes streamed live by another!
We would be making the long journey back to Newport in the morning.
9 – Hong Kong and Beijing
And now, the end is near… And so we face the final… 38 hours. So we had thought.
We managed to have a lie in for the first time since Christmas Eve on the final day as our flight didn’t depart until half one in the afternoon. A leisurely breakfast (same thing, same place… if it ain’t broke etc.) before boarding the public bus to the MRT station for the final time. Our hand luggage was packed with precision, taking the bare minimum needed. As far as I can remember my personal inventory included our passports, a thin coat, wireless headphones, MP3 player and headphones, a Kindle, actual books, spare battery, portable power unit, two USB/plugs, one travel adaptor and four lots of currency. One piece of clothing and eight electronic devices. Don’t think I’ll be filling in for Bear Grylls any time soon.
The train to the airport was probably more comfortable than our sofa at home. I was disappointed it was over so quickly, and I remembered that on depositing our travel cards we were reimbursed 20% of the total cost, resulting in unlimited three day travel for £20 each… the last day alone we would have travelled over 100km. I’m trying to rack my brains and think of a more expensive country for public transport than the UK but nothing is forthcoming.
We were told by the shop counter staff at Disney that there was also a store inside the airport after (very straight forward) security. There was, along with a street of food outlets and boutique shops that I wouldn’t give the time of day for. We picked up a few things from the Disney store including a fridge magnet – god forbid if we forgot one of those – and a few gifts for people back home. We had a few hours to kill so once arrived at our terminal, changed the last of our HK$ into Chinese Renminbi and found some seats for the remaining 45 minutes. I did frequent the smoking area on two occasions, a luxurious lower level lounge, a tad different to the clear boxes you see in many European airports where you look like you’re part of a year 8 biology experiment.
I was spoiled with a better-than-anticipated rice and chicken dish on the plane as I first penned the contents of this blog, thinking that JK Rowling must have done the same on her train commutes envisioning Harry Potter and the money that would be worth now. Sadly for all of us, I left said notes in the seat pocket and they are lost to the world, I’ve been making this up as I go along.
Three hours passed by swiftly and we were excited to get back in to Beijing as soon as possible. That was until out the corner of my eye I noticed a member of Southern China Airways staff holding our names on a board. Even though we purposefully chose our flights, we were given the option to stay in a hotel overnight. Bonus. It was a bit of a slog getting our 24h Visa, then waiting to choose a hotel, then waiting for the minibus, then waiting for the minibus to get to the hotel, but before long we were in our 4* hotel on the outskirts of the City by 7pm and had a taxi booked at 8:30 without the burden of our rucksacks.
We decided to go to the TV tower as a first port of call, what Bing image search portrayed as a well-lit landmark. The airport staff assured us that our hotel was the closest to the centre yet the taxi seemed to take forever, so much so after half an hour I was certain the driver was going around in circles while taking the piss out of us to his mate on the phone, once even taking a photo of the meter! When we started driving past the modern built up shopping district of Beijing I had lost all enthusiasm and wanted to get out. Grumpily, we stayed put (it wasn’t as though he would have understood my rant) until arrival at the TV tower. The hour taxi ride cost in the region of £12…
To add to the disappointment. It was FREEZING. And the tower, well the TOWER… just look at the image. The Leave.EU campaign gave a more realistic representation of what to expect than that search engine image.
This was probably the lowest moment of the whole trip (apologies to the aforementioned pickpocketer… dickhead). On the map the nearest subway station seemed close by but actually a half-hour walk in completely insufficient clothing being at least minus 5. You will be familiar with our language issues from our initial visit the week before and to true form it took four bus drivers at a depot to understand our appeal for directions to the subway, tucked around the corner.
The subway travelled east to Tienanmen Square and we forced ourselves to brave the elements again. We should have been really looking forward to this, walking a good mile around the square, but the cold. Once I thought I couldn’t be any more exasperated we faced the security checkpoints and our only form of ID was back at the hotel, probably having a bastard sauna and laughing at us.
Just look at our view of the square… It was getting on a bit now and we hadn’t eat properly since breakfast, we were eagerly anticipating our return to the food outlets previous to give us one positive experience. Long story short… I got the station wrong. We got off in the middle of nowhere. Bought a glorified pot noodle in the only shop open to consume back at the hotel. And agnostically prayed we would be able to hail a taxi down that wasn’t driven by Ronnie Biggs or the Artful Dodger.
Out of the darkness cometh the light! The poor sod didn’t have a clue where our hotel was but through sheer persistence and four wrong turns we made it. We caught the taxi from the north-east of Beijing that should have been a lot closer than our previous journey yet still took ages and I was certain this driver was a top geezer, and in hindsight so was the other driver. The place is just massive. We were out like a light in the best bed we had stayed in all year (2nd January lolz, but it was decent).
Section 10 – Beijing to home.
A good nights sleep and a ponder over our two short trips to the Chinese capital. I probably owe Beijing an apology for assuming we could make the slightest dent on the city in under 24 hours split in two. Nevertheless the Great Wall was magnificent and it’s a good learning curve for future travels. I’ll be seeing you again (in a warmer climate for sure).
I didn’t expect sausage bacon and the works for breakfast but maybe some bread, ham, cheese…. nope. 6:30am and I was tucking in to two helpings of egg fried rice, spicy sausage, dumplings, and something which I would have put my house on (gamble responsibly) being pork, but turned out to be tofu! Deceived, but consumed. By the time our minibus delivered us to the airport, our fourth visit in six days and thankfully the shortest amount of time, I had purchased ten pouches of tobacco (saving around £140 on UK prices) and we were on the ten hour KLM flight back to Holland.
I won’t go in to the menu options available on board as even I was getting a bit fed up of endless food containers. It cannot go without mention however, our horror at the entertainment system not working on the flight. One cannot plan ahead for this type of disaster. The only thing to watch on my kindle was a thrilling episode of Designated Survivor, but one that I had seen a few days prior. If you take ONE tip from this 5,000 word group of posts it is to expect the unknown especially concerning aircraft entertainment’s ability to function. Even the KLM staff were encouraging us to complain.
We may have, but we had a lot more important things to complain about.
Not ten minutes before the wheels hit the ground we were alerted that a shit-tonne of flights had been cancelled due to bad weather from Amsterdam Schipol, especially to the UK. This was not good news. We were told to await further instruction when we landed. The further instruction being to wait in a queue of at least 200 passengers, before being moved to a ‘better’ queue of 300 passengers. 104 flights grounded or not I had my best “I work for Citizens Advice” face on, ready to delve in to the depths of consumer advice pages for the best possible outcome, only committed more by getting a text message explaining we would be flying to Dublin tomorrow afternoon.
A wait of about 2 hours couldn’t get us back to the UK quicker, even though I demonstrated that Dublin isn’t even in the same country as Bristol. All demanded objectives were offered before the opportunity to ask and we were sent to the back of another queue by the luggage belts. Amsterdam was running out of hotels.
In fact, run out they did. “I’m sorry we are going to have to transport you to The Hague for overnight accommodation Sir”. Why they didn’t tell us we were staying in the Marriott in The Hague as an opening sentence I don’t know. Refer back to out of the darkness cometh the light. After another lengthy wait our shuttle bus pulled up outside and KLM were rightfully paying for us to stay overnight in a hotel that would have all the steal-able toiletries one could wish for.
Wanting to avoid the queue – we were in the same clothes since HK and stinking no doubt – we were treated to a splendid buffet of curry, pasta, breads, fruit and cakes. Once back in the room I had an epiphany. One could not return downstairs without a clean set of undies so I fiddled with the hairdryer, wrongfully used the shower gel and voila! Laundrette in your hotel room. By the time Arsenal vs Chelsea kicked off on the tele we zoned out, another day dealt with.
We slept well. Like, really REALLY well. I’m tired just reminiscing. It was day eight-plus-one. The buffet last night was something to write home about but the breakfast buffet was something I considered writing a blog about itself. You had the traditional English breakfast, the danishes and the croissants, the jam, marmite for the lovers AND the haters, brownies (not that type), cereals…. even fruit and yoghurt for the weird people who don’t know they’re on to a winner. If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. This was exceptional!
There’s really not much worth saying after the breakfast. We used our food vouchers while sat on the loungers and observed a plane take off every two minutes or so (that was nice) and made our way to Dublin, finding a quiet corner for two hours by our gate and proceeded on to our seventh flight of the trip to Bristol, SIXTY-TWO hours after leaving Hong Kong where our friend Peter welcomed us home with a smile, drove us home and that was that.