A Storming Start

I have always hated flying. Waking up at 5am to arrive at some sterile terminal in the middle of nowhere, queuing for an hour to queue for an hour to queue for an hour to have a 5’5″ white supremacist fondle me and rifle through my bags before contorting myself into a seat designed for a 12-year-old girl next to a boring, flatulent snorer whilst an insufferable steward/ess uses words like ‘stow’ and ‘disembarkation’, is not my idea of a fun day out.

But despite my preconceptions, I kept an open mind when boarding my Jet Airways flight to Mumbai and I was right to do so. I was shouted at by a woman who’s husband/wife was certainly having an affair, for leaving my iPad in my hand-luggage whilst it was being scanned, but sitting by the emergency exit meant I had plenty of room and the potential heroic part I was bound to play in a ‘miracle of the hudson’-esque situation (later to be retold in a Christopher Nolan epic staring, ideally, a young Matt Damon) excited me. I was regularly poured vodka oranges, the food was good and there was plenty to do. I arrived at Mumbai airport after having my negative prejudices towards air-travel well and truly smashed. I strutted up to the international connections desk with a refreshing sense of optimism and was told tersely that due to bad weather (which it transpired was Typhoon Hato) Hong Kong airport was in lock-down and my flight was delayed until 8.30. It was 12.00, I had already been travelling for 10 hours and I had another 6 hour flight after the wait.

There’s nothing like 8 hours sat doing nothing to inflame any fears and doubt lingering in the back of your mind. I couldn’t help but have that feeling that Dobby tried to instill in Harry Potter in the second installment. Maybe Hato was Providence trying to dissuade me from making a massive mistake. But I was quickly grounded by an Indian Islamic missionary traveling to the Congo who struck up conversation with me and gradually diverted from pleasant small talk to the almighty truth and power of blah blah blah. The detail here is that he interrupted me whilst I was reading Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. Although Islamic missionaries were the last people I aimed to attract with such a pretentious book, I couldn’t help but admire his determination. Just like a young man with an obvious eye for logic, reason and scientific facts wasn’t going to deter him from trying it on with me, a wee spell of bad weather and Mumbai airport’s disgustingly miserly attitude towards wifi was not going to stop me achieving and enjoying the fruits of almost 12 months of my labour.

I finally arrived in Hong Kong sweaty, exhausted and under cover of darkness. My next job was to lug my 50+kgs of luggage to my landlords office, collect the keys to my apartment and lug it all the way there where I could finally be human again for the first time in about 30 hours. Previous travel has taught me that the night-time always adds a sinister flavour to a new place, and that intense fatigue is no state in which to get acquainted with one. For the most part I ignored my surroundings. You only get one chance at a first impression, and Hong Kong would still be there in the morning.

On first impressions, Hong Kong makes its like Muhammad Ali did in the ring (disclaimer: I neither know, nor care about boxing so feel free to replace Ali with a fighter who fits the analogy). It lulls you into a false sense of security before hooking you in the jaw with something extraordinary. And once that first punch rocks you, boy they keep coming. Walking down the busy main roads of my neighborhood there was a great vibrant atmosphere, people busily shopping, eating, strolling and working, nothing out of the ordinary but it’s somehow more relaxed and content than home. How surreal it is to be somewhere 90% of the population don’t hate their existence.

A brief side note on the food front, for I am bound to dedicate countless future posts to this subject, but imagine the sights, smells and ambiance of your favourite restaurants, now imagine them following you around everywhere you go, begging you to indulge. That’s almost a little bit what it’s like to walk up even a fairly quiet road in my neighbourhood. Just breathing the air exacerbates any slight feelings of hunger to the point that I was throwing handfuls of cash at small, old ladies and frantically pointing to mystery items on the Cantonese menus.

Being the height I am I rarely have much need to look up, so it took me a while to realise that I was being supervised by scores of staggeringly tall and impressive apartment blocks and mountains. I’ve never been to a place that uses all three dimensions to their full potentials – more about that later. Turning the corner from the busy high street suddenly took me to a beautiful garden. The epitome of tranquility, old ladies doing tai chi with fans, old men tending the exotic, colourful flora, children playing. It was really a park, but garden better describes the intimacy and personality. I felt as if I’d strolled into someone’s private paradise, like I’d stolen something just by being there. Walking aimlessly in my flip-flops, vest and rugby shorts like I’d just misspelled Magaluf in the control panel of my teleporter.

Beyond the garden was the real million-dollar moment, the view that made every visa application document, every landlord negotiation every tedious bank visit worth it. Victoria Harbour, the Pearl River. A perfect panorama of crystal-blue sea, lonely green mountains and intense metropoles. The juxtaposition between the natural and man-made scenery, both stunning in their own right, is nothing like I’ve ever seen before. Imagine dropping Manhattan on a secluded island in Thailand of Vietnam and you begin to get the idea. This contrast is a common theme all over Hong Kong and is what gives the place such a unique visual identity – one that I can’t see myself getting sick of any time soon.

Nowhere is this theme more apparent than at the HKU campus. I’m really getting through my arsenal of superlatives and I don’t want to dilute them, but this place is simply incredible. Everything you’d expect from a high-level university campus, buildings in all shapes, sizes, styles and ages separated by courtyards, cafes and restaurants, gardens, fountains and statues. All this, but built into the side of a mountain, so that when you look out from a courtyard or library, you are at the eyeline of the 30th floor of a skyscraper and have a few of the whole of Hong Kong. I cannot describe how surreal it is to be sitting on a bench outside the student’s union and having a view that in most cities could only be achieved by helicopter. Once again, I feel could get used to this.

In the evening, on the way back from dinner in Kowloon, my flatmates and I took the ferry across Victoria Harbour back to Hong Kong island. It only takes about 10 minutes and costs no more than a bus journey but damn is it impressive! The distant views of sweeping mountains peppered with tiny dots of light interrupted by the hundreds of creatively illuminated skyscrapers stretching as far as the eye can see. I was hit by the same conflict of feelings, I was in the definition of a megapolis, the second most densely-populated place in the world, the most expensive place to live in the world, a global centre for business and finance, all the ingredients for sterility and lack of charm, yet it still felt calm, natural and personal. I could have gone back and forth across the harbour all night.

Even with my best efforts, I’ve done a massive disservice to Hong Kong in trying to describe it. Some things are not best left to the imagination, as the reality is so much more impressive.

So as not to get too overwhelmed by the culture-shock, I had an hour to kill earlier in the day and found myself in a bar that served Spitfire, showed rugby and played the Dire Straights. I think even after visiting every country on Earth I’d struggle to turn that down.

The next week is one of orientation sessions, meet and greets and hopefully a large night out or two before beginning classes on 1st September.

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Rooftop Parties, Orientations and Temples

As prophesied in my previous post, a week or so of orientation, exploration and a large night out or two has occurred. Although, this being Hong Kong, not a second was dull and everything is noteworthy. Fortunately for the reader, I am not nearly organised, dedicated or sober enough to weigh this down with too much detail.

If you are new to Hong Kong, drinking, and desperate to show the combination off to friends and family back home via social media, you are on a rooftop. The roof terrace of the central IFC mall and the open-air top floor of a 5-star hotel being the elevated watering holes that I found myself in. The former, an ideal pre-drink location. Grab a few mates, hit up a 7/11, grab an assortment of Tsing Tao, Blue Girl and Skol and watch the Sun go down and the lights come on across Hong Kong Island and over the harbour to Kowloon. The latter, a more luxurious location with some stunning panoramic views and even more stunning drinks prices. Alas, if you can’t splash out and enjoy a boogie on the 50th floor of a premium hotel, you’re in the wrong Special Administrative Region. When not at altitude, the famous strips of Lan Kwai Fong and the hedonistic Wan Chai have been the main places of business for myself and the thousands of other boozy exchange students, ex-pats and locals looking for a good time.

My international posse of fellow freshmen and I have eaten out pretty much every day/night since getting here, and the food is so consistently impressive and I have become so desensitised to it that it all blends into one continuous, never-ending path of deliciousness. That being said, one dining institution will stick in my head until the day I die. That is the snappily named Foosung Street Temporary Cooked Food Hawker Bazaar. A sort of tent that we invaded one night, filled with mismatched table and chairs flung together to form some cohesive structure, menus printed on the tarpaulin-like material that formed the walls and nothing but a transparent plastic sheet separating us from the hectic, smokey kitchen filled with sweaty men, guts on show, fags on the go, frantically whipping up some of the tastiest food I have ever eaten in my life. We ordered everything: goose, shrimp, beer, noodles, fish, beer, rice, beef, beer. It was flawless and came to around the same price per head as a British McDonalds meal. The presence of drunk groups of locals taking shots, shouting and swearing only added to the ambiance and made me feel substantially less like a loutish British tourist.
10/10: Will go again, must go again.

I just typed a lengthy description of the HKU campus before realising I’d written an almost identical description in my last post. Evidently, I am still impressed. I have been back and forth in the last week for orientations. It’s great to meet fellow exchange students from all over the world, studying inside and outside my faculty, as well as some of the lecturers I may encounter. I am pleased with the classes I was able to choose and am eager to get going with some history, art history, Cantonese, philosophy, politics and journalism. Studying can seem like a chore when I’m in the thick of it, but it really doesn’t take long before I start missing it. The contact and workload is looking a lot higher here than at Southampton, but the fact that I only need to pass should take the pressure off and allow me to focus as much on enjoying Asia, as work. It was reassuring to hear from my faculty dean that he believes grades and attendance are only a small part of studying abroad – especially in Hong Kong. That line may come back to haunt him when he tries to call me out on my absenteeism and poor grades. I enjoyed an introductory talk from the British Consulate which boiled down to ‘don’t lose your travel documents’ and ‘don’t get arrested’. I’ll remember this the next time I use my passport as currency to buy heroin.

Exploration has been a key theme since I landed and I have spent a lot of time walking, training, busing and tramming from place to place, wandering aimlessly, taking in the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of Hong Kong. Today’s excursion to Chi Lin Nunnery and Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple was one of the best yet and Chi Lin is certainly one of the most beautiful places I have ever traveled to. The tranquil Nan Lian gardens surrounding the main temple is a Classical Chinese garden consisting of plants, trees, ponds and water features, rocks, and pavilions. One pavilion was dedicated to Chinese architecture and I was blown away to see intricate scaled-down replicas of famous Chinese buildings and to learn how their ingenious methods of engineering, design and carpentry allowed them to built huge palaces, that could weather earthquakes, storms and survive for thousands of years, completely out of timber. The Chi Lin temple itself was just as moving. The stunning architecture of the buildings, the grandeur of the huge golden Buddha statues, the natural beauty of the lily ponds and flora, the smell of incense and the comforting sounds of Buddhist chanting is enough to make even a hard-headed skeptic feel spiritual. The juxtaposition between this and the surrounding skyscrapers of banks, insurance companies and luxury apartments made it even more unique and incredible. You will not find a Chi Lin anywhere else in the world. Ironically, in this pocket of tranquility I lost all sense of time and location, and could have been anywhere in the world. I couldn’t help but feel slightly deflated when I returned back to the world of trains, cars and Starbucks.

All in all, a fantastic time courting Hong Kong. Now onto second-base for some school and rugby.

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Hiking to Peaks, Boats to the Beach, Chasing Waterfalls and an Introduction to Gambling

Welcome to a brand new edition of What Interesting Events Can Harry Pick Out From the Increasingly Murky Haze That is His Memory?

As the belts of academia and high-octane sport tighten around me, my days and weeks seem shorter, and my time grows ever more precious. Not to say that I don’t enjoy these things, because I very much do, but as I become a more seasoned Hong Konger it becomes more and more difficult to keep track of and record what I’m up to in any linear fashion. Great for me because I’m busy doing lots of fun and interesting stuff, but bad for my dedicated readership because they can begin to expect a less frequent and more disjointed account of my adventures. For a peak into the day-to-day life of an international playboy, the reader may prefer to follow my exclusive, x-rated Snapchat.

Google ‘things to do in Hong Kong’ and you are sure to find Victoria Peak on the list. As the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island it boasts some spectacular panorama. Those impressive shots you’ve seen of the harbour snaking through the jungle of skyscrapers were almost certainly taken at Victoria Peak. A man of lesser caliber will have taken the MTR to central, queued for a disgustingly long time and taken a leisurely cable-car journey to the peak – with plenty of time to absorb the vibrant activity of the SAR and reflect on what a pathetic wet-wipe he is. As Mackenzie from Blazin’ Squad  said: ‘When a man wants to get to the top of the mountain he doesn’t wait in line’, and neither the 35 decree heat, crippling humidity, soul-destroying hangover or lack of appropriate equipment was going to stop me and the newly established Blue Girl Hiking Clubfrom tackling the perilous journey. With the calm endurance of the surrounding streams and incense trees for inspiration, we reached the viewing platform in time for a tea of squashed pain au chocolat and warm tins of lager. Certainly worth every step.

A spontaneous trip to Sai Wan in the New Territories has become a strong contender for the best Monday anyone has ever had. A spot of advice from a chance encounter with an ex-pat on the bus lead to us commandeering a speed boat and being driven, balls to the wall, through the South China Sea, dodging islands as we went before being dropped on the secluded and idyllic beach of Sai Wan. It did not feel like Hong Kong at all, more like Thailand or Bali. If you’ve seen The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio, you can imagine me standing in the shallows. After a leisurely wallow and a few beers at the beach bar, we followed a stream that lead to us scrambling up gorges and scaling rock faces before arriving at some beautiful waterfall-fed lagoons. A man of lesser caliber would have paddled about the freshwater, gazing up at the cliffs and imagining what it must be like to have a gram of self-respect. As Maggot from Goldie Lookin Chain said: ‘Like the hermit crab trading in its shell, we cannot grow without first being uncomfortable’, with this in mind I climbed to the best vantage point and, like a cross between Tom Daly and Ezio Auditore, hurled myself into the depths with a flagrant disregard for my fellow swimmers’ well-being. We accidentally decided to take the scenic route back, which involved another perilous, vertical hike to the summit of a vast mountain range, and back down again. The aches in our legs soothed by the endless views of the New Territories.

Hong Kong has an unfair reputation as a superficial, overcrowded, concrete jungle when in fact only about 30% is built on. A less than 30 minute bus journey in any direction and you can be in the sort of untouched natural beauty that London, Paris or New York can only dream of. I thought I’d be spending my life wading through crowds of people whilst coughing up smog and being mugged. In reality I lie on beaches with some cows, surrounded by mountains.

Leaving Albion, I had never placed a bet in my life. I have a fairly long list of methods to squander my money, but gambling never made it on there. A particular past-time I never understood was horse racing. My perception of it (as an outsider) was rabbles of suited men and frilly-hatted women pretending to be aristocrats for the day whilst travelling in coaches and standing in cattle pens, whilst actual aristocrats laugh at them from their private boxes. I stand by this wholeheartedly but have realised that this particular class-obsessed theme of racing is very particular to Britain. Naturally, due to British and Commonwealth influence, horse racing is an institution in Hong Kong. Every Wednesday evening the Happy Valley Racecourse, a 55,000 capacity bonanza of sin, takes more money than the entire Grand National – and not a top hat in sight! This is certainly a vice I can get/have got behind: late night, $10 entry, $20 minimum bet, no dress-code, plenty of beer stands, live music and insane surroundings. Basically all the fun and excitement of drinking and gambling with your mates without any of the class pretentiousness. I have also seen through the looking glass and now, almost, understand how someone could find themselves getting carried away or addicted. The process of reading through stats and figures, deciding on the donkey for you, filling out the betting slip, waiting in anticipation for the start of the race and the exciting climax of the finish definitely tickles the ‘I would quite like to do that again…right now’ part of the brain. Hopefully this will be shouted down by the enlarged ‘I am bored now, can we do something else?’ part of my brain.

All this adventure and I’ve also been to all of my classes at least once! I’m hoping to get this up to twice by the end of the month.

Joi gin.
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Taiwan – Harry Nil

After a taxing few weeks lying on golden sand, wallowing in crystal-clear seas, drinking cocktails atop skyscrapers and earning dollars at the donkey park, a long-weekend’s respite in Taipei was just what the doctor ordered.

Flying in and out of Hong Kong is a breeze. None of that crushing tension that I’ll be shot dead for standing in the wrong queue or orificially explored by a Millwall casual called Pete the Meat for accidentally leaving a ten-pence piece in my back pocket. That being said, when arriving back into Hong Kong you are met by the slightly Orwellian heat sensors that measure your body temperature – detecting any fever you may be smuggling into the SAR. Also, I was almost denied entry onto the plane after some slightly miffed stewardesses didn’t like the look of my electronic boarding pass, and thought that I was saying my name was Harry Potter. We had a good old chuckle afterwards before I nailed them with a textbook cruciatus curse. One detail I forgot to include in my debut post ‘A Storming Start’, is that just before landing into Hong Kong several stewards sporting Bane-esque masks and wielding spray cans walked down the aisles and literally disinfected us. They had the decorum to warn us and suggest that we cover our eyes, noses and mouths to avoid discomfort, but I couldn’t help but feel this was like the executioner telling Louis XVI to mind his head. As you can tell, Hong Kong has a very anal (hehe) attitude to the spreading of germs.

Taiwan was not high on my list of possible Asian excursions but now I have been I thoroughly recommend it. Taipei is perfect for a cheap, fun and exciting weekend away.

The first day included a short but savage hike up Elephant Mountain – sort of the Victoria Peak of Taipei. We arrived at the summit, battered by the heat and ready to collapse, but blown away by the views of the urban and rural landscape. As the Sun descended over the distant mountains, the streets and towers of Taipei came alive with light like a giant pinball machine. Many an Instagram (hongkongbarts) photo taken, we moved on to one of Taipei’s famous night markets.

Following on from my earlier point about Hong Kong’s obsession with hygiene, hawker stalls are all but illegal. So, although food here is amazing, it lacks the atmosphere, variety and cheapness of outdoor hawker markets. Taipei very much keeps the tradition of hawker stalls alive and well. The night markets stretch for hundreds of yards in every direction like a labyrinth of fried octopus and knock-off Nike trainers. The food bombards every sense and is so cheap that sampling everything is not out of the question. I recommend the fried quails eggs on a stick, and the pork and cabbage buns – which reminded me a lot of an English meat pie and gave me flashbacks to my days on the Kenilworth Road terraces circa. 1986. If you’re an adventurous eater, the night markets are the place to be.

The second day began with a trip to the National Palace Museum which contains nearly 700,000 Chinese historical artifacts and artworks spanning 8000 years. The pieces were evacuated from China during the Civil War but account for only 22% of the original collection of the National Palace Museum in Beijing – the remainder falling into the hands of the Communist Party. Museums and galleries rarely knock my socks off, but it was very enlightening to see ancient Chinese paintings, calligraphy, sculpture and pottery, the methods and subjects of which vary so greatly from Western art. A pleasant stroll through the beautiful 228 Peace Memorial Park gave me a chance to digest the afternoon’s culture, and the fabulous beef noodle soup I’d had for lunch. Next up, the perfect budget activity for a student living in the most expensive city in the world – a few gin martinis atop Taipei 101, the second tallest skyscraper in the world! Living in Hong Kong has got me into expensive habits that are just not befitting to a man of my current economic status. Nevertheless, Taipei 101 now holds the coveted accolade of the most spectacular view I have ever had whilst weeing. Plus the martinis loosened me up and prepared me for a second night market and an evening’s frivolities at the dubiously-named Babe 18. The less said about this the better.

The third and (basically) final day started a little later and slower than the others. Apparently you can have too much fun! LoL xD. A relaxed breakfast and a visit to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial eased the transition back into semi-normal life. If you don’t know who he is, read a book. His memorial hall stand in Liberty Square, surrounded by gardens, the National Concert Hall and the National Theatre. Witnessing the changing of the guards was particularly interesting. I hesitate to offend an entire nation and military, but coming from a country with silly, antiquated military traditions, I feel I get a free pass. It kind of looked like the hokey-cokey. That night we went for hotpot, a deliciously social culinary bonanza that involves a large selection of raw meat, fish and vegetables and a huge communal bowl of boiling soup to cook them in. A lovely way to tie up the weekend.

In other news, myself and a few compadres have booked to go to Japan during reading week. Watch this space!

Xiexie.

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Fireworks, Wizards and Inflatable Pineapples

Nothing like a recount of the week’s events to cure a bout of insomnia.

Spirits were high this week due to the freak occurrence of two public holidays. The first, being the pithily named ‘National Day of the People’s Republic of China’. This marks 60-something years since the PRC was founded. Obviously, this is not a big deal for Hong Kongers but government-issue festivities go on nonetheless – most notably in the form of the most extravagant fireworks display anyone has ever seen. The Chinese, famous for their invention of gunpowder, also do a first-rate job of blowing the stuff up in an impeccably organised fashion. I’ve been impressed by fireworks displays before, but this was a different kettle of fish. The display, executed over the dramatic backdrop of Victoria Harbour, lasted around 20 minutes. Enough pyrotechnics were set off to make Guy Fawkes need a new pair of trousers – 31,888 to be exact. Over a quarter of a million people flocked to both sides of the harbour to witness the HK$13,000,000 (£1,300,000) spectacle. The light drizzle that fell during the blitz was barely noticed by the spectators, who were already being blinded and deafened by the symbols of Chinese authoritarianism. Still, a nice way to spend a Monday evening.

The second round of celebrations was Chinese Mid-Autumn festival, which I gather is basically like the Harvest Festival but with more lunar emphasis. People go out late at night to parks, light lanterns, eat moon cake and watch performances of music and dragon dancing. Moon cake is sort of like a pork pie, but instead filled with a nutty paste and an egg yolk – certainly an acquired taste. We wondered round Victoria Park, sunk a few cans and soaked up the atmosphere. In the absence of a beer tent, we had to divert to 7/11 for our beverages. It struck me that never, in a million years, would such a major public event occur in Britain without at least one beer tent being hoisted in preparation. Then I realised that the whole social fabric of Britain relies on everyone being slightly pissed all the time. Some would say that this is a damning indictment of our decadent, addictive society. I think it’s fine. After our second fix of Chinese culture for the week, we went to Wan Chai for ladies night.

The public holiday was the day after Mid-Autumn Festival. Ordinarily on a bank holiday I would cut the grass, browse the Economist and maybe take a stroll down the boozer for a jar of Hobgoblin. But in this case, my stroll was a swim, my boozer was a massive boat and my jar of Hobgoblin was as much free drink could fit on said boat. I have to say, floating round the South China Sea in an inflatable pineapple, soaking up the rays  with Tsing Tao in hand, surrounded by friends from all over the world having the time of their lives is probably the most content I’ve been since arriving. Thankfully, things degenerated fairly sharpish. Chilled out sexy vibes all round.

Rugby Union is the greatest sport that has ever graced the Earth. It requires a noble balance of strength, speed, agility, wit, aggression, teamwork and the ability to down a pint in under 4 seconds whilst wearing pants on your head. Just above the legal system and Bobby Davro, rugby is the greatest gift that Britain has bestowed upon the world. Due to its colonial past, Hong Kong is still very much an incubator for the oblate spheroid and my plan was to get on the pitch as soon after arriving as possible. In the nature of the sport I have been warmly welcomed into the University Rugby Football Club, which consists of expats from the likes of Britain, France, Canada, the U.S, South Africa and Australia, along with local players and HKU students. After a shaky start, this weekend saw all three teams win comfortably. The team I was playing for, URFC Wizards, dished out a damn good thrashing to our opposition which earned us a bonus point. The artificial pitches and over 35-degree heat have been difficult obstacles to overcome, but I am beginning to feel comfortable and at home playing Hong Kong rugby and my recent performance on the pitch earned me joint man of the match. The scenery of mountains, sparkling seas and high-rise buildings that surround the pitches certainly makes a nice change from the boggy paddocks of Europe.

Next week I jet off to Japan for ramen and adventure, before the weight of a month’s neglected study comes crashing down upon me.

 

Cheers.

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Tokyotosaka

Japan was the place of refuge for the ambitiously named ‘Reading Week’. Even after being back in Hong Kong a fair while, the gravity of the trip still hasn’t registered. Japan is somewhere I always imagined I might visit in about ten years time with my Colombian supermodel/astrophysicist wife and our beautiful children: Xavier Power Barter-Rodriguez and Matilda Fleur Barter-Rodriguez. It is the sort of “trip of a lifetime” that I envisaged spending months planning and saving for: drawing up military-standard itineraries; watching Anthony Bourdain, Keith Floyd and Michael Palin exploring the place on the travel channel; attending rudimentary Japanese evening classes etc etc. I think the fact that I popped over spontaneously with a few mates is mostly the reason why I’m struggling to feel as fulfilled and smug as I should, with the sheer pace and cultural bombardment of the trip making up the difference. These – coupled with chronic intoxication – are also responsible for the hazy mush that are my memories. As always, dear reader, I will try to relay my experiences in some sort of linear anecdotal fashion. However, if this blog was being analysed in a GCSE English class (which is, let’s face it, inevitable) I predict the words ‘unreliable narrator’ to be written in bold on whatever Touchboard iScreen Smartwank 5000 they use to educate kids nowadays.

I feel it would be unfair of me to make any sweeping generalisations about the city of Osaka – our first taste of Japan. I was only there for 2 half-days, the second of which I was in no fit state to be a constructive tourist. Not much time to see sites or soak up any culture, however plenty of time to get acquainted with the city’s nightlife. And by ‘get acquainted’ I actually mean ‘get bound, gagged and rogered senseless’. A cruel but irresistible mistress is Osaka. Hedonistic chaos was not on the agenda when we first strolled through the Dotonbori district, but almost immediately the lights, sounds and energy dragged me into a frenzy which chewed me up, swallowed me, digested me and regurgitated me 24 hours later – a costume of a man.

Dotonbori is centered around a bridge over and canal and is a well-established nightlife and entertainment district. Imagine someone plonked Las Vegas in the middle of Venice…the sort of place that wants to make you say juxtaposition. Video games and arcades are an institution in Japan, and were my first jaunt in Dotonbori. If you’re British, when I say arcade it probably conjures up images in your head of wee lads kicking the crap out of a teddy picker in some hell-hole seaside town like Bognor Regis or Selsey. Instead picture a suited man in his mid-forties nail the hardest setting on the dance machine without breaking a sweat, stone-faced like an amalgam of Michael Flatley and Dot Cotton. He wasn’t there out of enjoyment or leisure…he was there out of duty. Now picture for me a man of similar age, but this time dressed more casually. His poison was the drum game, a game which also became the object of my desires and involves beating on a couple of, what resembled timpani more than anything, in time with a catchy J-pop track. Now I’ve held my own at the kit from the jazz clubs of New Orleans to the punk basements of Soho, but this man made me look like Lars Ulrich. He breezed through track after track with an effortless grace, twirling, throwing and catching his sticks (which he brought from home) as he went. Watching him was like watching an old, Japanese Keith Moon. On the way to find a toilet I stumbled across a large room filled with nothing but rows of slot machines. The strobing lights of the pokies cut through the dark room and blinded anyone inside, the hardcore death metal that blared was deafening, and the players sat like zombies dropping coin after coin into the slots. It was like something out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I preferred the dancing management consultant.

As we wandered beyond the arcades we came to the Dotonbori bridge, the Times Square of the district. As we stood in awe of the eccentric illuminations that stood over the canal we were collared by a group of Japanese lads about our age who had obviously sunk a few sakes, as had we. They slurred and shouted the few English words and phrases they knew, which were far superior to the limited Japanese words and phrases which we slurred and shouted back. They seemed to thoroughly enjoy this shouty cultural exchange and the feeling was mutual. We shook hands, hugged and high-fived. They bowed before one took out an unopened pack of cigarettes and gifted it to us. This set a precedent of hospitality and friendliness that was maintained and exceeded throughout my time in Japan. My inner English angst is always inflamed when I’m travelling and I always feel a bit of a tit, bumbling around aimlessly amongst the locals. But I can say with all honesty that I have never been made to feel more welcome and valued than in Japan. Osaka being the least touristy of my three destinations, and being a couple of 6ft+ very European guys with a seemingly unlimited supply of cigarettes that we were happy to give away, we were the subject of a fair amount of intrigue and novelty when we eventually stumbled into a canal-side club. Memories fade around this point and come back into focus when I awoke at 4pm (check-out is at 11am) the next day feeling like I’d been bludgeoned in the brain with a cosh made from shame. We had planned to cycle Osaka and see the sites, instead I vomited in a bush and we attempted unsuccessfully to hitchhike to Kyoto. I wouldn’t have picked me up. I looked like the lovechild of Keith Richards and Freddie Kruger. We accepted defeat and got the train.

If Osaka was the decadent, modern, hedonistic hub of Japan, Kyoto was its opposite and a welcome change of pace. Day 1 saw us explore the beautiful, spiritual and traditional Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine and Kiyomizu-dera temple. The latter was one of the 21 finalists for the New Seven Wonders of the World, but fell short. I’ve never seen what’s so special about that bloody Jesus statue anyway. Our presence seemed to cause quite a stir, especially amongst the large school-trip population at these sites. It’s funny to think that a meager Wessex-based mid-afternoon disk-jockey like myself might feature on a load of school kids’ Facegrams or Instaspaces. They must have thought I was Martin Clunes.

There’s nothing like a spot of karaoke to blow off some steam after a long day’s culturing. And nothing lubricates the inhibition blockers and vocal chords better than a non-stop flow of tuneful booze-houndary. Much like the exhibitionism of the interactive arcade games, making a complete helmet of yourself by singing karaoke is also an institution in Japan. A large group of us stumbled across a nirvana that gives you your own private room, kitted out with karaoke equipment years ahead of the antiquated tosh we have back home, and unlimited room-service booze. I practically stuffed my yen into the proprietor’s mouth with excitement. Let me tell you, you haven’t felt what happiness is until your pitch-perfect rendition of Natasha Bedingfield’s ‘Unwritten’ has been interrupted by a sneaky Japanese man carrying in your fourth tray of gin and sixth jug of beer. I could have wept if I wasn’t so lost in Bedingfield’s verse. We adopted an elderly Japanese man who nearly died trying to keep up with the Lord of the Flies-esque horseplay that unfolded. When his family came to rescue him, they too were sucked into our black hole of Asahi and Bon Jovi, before heading back to their room for what seemed to be some sort of wake. After outstaying our welcome for about another hour we frolicked through the peaceful streets of Kyoto and finished out the night by storming a club and teaching the locals how to move.

Day 1 was merely a warm-up compared to Day 2, which was probably my favourite day of the lot. It began with a stroll through the bamboo forest of Arashiyama which culminated in some stunning views of the mountains and the river that carved through them. A hike of medium level treachery brought us to Iwatayama Monkey Park. Based at the top of a mountain the “park” is basically a small but open area where a troop of Japanese Macaques live freely. Accustomed to human visitors, they go about their daily business as if you weren’t there. At one point one basically walked through my legs whilst getting from A to B. Like the Natural History Museum or Spearmint Rhino, touching was forbidden, however there was a small, wooden building in which you could buy fruit and nuts, and feed the monkeys through a metal, grate-like barrier. Having the people enclosed whilst the monkeys roamed free outside was a far more rewarding experience than going to a zoo. Never before have I interacted with a non-domesticated animal as intimately as the macaques. The likeness of them to human beings is staggering, especially when observing the young and their relationship with their elders. Because of their personality, the empathetic connection you feel with them is truly awesome. I realised that it is not narrow-minded to not be concerned about conservation, because until you have these close encounters with nature, it’s near impossible to understand the importance of protecting it at any cost. Few people get the opportunity to have such a personal experience with wildlife, if we did we would certainly consider more often the wider implications of our lifestyle. This particular excursion highlighted the scale of opportunity in front of me and just how fortunate I am to be gallivanting round the opposite side of the planet. I will never forget Monkey Mountain.

Next up, Kinkaku-ji or the Golden Temple. I honestly can’t think of two better words to describe it. The temple itself is pretty impressive but the gardens that surround it are what really got me going. Bonsai trees, koi ponds, wooden bridges, rock gardens, and not a condom or needle in sight. Kinkaku-ji beautifully encompasses the tranquility and traditionalism of Kyoto.

There’s no better way to wind down after a day of existential experience and Buddhist decadence than to sit in a bath whilst an elderly Japanese man’s todger stares you square in the face. I am, of course, talking about the Japanese tradition of the onsen. Due to Japan being so volcanically active, hot springs are a common theme and are utilized in public bath houses. These bath houses also exist in the absence of hot springs and are called sentos. In my arrogant opinion, the biggest question facing Western culture at this very moment is: ‘Why have we not adopted the onsen yet?’ Do you really think anyone would want to beat people up on a freezing cold football terrace or join the Islamic State when you can simmer away in a selection of beautiful indoor and outdoor jacuzzis? Edward de Bono once advised the UK Foreign Office to send Marmite (a product high in zinc) to the Middle East to ease Arab-Israeli tensions, believing that their low-zinc diet was causing their aggression. I say, save the Marmite for us, just get them all in a bath together. At first it was a tad surreal, but something about sharing a bath definitely triggered my inner Roman. All the lads down the onsen together, it’s a lot like going down the pub, except there’s no beer…and people in the pub tend to eat nuts, not shave them.

Feeling more relaxed than we’d ever felt, we took a night bus to Tokyo. Probably the comfiest and most pleasant long journey I’ve ever had. I expected to be crammed in between two sumo wrestlers who skipped the onsen. In fact, it was more like a business class setup and even included a pair of what looked like very comfortable slippers. Alas, they were no use to my gargantuan meat slabs. I might have just about got a toe in.

Much like London, Tokyo is a city that’s hard to generalise. Its 13,500 km² area is home to 38,000,000 people, and enough sites and activities to keep a man of my caliber occupied for several reading weeks. All I can say is that you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Tokyo. Until now, every metropolis I’ve seen has been European, North American, or strongly influenced by the above. Tokyo is at least on a par with, if not more advanced than the likes of London, Paris, Berlin, New York and Hong Kong – but with a culture that resembles none of them. Of course, in this globalised world we live in you can still find a Big Mac or a skinny soy milk macchiato, but it is truly baffling to walk around in such a futuristic city that doesn’t rely on the West for its culture or economy.

I was lucky enough to be staying with one of my travel buddies’ relatives in a beautiful and typically Japanese house in the Ebisu area. This was a perfect location, close to the central locations of Tokyo, Shibuya and Shinjuku, but with it’s own independent identity and neighborhood feel. Hostels have many perks and I always enjoy my stays, but I sometimes feel that they force me into having a very touristy experience. There is nothing wrong with a tourist experience, but it’s great to be able to throw aside the sightseeing maps from time to time and experience some everyday Japan with local people. Unlike Kyoto, which seemed to maintain some sort of linear timeline in my brain, Tokyo is an awesome collage of flashing lights, skimpily dressed fantasy women and ramen. So instead of a play-by-play account, here are some highlights.

Maid cafés: I’ve tried copious times to explain this phenomenon to intrigued listeners. Every time I do I sound more and more like a 70s BBC television personality. So let’s get one thing straight, this is Japan I’m talking about. I’d never quite understood why the archetypal neck-bearded, basement dwelling troll had such an affinity for Japan and Japanese culture. Now I very much do. Japan celebrates all the traits that are seen as sad and pathetic in Europe and the U.S. There, a grown man that plays video games, watches anime and whose ideal woman is a half-elf, half-cat is just as acceptable as the football-watching, beer-drinking, BNP-voting man is in England. The maid café is the perfect manifestation of this. When we arrived at this café that looked like Polly Pocket’s bedroom, we were given a set of cat ears to wear by a waitress dressed in a full French maid’s outfit. We ordered drinks. After about 5 minutes a maid offered us a shot at the lucky dip for a small fee. With promises of big prizes capturing my imagination I paid my dues and plunged my hand into the box of tickets. I won a small badge with an anime maid on it. My lucky companion fared better and was able to chose a photo of a real-life maid – sort of like a pervy football sticker. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly jealous, nevertheless I pinned my badge over my heart with pride. When our drinks finally arrived we had to do a cute little dance before they were handed over. Picture that, two gigantic, disgustingly hungover Europeans, wearing cat ears, meowing and dancing with a little Japanese woman dressed as a French maid. Afterwards she got on stage and did a mental cartoon dance for about 40 minutes. I felt like someone had put peyote in my Coca Cola. Before you go thinking this is in someway seedy, let me inform you that the clientele were mainly girls, couples and families. I felt a little out of place, as I am only 2 of these.

Virtual reality: My penchant for leather trench coats, dark glasses and vacant expressions means I’ve always fancied myself in the Matrix. But when I stepped into the seven-story Sony building, strapped on the gear and plugged in, nothing could have prepared me for the extent of the madness I was about to experience. I’d never done VR prior to this and I always assumed it would be gimmicky and unsatisfying, much like 3D films. On the contrary, I was transported onto a futuristic space-station where I had a 360° field of view, could interact with my environment and shoot at swarms of alien zombies who seemed very cross with me indeed. Immersive is not the word. By the time I had vanquished the aforementioned attackers in the various environments the game offered I was a nervous, sweaty combat veteran. Never before had I been so unaware of the “real” world outside of the game. It struck me that it would not take long in a simulation like that before you completely lost track of the outside world, and the game became your reality. I’d always pooh-poohed conspiracy theories of computer simulations and matrices, but now I am convinced that the technology doesn’t have to get that much more advanced and readily available before people begin spending increasing amounts of time in a simulated world. I have seen through the looking glass…and I was a bad-ass, zombie-slaying muthafudger.

Dancing to disco whilst sipping a Moscow Mule and surveying the Shibuya Crossing from a 10th floor bar. The DJ dropped ‘Makeba’ and I nearly glassed someone out of excitement. But at 10 quid a drink you really do have to be conservative.

Golden Gai is an area of Shinjuku made up of narrow alleyways stuffed with tiny bars and taverns. As a group of ten we struggled to fit into any, but once we found one we basically ran the joint. The snug, quirky watering holes, each with their unique personality made a nice change from the charmless, sterile clubs I often find myself in. If you’re in the area I thoroughly recommend a stroll through Golden Gai. It’s the perfect way to loosen up before a big night of karaoke and getting your nipples fondled by a middle-aged, turkey-necked prostitute and her underwhelming 5’5, 9st. pimp. He didn’t even carry a cane or have a feather in his hat. I have, once again, been duped by Hollywood.

From Woburn to Whipsnade, I’ve had my fair share of zoological experiences. I was once reprimanded whilst on a school trip for feeding a Mini Cheddar biscuit to a Madagascan Lemur. It was fairly embarrassing because I was about 18 and there in an official capacity, gathering research for an A-Level biology project. Tokyo Zoo, however, granted me the unique opportunity of coming face-to-face with a panda. Pandamonium. There, it’s done and I feel just as dirty as you do. Pandas have never really been on my radar, but now I have observed them I feel we are kindred spirits. Pandas used to be carnivores. Because of this they evolved a very short digestive system which is not kitted out to break down the cellulose in bamboo. This means, due to their change in culinary preference, that they have to eat for 14 hours a day just to stay alive. On top of this, female pandas are only able to conceive for 3 days in the years – making reproduction rare. Any species that has such a nihilistic attitude to survival and existence has my admiration. They also have an other-worldly quality since they are so unique in appearance and behaviour. I was convinced that the “panda” I was observing was actually a man in an elaborate costume. By the way he laid around, scoffing his face and scratching his gonads, I suspect the man inside was former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Governments, Eric Pickles. Whilst observing these bumbling rock-potatoes it struck me that pandas, being both Black, White and Asian, are the perfect animals for the inclusive and diverse 21st Century. I also saw a tiger and it was Shere Khanage.

A week is not nearly long enough to get to know a place, especially one as intriguing as Japan. But, despite the brevity of our meeting, Japan will always hold a special place in my ramen-corroded heart. I will be back.

 

Domo Arigato.

 

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The Marco Pierre White Drinking Game

I have been receiving your letters of concern/anger regarding my inactivity, and I thank you kindly for them. In truth, there’s nothing I’d like to do more than spend a few hours at my desk with a glass of ruby port musing over the last few week’s adventures. Alas, as the sun begins to set on my first semester in the most special of administrative regions my university insists on dumping an ungodly workload into my lap. But fear not, dear readers! I have been struck with a nugget of inspiration that I intend to pen forthwith.

During a period of intense study, a brief recess is a useful tool. Some may go for a relaxing smoke, a snack or a stroll. I prefer to watch my hero, my idol, my inspiration, Marco Pierre White whip up some spectacular dishes in partnership with Knorr. I never cease to be in awe of this man’s culinary prowess, down-to-earth opinions and charisma. His idiosyncrasies are intriguing. So intriguing that I have concocted a fast-paced, fun-filled, boozey game to play with your friends, family and colleagues. Simply fill up a glass, go on to Youtube, pick any MPW video you like and follow these rules.

 


THE MARCO PIERRE WHITE DRINKING GAME

*Adds olive oil* – 1 finger
*Makes stock cube paste* – 1 finger
“There’s no real recipe” – 1 finger
“The secret ingredient”…(insert Knorr product here) – 1 finger
“To your taste” – 1 finger

“It removes the water content and removes the acidity/intensifies the flavour” – 2 fingers
“The stockpot brings out the flavour of the meat” – 2 fingers
“It’s your choice” – 2 fingers
“Cook without colour” – 2 fingers
“Render the fat” – 2 fingers

“I am half Italian/My mother was Italian” – 3 fingers
“I got these down the supermarket” – 3 fingers
“Some people do…I don’t” – 3 fingers
“As a boy” – 3 fingers

*Sexual innuendo (e.g. “breasts”)* – 4 fingers
“Delicious!” – 4 fingers

“It gives it that sense of occasion” – finish your drink.
*Finishes with some parsley* – finish your drink

Image result for marco pierre white

Outlying Islands, Cup of Nations, Chunking Mansions, Clockenflap and a Dislocated Pinky

Despite the eventual decline of the honeymoon period and a gradual decrease in the pace of life, the last month or so has flown by. And even after finally carving out some vague outline of a routine, I’ve still found time to squeeze in some frivolity, adventure and minor orthopedic trauma.

Hong Kong has a perception as one big, congealed, homogeneous lump of concrete. In reality, beyond the hustle and bustle of Central and Kowloon the SAR is made up of an archipelago of over 200 outlying islands. Lamma (situated just Southwest of Hong Kong Island) was the most recent excursion of the Blue Girl Hiking Club – Hong Kong’s most prestigious social athletic society. Although Lamma is the third largest island in Hong Kong, it is home to less than 6000 people, has no automobiles or buildings over 3 stories. In other words, the perfect getaway from the city and a hiker’s dream. The island is served by two ports at the North and South tips, and a tame but picturesque trail links the two. The path offers mountaintop views of the small fishing villages and coastline, but is often rudely interrupted by the brutal sight of Lamma Power Station. I get that power stations have practical applications as electricity suppliers and Pink Floyd album covers, but they are not welcome on my hikes. The trail also passes a secluded and particularly idyllic beach, which provided the perfect location for a dip, a nap and a few tins of our namesake. The trail finishes in the quaint Sok Kwu Wan, a long, seafront road which mainly consists of seafood restaurants. I’ve lived a fairly conservative life thus far concerning seafood, but when it’s been pulled out the water 10 minutes prior, 10 metres away from where you’re sitting, you’ve got to get involved. Garoupa, prawns the size of a cat and the alien-looking but delicious mantis shrimp all made their way on to my plate. I mused on how I’ll happily chow down on this sea monster with antennae, pincers, 73 legs and a bloody exoskeleton that I had to open like a tin of beans, but I almost certainly wouldn’t be able to eat a beetle or even an ant. The night-time ferry ride back into Victoria Harbour is the perfect way to end the day. I still can’t get over how I can be eating shrimp in a remote fishing village that might as well be in Fiji or Hawaii, and 20 minutes later I’m pulling into one of the busiest ports in the world.

Next on the island menu was Lantau, the largest island in Hong Kong and home to the airport, Disneyland and Ngong Ping 360. I am currently on a lifetime world-wide ban from all Disneyland resorts for accidentally lighting Captain Hook in fire whilst shouting ‘bangerang’, so Ngong Ping 360 it was. This is a gondola cable car that takes you up to the mountainous region of Ngong Ping. The journey takes around 25 minutes and offers panoramic 360 views of the Lantau skyline, Hong Kong Airport, Tung Chung Bay, and the mountains and valleys leading up to the Ngong Ping Plateau. We shared our gondola with a very hospitable Indian family who gave me handful after handful of pistachios. I never would have thought of bringing nibbles…genius. Plus, I hadn’t had a pistachio since New Labour so it was quite a throwback.

Ngong Ping is home to the Po Lin Monastery and the Tian Tan Buddha. One is a lovely Buddhist monastery, the other a massive 112ft high bronze statue of Buddha – hence it’s pithy nickname of ‘Big Buddha’. Having all the spirituality of a particularly skeptical sock, I’m rubbish at writing about this sort of thing. But there’s something about having these sorts of sites way up in the mountains that makes them more legit. The surroundings certainly compliment the Buddhist vibe better than car horns and tower blocks. I feel more and more that there is a direct correlation between the essence of a religion, and its geographical origins. Let’s be honest, the plain, pious and judgmental sect of Puritan Protestantism was only ever going to thrive in the bitter, rainy flats of Northern Europe, whilst the spiritually colourful Buddhism was always going to be more at home in the tropical mountains of Southeast Asia, than in Slough.

I won’t bore you with any more of my platitudes about how rugby is the single saving grace in a world full of hashtags, pumpkin-spiced jeans and spray-on skinny lattes. But I was lucky enough to witness 4 of the most hotly emerging national rugby teams battle it out as part of the Hong Kong Cup of Nations. This is a round-robin tournament featuring Hong Kong, Kenya, Russia and Chile played over 3 weeks. The occurrence of the fixtures on a school night, coupled with the relative obscurity of the sides, meant that when my fellow egg-chasers and I rocked up at King’s Park (after a few tins on my increasingly popular roof) we were pretty much the only supporters there. This, however, did not dampen our spirits and with buckets of 6 Corona for only $150 (an absolute steal in HK) we were destined to give these fledgling rugby nations the encouragement and gentle criticism they so rightly deserved. The lack of crowd meant we were basically sitting on the touchline with the coaches and substitutes, prime position for some rugby-based international diplomacy. When the matches finished we just strolled onto the pitch, chatted and took pictures with the players. It’s not everyday one meets the captain of the Kenyan rugby team!

Rugby over, beers finished and a good time had by all, but our tummies were making the rumblies that only Indian food could satisfy. I was about to have my first taste of the infamous Chunking Mansions.

Chungking Mansions is a difficult place to describe, mostly because I’ve never been anywhere quite like it. Imagine an entire town inside a labyrinth of conjoined tower blocks and you begin to get the picture. Home to around 4,000 residents, mostly of South-Indian and African descent, the building also contains a market place selling everything from clothes to electronics, Indian and African restaurants, guesthouses, drug dens, brothels etc. Suffice it to say, if you need something – above or below board – you can probably find it in Chungking Mansions. Of course, my companions and I were only in the market for curry. Ideally we wanted to eat it in someone’s converted living room and by a divine stroke of luck our wish was fulfilled! Chungking Mansions…My oriented Tariq Manzils.

Clockenflap may sound like an erotic German film from the 1970s, but it is in fact an annual music and arts festival on Hong Kong’s majestic harbourfront. In my eyes, Clockenflap ticks all the boxes of what a festival should be. It takes place over three days (Friday, Saturday Sunday), enough time to fit in a shed load of acts, but not so long that it takes you a week of rocking back and forth in a dimly lit room humming The Archers theme tune before you can release yourself back into society. The size of the festival is also bang on. There is enough space to have a broad selection of large stages, smaller stages, art installations, bars, pop-up clubs and areas to relax, but it only takes ten minutes to walk from one side to the other. Even if acts clash there is nothing to stop you bouncing between stages to see them all. The variety of genres at Clockenflap was probably the broadest I’ve ever experienced. I could think of nothing worse than a festival that only had DJs playing, or only had heavy rock playing. Variety is the spice of life and the fact that I saw an Arab rock band and a Chinese hip-hop crew in the same hour delighted me to no end. Finally, the location is mesmerizing. As if standing among thousands of fellow music lovers watching your favourite artists perform isn’t enough, turning round to be met by the illuminations of one of the most iconic skylines in the world really is the cherry on the icing on the cake. I spent as much time watching my surroundings as I did watching the stages.

I managed to catch scores of acts over the three days, but it would be no fun for me or you to have to write/read an account of every act in excruciating detail. That aside, the vodka I smuggled in daily via my sturdy pair of Marks & Spencer boxer briefs made the weekend a wee bit hazy. So, as a fun exercise in brevity I shall attempt to describe my favourite acts in no more than 10 words.

Kaiser Chiefs – Landfill indie has never been so fun.

Higher Brothers – Chinese hip-hop is all kinds of mad.

Kid Ink – Pure bunkum.

The Dandy Warholes – Warm, fuzzy nostalgia like a hot bath of strawberry jam.

Stormzy – 6,000 miles from home, turned up, destroyed it #murky.

The Prodigy – Bottled insanity.

Massive Attack – I nearly cried at Unfinished Sympathy.

Blossoms – Everything that’s good about music and festivals.

Slaves – Fast, loud, dangerous, aggressive, raw, emotional, cool and utterly brilliant.

What a weekend!

The romantic way I describe Rugby football may lead to believe that it has no downsides. Alas, the pace, aggression and physicality of the game can occasionally lead to the odd strained muscle, pulled ligament, or in my case misplaced bone. Prior to this unfortunate incident I had been lucky enough to never have been hosptalised by a rugby injury, but after a fun game of ‘stick your finger where it doesn’t belong’ i.e. directly into the ground with the opposition lock on top of me, my pinky ended up resembling a bendy straw. On the plus side, Hong Kong’s public healthcare system is the envy of the world and I was excited to get acquainted with it. In a humorous turn of events, after a short spell in the A&E waiting room I was joined by the opposition fly half, who had a serious case of manky knee. It was a touching moment not dissimilar from the passage in All Quiet on the Western Front where Paul Baumer comes face to face with a dying French soldier and has a sudden flash of solidarity and sympathy for his enemy. We were not so different, just two men trying to put some points on the board. Despite this, after receiving the final score on Whatsapp, I took great delight in informing my fellow invalid of his team’s defeat.

After a routine x-ray to assess the extent of the damage to my poor pinky, my doctor used all 10 years of his medical training to yank, grind, twist and snap my finger back into place – with all the grace and finesse of Lenny from Of Mice and Men. I am still attending regular therapy sessions, but the digit is on the mend.

The approaching weeks bring with them the dreaded period of exams and assessments of all shapes and sizes. I’ll be keeping my nut down and getting some serious work done, before jetting off to Thailand for a 3-week birthday/Christmas/New Year bonanza.

 

Namaste.

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Thailanded

A generous month off to celebrate the anniversary of our Lord and Saviour’s womb emancipation, and an injection of cash from loved ones in celebration of this and my own womb emancipation, provided the perfect opportunity for a winter getaway. South-East Asia was my oyster, and after dismissing my “blindfolded dart in map” idea for fear of pulling left and ending up in Yemen I settled on Thailand. From what I’d heard, it would provide me with sun, scenery and debauchery in equal measures – without breaking the bank. I’m still paying the price of being nomadic, destitute and hedonistic for three weeks but between the typical stories of Chang and Hong Thong there were some truly memorable experiences.

All work and no play makes Harry lose his marbles, and after being cooped up for several weeks revising and writing papers I was ready to blow off some serious steam. What better place than the infamous Patong Beach in Phuket. Popular with backpackers, stag parties and the occasional regretful couple, Patong’s Bangla Road is a nocturnal hotbed of everything that’s wrong with the world – and just what I needed. Imagine Magaluf with pad thai and you get the idea.

I was lucky enough to spend my 22nd birthday in this epicurean nirvana, and a very pleasant day it was too. A tuk tuk ride to Phuket’s famous Big Buddha statue allowed me to get out of Patong and experience some of the natural beauty Phuket has to offer, including a few road-hogging elephants. The valleys surrounding the monument looked stunning in the afternoon Sun – a million miles away from the pink, bald heads, (s)peedos and misspelled tattoos of Patong. Dinner in an outdoor, jungle-esque restaurant overlooking the emerald valleys was the perfect calm before the storm. The great thing about living nocturnally is that you get to celebrate your birthday twice. The night of the 18th saw the clock pass 12 and turn into the morning of the 19th before my very eyes. My birthday had arrived and it was time to celebrate! Flash forward 20-odd hours and once again it was the night of my birthday and time to celebrate! We hopped from bar to bar enjoying Thailand’s liberal use of weights and measures, and almost non-existent dress code. Midway through the evening someone suggested the ping pong bar. Of course, being the athlete I am I leapt at the opportunity to exhibit my prowess at the table. How naive and arrogant I was. I’ve held my own with the paddle from the church halls of Bedfordshire to the street tables of Brooklyn, but these Thai ladies made me feel like a rank amateur, with a style that is unorthodox to say the least. I left with my tail between my legs, but richer for the experience. From here the night descended into a beautiful haze of flashing lights, Long Island Iced Teas and bangers from the early 2010s.

After a few days of lazing on the beach all day and frequenting libertine watering holes all night, I was ready to move on. Christmas was fast approaching and I needed a change of scenery. Phi Phi was calling!

A couple of hours by ferry transported me to the island of Phi Phi. As the boat approached its bay I experienced Thailand’s Thomas Cook brochure beauty for the first time. Pillars of volcanic island emerged from the crystal blue seas like termite mounds from the loam, clad in deep green fauna. And on the beach, blanketed in white, powdery sand, a young lady from Wigan came to in a pile of chips and vomit. As Phi Phi, despite it’s National Geographic landscape, cobbled streets and quiet lack of automobiles, was still mainly a haunt of the travelling party-goer – and I was on the hunt for good times and Christmas cheer.

I’ve always classed myself as a Christmas traditionalist and pooh-poohed the idea of spending the holiest of days in anything but the bitter frostiness of Dickensian tales. But, as always my curiosity and sense of adventure eventually overrode my stuffy, curmudgeonly ideas and I was ready to trade in my sherry for iced daiquiris and my carols for a tropical house Christmas remix playlist. Christmas Eve and Day were celebrated, like most days in Phi Phi, by huge pool parties. Luckily my hostel hosted the biggest and maddest, which allowed me to roll out of bed fall directly into the festivities. Like I mentioned, Phi Phi is no stranger to a pool party, but the seasonal vibes lifted the atmosphere and, to be frank, playing beer pong in a santa hat with the sun beating down on me and George Michael pumping from the speakers made me forget all about my fascistic Christmas prejudices. It wasn’t Christmas as it should be, but it was a bloody good time! As always, as day turns into night the temporary inhabitants of Phi Phi migrate to the beach and the scores of clubs and bars that line it. I must say, that to finally be able to wear flip flops on a night out without being judged was the best Christmas gift I have ever received – the birth of the Messiah in a distant second.

A highlight of Phi Phi’s countless beached and non-beached nightlife was the infamous Reggae Bar – which I visited on several occasions. You’re probably imagining a charming establishment with rum-based cocktails, narcotic inspired posters, Bob Marley quotes and UB40. You couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, Reggae Bar’s central attraction is a full-size boxing ring in the centre of the bar, in which heavily intoxicated amateurs can knock seven shades of stuffing out of each other under the promise of a free cocktail bucket. In fact, to call it bar is to do it an injustice. It is a fight club which serves refreshments. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton missed a trick with that one. Imagine the sort of funds they could have raised for Project Mayhem if they had had a little Thai bloke in the corner knocking up gin slings for 8 quid a pop. I couldn’t help but feel that some contenders possessed far too much Thai boxing knowledge and experience to be lighting up some meathead from Warrington who’s 12 pints deep, plus the weight disparities seemed a bit excessive at times. But by Jove I dare you to try and stop watching! If it wasn’t for my mangled hand I would have been bang up for a round of fisticuffs. That being said, if they box anything like they play ping pong, I was in for a right good hiding. Still, I was happy enough to sit back, sip my overpriced sugary beverage and offer my Joe Rogan-esque insights into the combat. My conscience niggled me slightly due to my gaining entertainment from essentially watching people who haven’t got a clue what they’re doing get beaten up, before realising that this was absolutely no different from any Saturday night in Dunstable or Southampton, when two absolute primates decide to knock around their 3 brain cells over who was next in the kebab queue. The only difference in Reggae Bar was that they were wearing gear, had a ref, and no one’s mate was going to jump in and wrap a Stella bottle round some poor bloke’s canister.

In a well needed day of respite from the boozy, damp discotheque, we took an all-day boat trip hopping from island to island. After an early, groggy start due a heavy evening’s festivities, we packed a hearty lunch of Chang and Hong Thong and headed out to sea.

Among our various stops was Maya Bay, famous as the location for Danny Boyle’s The Beach. It truly was a tropical paradise worthy of the film’s depiction, however I don’t remember quite so many Japanese tourists in the motion picture. They crowded the place out a bit, but this was soon forgotten as the moment they laid eyes on us we were swarmed on. I can only imagine that they thought Leonardo DiCaprio and his entourage had returned to his previous workplace. Now, I’m no stranger to bikini-clad Japanese girls hassling me for photographs, but it never fails to give the old ego a nice little inflation. I should have charged 50 Baht a snap, I’d’ve made a killing.

Afterwards, it was time for us to be the pests as we landed on Monkey Beach. It does exactly what it says on the tin. Much like on my trip to the monkey mountain in Kyoto, I was utterly engulfed in fascination by the way these monkeys interact and how human-like their behaviour is. I felt like a pound-shop David Attenborough, and decided to narrate my observations in his voice in my head, which added a whole new dimension to the experience. The monkeys were calm and didn’t seem too bothered by having to share their turf with obnoxious tourists, but became increasingly riled as people encroached more and more on their space. It seems, for so many people, they can’t see anything interesting without immediately clawing for their phone. You’re in one of the most beautiful parts of the world and have the rare opportunity to experience nature in its most purest form, and you’re absorbing it through a 4″ x 2″ screen. I have nothing against photos, but the situation should dictate the desire for a photo, the desire for a photo should not dictate the situation. The moment you force a photograph, you’re capturing a moment that never actually existed. But then that is essentially the whole culture behind social media, exhibiting a lifestyle and personality that is fabricated. I’m guilty of this, anyone with a Facebook or Instagram account is guilty of this. But taking it to the point where social media is dictating the way you experience the world is a scary  rabbit-hole to be tumbling down. (I spent 5 minutes trying to re-word that sentence so I could use a pun on the word Tumblr but I couldn’t make it scan).

When you’re on a boat, surrounded by crystal-clear ocean teeming with the most beautiful tropical fish and someone hands you a snorkel, what’s the first thing you do? That’s right, you strap that snorkel to your face and do a pint of Hong Thong and Coke through it. Shamefully, I only made it about half way before choking and spurting the cocktail out of the snorkel like a wino whale. Tomfoolery aside, having the chance to go snorkeling was one of the highlights of my entire trip. I’ve never had the opportunity to go scuba diving and I’ve always been pretty indifferent to the sea, but seeing it clearly, first hand opens up a whole new world that had me hooked immediately. I couldn’t have imagined that the sea I’d been wallowing around in for the past couple of weeks was full of such a cornucopia of exotic life…including sharks!

I felt pretty apprehensive as I paddle my kayak towards the known hub of shark activity, and even more apprehensive when I was told to just jump into these shark-infested waters like it was the Aqua Splash rapids. But I thought ‘screw it’, fighting a shark is just the sort of anecdote I need to spice up my dinner party repertoire. As I submerged myself I was met once again by hundreds of fish in all varieties of sizes, shapes, patterns and colours, including a moorish idol fish, otherwise known as Gill from Finding Nemo. But these fish did not arouse my interest the way they had a few hours before…I was on the hunt for shark.

Little did I know, shark was also on the hunt for me. I’d barely had to utilise my snorkel for breath before, in my peripheral vision, I caught a glimpse of something gliding in my direction. About 5 feet long, it fixed its piecing but spiritless eyes on me. It was obvious these waters weren’t big enough for two top predators. With only a split second to think, I thought I’d test his mettle with a swift left jab to the chin – if only to buy me some time. I quickly learned that sharks don’t have chins, and have since found out that sharks contain no bones at all, and only elephants share our pointless facial protrusions. My adversary, who was clearly better versed in human anatomy than I was in fish, whipped his tail round and caught me square across the face with his caudal fin, skewing my goggles and rendering me  partially-sighted and disorientated. This shark was obviously a seasoned Muay Thai fighter, and I was wasting my time and energy exchanging blows with him – I had to switch it up and grapple this slippery devil. With my uncovered eyes only able to make out the rough shape of the beast, I waiting patiently for him to make his next move. After what seemed like a lifetime of intense fin measuring he lunged for me. His jaws parted and I saw for the first time his rows of razor sharp teeth, primed and ready to slice through me like a hot knife through butter. With lightning quick reactions, I swerved to the right and as the hungry giant raced past me I grabbed his fin and swung onto his back, not dissimilarly from how Legolas swings onto his horse during the attack by the Wargs on the citizens of Rohan on their passage to Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Before the shark knew what hit him I’d sunk in an air-tight rear naked choke. He wriggled and bucked but he soon realised his attempts at escape were futile, and modestly tapped out. As he swam away with his tail between his fins he briefly turned, our eyes met and, despite his defeat, a feeling of mutual respect was exchanged. I am Neptune.

Phi Phi had been very good to me, but it was time to head North to the capital. My original plan was to catch a 12-hour night bus, but after seeing that a domestic flight from Phuket to Bangkok was less than 30 quid I would have been a fool not to take the aerial route. Once I arrived I had some time to kill before my friends landed, and after staying in pretty rudimentary hostel dormitories for the past couple of weeks I decided to treat myself with a night of luxury in a nice-ish hotel. It still only cost me around 30 quid for the night but just having clean sheets on a double bed, hot showers and a TV was like I dream. I felt like a Vietnam vet getting his first taste of home. I can proudly say that I laid on that bed, turned the air-con up to 11, turned the TV to the only English channel I could find and did absolutely NOTHING all night. A film called Colossal was on and honestly, from the bottom of my heart, it was the worst film I have ever seen – and I loved every second of it. Seriously though, google the film and read the synopsis. It is the biggest pile of bunkum that’s ever been shot with a camera. Ann Hathaway must have fallen on tough times because to go from Les Mis to this crock of crap is the biggest relegation since the Football Association screwed Luton Town over. Nevertheless, I hadn’t watched a TV in 4 months and I would have watched season 6 of Drying Paint if it had come down to it.

The days leading up to New Years Eve were mainly spent visiting the various tourist attractions Bangkok has to offer, sampling the local street food, drinking, trying not to get run over and generally exploring the city. I seem to have quite a knack for getting lost and accidentally stumbling across interesting sites. The highlight was almost certainly the Exhibition on the Royal Cremation Ceremony of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Royal Crematorium. One of the most stunningly striking structures I’ve ever seen, and so complex that I struggle to describe it. This is very unlike me, mainly because of my poor photography skills, but I divert your attention to the photograph below. It doesn’t do the fine detail, religious and cultural symbolism or three-dimensionality justice in any way, shape or form.
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Beyond the superficial, it was fascinating to learn about the life and times of the longest-reigning, and probably most universally loved and revered monarch of modern times, and the extent of the loss felt by the nation upon his departure. Over a year on and air of mourning still occupies Thailand.

My recent introduction to art history came in handy upon stumbling across the National Gallery on one of my wanders. It says a lot about the tourist demographic of Bangkok that I was literally the only visitor. It’s a shame because I really wanted to show off how deeply and pretentiously I can stare at paintings since completing my course. I’d squint and nod and mutter Italian words like chiaroscuro to myself and ‘Christ!’ people would think. ‘This man really knows what he’s looking at!.’ Alas, the best I could do was casually drop into my conversation with the curator that I was an art historian. The gallery contained an exhibition of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s artwork. I expected it to be average, built up as something special because of his royal status. But damn, this guy really knew his way around a paintbrush. And all our royal family are good for is waving, making culturally insensitive remarks and incest.

Opposite the National Gallery was the National Museum, featuring some beautiful buildings and a whole host of artifacts, artwork and cultural exhibits. But as much as I love history and art, there’s only so long one can walk around looking at old plates before one needs a beer and a sandwich.

Before long, New Years Eve was upon us. And where better else to spend it than the infamous Khaosan Road. Known as the backpacking centre of the universe, this street is made up of nothing but hostels, bars, street stands, tattoo shops and more bars. During the day it is packed with stalls mainly selling food and clothes, but as the sun sets it becomes a strip of pure carnage – much like Bangla Road in Patong. I had been a few days before and witnessed the hedonism, but NYE was a different kettle of fish. Thousands of people crammed the street as the dividing lines between bars and road became blurred beyond recognition. It was one straight kilometer of pure bucket and balloon-fueled party. Aside from my copious physical assets, Jehovah graced me with a bladder the size of a walnut. This can put me in some compromising situations, especially when on the sauce. The saturated nature of Khaosan Road meant a clandestine widdle was out of the question. Fortunately, a enterprising lady was whoring out the toilet in her shack, whilst her dying mother looked on in disgust. Unfortunately there was a hefty queue, so I had to make a decision between spending the stroke of New Years partying in the Thai streets with my friends, or rupturing some internal organs. Pissing to the sound of fireworks is depressing.

After the chaos of Phuket, Phi Phi and Bangkok, a vacation from my holiday was needed. We headed for Koh Samet Island, around a 2 hour drive and one difficult boat journey South of Bangkok. It was exactly what I’d hoped for, pristine, deserted beaches, beautiful views, and not a Justin Bieber or Ed Sheeran song to be heard. We spent our days sunbathing, sipping cocktails and caning through the mountains on our mopeds. 15 year old me was sick with jealousy. It was the perfect way to finish off what had been an immensely fun but utterly insane trip.

2018 brings with it a whole host of exciting activities: a new semester with new exchange students, family visits, rugby, parties, HK 7s and a host of more trips.

First up…Vietnam!

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A Study Into the Effects of Fried Rice on the Englishman’s Brain

Being of the male disposition, I try my upmost to ensure that I avoid the busy shopping districts of Hong Kong at all possible costs. Instead, I anchor myself to the areas abundant in sports bars, Korean BBQ joints and those little shops that sell light bulbs and screws. Unfortunately, an upcoming social function forced me to venture to Causeway Bay this afternoon, in search of a dress shirt. As much as I despise shopping, there is no way I will be seen about town unkempt.

Despite the nausea-inducing halogen tubes, obnoxious walking patterns of fellow consumers, and a cornucopia of pointless choice that made me want to move to Venezuela, I acquired a shirt without a single bellowed profanity or over-the-top murder. I was in such high spirits that I decided to remain local, and ate my Groves chicken pesto pasta salad on a park bench with the midday sun beaming down on my satisfied little head – adding to the warmth felt by my accomplishment.

My aforementioned hostility towards shopping ordinarily means that I get exactly what I came for, nothing else, and flee the scene as if I’d just held up a bank. But something about this day, perhaps the combination of a new shirt, nice weather and and an energizing luncheon, meant that I was strangely aware of my surroundings. A Marks and Spencer caught my eye. I have never shopped at M&S and find those that do to be bourgeois swine, but as an Englishman in exile I couldn’t help but let my curiosity get the better of me.

Reader, I blacked out. I can’t be sure as to how long for, but when I came to I was back in the busy high street, the shop to my rear. In one hand I clutched a receipt disclosing an amount that churned my stomach, in the other a sturdy but disconcertingly heavy plastic bag. In said bag I carried sausages, scones, pork pies, scotch pancakes, English muffins, sausage rolls, a meal deal consisting of a turkey feast,sandwich, lightly-salted potato rings (poncey hula hoops) and a bottle of mango juice, soft caramels and Percy Pigs.

I love Asian cuisine and revel every day in sampling the culinary delights that Hong Kong has to offer. But seeing these home comforts laid out so elegantly must have awakened some sort of dormant Jacob Rees Mogg-esque beast inside me, and sent me into a pastry-fuelled frenzy. I really hope no one came between me and the picnic section. I’m not sure what constitutes battery over here, but I am sure that they don’t think highly of bludgeoning-by-tomato, borlotti bean and kale soup.

This is why I don’t go shopping. I only nipped out for a shirt and now I am sitting, shaking due to Percy Pig-induced hyperglycemia.

Hopefully I live long enough to finish the sausages.

Image result for M&S pork pies Image result for m&s percy pig