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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