Thursday, 31 October 2013

香港日記 Hong Kong Diaries. Part Four

Strolling through the indoor market by our hotel, looking at the impressive displays of fruit and vegetables it’s clear that the people of Hong Kong like their food fresh. Very. Some of the smallest ingredients in the meat section and nearly all the fish are still alive. 

Walking past little faces staring out with doomed eyes is a disconcerting experience, but then I feel exactly the same way in this part of the world when I see sheep peering out from lorries on their way to slaughter.

We’re not stopping here though, just passing through on our way to the MTR station. Neither of us is a great shopper but since we’re in Hong Kong, we both have a small wish list of things we might like to buy; I’d like some perfume and Tom’s after a bike computer. Away from the side streets and markets, the lavish shopping malls reveal a completely different aspect of Hong Kong’s personality.
On the spotless trains, exquisite girls and sleek boys, straight out the pages of Vogue, are glossy with head-to-toe designer labels. 4G networks across the MTR keep everyone busy on their Samsung tablets or texting on their smart phones where the keys correspond to brushstrokes to form Chinese pictograms - there’s not a book in sight! 

In what feels like miles of jewellery shops, there’s a brisk trade in eye-wateringly expensive diamond rings and luxury watches. Cameras, handbags, designer clothes are everywhere in this busy modern city with its huge appetite for the new and costly, but not my perfume - which was introduced in 2000 and is now considered out-of-date – nor Tom’s modest bike computer!

The queue starts to form...
Giving up on our purchases, we decide to have another try at eating at Din Tai Fung, a Michelin-starred Taiwanese dim sum restaurant, actually part of a franchise, which Tripadvisor loves. 

The problem is that everyone in Hong Kong seems to love it too; on our first attempt we were beaten back by the queues, but this time, amazingly, we’re shown straight to a table. And, oh my goodness, is it worth the wait! The food is utterly sublime; the service is fantastic and the bill is less than most British takeaways. What a treat!

Outside the glass...
Success! Dumplings, crispy chilli chicken and hot and sour soup!

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

香港日記 Hong Kong Diaries. Part Three.

Saturday 19 October
We’re on our way by cable car to see the Big Buddha on Hong Kong’s largest island, Lantau. Now that we’ve got our Octopus cards, there’s no stopping us! Gliding upwards in a glass- bottomed cabin, I can see Tung Chung Bay sparkling beneath my feet and the green slopes of the Lantau Country Park ahead.

It might be an obvious tourist attraction, but it’s a good one and reasonably priced too for the breath-taking sky trail which takes the best part of an hour for the return trip. I’m not especially bothered by heights, but can’t help bracing myself whenever the cabin enters a station to turn; the sensation of the ground rushing towards me is quite unsettling!

At the summit in Ngong Ping Village there are plenty of ways for tourists to spend money, but we’re going to climb the 240 steps to see the world’s tallest seated bronze statue of Buddha.  I’m not sure I feel especially enlightened, just hot after climbing all those steps, but both the statue and the views from the top are spectacular.

In the evening, we set off again to the harbour to see the nightly laser show which is a tad ‘meh’. Frankly you’d be better off soaking up the atmosphere of the night skyline from the ferry, but then I’m probably biased. The crowds mean queues for the most popular restaurants so we decide to head back to somewhere closer to our hotel. Unfortunately we take a long detour in the wrong direction and are both pretty weary by the time it comes to choosing somewhere to eat. Not perhaps the best starting place. ‘This’ll do!’ we agree, picking the least scary Chinese restaurant which, we realise once inside, is, um, quite basic. 

I’m not quite sure if we’re the novelty act or simply ripe for the plucking, but we’re ushered to a table and an illustrated menu with English subtitles is waved only briefly under our noses because the waitress has her own recommendations. ‘Good’ she says, stabbing her finger at a photo of something that looks like crispy duck. Coincidentally it also happens to be the most expensive item on the menu. Okay, the subtitle also claims that it’s goose, but, what the heck, I’m tired. Crispy duck, crispy goose? Whatever. We also order some rice, some green beans and then Tom, for some crazy reason best known to himself, orders a noodle dish too. And a couple of beers.

Oh my goodness, how I need those beers! The goose arrives along with a couple of interested staff to tell us how ‘good!’ it is and watch us take our first mouthfuls. I’ve no doubt they regard it as delicious, but I nearly faint clean away at the sight of lavish pillows of white fat peeping out from tanned leathery skin anointed in grease like an ancient sunbather. I aim for something that looks a bit meatier only to find myself chewing on some grisly piece of what, I don’t know. The noodles turn up quivering with something gelatinous and I want to cry but have to put on a brave face for the sake of the staff who are so keen for us to enjoy our meal. I’ve never been so relieved to see a plate of green beans in my life – thanks to that, and the rice I can avoid bursting into tears and insulting everyone. ‘Next time,’ says Tom, who has gamely chewed his way through a goose, a plate of alien noodles and a fair share of rice, ‘we won’t rush when we’re looking for a restaurant.’

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

香港日記 Hong Kong Diaries. Part Two.

Friday 18 October
Why not today?’ asks the concierge smiling patiently. ‘Much better you buy now.’ The debate is about when to buy an Octopus card, the smart card which covers fares on Hong Kong’s mass transit system and a whole host of other purchases besides. ‘But we like walking!’ we insist, ‘we’ll explore on foot today and buy a card tomorrow.’

Confident that we’ll prove that we’re made of sterner stuff than your average tourist, we step out into a beautiful, balmy day. Of course, the concierge knows best. Within a few blocks we’re wilting; the heat creeps up on you here, turning to a pleasant walk into a bit of a trek. Overcoming any slight apprehensions about trying something new, we head for the cool sanctuary of the nearest MTR station and after a quick, easy transaction we have our very own Octopus cards and are ready to go.

Conquering the MTR
We soon discover that this cheap, fast, efficient transport system is the key to our successful holiday. It’s the pulse that keeps the life blood of Hong Kong flowing and means we can travel anywhere we like for a couple of dollars. 

Something else that makes discovering the city a delight is the friendliness of its people who genuinely do everything to make you feel welcome. Pulling out a map here is not seen as an invitation for some freak to come up and offer to lick your shoes or sell you drugs, but for a polite, concerned, ‘Sir, madam – you appear to be lost. May I offer my assistance?’

At Kowloon Park we take time out to sit and enjoy an oasis of tranquillity amongst the hustle and bustle of the big city. There are fountains, fluting birds hiding in the trees, exotic butterflies drinking from hibiscus and when a group of adorable tiny school children pass us, I can’t resist taking out my camera. 
One of the teachers spots me, but instead of getting me thrown out the park, she has a word with her small pupils who wave and chorus, ‘hello’ and ‘bye bye’ to us making us feel like honoured visitors.

What I’ve really been keen to do though is travel across Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong Island on the Star Ferry and, oh, when we do I love everything about it. From the green and white livery of the ferries, the old-fashioned sailor suits worn by the staff and the star patterns punched in the wooden seats, it’s the most fabulous, romantic way to see the waterfront. 

 Later in the week, we’ll take the Star Ferry across an inky-blue harbour under a full moon, an image that will always stay with me. The skyline is vibrant with electronic displays and on one of the soaring commercial buildings, I watch mesmerised as a series of white lights resolve themselves into falling leaves, leaping deer and finally spell ‘hope’. 

We need to work on our 'selfies'!

Monday, 28 October 2013

香港日記 Hong Kong Diaries. Part One.

The view from our room on the 21st floor. 
Thursday 17 October
While I’ve been sleeping, darkness has given way to a milky light. Some forty thousand feet or so below me, mile upon mile of snow-covered peaks rise up like islands through a sea of clouds. Siberia, I realise with a thrill. In a year filled with potent reminders about the brevity of life, Tom’s decided to make one of my long-held dreams of visiting the Far East come true by surprising me with this holiday. So let’s gloss over my initial reaction which, because I’m always worried about money, was as cold as those mountain tops and skip to the present as the plane prepares to land. The South China Sea is spread beneath the wings and I realise that after years of dreaming about it that very shortly I’ll be in Hong Kong.

Success! Our bags have arrived and we’ve been given a free map of the city. Now all we have to do is locate the minibus to the hotel. We’re mysteriously sporting stickers emblazoned with a large orange ‘k’ issued by a desk clerk who has pointed us in the direction of a seating area and told us to wait. For what, we’re not sure. Presently a small man in a blue and gold waistcoat bows neatly in front of us, tells us to follow him then takes off across the airport at a cracking pace. At an entirely random spot he stops abruptly, points at a petite young woman also wearing a blue and gold waistcoat and instructs us to ‘now follow her!’. ‘Follow me!’ she adds for good measure before haring off into the distance. Eventually, after a failed attempt to board the wrong bus and getting ticked off for it, we’re on our way. 

Hong Kong airport is situated on reclaimed land some twenty-five minutes’ drive from our hotel in Mong Kok. As we draw closer to our destination, the endless skyscrapers give a snapshot of how some eight million people crowded into such a small area are accommodated. I’m particularly struck by lines of laundry hanging from every window – and later, walking around, I also learn to avoid the drips from them! 

There’s a particular smell here too, a bit like the first smell of land when you’ve been offshore in a small boat, a musky, musty, slightly spicy scent with a hint of sewer which soon permeates our clothes and infuses every taste of food. 

We check in at our hotel, shower and head off to explore the immediate vicinity. The temperature’s lovely, t- shirt weather, and, to my relief - since I’m always slightly wary in unfamiliar territory in case I inadvertently offend some local custom - everyone’s too busy minding their own business to worry in the slightest about us. The local restaurants are, however, bafflingly Chinese and some of the street food looks a little too heavy in beaks, feet and heads for my taste so we take the easy option, eat in the hotel restaurant and wonder what the next day will bring…

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

When Fiction Becomes Fact

Matthew took one more look at the neat, black-stained, weatherboard buildings along the bank. ‘Just out of interest, who owns the boat yard?’
It’s always strange when a topic I’ve been writing about suddenly pops up in the news or is reflected by real life. Have I picked up something in the ether or is it coincidence? It’s even stranger though to discover incidents which have shaped my imaginary landscapes taking place in their physical counterparts.

The heroine of my novel, Turning the Tide, Harry Watling runs a boatyard which is not based on any one place in particular but owes a debt to the sleepy backwater on the east coast where we bought our first boat. It’s a proper ‘boaty’ boatyard with a gentle bustle of activity which is all about enjoying being out on the water rather than showing off.

In my novel, Harry wants to preserve and protect her business without selling out, but her problems begin when a property developer buys the old yacht club across the water and turns it into a vast modern restaurant. It was a bit of surprise to see that not only had a number of the old sheds been spruced up as I’d imagined them in my story, but also that a striking new building was rising up in the boatyard that inspired me!

Another theme in Turning the Tide is about reinvigorating lovely old faded seaside towns whilst preserving all that’s unique about them. The town behind the real life boatyard remains charmingly salty and brimming with character. I particularly enjoyed sitting on the sea front with Tom and Ma and hearing a woman chastising her two dogs as if they were naughty children. ‘Just give Teddy the ball, will you, Rupert!’ she shouted and I half-expected to see my characters Frankie and Trevor following along with their troublesome Jack Russell terriers, Phil and Kirstie.

In Aldeburgh, further along the coast, we went in search of Maggie Hambling’s shell sculpture where some of the residents are still less than delighted to see this monument to the composer Benjamin Britten. ‘The beach is beautiful without it,’ one café owner told us, ‘it doesn’t need adornment.’ A controversial artwork dividing local opinion is one of the threads running through my novel, Move Over Darling, but it’s no coincidence that I’m mentioning it here this week. Choc Lit are currently running a Goodreads giveaway for the book and you can enter to win one of three free copies here.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Autumn Break, Last Part: Walking the Past

‘I don’t know how you managed to find your way around,’ says Ma, ‘I would have been lost!’. We’re at my old university, UEA, making our way up from the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts through the campus, retracing a little of my past. I seem to remember my eighteen-year-old self was quite baffled by the concrete maze I found myself in too! First year students were accommodated at Fifers Lane, a former barracks at RAF Horsham St Faith, a bus ride away from the main camp. A mist, shrouding the place for most of my first week, only added to the sense of isolation, as did the trek to the nearest payphone to ring home. My worldly goods fitted in one small trunk and cooking and laundry (also involving a long and often rainy trek) were more logistical nightmares to overcome.

UEA’s celebrating its fiftieth anniversary and although my memories feel as they belong to another life-time, it isn’t actually fifty years since I enrolled there! Even so there are changes; accommodation blocks have come and gone - though not the iconic ziggurats of Norfolk and Suffolk Terrace - and the brutal concrete is softened now by climbing plants and tall trees. It’s not just the exterior of the buildings that are looking greener either; it makes me smile to see a house-plant sale doing a roaring trade. Not quite what I would have imagined in my day!

Power to the pot plant!

Our East Anglia adventures conclude with a crab sandwich in Cromer and a slow drive back through Cambridge, stopping off to visit Stepson Two's former college, Fitzwilliam.  The weather's been kind to us all week; we've barely seen a drop of rain and - even better - very little blood!

Proving that Ma survived more or less unscathed.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Autumn Break. Part Two: Boats and Backwaters

Ma considers the charms of sailing
‘You’re not going to buy another boat, are you?’ asks Ma, stunned. Like Pondside and Frances, she vividly recalls the problems of the naughty Pig Boat, but for me and Tom (who needs no encouragement) distance lends considerable enchantment to our view of sailing. Oh, I know I was sick half way round Britain on our lovely Veryan, but what about the amazing sights we saw? Steering by a star (Arcturus) though the Looe Channel, following a moonbeam into Salcombe, being surrounded by basking sharks yawning in a still sea off Penzance… just a few of the moments that will always stay with me.

Today we’ve come to look at a fat little boat which might be just right for some gentle pottering. Even better, she’s in the sleepy backwater where sailing all began for me and at the boatyard which worked its way into my imagination.

Across the backwaters

At Ramsgate on Veryan

Size-wise, we decide, the boat’s doable, with enough headroom to stand up and enough leg-room to stretch out, though she certainly needs some tlc. Leaving Tom to look at all the technical stuff, I re-join Ma who’s been sitting in the sun. ‘Do you know?’ she says, ‘I can see why you like all this, it’s so different.’ I’m delighted she agrees because it is different here, a world away from gleaming gin palaces and the marine equivalent of a car park. Boats, for us, have never been about Musto jackets or Kevlar sails, but seeing the world from another angle, of taking time out to sit and think. So if the right boat comes along at the right time, who knows?

We head off to find a peaceful picnic spot overlooking the sea where a more intrepid traveller passes us by... now this is one activity I'm definitely not trying!