Photos of Hong Kong

For pictures follow this link to my set on Flickr :    http://www.flickr.com/photos/uq2009/sets/72157622854845842/

Au Fait

This semester is in stark contrast to last. Semester 1 flew by in a whirlwind of beaches, skyscrapers, assignments, cans of beer, mini-buses and caa-caan-tengs – before I knew it  I was saying farewells to friends I felt I had only just met and I was flying away for Christmas. Baam. It was over. And that has terrified me – I don’t want semester two to disappear like that! I want to savour it. So I’ve attempted the impossible – to slow down the pace of life in Hong Kong. I think I would have gone insane had I not consciously made the effort to stay in and chill out sometimes. There is an offer to go out and do something every minute of the day, and so many opportunities to get involved in anything you can imagine (not to mention traveling elsewhere) so I have had to teach myself to say no. I feel like otherwise exhaustion and collapse would be inevitable!

But I am still determined to get more out of this city. I have only scratched the surface. I’ve seen 0.001% of what there is to see. There is currently an arts festival on (and on Sunday I’m going to see a Cantonese production of Animal Farm); the HK International Film festival starts in a couple weeks; and the International Literary Festival after that. My mum came to visit me for two weeks so we also had some new Hong Kong experiences together. We visited Stanley where there is a chilled out water front strip and a market, we joined an early morning tai chi class overlooking Victoria Harbour which was about as Hong Kong as it gets. We also went to Dim Sum at 6am with all the old locals – they loved  it! And so did we! Plus I got to use a bit of the cantonese that I’ve picked up which impressed my mum (which was the whole point of learning anyway innit. Tick!)

I’m really starting to feel relaxed here, it’s becoming home. I’m comfortable, with lots of lovely friends – although making new ones each week is unavoidable! – and everything I need. Just getting on with daily life. I look around me every day and realise how much I love this city and how lucky I am. Dare I say I’m feeling settled before I’m  ripped from my comfort zone and sent on my turbulent way yet again? I will be devastated to leave this place. So for now I will clamp my eyes shut and will it to last forever.

Christmas in Pakistan – where else?!

I write this blog from the Hunza Valley in the Karakoram Mountains, Pakistan, where I have been spending my Christmas holidays. Me and two of my friends made our way here through China and the Khunjerab pass (through the Himalayas) – the highest paved international road in the world. It was a really spectacular journey, first stop Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, China. The Chinese government have cut off all internet access and international phone calls in Xinjiang since the troubles with the Uighurs in the summer so we were totally isolated until we reached Pakistan. It was pretty scary being in a city where the oppression by the government was so overt. The Han Chinese soldiers patrolled the streets in military trucks, slowly scouring with their guns pointed at civilians. It was like going back a thousand years in some parts of the city. We went to an animal bazaar and saw young boys taming horses and humungous woolly camels for sale. It was very cold and eerie in the streets though so, as interesting as the place was, we were glad to leave and get into a region where contact with our families was possible. From there we got a bus through the desert to the Chinese border at Tashkurgan. This was also a cold and eerie place but we were invited for a hot pot party with some local men where we took shots and sang and ate all evening. The next morning saw the second leg of our journey begin in a Pakistani driver’s land cruiser. We squeezed in with four other grown men and shared dried apricots as we meandered our way through the Khunjerab pass. The scenery was indescribable. Huge mountains covered in snow. The road was cut into the mountains at great heights. The corners were sometimes precarious and we saw three overturned trucks on our way.

Finally we arrived at the first Pakistani checkpoint, and what a contrast from the Chinese ports of call. Smiling men appeared from quaint, coloured, wooden huts shouting ‘Welcome to Pakistan!’ and offering cups of tea. The light even seemed to have changed, and plants began to sprout from the mountainside. We were forced to accept Biryani and more tea once we arrived and have never stopped drinking the stuff to be honest. The people of the Hunza Valley offer infinite hospitality and curiosity, and the place is divinely beautiful. We have visited ruby mines, glaciers, one thousand year old forts and hope to squeeze in a visit to some hot springs this week. Next week we will venture to Lahore for some city slickin’ and to the Wagah border with India where an aggressive performance takes place every morning and night when it opens and closes.

Then back to HK for semester 2. We’ll see what that brings. If it’s anything like semester one, I’m not sure I have the energy! Semester 1 was the most indescribably busy time of my life. But due to that I have learnt and experienced more than ever in my life before. Everyday life was actually exhilarating. You wake up each morning knowing you have no choice but to go out there and get everything done – but also knowing that you also have no choice but to learn and experience so much that you haven’t before. HKU is certainly a unique place, as is HK itself, and the other exchange student I have met (people who all deliberately let themselves in for this crazy experience, just as I did) are similarly of a certain unique breed.

Semester 2, bring it on.

Did I mention I LOVE HK??!!

Everyone love’s HK. And HK loves you. How could you fail to love it here?!

The way of life here takes some adjusting to, but everyone loves it. Life is at a fast pace, workload is at an all time high, there is toooo much to do, tooo many people to meet, tooo many cheap restaurants to eat in, toooo many trips to go on and not enough time!!!!!!

I have gradually made very close friends. The type of people who choose to come here seem to be of a different breed – I don’t think there is even one person I don’t get on with. Everyone has such a sense of fun and adventure. Work hard play hard seems to be the way of life. We have spent time taking trips to different parts of Hong Kong and different parts of Asia. Most notably, we went to Manila just after Typhoon Ondoy. We had booked the flights before the typhoon and most of the people who had booked to go that weekend cancelled because the typhoon had caused a national disaster. But me and five others decided to go anyway. We thought it would be an experience, as long as we weren’t causing problems by stretching resources or put ourselves in danger, then it would be good to ‘pump money into the local economy’ (a much used justification for holidays in this part of the world) and perhaps we could even help out with the disaster relief operation. So, once we had established that clean water was again available in the city and that the red cross were looking for volunteers, we set on our way! There was supposed to be another typhoon coming that weekend too so we bought wellies, raincoats, torches and a pack of cards.

Once we arrived, though, the weather was lovely, the typhoon never came, and even the people at the red cross seemed relatively chilled out. We had quite an experience on the first day, when we turned up with a sense of urgency, ready to help get aid to the 400,000 displaced to camps outside the city, and found that everything was done in ‘Filippino Time’. The Philippines are across between jamaica and latin america. Everyone is soooo chilled and smiley and happy and kind and curious, and there are significant american and a spanish influences in their culture (the Philippines is THE best country in the world, no exaggeration, GO THERE). So even in the red cross, in the wake of a national disaster, we were told to wait a few hours and help ourselves to a free meal! Everybody kept thanking us so sincerely for coming to help their country, even before we had done a thing. They loved the fact we were foreign and we even got to meet the head of the Red Cross in the Philippines. It all felt a bit weird getting special treatment and so on when we hadn’t even done any work yet to be honest. So when they told us they needed some people to go to the airport to help bring in the US aid, we jumped at the chance to do some actual work. When we got there it just turned out to be a photo opportunity for the US ambassador for the philippines, the head of the red cross and the US Aid people – they wanted international looking people in the pictures! So we still hadn’t done any real work and everyone was thanking us profusely.  On top of that, I had been in the Philippines for less than 24hours and I was on the national news with the US Ambassador and the Head of the Red Cross!

Crazy things happen to foreigners in Asia. That’s one thing I’ve realised about being abroad – all the foreigners seem to congregate at various events or in certain parts of town. So even if you are integrating well with locals, you bump into the most amazing people and inevitably make conversation due to the similarity of your situation. If you’re into networking, this is the place to be. I’m really not interested in that sort of thing, but, regardless, I have met exchange students with parents in very high places and lots of people with very interesting/powerful jobs. It’s eye opening if nothing else.

And going away from HK to Manila made me realise how much I love it here. Despite falling in love with the Philippines too, I came back to HK with a sense that I was coming home. The scaffolding and skips had been taken away from the halls and various improvements had been made inside (wi fi!), the place seemed more comfortable, prettier, more mine.

AND THEN THE WORK KICKED IN. The workload at HKU is heavy. I took classes in the Arts faculty that are all pretty much 100% coursework assessed so I had a particularly hard time of it during term time, though no exams towards the end. I am also learning Cantonese and French so those both require sustained effort. Then there are mid terms, assignments and presentations. I have never done so much work in my life – but it felt so good! I stepped it up a gear, was operating at a higher, more efficient, level and was getting so much out of it. I have never had to do a presentation or small assignment at Glasgow and was dreading it. But I feel like I am learning so many skills and ones that are more relevant  for employment – which I am starting to realize is increasingly important, being a philosophy student!

Speaking of skills for employment etc, I got an email from the university advertising a programme called Young Social Enterprise Ambassador Programme. I read about social enterprise earlier this year and thought it sounded really interesting, so I applied, thinking I would have no chance against the business students here. But the group interview went alright and it turned out I got in. Eight students were chosen and put into two teams. We were then granted access to the Hong Kong International Symposium for Social Enterprise. We were supposed to go to the summit to get information and inspiration and then create a proposal for promoting Social Enterprise in Hong Kong. This proposal would be entered into a competition and the winning team gets HK$3000. The summit was enlightening and I learned so much. I also met some very inspirational people and have made use of my contacts… Last week I went on my first shadowing trip with the founding chairman of the HK Social Enterprise Incubation Centre (Raymond Yim) and hopefully after the Christmas holidays we will have formalized it into an unpaid internship. The Incubation Centre helps social enterprises to get onto their feet in whatever way necessary. That day I was taken to meet a nice old lady from Beijing who makes renowned dumplings, she has tiny shop in a poor area of town and Raymond was hooking her up with a man who runs a social enterprise that helps people find property at reasonable prices. After that we went to view some office space for another social enterprise (I didn’t catch the details of that one – all in cantonese) and the to the Institute of Vocational Education, where they intend to set up a call centre to use in the promotion of social enterprises.  It was all very interesting, I was glad to see some parts of HK that I wouldn’t usually get to see and learn a bit about how these things work.

In general I am just loving it. Getting stuck in now that I have adapted to the pace and noise of things! I don’t have a minute to spare – if I’m not doing uni work then there is always more to see and do and more people to meet. Even if it’s just another restaurant to eat in, I’m there. I heart HK, and you will too.

For photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uq2009/sets/72157622854845842/

Where to begin??

…….. So, I am now pretty settled in my halls. I share a bedroom with a girl called Melissa who is from North Carolina and studies linguistics. At first I was a bit concerned as she seemed to be the only person I had met that wasn’t mega excited about being in Hong Kong. She seemed pretty cold and spent all day on the phone to people at home, didn’t take me up on offers to come out and socialise etc. But as time has passed she has warmed up and has started to mingle and I have realised that she just likes her alone time. So her cynicism, sarcasm and complaining are mostly amusing idiosyncrasies thus far, let’s just hope I can keep this attitude. That’s easier said than done because it’s pretty tricky keeping your own morale up in this situation, never mind someone else’s too. But no, really she is very sweet and funny and is interested in good things like photography, classical literature and beer.

So, Positive Mental Attitude is the way forward. I spent a thousand dollars in IKEA (there’s an Ikea?!) which made me feel amazing. It’s about £80 so actually still quite a lot but I worked it out as £2.50 per week I am here to have a nice room (which I think is a wise investment for my mental health). My manky little room is now a relatively clear white space (relative to the local students’ rooms which tend to be crammed with brightly coloured plastic tat) with nice storage boxes, bedcovers, lanterns and even a plant to keep me company. When I first arrived the hall looked pretty miserable – it was Friday night so the office was closed and I had to settle for a little old Chinese lady who could speak no English to give me my keys and send me on my way (not before making me fill in a million forms – little did I know filling in forms was to take up most of my first couple weeks here) to an empty room with no air conditioning, no bedcovers, no internet and no view (manky little window looking into a courtyard which is obscured by one gigantic sheet of green netting hung on bamboo scaffolding). But the scaffolding should be removed by the end of October, there is a nice man who speaks a bit of English in the hall office from 9-5 during the week, and we had our first floor meeting today! (Does what it says on the tin-  meeting to discuss the running of our floor of the hall.) I have taken the position of Pantry Secretary! Which means I am partially in charge of buying everything we need for the kitchen. I am very happy with this result as I have been complaining about the lack of sponges, to nobody who cares, for far too long now.

The local students like to get very involved with their hall/ floor activities. In the first week they have an ‘Orientation Camp’ for the freshmen. This varies from hall to hall but is basically designed to toughen up the kids that have been wrapped in cotton wool (that’s most of them) and to force them into friendships (because they tend not to be so good at building close relationships quickly apparently). To me though, in this hall, it just seems to be a boot camp. They have Lee Hysan Hall songs, chants, marches and a different matching t-shirts for each day. When I first arrived they were all out in the courtyard in the blazing sunshine and humidity standing in rows and learning the chants and marches. This is all led by five or ten senior hall residents who walk up and down the rows yelling and physically forcing everyone to put their arms up at the correct angle and their feet the correct distance apart. They do team building games right into the middle of the night and we are all awoken at 6.30 every morning by someone yelling over the tanoy in Cantonese. The worst thing I saw was when they seemed to be doing circuit training and one boy, who was so exhausted he was actually vomiting, was being propped up by two seniors and forced the run the rest of the circuits regardless! Absolute madness. So it was all pretty strange and unfriendly for the first week while the local students all got stuck into their O camps but since then people seem a lot more friendly and the floor meeting really helped me feel a bit more welcome here. I’m really going to try and make friends with local students because I don’t like how segregated it is here. All the international students just hang out together really, and I don’t think that’s how it should be. Saying that, I’ve been having  a great time with all the international students. There are lots of Chinese people from Canada and America which is really helpful as some of them know some Cantonese! There’s also a few guys from Australia who have been here for a term already and they are really great at helping all the newbies out. They have arranged various beach trips, hikes, dinners and nights out over facebook which have been really successful.

Speaking of nights out… there is an area near central called Lan Kwai Fong which seems to be where all the ex pats, travellers, exchange students and visiting business men/women migrate to when the sun goes down. It can be pretty expensive but there are lots of parties in clubs organised by local and international students in huge clubs which just have a cover charge and then an open bar!!! HK is much cheaper for the ladies too! Wednesday and Thursday are ladies nights in particular bars which means free entry and free vodka and mixers for the girls and extortionate prices for the lads. The exchange students tend to go to this area but just buy beer in the 7/11 (7/11 is your best friend in HK) and drink it on the street- you can drink anywhere in HK and buy alcohol at any time of the day- and just go into bars for a chat/ air conditioning/a boogie! One of the Ozzie boys was giving us a run down of the ‘good 7/11’s’  where they have benches and public toilets nearby! Hahah. So the first week or so was pretty mental with everyone -especially the English boys- wanting to go out every night! But it’s calming down now and everyone is getting to know each other a bit better and starting to explore the Island and more remote parts a bit more.

Despite this Lan Kwai Fong area though, generally Hong Kong is nowhere near as international as people like to make out. It’s so much more like China than I expected. Probably a bit of a silly thing to say, but I had the impression that everyone speaks English and the place is literally designed in order to make life easy if you don’t speak Cantonese. Not so. People even still stare at me here because I have fair hair! You have to ask the minibus driver’s to stop when you want to get off and you have to do it in Cantonese! (Or just wait til you’re miles past your stop). None of the people you encounter in daily life, in restaurants, shops, train stations, information counters (!) speak English at all! Which makes sense, of course, but the university and the tourism board would have you believe otherwise! It’s just taking a bit of adjusting because I wasn’t expecting day to day life to be so difficult. I also feel pretty rude coming here with no Cantonese under my belt and having to expect everyone to be able to help me out with stuff despite the language barrier.  Saying that, after a while I found a part of town where you can get everything western that you could dream of, including fish and chips, bacon sandwhiches, yorkshire puddings, fry ups and newspapers, magazines and books that are written in English. But of course it all costs loads, so I had to leave empty handed – except for a miniature bacon roll that cost me about a pound!

HKU is on Hong Kong Island but Hong Kong Special Administrative Region actually encompasses part of the bottom of mainland China too which is called Kowloon and the New Territories. Kowloon is full of street markets selling tat but also has big markets for particular things such as the flower market, bird market and fish market and there is even a street which is just full of pet shops selling tiny puppies, kittens, rabbits, exotic fish and turtles etc. There’s also a night market that specialises in seafood and you can buy a whole deep fried squab – which turns out to be a pigeon actually. I took a bus into the New Territories on Sunday in the hope of finding a clean beach (the ones on Hong Kong Island tend to smell funny as the sewage is just pumped straight into the surrounding water, took me a couple trips to the beach to realise the water wasn’t just brown because of the sand…) but got distracted by some cheap clothes shops…. so didn’t get to the coast in Sai Kung until sunset. It was still worth it though because the place was absolutely packed with people going to eat at the brightly lit seafood restaurants along the pier. They have GIGANTIC tanks of fish and crabs etc covering the entire front of the restaurant and people in white wellies clamber over them to get the ones you pick to eat. Apparently if you go there during the day you can pay someone with a boat to take you to any of the little surrounding islands and come back for you later so I’ll be doing that at some point soon.

Last week I climbed to Victoria Peak which is the highest point on Hong Kong Island. We did it at night in the hope it would be cooler but I still have NEVER sweated so much in my life. It took an hour and a half and the first half of the track was on a ridiculous gradient. The weirdest part is that there is a shopping complex at the top (!) where you can have a champagne breakfast with a spectacular view of the city, the harbour and the surrounding islands- if you can afford it. The views in this city are absolutely indescribable when you catch a glimpse of them. Mainly you can only see skyscrapers in every direction but every now and then you get a peek through at the sea and the islands and it’s amazing or, if you get high up enough or far away enough from the city, the buildings themselves are really beautiful at night and during the day. The pictures you tend to see of Hong Kong’s cityscape are of Victoria Harbour on Hong Kong Island as viewed from Kowloon and the buildings along that harbour actually have lasers built into them so they can put on a light show EVERY NIGHT!

Started uni last week as well which I was really looking forward to. The campus is a short bus journey from halls which actually seems like a nightmare in this unbelievable heat. The campus is a labyrinth. Hong Kong is a labyrinth but the uni campus takes it to another level. Hong Kong is so densely populated, and there is so little space, because the city is built into the side of a mountain, that they have to sacrifice having spaces between the buildings sometimes. This means that they sacrifice having streets (!) and just have the buildings linked together instead. So you always have to walk through loads of shopping malls and office blocks to get to where you want to be. It’s not as bad in town where they do have streets for cars and buses etc, but at the university there are no streets or spaces between the buildings so you just have to go into the one in front of you and get the lift to the level you think might be roughly the level you’re try to get to and follow corridors in the general direction you would like to go and hope for the best! It was very confusing at first but now it’s actually kind of fun and you get such a sense of accomplishment when you find a reasonably direct route between your classes. Most of my classes are in the main building at the front which is lovely because it’s a hundred years old and filled with courtyards and fountains and benches (this city seriously lacks benches). The registration process is a nightmare by the way. They send you on a wild goose chase around aforementioned labyrinth for first couple days in order to collect and hand in various forms blah blah blah. It can be frustrating but helps you get to know your way around campus and I bonded with some other exchange students over the experience! But, there is a special international student’s haven called the Global Lounge – this magical little nook houses the exchange office, a coffee shop, free internet/computers, lovely seating areas, plasma screen tv’s showing international channels and air conditioning that is always up full!

Oh and I really must add something about the heat…. IT”S SOOOO HOT!  You know when you walk behind a bus and you get that gust of dusty, wet heat coming from the vent on the back of it and it’s hard to breathe and you feel like your lungs have been irrepairably filled with fumes? That’s what the summer is like here. Constantly ‘glowing’ (sweating profusely) and praying for a breeze or some air con. But it’s starting to cool down now and there’s absolutely nothing like the feeling when you catch a rare breeze.

Ok that’s enough for now. Basically I’m steadily turning many acquaintances into some friends, attempting to learn Cantonese and understand the Hong Kong way of life, trying to see everything there is to see and also get away for some calm time out of the city every now and again.

Tick Tock

Time is passing quicker than I’d like it to…… not long until I have to start saying my goodbyes. Only four weeks until my flight now. Every time I meet friends I have to do a mental check to see if it’s the last time I’ll see them before next summer. Aaaah! But I’m actually really excited. I know I’ll miss my friends and family a lot but I have to focus on what I’ll be gaining, not what I’m missing out on. I’ve been speaking to people that have spent time in Hong Kong and they’ve been telling me about places I should go to and stuff. I joined a group on facebook called ‘Study abroad in Hong Kong 2009-1010’ and have already arranged a night out in Hong Kong with the people on that. It’s all starting to feel really real, in a really good way.

I’ve booked a one way flight, partly just because it sounds more exciting that way – if I’m honest, but also partly because I want to jump in the deep end. I want to throw myself into this year and not look back. If I’m stranded in Asia over Christmas I have a feeling a lot more exciting things will happen than if I trudge back to Scotland just to end up watching the fireworks in Edinburgh again, with wet shoes and socks, again, and then having to say good bye to all my friends and family, again. So I’m going to stick around and see what pies I can get my fingers stuck in!

I’ve been given a place in Lee Hysan Hall, which was my third choice. It’s a bus ride from the main campus but it’s right beside the gym (which is free!) and some other halls and there are frequent shuttle buses. Apparently it’s being refurbished right now and it’s the only one which is co-educational (allows men and women to stay in rooms on the same floor) – how very 21st century. I’m still a bit ambivalent about staying in halls instead of getting a flat, because I really like to do things my own way, but the price difference has left me with no choice. It’s less than £400 for a semester in halls and about the same amount for only a month in a private flat. You do have to share a room… but it’s all part of the experience I suppose! Got to embrace it. 

Had a bit of a problem with the ol’ visa. I opted to do it through the Chinese embassy instead of letting CEDARS (the Hong Kong University Centre for Development and Resources for Students) sort it all out for me because I thought it was going to be cheaper. This way I just had to pay about £30 so they would send me a letter of acceptance in Chinese and so they would ‘sponsor’ me for the study visa but no the other £50 for them to liaise with the Hong Kong Immigration Department on my behalf and sort the whole thing out. I’ve been to the Chinese Consulate in Edinburgh before to get my visa when I went to mainland China so I thought it would be easier this way – and I could save some money. Silly me. Basically the extra £50 is the price of the visa so I would end up paying the same amount either way. And I ended up with a bit of a panic because the lady at the Chinese consulate told me I’d be quicker to post it straight to the HK Immigration Department and, of course, my application got lost in the post. I didn’t find this out in enough time to get my visa before my flight (processing time is six weeks, I only had five) and I spent ages in a telephone queue to the visa hotline in the middle of the night!

Silly me. It turns out my British passport entitles me to three months stay in Hong Kong as a tourist and I can get my visa sorted once I’m there so there’s no need to worry. Plus, once I collect my visa in Hong Kong I have to make a trip out to Macau so that my visa can be activated on the way back in to HK. This simply means that I have a very valid excuse for a trip to Macau – which is essentially the Las Vegas of China. So everything is hunky dory.

Also started to get a bit worried about health insurance prices earlier this month until I spoke to the current GU ambassador in HK, Andrzej, on facebook. He told me not to bother with health insurance until I get there because apparently I will be bombarded with leaflets and information on arrival. I have an annual multi-trip travel insurance policy which I took out for a trip I made earlier this year anyway so that should cover me if I have any problems in the first few weeks. Couldn’t think of anything else to worry about after that…… need to buy some sunglasses….. Continue reading