When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an international businessman. I wasn't sure what sort of business I wanted to be in, but the thought of a bunch of international travel appealed to me. I imagined it to be a lot of first class flights and posh hotels, finely pressed suits, cell phone calls and limo rides. When I imagined this life, 3 cities always stood out as international business type cities: New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong. These were cities that I imagined as gleaming with glass and steel towers and where the things that mattered happened.
Arriving in Hong Kong was like living those teenage fantasies. I arrived at the Marriott Renaissance Harbour View on Hong Kong Island, and was whisked up to the 41st floor for VIP check-in. The views are incredible, looking out over the convention centre and across the harbour to Kowloon. I head to my room on the special, card-access only club floor and soon after room service arrives with a bowl of fruit, cheese and crackers and the beverage of my choice, compliments of the management.
Not everything is like my teenage fantasies, though. I am wearing the same t-shirt and jeans that I slept in on the train, not a finely pressed suit. Instead of pulling up after a 1st class flight and limo ride, I took the metro and my feet after arriving into the train station on a 2nd class ticket on a slow train. The briefcase and cell phone of my fantasies have been replaced by a backpack and a camera case.
Hong Kong meets all my fantasies, though. It is made up of amazing mountain and harbour views, with nothing but glass and steel mammoth towers in-between. I feel alive, and everything seems possible.
It's hard, in some ways, to reconcile this giddy little kid in me that loves fancy hotels, special service and skyscrapers with the guy two days ago that didn't see the Great Wall because he didn't want to splash out on a tourist bus. I have been very perplexed by some of my behaviours on this trip, to be sure. I was unhappy with what I thought I should be happy with, unconcerned about being scammed and giddy about seeing things that should be commonplace to me.
This whole vacation has taught me a lot, actually. Firstly, I never want to do a long distance train trip again. I think 8 hours on an overnight train is okay, if you have a couple days on either side to see the area you are coming from and going to. But doing a "cruise" on a train across a wide expanse of land, never again.
You are disconnected with the land you are passing over. It's strange to say, because you are obviously a lot more connected than you would be if you flew. When coming back from Tanzania earlier in the year, I passed over the Sahara desert. I remember looking out from the plane window and thinking, "cool, Sahara," and then going back to watching some crappy Adam Sandler movie. You are mostly unaware of what you are passing when you fly. I thought that train travel would be a great way to connect you with the country you are passing.
Instead I found that it passes by without your control. We passed a bunch of things that I wanted to see in the middle of the night, when I was asleep and couldn't see out the window anyway. We passed things in that I wanted to see more of, but could only watch it disappear in the train window. Often, I wished I was driving, because then I could stop the car and get out and look around. But I don't control where the train goes, or how fast it goes, and thus can only watch helplessly as the scenery passes me by.
I also have to figure out what it is that I am trying to get out my vacations. I know that I want more than just a relaxing couple of weeks. I want adventure. But I am not sure what that means. And I need to figure out why I get so hung up on doing things the "non-tourist" way, and feel that there is some shame in paying for a tour. It's not about the money, it's something deeper than that. I don't know what though.
I learnt that it's fun to wander around a city without a map. Wandering without knowledge or purpose gives a great experience that not everyone will get. Maps do come in handy, however, when trying to make it back to your hotel, so I am not going to throw out all my guide books and maps altogether.
I learned that you should never give your passport to the police in Ulaan Baator. And if you do give your passport to the police, try to make sure the police officer with the butter fingers in holding your camera.
And most importantly, I learnt that a hot shower and a sunny day can turn around the most foul of travel experiences.