It is shameful that it has been nearly two months since last I blogged. Mostly this is to be blamed on my family – the things I need to say and share I do with them face to face, but now again there is travel involved.
I recently returned from my first business trip for the company and the route was Auckland – Singapore – Hong Kong – Shanghai. For the Vaalies among you who think the world ends at Limpopo in the north and Brakpan in the East, best you whip out your primary school atlas and acquaint yourselves with the real East.
I’ll steer clear of the business side of things – although that went very well.
Singapore was an amazing experience. Tiny place, great people, very clean and organised. Everyone speaks English – didn’t need to use my Mandarin even once (just as well because I may have been incarcerated).
I am sure there are many sites that will give you a scenic description of the place. For me the outstanding moment was wandering down Orchard Road just after sunset. Now Orchard Road is like Fifth Avenue, Oxford Street and the Champs Elysees all thrown into one long, noisy, bustling strip with a sprinkling of tiny little shops here and there. Every brand imaginable – of goods, food and people!
I was mesmerised by the neon and the “Sale” signs but as we walked down past St Andrews church we came to an intersection where there were thousands of birds gathered at sunset in the enormous trees which grow at the side of the road. Their communal screeching was so loud that I had to block my ears. I had a few moments of reflection staring up at the bustling hordes in the branches, wondering if this was Hitchcock’s nightmare come true – where the birds gather at sunset to screech their indignation at the human race for building a city in their nesting grounds. But then the traffic light changed and we hurried away from the piercing din. No one else seemed worried or seemed even to notice!
During the trip I was solicited by 269 suit tailors all of whom promised to cut and sew me the best suit this side of Saville row. One character was exceptional – his teeth were brown, his feet were bare and his name was Gucci. I kept his card in case I ever need a suit made.
We had only a day and a half to spend in Singapore and it deserves more airtime. I would not hesitate to go back and see more of it (with family in tow). It has so much for kids and adults alike.
Our one customer took us out for a special meal. He was rather enthusiastic with the ordering but clearly wanted to impress us so ordered about 9 dishes (for 3 people).
It was a wonderful assault on the senses – tastes unlike any I have had before. The most cruel was “Hot and sour soup” which thoroughly lived up to its name. Absolutely delicious, fragrant, unusual and so hot that I had tears in my eyes and my nose was running like an Ethiopian athlete. The “cruel” was because I simply could not stop eating it – “S/M se moer”. I finally cooled things down with a pure coconut drink and a pineapple salad. But just thinking of that soup gets my taste-buds a-twittering and my eyes watering. As they say in the classics “Eina, maar toemaar.”
Hong Kong was the next stop. Also clean, also crowded, also 50-story apartment blocks all over (no kidding) but with the added attraction of many smaller islands and a lot more greenery. Several of the islands are totally untouched – they are used for hiking and camping. Some are totally populated with sky-scrapers. The harbour is very scenic and there are all manner of vessels working their way in and out of the maritime traffic.
We were again harassed by several tailors and Kevin (my colleague) eventually lost it and told one of them to please leave us alone in two short words. He hardly blinked and moved to the next tourist. No hard feelings.
We had appointments all over town and one of them was on the 78th floor of a tower overlooking the harbour. Brilliant view.
We also popped into the 3-story electronics market where you can buy anything for really dirt cheap prices. They are all genuine articles but astonishingly cheap. There is even a corner stall filled with the most amazing classical CDs – box sets which I’ve never heard of, rarities and favourites alike, and all for the equivalent of R30 / $5. The guy manning the stall would not be able to pronounce Shostakovich but there he was happily flogging his stuff. Very few people were buying because the medium is essentially redundant, but if I had an extra few hours and a few spare Kgs in my luggage I’d walk away with an embarrassing amount of CDs. In the end I did nothing more than buy a better carry case for my computer and try to memorise the price of iPads (for one day).
In Singapore it is called Orchard Road, in Hong Kong it is called Nathan Road. A little less classy, a little more congested, more tailors, and a fierce fight for retail advertising space. Each shop has a sign, but every other shop has a bigger sign that sticks out in your face a little more, dangling over the pavements, flashing and screaming for your attention.
Hong Kong has among the world’s highest populations of ex-pats. The place is teeming with them, so the vibe is tremendous and the feeling is very cosmopolitan. We ended up in a Japanese restaurant which was the low-light of the journey. Over-priced and under satisfying we vowed not to go there again.
Instead we ended up the next night in a Mongolian barbecue. We picked it because you could actually see the food being cooked and it looked very clean from the outside. We wondered in and were instantly confused. This was a Mongolian (look at the map again) barbecue in Hong Kong, China. And as one would expect the decor was African (!) Wildebees skulls all over the walls, zebra hides on the floors and to top it all off lovely, thick sheep skins on all the chairs. They were particularly “welcome” because of the 35°C, 75% humidity in the city! Eventually we realised that the place was called “Nomads” and hence the African theme – you know people traversing the African veld, hunting wildebees, wild antelope and wild merinos; then cooking it all on a gas-fired wok with noodles and a satay sauce. Well we had a great meal that was affordable and which was served in air-conditioned comfort. Eight years ago in Prague our group moved from shop to shop in -20°C temperatures, lurching from one central heating system to the next. Here we were doing the same but in search of cool air. On one day I showered four times.
Then an early morning flight to Shanghai. Well I must say it was very different. The word for Singapore was “contained”; for Hong Kong “condensed”; for Shanghai “sprawling”. The city has three times the (human) population of New Zealand. We went to see one customer and we drove for nearly and hour to get there. It was off the main routes, but still very much in the city. We had great difficulty convincing a taxi to come back and fetch us – it was too remote! We waited for 40 minutes until one reluctantly showed up.
Shanghai was unlike anything you could imagine. A society in such traumatic upward ascent that the streets are littered with contradictions. Everything is on a large scale. Shopping centres are new, bright and modern with all the top brands. We went into one close to the hotel and considered buying clothes, but they had never heard of VISA or Mastercard and only accepted UnionPay – the local EftPos system. A gazillion cars, outdone only by the two gazillion scooters with entire families on them. I guess they are about 50cc in capacity and they are required to carry a family of four with groceries. Crash helmets are a rare sight. Scooters also seem to have permanent right of way – for them a red traffic light is merely a suggestion.
There was plenty of English signage courtesy of Google Translate or some other very authoritative piece of software (we could not stop laughing). Everything you read is true. “Happy Joy Bakery”, “Lucky Dragon Shop”, it is endless.
We had very little time in Shanghai so again we did not see as much as we could. Because of our plastic money proving to be useless we ended up eating in the hotel which was very interesting (in a nice way). They had dragon fruit aplenty, lovely noodle dishes and some bland carvery fare for tourists. They also had spare rib soup (not as nice as it sounds – think boiled bacon). I also realised that in China if you are eating a dish and there is stuff in it that you can’t immediately identify – that’s probably not such a bad thing, just let it be.
The next day it was back to the airport. I can only assume that our taxi driver absolutely hated us and must recently have bought a brilliant life policy with additional trauma cover. It was my chance to get revenge on Kevin. He snickered away while I melted under the onslaught of the hot and sour soup. This time I watched his complexion change to a whiter shade of pale as our driver tested the driving skills he never acquired. In a Singaporean taxi – all new, shiny and bright – I can handle a bit of speed. But this guy was driving a rattle trap! When he went faster than 80km the wheels started shuddering. He knew exactly where the speed cameras were because he slammed on his dearly-departed brakes just a few metres before their lines crossed the road. He also knew where the cameras were focused because he would suddenly change lanes as he passed them. Kevin had completely lost his sense of humour by this time and he said to me in an earnest tone “You know he could actually kill us!” As we drove past the You Long rubber factory he seemed to calm down a little – but then we realised it was just another speed camera. Full throttle, he started to play silly buggers with cargo trucks, large vehicles and those silly bloody taxis who were sticking to the speed limit and who were arrogantly keeping to the correct side of the road.
When he screeched to a halt at the airport Kevin vaulted out of his seat and stood firmly planted on the sidewalk. He would not go near the car, not even to retrieve his luggage. I think he wishes he had showered four times that day. Lesson learnt – do what the guide books say and stick to the turquoise coloured cabs.
We just managed to buy a few over-priced souvenirs at the airport, snap a few shots of great translations and then get mercifully aboard an Air New Zealand flight all the way home. The baby who screamed all night is now probably well over her ear infection, bless her.
I have already started working on my next trip – Hong Kong and Taiwan. Soon after that I will be going to Asia monthly, by which time I will be less overwhelmed and may even start eating more adventurous food, but I’ll tell you about it (through rivers of tears and sweat) when it happens.