On my first day in Asia last month, I took a long walk to reorient myself to a place I knew well through countless jet-lagged visits over the past five years.
In Hong Kong, you can wander freely. You can eat milk tarts. You can be a Westerner and not feel completely adrift in unfamiliarity, something that isn’t always possible in mainland China. If you’re like me, you can buy a can of iced coffee at 7-11 in the mornings and a can of beer in the evenings.
After ten previous trips to the city by airport bus, I had recently discovered an easier way. For just $13, travelers can take the express trains direct to the city, where easy connections by metro and shuttle bus are available. For the uber-rich willing to spend $25, taxis are also available. Such is the power that money gives you access to—taxis! Express trains! Wow. For years I thought everyone traveled by cheap public bus for an hour, followed by half an hour traipsing through streets, uncertain of their destination. I guess that was just me.
Old & New
During so many 48-hour transit stops, I developed a ritual: always do something new, and always do something familiar. To practice this ritual, I got on buses and rode wherever they took me. I walked through rainstorms. I needed to do laundry, but I bought $10 t-shirts from Giordano instead. I went to the movies, subtitled in Chinese but played in original English. I went to the Pacific Coffee Company on Nathan Road five times in as many visits. I went to church once.
I discovered a diner that served Western-style eggs and waffles 24 hours a day—a convenient find for my my usual bleary-eyed state in the city. On other sleepless nights I took the train from Kowloon to the Hong Kong side, staying until after 11pm and taking the last train back to my side. One time I checked out of my hostel and went to the Conrad hotel for Sunday brunch. It cost $50 for one person, and it lived up to expectations.
On the initial visits, I stayed at random guest houses, the YWCA, and numerous hostels with shoebox private rooms. Almost always I stayed in Kowloon, the Brooklyn side of Hong Kong, instead of Hong Kong island itself. Once I had a reservation on the other side, but I canceled it due to a flight change. How hard can it be to find a place? I thought. I knew the city, or at least I knew part of it. I went to Mong Kok, the center of China in a city of Chinatowns. In or near Mong Kok you can find the bird market, which sells birds, and the ladies market, which isn’t named for the same reason—although in this area you can also find a number of tiny hotels that rent by the hour, presumably for other jetlagged travelers like me who need to take a nap. (Right?)
I decided to give them a try. After arriving on the hour-long bus from HKG, cheapskate that I am, I carried my bags through the neighborhood and went knocking on doors. “Do you have a room for the night?” I asked. The signs outside advertised $10 an hour or $40 for the night, so I thought I’d save money and have a fun story about staying by myself in a budget hotel usually used for other purposes. But no—no one had a room. At the first place I thought they were just booked up, but by the fifth place I realized the problem: no one would rent to foreigners, or at least an unaccompanied foreigner like me. I finally gave up and hauled my stuff over to the YMCA, where I paid $130 for the only room they had.
Then and Now
This time, I finally stay in Hong Kong proper. It turns out that in addition to the hourly rooms and the random guesthouses on the 21st floors of office buildings, Hong Kong also has nice hotels with 21 whole floors devoted to rooms. Who knew?
As I wander through the crowded streets from Hong Kong station, I remember: in some ways, this is where much of my worldwide wandering began. That first trip, jetlagged and eating pancakes at 4am in McDonald’s—surprisingly jam-packed at that hour. Another trip where I laid down for a nap at 2pm and woke up at 10pm, just in time for sleepwalking the streets and replying to emails from hostel WiFi. That ferry I took to Macau, where I first outlined the plan for visiting every country in the world. I remember wondering if I was up for it, whether it was even possible, how I could do it without going broke or crazy, but also excited by the challenge.
One thing I don’t remember about Hong Kong is running. I’ve ran in many countries, and I’ve ran in Hong Kong before, but not often. Busy streets, jetlag, and high humidity serve to keep my running shoes in the bag more often than not. This time, I resolve to change the pattern. Ten days on the road to Kansas City, Austin, and New York for meetings led to the 16-hour Cathay flight across the Pacific where I started writing these notes , but they didn’t lead to much running.
So on the night I arrive back in town, bleary-eyed as ever, I resolve to repent for lack of running. I unpack my shoes and put them by the door. I get out my running clothes and leave them by the bed. I take a shower and settle in for a night of exhausted restlessness, the product of once again changing a full twelve time zones at once.
Happily, I sleep nearly five hours—not bad for a first night in Asia. I know that the second and third nights will be the hardest, so I take advantage of the small success and dutifully run four miles as the sun comes up over Causeway Bay. This is a small accomplishment, I know, but it helps to retain muscle memory and also increases the odds that I’ll go for another workout in the next stop. Success doubled! I come back tired but glad that I made myself do it.
After another shower I head back to HKG airport, because as usual I’m only in transit here. I stop off at the 7-11 for a pastry and bottle of water, then ride the express train, $13 luxury traveler that I am now. I’ll be back next week for another night, but at the moment I’m off to Singapore, from where I’ll finally depart for my real destination: East Timor, also known as the world’s newest country—and known as country #155 for me.
I know this airport better than any major airport in the U.S. Over time and so many visits, I learned its secrets. Terminal I and II are connected by train, so you aren’t missing out on lounges if you have to check in on the lesser Terminal II side. The best airport floor sleeping is found by Gates 20-40. Due to some Kafkaesque logic, if you have an ING bank debit card, you can’t get money from the ING cash machine in departures. The Krispy Kreme in arrivals became a Starbucks a while back, breaking a critical donut ritual I had become attached to after five visits.
I go through security in two minutes (it’s almost always that fast) and head to The Wing for free breakfast. They have recently added a vegetarian menu, so I order Chinese fried noodles with vegetables to go with my coffee. I read the South China Morning Post and most of the International Herald Tribune. As I reply to emails for the next hour in the work area, I remember talking to Leo Babauta on Skype from here a year or two ago. I remember the time I almost missed my flight because I was taking a super-long shower. I remember the time I left this lounge to fly to Pakistan without a visa, talking my way onto the plane and (eventually) my way into the country. Another small victory; take them where you can!
This time I have only one more hour until the flight, so I walk to gate 14 and decide to take my time in boarding. As usual in these parts, I’m heading out on Cathay Pacific, my favorite airline in the world. It gets edged out by Singapore Airlines in some other rankings, but holds sentimental attachment for me. I’ve flown Cathay short-haul to Bangkok, Manila, Karachi, Bali, Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul, and undoubtedly a few other places I can’t remember. I’ve flown Cathay long-haul to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vancouver, New York, London, Rome, and Riyadh. I’ve been in a middle seat at the very back of the plane, and in “Suite 1K” at the very front. (Verdict: 1K is obviously the best choice if you have one… but Cathay economy isn’t bad at all.)
After a short wait, they make a boarding announcement for Business Class and OneWorld elite members. Sometimes I like to be first on the plane when I have the chance, but today I hang back a little. I wait for peasant class to begin boarding, then I join the queue in the back. I finally make it to my 11k aisle seat (Business Class this time, the comfortable purgatory between the suites in the front and the five-to-a-row layout in the back) and settle in. It’s a full flight, and everyone else is already there. I accept a glass of water and finish the newspaper I began earlier.
The British pilot leads us out to the runway and into the air. I start to fall asleep right before lunchtime, and I remember the words of Jacque Cousteau: “Jetlag is my favorite drug.” I know that drinking red wine at this stage of my Pacific entry might be a mistake, but since we only have one life, I can’t resist one glass. Besides, I know in Singapore I’ll have to wake up, sort out my emails at the airport and then head to the city on another train. So why not, I think. Maybe a glass and a half. It goes well with my Indian vegetarian meal.
I’m listening to Rumer on my iPod, who sings my new favorite song: “I’m alive and I’m thankful for this time.” Time, the universe, my choices, and the flight schedules of Cathay Pacific have worked independently to bring me to this moment. Around me are other travelers, some Western, most Asian, all sharing this space as we take off for Singapore.
We could be anywhere, friends. But here we find ourselves—me publishing these notes from the great Changi airport of Singapore, and you reading them from somewhere. What forces have worked independently—or conspired—to bring you to your location today? Where have you been and where are you going?
Before I know it, it’s all over. I’m in another place with different memories. I know I’ll be back in Hong Kong soon, but for now it’s time to move on.