Two Backpacks


Chapter 10 - Crazy Hong Kong, an honest taxi driver and the Scottish Potato Castle

          We arrive at Shenzhen airport, dreading the border crossing into Hong Kong that’s ahead of us. The research I’d done highlighted so many problems – incorrect paperwork, recalcitrant border guards, disastrous stories and words of warning from those who had attempted the crossing before us.

          Reunited with our backpacks, Ron and I enter the arrival hall and find the ticket booth directly across from us. My edition of Lonely Planet advises this is the place to buy bus tickets to cross the border to Hong Kong.

          ‘This is too easy,’ says Ron as I ask the attendant for two tickets to Hong Kong. ‘Is that it? No more checks?’ Ron’s baffled by how simple the transfer appears to be.

          We have a ten-minute wait before we’re shown to our transport, a lovely modern, air-conditioned bus with all the bells and whistles, including Wi-Fi and USB ports.

          Our journey takes us through the industrial sector of Shenzhen, and in little more than an hour, we’re at the border crossing.

          ‘Please leave the bus and take all your belongings with you,’ instructs our driver, in an English accent that makes him sound more like he’s singing to us than giving instructions.

          ‘Bet he’s good at karaoke,’ I whisper as I sling my pack over my shoulders.

          Passport control is a doddle. I’d taken my time filling out the border control forms we were handed when we stepped off the bus – after all the disastrous stories I’d read, I didn’t want any hiccups.

          ‘Will you do mine?’ asks Ron once I’ve completed my form. ‘I don’t want to make a mistake.’

          Maybe the stories I’d told him of my two years living in China, the acute bureaucracy and attention to detail have made him nervous. I don’t have time to speculate. We have another bus waiting for us across the border.

          I do as he asks and hand both completed forms to the waiting border control officer. The guard flips through the pages of our passports, checks the paperwork, and stares at Ron. I swear my heart stops beating for a few seconds. Another glance at his passport, and he raises his hand. I hold my breath. But he’s only reaching for the digital camera off to our right. He repositions it and takes our pictures, one after the other, before stamping our passports and waving us through.

          ‘Phew, that was scary! I didn’t think he was going to let us through. Come on, or we’ll miss our connecting bus.’ I glance at Ron and see he’s just as relieved as me.

          Our journey takes us to one of Hong Kong’s bus terminals near the harbour, giving us our first glimpse of the city that houses over seven million people. Skyscrapers seem to fight for space, the narrow roads between them dwarfed by their height.

          We sling our backpacks into the boot of a waiting taxi and clamber into the back, placing our shoulder packs on the floor. As usual, I’ve written the address of our hostel in my little book, finding it easier to show, rather than try to explain, where I want to go. Our taxi driver smiles when I show him the address and gives us the thumbs-up sign.

          Ten minutes later, we pull up outside a nondescript building with iron gates held shut by an enormous chain and padlock. I look at Ron.

          ‘Is this it?’ he asks. ‘Are you sure?’

          ‘It’s the address I gave the driver.’ I get out with my bag and drag our two packs from the car’s boot while Ron pays the fare.

          As the taxi pulls away from the curbside, I realise Ron hasn’t got his shoulder bag – the one that contains all our electronic gear, laptops, hard drives, phones, cameras and cables.

          ‘Ron! Your bag! It’s still in the taxi!’ I yell.

          Ron quickly realises what’s happened and sets off after the cab, but he’s not fast enough. The taxi turns right and disappears from view.

          A small crowd gathers outside the entrance to our hostel. One of the men speaks to us in English.

          ‘Do you know the name of the taxi company?’ he asks. ‘If you do, I can phone them for you and alert them to what’s happened.’

          I haven’t a clue; neither has Ron or the bystanders nearby.

          ‘Then I suggest you call the nearest police station,’ suggests our helpful friend.

          We thank him for his advice. But first, we have to find our hostel.

          Again, our helpful companion comes to the rescue. I show him the address I’ve written down.

          ‘You’re at the right building,’ he confirms, pressing one of thirty entry buttons stacked on the right side of the iron gate.

          A voice answers, and there’s a rapid exchange in Cantonese. I’ve no idea what’s said.

          ‘Someone is coming to let you in. The gate is usually open but is locked at five o’clock every day. I’ve told the owner about your bags, and he’ll arrange a taxi to take you to our local police station once you’ve checked in,’ advises our knight in shining armour.

          It’s tough to work out how old he is; his skin is smooth, not a wrinkle in sight, but by his demeanour and confidence, I’m convinced he must be in his forties.

          I smile and thank him again for his help.

          ‘It’s nothing. I hope you get your bags back, but this is Hong Kong,’ he states. ‘I’m sorry, but you’ll be fortunate if you see any of your belongings again.’ With a nod of farewell, he turns and walks away.

          We discover our hostel is on the tenth floor when our host, Ron, our bags and I are crammed into the tiny lift. It’s difficult to determine how many rooms there are on this floor, but as we wait to check in, I count twelve.

          Our room is minute. Two bunk beds hug the wall opposite our door while a plastic curtain divides our sleeping space from the shower cubicle and toilet. There’s no window nor air-conditioning, but we do have a large ceiling fan that clinks loudly on every rotation.

          ‘It’s only for two nights,’ offers Ron when he sees my disappointment at the room’s facilities.

          I know he’s right, but I’m a light sleeper and know rest will prove difficult in these conditions.

          ‘Do you think I should try and find somewhere else?’ I mutter as I check the bathroom facilities.

          ‘You said you couldn’t find anything in our budget that was better than this. I think we’ll just have to make do. We’ll survive.’

          The shower is strong, and the water is warm. It feels good to wash off the day’s grime.

          ‘We’d better get going. I want to get to the police station.’ Ron’s keen to report the loss of his bag.

          We return to the reception area, where the owner sits behind a small desk.

          ‘You want to go to the police? Report missing bag?’ he asks, picking up his mobile phone.

          ‘Yes, please. Can you order a taxi for us and give the driver directions?’

          The taxi is waiting for us when we exit the building. It’s only a ten-minute journey to the local police station.

          At the front desk, we explain what’s happened to an officer and then have to wait before we’re taken to a small office to file a report. Luckily, the officer in charge of our case speaks English. We run through the afternoon’s events again, feeling even more foolish in retelling our sorry tale.

          ‘You realise there’s very little hope of recovering your items,’ the young male officer offers. ‘There’s always someone willing to buy electronic goods on the black market! They’re very rarely handed in.’

          The officer produces a pen and paper and asks Ron to fill out the form with details of the items in his bag. ‘I’ll be back soon,’ he states, leaving the room only to return a few minutes later, holding Ron’s bag!

          ‘This has never happened before!’ he exclaims as he places Ron’s bag on the table in front of him. ‘Is this yours?’

          Ron nods, apparently speechless!

          ‘Can you please check to see if all the contents are there?’

          Incredulous, Ron quickly checks the bag. ‘It’s all there,’ he confirms a few seconds later. ‘What happened? Did you catch the driver?’ Ron asks.

          ‘Actually, the driver is here. If you would like to meet him, he’s waiting outside. He discovered the bag when he went to pick up his next fare and brought it to the police station.’

          We can’t believe how lucky we are and how kind the driver is to return our belongings!

          ‘Can we offer him something for his trouble? A reward?’ Ron asks.

          The officer leaves the room and speaks to a man sitting on a bench nearby. A brief conversation follows.

          ‘The driver is just pleased he found you. He doesn’t want any reward, but he must return the taxi to the yard in time for the next driver’s shift,’ advises the officer.

          We thank him again and watch him leave.

          ‘You’ve been fortunate. I hope the rest of your stay in Hong Kong is enjoyable,’ offers the policeman as he takes his leave.

          ‘Let’s go back to the hostel, have a rest and then go out and explore,’ suggests Ron. ‘I could do with a beer or two after today’s excitement!’

          Back at the hostel, we shower and head out again, determined to enjoy our time in Hong Kong. It’s dark when we step from the building onto the pavement and find ourselves in a crush of people.

          ‘This is worse than the London rush hour!’ I exclaim as I grab Ron’s hand, not wanting to be separated from him as the continuous snaking throng pushes us along with them.

          ‘Let’s take a side road and wait until the evening rush dies down a little,’ Ron suggests after ten minutes of being knocked around by the crowd. He leads me to the right, down a dingy alley.

          We stop to get our bearings for a few moments away from the press of people intent on returning home. A hundred meters away, we see a neon sign, its green lights flashing their message – Scotland Potato Castle!

          ‘Bet we’ll get a beer there!’

          Before I can reply, Ron’s off. I scurry along behind him, trying to catch up. Hunger and thirst outweigh my nervousness as we approach the café. Inside are several tables, all with bright green chequered plastic tablecloths; it’s busy, but there are a few free tables. We pick a table near the window and gaze at the menu, its pages sticky from previous inquisitive diners.

          True to its name, the café serves jacket potatoes, a welcome relief from the Chinese food we’ve been eating for the last few weeks. We order two jackets with chilli and two large beers and then begin to relax.

          ‘That wasn’t what I was expecting,’ I say as I gaze out at the quiet alley. ‘That was manic!’

          ‘Let’s hope the crowd’s thinned a little by the time we’ve finished our supper,’ replies Ron, taking a long glug from the bottle of beer placed in front of him. ‘Don’t think I can face wandering around in that crowd.’

          Our food arrives, and we tuck in. It’s delicious! We order more beer.

          ‘Reckon we should leave the sightseeing for tonight. I don’t think I can face that crush again, especially after the day we’ve just had.’ I’m tired. The air is still heavy with humidity. Now I’ve eaten, all I want is to get back to the hostel, take another shower and sleep.

          ‘You’re right. We were so lucky! It’s been a crazy day. Who’d have thought that taxi driver would return my bag to the same police station where we’d gone to report it missing!’

          After two beers, Ron looks as sleepy as I feel. We pay our bill and walk to the end of the alleyway. The crowd is still thick; walking against the tide of people takes longer than we expected, but we make it back to the hostel without incident.

          The following day we’re up early, determined to make the most of our one day in Hong Kong. It’s a cloudy, humid day, but luckily there’s no rain. We decide to take a boat trip around the harbour.

          ‘It might be cooler on the water, and we’ll get a great view of the city,’ I suggest as we plan our day.

          I’m right. The breeze that swirls across the grey, murky waters of the harbour is a welcome relief after the extreme humidity that pervades every street in the city. With its hundreds of glass-covered skyscrapers, Hong Kong reminds me of an army on the march, the buildings clinging to the hillsides surrounding the harbour.

          Out on the water, we pass floating restaurants bedecked in flags, their red-painted hulls contrasting with the grey of the day. Tiny little fishing boats bob up and down in the wake of larger vessels, while in the distance, large container ships and tankers wait patiently for a berth in Hong Kong’s port.

          We disembark at Wan Chai and walk towards the tram stop for The Peak Lookout. Our path takes us along the waterside. We stop at the life-size bronze sculptures of a cameraman with his cinema-style camera and laugh as we pose for photos while seated in the sculptured director’s chair nearby.

          The forty-five-minute tram ride takes us to The Peak, with fabulous views out over the bay and the city. Grey, heavy clouds hug the horizon; I can see precipitation in the distance, while across the bay, hillsides disappear from view beneath a thick veil of cloud. A storm is on the way. We decide to retrace our steps with a stop at Scotland Potato Castle for a beer and jacket before returning to our hostel.

          Tomorrow we return to China.