In the next part of Jonathan Ward’s travelling adventure, the Londoner heads to Seoul and Hong Kong – to stuff his face and party.
Name: Jonathan Ward
Age: 20s… just
Profile: A Lloyd’s underwriter in London, briefly abandoning his 9-5 life to traverse a thousand miles of the Asian continent, four different time zones, dozens of languages, and goodness knows how many different types of toilet
Ambition: To discover as much of Asia as possible and to learn how to use chopsticks properly
I flew into South Korea leaving headaches and altitude sickness behind in Tibet, along with a lovely prayer scarf, which I think I left hanging on a singing dwarf one night. Odd place, Tibet. Seoul was a stark contrast to the more rustic way of life I’d just left behind, but was a welcome return to first-world comforts: fully functioning bathrooms! Signs in English! Non-yak-related snacks!
I stayed in Hongdae, a young, creative, and colourful area of Seoul, where would-be musicians busked on every corner, cartoonish graffiti was splattered on every wall, and themed cafes (dog, cat and Charlie Brown), barbecue grills, and cutesy indie clothes shops filled every street. The others in my hostel were equally eccentric: there was a Korean ski champion who had been brought up by adoptive parents in Norway, an ex-detective who, following a pretty nasty brush with the Korean Mob, was now training to be an art teacher, and a girl who, whenever she got exceedingly drunk, would inexplicably raid the cupboards and end up passed out in bed with a loaf of bread in her mouth.
My first evening was lost in a haze of Korean beer and soju as backpackers and staff of the Funfun Stay guesthouse gathered around the dinner table for the classic Korean combo known as chimaek: fried chicken and beer. Fast forward a couple of hours and we were at a streetside bar, sitting on stools on the sidewalk for more drinks, and for anju (late-night side dishes). By the end of the night, our small table was cluttered with soju, makgeolli (fizzy, like a milky champagne, it’s wine made from rice and wheat served from a golden teapot) and miyeok guk, a spicy tofu and seaweed soup (who doesn’t love spicy tofu at five in the morning?).
Oh, and a pro tip: if someone asks you to watch a DVD with them, it’s not because they want to catch the latest Park Chan-wook flick. DVD Bangs (rooms) in Korea can be hired out for a short time, and have comfy sofas and soundproof walls, making them an ideal place for those wanting to… get a little privacy. One unfortunate Frenchman asked a couple of girls and guys if they wanted to watch a DVD with him – I’ve never seen such an innocent “anyone fancy a movie?” make someone look like such a humungous pervert.
When I wasn’t having chimaek, somaek (a beer and soju mix), or a subsequent head-aek, I headed to the tourist sights: Changdeok Palace and its secret garden, the Gyeongbok Palace, Jogyesa Temple, Insadong, Bukchon Village – there are a lot of beautiful things to see in Seoul. However, my time in Korea rapidly became more about the cultural day-to-day rather than the cultural landmarks. When it comes to Korea, it’s all about the eating and the drinking: you’ll have galbi (Korean BBQ), tteokbokki (rice cakes in a red pepper sauce), gimbap (sushi rolls), kimchi (an acquired taste), Korean ice kachang, lots of chimaek, and way, way too much soju.
It’s on like Honkey Kong
Hong Kong was also a place of excess. My previously portly brother travelled the world a couple of years ago and came back with the svelte figure of a Swedish supermodel. Okay, maybe that’s exaggerating a bit, but in terms of his “before” and “after”, he went from John Goodman to Kate Moss (minus the sex change). What was his secret? Living, basically. You aren’t sat on your butt for 10 hours a day, you’re walking from one tourist destination to another and then back to your hostel, and, because you have a budget to stick to plus no office treats, you really don’t eat as much when you travel. Unless you find yourself in Hong Kong.
My first engagement in Hongkers? An all-you-can-eat, booze-heavy brunch with some of my dad’s old friends at the Hong Kong Country Club. Having gone so long without the finer things in life, it was as if my palette was experiencing sashimi, roasted lamb, cream of asparagus and bacon soup, and oysters for the first time. It was a sign of things to come.
There was Chinese crystal ham, pot-sticker pork buns filled with broth, sugar-snap peas with diced Jinhua ham, and roast duck at the Shanghai Fraternity Association; Michelin-starred dim sum at Tim Ho Wan (all dim sum in Hong Kong is amazing), more sushi, bean curd soup (tastes better than it sounds), roasted Ostrich on Lantau Island, char siew fan, char siew baos the size of Big Foot’s foot, pancakes, egg waffles; in short, it was a holiday of hunger-halting hedonism, and the first time since Singapore that my stomach cried, “Not another course?!”
It was also the first time I had to resize my belt up rather than down – nothing lasts forever, but I can’t help shake off the feeling that the suits I had made in Hoi An are the real victim in all of this. Not that I haven’t been exercising: there was that walk up to Victoria Peak, the visit to the Big Buddha and Wisdom Path on Lantau, and the fact that I got up at least five or six times to refill my plate on that first day. Surely it all counts for something? Anyhow, there’s no point worrying, but if you see my Facebook status saying “three suits for sale, unworn”, you’ll know why.
Not a City to See
With all this eating, I still had two-and-a-half weeks to kill in HK, an amount of time which many people said would pass with the speed of an asthmatic ant carrying some heavy shopping. While on the train to Tibet I overheard one Euro-traveller say to another, “there just weren’t many things to see there. I think London could teach Hong Kong a thing or two on that front.”
Okay, so HK is a little thin on the conventional tourist sights. London has its St Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, and Tower of London; Hong Kong has a building which looks like St Paul’s.
However, what Hong Kong might not have in hundred-year-old historical monuments it makes up for in its 21st-century, 24-hour heartbeat. London is a very well-behaved city: its shops wake up bright and on time at 9am and go to bed at 6.30pm. Restaurants close their kitchens at ten, and even nightclubs close at half two in the morning. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is an insomniac addicted to Red Bull. There’s always somewhere to eat at whatever time you’re feeling peckish, and shops and markets are actually open at a time after you leave the office. Clubs closing at half two? In HK that would be like stopping a football match at half time. And alcohol is tax-free. If these two cities were guys at a party, I know who I’d rather hang out with.
“That’s all well and good if you want to be imprisoned in an urban jungle,” I hear you say. “At least in London you’re not caged in by hundred-floor skyscrapers on every street.”
Admittedly I did have this vision of Hong Kong as something out of Blade Runner. However, there are so many places where the urban sprawl takes a backseat. If you go up to Victoria Peak and look south, you’ll be met with acres of green. In fact, if you have the need to fulfil an Attenborough-esque craving for nature, you have a choice of South Bay beach, Repulse Bay, Lantau and a hundred other islands.
In short, Hong Kong is a city alive. If you’ve had enough of HK after two weeks it’s not because you’re bored, it’s because you’re exhausted. You don’t “see” Hong Kong, you live it. Other cities may have their history embedded into concrete monuments of days gone by, but Hong Kong has its history ingrained into daily life – and you can’t teach that.
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