Walkabout

Hong Kong

Chungking Mansions is a bad place to show up with a backpack. The building is a twenty-five-story firetrap with laundry lines swinging from the balconies amidst flashing neon Rolex signs. As soon as I stepped past the leering watch-sellers on the corner, I was greeted by a horde of Filipinos in soccer jerseys, encircling me and pressing their business cards up to my face: “Where you go! Where you go! Got a room? Which floor?” Luckily, I’d been here before and I had a place in mind. I pushed through them and past the money-changers, cheap luggage shops and racks of Bollywood films.

The mania, and the diversity, of Chungking’s lobby, is astonishing. It feels as though you’ve walked into the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange at the precise moment at which God has split it into the thousand languages of Babel. I continued to press my way through the din of flophouse hawkers and tattooed strongmen and made it to the elevators, still watching my back. I squeezed in next to an Indian boy in a Che Guevara t-shirt and several West African men, two of whom had gruesome scars across their faces. I smiled at everyone, trying to appear friendly. One of the scarred men beamed a smile back at me, but no-one said a word.

I felt very glad to be back; my trip was in its preparation stages. I was in Hong Kong to change my Chinese visa and to find a sturdy bicycle that I could ride across the country. Anything that I could get on the mainland would surely fall apart before too long.

Every journey demands an explanation. After my graduation from Columbia and intensive Mandarin courses at Peking University, I began an eight-month journey from Beijing to the eastern-most edge of Indonesia, traversed by bicycle, on foot, in trains, buses, cargo ships, in trucks, and on the backs of motorcycles. It was probably an unlikely thing to do for a twenty-two-year-old just out of school; America has no such rites of passage. It wasn’t the first time that I’d traveled, but it would be the biggest trip I’d made by far—an expanse of time in which a journey was not just a glimpse of something, but the foundation for everything that would come after it—the beginning of one’s life.

I began to think of it as my walkabout, the way that a young man in aboriginal Australia goes out into the deserts alone for a time as part of his coming of age; or as a vision quest, as a Native American youth went into the wilderness seeking a vision of his destiny. Could there be any better thing for youth, than to set out into the world?

I set up in the kitchen and scattered my maps about, preparing to trace my route across the country once more. It was then that I looked up at the kitchen shelf and saw a copy of Mao: The Unknown Story. Ah! I almost jumped! How did that get here? This was one of the strangest things about entering Hong Kong after months on the mainland: I’d become inured to the lack of seditious books and images. To see a book that outlined the crimes and vices of the deified Chairman was jarring to me now. Maybe I adapted all too easily to wherever I was.

China was certainly a world with the most interesting tics in the landscape: I’d wandered up the stairs of a grimy Shanghai restaurant once and found the cook seated before a wall of flashing Bloomberg terminals, playing the Shanghai markets; on midnight taxi rides, drivers handed me surreptitious pamphlets telling me how to support resistance groups; there were underground churches and vast black markets; counterfeiting and thievery were practiced left and right, and not without retribution from the law.

But something like the Mao book would never have seen the light of day on the mainland. It was mine, actually; I remembered now. I’d left it here on my last visit to Mr. Fat’s. I’d come to China on the Trans-Mongolian railway from Moscow, and as soon as we’d crossed into Chinese territory, I was careful to cover up the Mao book whenever the train guards passed my bunk. This was probably an overreaction—the initial paranoia of a foreigner entering what was supposed to be a police state; surely none of the guards could read the title or know what the book was about; and eventually one learns that the lay of the land is something more like don’t bother the government and it won’t bother you.

Hong Kong was different; along the walls outside the train station, there were posters of prison camps filled with Falun Gong practitioners, labeled “Auschwitz in China,” with images of organ harvesting and an on-site crematorium. Beside the posters there were photographs of Tiananmen Square in 1989 with bicycles overturned and blood pouring out of their riders’ heads. Entering Hong Kong, the runic shroud of party lines and non-dissent had been lifted. Still, there were no voices, nobody holding these signs or speaking any words themselves; they were simply left hanging on the walls like the scattered elements of an abandoned protest. The pulse of the city was entirely business. I thought of what Ecclesiastes says: “You think that life is a child’s game, and the world a lucrative market.” That was two thousand years ago but the sentiment doesn’t appear to have changed much. Could there be a world another way? This I wanted to know. I intended to get into China’s deep countryside; I’d been in its cities long enough. I wanted to see what I could learn from the people who were left shunting buckets along the dirt paths as China sang of its economic grandeur to the eager world beyond. What did epic growth and the rise of a nation look like across the entire land? “El alma de China está en el campo,” a businessman from Bogotá told me in Shanghai. The soul of China is in the countryside. Alright, then. In this first leg of my journey, perhaps I could find out some of what the Chinese soul was about.

From my window I could see the bright city rooms spread around me in the night. It was a towering wall of moving pictures, and I could see a multitude of human lives. Three Malay girls sat in a row, unbraiding each other’s hair. An Indian man sat in an empty room, both hands on his chin, staring into a potted flower. To see the world in a grain of sand. Eternity in an hour.

I woke up the next morning, took a shower and raced down the fifteen flights of stairs that let out into the back alleys where street painters sold iridescent landscapes and knock-offs of Van Gogh and Monet. I stepped through the darker alleys and a robed, white-bearded man with an opaline eye hissed at me, “Heroin?” I ducked through the laundry lines and finally found the street. The city had been a bustle for hours already. Tourists stood amongst the cruise ship docks with Bermuda shorts and ice cream cones, and the Indian suit salesmen ran about, chasing customers down.

I boarded the Victoria Star Line to cross the harbor where a deep fog had settled. There were cranes in the distance covered in mist and sampans crashed along in the waves. Hong Kong’s swathe of high-rise office buildings stood like a steel curtain hanging down to the shore from the clouds and behind it was jungle, fragrant and green.

Even in November, the Financial District smelled like a forest. I dropped my passport off at the Chinese consulate and got on the subway to Prince Edward. The neighborhood was home to a swath of car parts shops and pizza parlors and I turned off on the road that supposedly had some bicycle shops. There were two, sandwiched within an entire street of pet stores, most of which spilled out on the sidewalk in a maelstrom of flapping wings and animal noise.

One shop was owned by a small Chinese family, man woman and child. I wound up spending hours in there talking over my plans with Mr. Zhang while his wife doted on customers and their little boy raced around on the tricycles. We discussed my route to Indonesia; Mr. Zhang thought I was insane. I wound up with a black Taiwanese-made mountain bike, a pair of saddlebags, a lock, two spare tubes, a spare brake-cable, a pump and a repair kit.

I had decided that the bicycle was to be my medium. My purpose was not a test of strength or endurance, although these would be tested indeed, and I never meant it to be a novelty either. It was what would give me freedom. I would not have to stare out windows any longer and it was portable enough to throw into the back of a flatbed truck or put on a train if need be. I’d settled on the idea a few months ago while traveling in northwest China.

When I left the shop it was already dark outside. Mr. Zhang’s wife had tsk-tsk-ed my journey and it was discouraging for the first time. My backpack would not fit on the bicycle; I would need many sets of tires; the mountains of Yunnan would be grueling and the broken roads in Cambodia would surely destroy my wheels and frame. Still, I was refreshed by the night air, stepping out of the little family shop, one small hearth and home within the infinite worlds of the city, and back into the night again.

That night amongst the gleeful drunken din, I felt hurried and estranged; Hong Kong was a city I had loved before, and it was time to leave again. I set back to walking, leaving behind that glowing heart of the night, and made my way home through the city’s quieter spaces, past the boarded shops, through the hydraulic hiss of garbage trucks. The next day I would depart, and it was strange indeed to spend four days in a city, and barely speak a word.

The column “Walkabout” is a series of excerpts from Jonathan Ward’s first book, on travels in China, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia.

Jonathan Ward spent five years in Russia, China, Latin America, and the Middle East after graduating from Columbia in 2006. He speaks Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic, among other languages. He is currently at Oxford, starting a doctorate in Oriental Studies.