A learning holiday isn’t as bad as it sounds.
How I spent my summer break taking photos, eating pig’s intestines, and soaking in hot springs across China and Hong Kong.
During the summer break, whilst most Australians were sweating it out in the sun, or cooling off at the beach, I was invited to join a group of University of Western Sydney students exploring Hong Kong and Southern Mainland China.
We were on a photojournalism trip, organised through the New Colombo Plan Scholarship, which was created to open up better ties and communication between Australia and its Asian neighbours. I would like to call this type of travel, a learning holiday. It’s a learning holiday because there is just as much mucking about as there is learning.
For two weeks, myself and 11 other students, led by our fearless leader, Dr. David “Davo” Cubby, tackled the food, culture, language and customs that the Chinese had to offer, as well as a whole lot more.
Our tour began in the sprawling urban metropolis of Hong Kong. After leaving Sydney on a balmy 31 degree day, arriving in Hong Kong we found ourselves in the middle of a Chinese winter.
Hong Kong is a wonderful mixing pot of new aged Chinese and old traditional Western remnants. Double decker buses left over from the days of British rule make their way around the steep mountainous island, and the busy streets of Kowloon. No matter how much China tries to influence the economies and cultures of Hong Kong, you can really see this exotic mix of East meets West.
Hong Kong is full of vibrant markets and bright characters. Photo by Keegan Thomson.
Being a learning holiday, we had to do all the touristy things like visit Victoria Peak, eat copious amounts of Chinese dumplings and pork buns, and marvel at the speed and promptness of the public transport (I’m a bit of a public transport nerd). Getting around the city with public transport was easy and economical.
With the fun and sightseeing, comes the class work and learning. Because we were on a scholarship trip, we also had to do some small amount of learning. Teaming up with a photojournalism class from Hong Kong’s Baptist University, and ventured into our bustling urban surroundings to take photographs. This was a great experience to understand how other universities run, how other students interact with their universities.
I add a word of caution to anyone travelling to Hong Kong. Wandering around the tourist hotspots like Victoria Harbour and the bars of Soho is a conniving band of con artists dressed up like Buddhist Monks. They beg and try to con you into buying their ‘precious’ and ‘authentic Buddhist jewllery’. They pry on unknowing tourists. We had a slight run in with these Monks, but nothing that wasn’t too unfriendly.
Talking about Victoria Harbour, if you ever find yourself in Hong Kong around 8 PM, you need to check out the Symphony of Lights show. Every night around 40 buildings on the Hong Kong side of the harbour light up and shoot synchronised laser lights high into the sky. Across my travels I’ve seen the nigh time skylines of some of the most beautiful cities that this world has to offer, however the Hong Kong skyline, seen from Kowloon, will forever be etched into my memory.
The colourful and unforgettable Hong Kong skyline. Photo by Keegan Thomson.
Kissing goodbye to the sights and sounds of colourful Hong Kong, we made our way to the notoriously tedious Chinese boarder. Here we all had our passports checked, our visas authenticated and our temperatures checked for Ebola.
The immigration controls are very stringent at the Chinese-Hong Kong border; cars are required to drive through the border with their doors open wide, so they can prove that they are not hiding anyone other than the indicated passengers.
In China we be based ourselves in one of China’s newest and most prosperous cities, Shenzhen. There was a lot of instant change in Shenzhen. We found ourselves driving on the right hand side of the road, the air was thicker with more pollution, and the buildings looked older and more clinical.
Engaging with the locals we ate what the locals ate. Some of the students on the tour weren’t too keen to go literally face first into some of the Chinese dishes. But as the ancient Chinese proverb suggests, when in China do as the Chinese do.
One of the most memorable meals was in a Chinese fast food restaurant called 42. Of course being in China, most non-westernised restaurants only have a Chinese language menu. Some of the menus have photos that you can point to, so you’re practically eating with your eyes. After picking out a beef dish, and what we thought was a sliced barbecue chicken dish, we sat down and started eating. One mouthful of this supposed chicken dish made us realise that we had actually ordered fried chilli pig’s intestines. It was an easy mistake. Take my word for it, fried chilli pig’s intestines looks like barbecue chicken.
Chilli pigs intestines can be easily mistaken for barbecue chicken. Photo by Keegan Thomson
Our brief for our photojournalism assignment, whilst in China, was ‘getting by’, which meant that we had the chance to explore a lot of the more traditional and less affluent areas of Southern Mainland China. Visiting the art village of Da Fen, we saw how thousands of Chinese artists paint imitations of the world’s most well-known artworks. They churn out thousands of copies of the Mona Lisa each year, all of them differing in quality. This is where the true meaning of ‘Made in China’ can be found.
Diving further into our brief we took a long bus trip on the wide, and often poorly maintained, Chinese highways to the rural county of Heping. Some of the communities here still show remnants of Mao’s oppressive Cultural Revolution.
Photographing the people of these villages was a treat because everyone was so very happy for us to be taking their photographs. Even if they didn’t have much, people were more than happy to show you around their homes, offer up a smile, and even let you pat their pets.
There was just one more thing we had to do before we left China. We couldn’t leave without experiencing one of China’s best known and most celebrated past times, the art of karaoke. Booking out a whole karaoke room we spent the night singing ourselves hoarse and dancing ourselves silly.
The learning holiday was a great way to learn and engage with the people of China and Hong Kong. It was a rewarding experience to work alongside Chinese students and photojournalists. However, if I had to give one piece of advice to anyone travelling to Asia, it would be that you don’t eat anything, unless you’re 100 percent sure you know what you’re putting in your mouth. You might end up eating something like stewed dog, or pickled chicken necks.
The students of UWS showing off their camera skills. Photo by David Cubby.
Top 5 things to do in Hong Kong
- Eat yourself stupid on dumplings and noodles.
Hong Kong is famous for its Cantonese spices and flavours. The best and most authentic restaurants can be found around the Temple Street Night Markets in Mong Kok, but you shouldn’t be afraid to search the back streets of Kowloon City for some good eats.
- Take a trip to the seaside.
Being an island, Hong Kong has some picturesque seaside towns. Take a double-decker bus to the south side of the island and enjoy the sunshine and sea. In the towns of Stanley and Repulse Bay you can find bargain markets and sparkling beaches.
- Get lost while you barter in the markets.
Asia is known for its markets, and in Hong Kong I urge you to make the most of these cheap markets. Check out the off-brand toys, clothes and shoes. They’re well worth the price.
- Sit and enjoy Victoria Harbour
No matter what time of day or night, Victoria Harbour is one of the most vibrant and colourful sights in all of Asia. Sit and watch the traditional Chinese Junks sail by, or watch the Symphony of Lights show and marvel at the lights on show.
- Stand in the shadow of a Buddha
About an hours train trip from Central train station is Lantau Island. On Lantau is the Tian Tan Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery. The big bronze Buddha offers up 360-degree views of the island and of the surrounding mountains. Maybe one of the most spectacular and spiritual places in Hong Kong is the Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas in the Monastery. Ten thousand titles, all with hand etched and painted Buddhas on them, line the walls with five golden Buddhas in the middle of the hall. Well worth the trip.
The Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas a must see spectacle. Photo by Keegan Thomson.
Top 5 things NOT to do in Hong Kong
- Don’t get caught on the escalators
In Hong Kong there are a number of escalators that take workers, tourists and families up from central Hong Kong to the mid levels. Depending the time of day the escalators go different directions. So in the morning they might go up the hill and in the afternoon they might be going down the hill. If you’re not careful you’ll end up walking all the way up hill through the busy streets.
- Don’t over pay the taxis
Most taxis in Hong Kong will hit you with a flat rate for the first couple of kilometres driven, however some will be tricky and they wont turn on their metres. Be careful and make sure they put on their metres otherwise they’ll often charge you double.
- Watch out for traffic and avoid the rush.
Being the most heavily populated place in the planet, Hong Kong and Kowloon can be an incredibly busy place. Avoid public transport during the morning and afternoon rush and always watch the roads as some drivers ignore road signs and red lights.
- Don’t tip!
This is a rule that can change in some places, however most restaurants will take it as an offence if you tip. But this rule isn’t always the case, so when in doubt just ask.
- Don’t buy the fakes.
With so many markets in Hong Kong it is hard to spot the authentic from the fakes. Be careful in the markets, particularly the Gold and Jade Markets, as they can be scattered with fake imitations of the real product. Just know what you’re paying for before you buy it.