A learning holiday isn’t as bad as it sounds.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The students of UWS showing off their camera skills. Photo by David Cubby.

Top 5 things to do in Hong Kong 

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

 

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The Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas a must see spectacle. Photo by Keegan Thomson.

Top 5 things NOT to do in Hong Kong 

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

 

Some school work ain’t too bad – Day 14

Today wasn’t too exciting, though two interesting things happened.

#Interestingthing1: We had to deliver a presentation to a bunch of Chinese artists, photographers and businessmen and women. Our presentation was made up of our photographs from China. The hardest part of the presentation was that we had to deliver our presentations whilst a translator spoke to the audience in Chinese for us.

Working with a translator was a great exercise in communication theory. You need to talk whilst listening to the translator and understanding the flow of the translator. There was a number of times where I became caught up by the translator. I needed to stop and make smaller sentences so that the translator could keep up. Another skill to have is literal language skills. Chinese don’t have colloquial metaphors or similes. So you need to speak very literally.

#Interestingthing2: Dinner was a massive Mongolian feast! We’re talking LAMB, we’re talking strong Chinese liquor, we’re talking chopsticks, we’re talking more spices than you can poke stick at. I felt like a dirty Aussie tourist when I picked up the leg of lamb and started sucking off the left over lamb bits and juices.

Splendid China Folk Village – Day 13

China has its fair share of odd little amusement parks. Take the knock off Disneyland in Shanghai, or maybe the mystical, magical Windows of the World, a theme park that has miniature versions of some of the worlds most famous landmarks. Today we visited Splendid China Folk Village, in Shenzhen.

This place is amazing! Across the sprawling 30 hectares is over 100 different attractions highlighting the different cultures and traditional people of China. Separated into two different parks, one of them hosting a miniature theme park with miniature models of some of China’s most famous monuments. The second part of the park contains around 100 different exhibits all demonstrating the numerous traditional Chinese cultures and indigenous tribes.

Splendid China Folk Village was actually the single most tacky place that I’ve ever visited in my life. Though I’m totally ok with it. Folk Village helped reaffirm my ideas behind what makes China the way it is. The obscene tackiness and obnoxious dagginess suggested that China wants to illustrate their history through a very insular, pro-China way. Of course as a tourist and a student, I can see that this place is beyond tacky. It would be interesting to see what a Chinese citizen would think of the theme park.

For dinner we ate at an American tradition. Throughout the world I try to indulge in local and traditional food to the region, however when overseas it is interesting to see how different fast foods are served across the world. Tonight we would be indulging in the wonders that are Chinese Pizza Hut! Boyo they delivered monster sized pizzas! YAY for private international fast food companies!

– theme park

– pizza hut

Coastal Village – Day 12

Driving around South-East China meant we saw a lot of the country side. After seeing mainland China we would today be seeing a little of coastal China. This meant lots of boats, lots of fresh fish, and a whole new type of cuisine.

Driving towards the coast we drove through a number of large tunnels, some extending for more than a kilometre into mountains (try holding your breath as you drive through those bad boys). They’re constructed with such precision and with such workforce. Thats the thing about China. When they want a city to thrive, they’ll throw billions of dollars into working it up. Up until 30 years ago, Shenzhen wasn’t even a bleep on the radar. It was only when Beijing wanted to create a city that would rival the economic power of Hong Kong that they decided to build Shenzhen. In around 30 years the city has become one of China’s most productive cities, with one of the biggest populations of any city in the world.

Arriving at Dapeng we wandered around the sea front. Here we found many poorly constructed fishing boats ready to sail our into the South China Sea. Most of the fishing boats had blaring red Chinese flags on them. Most of the boats looked like they wouldn’t be able to weather much of storm, let alone a massive catch of fish.

An old beggar came up to us and started singing with his throat, so of course we gave him a few dollars. He took those dollars and quickly stored it in his pocket. Across my travels I’ve found that beggars have different tactics. Some like to leave a pan filled with money, perhaps in order to suggest that other people have given money in the past. Others like to take the money out of their pan, maybe this tactic is the most desperate. It seems the mentality behind this tactic is that, people give up money to beggars who have nothing in their pans. I’ve never had to beg for money so I’m yet to experiment with these two methods.

Whilst travelling anywhere in the world I’m always excited to eat things which one cannot get ones hands on in Australia. So when someone offers you sea snails and fish cheeks, you can’t turn that stuff down! Sea snails are considered a delicacy, particularly in the area of Depeng we were visiting. They kinda taste like normal snails but with a hint of salt.

So You Want A Revolution? – Day 11

One of my critiques of our Chinese tour is that we went to a lot of villages. Across our wish days in China we visited 3 Hakka villages, 2 art villages, and a handful of other tourist based villages. Too many villages and not enough of the different cultures on offer in China.

Even though we visited another Hakka/ family villages/ traditional Chinese village today, there was a little point of difference. This village in Heping was covered in pro-communist posters, fresh from the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was organised in 1966, and over watched by Moa Zedong, the Chairman of the Communist Party. It’s aims were to educate the greater Chinese population and restore true communism to China. This involved the disintegration of traditional Chinese ways, including that of the Hakka population.

We were visiting the traditional home of the Lin Family. Everywhere you turned there are big red stickers with pro communism slogans written in Chinese like, ‘long live Moa the great’, and ‘communism party forever’. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 the posters and propaganda have worn away and faded, yet they’re still impressive to see.

After another traditional lunch of roast chicken (bones and head still on the chicken), fish (whole fish), pigs bits (don’t know what it was but it was tasty), and fresh garden veggies we made our way back to Shenzhen.  Dinner was another meal at a Chinese fast food shop. The Chinese love their fast food, but not like fries and burgers, I’m talking curry, whole fish, and pigs intestines with rice.

Hakka visits – Day 10

Oh how I’ve missed the classic drive day! For those who haven’t read my diary of my trip across America, a drive day is a day filled with hours and hours of driving. One difference between a China drive day and one in the United States, is that the bus in the U.S. was bigger and had better seats. Sitting in a full mini bus on a Chinese highway for 5 hours straight is not a fun experience.

Our destination was a little village/ town/ suburb/ county of Heping. It is a traditional village with a large Hakka population. Hakka people are pioneers of traditional ways of China. They speak their own Hakka Chinese dialect and populate large areas of the Guangdong provence. Some suggest that they’re relatives of Han Chinese people, who’ve migrated down to the south east of China.

We ate a very traditional and small lunch of fish, chopped up boiled chicken, and home grown vegetables. The tastes are a lot simpler here in Heping, however they did serve us a dish filled with tiny fried fish. That was actually MVP of the meal.

Visiting a Hakka village was one of the most eye opening and humbling experiences of my life. As you wander around these dirty, decaying villages, people offer us a picture of their homes, of their chickens, of themselves. They want to share with you everything they have, no matter how little they have. One of the most important things I took away from the Hakka village visit, was that people should be happy even if they’ve only got the bare minimal. No matter what, there is always someone happier who owns half as less as you.

Once we’d wandered around a Hakka village, we headed back to our hotel for the night. Our hotel was in Heping and was more of a resort than a hotel. Out the back was about 40 different hot springs, all with different temperature gradings. There was also hot stone beds, sauna, and cold spring pools. The trip to Heping was well worth it after a soak in the hot spring pools.