I have realized that my concept of a vacation is different than that of most people. Most people think that taking time off of work to go and do something that you enjoy is a sort of vacation. So by most people’s definition, I am permanently on vacation. Never mind that pushing a boat around the world is pretty much a full time job but I understand the normal person’s view of vacation. From my perspective, returning to the city and not sailing or backpacking is a sort of vacation. I guess. So I have been on a vacation for 3 weeks or so.

Hong Kong is a great city, it is definitely one of best big cities I have seen. The people are busy for sure, but in what city are they not? The thing that really got me about Hong Kong though was the efficiency and the architecture. The buildings are interesting and mostly very modern. Somehow though they all fit to make a nice skyline, and even in some way compliment the surrounding rolling hills. Interestingly, the services of the city are well engineered and function intelligently. The subway is clean and quiet. The pedestrian areas downtown are elevated so that you walk above the street level from building to building, and water doesn’t puddle when it rains hard but is instead removed via proper sloping surfaces. There is also very little land remaining for development and growth. This means that everything must be spatially efficient as well. The first hotel room I stayed in, on the Hong Kong side, was quite compact, the television folded off the wall and the bathroom was enclosed in glass to make the room feel bigger. The drawers were under the bed and closet hung from the ceiling. The building itself was only 40 feet wide but 40 stories tall.
Of course, Hong Kong has its flaws too. The city has a population density that is high enough to cause congestion and rapid spread of viruses. For example, this city was one of the first and hardest hit by SARS in the last decade. As a result, everything is cleaned often, and you are reminded constantly about germ transmission. This was quite worrying as I was sick the entire time I was there. Also, politically it functions as a special administrative region (ironically abbreviated SAR), this leads to problems with mainland Chinese coming and, for example, taking all the baby formula, which is only available in Hong Kong, or the limited amount of real estate leading to unattainable costs.

One of the driving reasons for visiting Hong Kong was to procure a Russian Visa. There is a service there that was able to do it in seven working days. This was great since to get one on my own would be a real pain. But this company took care of everything and knew how to cut the corners. Since I had 7 business days, I really had to wait 10 due to a long weekend. This gave me plenty of time to explore the city. Luckily, I had a friend from school there to help show me around. So in total I spent two weeks in Hong Kong, staying both on the Island and on the Kowloon side. It was refreshing to visit museums, go to one of world’s tallest buildings, The ICC, for drinks high above the city, eat great food (Hong Kong has, I believe, the world’s best wonton soup), and even go on a hike in the hills surrounding the city. I even had time to go to an alumni event, if you can imagine that. No wondering if my anchor is dragging or if the storm is coming my way, no searching for a hostel at 3 am or confused border crossings. Nope, just vacation while awaiting the bureaucracy that is the Russian Visa.

With the Russian Visa secured, it was time to get another Chinese Visa. So, off to another week vacation in Singapore. At first the ladies at the visa office didn’t think I could get another one. But this time, I already had air tickets and even the train tickets to leave China were already in processing. I knew my days of entry and exit, something I had no idea about last time. The first lady decided I should go talk to the next lady at the window. So I did. She was confused but it happened that the next window over was the woman who processed me last time. So I said they should talk. Sure enough the lady who got my last visa remembered me and they had a short conversation in Chinese. Then to my surprise, the lady looks at me and says “You have a warship!” I was totally confused. She then talked to the other lady again in Chinese and came to understand I have a sail boat, not a warship. Then they both assured me that I would get the visa because I was the captain, apparently they will do anything for the captain. Whatever than means. A few days later, I had the visa in hand and caught a short flight back to Guangzhou.

Immediately out of customs the madness starts with the assault from peddlers. My vacation was over! Watches, watches watches? No thanks, I have one. Taxi, taxi, taxi! No, I don’t need one, its 1 am and my hotel is sending a shuttle bus. The hotel told me to go to “Stand 5” and wait. The line for taxis at stand five must have been at least 500 people long, maybe even 1000. That is really no exaggeration. And then there were 20 or so illegal taxi fixers harassing me while I awaited my shuttle. The shuttle drove right by me the first time and I had to wait longer. Eventually at about 2 am I was able to get on, but not before the police showed up to chase all the fixers away. They just ran into the road and on and then across the busy highway. It was amazing. I had a few hours to sleep before going into Guangzhou proper to arrange the train ticket to Shanghai.

Buying train tickets in China is also madness, the lines are usually about 40-60 people long and the windows are all in Chinese. The locals shove and queue-jump. There are also fixers and peddlers here as well. I found the right one and managed to get my ticket. The lady said now it was standing room only. What does that mean, the train is 16 hours long and my ticket has a seat number? For a few hours I hid in an Ikea, it was hard not to fall asleep. I also was fortunate enough to meet Guangzhou’s coffee master, Gary Lau, who made a few cups of delicious coffee for me. Anyway, finally we boarded the train. There was a massive amount of people, I wish I could have recorded it. The process was mind boggling madness. My seat seemed to not exist, and I thought that I would actually be standing for the next 16 hours. Eventually though the conductor showed up and produced my seat from behind a curtain, sort of like the Wizard of Oz.

Then I realized that the ticket lady meant everyone after me was standing room only. And in fact it was. There was a man standing over me the whole way, another in front of me and one lying at my feet. The non-smoking sign was merely a polite suggestion and so for the next 18 hours (the train was two hours late) I was ashed on, coughed on, bumped, knocked and occasionally sat on. In Central America, you know the bus is crowded when you have to hold someone else’s baby, here its crowded when you have to hold an adult. Fortunately, My friend who joined me from Brunei to Malaysia, Matthew, lives in Shanghai and he met me at the train station.
So far, Shanghai has not been near as bad as I expected. I was thinking pollution would exist everywhere and I would not be able to breath but the air is so far clean. Matthew insists this is an anomaly. It is crowded though, insanely so. Its interesting anyway. For dinner we had a very spicy Szechuan hot pot where instead of boiling water everything is cooked in boiling chili oil. It was delicious. I have run out of small zip-lock bags or rubber bands, so we went to the “Fake Market” to buy me a wallet. The first thing that happened is we got whisked away by a lady at the lobby of the building. She said she had every wallet, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, Boss and whatever else. Um, ok. “Real Real!” Uh Huh. In China this sort of thing is called shanzhai. In

any case, she took us into the back stairs and then through a maze of corridors and fire escapes and back rooms with nothing in them. I was getting confused and she said they have to hide the inventory from the police and we were not police because we were waiguoren. Then we went into a completely empty room of nothing but old, ugly white shelves. Where are the wallets I asked? Then a bookshelf slid back and sideways and we were taken into a completely hidden back room that was decorated as the nicest of high end shops, full of all the latest shanzhai “brands”. I didn’t buy there, but we got to see a few more hidden back rooms or false walls or drawers or whatever allowed them to hide their fake goods from the cops. In the end I got myself a wallet for 40 Yuan, about $6.50. Still probably a rip-off but a fun experience.

Anyway, I will spend about a week here and then across China to Xi’an and then back to Beijing. I decided to go all the way on the Trans-Siberien Express without stopping due to logistical constraints. So 5 days on a train, but in the luxury class. That should be nice. I hope I can find an English book store. Then to St. Petersburg. I am sure a phantom traveller will join me somewhere along the way to make it more interesting.

Once out of Russia, I will fly down to Turkey to meet Slick! After a few months of sailing I will go back to where I flew from and travel overland to Marmaris where she got delivered yesterday. Apparently the engine wouldn’t start. Also the company who put her in a slip said that there is so much work to be done and things to be repaired if I wanted they would write up a quote. No, no, she isn’t broken, I just keep her that way.