(reblog from 2016 for archiving) A summer in Hong Kong


First posted on TVG in China, 2016. I’m currently archiving old posts onto one blog.

I’m back in the UK now, meaning the travelling part of this blog is coming to a close but before it is completely over, I still have my summer after Beijing to write a little about.

I spent the summer working in as a team of English teachers running a summer programme for kids in the new territories. I won’t be covering much of the time spent in the school, but will touch on it a bit. Instead I want to write about my impressions of the city as a whole.

I’m going to start from Beijing, as there’s a fun story for the journey down south. In short, my train got delayed.

By 17 hours.

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Kowloon from the Star ferry.

In keeping with my favoured way of getting around China, long haul trains, I decided I would have one last journey on the tracks before leaving the middle kingdom. Little did I know that my train, expected to be a mere day in length, would end up being a 40 hour LONG long haul trip.

I asked some of fellow passengers, who seemed strikingly unphased by the slowly increasing length delay announcements, what the cause was and I got a very standard reply; the kind of reply you grow used to from staying in China for a prolonged period of time, but secretly annoys you senseless – 没办法 (nothing we can do!). Of course, always accompanied with a little smile just to let you know that nobody really cares that they are going to be on a train for practically a day longer than they paid for.

So…due to a minor delay, I arrived in Hong Kong on 3rd July, not quite fresh but certainly ready for a month and a bit working in the fragrant port.

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What’s striking about HK compared to mainland China?

Plenty of locals will hold that Hong Kong isn’t really China, and we’ll get to that later, but one thing is for sure. Hong Kong is strikingly different.

The first thing I notice in Hong Kong really is wonderful after Beijing – I can breathe there. Beijing is famous for it’s smog, sometimes reaching levels that break the national pollution scale in the winter, so to get off a train to find real, delicious air is quite the treat.

One of the things I really appreciate about this mad city is its people. Hong Kong people are (on average) much more lively than their mainland cousins. It helps of course that the language in Hong Kong is Cantonese rather than Mandarin, which just has an air of sass about it. There probably isn’t a language in the world that compares to it for it’s richness and variety of swear words and vulgarity either. Awesome. I won’t give any examples here, as it puts even the worse of Italian swear words to shame.

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Puns, although essential to China’s humour in general has a stronger presence in Hong Kong. 

HK is an extremely cosmopolitan place and although the larger cities in mainland China are getting there, they have nothing on Hong Kong for it’s variety of cultural offering from around the world. I found better coffee shops in Beijing though, if I’m being brutally honest.

Is Hong Kong part of China?

This is an extremely sensitive question, and I know for sure that even among friends who may read this, opinions could vary wildly.

No doubt you will have heard of the Yellow umbrella movement that brought Hong Kong to a standstill a few years ago, as pro-democracy supporters took to the street in protest at alleged election vetting. This still to an extent continues today -I’ve seen the remnants of the movement in the streets both times I’ve visited HK this year.

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“I want a real election” The yellow umbrella movement lives on

The region was Annexed by Britain in 1841, only to be returned to Hong Kong in 1997. 150 years was of course a long enough time to become a very distinct culture from mainland China, and to develop itself into its own entity. At the same time, it retains a strong Chinese feel, but a feeling I would compare more to Taiwan than the mainland (Taiwan is sometimes considered to be more ‘traditional’ than mainland China). This is a city with a visible British colonial past, but chances are that the family restaurant you go to for dinner will have a traditional Buddhist shrine at the back of the room. You’re unlikely to see either influence in Beijing or most large mainland cities.

Hong Kong is officially a special economic zone of China, with strong level of autonomy for its inner workings of the economy and politics. In strictly official terms, then, Hong Kong is part of China, but sometimes a question comes down to more than officialdom -I’m officially British, Dutch and a Kiwi (as long as I still have NZ citizenship…not really sure on that one) but I’ve called myself Scottish for most of my life!

The same goes for Hong Kong. I’ve seen adverts alongside election posters essentially asking residents to remember they are firstly Chinese, then Hong Kong folk. On the other side, some of the election posters, were putting independence on the agenda.

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The differing political systems of Hong Kong and the Mainland makes this question even more confusing. Hong Kong is aggressively democratic. The run up to an election going on during the summer was only a local election, but that didn’t stop the whole city being covered in political flags and the sound of megaphones rallying for more votes filled central.

After the election, the majority of seats were taken up by pro-Beijing politicians. I haven’t looked into the results thoroughly, so I can’t comment on whether this mean the suspected pro-Beijing vetting happened, or whether the result simply expresses a majority as pro-Beijing, but in my ignorance I will have to take the benefit of the doubt and say, the election suggests good strong support for Beijing.

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streets on Hong Kong island lined with election flags

I’ll finish on the political side of things by saying that most of the people I’ve met in Hong Kong, whether representative of the population as a whole or not (I assume not), have been pro-independence, some of whom will express concerns about some of the very serious accusations against mainland China.

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These accusations are openly voiced by one of the most divisive organisations in Hong Kong: Falun Gong. Falun Gong is a spiritual practice, combining elements of Buddhism and Tai Qi. This may sound completely harmless, but some consider it an evil cult. It is outright banned in the mainland and you will get in serious trouble for associating with the group. There are special Falun Gong messages written on 100 yuan notes in circulation around China, and I’ve seen people look openly worried at seeing them.

I mention Falun Gong because this is an organisation that is definitely not in favour of ties to the mainland.

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I came across a Falun Gong march through central and as you can see from above, they have a few things to say about the ruling party over in mainland China. Their posters accused the CCP of murder, torture, unjustified imprisonment and even live organ harvesting. Add in the kidnapping of journalists and bookshop owners, and you have the same accusations of some of the angrier pro-independence supporters.

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counter protesters call Falun Gong and “evil sect”

Again, I don’t know enough about Falung Gong to justifiably say whether or not they are a good organisation, but they certainly express some of the anti-mainland sentiment which exists in the city.

Then there is the question of media opinions. On the TV, (I struggle a bit as it’s Cantonese TV rather than Mandarin TV, so i can easily get the wrong impression) media outlets seem fairly supportive, or at the very least neutral towards mainland China. The printed media however is a bit more divided. Take this line of magazines for example.

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Highly critical of Xi Jinping news magazines

The magazines in the previous picture are so damning of the current CCP government, that they go as far as comparing it to the cultural revolution, a time in China’s history so controversial that mainland China tries to dodge any mention of it. It’s worth remembering taking this kind of press with a pinch of salt however. Although I’m not familiar with the magazines, the names such as ‘China Secret Times(?..struggling on how to translate 报 neatly…)’ suggests there might be a bit of sensationalism going on.

No more than the Chinese state press, no doubt, however.

Ok, I take back my earlier comment of ‘final note on politics’.

Religion in HK

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We’ve talked a little about Falun Gong and China’s traditional Buddhist influence, but religion is a big topic in Hong Kong. You will never be far from a Buddhist temple in the city and one of the finest religious buildings in the city is a beautiful mosque, but it seems to me the religion with the largest presence of Christianity.

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Bamboo scaffolding in one of Hong Kong’s churches. Local building techniques meet Christianity.

Where the strength of Christianity’s influence on the city shows most clearly is in the Christian organisations dotted about it’s borders. The YMCA for example has a huge presence, including owning most of the schools I saw around the city, including the ones I worked in. I also spotted one Buddhist school, suggesting that religious schools seem to be preferred in general. Although there must be some, I don’t actually remember seeing many secular schools at all.

Even for those who may not be religious themselves, the traditions coming from religions have an influence on people’s lives. Traditional festivals, values and much more all make their way into every day life.

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Typhoons

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Damage to Hong Kong’s green space after the Typhoon

Something I didn’t experience on my short visit in the winter was Typhoons, but August just happens to be prime time for big, windy, rainy, tropical storms.

This year’s typhoon was meant to be the biggest on record for 37 years. I genuinely don’t know if it ended up that way, as it reached it’s peak in the middle of the night, but even as it was building up the evening before, there was an impressive amount of wind and rain. My apartment (a wooden bungalow near the sea) was told to evacuate to nearby concrete buildings just for safety and although there was no damage to the place, I’m glad the precaution existed.

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Branches ripped from the trees near my accomodation.

Luckily it seemed damage was limited, but the city’s green spaces were knocked around a bit. The paths near the Botanical gardens had a team busily trying to clear all the debris, some of which would have hurt if you were walking by when it fell.

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bits of tree being cleared near the botanical gardens after the typhoon

Away from the City

Leading on nicely from Hong Kong’s slightly mangled green spaces, the city actually has a surprising amount of natural beauty that you might not at first expect. It is, after all, built on a number of mountainous islands on the South China sea. It is, despite the concrete and glass of Kowloon and Central, a beautiful part of the world.

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a footpath near the botanical gardens.

I took a trip out to Lamma Island, one of the outlying regions which you need to take a ferry to get out to. img_5320

The villages on the island are small fishing communities, but I got the impression the main industry here now is tourism. In many ways you could consider spots like this the ‘rural’ Hong Kong. Other than two villages, Lamma Island is mainly countryside. The strangest thing for me, was that it seemed to also be a British ex-pat retirement place. The  number of older British residents was unexpected.img_5328

But at least the beaches were nice.

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As were the dragon masks hanging, for some unknown reason, from trees in the forest.

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And the overgrown paths that looked unused, or at least unkempt, for many a yearimg_5350

Overlooking one of the villages on Lamma Island.

The route to and from Lamma Island highlighted another very important element of Hong Kong: It’s one of the largest ports in the world.

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some of the huge number of boats out in Hong Kong’s harbour.img_5309

I personally didn’t need to go very far to see nature each evening however. I was staying right next to a wonderful beach up in the new territories – a very peaceful spot in the evenings.

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Hong Kong is, then, not just skyscrapers and endless bustle. It’s a beautiful place.

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Just to finish, I’ll leave you with a few oddities I found in the schools I worked in.

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Hong Kong kids apparently place ‘annoying hipsters’ amongst the worst of criminals. I better not spend too long in Hong Kong.

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People in China are known for loving their food, but I felt this prayer at the front door of every classroom emphasised that a bit.20160809_134923

If I were running a primary school, I would have coloured teams. I would not have a team based on a disney character called ‘sadness’. No no no.

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(reblog from 2016 for archiving) Hong Kong, Asia’s ‘Fragrant Port’


First posted on TVG in China, 2016. I’m currently archiving old posts onto one blog.

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You should go to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is, as I’ve said to a few friends, all the best bits of China, without all the crap of China, plus a big dashing of special Hong Kong-only charm and character.

In short, you should go.

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I’m sure you have an image of this city already in your head, whether it be the endless hanging street signs of Kowloon, or the ultra-modern skyscrapers on Hong Kong island, and if one thing defines Hong Kong, it would be its diversity.

The cityscape varies from glass and steel plated architectural masterpieces to rickety fishing villages. The people come from all over the world.  The food stretches from street noodle bars to some of the world’s finest dining.

Most of all, the city as alive. If you were take the buzz of the whole of China, and concentrate it all onto one tiny peninsula, you would have yourself a Hong Kong.

I arrived in Hong Kong straight from Shenzhen on the metro system. You might think given that, that a jump from Mainland China to not-mainland-China wouldn’t be a shock, but you’d be very wrong. I would go as far as saying Hong Kong really isn’t China, and that isn’t because I feel some kind of colonial hold over it as a Brit. Honest.

Stepping out of Mong Kok station, the city was exactly how I expected.

That’s never happened before.

There was an uncontrollable vibe all around; those infamous signs balanced off buildings at every angle; campaigners for (and against) Falun Gong were frantically waving things at people: this was a city with energy.

Mong Kok not only was my place to stay for my time there, but it also just happens to be the busiest location in the world. There is no spot on the entire planet where people are more densely packed than here.

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Crossing the road at Mong Kok is more like following a flood of people.

My hostel was situated in one of the local tower blocks, which reminded me of the kind of building you expect to see crimelords running around in in action films set in Hong Kong: That is to say, fairly run down, graffiti strung across the walls like the washing hanging down into the dramatic drops from the side of the building.

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请勿大小便-please don’t go to the toilet. Someone clearly wasn’t too happy with a visitor here. Further up the stairway was a brilliant sign on the floor reading roughly as ‘oh, sorry, this isn’t actually a bin. Could you please put your rubbish in a bin, not here. Thank you.’ Hong Kong folk have a healthy bit of sass.

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Some of the wall graffiti up in the building.

Up in the top of one of these high-rise buildings a friend and I found a strange scene – someone appeared to have built a shrine (and possibly a small basic home?) into a boiler cupboard. And all just in search of a good view over the city.

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Now back to the street.

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Just down from my hostel were two opposing stands right next to each other – one pro Falun Gong; the other anti-Falun Gong. In the mainland this organisation is illegal, and you can get in serious trouble for even holding items related to the group. One stand was explaining apparent brutal treatment of its members in the mainland and the other was condemning the group as an evil cult.

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Much less controversial and quite a bit more appetizing is Hong Kong’s famous street food. This stall was a convenient 30 seconds away from my hostel.

The most famous place to grab yourself a street snack is temple street night market.

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You don’t need to worry about your food not being fresh. Much of it will be alive when you order.

The other local food is something special too. My friend took me for what she called ‘morning tea’. I have no idea what that would be in the Cantonese, but I would guess something like 早茶?(Jaucha?)

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Even the trucks have personality in this city. This wasn’t the only truck mural I saw.

You might wonder how you could put up those gravity-defying hanging signs that characterise the whole of Kowloon. The answer, of course, is bamboo.

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Scaffolding in Hong Kong is entirely made of bamboo; no metal to be seen. Despite the extreme modernity of this city, traditional building methods are used even on the skyscrapers.

Another very traditional part of Hong Kong is it’s medicine. No place has such a strong presence of traditional medicine shops as here. Mushrooms hang from the ceilings and stuffed jars of dubious content line the walls.

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See anything you fancy?

I didn’t, but all to no avail – you sometimes end up with Chinese medicine in the food, as I found out after ordering some soup on my last night.

Down at the southernmost point of Kowloon, where it meets the harbour overlooking Hong Kong island, lies an arty part of town, complete with art gallery, theatre, and oddities surrounding them.

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The screen on this megaphone encouraged visitors to sing along with a group of Indonesian migrants singing traditional songs. Most people were using the installment as a happy opportunity for a good shout across the city.

Or, as this man shows, for a chance to take part in Asia’s current favourite past time – selfies.

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If you’re in a place without much grass, learn from Hong Kong and just wheel some in.

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If that’s not a fabulous view, I don’t know what is.

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In the early days of Hong Kong, this would have been the first building you saw, heralding your arrival. These days it’s dwarfed by the local skyscrapers, but it’s a piece of local history.

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That’s the star ferry – probably the best value cruise in the world. How does 2HKD, the equivalent of 20p (40cents?) sound for views over one of the world’s most famous harbours?

Over on the other side, onto Hong Kong Island, is Victoria peak. You can see it behind the buildings in the above photos.

Unfortunately you couldn’t see it later on…roughly when I was on it.

To get to the top, you take the vernacular railway.

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On a clear day you get to experience a surreal view of skyscrapers shooting off at 45 degree angles as the train leans dramatically in order to get up the mountain directly.

That day was not a clear day. Here’s the view.

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You should be able to see down to the harbour. It was lovely anyway. I recommend going on a clear day however – it’s probably lovelier that way.

The park just along from the Vernacular is also a quieter gem of the city. A beautiful green gem hidden among the grey of steel and glass. It even has an aviary in the middle of it.

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Plus art work

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And even a solemn memorial to hero doctors who died fighting the SARS epidemic.

Down on the west coast of Hong Kong Island, the feel is very different. The shinyness of central gives way to a grittier dockland, and finally to quiet boat-strewn suburbs.

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I was aiming to walk out to the far west coast beaches, but it proved to be a little too far away. I hit an end to footpaths and was forced to turn back. Back to Kowloon it was.

Kowloon at night is a different city. The neon lights characteristic of Asian cities somehow seemed more dramatic here, and the streets were filled with that Hong Kong energy.

The yellow umbrella democracy protesters are still out in Hong Kong demonstrating, if less dramatically. They still however covered the streets with their message.

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“I want a real universial election”

Also out on the streets was a film crew and Hong Kong boy band.

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I’m sorry to say if you’re a fan of the Hong Kong All stars, they cannot sing at all. They mumble tuneless-ly to the extreme joy of their tone-deaf fans.

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But at least, even if the local singers can’t sing, the local buses are pretty cool.

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And the local tower blocks are spectacular when the sun goes down.

More spectacular however is the better known view across the harbour at night.

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Oh how I wished for a wide angle lens for that shot.

And let me finish with a junker boat, as they are fantastic looking boats. A great symbol of Hong Kong, a city, which I may have mentioned, you really should go to.

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(reblog from 2016 for archiving) China by train – a month trip to the West, the South, and back.


First posted on TVG in China, 2016. I’m currently archiving old posts onto one blog.

For the last month, I’ve been on the road – or more accurately, the train track – out of Beijing, over to the far West of China, and down to the far south. The next few posts are concerning each place in turn, but firstly this is a short overview for the following blogs.

Leaving Beijing on the 27th December, I boarded the train to Xinjiang, China’s western frontier, and formerly my home for a year. 32 hours later (it was a quick train) I was back.

I was mainly back there to see old friends rather than travel; friends who are like family.

That said, the west is in many ways one of the most beautiful parts of China, varying dramatically from scorching (or freezing in winter) deserts, towering mountains, and lush green grasslands.

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I woke up to this in the morning of my train to Urumqi. As Xinjiang is three times the size of France, despite having arrived in the province by the morning, the train hadn’t arrived in the capital until the evening – even though Urumqi is only the centre of the province.

What you’re looking at, is what a desert looks like when covered in snow. That there is the Gobi, one of the largest deserts in the world.

Many might not think of cold and desert in the same sentence, but in the winter that’s exactly what the Gobi becomes.

Urumqi, where I spent most of my time this trip, is surrounded by mountains.

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Hard to get a good photo out of a train window, but the mountains nearby Urumqi are stunning. They make up part of 天山, tianshan, or the heavenly mountains. This range spans the majority of the province, splitting the Gobi from the Taklamakan desert.  It might not look like it from those brown looking peaks, but in the spring, hidden in the mountains, the region turns lush green, a belt of nature splitting two huge swathes of arid land.

I risk going into too much detail over Xinjiang in this intended overview post, so I’ll just describe a few more photos then move on.

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Xinjiang is home to a number of minority groups, some of which use Arabic script to write their languages. Because of this, you see a lot of Arabic script on the buildings. For anyone who knows Arabic, you’ll notice straight away that it is a slightly modified version.

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Many of the people in the region are Muslims, and much of the architecture reflects that.

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I think I said that it’s quite cold over there in winter.

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Here’s a good example of Arabic script and Chinese characters on the same signs. I’ve always thought that when they’re put next to each other, Arabic script does end up looking more elegant than the sometimes blocky 汉字.

I’ll write about Xinjiang in more detail in the next post, but for now, let’s move onto Xi’an

Xi’an is the city known for the terracotta warriors, a sight worth seeing, but not seen by me on this trip. I’ve been here before, and didn’t intend to see the ancient guards again (they’re not surprisingly pretty expensive).

I was mainly using the city as a good base to head further south, but there are some bits of the city worth exploring more than once!

Perhaps the symbols of the city itself are the drum and bell towers in the centre.

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Next to the Drum tower is my favourite part of town, the Muslim district. It’s unfortunately a bit too touristy, but it does have a good atmosphere, especially in the evening. When it get’s dark, barbeques fire up, and a huge selection of street food appears.

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The other main attraction in, or more accurately around, the city is the city wall. Although it’s not the genuine ancient wall it’s claimed to be, it is still impressive. It encircles the whole of the city centre.

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My next stop was Changsha, the home city of Mao Zedong, or at least, the city where he studied after he left his village of Shaoshan.

I had intended to only stay here for a day, using is a base to see Zhangjiajie – the inspiration for the mountains in ‘Avatar’- and the old village Fenghuang. My plans changed however, and I ended up staying in Changsha for the whole time of my stay in Hunan province.  It just means I have to come back to Hunan at some point.

The biggest sight in the city, and big is the right word, is a giant statue of Mao’s face on the Orange Isle, a park in the middle of the Xiang river which runs through the city.

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To put into perspective how big this statue was, I could see it very clearly from my hostel, which was a very very long walk from the park.

My aim of going to Hunan was always to get out into nature for a while, and although this made being stuck in a city a bit of a loss, there was a mountain in the city. Yuelu Shan is a little bit of peace in the middle of Hunan’s capital.

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It was too foggy at the top for a view, so I had to be content with the forests, beautiful as they were, running up to the top of the peak.

After Changsha was my main stop on the trip; Hong Kong.

I have to say straight away, Hong Kong is fantastic. The thing I was looking forward to most was simply getting away from the mainland for a bit – it can be stressful here – but it was so much more than that.

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and now, I’m back in Beijing. Part of me wants to hop over to Japan or Taiwan, but flights mean big costs.

Look out for the more detailed posts on each town soon!