The 52 Places Traveler
The planned stops on the 52 Places Traveler’s trip around the world included a mainland China ski area — and Hong Kong. Neither was quite as expected.
Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. His last dispatch was from Japan’s Setouchi Islands, where he took in a once-every-three-years art extravaganza.
On Halloween night, defying a ban on masks put in place last month by the police, hundreds of protesters assembled in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park just after sunset, wearing masks of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, defaced to look like the Joker and mash-ups of Chinese president Xi Jinping and Winnie the Pooh, an often cited resemblance that had Chinese censors ban the jovial bear.
I followed a group of young protesters as they made their way across town shouting slogans and exchanging handfuls of candy, but we never made it to the Lan Kwai Fong night life district. Somewhere in Central, with no warning, the riot police fired canisters of tear gas into the crowd. I momentarily lost my companions and when I found them again they washed out my burning eyes with contact lens solution they carried just in case.
And then we went out for yakitori and beer.
When Hong Kong, the former British colony that was returned to Chinese control in 1997, was included in the 52 Places to Go list back in January, we didn’t foresee the months of increasingly tense and violent confrontations between protesters and police. In fact, one of the main reasons Hong Kong made it onto the list was a new rail link and 34-mile bridge connecting it to mainland China, which was supposed to bring them closer.
[The situation in Hong Kong has escalated since the 52 Places Traveler’s visit. Read the latest news from that city.]
I visited Chongli, China, where a new ski resort also made the 52 Places list, and Hong Kong within a week of each other, and they instead felt farther apart than they have in decades.
Ski resort or post-apocalyptic movie set?
If there is one emotion that can be communicated without the need for language, it is confusion — and in Chongli, about 150 miles northwest of Beijing, I encountered plenty of it.
Chongli is set to host some of the skiing and snowboarding events for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics (a high-speed rail link, currently in development, would make the travel time short enough for it to qualify as part of the host city). But I was early — a month before ski season began, and three years before the events that are supposed to bring this place to the global stage.
Still, I was comforted by the flashy advertisements I found online, touting Chongli as a “four seasons” destination, with plenty of hiking, mountain biking and even archery to entertain me.
Those brochures, it turns out, were more aspirational than informational. Driving into Thaiwoo, one of a handful of ski resorts that have been set up as part of the rapid development in the region, I hit traffic — but not of tour buses or weekending Beijingers. Dump trucks and bulldozers crisscrossed the dirt roads under gray skies, and giant hotel blocks, the ones that were finished, rose out of the dust painted in whimsical shades of blue, pink and green. Snow, shot out by giant steel cannons, covered the slopes in sad patches. Everything else was a collage of brown.
Passing construction crews stretching in the main cobblestone courtyard of the resort, I walked by the shops selling ski gear and GoPro accessories, most of them closed. Plastic statues of cartoonish donkeys stood on street corners smiling — no, laughing — at me. I asked my hotel reception if I could rent a bike or if there was a trail I could hike or maybe a nice viewpoint somewhere? “Sorry, no, not now,” the man replied.
I sat down for a beer at a microbrewery at the bottom of Thaiwoo’s main ski slope. The bartender, seemingly annoyed at me for interrupting his video game, poured out a watery IPA and went back to his computer. There wasn’t even music playing. I was suddenly very thankful that I had only booked a night here. One hour down, 23 to go.
Chongli as a host for the world’s biggest skiing competition makes little environmental sense. For starters, the area gets only around 15 inches of precipitation a year, the majority of it in the summer. It’s cold enough for snow to stick around in the winter, but that snow has to be blasted out of machines over a land parched by droughts. Still, Chinese state-owned media has written extensively about the economic benefit of including areas like Chongli, once one of the poorer regions of China, in the Olympics.
Not surprisingly, I spent most of my time in Beijing instead of Chongli. There too, development is occurring at a breakneck pace, not just for the Olympics but as part of a greater plan for “Jing-Jin-Ji,” an integrated megalopolis that would include Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei — and about 130 million people. I confined my wanderings to Beijing’s core within the second ring road. In between walking, cycling and eating — for a concise introduction to the city’s incredible food scene check out UnTour — I talked to locals and expats about what was happening in Chongli.
If not quite a world-class destination, it is a popular as a winter weekend escape for domestic tourists — whether that will be enough to sustain it after the Olympics is yet to be determined. The Olympics are a source of fascination for some in Beijing and a reflection of the direction of development in the country. Beijing22 is an online archive created by artists, academics, architects, photographers, journalists and others to document the changes taking place in the region.
At I: project space, a tiny art gallery tucked behind a mah-jongg parlor, I spoke to Antonie Angerer and Anna Eschbach, two German expatriates who are part of the team that started Beijing22. They were careful to not take a position one way or another on all the highways, train lines and ski resorts being built in the run-up to the Winter Olympics. Instead, the focus of their work, they told me, was more about providing a platform for others, including local artists. And that it’s more about creating a public record in a place where that is not the norm.
“If we don’t document it now — all the construction, the speed that it’s happening at, the people who are being affected — in two years, all we will have to look at are the shiny buildings,” Ms. Angerer said. “It’s important to capture what’s happening along the way.”
A new normal in Hong Kong
For me, Hong Kong is a place of nostalgia. My first memories are from Hong Kong, where my parents moved in 1991 with my two older brothers and me. On my first day in the city, the memories came flooding back, sparked by the old apartment buildings painted in the blues and pinks of storybook nurseries; the Star Ferry, with its wooden benches, still chugging across Victoria Harbour on a 10-minute ride; the ubiquitous handcarts transporting boxes of goods from trucks to stores; the dense greenery that improbably hangs between office buildings and over the stairways that wind their way up the vertical cityscape.
It was hard to reconcile my memories — heavily clouded by a child’s innocence and wide-eyed wonder — with the reality today. Though a huge number of tourists are canceling their plans — tourist numbers were down 40 percent in August compared to last year — a visitor can come to Hong Kong and never come across a protest, especially on weekdays. But the evidence of upheaval is everywhere. On the Kowloon side of the harbor, graffiti covers the roads and the concrete dividers that line them: “Free HK,” “LeBron James: Shut up and dribble,” “Hong Kong is a Police State.” Lennon walls — named after the one covered in Beatles-inspired graffiti and notes in Prague — pop up in metro stations and on concrete pillars, where they are filled with leaflets and scribblings until authorities tear them down and another pops up somewhere else. Every conversation I had at least touched on the protests, now approaching their sixth month.
On my first night in Hong Kong, I had dinner with an old friend. At Happy Paradise, a funky, neon-lit spot in SoHo (that is, south of Hollywood Road) run by innovative local chef May Chow, we dug into twists on regional specialties, like an egg waffle made with sourdough and fried chicken zapped with Sichuan peppercorns. Harold Li works for a technology company, but has spent nights and weekends at protests. He has found renewed purpose alongside the black-clad protesters, most of whom are at least a decade younger than he is.
“I’ve never been more proud of being a Hongkonger,” Mr. Li said. “Sometimes when I go to the protests, I’m going just in solidarity with the other protesters.”
Protesters were given at least one victory when the extradition bill that sparked the demonstrations was withdrawn. But four other demands have emerged, including an independent inquiry into police brutality. Some protesters I spoke to, like Mr. Li, thought things could calm down if that inquiry was put together; others were unequivocal, and one of the popular slogans shouted out at protests is: “Five demands. Not one less.”
I felt uneasy being a tourist in Hong Kong, not because I felt unsafe — I didn’t — but because I felt callous enjoying myself. But Hong Kong, with its constant sensory overload, is easy to enjoy. I walked through the Sham Shui Po and Yau Ma Tei neighborhoods of Kowloon, where I ate approximately eight meals in two hours: slices of duck over slippery noodles sitting at a communal table with office workers on break, a bowl of rice rolls smothered in multiple sauces in an alleyway outside Heyitai, a street food stop recommended by the Michelin Guide; a mysterious (but delicious) fried meat I ate just because there was a long line to eat it.
One morning, I took the ferry to Cheung Chau, a speck of land southwest of Hong Kong Island. There it was even easier to forget that just six miles away, barricades were being set up in anticipation of a major protest in Mong Kok. I rented a bicycle — just like we used to do as kids — and rode along the seaside, past fishing boats and seafood restaurants, until I reached the cliffs on its southwestern coast. I climbed into a cave once used by smugglers and pretended I was a pirate. On my way back to the port, I stopped for fish balls, dense and pungent, and fresh mango wrapped in mochi dough.
One night, I met Mr. Li and some of his Hongkonger friends for dinner at Tung Po Kitchen, a sprawling food center in North Point. Urged on by the restaurant’s owner, Robby Cheung, a perpetually dancing man wearing sparkling white rain boots, dinner quickly became a party. Robby taught me how to open a beer bottle with a chopstick. We dug into plates of fried fish and grilled clams smothered in a thick garlic sauce. At some point, a bottle of whiskey appeared. My memories start to blur when Robby brought out corn on the cob, inexplicably, as a dessert.
That was a few nights before Halloween, when I reunited with some of the same people to follow them through the protests. After the tear gas, when we had found each other again on a street corner a few blocks away, I must have looked visibly shaken, as we saw riot police running down the same street we had come from.
“For me, there’s no spike of emotion when this happens anymore,” S., a photographer, who asked to be identified only by her first initial, said. “I mostly just feel worried for all the young people out here.”