Here is the first.
I booked a taxi for 6.45 on Tuesday morning to take me to the ferry terminal. I asked the driver if we could stop somewhere to get steam buns along the way, but there was no chance. Once you get on the arterial roads of Shenzhen the only restaurants you'll see are upscale chain restaurants. No bamboo baskets billowing steam and no breakfast worth mentioning. These roads are made to drive past things, not to stop.
I arrived at the ferry terminal, still hungry, at 7.30 sharp and met up with the three of my fucking colleagues who had actually came on time. The ferry wasn't due to leave for another 2 hours so we obviously didn't need to be that early, but group travel the fuck. The rest trickled in over the next couple hours, while i sat grumpily at KFC drinking coffee and eating a not vegan croissant.
Then came the flight. Or not, really. Then came sitting around in Hong Kong airport for another 2 hours. Every time i have been to Hong Kong airport i have been offended at the price of everything. It's not just the airport markup, it's also the contrast of how ridiculously fucking expensive food is in Hong Kong vs the mainland. To add insult to injury, everything i've eaten there has been terrible. Tuesday morning was no exception. I had heard from a colleague that one of the best burger restaurants in the PRD was in Hong Kong airport. I had checked their website in advance and saw they had a vegan burger, so of course i had to give it a try.
Friends, this was not the vegan burger i was looking for. It was a vege burger from the bad old days of vege burgers. And by the bad old days i mean like the fucking 1970s. It was some kind of Moosewood Cookbook compressed quinoa nonsense that tasted absolutely nothing like a burger and a lot like bird seed sandwiched in a gluten free misery bap. Without any sauce. Don't get me wrong, i like bird seed. But when i order a burger at an acclaimed burger place, i expect a fucking burger. Obviously it cost a fortune - over 100$, which is something like an entire week of lunches in the mainland - and it did not even come with fries or a salad or anything.
But whatever. Food in Hong Kong continues to suck. I don't know why i expected anything better.
The flight was a flight. 13 hours in a middle seat of a plane designed for people with a much shorter stature than me. Of course they hadn't got my vege meal on the books. Why would they? Group fucking travel, lordy. I ate fruit salad and dry bread rolls, which was at least better than the burger at Hong Kong airport.
We only found out after we arrived and spoke to some British colleagues that there had been an epic storm on Tuesday, which explained why the flight took longer than scheduled and the landing was a bit bumpy. None of us on the plane really noticed it, till we got out the coach at the hotel and were almost blown flat on our faces by the wind.
Ah, the coach. When we got to Heathrow i spent an hour sitting in front of baggage claim like an idiot because i didn't have any checked bags while all my colleagues struggled with getting through customs and picking up their giant suitcases full of God knows what. I know, i know, i have EU citizen fast lane privilege (well, for the next 2 weeks at least), but come on. Someone even lost a bag because of course they did.
Then we had to wait another hour outside for the coach because the original delay had thrown off the whole plan. Hilariously, our company had booked tour guides and instead of the buses taking the orbital to get to our hotel as quickly as possible, we crawled through the tiny-ass, stop-light ridden streets of old London getting a running commentary of every building, old and new.
The cringe of it was, almost everyone on the bus was fast asleep due to jet lag. And even if they were awake i doubt they would've been able to follow the thickly accented English of our immigrant tour guide.
To be honest, i kinda liked getting the tour guide stories of London. It's a very low effort way to check the boxes of "having been to London" to drive past Buckingham Palace and Houses of Parliament and Picadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square and Tower of London then cross the Tower Bridge.
I kinda didn't like that it took 2 hours.
Immediately after arriving at the hotel i didn't even go to my room, i just grabbed my key and went to the underground. For those who don't know London, perhaps you do know that hideous white pimple called the Millienium Dome that the city built for Y2K. It's still a hideous white pimple but it's been rebranded The O2 and now it's a giant circular shopping mall that fucking sucks. Maybe it was always a giant circular shopping mall. Anyway, it fucking sucks, especially at 9.30 on a Tuesday night.
I took the tube to the next station over, which is called Canning Town. According to my maps there were some pubs there. Although, the pubs were closing. Everything was closing. There were a couple chippies and kebab shops still open and that was it. Eventually i found an open pub, where i plopped myself and proceeded to natter to the oldies and drink 4£ Stellas till last call.
I got a falafel from a kebab shop on the way back to the hotel. It was the best thing i had eaten in 36 hours.
Thanks to jet lag, despite only getting to bed after midnight, i woke up by 5am, which is when i got to see just how utterly obnoxious the hotel they had us in was. It is right on the Thames, with a view to loads of skyscrapers emblazoned with the logos of every money-grubbing shitheel finance company in the world. The room was bigger than my entire fucking apartment in Shenzhen. There were about 17 different creams and soaps and shampoos and shit. Gowns, slippers, towels, pillows galore. It was nauseating, especially after having walked past the rows of delapidated council housing and tower blocks just one subway stop away.
The work thing was a work thing. I'll skim over it since this is a crotchety travel blog and not a cheery work blog. Good stuff: it was awesome to catch up with colleagues i only know from Slack (text) and Zoom (video). The executive team killed it with their presentations, getting everyone really pumped and excited for working at the company. Bad stuff: the vegan option was hummus (just hummus) and the coffee was abysmal.
Some of the teams had dinner plans. Fortunately my circles were less organized so i just went off on my own to find another pub. I walked around Canning Town and Plaistow following my map app, and discovered that almost all pubs in the area have closed up. There was a large McDonalds doing a roaring trade, replete with drug dealers out the back. I sat down at a fish and chip shop to get fish and chips. It was not a vegan meal. There were no vegan options anywhere aside from falafel. Fish, chips, battered sausage. Salt, vinegar. West Ham United FC.
It was the best. I know that my taste of Britain is stuck in the early 1980s, but fish and chips is exactly my nostalgic food. No other country does it the same way. Fat, floppy chips. Cod hanging over the edge of the plate. No bullshit fucking panko bread crumbs or artisanal chorizo, just a sausage dunked in batter.
The most interesting part about sitting in the chippy was listening to the guy at the counter codeswitch. I don't know what the coworkers' language was, but i presume it was something Middle Eastern or Turkish, because of the mystery meat rotating on a spit. What was great was how he addressed the customers, depending on who walked in. I got "mate", as did several others. Women who read as women got "darling". Men with beards got "brother". One guy in a suit got "sir". Even his accent changed each time.
After failing to find another pub that was open or looked good, i returned to the Tuesday night pub, which was a bit more jumping at 8 than it had been at 10 the night before. I was only planning to get a few, but you know how it goes.
Some random popped in from the night before saying he got drunk and lost his body board, or at least i think that's what he said because he was too drunk to explain what it was he actually lost. He'd gone by every pub he'd been to the previous night looking for it. Perhaps he'd ordered a pint at each one, to be polite.
There were a couple of people in from Essex, the elder of whom the chap next to me swore had a completely unintellible accent, although it sounded vaguely Irish to me. That was confusing because there were a few people with a legit brogue in the pub too.
One person in the back played a song i thought was a bit provocative since it was about becoming a cop and at least one table had a fellow just out of prison. Then i looked it up on my phone and found out it was an Irish rebel band, which felt even more provocative to me. But the oldies bopped along, just as they did to a raunchy song by The Stranglers, another band i had to look up on my phone. I realized then that i know absolutely nothing about UK pub music or if there are any politics behind it at all.
The locals spoke cockney, had tattooed hands and draped high-vis vests over the backs of the chairs.
I told the barkeep i think the reason i ended up moving a lot is because my dad was in the Forces, so even after he left i had adopted the habit of moving every few years. She said her son was in the Forces too and she suspects her grandkids will end up just like me - "itchy feet". She'd like to go to Japan one day.
The chap next to me said he was born and raised in the east end, lives with his mum now. She has emphysema. His whole street "has turned into the United Nations", and he said he was surprised that "we" voted for Brexit, which i took to mean he voted for Brexit. Don't have a problem with 'em coming here to work, but they should at least learn some English. His neighbor was a Chinese bus driver, see. The husband could speak passable English, but the wife couldn't even manage a hello after three years. Bit rude, innit?
It wasn't a xenophobic pub, at all. In fact, the whole neighborhood was multicultural in ways i haven't seen since i lived in the Toronto east end. A million times better than anywhere i visited in London last year. As my Brexiteer compadre accurately put it when i lamented the state of west end pubs: "poncy".
I didn't dig into the Brexit thing after despairing at the opinion of a Glaswegian colleague that the UK was getting screwed by EU "membership fees". Money better spent on the NHS. Bla bla. Guardian-reading toffs like me roll their eyes, but i didn't want to belabor the point. This is Brexit in 2020, when even your intrepid pub chat chronicler is just fucking done talking about it.
Besides, we were all rather pissed.
The Essex woman's best friend - who was also enough of a regular to be worthy of gossip - split with her fiancé because he cheated. All happened last month, just before Christmas. What a scandal! They'd all been wondering where she'd been lately. The Essex oldie bought a few more bourbons. After last call, the Essex woman started singing. To the frustration of the barkeep, she and my Brexit buddy were still exchanging songs and trying to negotiate for just one more pint when i left.
Good pub. I miss those pubs.