"I am not satisfied that you intend a genuine visit to Australia." That note from the Australian High Commission hit like a bombshell. My plan to visit the Gold Coast (Australia’s answer to Waikiki) went down the drain. Forced to drop Australia, I could do nothing but change direction. Now, my self-guided tour would be to Hong Kong, Brunei and the Philippines.
"Hong Kong is pretty expensive. You cannot make it even with $200 a day," my friend Zahid Khawaja had remarked. I ignored that: he is a business executive with a fat expense account. Me I explore the Internet for my ways and means. Unknown to him, I had already found a site for cheap accommodation: www.rentaroomhk.com
The disappointment of missing Australia vanished with the thrill of landing at Hong Kong. You fly in over skyscrapers ringing the harbor. Chep Lak Kok airport is on a small island. Building it involved a huge operation to flatten the once hilly island and virtually double its area.
After clearing immigration and customs, I fumbled in my pockets for a computer printout of step-by-step directions. First, I got HK$33 (US$4.50) from a money changer. Second, I looked for a Bus Terminal and spotted Bus A21. Third, I boarded it by feeding it the exact fare (HK$23). Fourth, I requested the bus driver to drop me off at the Tsim Sha Tsui area of Kowloon.
Kowloon, I had read, is situated on a peninsula of the Chinese mainland, alongside the rural New Territories. There are also 234 outlying Islands, and the main island of Hong Kong.
Kowloon is on the north side of Victoria Harbor facing the skyscrapers of Central Hong Kong Island.
The driver let me off the bus amid a dazzling array of neon-decorated shops. The road was clogged with vehicles, the footpaths packed with pedestrians. I wanted to ask someone for directions, but many were engrossed in love-talks, others had mobile phones tacked to their ears. Then I spotted a smartly suited young man with a banker’s mien who checked my printed instructions, pointed eastward and advised me to continue a little further.
Soon I was at the gate of Chung King Mansion. It looked like a combination of a covered bazaar and a bomb shelter. I wanted to run away, but somebody had already grabbed my carry-on. I followed to the third floor on a screeching elevator. "Best place for US$18.99 with air-condition, TV and bath," said the hostel agent dumping me in a bedroom barely big enough to straighten my back or stretch my arms. But I was too travel weary to bargain.
I got up in the evening, had a bath and donned my safari outfit. Stashing passport and tickets in my inner pockets, cash and camera in my knee-pockets, Kleenex in my hip pockets, I was ready for Hong Kong.
I realized that I was on Nathan Road, a busy main street nicknamed the Golden Mile because of a long line of neon-decorated shops and nightspots. I followed signs to Star Ferry Terminal, paid HK$2.2 at the turnstiles, and ended up in the upper-deck of a ferry heading across busy Victoria Harbor to Hong Kong Island, passing by sleek cruise liners, massive containerships, Chinese junks, sampans and speedboats.
It was dusk, and many tall buildings flashed billboard messages, lighting up the skyline like an extravagant fireworks display. I thought this must be one of the cheapest and most scenic ferry rides in the world.
Eight minutes later the ferry docked at Admiralty Station, and I found myself in the Central business hub, a jungle of modern high-rise architecture. The Bank of China stood out like a cock of the walk. As if mesmerized by its dazzling glass facade, I went right in, although it was past business hours, and rode an elevator just for kicks.
Next day, I had a casual walk of Kowloon side. Only a few shops were open at 9:30am, including a Timberland Outlet whose showcase had an impressive display of a life-size hiker in sturdy shoes. Suddenly, I felt that my ankles were twisted, toes bruised and gait clumsy. I went in the store and described my predicament to a salesman. He ascribed it to my old shoes and asked me to try their new "3-Eyelet Classic Lug" shoes. I put them on, tiptoeing a little. Feeling like a space walker, I nodded my approval and handed him over my credit card only to realize afterward that I had kissed good-bye to US$89.99.
With those new rugged shoes I strolled towards the Clock Tower and a row of palm trees lining the Waterfront Promenade. Built in 1915, the Clock Tower was part of the former Kowloon-Canton Railway Terminus. Now it’s part of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre (10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon) which is home to; concerts, operas, and sophisticated musicals. However, I merely enjoyed looking at its sleek and cylindrical architectural style. From here I had a magnificent view of the Hong Kong Island skyline and its reflection flickering on the green colored harbor water.
The Hong Kong Museum of Arts stood directly on the waterfront, adjacent to the egg-shaped Space Museum. The latter fascinated me and I bought a ticket (US$10) to see replicas of spacecrafts, spacesuits and the planetarium.
After a while, I left Tsim Sha Tsui and continued back along Nathan Road with an eye on the minarets of a modern mosque visible in the near distance. Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Centre is a spiritual abode to over 50,000 Muslims.
Beyond that I passed by the entrance to Kowloon Park and the Museum of History. Walking down to Canton Road, I ran into several multi-level shopping centers: Harbour City, Ocean Centre and Ocean Terminal were all linked to the port terminal so that cruise ship passengers might disembark directly into a shopping paradise. I intended looking only – no buying – and dismissed big names like Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Gucci. Then a Marks & Spencer sign caught my eye. Just to check new designs, I went in and ended up with two pair of trousers and a shirt for US$120.
I was now feeling hungry, but the way my travel budget was dwindling I might soon be forced to eat at McDonald’s. Fortunately, I discovered that dim sum (dough filled with vegetables or meat) was available cheaply everywhere I walked.
Hong Kong is a mix of old and new, East and West. Daimler & Rolls Royce vie with old trams for the right of way. Smartly suited executives rub shoulders with elderly men walking with their songbirds. Pushcarts survive under the shadow of marbled malls and casinos where you hear the slapping of mahjong tiles along with the rattle of roulette wheels.
The following day, I hopped on the Star Ferry and took a shuttle bus from Central to Ocean Park (HK$150), a huge theme park located in the Aberdeen district of Hong Kong Island. This turned out to be a full day’s excursion taking in the attractions: the Middle Kingdom highlights 5000 years of Chinese culture; the Pacific Pier houses California sea lions; the Goldfish Pagoda resembles Beijing Imperial Palace; a cable car provides a breathtaking journey along the South China Sea. I had a memorable ride on a roller coaster and gazed at an Atoll Reef through four-level glass paneled galleries.
So much to see, so little time. I had fallen in love with the land of typhoons, dim sum and mahjong. I wished I could stay longer to ride the funicular up to famous Victoria Peak. I missed The Jade Market and the Bird Market. I did not go walking in the New Territories, or take a ferry to visit the islands of Lamma, Lantau or Cheung Chau.
On the way to the airport, I looked back as the bus passed over Tsing Ma Bridge. Imposing by day and twinkling by night, it is a memorable image and souvenir of my low-budget visit to Hong Kong.
With their heads covered, they looked like students of King Faisal University for Women. In fact, they were airline hostesses of Royal Air Brunei. In a world where dress is becoming brief, transparent, skin-tight and provocative, this airline is following the Islamic code of hijab. The guiding factor is modesty to avoid flattery and entrapment.
The plane landed smoothly at Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city of Brunei Darussalam. Immigration and customs formalities were brief, and soon I was out of the airport terminal. I looked for a bus or minivan, but all I could see were Volvo or BMW cars. I contacted the Tourist Bureau and was advised to take a taxi or wait for a bus. After about one hour wait, I contacted a cabbie. He asked for US$25 equivalent – outrageous as the city was hardly eight km away. I tried to beat it down but met a straight face. It was useless to try other taxi-drivers; no one seemed interested. Finally, I played my Muslim Card and spoke a few words in Arabic to establish my bona fide. He agreed to reduce the fare by two dollars – he needed money too, to feed his two wives and seven children.
The first thing I noticed was that the city was neat and clean, the roads wide, signs in English, Arabic and Malay. The taxi dropped me at Pusat Belia, the Youth Centre where I got a bed in an air-conditioned dorm for US$6. The only other occupant was a guy who had left Palestine long ago to settle in Libya initially and later migrated to Australia. Though he had become an Australian citizen, he was still not contented. He had a plan to move his family to Brunei, as he didn’t like his daughters growing up in a permissive society.
When I stepped out of my hostel, I was shocked to find the whole footpath deserted. No one walks in this oil-wealthy nation. Brunei’s population (only 300,000) enjoys a high standard of living. Most people have 4-wheel-drive vehicles and spacious houses. Health facilities are free as is education up to university level.
I was desperate for food by the time I wandered into the Yayasan shopping venue. When I saw the marble floors, wood paneled walls and tree-lined courtyards, I was afraid that the cost of a bite would be astronomical, so I just purchased a soft drink, biscuits and prunes – that would carry me for the next three days. From the colonnaded walkway of Yayasan complex, I saw a golden dome dominating the skyline to the west and shanty-houses to the east. The contrast was mind-boggling.
First, I went to the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. Inside, I noted the rich brass-framed stained-glass windows and marble floors. The ablution area, where worshipers washed before prayer, had been designed on the pattern of a Roman bath. Leaving the mosque I walked to the adjoining village, a long stroll over wooden walkways and bridges. Pleasantly, what, at first glance, had looked like a cluster of shanty houses, was in reality a Venice of the East.
Called Kampung Ayer, it was a conglomeration of water villages sitting on stilts in the Brunei River. The villages had electricity, fresh water, telephone and gas. There were markets, mosques, schools, medical clinics, fire and police stations. Private motorboats and water taxis negotiated the labyrinthine waterways at death defying speeds. Many house-owners were sitting in their galleries with obvious ease and pride. One, Sulaiman Abdul Kani, asked me to come in for a cup of tea. The house was made of wood, bamboo and bark. Inside, a child played a game on the Internet while an action-film in English played on the TV. Soon, due to low tide, the area was stinking. Sulaiman explained that they were used to it. Many a time, he said, they had refused an opportunity to move.
Next day, I covered most of the city on foot. Many a time, a car stopped and offered me a lift. I responded by "No thanks," as I enjoyed walking. In the process, I visited the Brunei Museum and admired its collection of Islamic Art. Also, I went into the Royal Regalia Building, which housed a glittering array of ceremonial regalia.
My stay in Brunei was limited to only three days. In fact, it was no fun to stay any longer without a chauffeur-driven car. By the evening, I was boarding a flight to Manila, but that is another story.
November 11 2001: I live in Karachi, a hustling and bustling city of 12 million. Though it is far from the Afghan border, it has a large number of Afghan supporters.
Each Friday, life comes to a standstill; no offices, no banks and no schools or colleges. Shop-shutters are down. Roads are deserted. People come out of their houses only for After-Noon-Friday-Prayer. The mosques are over-filled; the long lines of worshipers extend to the streets. The Imam (Muslim preacher) shakes them up inciting them to protest against the US genocidal acts in a poor and brotherly nation.
After the prayer, a procession is taken out; some join but most return to their homes. As there are thousands of mosques, waves and waves of human beings move towards the main congregation place – the Tomb of Quaid-e-Azam (father of the nation). This goes on till sunset. Next morning it is as if nothing has happened; business goes on as usual – until next Friday.
The word "Muslim" is being used indiscriminately while mentioning terrorist acts. There are thousand of non-Muslim terrorists raising the roof but hardly anyone has branded them as Christian or Jewish terrorists. Jihad or the Holy War is being misinterpreted. Jihad is just another word for war to save own country. Since in Islam, religion is deep-rooted and cannot be separated from normal life, it is the same whether one is fighting for a country or for religion.
Rough Going for Pakistani Travelers
I had many embarrassing moments (much before September 11) as a Pakistani and as a traveler. For example, in a most tourist-friendly airport like Athens, I was detained for three hours. An immigration officer, who was stamping the passports like a machine, went on a tail-spin the moment he saw my green one. I was asked to step aside. When I asked why, I was assigned to a "special agent" to handle me.
The agent asked one question, again and again, "What is the purpose of your visit?"
Each time I explained with words like sight-seeing, tourism, gardesh, siahat but he did not budge an inch from his original stand. He did not even look at my travel-checks, credit cards, greenbacks, confirmed hotels and tour bookings. Finally I had to be rescued by a senior officer who allowed me to enter Greece.
My travels will not be badly affected by the events of September 11. I was and am already on the rock bottom, I can only go up and not down. Each January, I start planning for my summer vacations. I plan to go to Argentine in June 2002, seconded by Laos and Myanmar.
I salute the USA. It is the only country to give me a multiple visa for 5 years – but maybe it has already changed its open-minded policies.