It’s a powerful thing, culture shock. Neon lights, foreign voices, sizzling swine heads hanging on skewers, motorbikes kalaeidoscoping into vision, emphasising their existence through petrol fumes and a suffocating sound of sirens, shots and swerving.
So, naturally, I thought it was my mistake, after Vietnam. Basic processes lost as my synapses surrendered to a world deliciously new to me.
It turned out to be more mundane. Or so I thought at first…
I was following Jakub around the super cool Mira Hotel in Hong Kong. We walked toward the staircase from the 12th floor and climbed a single flight to arrive at the 15th.
“Oh, there’s no 14th floor,” Jakub said. “It’s considered unlucky. There’s no 4th floor either, as in China, the symbol for four also means death.”
Pity, then, the Chinese who read UK cookbooks. For a variety of reasons. But at least one of which is that nearly every recipe known to the British Isles comes with a list of ingredients for four.
The sums didn’t add up.
Jakub read my mind. “And there’s no 13th floor because that’s an unlucky number in our culture.”
Jakub comes from Poland.
“And Hong Kong,” he shrugged. “It’s a cosmopolitan place.”
That it most certainly is. It’s my second super short stop on this trip and my third overall. It’s been great so far but the numbers don’t bode well for my next visit.
Right now I’m in the Hong Kong International Airport, a cosmopolitan world unto itself. Where Hong Kong, the city, plays around with numbers, its airport throws in space and time for a giggle too, splaying walkways, levels and shuttle trains around with merry abandon to the extent that I’ll probably need an iPhone app to get from one end to the other.
Provided I manage such a feat, the next stop is Burma. Or Myanmar as the government would prefer it to be known.
Myanmar has been closed to tourists for years. So when it comes to what “my” culture knows about it, the majority comes from folklore, legends and superstition. If it comes at all. I’ve already had trouble arranging my vaccinations and checking in for the flight as people haven’t known where or what it is.
It’s been over 120 years since Rudyard Kipling first published his poem that contained the line “The Road to Mandalay.” Yet still that’s what most people say to me when they learn of my plans (well, that or “enjoy India” or “isn’t that in the Middle East?”)
I didn’t know the poem when I started but I knew the line well. The mystery. The romance. The relatively new discovery that Robbie Williams had covered a song with the same name and thus punctured, somewhat, the bubble.
Mandalay and the road to it is the whisper of my culture on theirs in the wind. Without, I believe, reference to any of the aforementioned works.
It seems a little churlish, therefore, for me to give it a miss.
That’s right, I won’t be on the road to Mandalay. I won’t even fly there, as I hear most people do these days. I also hear that it’s a disappointment. A let down. A smoggy, smoky place.
But who am I to label it so without having been there? No-one.
But it is a new legend, a new superstition that I will cling to. It makes me feel better. It makes my choices more meaningful. It validates my choice not to go there. And to go somewhere else instead.
I hope you’ll follow where I do go.
For if it’s not on the road to, it is at least in the same country as, that dreamy vision of Mandalay…
And I’ll keep a note of the legends and realities I find there, but I won’t keep count.
Numbers, Hong Kong tells me, are too treacherous to be trusted.
Disclosure: this whole project comes about thanks to Cathay Pacific UK, my “artistic sponsor” if you will. They fly to Vietnam, Burma/Myanmar, Hong Kong and mainland China. They don’t yet, alas, fly to Wales…
I’ve heard that internet is scarce on the ground in Burma/Myanmar. So things may be quiet here for a while…
Disclosure – I paid a reduced rate to stay at the Mira Hotel for review purposes. As ever, editorial control remains mine all mine.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com