All Along the Watchtower

As a little boy, growing up in Scotland, he was fascinated by China. No one knew why. He didn’t know anyone from there; or even anyone who’d been there. Perhaps he’d seen a movie supposedly set in China; although in those days, it was most likely to have been filmed in a studio in Burbank with a cast of Caucasian actors made up to look Chinese. But notwithstanding that, he thought China was the most exotic, most mysterious, most enticing place he’d ever heard of and he wanted to go there; so much so that he started to dig a hole in his father’s garden, figuring that, if it went deep enough, it’d come out somewhere in China.

Twenty years later, now living in Australia[1] he made his first trip to the Orient. Although his primary destination was Japan, he was scheduled to stop over for two days in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, a passenger took ill on the flight and the plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Manila. As it descended towards the airport and he gazed from the window at the humble dwellings of Parañaque and beyond, to where the hazy metropolis met the leaden, tropical sky, little did he know that there was a Chinese girl out there, on the other side of town, whom he’d one day meet, and marry.

He fell in love with Hong Kong the instant he set eyes on it. From the spectacular nighttime landing, skimming the rooftops to touch down at Kai Tak airport, through the transfer to his hotel in Tsimshatsui, the city exceeded his every expectation. Although it was late, sleep was out of the question. After checking in, he went straight out again. Nathan Road was a riot of light and colour. All the shops were still open; the sidewalks were crowded; the traffic was in constant motion; huge signs in Chinese characters hung across the street like washing; music blared from bars and nightclubs; exotic smells from the restaurants and food stalls filled the air; hawkers spruiked their merchandise and almost everyone seemed to have an uncle who could make him a suit overnight; everyone else had a sister or a cousin who was looking for a nice boy like him. He walked street after street, soaking it all in until, eventually, he found himself at the Star Ferry, gazing across the harbour at Hong Kong Island and believing that this was the most beautiful, the most romantic sight he had ever seen. He vowed that, if he ever got married, he would bring his bride to Hong Kong for their honeymoon. Little did he know that the girl he would eventually marry, the Chinese girl now living in Manila, had been born in Hong Kong; and for her, it wasn’t quite so exotic. They would spend their honeymoon in Samarkhand instead.

When he left Japan, he sailed from Yokohama to Eastern Siberia, and then travelled by train to Moscow. On the first section of the journey, the line followed the border with China. To the west, beyond the watchtowers placed strategically along the line of demarcation, lay the mountains of Heilongjiang. He vowed that he would travel to China one day; but at that moment, China was closed to foreigners; so for the time being he could do no more than gaze longingly at the land beyond the watchtowers.

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[1] No, he didn’t dig his way there; he emigrated with his parents.

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