It was late afternoon when I bought my ticket for the Airport Express. There was already a train waiting when I reached the platform, so I stepped up through the first set of open doors I came to and immediately began to twist my way out of my 70 litre rucksack.
As soon as I sat down, I felt my body begin to relax, the firm seat easing the stiffness in my back, my hands heavy and still in my lap. I realised that I had just stepped out of Europe for the first time and although this airport had felt reassuringly well constructed and unfailingly efficient, it was also spotlessly clean. Despite my love of order, I found this surprisingly unsettling.
A middle-aged couple boarded the train and noisily disposed of two large, black suitcases in the luggage rack by the door. They smiled down at me from beneath matching navy baseball caps as they passed.
“All pretty smart, hey? I know they say Hong Kong is real modern, but this is something else!”
“Yeah. Smart.” I said and looked up. But they had already gone, their New York accents becoming muffled as they settled into seats two rows behind mine.
I flexed my calves, remembering the tight economy seat on which I had just passed thirteen sleepless hours fighting leg cramps. I looked at the small screen embedded in the fabric of the seat head in front of me. A set of channel controls had been fitted into my armrest, but none of the buttons would allow me to turn off the image already on the screen. It seemed I could not escape the stare of a rather glum-looking Chinese man who, according to the screen, was to be my ‘Train Ambassador’ for the journey. I smiled, my mind pondering what prestigious duties might lie within his job description.
Through the window, I saw three young asian men in dark, tailored suits jogging towards the train. Their pace quickened as an announcement echoed round the platform too disjointed for me to comprehend. As they jumped through the door, their conversation poured into the carriage and was then trapped as the train doors closed behind them. Their tone sounded harsh and defensive, yet their eyes smiled brightly and their mouths were wide with laughter. One of them pulled a phone out of his pocket and the other two leaned in towards it. His shoulders hunched forward, his face froze in concentration as he tapped the screen repeatedly. And then he straightened up, raising his eyebrows with pride. The other two raised their heads and laughed. As the train silently began to move, it seemed to me as though their voices were one with the engine, rising gradually as we moved progressively faster out of the building and into the open.
The sky was hazy and shades of deep indigo above us faded into a pale, aqueous green over the horizon. I caught a movement on the monitor and as I looked, I saw the Train Ambassador was gone and instead I was being shown pictures of ferries crossing Hong Kong’s Victoria harbour. I reached for the buttons on the arm of my seat and this time managed to turn off the screen. I exhaled deeply and leaned back into my seat, gazing at the scenery beyond my window. I saw the arches of Chek Lap Kok airport diminish and slowly disappear from view. We passed undeveloped stretches of land and open water. A bridge was lit up in the distance. The three young men had taken seats at the other end of the carriage and suddenly I found it all rather peaceful. I closed my eyes for a few moments. It would have been mid-morning back home and I realised that I had been awake, travelling, for most of the night.
When I looked again, a dense forest of light lay ahead of me. Towers stretched upwards against the tall shadow of The Peak standing almost invisible behind them in the final dregs of twilight. Its slopes too steep to build on, the unlit mountain looked remote and wild against the foreground of concrete and vibrating illuminations. To my left, I saw the outline of four dredgers on the dark water. To my right, a small ferry moved steadily towards the overdeveloped landmass ahead. But the train was travelling faster, the boat’s outline getting steadily clearer and then fading again as we glided soundlessly over invisible tracks.
The city lights were like snowflakes in a blizzard: innumerable, mesmerising and constantly shifting as the train hastened towards them. I felt my peripheral vision disintegrate, the mass of neon and office lights pulling me forwards. The Peak had now disappeared along with the last glow of the sun. Only buildings remained. They reached towards stars I could not see, rendered invisible alongside their artificial counterparts. Roads twisted up from the ground, escaping through gaps in the architectural fabric and beyond my line of vision. I felt at once a thrill of adventure and a terror of the unknown. A second train raced past mine, momentarily forcing me further into my seat. Then, as though caught in headlights, I suddenly saw myself, wide-eyed and bespectacled, against the passing rush of light beyond my window.
Another announcement came over the speaker, at first coarse and unwelcoming, then smooth and silky, like fabric sliding over a chair, then finally repeated in English, breaking the spell.
“We will be arriving at Hong Kong Station in approximately five minutes. Please ensure you take all your luggage with you when you leave the train.”
A few minutes later I stepped onto the platform. The white floor reflected distant ceiling lights giving me the illusion that I might slip if I walked too quickly over its surface. The air was reminiscent of unused upholstery in a new car: a faint chemical smell of detergent mixed with a mechanical smell from the escalators on the other side of the hall.
As I began to walk towards the ticket barriers, a scrap of paper jumped towards me off the floor, caught in a rush of air from the passengers walking ahead of me. A discarded boarding pass. I bent down awkwardly, keeping my head tilted upwards to prevent my rucksack from tipping over my shoulders. A familiar-looking, determined little man in a sharp, traffic-warden style cap appeared suddenly beside me. I recognised him as the Train Ambassador and remember thinking he was every bit as sullen-looking in person as his photograph. He seemed to want something, but his strong accent made his English words so alien to me that I was unable to understand him. He looked me in the eye, snatched the paper out of my hand and left me, speechless and motionless, as he posted it into the nearest litter bin.
I did not see him again, but the frustration he provoked remained with me until long after I had left the building.