The Wheelchair Goes East - Mike Fox - E-Book

The Wheelchair Goes East E-Book

Mike Fox

2,52 €


Mike Fox is a semi-retired British civil servant with a passion for travelling, reading, anything that moves on railway lines, and badminton (which he continues to play badly). He is married to Sylvia, who has a passion for dogs and music. They have two adult sons, Nathan and David, who fled the nest many years ago, and Katy, a loveable but naughty border collie who thinks she's in charge (and probably is). Mike's travel genre also has an emphasis on travelling for the disabled, largely because his wife, Sylvia, who usually travels with him, has Parkinson's disease and gets around mostly with the aid of a wheelchair.

Mike loves encountering new situations, people and cultures, and observing the world around him. He has been particularly inspired by travel writers such as Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson, sharing something of the former's love of trains and the la er's sense of humour - plus the fact that both of these writers get past mere description of the places they visit and share their profound perceptions of their travel experiences and their encounters along the way, some which he finds humorous, some poignant, all of them fascinating.

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The Wheelchair Goes East

Copyright © 2021 by Mike Fox

ISBN-Epub: 978-1-64749-294-6

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher or author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

Although every precaution has been taken to verify the accuracy of the information contained herein, the author and publisher assume no responsibility for any errors or omissions.No liability is assumed for damages that may result from the use of information contained within.

Printed in the United States of America

GoToPublish LLC


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A Long Journey

Hong Kong Revisited

The Peak and Old Friends

Meeting Melodie in Macau

Meeting up with more ‘Old Friends’

The Train to Beijing

The Journey Continues

The Forbidden City

The Great Wall of China

Hutongs, the NCPA and an Arresting Development

The Summer Palace, Ice Cube and Bird’s Nest

Zone 798

The Bullet Train to Xian

The Terracotta Army

Travelling to Chengdu

The Giant Pandas

The Train to Shanghai

Urban Planning and Jessica

Old Shanghai

The Water Village

Back to the UK

Other books by Mike Fox

Travelling by Road, Rail, Sea, Air (and Wheelchair) in North America

Vamos a Brasil! Recollections of a Volunteer Attempting to Teach English in Brazil

The Pivo Tour of Slovakia: Memoirs of an Anglo-Slovak student exchange – The observations of an outsider

The Italian Therapy Job: A Travel Diary


This is the story of an adventure undertaken by my wife Sylvia and me, in which we covered vast distances overland across China, mainly by train; we only resorted to air travel at the start and close of our Odyssey. I am just old, but reasonably mobile, I think, for my age. My wife, Sylvia, however, has Parkinson’s disease, compounded by being in need of a knee replacement operation in May 2018 (which tuned out to be a failure but that’s a story for another time) and which left her in need of a wheelchair for most of her travelling. But Sylvia is a fighter and was certainly up for the experience of seeing such an interesting country.

Our travel story is complicated but also enriched by the people we met on our way, some of whom became our travel companions. The dramatis personae of our journey of exploration include our elder son, Nathan, who is based in Macau for his work and his partner Melodie, both of whom became our near-constant companions for a sizeable chunk of the itinerary (from Macau to Beijing and on to Xian); we couldn’t have asked for more from them. But in Beijing, one of our former students, Zhiping, who has stayed with us on several occasions back home in the UK, met us along with her husband, Lu Yang, and basically took a week off work to show us many sides of her city where they now live.

We were also privileged to contact friends from years gone by in Macau and Hong Kong and share time and food together in convivial surroundings. We also met, for the first time, a delightful Chinese young lady, Jessica, on a boat in Shanghai, and we now count her as one of our friends. In between our ‘solo’ travels, we linked up with travel guides from the company Wendy Woo. Every one of the guides was friendly, helpful, knowledgeable and experienced in catering for disabled people. We would not hesitate to use them again.

As if all this was not enough, we experienced many random acts of kindness shown to us by both the people we met and on occasions, from people in the street, which made us feel quite special. These included an old lady in Chengdu, walking along the street, who welcomed us to her city; a lady who asked us for a selfie with her in the Summer Palace; people offering to help us with our wheelchair when the going seemed to be challenging; guards on the Great Wall who cheered Sylvia when she heroically scaled the steps onto the parapet – and a host of characters who wanted to talk and tried their best to be helpful in various situations.

Coming away from China, we feel we have made new friendships and cemented existing ones. We experienced kindness everywhere. We also experienced a country on the move, with an amazingly impressive railway system, not to mention dynamic urban planning, as well as areas and landscapes of great beauty.

I indulged in one of my favourite activities – riding trains – and some of them were sleek, fast, comfortable, convenient and punctual. I gather that since we were in China, a new, high-speed railway line has been opened between Beijing and Hong Kong; so, we rode in a train that is now history, but none the less interesting for that.

And of course, we aim to return some day.

Mike Fox

Tram congestion, in Hong Kong

Wednesday 2 May

A Long Journey

Chaos reigns at home as the time for our taxi to the station draws near. There is the big (and I mean really big) case to finish packing and Sylvia is still looking for her toothbrush. But our taxi driver, who arrives on time, is friendly and says that our journey to China has made him happy. I think he is happy in the sense of being happy for us, as opposed to wishing to get rid of us. He seems genuinely excited by our holiday.

A young woman on the station platform asks if she can help with our cases; she is about to sit her finals exams in psychology at Plymouth University and her thesis topic is memory and motor skills, at which point I decide not to ask any further questions.

Despite a dire weather forecast, the sun comes out to play, and the countryside, especially in Somerset and Wiltshire, is looking resplendent in the light and shadows. The train passes through Castle Carey, where the station is surrounded by fields – it seems to have ‘lost’ its town, with agricultural barns seemingly outnumbering the houses.

Sylvia manages to do my trick and flood our complimentary copy of the Times newspaper with sparkling water, but our amiable Polish train hostess sees the funny side and replaces it with a pristine copy. The glorious weather is too good to last, and the train slows down in the rain through grey west London suburbs.

At the baggage check-in at Heathrow Airport, I’m informed by the official that our really big case weighs in at 22.7 kilos, which she says is right on the limit. Observing the people around us at the departure lounge, it seems to me that there is a pattern of younger, mainly Chinese ladies carrying lightweight bags, followed by their husbands, partners, boyfriends (even fathers) carrying heavy loads of merchandise. The London shopping scene must still be doing well.

Our Jamaican wheelchair pusher at the airport doesn’t stop chatting for the duration of the push. She gets seriously misled over our gate location and lets the airport management staff know about it. At one point she adjusts my backpack and I sense someone well into sport; and true enough, she says that she was a basketball coach. It’s interesting that several staff members compliment her on her stylish clothing. “I normally wear purple, but today it’s grey, and my mates seem to like it,” she says. Yes, she does look good in grey.

We are on board the British Airways Boeing A380 Airbus a good 15 minutes before take-off. Sylvia has a window seat with a great view of the aircraft wing. In the end our take-off is late, at ten past seven in the evening, in the late sunshine. The Shard, Europe’s tallest building, stands out magnificently in the distance.

On the flight I listen to some melodic, surreal instrumental music by Nils Frahn, followed by a relaxing Coldplay concert. I put the flight map on and drift into something approaching sleep as we fly over vast swathes of the Russian Federation.

Sylvia struggles to get to and from the toilet at around midnight, but the stewards make us hot drinks and even offer alternative seats if we wish.

Thursday 3 May

Hong Kong Revisited

At some time in the small hours, I listen to great songs from Cuba and Senegal, including music from Baaba Maal and Ruben Gonzalez. I am pretty tired by seven in the morning and I note the temperature is registering at 30˚C as we touch down at Hong Kong airport at one thirty in the afternoon.

Times Square, near our hotel

Fortunately our pre-booked taxi driver arrives quickly with our names on a card; now we know what it feels like to be a VIP! As we are driven in towards the centre, the impression of Hong Kong as a dynamic city and sea port has not diminished over the years. Some of the container terminals we can see are immense, and there are ships in the harbour, between the islands and out in the ocean as far as the eye can see. The visual impact of the cranes, ships, tug boats and other marine vessels is only matched by the profusion of high-rise flats and tall commercial buildings and the vibrant, pulsating atmosphere of the place.

Despite its reputation as a city in perpetual gridlock, the traffic in the middle of the day here in Hong Kong is running smoothly. It certainly is as we drive along the coastal strip of the island of Lantau and cross over the bridge into Kowloon on the Hong Kong mainland. When we first visited Hong Kong in 1989, Lantau was a rural island with virtually no traffic. The new airport has changed all that, although the western, most rural end has been largely protected from development. Driving eastwards towards Kowloon, there are now serried ranks of tall apartment blocks looking down on the new rail link connecting the airport with downtown Hong Kong. In the vicinity of these high-rise buildings, the railway passes under a concrete shelter. If not to protect the railway from snow, I wonder what is the purpose of the shelters; maybe from anything ‘dropped’ from a flat 20 storeys above? Or perhaps from the ravages of a typhoon?

Peak Tram

A misty view of Hong Kong from the Peak

I revise my initial view on congestion in Hong Kong once we cross the bridge into Kowloon where there is slow moving traffic everywhere. By the time we have driven through the tunnel and entered Hong Kong Island we are virtually in gridlock, and the taxi driver’s estimation of one hour from the airport to the hotel proves to be accurate. We pass through a concrete, glass and steel forest of skyscrapers at a very slow speed.

We are deposited at the right hotel, the Holiday Inn in Causeway Bay after my initial doubts. The hotel reception staff reassuringly say they are expecting us and they pass me an envelope containing our train tickets from Hong Kong to Beijing, which we will use next Monday. We are escorted by friendly and helpful staff to a wheelchair friendly bedroom, which is pleasant and spacious. The shower is good, although as a non-disabled person, I have to bend down to get beneath the shower head, and in this case, Sylvia has the last laugh.

In the early evening we eat at a small restaurant next door to the hotel reception. I avoid the edible frog and rabbit’s claws, play a straight bat and opt for noodles, beef and green vegetables. It tastes good and I even enjoy a cup of China tea which is refilled by the waiters at least twice.

We also notice that there are restaurants in the hotel block all the way up to the sixth floor, so whatever happens tomorrow we are not going to starve in Hong Kong.

Our final activity of the day is a walk/push around the neighbourhood, where our hotel is one block away from Times Square, at around nine o’clock. We do this, despite the fact that it is pouring with rain - but at least in Hong Kong the rain isn’t cold! (And it makes for atmospheric photographs.) There is no shortage of people on the move, as the area around the hotel is full of restaurants, not to mention late night shopping and an interesting concentration of Thai massage parlours. The only negative aspect is the dearth of wheelchair-friendly crossing points across the roads.

And of course it is early to bed.

Heavy rain in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, on our first night

Friday 4 May

The Peak and Old Friends

We take the lift down to breakfast. On the way, we pass one lift with a sign which says what is on the six floors below, for example, restaurants, conference rooms, etc., and at the end of the list, the sign concludes by saying “They are not accessible from this floor”!

After waiting in a short queue, we hand over our breakfast coupons before entering a hive of activity, which strikes me as something akin to a ship’s galley. There are a lot of people moving around in a confined space, with some polite jostling. One of the breakfast staff accidentally bumps into me and he is quick to apologise. He then asks me if I want coffee and crème and says he will bring it to my table. One of the staff tries to teach me ‘welcome’ in Cantonese, but my attempts to say it only result in mirth.

Back in our hotel room, the phone rings. It is Liz, whom we last saw in 1989 when she and her partner Josh spent Christmas with us in England. They now live in the New Territories, and we agree to meet up in the Xin Dao Ji Chinese restaurant on the second floor of our building. Liz says they have lived in Hong Kong since 1997, but these days they never go to Hong Kong Island – “It’s where all the kids go on a Saturday night”, she explains. They say they will bring another friend of ours, Lai, with them, whom we also last met in 1989 in the UK, when he was an engineer based in Woking, Surrey.

I have clear memories of when I took Liz, Josh, Lai and another Chinese friend Chris, to the Dartmoor National Park, near where we live in the UK, in December of that year. We had just scaled Hay Tor, one of our favourite granite peaks for a half an hour’s stroll, and sometime after we set off through the National Park back to our home, I still remember Liz telling the Chinese men off for falling asleep in the back of our car – “Mike’s showing you all this beautiful scenery and all you can do is sleep!”

Late in the morning, we take a taxi to the Peak Tram, something we have experienced several times before but an activity we never tire of doing. Sylvia gets priority boarding, along with her wheelchair, and I tag along, taking advantage of Sylvia’s disability. We do this to the tune of public announcements every few minutes in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, telling people to move onto the tram in an orderly fashion and then thanking everyone for their cooperation.

A Spanish lady sits next to us in the tram, whilst her daughter stands. Her daughter is working in Shanghai. The lady tells us that most of her daughter’s friends despair of the place after a few years, but two years into her stay her daughter is still enjoying the experience, but she is upset about the prospect of having to move to London with her insurance job. She is pleased when I tell her that I am happy banking with Santander, especially as she comes from Bilbao, which isn’t too far away from the Santander headquarters along the northern Spanish coast.

The dark red, two-coach tram looks resplendently Victorian as it trundles quite noisily up the steep track towards the Peak. The tower blocks to our right look like exaggerated versions of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The tram makes it to the Peak Visitor Centre and disgorges us into a bland mass of concrete and glass. We manage to get special assistance to access the viewing platform at a higher level. The magnificent harbour, however, looks grey and subdued in the rain and slight mist and in these conditions, my photographs are not going to turn out to be brilliant.

We make our way from the Peak Visitor Centre along a footpath which largely keeps to the same contour and is quite wheelchair friendly. At this relatively high altitude, we can feel the cool, fresh air and the sound of birdsong. A kind lady from London comes over and offers to take a photograph of us, which is a sweet gesture. We also get chatting to a local artist who is selling his pictures and he gives me a special discount price for five paintings, together with a sapphire charm for Sylvia and a Man Utd keyring for me, saying: “We are in the Cup Final, facing the common enemy!”

Close to the Visitor Centre, we come across an attractive, traditionally designed stone building by the name of the Peak Lookout Restaurant. It has leafy gardens overlooking the sea. Although the food is not cheap, we enjoy superb smoked salmon and tropical fruit juice in congenial surroundings. As we leave, our waiter runs after us to hand me my glasses, which I have left on the table; stupid boy that I am!

At the Peak Visitor Centre, we are again given special assistance to get to the tram. Our attendant has to leave us for a moment and we wait for his return. At this point, a group of tourists from Mainland China completely block our path, which initially isn’t a problem, as we are stationary, awaiting the return of the attendant. The leader of this group shouts something in Mandarin (I catch the words “xie xie” (thankyou) at the end of his sentence) and the group move nearer to us, at which point one of the group tries to push me and Sylvia in the wheelchair out of the way. I stand my ground and resist. Our attendant returns, quickly sees what is going on, moves towards the Chinese group and shouts at them, at which point they do get out of the way, allowing us to pass through them. An amusing little incident methinks. I wonder what agendas are being played out, with Sylvia and I as pawns in a bigger picture.

The track seems even steeper as the tram trundles down the hill towards the Mid-Levels area of Hong Kong Island. The spectacular vistas are interrupted by close-up views of massive concrete retaining walls.

At the base of the tram route, we catch a taxi back to our hotel with no trouble, and our folding wheelchair just fits into the boot; a conventional wheelchair would not have made it. Like many taxi drivers out here, he pushes into gaps in the traffic where he has no right to go, and gets the sounding of horns from other drivers to thank him for his efforts!