TRAVEL / The challenge of the East: Graham Giles explores the noisy glitter of Hong Kong - and makes a side trip to China

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IT WAS an early start for Sue Gittings and myself that December morning. We had to leave home at 4.30am to get to Gatwick in time. This holiday had been in our minds for a year, and we set out with some trepidation. We were about to encounter the mystery and challenge of the East, and we did not know what to expect.

The flight to Hong Kong was going to be the longest I had undertaken. Sue reassured me, however, as she had already travelled much further - to Australia, and on her own. Everything would be fine. We were further reassured by knowing a few people on the trip. There was also good medical back-up.

My memories of the journey itself are hazy; I must have fallen asleep, as the first thing I was aware of was the captain announcing that we were coming in to land at Bahrain for refuelling. I remember thinking: 'God, we're in the Middle East; I hope nothing goes wrong.' Fifty minutes later we were airborne again. We were halfway there, and still had a longer journey to do than I'd ever experienced.

Excitement and anticipation now kept me awake; I listened to the radio. One of the air hostesses chatted to us and asked about the Winged Fellowship, which had organised our holiday. As her brother was disabled, she had a personal interest. Later, she joined us for half a day in Hong Kong.

The rest of the journey passed by in a blur: noise from the aircraft, punctuated by periods of sleep and a bewildering succession of meals. The pilot announced we were approaching Kai Tak airport, Kowloon, and we looked out of the window. We seemed to be about to land in someone's front room. From the aircraft it is spectacular, but the impression on the ground must be that a plane is landing on the rooftops.

At the airport we were met by a courier, and the Army vehicle that was to take us to the Hotel Metropole. Loading the wheelchairs was difficult, but with a great deal of muscle power and goodwill we were all packed in. The journey was enjoyable. Far from home, even traffic becomes fascinating. There were signposts to places I'd only ever read about: Aberdeen, the Star Ferry Terminal, Stanley, The Peak.

The hotel itself was sheer luxury. I couldn't get over the number of staff; they seemed to pop up everywhere. A member of our group once put his sweater on the ground for a minute. Along came one of the staff to pick it up. I don't think we opened one of the main doors once in two weeks. There were five porters just to open the doors for guests.

Once, in the early evening, there was a knock at our door. Outside was one of the staff, who had come just to turn down the bedclothes and give us a card wishing us a good night. On it was written the next day's weather forecast.

On the first day of the holiday, six of us went out to find the famous Jade Market. We got lost, and had to return via the underground. This was not easy. Getting on the train was no problem, but at our destination we couldn't find our way out of the station. There seemed to be no lifts, so we used the escalator. Naturally, someone got stuck and lacerated his hand.

We did eventually find the Jade Market. Bartering for bits of jade - or what passed as jade - was fascinating. We also took a taxi to the Women's Market, arriving just before the stalls were set up. It was like a scene from a film: deserted streets with bits of paper in the gutter, blown off the newly opened stalls, and a sense of expectation in the air.

Since the Women's Market was not yet in full flow, we set out in search of the Bird Market. With the help of a map, we found it - row upon row of caged birds, and bird enthusiasts talking animatedly in the small shacks that passed as shops. The atmosphere was alive with the song of a thousand birds and the chatter of friendly Cantonese.

Back at the Women's Market, now in full swing, I was overwhelmed by the number of people. Being in a wheelchair, I felt I was going to be smothered by the sheer weight of humanity. The smells were evocative, especially in the area reserved for seafood.

Hong Kong island never sleeps and neither did Kowloon. As I was pushed along Nathan Road one evening, neon lights blinked into the night sky and the carol 'Silent Night' could be heard, in Cantonese. I remembered it was nearly Christmas. Here I was in the Far East, listening to a German carol sung in Cantonese. We really are all part of one world.

The food was equally cosmopolitan. We often breakfasted on ham and eggs at the American Cafe, and in the evenings sampled a range of cuisines. In one Korean restaurant I ate raw venison by accident, not realising I was supposed to grill my own on the barbecue in the centre of the table. Still, no harm resulted. By the end of the holiday most of our helpers were reasonably good with chopsticks, both on their own behalf and when feeding other people.

By far the most important memory for Sue and I was our trip to the People's Republic of China. We took the jetfoil to Macau, and were lifted into a minibus for the short ride to the border. There we were stopped and asked to get out. We had to fill in a medical form each, and spent an impatient hour as officials checked through what looked like a large medical dictionary. Finally, they let us through.

Soon we were into a more rural setting, with oxen grazing in the fields. We could see men and women in the paddy fields, tending the rice. Then on to a small village. As we were pushed along the main street, we were surrounded by about 20 young children aged from five upwards. They seemed fascinated by the wheelchairs, and by the length of my legs (very short for my body). We bought mementoes and enjoyed a meal at a nearby restaurant.

On the way back, I remember saying to myself: 'I don't believe this, I'm actually in China.' It was the highlight of the Hong Kong trip for me - perhaps because I know I will never return, but more because of the openness and friendliness of those little children.

One of Sue's best memories also concerns children. We had taken a trip into the New Territories and had stopped for lunch in a small park. Naturally, there were many children around and Sue got talking to some of them. From some distance away I heard some small, melodic voices, and realised that the children were singing Christmas carols with Sue. They had brought out a songsheet so she could join in. Later I learnt that the children had wished to hide Sue behind a tree, so that she would not have to leave. I still feel a lump in my throat when I think of that scene.

Guide for disabled travellers, page 58

(Photograph omitted)