Mike Ko Personal Portfolio


Home-School Education
Hong Kong

University of Durham
Bachelor of Science
United Kingdom

2017 - 2018
United Kingdom

    Thoughts of a Lone Wanderer

                        When I went abroad to the United Kingdom in 2013 for my university studies, I decided that I should seize the opportunity to explore the world. Every country has their unique culture, environment and character. I was eager to observe and understand societies apart from my own. I have since been to ten different countries, experiencing the atmosphere of their various cities. I travelled mostly alone, which allowed me to fully engage with each place from my own perspective and at my own pace. While I will make a rough plan of particular attractions or locations I wished to see within each city, I generally do not have a strict or detailed schedule. Most of the time I am simply walking around, observing society at the basic level. Although I have seen much, I nevertheless have only scratched the surface of the full diversity of the world’s societies and geographic environments. My curiosity will undoubtedly lead me to many more different places in the years ahead and beyond.

Time & Places:  
Venice, Bologna, Florence, Pisa
South Africa
Copenhagen, Odense, Stockholm, Gothenburg, Oslo, Bergen, Turku, Helsinki
Orvieto, Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, Berlin, Amsterdam
2013 - 2017
Durham, Alnwick, Whitby, York, Newcastle, Sunderland, Manchester, London, Bath, Cambridge, Oxford
2013 - 2017
Edinburgh, Glasgow, Isle of Arran

Observations on Two Wheels

During my travels I made it a point to hire bicycles in each city I go to and cycle around for a whole day. Initially this seemed like a rather daunting prospect. Indeed, sharing roads with hundreds of other vehicles while being physically exposed on two wheels initially did not seem like a very safe idea. Even now, I still view the task of city navigation with some trepidation. Yet travelling on a bicycle offered many benefits. Apart from some much needed exercise, I was able to see much more of each city than I would have been able to on foot, from busy avenues to the quiet side streets. I could see both the areas of the city centre and the relative outskirts while still being at the ground level. In short, I got a better grasp of the rhythms and diversity of each location.

The European countries I have been to so far are generally cyclist-friendly. Yet one special city that stood out in this regard was Copenhagen. The Danish capital quite literally has the whole mode of transportation completely ingrained into its character. Roads in the city centre all have dedicated bicycle lanes, making it almost impossible not to cycle regardless of your destination. At any time of the day you will find fleets of bicycles moving across the city. The extent of the cycling infrastructure makes it both easy and comfortable to get around the city. It makes one wonder if this is part of solution to the various challenges of a modern city.

In addition to the basic intent of efficient exploration, cycling has also led me to a few unexpected adventures. One specific incident was during my time in Salzburg, Austria. Having met a fellow traveller in my hostel, we decided at some point to hire bicycles, travel by bus to the nearby German town Berchtesgaden and cycle around there. However, when we were finished by late evening, we had already missed the last bus back to Salzburg. After a few inquiries, we eventually decided to cycle back to Salzburg along the dark highways in the wooded valleys. We made it back after several hours for a travelled distance of about 40 km. Although tiring, it was a safe and enjoyable journey, and thus not an experience I regret having.

Friendly Strangers

Many people prefer travelling with friends to avoid feeling lonely. Yet while I did travel by myself during my exploration of foreign countries, I never was truly alone. Through various coincidences and incidents, I have met people from different backgrounds and sometimes gained brief but meaningful companionship. From having a Brazilian university student as a cycling partner in Salzburg to chatting with a Swedish museum security guard, my interactions with people from different backgrounds have been very enlightening experiences. Some may be fleeting encounters as in the case of hostel roommates, while others have resulted in longer associations.

In Gothenburg, I met an elderly Japanese shopkeeper of a small sushi diner. Located close to my
accommodation and serving reasonably priced food, I wound up visiting the place on several evenings. A kind person, she offered various travelling advice and occasionally served food not officially on the menu. Conversing with her in Japanese, we shared our different experiences in travelling, human relationships and Swedish life.

Similarly, in a Helsinki art studio at the city’s 18th century fortress I met a divorced mother who was studying for a PhD in ceramics. Beginning from a question about pottery techniques, we wound up discussing about her work, biology and Finnish education for quite some time. In many ways, the time I spent talking with people was much more valuable to me compared to another landmark I could have potentially seen. Through these conversations, I was essentially offered a multi-faceted storybook illustrating how varied our individual histories and motivations were. Wherever you are, there will always be a friend somewhere who can share new perspectives, as long as one is willing to interact.

A Glimpse at Diversity from Döner Kebabs

On a summer’s evening in Berlin I had dinner in a Döner kebab diner. The food was good, but it was otherwise an uneventful meal in the centre of the German capital. What struck me the most however was that I kept finding many similar diners, all ran by foreigners, in other European cities such as in Austria, the Netherlands and Copenhagen. While the prevalence of a Döner kebab joints is by no means an absolute indicator of demographics, it nevertheless reflects the general trend of cultural diversification in parts of Europe.

Certainly my time in Europe can partially attest to this change. For instance, the atmosphere I experienced in Oslo’s traditionally well-off west side was quite different from the working-class east side, with its greater presence of immigrants (and restaurants) of various ethnicities. In Sweden, I had a friendly chat with an African migrant working as a museum security guard. He was learning Swedish, but was uncertain on whether he should stay in the country or to head elsewhere in Europe. Although immigrants from the Middle East and Africa are common, people from other areas also view Europe as an ideal destination. In Bergen, I befriended a former Japanese teacher in her country now working as the hostel’s cleaner. She explained that she moved to Norway for more reasonable work hours and generally better working conditions.

Normally I would welcome a greater degree of cultural diversity, but it is also an issue that must be dealt with carefully. Nowadays, tensions between different ethnic groups are on rise in Europe, exacerbated by the refugee crisis in the Middle East. Europe has tried to offer help, but if Europeans are not committed, the end results may effectively cause more harm than good. Integration without acceptance may ultimately lead to a misunderstandings and perhaps the breakdown of relations between people.

The Ghosts of Berlin

Berlin is in many ways a unique city, but perhaps especially so from a historical perspective. Alt- hough the city undoubtedly has developed much in the past decades, I could not help but view the city in the context of World War II and the Cold War during my time there. Despite the extensive bombing of the city prior to Nazi Germany’s surrender, some traces of the fallen regime are still preserved today. One example is the building that once housed the Ministry of Aviation. Then there are the consequences left from the Cold War, namely the splitting of the city and its people with the Berlin Wall. Although now reunited, the two sides of the city still felt like they possessed distinct characteristics, perhaps most notably due to differences in architecture. Personally, the areas that were once part of East Berlin gave off a rather distinct Russian impression. Of course, there are also the preserved portions of the notorious Berlin Wall in different parts of the city, some of which now make up the East Side Gallery.

To a foreigner such as myself, these vestiges are interesting remnants from a significant period in history. Yet I often wonder how locals feel about preserving such relics. Are they necessary reminders of a painful past, or are they objects from a regrettable past that nevertheless are somewhat irrelevant in this age? Germany has on many occasions expressed remorse over its role in the war, but will fatigue towards this historical burden alter sentiments? It will be interesting to see how modern Germans will continue in confronting their history as times change, especially amidst growing economic strife and cultural discord between locals and migrants.

Mankwe Wilderness

In September 2016 I went to South Africa for around two weeks on a field course in biology. Our home for that period was the private Mankwe Wildlife Reserve, located northwest from Johannesburg. The location has an explosives factory, surrounded by an exclusion zone for safety. With the factory closed long ago, the entire grassland area was since turned into a game reserve, where antelopes, zebras, giraffes, endangered rhinoceros and the like now roam.

The place was by no means isolated. Roads bracketed the boundaries of the reserve and residential areas can be reached within half an hour’s drive. While accommodation and basic amenities were spartan, we still had beds with (mostly) hot showers. Perhaps most significantly for someone born in the digital age, there was no internet access during the whole course. Yet in the little pocket of grassland, I got to focus whole-heartedly on the natural world. Certainly it was interesting to observe from a biological perspective, but being out in the relative wilderness also struck home a few points on a personal level.

We often perceive our world from a human-centric view, yet despite our civilisation we are but one of many different species on the planet. At one point I was walking through the grasslands with two of my fellow students and a local guide to gather data. Out there, our typical objectives, desires and worries became rather irrelevant. You clearly see that some things such as material possessions that we are inadvertently encouraged to pursue by societal norms are not so crucial in life. In other words, it helped put our everyday lives in a more nuanced perspective.

A Visit as an "Oxbridge Reject"

For students entering higher education in the United Kingdom, receiving a place at the Universities  of Cambridge or Oxford is generally regarded as the metaphorical Holy Grail. As an institution often ranked just after these two universities, students of the University of Durham bear the stereotypical reputation as “Oxbridge” rejects. Thus it was with additional interest that I travelled to these two cities during my last Easter vacation to see just what they were like. Both cities were undeniably beautiful, surrounded by historic architecture and green spaces, not to mention the notable rivers. Yet there was something else beyond visual impact that the two cities imparted upon me. Walking through the streets, I found myself looking at colleges, academic departments and even museums at every turn. It can almost be said that the city centres were made out of the universities themselves. Whether it was their scale or the implicit knowledge of their long histories, these institutions conveyed a distinct atmosphere, one where a person can unreservedly devote their time and effort to academic pursuits.

Yet against this backdrop was another factor that somewhat dampened the immersion: the throngs of tourists who came to visit. Whether as individuals or tour groups, curious travellers can always be found as they made their way to the various colleges and university attractions, making "donations" in order to see the splendour of such storied locations. Admittedly I myself was one such visitor, but from a student’s perspective I could not help but wonder if Oxbridge students ever feel frustrated about the presence of an army of tourists constantly marching through their universities. Perhaps even such esteemed institutions must face the undeniable reality, that conducting research requires vast resources, and one cannot be too picky about how and where to obtain them.

The Floating City... of Tourism

During my time in the Venice I was often confronted by a feeling of both fascination and initial confusion. Venice was certainly a remarkably beautiful place. Its unique Venetian architecture of mainly Gothic and Byzantine influences were distinctly European, while the countless canals and waterways that permeate through the city gave an almost tropical impression. A bit farther off, the islands of Murano and Burano were architecturally simpler but also more relaxed. One could always feel the strong historic atmosphere, whether walking through the narrow side streets or standing in the middle of St Mark’s Square. These unique aspects are what undoubtedly part of the reason why so many tourists visit the city. Yet with so many foreign ‘guests’ present, it also became hard to find the identity and deeper character of Venice. Constantly vying for tourists’ attention were the street stalls selling stereotypical masks, the ferrymen offering gondola rides, and the many eateries with curiously over-priced beverages. It was only after moving away from the city centre, in the narrow side streets, the courtyards or even the university, did I catch glimpses of the tranquil lives of the locals. Perhaps a longer stay in these quieter parts would reveal more, yet for all intents and purposes it would seem that modern Venice would superficially be defined by how its merchants tout its history to curious foreigners.

Time Travelling through Architecture

Being a UNESCO World Heritage site, it could be generally expected that the centre of  Florence would be beautiful with its old architecture. Yet it was only through being on the slightly claustrophobic streets of the city in person did I fully appreciate the scale of preservation. From the various palaces to the Old Bridge, the Duomo cathedral to simple houses, to the eyes of the uninitiated it would seem like the entire city has been frozen in time as far as architecture was concerned. Asphalt roads, modern shops and crowds of tourist notwithstanding, one might as well be walking through the same streets as the Florentines of old did hundreds of years ago. The entire city is essentially like a storybook, a place where people may experience the past. Being able to witness such an historic environment was personally a spectacular experience, partly because my home city Hong Kong is almost notoriously practical in terms of civic conservation. Of course, it might be that the Italians were able to maintain their architectural wonders simply because land was not in short supply. If this was not so, maybe people of current times would be less ready to devote space and resources to architectural relics?

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