Sunday, June 28, 2009

Hong Kong / Part 1

I had been to Hong Kong a few times before in another life but had only managed to see the old Kai Tak Airport, my hotel and various conference rooms. Well, now I can actually admit that once I bagged on a day of sessions and snuck off to Macau in the mid 1990’s. And I had been taken to The Peak and the Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Aberdeen Harbour as part of business meeting activities. Now, by redeeming some expiring frequent flyer points, I had the opportunity to see more of the place and get a feel for what had happened since the British handback to China in 1997. And I really wanted to see some of the countryside, especially the offshore islands.

It was a very early morning departure from Sydney Airport with Singapore Airlines with first stop Singapore. We were delayed an hour as there was a ‘no show’ and their bag had to be found and taken off the aircraft. Where do these people go? And why, after checking in, do they not turn up for the flight? Fear of flying suddenly taking over? Sudden sickness? A family emergency? Or asleep in some deserted part of the airport? Guess we will never know, but it happens quite frequently.
Eight hours later we arrived at Changi Terminal 3. This is relatively new addition to Singapore Airport and is very modern and very large. They have driverless electric shuttle trains not only to take you to gates along the various concourses but to the older Terminals 1 and 2 as well. It is also a huge shopping mall, entertainment centre and eatery, almost a tourist destination in itself. After a few hours there, a bit of duty free shopping and eating, we boarded our next plane for another 4 hours to Hong Kong. Chek Lap Kok is another huge but well organised and efficient airport. We ‘passed’ the A(H1N1) test, got through immigration and customs with a minimum of fuss and were whisked away to our accommodation by the hotel shuttle. We had decided to stay near the airport at the newly opened Sky City Marriott because of hard to refuse low introductory tariffs and the offer of free daily return tickets into the city on the lightning fast Airport Express. The room was excellent with everything that opened and shut. And the bathroom had a rain shower which to us, who live with self imposed water restrictions on a daily basis, was absolute luxury.
Next morning we were up bright and early thanks to the two hour time difference, purchased our Octopus Cards (universal cashless transport system) and headed for the township of Tung Chung. We soon had our first taste of typical Hong Kong summer weather: 35° C and 95% humidity.
Here we boarded a cable car for a 6km, 25 minute ride to Ngong Ping to see the Tian Tan Buddha statue and Po Lin Monastery in the mountains of Lantau Island.
The views back over the town and airport were quite spectacular as we climbed to 1000m. But suddenly we were engulfed in cloud as we crossed over the range. And that was the way it would be for our stay there. We never got to see the Buddha apart from a shadowy outline and the climb to the monastery was out of the question.
The Buddha is 34m tall, weighs 250t and is one of the world's tallest outdoor bronze seated Buddhas. Visitors have to climb 268 steps in order to reach the statue. It was clear that the weather conditions were not going to change any time soon. The surrounding village area is basically a cultural theme park and is pretty kitsch so we made the decision to move on. Below is a picture of what we should have seen.
We found the local bus to the small fishing village of Tai O on the far west coast of Lantau Island and headed down the narrow windy mountain road at considerable speed. This is one of the last places in Hong Kong where you can see the traditional stilt housing of southern Chinese fishing villages. They are certainly tiny.

The harbour inside the typhoon shelter was filled with the typical high prow fishing boats found in this area. The narrow streets were filled with stores selling dried and live seafood of every description. The most famous product is a shrimp paste which is made from fermenting shrimp and spices in a barrel in the sun. I guess it is this smell that pervades the whole area; that plus the rows of fish drying in the sun. I was taken by the whole dried shark hanging from the awning of one of the stalls.
The co-driver, ever the quilter, spied some bargain fabric in a small shop so we made a small contribution to the non-piscatorial section of the local economy. We wandered the back streets for quite a while trying to sticky beak subtly into these people’s simple lives. As we were the only westerners around this was not too easily achieved but our stares were met with the odd nod of recognition and the occasional shy smile.
It was now midday and the heat and humidity were getting to us so a decision was made to find another (air conditioned) local bus that would take us to the ferry terminal on the other side of the island where we might find lunch. Another crazy hour’s trip along narrow hilly roads through lush tropical jungle and beside deserted beaches found us in Mui Wo. The slow ferry to Hong Kong was leaving in 10 minutes so lunch was put on hold. And it was here we discovered that ‘premier class’ seating on the ferry included air conditioning. Well worth the extra $1. As it turned out we could have done with some extra clothing on the 45 minute trip. The co-driver commented that it was even colder than our ‘ice cave’ accommodation that I had organised in Sioux City and Tucson. I was NOT complaining!

On the trip across and into Hong Kong Harbour we saw a large number of huge container ships being unloaded onto barges as well as a variety of ferry transport including super fast hydrofoils crisscrossing the busy waterway and then finally into Victoria Harbour and the dramatic skyline of Hong Kong Island.
We headed for the air conditioned comfort of the very tall International Finance Centre building and found a perfect place for our first Asian lunch albeit nearly dinner time…..a hamburger with the works!

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