Monday, June 29, 2009

Hong Kong / Part 2

Next morning we took the Airport Express into Central (Hong Kong Island) and after breakfast boarded the Star Ferry across to Kowloon. This is a Hong Kong institution with the service surviving since the late 1880’s despite recent road and rail tunnels under the harbour. The twelve green and white 1950’s and 60’s diesel powered ferries, manned by crews still wearing old fashioned sailor type uniforms, run a non stop service across Victoria Harbour. Cost? $1.00!

This must be one of the world’s best sightseeing bargains with some of the best views of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island skylines.
We walked a short distance from the Star Ferry wharf Kowloon side to the viewing platform outside the Cultural Centre and absorbed the amazing view.

Then it was back across the harbour to the First Ferry wharf for a trip to the island of Cheung Chau and lunch. Again we preferred the slow boat to the fast catamaran and took the air conditioned option. Leaving the wharf we got a really good view of what may be, when it’s finished, the world’s tallest building, the MTR Tower.

Cheung Chau has the aura of an older more traditional Hong Kong. It used to be an old pirate and fishing haven and if you half close your eyes you can still imagine that with its narrow streets, tiny shops and temples. The harbour is crowded with fishing boats and it is little wonder that the seafood is why most people come here.

The road around the harbour is a mass of eating establishments, many with huge tanks of live fish from which to pick your meal. Which place to choose? First thing we noticed was not too many had English signs or menus. But, being the adventurous food types we are, this was not a problem. My main concern was, yes, you guess it, air conditioning! So we walked along the street looking, all the time being "attacked" by the restaurant touts. Finally, a woman appeared from one and spoke to us in perfect English saying she had the best meals in town. "But do you have aircon?" I asked. "Sure do" she answered and we were hooked. Inside were a mish mash of dilapidated laminex tables and dubious looking non matching plastic chairs and stools. Having eaten in many such places in Asia I assured the co-driver we would (most likely) be fine. Another plus was the place was full of Chinese families noisily enjoying their lunch. With no English menu I was taken outside where a huge number of bamboo steamers full of Dim Sum (dumplings) sat over cauldrons of boiling water. My ‘new friend’ proceeded to open one steamer after another to which I only had to say yes or no. With no idea what anything was this was a gamble but as it turned out they were all delicious. "I suppose you will need a fork" she says. "Nope, chopsticks will do fine" we say. And we have made a friend for life!!!!!

Our Dim Sum starter which could have really been the main meal (Well, I did get carried away with the selection process) was washed down with two huge bottles of beer and followed up by the most delicious steamed scallops and broccoli. And I almost forgot, a big plate of the best fried rice I have had in ages. We sat there completely stuffed with our now mother figure urging us to finish the rice or she would bag it up for us to eat later. "You can waste money" she says "but you can’t waste food!"
Time for the bill. With no knowledge of any of the prices I wondered out loud if we would be taken to the kitchen and forced to wash dishes into the foreseeable future. No need to worry. $40 the lot! So if you are ever in Cheung Chau stop by the "Long Island Restaurant". Turn left after exiting the ferry wharf and it’s about 500m on your right. Look for the blue awning.

Back on Hong Kong Island, we debated whether to call it a day or visit the Mid Level Escalators. This is a series of escalators that run 800m up the steeper parts of northwest Hong Kong Island. Beginning at Central Market it takes in BoHo, SoHo and Hollywood Road. A quarter of a million commuters use the system every day with it running down hill for the morning rush hour, then uphill until midnight.
Things did not start out too well when we decided to catch one of the antique double decker trams that still run along one of the island's major roads. They are small, crowded, not built for someone 6ft tall and very hot. And when we got to the escalators they were down for maintenance! This was a disappointment because the area was full of potentially interesting places to visit including Chinese antique shops and apothecaries and paper offering shops as well as hip bars and restaurants. But in the heat the climb would have done us in.
So that signalled the end of Day 2 exploration and we made a strategic retreat to the hotel bar.

Next morning we headed back into town and took the MTR (subway/underground) to the Mong Kok area which supposedly has the highest population density in the world ie. 130,000 people per km2.
Mong Kok preserves its traditional characteristics with an array of markets, small shops, and food stalls that have already disappeared from other areas in Hong Kong over the past several decades of economic development. Because of this a few of the streets in Mong Kok have acquired interesting nicknames reflecting their own particular specialty. We decided to explore just a few. The Flower Market is a street market with lots of flower shops and street hawkers showing off their colourful displays. The sweet scent of flowers is everywhere and I saw some of the most unusual plants and blooms for sale. Some of the orchid sprays were amazing.

Next was the Bird Garden where hundreds of songbirds in beautifully crafted cages are for sale from around 70 stalls. And not only birds, but all sorts of pet bird extras including of course feed. Apart from the obvious seed, I saw trays of maggots as well as other strange creepy crawlies for sale by weight and live grasshoppers too. One shop was putting around 10 live grasshoppers into small bamboo tubes for sale. I have seen pictures of owners feeding their birds grasshoppers with chopsticks. No such photo-op for me this time.
Then we moved onto Ladies Street, a market many blocks long which specialises in women's clothing, accessories and cosmetics. A block to one side of this street is Fa Yeun Street with many small retailers who sell sports shoes, sporting equipment and clothing. On the other side is Sai Yeung Choi Street selling consumer electronic products, cosmetics, and discount books. Unfortunately they much don't cater for the larger western sizes in clothing and although we saw some bargains, $10 for Ralph Lauren Polos (fakes?), we couldn't take advantage.

After a thorough exploration of this area, we retired to Langham Place which is a typical world standard shopping mall/hotel/office complex full of brand name shops, restaurants of many nationalities, movie theatres, specialty food shops and supermarkets. Here we relaxed, people watching, with a coffee and eventually a late Thai lunch. The atrium in this building had about the longest escalator I have seen.

So our short time in Hong Kong was over. Next morning it was back to the airport for our flight to Singapore. We had intended to spend a few hours in that city before our flight home but we both agreed we had had enough heat and humidity and we were more than happy to spend our time exploring Changi T3. Our next flight to Sydney was to be on the new Airbus A380. I patrolled the airport trying to get a good picture of one but there were always obstacles in the way. The best I could do was from the men’s room through a window above the urinals. Luckily there was no other person in there as I am sure they would have been a bit surprised to see someone suddenly whip out a camera. The flight home was uneventful and really, once you board the A380, it’s like being on any other aircraft.

And our thoughts on Hong Kong?
Five words: crowded, busy, vibrant, energetic, clean.
A special mention should be made about the last item. There is an army of people keeping the city spick and span. There are a myriad of street and building cleaners. On the trains uniformed people appeared and wiped down every hangy strap and pole in the carriage. There were people standing disinfecting the handrails of escalators. Every public toilet we went into had an attendant to keep the place in order. And once, after a short down pour, an army of people appeared and squeegeed off the entire square outside the building we were having a coffee in. And 10 minutes later after another short rainshower, they were there again. Little wonder if you are caught littering, you face a $HK10,000 fine and 6 months in jail.
Despite being under the control of a communist government the former British colony has been allowed to retain its previous economic, political and judicial systems. There certainly are no outward signs of recession with multiple building works in progress and shops and restaurants full of customers. While human rights, universal suffrage and democracy are still grey areas as well as reported socio-economic problems, there appears to be an air of optimism for the future in the place. The people live constitutionally under the Basic Law of Hong Kong and those we met and dealt with were friendly, helpful and hard working. It’s worth a visit just to see how capitalism and communism can work together.
But take our advice and do this in their winter!

1 comment:

Yira said...

Sounds like you had a great time in Hong Kong. If we can't be there it's always nice to get a review from someone who can. Your latest wine article is now up on my post...check it out when you get a chance.