Hong Kong Part I

Saturday, 18 October 2008

This week, I was on holiday, and spent the week in Hong Kong with my friend Selwyn. Sel and I were first friends, then roommates in university. We’ve had a lot of good times together, but have not seem much of each other since I moved to Vancouver. Sel moved back to Hong Kong (he was born here) about four years ago, and has been bugging me to come visit for ages. It seemed like a good idea, so I booked the trip a few months back.

It’s a long flight from London to Hong Kong – about 12 hours. I left around 9pm on Friday night, arriving n Hong Kong around 4pm local time. It was actually a pretty good flight – I scored a decent seat, the food was good and I must have slept for a good chunk of the flight because we were in Hong Kong in what seemed like no time.

  Hong Kong Skyline

Hong Kong Skyline

As soon as I stepped off the plane you could tell this wasn’t England anymore. The humidity was significantly higher, and it was warm! Temperatures were expected to be 25-30 degrees for the duration of my trip, with sunshine and 80% humidity. I was seriously looking forward to it. Selwyn met me at the airport, and we took one of the local buses back to his place. Selwyn’s flat is on Ma Wan Island, in a very cool community of apartment buildings. Sel lives on the 17th floor (of 30-odd floors) of building 29 – gives you a bit of a sense of the scale of the place. There isn’t a lot around the community itself – some smallish stores and restaurants – but, not a lot else. It is well connected to Hong Kong proper – we took the ferry into Central (the main station on Hong Kong Island) that night, but there are also buses that run to the metro. 

From the ferry on the way into Central I got my first view of the scale of Hong Kong, and the amazing skyline. Living in Toronto, having been to New York and London, I thought I had seen some big cities. But Hong Kong is something else all together. The size and quantity of buildings is just impossible to describe. I’ve never seen so many 30-40-50 story buildings all crammed in together. They stretch from one end of the city to the other, with the truly massive ones crammed into the downtown core. Sel and I walked around a little bit, then hopped on a ferry across the harbor to Kowloon (the north shore of the Hong Kong area). Every night, on both the Kowloon and Hong Kong Island sides of the harbor, they do a nightly light show on the major buildings. We grabbed dinner on a patio that looked over the Hong Kong Island side of the harbor. The light show was pretty cool, and we enjoyed a leisurely evening, sitting outside, watching the light show and enjoying the warm evening. 

IFC 2 looking up, way up!

After dinner we wandered out into the main streets of Kowloon, which had come alive during the evening. Sel and I are both tech geeks so we ended up in and out of numerous computer shops. We also wandered into some cool street markets, and I got a bit f a feel for the way things are here. It was a fun night, but I was fading fast so we headed back home, using the metro and buses back to Sel’s building. 

Sunday morning we both slept in a bit late. We were meeting Selwyn’s girlfriend Rachel and his Mom for dim sum lunch. We took the metro out to the eastern part of Kowloon, to where Sel’s mom lives. We had lunch in one of the local restaurants, and it was really good. It was most of the usual dim sum dishes that I’ve had in the past, with the exception of one… Sel thought he’d have some fun with me and ordered the chicken feet. Yep, I gave them a try, and surprisingly they weren’t too bad. Basically just fat, done in some type of tasty sauce. Way too many bones, so they don’t really seem worth the effort.

IFC II

Bank of China Tower from the ground

St. John’s Cathedral and the Bank of China Tower

After lunch we parted ways with Sel’s mom and Rachel, and headed back downtown to Hong Kong Island. We took the bus back under the harbor. Once downtown, we wandered around a bit. We stopped by a set of basketball courts, and watched some locals play. The ball was OK – not great but OK to watch for a while. After which we hopped on a tram (street car) and headed into another part of town. As we headed through Central, I got a look at the collected Filipino nannies. It seems that Sunday is their day off, and thousands of them congregate at Central to socialize.

After getting off just past Central, we explored some more street markets in the area around the escalators that take you up to another area called the Mid Levels. As Hong Kong is very hilly, they’ve built a series of covered walkways and escalators that take people from the main business district, up the hill. The whole area is filled with bars and restaurants and shops. We had a good time wandering, checking out the area. We stopped for a bit at one bar that was playing the Liverpool game, and had a few drinks. Then we had dinner at local restaurant – more new and interesting food. Sel had to work early the next day, so we made it a fairly early evening.

Various street scenes - markets

Various street scenes - markets

Picking up dinner at the local fishmonger 

Monday I was on my own. Sel has to work during the week while I’m here, leaving me to explore on my own during the day, and then meeting up at night. On my first day, I decided to head out of the city. My first stop was Hong Kong Disneyland. It was on my way to my actual destination, so I thought I’d stop in and take a look. Frankly, I’m not sure why I bothered really. I’ve never been to any of the US-based resorts, but I’m assuming this was a copy. It had all the usual bits – the Castle Tomorrowland, Main Street USA. I got bored with it after about 45 minutes – without a little one in tow, there wasn’t a lot to do. I did check out a pretty cool animation exhibit, and that was it for me. The metro line out to Hong Kong Disneyland was pretty cool. They have their own trains – the windows are shaped like Mickey Mouse’s’ head. I hopped back on the Mickey train and headed out to the main metro line. From there I continued on to the Tung Chung metro stop. From there I got on a cool cable car that was to take me out to Lantau Island. 

The metro train to Hong Kong Disneyland

 The Main gate with a Halloween theme

The castle, as expected, on the way out

The main attraction at Ngong Ping is the Po Lin Monastery. The Po Lin Monastery has the distinction of having the largest Buddha statue. The Buddha sits atop 268 stairs, and from the massive statue you get excellent views over the island and the surrounding islands. 

Cable car to Ngong Ping

Po Lin Buddha

The cable car takes you to Ngong Ping, a small village near the Po Lin Monastery that’s become the focal point for the tourists that come to see the Buddha. It’s got the expected assortment of souvenir shops, restaurants and a couple of interesting exhibits. I sat through Walking with Buddha, which gives the background on the legend of the Buddha and Monkey’s Tale Theatre” which was a fun little animated short that uses animated monkeys to try and illustrate Buddha’s teachings. It was short, but fun. The exhibits were fun, but I was of to check out the Buddha. I walked up the 268 steps to the top, and the views were exactly as promised. It was a sunny, somewhat hazy day, but the views were good. The Buddha itself was very cool – impressive in every way. I wandered around the display inside the Buddha, which gave some background on the construction. 

Statues near the Po Lin Buddha

After wandering around the area for a while, I hopped on a bus and went to the fishing village of Tai O. The village is on the north shore of the island, about a 20-minute bus ride (an insane bus ride, twisty through streets to narrow for one bus, yet the somehow manage to pas each other…) from Ngong Ping. The village was unlike anything I had ever seen – a piece of the third world and first world all mixed in together. The house were tiny, almost shacks, and some of them sit on stilts above the river. In the narrow, twisting streets of the town sits the main market – full of vendors selling various foodstuffs, but mostly fish. There were tons of different types of shrimp, crabs and fish – both alive and prepared. But mostly alive. It was a cool site to see. I wandered through the town for a couple of hours, and then headed back to Ngong Ping. As the light was now much better than I the early afternoon, I went back to the Buddha to take some more pictures. 

The fishing village of Tai O, with it’s stilt houses

After that, it was back on the cable car, then onto the metro and into Hong Kong. It was about 6:00 at that point, and Sel was due to get off work. While waiting for him, I wandered around the very upscale mall in the center of downtown at the IFC building. There were lots of nice things that I wanted to buy, but I showed some restraint and held off. It would have been hard to get that 70” LCD TV home anyway. There are some amazingly cool gadgets here, and I am going to be hard-pressed not to pick something up before the end of this trip. Sel ended up meeting me around 7:00, and we headed to a restaurant in Lowloon that he was familiar with. We had a very enjoyable meal, and called it a night.

Tuesday I was a little slow getting started. By the time I got up and got going it was pushing noon. I took the metro down to Kowloon, and got off at Tsim Sha Tsui station – the heart of the Kowloon “downtown” area. I was going to hit a couple of the museums. Well that was the plan anyway. As it turns out, the museum I wanted to go to wasn’t open on Tuesday’s, so I went to the Hong Kong Science Museum instead. As it wasn’t open until 1 pm (things open late here…), I had some time to kill. I wandered around the commercial streets of Kowloon for about an hour, checking out the various stores, and then stopped at a street-side café for something to eat. Around 1:00 I headed back over to the museum. Frankly I was a little underwhelmed. It was a pretty typical science center – very much aimed at kids. So it didn’t hold a lot for me. I wandered around a bit and checked out most of the exhibits. The one part of it that was worth the trip and was very cool was a special exhibit on deep-sea life. They had all kids of preserved examples of wild deep-sea fish, and some amazing photographs. The write up around the exhibits did a great job of giving an overview of our exploration of the ocean’s deaths. 

I probably spent a little more than an hour total in the museum, and then headed out again. I wandered along the Kowloon waterfront, enjoying the heat and the nice ocean breeze. My walk lead me back to the metro, where I headed back north. I got off at Lok Fu station, as I wanted to go and see the Kowloon Walled City Park. It was a bit of a challenge finding the place, but was worth it. The area was the center of crime for Hong Kong up until the mid 1980s, because the area was not included in the original agreement when the Chinese ceded Hong Kong to the British in the 1890s. They argued about who had possession for almost a hundred years, then the British cleaned things up. They knocked down everything, built proper housing (it was a real shanty town at the time) and cleaned things up. The park is really nice – an oasis of calm in the middle of a very built up area. I wandered around for a couple of hours. Most of the time was spent at this little pond, taking pictures of the turtles and water lily flowers. At one point an older Chinese man wandered through playing a flute. It was kind of cool. 

Star Ferry with Hong Kong behind it

Pagoda in the Kowloon Walled City Park

Turtle

Lily pad flowers

By this point it was pushing late afternoon. I wanted to go up to the top of Victoria Peak and see the city from up high. I grabbed a bus back to the ferry terminal, then took one of the Star Ferries (a Hong Kong institution) across the harbor. You get some amazing views of the harbor during the crossing, and as it was getting later in the afternoon, the light was nice. I made my way up the hill south of the Hong Kong Island side of the harbor and found the Peak Tram terminal. Victoria Peak is the large hill that sits above the city, rising out of the ocean to 1,811 feet (552 meters) above the city. There’s a tram, built in the 1800’s that takes you to the top, offering amazing views along the way. While the stats say the maximum slop is 27 degrees, it sure feels like more than that in places. While the ride up was good, I have to admit the views from the top were breathtaking. I got up just as the light was fading, and stayed all the way through sunset, and into the evening, watching the lights come out. From up there, you gain a new appreciation for how huge the city is. Unfortunately, it was a pretty hazy day, so the views weren’t as nice as they could have been. I was up top for a good three hours give or take and then took the tram back down. I wandered back into the trendy bar area where I found The Keg, a Canadian-themed bar. They were showing the Montreal-Florida hockey game, so I was hooked. I watched most of the game, had a beer or two and some food, then called it a night. Sel had worked very late and so I met him back at the apartment.