Posted in Asia, China, Hong Kong

Trip to China – Hong Kong – Day 5


30 March 2012, Friday

It was the first time in Hong Kong when we had to get up very early, as we were supposed to be picked up from a different hotel, the Excelsior, to join the tour group travelling to the Lantau Island. We knew roughly where it was (behind the Sogo department store, i.e. not far from our regular tram stop), but in cases like this it’s always better to allow yourself extra time for clarification, and so we did. As a result, everything went smoothly and we joined our group. We were passed from hand to hand several times: at the first stop we were separated from those going to the New Territories, then, as Lantau is restricted to traffic and only permit-holders may drive there (including buses and taxis), we had to change the bus as soon as we reached the island.

We drove over the same long bridges, as on the first day on our way from the airport, but this time we were told their names (Tsing Ma, Ting Kau and Kap Shui Mun). These bridges are for transport only, walking or cycling is not allowed. At our first stop we were given the opportunity not only to admire the view of these bridges, but also to get a closer look at bauhinia flowers, one of the main symbols of Hong Kong, as we were brought to a bauhinia garden.

Tsing Ma Bridge

There we parted with our nice guide named Ivy and were passed to another one – a lean, thin-faced guy. When I say “we”, I actually mean ten adults and one little boy – the son of a relatively young couple from the USA. Besides them, there were also an elderly couple from the USA, wearing identical vests; another elderly lady, also American; an Australian guy in shorts, who attracted attention by the fact that he had forgotten his ticket and was only able to say “Oops!” (nevertheless, he still was admitted to the trip, as the guides had their own lists of participants), and also a couple from Mainland China, speaking Mandarin only.

Despite the fact that the tour guide told us his English was way better than his Mandarin (just a reminder: the mother tongue of the local Chinese is Cantonese, which is very different from Standard Chinese), his intonations in both languages were absolutely the same and rather monotonous, so every time he was switching to Mandarin for the Chinese couple, we felt afraid that we stopped understanding him.

Our next stop was the Upper Cheung Sha beach. Finally we tried – with our hands and feet – the water of the South China Sea. The guide told us that the swimming season would open in three days (i.e. 1 April) – when we would no longer be in Hong Kong. In general, we were told that the time at which we arrived was the most favourable, as both in winter and in summer the humidity is too high, heavy fog makes it hard to see anything and quite often there are rains and even typhoons. The area permitted for swimming was very small and well-fenced, mostly out of fear of sharks, although they hadn’t been seen around for a long time.

The next item on the agenda was visiting the Tai O fishing village, to which we drove through amazingly beautiful mountains. Interestingly, the general view seemed somewhat in common with landscapes of Norway, which we had seen six months before, like the northern and southern variations of the same thing.

The Tai O village was a sharp contrast to Hong Kong’s skyscrapers, boutiques and luxury brands. People here live mainly in squalid, rusted shacks on stilts. A boat was moored near each shack, and it seemed that such a boat is the most valuable property of its owner, as their engines were mostly of pretty decent brands: Yamaha, etc.

We were taken on a boat ride along these shanties, and then – to a fish market that sold local specialties: dried seafood and shrimp paste. The place stunk to the high heaven! Well, fresh fish smelled ok, but dried fish… This “aroma” then haunted me through the rest of the day – every smell reminded me of it, even that of flowers! Otherwise, the market was indeed interesting and unusual. There were oysters, sea stars, urchins, seahorses, even a huge dried shark. Dried fish of some species was extremely expensive: a bunch of four cost 58,000 HKD (around 7,500 USD or 5,800 AZN).

As we drove out of Tai O, we started climbing the mountains again. We already knew that there were 268 stairs leading to the statue of Buddha which we were heading to (known as the biggest outdoor seated bronze Buddha in the world, as among the standing Buddhas there are bigger ones, e.g. somewhere near Shanghai), and were mentally prepared for this. A cable car way exists as well, but it was closed for maintenance.

Well, what can I say about the statue – the Tian Tan Buddha was of course majestic. On his breast there is a left-facing swastika – the symbol of the eternal cycle of the universe. We were taken into the halls beneath the statue, but there wasn’t anything really interesting, apart from bracelets and rosaries for sale and some calligraphic paintings.

We didn’t have to walk down the previously mentioned 268 steps to get to the Po Lin monastery, which the Buddha statue actually overlooks, as we were taken there by bus. This monastery was much bigger and busier than the one we saw the day before. In its courtyard there were statues of twelve divine generals, representing the twelve-year cycle, as well as time of day. On his hat each general had the animal symbolising the respective year.

For the second time we experienced this strange feeling at the monastery: we came here just to stare around, while for many people around this was a serious visit to their gods. The Chinese couple from our group, for example, were actively praying and burning joss sticks.

The tour included lunch at the monastery, completely vegetarian, just as the day before, but a bit more upper class.

We drove back the same way we had come. Unlike the chatty Beijing guide, this one kept silent all the way back and even seemed to be asleep. After being dropped off at the Excelsior, we popped in the World Trade Centre, did a bit of shopping and thoroughly looked around. A very nice shopping centre, clean, spacious, with relatively few people and without anyone chasing you with their goods.

We had dinner in the Michelin starred Golden Valley restaurant, serving Guangdong (Cantonese) and Sichuan (Szechuan) food, right in our hotel. Inspired by visiting a fishing village, we finally tried the shark fin soup. It was really good. At the next table we noticed a group of locals, literally cooking something in a simmering pot in front of them: they placed slices of meat, some fresh herbs and other products in the pot, and then took them out and ate them. The waiter explained that this was a hot pot dish, and that there was a selection of ingredients and sauces for the eaters to choose from.

Posted in Asia, China, Hong Kong

Trip to China – Hong Kong – Day 4


29 March 2012, Thursday

In the morning, as our moods revived after the previous night’s episode of depression, we decided to act at our own risk and choose the route ourselves, using maps, Google and common sense.

We stopped our choice on the Ten Thousand Buddhas (Man Fat Sze) Monastery, situated in the New Territories. They are located on the mainland, north of Kowloon, and are not included in the bus tour routes. We were about to cross the entire Hong Kong from south to north.

First thing, we provided ourselves things to do for the next day, entrusting ourselves to the same company we had been touring around the city with so far (Big Bus Tours), and booked a day trip to the Lantau Island.

We took the MTR from the Central station and had to make two changes before we got to the point of our destination – the Sha Tin area, where the monastery is located.

A journey on the tube is always a good opportunity for observing the locals and drawing conclusions. Thus, we noticed that the local Chinese consumed much less garlic than Beijingers, or, in any case, clearly concealed it. As you enter any public place in Beijing you almost suffocate with its “delicate fragrance”, but here you don’t really feel anything.

What also draws attention is the technophilia of Hong Kongers – everyone in the tube is busy with their phones, iPads, readers, PSP’s and other gadgets of the latest models. To the credit of the locals it should be mentioned that a young man gave his seat to me.

At Sha Tin there was a bit of a hitch: we thought that the monastery was one of the tourists’ favourite places and we would see a lot of signs which would easily lead us to the right place. But no! We looked around, walked along a street, which seemed to be the only one (it was very broad, much broader than in the city centre), following the crowd coming out of the tube. Only then did it dawn on us that it was quite unlikely for such a broad modern street to lead to a Buddhist monastery.

After asking a couple of people in the street, we realised that we should go back to the station and make a second attempt.

It turned out that there was a trail, which we hadn’t noticed the first time, leading to the monastery.  As we walked a bit, we came up to gates with a univocal sign, notifying that the steps before us were in fact the road to the monastery. The number of steps was simply enormous, but the road itself was quite amusing: on both sides there were thousands of gilded statues of Buddha, standing, sitting in different poses, with different facial expressions. Right at the beginning of the road we were snapped up by two Buddhist monks who mumbled something, pressed some rosaries to our foreheads, put some bracelets on our wrists and clearly hinted that they would like to receive some alms. There was nowhere to escape, and each of us had to part with hundred Hong Kong dollars.  As we walked substantially further, we noticed a sign warning that real monks wouldn’t beg, so, they said, beware of fake monks. Something felt a bit hypocritical about this sign; as if it were impossible to put it right at the entrance!

Once again I should mention that climbing all the way up to the monastery was really uneasy. But even if I make this statement for the third time, still, this would be much easier to write about than to actually overcome. We did it though!

Interestingly enough, on the territory of the monastery itself we didn’t notice even a single monk – neither a real, nor a fake one. There were, however, cleaners, polishing the statues with rags; waterers, and other staff. By the way, it has to be mentioned that all the captions under the statues were made exclusively in Chinese, and only two boxes of ginseng ficus were neatly signed in English, from which one can conclude that this place is mainly visited by Chinese Buddhists and English-speaking botanists 🙂

Inside the temple taking photos is not allowed. One could think that the Ten Thousand Buddhas are only those statues on both sides of the road. In fact, they are right in this temple: each wall has numerous rows (we counted 31) with small statues of Buddha.

In the yard there were statues of different deities, a high pagoda and incense burners. Actually, there were quite few tourists; the majority of the visitors were believers who had come to pray. They burned incense sticks, made wishes and read some books.

Apart from spiritual food, physical food was also present there, although purely vegetarian. Right there, in the yard, was an eatery, where just for 48 HKD you would be served a tremendous portion of whatever you had ordered (soup, for example, wasn’t served in bowls, but rather in basins!). Chicken, fish and lamb appeared in the menu, but all with the “veggie” prefix, meaning they were probably made of soy. As for vegetables and mushrooms, they were real, of course. And everything was delicious!

Well, needless to say, that the way back was much easier, as we were walking down the hill. Overall, we spent an hour to get there, two hours in the monastery, and a bit more than an hour to get back.

Posted in Asia, China, Hong Kong

Trip to China – Hong Kong – Day 3


28 March 2012, Wednesday

The day began with another bus tour – the one that led out of town. The view, especially along the southern coast, strewn with beaches, was simply amazing, but there wasn’t really anything worth a separate description, unless I would keep repeating: “Oh my god, how beautiful! The sea, the hills, the wonderful smell of flowers!” And the smell was indeed worth these words, it was totally unfamiliar, but still very, very nice.

It is very prestigious to live in the Repulse Bay area (called so, because it once used to be a nest of pirates, which the British troops repulsed severely and eventually eradicated), therefore housing here is very expensive, reaching HK$200,000 (about 26,000 USD or 20,000 AZN) per sq m.

The highlight of the journey was lunch at the Jumbo Kingdom floating restaurant in the Aberdeen fishing village. It can be called a village just conditionally, as it also has high-rises, just like the city does. It was quite suprising to encounter the name of a small Scottish town in subtropical Hong Kong. It turned out that it was named after Lord George Hamilton-Gordon, the British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, who was Scottish. Generally, everything here is so saturated with Scottish spirit, that even during the handover ceremony (sovereignty transfer from United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China) in 1997 there were Scottish soldiers marching to the buzz of bagpipes.

Aberdeen is given a special flavour with sampans – traditional boats, in which the Tanka people used to live in the past, and sometimes even live now. We took a ride on one of these sampans which brought us to the restaurant.

The floating restaurant consists of two decks: the top deck is a restaurant serving western cuisine, while the first deck is a fine Chinese (Cantonese) restaurant. We chose the latter. The prices of some dishes, quite frankly, were off the scale, reaching thousands (shark fin soup, for example) or even tens of thousands (fish maw) of Hong Kong dollars. We weren’t really up for spending a fortune on food, so went for quite ordinary stuff we were familiar with: dim sum, sweet and sour pork and chicken noodles. We were served such a huge mountain of noodles, that even after jointly and vibrantly eating as much as we could, it still looked almost untouched. The degree of our satiety could best be described by the fact that we couldn’t bring ourselves to have dinner later that day.

The restaurant turned out to be quite close to the city – we saw some familiar skyscrapers on our way back. By the way, skyscrapers in Hong Kong usually get nicknames related to their shape: for example, the building of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Forces (the former head office of the British army) is referred to as the “upside-down Gin bottle” (which I didn’t get the chance to take a photo of), and the Lippo Centre buildings, looking like trees with climbing koalas, are simply called the “Koala trees” (in the photo below).

After lunch, our high spirits left us. It happened in the Wan Chai Computer Centre. One would have thought this was a paradise for electronics lovers where they could just shop their butts off. However, being in a space, divided into tiny compartments, littered with goods and packed with people, felt somewhat depressing for some reason. Even buying good phones for quite low prices didn’t make us feel much better.

To recover from a bad mood we decided to visit the Victoria Peak again. Here, too, things didn’t go very smoothly: to buy our tram tickets we had to wait in a queue probably a kilometre long, and also we completely forgot to ask the tour staff about round trips to the Lantau Island, which we were planning for the next day.

Nevertheless, we visited the local “Madame Tussauds”. The exhibition, of course, mainly consists of local celebrities’ figures, among which Jackie Chan’s one stands out (so much, that taking a picture next to it costs money). In general, the wax population is far less than in London, which is quite logical.

Having waited until dusk, we again visited the viewing terrace, where, almost gone with the raging wind, we enriched our photo collection with the pictures of the evening harbour with a bird’s-eye view.

Posted in Asia, China, Hong Kong

Trip to China – Hong Kong – Day 2


27 March 2012, Tuesday

First of all, we should praise ourselves. And Hong Kong too. The first ones (i.e. us!) were able to find our bearings all the time, figured out where and how to go, purchased Octopus cards which are used for payment in all public transport in Hong Kong (and some shops as well). No more taxis from now on, long live the public transport! The second one, that is Hong Kong itself, provided an opportunity to understand everything, being a very user-friendly city: the streets, the transportation – everything is clear and more or less available, unlike Beijing, where standing on one side of a very wide street, you might have no clue how to get to the other side. Hong Kong’s streets are narrow, often literally a gap between skyscrapers. Usually there are overground crossings in areas with heavy traffic.

So, after breakfast (which was way more modest than in the luxury Beijing hotel), we, as decided the day before, headed to the nearest tour bus stop. We took a tram; trams here, as everything in Hong Kong, had grown in height and not in length: they are short and double-decker.

The bus took so long to arrive, that we got quite anxious whether we were standing in the right place. But just at the moment when we went to clarify this with a staff member of the Sogo department store, in front of which we had been waiting, the long-awaited bus appeared in the distance. Interestingly enough, the tickets were only sold near the Victoria Peak tram station, meaning that should we have decided to get off earlier, we would have ridden for free.

The road to Victoria Peak, which had been open to the public in late 19th century, was extremely steep and we rode at a crazy angle! We were literally pressed into the seat backs. The funicular is not only an attraction for tourists, but also public transportation for residents of the upper levels of the island. In fact, it was originally created in order to stimulate building development of the mountain.

As we got off the tram, we immediately found ourselves in a mall, where we had to climb quite a few escalators in order to get to the lookout. But it was totally worth it: the view from the Sky Terrace was just divine! The Victoria Harbour was picturesque to the utmost; and the concrete jungle, framing it, looked very harmonious next to the lush and curly greenery on the slopes.

We had lunch at the peak, at the Bubba Gump Shrimp & Co restaurant. It is a nice seafood restaurant from an American chain, with average prices. The way of calling the waiter is really interesting: there is a two-sided sign board on the table. If you don’t need anything, you turn it to its blue side, which says: “Run, Forrest, run!” If you need the waiter though, you turn it over to the red side, saying: “Stop, Forrest, stop!”

After a ride through the Hong Kong island (the name, by the way, originates from the Cantonese “Hēunggóng”, which means “Fragrant Harbour”), which is the historical centre of the former British colony, we took the Star Ferry to the Kowloon peninsula. Its name means “nine dragons”.

One of the main attractions in Kowloon is the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, or more precisely, the Avenue of Stars, like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but, obviously, related to Hong Kong cinema. Among a myriad of names, completely unfamiliar to us, there were also the names of internationally famous actors, such as Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, Andy Lau, and of course, the two biggest local stars – Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. The latter also has a monument in his honour, which is really an object of pilgrimage for Chinese (and other) tourists.

Speaking of Chinese tourists, we had been told that the Chinese liked to be photographed with the Europeans, but in Beijing no one had expressed the desire to take a picture with us. Here though, right on the Promenade, a whole family – apparently, tourists from some Chinese province – approached us and asked to take photos with us, which they then did one by one.

We toured around Kowloon twice: in the day and evening. During the daytime it looked a bit inferior to the island, despite some memorable sites, such as the Peninsula Hotel, where during the Second World War, just after several days of fighting, the British signed the surrender to Japan; or the International Commerce Centre, which is the tallest skyscraper in Hong Kong (by the way, Hong Kong has the most high-rises in the world, almost twice as many as New York does). In contrast to the fashionable boutiques of the island, the peninsula is famous for its more democratic markets: the Ladies’ Market, Temple Street Night Market, Flower Market, Bird Market, etc.

However, at night the streets of Kowloon are brilliantly lit by colourful neon lights – especially areas like Nathan Road and Mong Kok – and look absolutely safe (the crime rate in Hong Kong is really very low).

After the night tour around Kowloon we came back to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, where a laser show is demonstrated every night at 8pm. Honestly, we expected something more from it, and when the green laser beams started appearing in the sky, we kept waiting for the real show to begin. But that was it, as it turned out – not too impressive (later note: the light show on Maiden Tower walls in Baku during Eurovision Song Contest 2012 week was way more spectacular). But I took some photos of the harbour.

On the way back we easily found the right tube station (or MTR station, as it is called here), then the right tram stop, and after the 12-hour “sortie”, safely returned to our Emperor (Happy Valley) hotel.

A few general observations: the local language, that is, Cantonese, is quite different from Mandarin, or Standard Chinese, which is the official language in China and Taiwan. As for Hong Kong, it has two official languages: English and Chinese (both Mandarin and Cantonese, which makes, in fact, three). For example, tube announcements are made in all three, and pretty soon we got the hang of aurally distinguishing Cantonese from Mandarin.

The writing is also different. Here they use older, traditional characters, which look more complicated, with lots of strokes and dots. In Mainland China, though, as well as in Singapore and Malaysia, simplified characters are used. They were introduced in the middle of 20th century, to increase the literacy of the population.

Watching the locals, you sometimes feel like you see the English in Chinese guise. They queue sedately (something which the Chinese don’t tend to do generally), obey traffic rules, stand on the right side of escalators and walk on the left. All the service staff in all public places speak English, schoolchildren solve math problems for homework in English (we saw this in Starbucks; they were speaking Chinese among themselves, though).

In general, having arrived in Hong Kong, we clearly felt the difference between the communist and capitalist China. Not that in Beijing they flaunt their communist slogans, prohibitions and restrictions – it all seems veiled. But you still have the feeling that the tiger is holding out its paw, even though with hidden claws, over everything around: controlled Internet, controlled television, guides necessarily referring to happy life with universal equality in the People’s China, Mao’s portraits, five-star symbols, and even endless barrages on the streets constantly remind of it. In Hong Kong you see democracy in full bloom. No wonder that in 1997, when Margaret Thatcher returned Hong Kong to China after a 99-year lease  in accordance with the agreement, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers hastily emigrated to the West, terrified by the “charms” of the communist “paradise”. However, Hong Kong practically doesn’t feel its implications so far, because, as well as Macau, it has the status of a Special Administrative Region and will retain its internal system for 50 years. What Hong Kongers will do after the 50-year period expires, is a big question.