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.
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.