Travelling Leila

My impressions about the places I visit

Archive for the tag “Hong Kong”

Hong Kong – Day 5

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4 December 2013

Today we made a particularly good choice, visiting the Chi Lin Nunnery and the adjacent Nan Lian Garden.

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It’s hard even to imagine such beauty, peace and tranquillity as in this garden, which is essentially an amazingly harmonious composition of water, rocks and trees, and also traditional Chinese pagodas, bridges and pavilions. As for the skyscrapers in the background, not only don’t they seem to disturb this harmony, but they actually emphasise it in a rather unique way.

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Overall, the garden is somewhat oval-shaped, and each turn of the track uncovers a new charming scene, e.g. giant banyan trees, or exquisite bridges over a pond with large colourful fish, or a waterfall with a water mill. And there you are, walking and admiring it all, accompanied by the low-pitch, vibrant, ’nasal’ sounds of guqin, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument, which feels like the most appropriate accompaniment in this place.

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There are some lotus ponds right in front of the monastery. The petals move gently under the light breeze, and you feel like you could spend hours and hours just looking at them – at least, you somehow begin to understand Asians who find pleasure in the long contemplation of beauty. Neither taking pictures, nor even talking is allowed in the monastery, even in the public section (the other section, where the monks actually live, is closed to public altogether). There are sanctuaries on both sides, while in the centre there is a magnificent gilded statue of Buddha Sakyamuni. The monastery is also filled with music, not guqin sounds any longer though, but the chants of the monks. Even though we have nothing to do with Buddhism, still a sense of the sanctity of the place was definitely present.

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As we returned to the Nan Lian Garden, we decided to try the tea ceremony there. The tea house has a couple of requirements: first of all you have to remove your shoes, leave them outside and put on the slippers provided, and also to switch off your mobile phone and put your camera away, as taking photos and videos is prohibited. The order has to be at least one portion per person. And a portion in this case is not one cup but rather 6 grammes of dry tea, which can be brewed in a small teapot six times. But I’m getting ahead of myself here – before talking about brewing I have to mention that there is actually a high degree of self-service here – you fill the iron kettle yourself and put it on the stove to boil, then you call the waitress. She brings you teaware and dry tea leaves, explaining how to brew them. It is actually a whole science (or should I say art?) in itself: you first rinse and fill the teapot with boiling water (the teaware stands on a grid with a drain underneath it). Then you pour the same water into a jug and cups, which thus get rinsed as well. You carefully add the tea to the tiny teapot, fill it with boiling water up to the top, then immediately pour it away – this is how the tea leaves also get rinsed. Now comes the final part: you fill the teapot with boiling water once again, keep it there for just a few seconds, and then pour the tea into the jug (so that it doesn’t get any stronger), from which it can be poured into cups.

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It’s worth emphasising that these six grams is a lot for such a small teapot, way more than the portions we are used to. The tea that we had is called Da Hong Pao, which grows high in the mountains and is considered one of the most expensive teas in the world.

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Our lunch that day was quite unusual too – it was vegetarian, as it is always the case with monastery restaurants, with a very high content of various types of mushrooms.

In the evening we went to Lan Kwai Fong yet again. Even though it was only Wednesday and not Friday, the place was way more crowded and fun than during our last visit – which in fact is quite logical. The last time we were here was Sunday, when pretty obviously very few people are keen on drinking and hanging out late before a Monday. And on a weekday, of course, many people want to relax and chill out after a hard day at work – this is exactly why we saw such a considerable number of ‘white collars’ there.

Hong Kong – Day 4

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3 December 2013

Today was the Big Shopping day. From travel blogging perspective, it may not be the most exciting event ever, but since we’re all human and nothing human is alien to us, it’s still worth touching this topic.

All guidebooks scream that Hong Kong is a great place for shopping, primarily due to the free trade regime. So people flock here from all over the world. In particular, I doubt that anywhere in the world one can find as many jewellery stores as there are here, and none of them stays empty and clientless. Literally on every corner in the central areas there is a Chow Tai Fook store, with slightly less stores of the competing Luk Fook and Chow Sang Sang chains.

If Singapore created the impression that the main idea was to feed as much people as possible, so there were all kinds of eateries pretty much at every turn, it looks like Hong Kong’s ‘task’ is, of course, selling as many goods as possible, so almost at every step you come across malls, shops, stores, outlets etc.

We ended up heading to Harbour City, which is one of the biggest malls. It’s probably that we didn’t have much time to understand how it was all structured there, but we were left with a feeling of randomness – for example, in comparison with Westfield in London. There everything is crystal clear with high fashion brands being concentrated in one section and more democratic brands in a totally different one. Here everything is mixed, and the logic of locating the stores remained totally unclear to us. All the stores were very nicely decorated (Christmas is coming up!) and Christmas songs sounded everywhere, most of which, though, with the exception of the famous Jingle Bells, seemed too schmaltzy and cloying.

One of the must-do things planned for this trip was having a proper dim sum lunch, and we found that the best place to do so was Tim Ho Wan – it is a chain of restaurants, looking more like small eateries, but with a Michelin star, and by the way, being the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant. At lunchtime there are always lots of people queuing outside. Everyone gets an order sheet with their number in the queue, so while waiting they could decide what they are getting and tick off those items. When seats become available, the waiters shout out the numbers – not necessarily in order, but rather depending on how many seats there are – in Cantonese, but if they see any non-Chinese among the people waiting, it can be repeated in English too.

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Many people think of dim sum as a variety of dumplings, while in reality it is not just dumplings, but rather a general assortment of small snacks to be consumed together with pu er tea. Originally it was part of the tea ceremony in southern China, and this traditional tea drinking, or “yum cha”, took place in tea houses in the morning. Now “yum cha” has moved to special dim sum restaurants, like Tim Ho Wan, and not necessarily happens in the morning, but still mostly before mid-afternoon.

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We absolutely loved everything we ordered, which included prawn dumplings (har gow), rice noodle rolls (cheong fun) with Cantonese BBQ pork (char siu), steamed egg cake, medlar & osmanthus jelly. We ate until we were totally full, and it cost only HK $ 112 for two (which makes U.S. $14-15 or 11-12 AZN).

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Hong Kong – Day 3

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2 December 2013

Today we went on with the bus tour which continued on the Kowloon peninsula. I found it less interesting than the island – lots of skyscrapers and shops, the streets mostly looked quite the same. Generally, it would have even been better to find a hotel on the island instead, it is way more picturesque than the peninsula which basically has only shopping and restaurants, and also the Avenue of Stars on the promenade, where we walked prior to the bus ride. The first time, I mean last year, it had been more fun – at least, seeing the handprints of local stars for the second time seemed less exciting now, however I still found the Bruce Lee statue impressive.

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During the bus tour, as usual, we were listening to the audio guide, and again heard the familiar information about the Black Christmas, when on 25 December 1941 the Hong Kong authorities had ignominiously surrendered to the Japanese; and how the Chinese emperor had mastered Kowloon and why this area with eight dragon-like hills was called the peninsula of Nine Dragons. But there was also an unfamiliar piece of information which I found quite interesting: one can hardly find any rats in Hong Kong nowadays, but in the late 19th century the city was literally flooded with lots of them. When some Japanese doctor proved the correlation between the spread of plague and the presence of rats, the city authorities took drastic measures and announced a reward of 2, and later 5 cents per caught rat. All went well at first, but then the reward had to be cancelled, for some particularly enterprising citizens started importing thousands of rats from China!

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The highlight of the day was meeting my teacher of Cantonese, which I learn over Skype. It’s always great when you have the opportunity to talk to someone local during a trip – it was fascinating to ask her questions about the Chinese language, and how text messages are typed in Chinese (she said there were dozens of ways: for example, her cousins, who can only read, but not write characters, use an app where you input romanised text, and it suggests all possible character options, out of which you need to find and select the appropriate one; while she herself prefers the app where you handwrite each character on the touchscreen, and the app recognises them and translates into printed text – the trick here is to follow the correct stroke order), and to hear from her that the income tax is very low in Hong Kong, however, there is no state pension at all. By the way, despite being 35, my teacher looks 23-25 at most.

She took us to the Maritime Museum, which had an exhibition of John Thomson’s photoworks, depicting Hong Kong and Coastal China of the 19th century. The technique of creating these photographs was shown right there: the wet collodion photographic process he had been using was already somewhat more advanced than the daguerreotype process, but still as far as the moon from being any similar to the modern process. It was rather complicated and time consuming, so it’s really amazing how Thomson managed to obtain photographs of such high quality. Personally, I liked the most those portraying people, some of which had been obviously posing very diligently and thus had ‘frozen’ faces, while the facial expressions of some others were vivid and natural, creating real genre pictures.

The rest of the museum expositions were stationary, and demonstrated the history of local seafaring and shipbuilding, piracy and maritime trade from ancient times to the present. Even we, being generally quite far from maritime affairs, found it very interesting.

We finished off the day with a night tour of Hong Kong and the laser show. Hong Kong is remarkably bright at night, and the famous neon signs are not the only contributors to this – the walls of most skyscrapers basically turn into huge glowing panels. As for the laser show, it didn’t impress us any more than the last time we had seen it, even though the air was way cleaner and the rays should have been more noticeable.

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Hong Kong – Day 2

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1 December 2013

First of all, we wanted to refresh our impressions of the city, the best way to do which, as everyone knows, is to take a hop on – hop off bus tour. Today we started the ride with the Hong Kong island (because the weather was absolutely fabulous and particularly suitable for visiting the Victoria peak), driving around it, all the way to the Aberdeen village. It’s quite interesting how human memory is designed: had I been asked to describe the island, I would have probably not been able to tell anything sensible. But when I saw it all again with my own eyes, everything looked totally familiar: I seemed to recognise every skyscraper, the racetrack in Happy Valley, the concave building in Repulse Bay, the beaches, and even the bus stop near Stanley Market. Totally felt like being back home after a long trip.

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In the Aberdeen village we did a sampan ride, of course, and then had lunch at the Jumbo floating restaurant, with a bit of an adventure. As the sampan boatman dropped us off at the restaurant entrance, he instructed us to wave at him with our Big Bus tour maps and wait right there to be picked up after we finished the lunch. But when we actually tried to do it, it turned out there was no one to wave at. We got a bit worried. Then we saw a private sampan approaching us and its driver eloquently rubbing his fingers, which clearly suggested that he was ready to take us anywhere for a certain payment. This wasn’t part of our plan though – we had already paid for the tour, which did already include a sampan ride. Having refused to join the guy, we decided to take the big sampan, apparently belonging to the restaurant, although it would hardly have brought us to the right bus stop. And that was exactly the moment when “our” sampan appeared in sight, so we happily waved at him, as instructed. The boatman shouted something and passed by. My modest knowledge of Cantonese allowed to infer that we were asked to wait, this speculation was reinforced by the fact that there was not a single empty seat in the boat. My Cantonese didn’t fail me: in five minutes the same sampan picked us up.

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Right from the start, my plan was to get to the Victoria Peak at dusk, so that I could make loads of pictures of the city in daylight, twilight and night lighting. In the morning, we thought this was an unrealistic target, as we would get there in 2-3 hours maximum. But the queue for the peak tram was so incredibly long (which was, actually, not that surprising on a Sunday), that it was past 5pm already when we finally got to the Sky Terrace.

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We spent about an hour there, it was a bit cold, but at least I took as many photos as I possibly could. The sight of Hong Kong from this high point was truly gorgeous. The viewpoint was jam-packed with people, and pushing my way to the best picture spots was not easy, but the view of the city was so much worth it! The jagged teeth of illuminated skyscrapers, the magnificent Victoria Harbour, the peak itself, covered with dense vegetation – all of this made up an unforgettable sight, even the second time around. Another tedious queue – for the return tram trip this time – in the freezing celestial cold, and we got down to the relatively warm sea level.

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In the evening we were still feeling energetic enough to try out the Hong Kong nightlife. We hit the Lan Kwai Fong area, where most of the drinking and clubbing is concentrated. Overall we liked it – the prices were reasonable (really low during the happy hour, which was long enough, right up to 10 pm), and the place was lively, crowded and fun. And then we returned to Kowloon.

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Singapore – Day 7 / Hong Kong

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30 November 2013

The trip to the chic and luxury Singapore ended not very luxuriously in Little India. First, we were intending to have lunch right there too, in order to join the Indian spirit, just as we had been joining the Chinese spirit in Chinatown; however the spirit didn’t please us that much, for it was very smelly! We really had the impression that the city government of Singapore had just given up on this part of town and provided people the opportunity to live in a familiar environment: very colourful, moderately dirty and ragged.

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Besides, there was a lot of construction going on around; maybe in the near future Little India too would be transformed to match the other parts of the magnificent Singapore. Quite frankly, we didn’t have the desire to eat here, so we eventually decided to have lunch at Changi Airport.

Even though our flight was delayed by an hour, we made it safely to Hong Kong on a small JetStar plane. The air temperature here is far from tropical, yet, by our standards, if it can get up to 20°C (or even slightly above), you wouldn’t really wear a down parka. By Chinese standards, though, it’s exactly the right time for those – that is why Hong Kong is dressed very diversely: foreigners walk around in almost beach style clothing, and the locals wear warm winter jackets and boots.

While during our last visit we were staying on Hong Kong Island, this time we booked a hotel on the busy Nathan Road on the Kowloon Peninsula.

Trip to China – Hong Kong – Day 6

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31 March 2012, Saturday

This morning, as we had been doing it every previous day, we took a tram to the Causeway Bay station. Today was our last day in Hong Kong – the day of wrap-up.

The first thing in our “to do list” was a hunt for the sailing junk – our “Scarlet Sails” – in order to take a photo of it against the background of skyscrapers. We had been waiting for this moment since our arrival, as on the very first day here we found out that it usually runs along the coast on Saturdays. After we had waited for a while, there they finally were (and not just one!), so I could make a lot of pictures. The view on the photos turned out to be truly symbolic, connecting the traditional and ultra-modern Hong Kong.

When we had just arrived in Hong Kong and looked at the map, it seemed to us that everything was very complicated: a peninsula, a number of islands… Later, after several tours around the city, we kind of got an overall picture of the local topography in our heads, but still were looking at people scurrying on the crowded streets with a bit of envy and wonder – how did they manage to find their ways? But yesterday and today, finally, we decided to delve into the tangled streets of Hong Kong (the island) and Kowloon ourselves.

To be honest, at least in the centre of Kowloon, they weren’t so tangled after all – there were lots of signs and maps everywhere, with an obligatory note saying “You are here”. Following the directions provided, we walked along Salisbury Road and turned onto Nathan Road. The latter is a place where brand stores with sky-high prices peacefully coexist with fake handbags and watches, the falsity of which is not being concealed though – we were literally attacked by several touts (mainly Indian) shouting: “Copy watches, handbags!”

After walking quite a bit, we came across a Shanghai restaurant. Tasting local specialties was exactly part of our “squaring away” – yesterday we tried the shark fin soup, so we still had abalone (edible see snail) and bird’s nest for today. Just to be on the safe side we decided to split the remaining two between lunch and dinner, and to take a different more familiar dish as well each time, just in case the Chinese delicacies turn out totally inedible.

Luckily, the menu of the Shanghai restaurant had an abalone dish (in fact, it is rather a Cantonese specialty). As opposed to the beef (our “safe” dish), which was served in a huge portion, the more expensive abalone dish literally consisted of four slices (each one in the size of a salami slice). The taste was somewhat similar to tender veal, but with a distinct marine flavour.

After lunch, everything we were doing made us think “Here is our last MTR ride”, “This is the last time we are taking the Hong Kong tram”, etc… Interestingly, even though I enjoyed Beijing a lot and saw a lot of unusual and interesting things there, I don’t really have the desire to visit it again. As for Hong Kong, I would so much want to come back and even to live here for some time.

Living here would be good, while living well would be even better. When we had been told that on weekends people were queuing for brand boutiques and jewellery stores, we considered that it was just said for effect. And then we saw this with our own eyes –  despite the fact that there were gobs of jewellery stores here, many of them belonging to multi-branched chains (so multi-branched that there might be 5-10 shops of chains like Lukfook, Chow Tai Fook, Chow Sang Sang on one single street!). And you simply can’t take your eyes off the show-windows with jewellery made of pure gold, or with large pearls, selected jadeite, yellow diamonds, resplendent rubies, sapphires, emeralds, with prices reaching millions. And passing by, we saw that not only weren’t the shops empty, but there were quite a lot of customers at the counters.

On our way back to the hotel, in the overground passage, we observed a “genre scene”: we suddenly heard a clang of breaking glass and saw a red liquid spill. It turned out that one guy accidentally bumped into another and knocked a plastic bag with a bottle from his hands. Immediately, the wronged guy cried “Hey!”, grabbed the offender by the collar and hit his head full throttle against the window. Luckily, it looked like window glasses here were resistant to fights like these. We didn’t stay to see the further wrangles, but the hit guy didn’t try to fight back, looked quite guilty and was clearly preparing to fork out.

Another “loose end to tie up” was visiting a massage parlour. This is also one of local shticks; we had read the most positive reviews in the internet about massage in Hong Kong. We had been planning it for a couple of days, but somehow didn’t have time, so on the last day firmly decided to try it, especially that the nearest parlour was just around the corner from the hotel.

Full body massage took 50 minutes and cost 250 HKD. The massage was purely therapeutic, not relaxing, but quite harsh and sometimes painful (especially in some parts, like neck and lower back, which tend to ache). I was placed face down on a coach and massaged through a towel, by a fragile-looking lady.

Finally, the last item on our agenda was trying bird’s nest for dinner (known as “swallow’s nest”, although in fact only a few species of swifts produce edible nests – they build them not of twigs or clay, but of their own saliva). We didn’t know this fact, so were expecting something hard and even crunchy. However, we were served some white mucous gruel, with sweet almond juice (that was what we ordered, but there are also savoury versions of this dish, always liquid though).

This is the end of our Hong Kong journey, time to lock the suitcases and leave for the airport…

Trip to China – Hong Kong – Day 5

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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.

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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.

Trip to China – Hong Kong – Day 4

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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.

Trip to China – Hong Kong – Day 3

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

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.

Trip to China – Hong Kong – Day 2

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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.

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