I am off on a quick, last minute trip to Hong Kong with my pal, Mike. He mentioned it as a rather frivolous possibility last month, just before Christmas. It did not take much in the way of persuasion to get me interested. I have been to Hong Kong, primarily to change planes. We were stuck in a cracker box hotel (Dorsett Seaview) with sub par food, inadequate elevator, and single beds the size of army cots. I am hoping for much better this time. And a respite from the cold and rain is most welcome.
Taipei. We were forced to stay the night, then catch a flight the next day. The best part of the trip was changing to a Singapore Airlines flight, Business Class, at no additional charge. But we had to stay the entire day in the Singapore Air lounge, with fresh sushi, hotIt was actually a flight from Bangkok that was forced to land in Hong Kong rather than noodles, sandwiches, and adult and non adult beverages (and a hot shower and shave too). That was my first introduction to the luxury of Singapore Airlines, hands down the best airline in the business.
Hong Kong is a very cosmopolitan and bustling city, that originated as a collection of fishing villages when claimed by Britain in 1842 following the First Opium War with China. This failed attempt by the Ching Dynasty to stop the British trading in opium led to Hong Kong being ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Nanking that year. The Kowloon Peninsula was handed over in 1860 and a 99-year lease on the New Territories, comprising the area north of Kowloon up to the Shenzhen River plus 235 outlying islands, was granted in 1898.
Under the unique principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’, Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty on 1 July 1997 as a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. This arrangement allows Hong Kong to enjoy a high degree of autonomy, retaining its capitalist system, independent judiciary and rule of law, free trade and freedom of speech.
Hong Kong is situated on the southeast coast of China at the mouth of the Pearl River facing the South China Sea. Covering an area of 1,104 square kilometers (425 square miles), the territory is made up of Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories. At the core is Victoria Harbor, which separates Hong Kong Island from Kowloon and beyond that, the New Territories that runs up to the boundary with Mainland China. As well as making up the bulk of Hong Kong’s land mass, the New Territories also incorporates 262 outlying islands, including Lantau where the airport is located.
Despite its storied dense urban environment, more than 70% of Hong Kong’s total area is rural, including about 40% designated as protected country parks and nature reserves that are all easily accessible.
Cantonese is the Chinese dialect spoken by over 88% of the people in Hong Kong. However, English is widely used in the Government and by the legal, professional and business sectors as well as tourist areas. Most taxi drivers and salespeople are able to communicate in English. Since reunification with China in 1997, Mandarin, more commonly known as Putonghua – the official dialect of China, has gained in prominence and most locals can at least comprehend it to a certain degree.
The legal tender is the Hong Kong dollar (HK$), which is linked to the US dollar at a rate of about 7.80 HKD to 1 USD, although exchange rates may fluctuate slightly. Interestingly, Hong Kong banknotes are issued by three banks (HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank and Bank of China), and vary in design and color for each denomination.
The Octopus card is a stored value electronic card widely used in Hong Kong for public transport, purchases in convenience stores, fast food shops, supermarkets, cake shops and vending machines, etc. Simply place the Octopus card over a reader, and the correct amount is deducted automatically from the stored value. With an Octopus card, coins are rendered obsolete.
After the Asian and Hong Kong flu epidemics, all tourists are scanned with automatic sensors. A high temperature will require a visit to a health clinic in the airport. But here is the best news: Smoking is prohibited in all indoor public places, including restaurants, karaokes, malls and bars. The smoking ban also covers both indoor and outdoor areas of some premises such as public beaches and swimming pools, escalators and the Hong Kong Wetland Park. It also applies to public transport carriers and facilities. Furthermore, no person shall smoke or carry a lighted cigarette, cigar or pipe in designated no smoking areas, or they shall be liable to a fixed penalty of HK$1,500. How civilized!
But Hong Kong has a population of slightly over 7 million people in an area of 425 square miles. A visa is not required for visits of less than three months. September to February are the best months to visit. Restaurants add a 10% service charge automatically.
To reduce the use of plastic shopping bags, the environmental levy scheme on plastic shopping bags commenced on 7 July 2009. Both chain and large supermarkets, convenience stores, and personal health and beauty product stores are required to charge HK$0.50 for each plastic shopping bag provided to customers. Customers are advised to bring their own shopping bags to avoid the levy.
So here we are. With a little guidance from our friend Sohbee’s travel agent friend, we will be well prepared. We are at the Rhombus Panorama Hotel in Kowloon on the suggestion of Jackie. But who can’t like a city where shopping is THE national pastime, and eating in cafes and restaurants is expected to be a daily activity. We will see if we can find more than great food, tailored suits, and neon lighted shopping arcades.
Day 1 HK
Hong Kong brings to mind two things. One, tailor made suits, and two, good food. Add a third with the ticky tacky neon lights of the electronics stores. When my parents visited here many years ago, they had a suit made for me. It was a double breasted gray pinstripe. I thought it was pretty snazzy. When any of my friends or relatives go to HK, they always talk about the food. Many people say Vancouver has better Chinese food. We shall see.
There is not much time to overcome jet lag, since this is a short trip. Perhaps this is one time that I stay on California time. Just kidding. When we landed, I was so tired, I was ready for a massage and a long night’s rest. We were not upgraded, so we had to suffer through economy plus or steerage, as my travel counselors call it. The food was horrific, and the beer was quite tepid.
But there is more to this bustling and famous international city:
The official name of Hong Kong is ‘Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’.
Hong Kong, spread over 1,092 sq km, comprises of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, the New Territories, and numerous small islands.
The official languages of Hong Kong are Cantonese (a dialect of Chinese) and English.
Hong Kong is the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, with its own mini-constitution (the Basic Law).
The emblem for the reunification of Hong Kong with China is Sousa Chinensis (the Chinese White Dolphin).
The meaning of the words ‘Hong Kong’ is ‘Fragrant Harbor’.
Hong Kong is located in southeastern China, at the base of the Pearl River.
Hong Kong borders Guangdong province in the north and faces the South China Sea in the east, west and south.
Hong Kong was taken over by the British forces, after the defeat of the Chinese in the Opium War of 1842.
The terrain of Hong Kong is pretty hilly and there are outdoor escalators in the Central district of the Island.
Hong Kong is counted amongst the most densely populated areas of the world.
Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China on 1st July 1997.
While designing a building in Hong King, Feng Shui (wind/water beliefs) is taken to be an important consideration.
In Hong King, people eat long noodles on their birthday, so they might be blessed with a long life.
A bun festival is organized on Cheung Chau Island, between April and May, every year. It is intended to appease the hungry ghosts roaming around the island.
In Hong Kong, people are not allowed to have private firework parties.
Two wedding ceremonies are observed by people who get married in Hong Kong. The first is the official signing of the register and the second comprises of the banquet.
The new airport of Hong Kong is on Lantau Island. It is linked to the mainland by the Tsing Ma Bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world.
So, after a very rural or wild country trip to Chile and Patagonia, we are off to the big city. Generally, big cities are not my first choice, though I like London, Bangkok, and Washington, DC.
We boarded the modern Airport Express from Hong Kong Airport to Kowloon station, then an express bus to our hotel. Then, of course, stretched the legs, drank some tea, tried some Chinese beer, and devoured some noodles. The big problem here, of course, is sensory and olfactory overload. My mantra for the next few days: Shop and eat. Eat and shop.
A good rest break will be High Tea at the Peninsula Hotel. I think the SE Asians have perfected High Tea over anything British, at least that I have experienced. Of course, the inclusion of champagne does not sway my opinion in the least.
But, we cannot miss the Symphony of Lights. This is the world’s largest permanent light and sound show according to the Guinness World Records and includes 44 buildings on both sides of Victoria Harbor (the light show setup cost 44 million HK dollars). The show creates an all-round vision of colored lights, laser beams and searchlights performing a stunning, unforgettable spectacle synchronized to music and narration. There are five main themes — Awakening, Energy, Heritage, Partnership and the finale, Celebration. The best view of the show comes on a harbor cruise. Another good vantage point for this performance is next to Bruce Lee’s statue at the Promenade’s Avenue of Stars near the New World Centre. The 14-minute show is a must-see while in Hong Kong. 20:00 nightly, weather permitting.
And I hope to meet friends of Kathleen’s, named Scott and Christine sometime today or tomorrow. They live back in Concord, and shared some garden space with Kathleen last summer.
Time for some real coffee, as it appears I forgot my Peet’s.
What Are Hongkies?
Chinese people from other places call people from Hong Kong by the name “Hongkies.” Sounds a little like the term used in the U.S., called Honkies. Whatever the case, it does not sound very nice, so I do not plan to use it while here. The Urban Dictionary defines Hongkies as “people from Hong Kong”, a somewhat broader definition.
Upon arrival in Hong Kong, visitors must show proof of a return or onward ticket (unless they are in transit to mainland China or Macau). Visitors must also show that they have adequate funds for their stay in Hong Kong (generally, a confirmed hotel reservation, a valid international credit card and/or an appropriate amount of cash will suffice). Visitors are not allowed to work in any capacity (either paid or unpaid), to establish or join any business, or to enter school as a student. Nor, except in the most unusual circumstances, are visitors allowed to change their status after arrival. The fellow next to me on the flight said he has a merchant’s visa, that allows him free entry several times a year, with no monetary restrictions.
Upon arrival in Hong Kong, visitors must show proof of a return or onward ticket (unless they are in transit to mainland China or Macau). Visitors must also show that they have adequate funds for their stay in Hong Kong (generally, a confirmed hotel reservation, a valid international credit card and/or an appropriate amount of cash will suffice). Visitors are not allowed to work in any capacity (either paid or unpaid), to establish or join any business, or to enter school as a student. Nor, except in the most unusual circumstances, are visitors allowed to change their status after arrival. I plan to stay retired, and I will not be moving there.
Hong Kong is linked to a number of neighboring ports in China by high-speed ferries serving Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and Hong Kong International Airport off Lantau Island. I hope I remembered my scopolamine patches and Sea bands. We are staying in Kowloon, where the action is.
Kowloon is north of Hong Kong Island and south of the mainland part of The New Territories. The name Kowloon came from the nine dragons represented by eight peaks and a Chinese Emperor. Large scale development began in the early 20th century with the construction of the Kowloon-Canton Railway and the Kowloon Wharf.
As you can see, Kowloon is one of the most densely populated places on earth. Over 2.1 million people live in an area of 47 square kilometers. In addition, Kowloon managed to escape some of the British colonial influences that characterize the Hong Kong side.
The Kowloon waterfront offers splendid views of the Hong Kong island shore and skyline. This is the best place to experience the classic view of Hong Kong, and nobody on their first trip here should ever miss out on promenading along the waterfront. The best views are to be had at night when the lights of global capitalism provide a powerful spectacle. Pay a modest sum for a professional to take a photograph against one of the world’s most iconic backdrops. Start at the Star Ferry terminal, and begin by inspecting the historic clock tower which is all that remains of a railway station that once took colonial officials back to London via the Trans-Siberian railway. At 8pm every night, there is a colorful light show staged atop key buildings on both sides of the harbor.
I plan to stay up a little later in the evening than usual. Who knows, maybe we will find a crazy guide on a motor scooter, or the Hong Kong version of Bobby Chinn? How about the ghost of Bruce Lee? We may have to settle for the poor man’s version of Jackie Chan.
Here are a few that started here: William Hung (American Idol), Rapper Jin, Coco Lee, Joan Chen, Xhow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan, Bai Ling, Ang Lee, Ming Chin, Elaine Chao, Steve Chu, Steve Chen, (Steve seems to be a good name here), Vern Yip, I.M. Pei, Martin Yan.
We spent most of Friday on Hong Kong island. We got there by taking the Star Ferry, for a cost of $2.50 HK, which is about 33 cents American. What a deal for the ten minute ride and a great view of both skylines.
My camera died mid day, so I had to buy a new one. So, I was perhaps in the best place in the world to buy it! I bought it at The Fortress, their version of Best Buy. Then we saw a line of people outside a duck and noodle shop. So, we “ducked” in line and joined in. It was a great lunch for less than $90 HK, which is just over $10 US.
We were a little tired from the full day of walking, so we opted for a small dinner in our neighborhood. After a good hour or so of walking, we decided to call it a day. No bars, nightclubs or strip joints for us! I will watch a little tennis from Australia, and try for a good night’s rest.
Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok
Tsim Sha Tsui, pronounced “jim-saa-jeui” means Sharp, Sandy Point, is the tourist ghetto of Hong Kong. Obviously, this is probably where we will spend our time. It is full of hotels, inexpensive and seedy guesthouses, drinking and dining options, and is also a shopping destination.
Clothing and shoes tend to dominate, followed by restaurants, camera and electronic stores, and a nightlife area around Knutsford Tee and Minden Avenue. Tsimsy as the locals call it, lies at the very southern tip of the Kowloon Peninsula, south of Austin Road.
The best things to do here are: Star Ferry, Avenue of the Stars evening lightshow, High Tea at the Peninsula Hotel, the East Promenade, and the Hong Kong Museum of Art. I would add to that list: dim sun almost anywhere, a cold beer, and a half day City tour. They really know how to serve beer here. It is always cold, and always in a cold mug or glass.
Nathan Road is Kowloon’s main thoroughfare, named for Sir Matthew Nathan, the governor of Hong Kong from 1904 to 1907. It is a wide boulevard, lined with Banyan trees. The lower end of the Road is called the “Golden Mile”. Hardly opulent as the name would imply, it is a chaotic blend of high end hotels and seedy guesthouses. Touts selling faux watches are as plentiful as cheap wine in Chile.
The Temple Night Market is the liveliest night market in Hong Kong. The famous smells and tastes, along with the bustling atmosphere make up for what could be better bargains elsewhere. Open air street food is cheap and plentiful. We are hoping to get our fair share of good, fresh, inexpensive seafood here. I also would not mind picking up some pirated CD’s of a few TV series.
Also prevalent here are fortune tellers, herbalists, and free open air Cantonese opera. Street food ranges from hot noodles. fish balls, liverwurst sausage, to a full meal. Set up begins around 6pm, and shuts around 11pm. If we get really crazy, we can hit the Jade Market near Gascoigne Road, with 400 stalls selling jade.
Mong Kok is Hong Kong’s most congested working class residential area, as well as its busiest shopping district. Locals buy their every day items here, like computer accessories, kitchen supplies, jeans, and tennis shoes. Seedy brothels are also found here.
It is a sea of humanity, much like Tokyo’s Harajuku or New York City’s Times Square. Every type and shape of knock off can be found here. The real Rolexes are sold just a block away on upper Nathan Road. It is true sensory overload for us boys from the country and the suburbs.
Here is the verbiage from the website:
Known as ‘the paradise of shoppers’, Hong Kong is famous for its fast developing economy. Visiting this modern metropolis, you could feel its vibrancy and have a good understanding of the local culture. In Hong Kong, there are many prosperous areas, and among them, Tsim Sha Tsui, located in the south of Kowloon Peninsula, Hong Kong, is one of the most famous.
As one sentence describes, Tsim Sha Tsui is a concentration of stores, shopping malls, restaurants and office buildings. Whenever you walk in the street, you will be confronted by heavy traffic and the crowd of citizens and tourist. But everything is very orderly.
Nathan Road is the leading road of Tsim Sha Tsui. Meanwhile, other streets radiate from there. Many international brands are grouped in those streets. Especially, the Park Lane Shopper’s Boulevard which is intended for shopping, and young people like to roam there to buy some fashionable clothes. For those tourists who like to buy cosmetics, going to the cosmetic stores in Granville Road and Harbor City will bring them more surprise.
Also you can have a full vision of the Victoria Harbor in this area, and the recommended attractions are the Avenue of Stars and Tsim Sha Tsui Beach. The Avenue of Stars was designed according to the one built in American Hollywood. The list of honored stars of Hong Long was inlaid into the surface of avenue. The Tsim Sha Tsui Beach seems more charming in the evening. Varied neon lights mingle together to make the night become another colorful world.
While the prediction is rain, I am sure we will find a nice dry spot in a mega mall or bar somewhere in this busy and fascinating city. By the way, last night, Friday night or date night, the city was teeming with young people headed out for food, bar, and nightclubs. The pedestrians seem to take over the streets. We love it!
We found a great place for lunch, a huge plate of sushi, with a hot bowl of udon (noodles) for less than $5 US. Mike tried a scone at a nearby bakery, but it was rather doughy compared to ours.
There are way too many designer stores, as we have counted at least six Cartier stores just in our neighborhood. Who buys this stuff?
We also took the MTR or subway for the first time. It is a color coded system, so we did just fine. Three stops to Mong Kok, and three stops back to Tsimsy. We are almost locals.
Modern day Hong Kong appears as American or as international as a Sony TV, iPhone, or Big Mac. But beneath the surface, many old Chinese traditions remain. Some people here still believe in them, others, mostly the young, go through the motions to please their elders. But bottom line, Hong Kong Chinese are much too astute to leave anything as luck to chance.
For one, Hong Kong is a remarkably religious place, with the dominant religions Buddhism and Taoism. Both are entwined with Confucianism, ancient animist beliefs, and ancestor worship. The number of active Buddhists numbers over 750,000 people.
Literally, “wind water”, Feng Shui aims to balance the elements of nature to create harmonious environments. This practice began back in the 12th century. It still strongly affects designs of buildings, parks, highways, tunnels, and perhaps, most importantly, grave sites. As protection against evil spirits, doors are positioned at angles, since evil spirits move only in straight lines. Homes and businesses, under ideal conditions, should have a view of calm water, hence the addition of reflection ponds. Corporate leaders have offices that do not face westward, otherwise profits will go the same way as the setting sun! I say it is an easy way for a designer or architect to make some easy money. In Singapore, it was a big deal, to the point where a big building was torn down and rebuilt!
Still a most popular method of predicting the future are fortune sticks (chim) found at Buddhist and Tao temples. They are shaken out of a box onto the ground, much like the old “Pick Up Sticks” game. But then these sticks are read by a fortune teller. Palm readers also read the lines and features of the hand, left for men, right for women. According to experts, there are eight basic shapes, but 48 recognized eye patterns that reveal character and fortune. Most fortune tellers and palm readers in the world are fronts for houses of ill repute, or as my history teacher said, women of negotiable virtue! I once had a tarot card reader give me some information, and it turned out to be true, in a far fetched way.
In the Cantonese language, the number nine sounds like eternity, and the number three sounds like life. Eight is like prosperity. The lowly number four is similar to the word for death. Needless to say, the right number can make or break a business. The government even auctions off license plate numbers that feature lucky numbers, the money going to charity. The Bank of China Tower opened on 8/8/88, with August a busy month for weddings. This one is hard to refute, since we shy away from 13, and gravitate to lucky seven. Now, if I can only get six lousy numbers correct on my Lotto ticket.
The Chinese zodiac has 12 signs as well as the Western version. But as many of you know, the permutations are all animals, with the sign based on your year of birth, according to the lunar calendar. The zealots plan for the birth of a child under a chosen sign. The biggest jump in the birth rate occurs in the year of the dragon, followed by the year of the tiger. A female born in the year of a pig could have trouble later in life. This is probably more amusing in Western culture, with astrology being taken in various shades of seriousness. I once had someone try to tell me that she majored in Astrology in college, though she meant Astronomy!
So, I will make sure I get a room facing west, and place my belongings in a “triad”, sleep on the right hand side of the bed (should I get so lucky to have a double or queen bed), and place my Buddha statue to the East. Perhaps the next day, I will buy a lottery ticket, or head to Macau for some gambling!
The city offers plenty in the way of entertaining sights. I actually saw a Chinese Elvis last night, as well as a fashion parade of young hotties that would melt even Bill Clinton. The guys dress like crap, but the Asian women dress quite well, both showy and with good taste. The shoes are the big deal here, mostly CFMs. How they manage the steep, cobblestone streets is beyond us.
Our Kobe beef dinner last night is still being savored. We will try to match it tonight with something from the ocean. By the way, I have seen tons of dried seafood, including my beloved abalone. I plan to bring some back, somehow.
Way too many young and old people smoking here, but the bars and restaurants are smoke free. Many cabs here too, but they look pretty bad.
It is most surprising to see so many nice Lexus and Mercedes cars here, along with a few Ferraris and Maseratis, and an occasional Bentley or Rolls.
We missed the last Star ferry back to Kowloon last night. So we had to walk about a mile to catch the subway back under the river to get home. Turns out, we caught the last subway train back. Otherwise, we would have been out partying until 5am, when the ferry starts up again!
Temple Night Market
This is the city of never ending shopping. Not all of it is upscale and designer. We passed a small store front selling on propane tanks, about the size of a medium sized balloon. We passed by a place that repairs small gas engines, for things like mowers, tampers, and trimmers. For every Prada store, there is a local store selling handmade items, gifts, and just plain junk.
So, to say we did some of the national pastime here, we are headed to the Temple Street Night Market. It is described as the liveliest night market in Hong Kong. They say the smells and bustling atmosphere is the best anywhere in the city. It is plenty smelly, folks.
Basically, people shop here for cheap clothes, faux watches, pirated CDs, fake labels, footwear, cookware, and everyday household items.
For street food, Woo Sung Street, which runs parallel, is the place to eat. Whether a bowl of noodles or a full meal, this is the best place. It reminds me more of Chiang Mai, Thailand, than anywhere else.
The market opens in the afternoon, but 6pm is the general start. 11pm signals the end, so the best shopping is between 7pm to 10pm. We also hoped to see the nearby wholesale fruit market, but not much to it. I have already seen produce boxes from my hometown, as well as SoCal, Washington state, Texas, South America, and Oregon.
There is also a Jade Market near Gascoigne Road (love the very English names of the streets), just west of Nathan Road. Over 400 stalls sell all variety and grades of jade. Unless you are a gemologist, it is best to buy cheap and cheerful only here.
Speaking of cheap and cheerful, we have not purchased anything here, other than food, and a camera to replace my broken one. Perhaps tomorrow at the Stanley Market, or I may have to visit the devil and Prada.
A Good Weather Day
We have been waiting for some really good weather. While it has not rained hard, or really much at all, most days are rather gray, dreary, hazy, and foggy. We are headed up the peak tram to the top of Victoria.
So far, I am not impressed by the shopping or the prices. But the food here is outstanding. Where does it all come from? Every hole in the wall or big restaurant is packed. Nobody eats at home, but this is crazy.
Even at midnight, people pour into little dives and diners. Street hawkers are busy, with some patrons just sitting on the sidewalk eating from a paper plate. Yet, we do not see very many overweight people. Perhaps it is the enormous amount of walking required to get around, even on public transport.
Once underground on the MTR, we often have walks of several hundred meters, in some cases, half a mile. The maze of underground tunnels is just mind boggling.
Though food and drink are banned on the trains, the stations do sell lots of victuals. Could you imagine doing this back home? Yet, no trash on the ground, no cig butts, no chewing gum, and best of all, NO graffiti.
Though it was still hazy, we went on the Peak Tram, of course, with the Senior discount, so cheap. We fudged a little on the age. But it was the best weather day since we arrived.
I would imagine on a clear day, you can see forever and ever. It was still nice, and provides a better perspective on the enormity of this place.
But it is very touristy, so we departed oh so quickly. We headed to Soho for a snake lunch. It was much better than the rattlesnake I have eaten in Colorado, or Australia. But it does leave a unique taste in the mouth, a little snakey and wild! We also had some chow fun, and some gai lan beef.
They do not televise the NFL here, so we were rather sad to miss the Saints and Colts earn their way to the Super Bowl. Too much futbol and tennis here.
After a little rest, and going to meet Sohbee’s friend, Jackie, we headed off to Aberdeen. Aberdeen is famous for the fishing boats, houseboats and junks that have housed generations, at least until the last decade or so.
The younger generation has moved off the boats, leaving only the true diehards, and fishermen families. We could see them cooking their dinner, watching TV, and sitting around the fireplace (just kidding) after dinner.
The Aberdeen Harbor is only about 10 meters deep, with a 3 meter tide change twice a day. Good size houseboats and fishing boats dominate the area.
We found Thomas to take us on a tour of the harbor, much to my dislike of things nautical. He was an amusing fellow, and gave us both the history and the facts about this famous landmark (now a World Heritage site). We saw a great sunset and the famous Jumbo seafood restaurant.
I really need some sleep tonight, so I am cutting this short. Big day tomorrow, as we are headed to Macau, the big casinos, and who knows?
The MTR or Mass Transit Railway, is the rapid transit railway system of Hong Kong. MTR began service in 1997, and later merged with the Kowloon Canton Railway in 2007. The network has 211 kilometers of rail, 150 stations.
Needless to say, it is the most popular mode of transport in this busy and crowded city, with over 4 million trips in an average week. The Octopus smart card system, a new fare payment technology, was introduced in 1997 to make commuting even easier. We bought an Octopus as soon as we arrived. It covers a trip from the airport to Kowloon, and our return, as well as three days of unlimited travel on the MTR. Plus it should work at convenience stores, and we get $50 back at the end.
The airport is served by the Airport Express, beginning in 1998. The new Chek Lap Cok or Hong Kong International Airport on Lantau Island, was not viable without direct public transportation links. Another great feature of Airport Express is the ability to check baggage at the Kowloon and Hong Kong stations. A free shuttle runs passengers to their hotels, or at least within a few blocks in our case.
The plan now is to connect this system to the New Territories in the northwestern part of Hong Kong. Also, in 2005, a Disneyland Resort Line extension was added.
The MTR has now been privatized since 2000. As the Hong Kong government dissolved its interest in public utilities, the offering of about a billion shares created the largest shareholder base of any company in the Hang Seng Index.
There are five variations of trains in the MTR. In addition, there are 4 versions of the light rail trains. It sounds worse than our BART system, but the reality is much better than the perception.
So, we are armed with our Octopus card, a rechargeable contact less smart card. Not only can we use it for the MTR, we can also use it at supermarkets and fast food outlets. The smart card uses radio frequency identification (RFID), developed originally by Sony.
The MTR stations are much cleaner than BART or the London tube. But once underground, a long, long walk may ensue. Forget the handicapped or the frail around here. They have not heard of ADA or disabled placards.
But, we enjoy using the system. They key is finding the correct exit, since it may put you on the wrong side of a busy boulevard or several block long shopping complex. Signs are posted all over, telling us where major landmarks are located. BART should do the same thing!!!
The trains arrive every TWO minutes! They are clean and air conditioned. Though some of the stations seem warm, it is nothing like the stifling air in a BART or London tube platform. And people are very civilized on these trains, such as no loud cell calls, gum pooping or swearing.
The majority of the newer train cars were made in Australia. Furthermore, they are very quiet and efficient. Once to the station, even the bus connections are spelled out in detail. In other words, tourists like me can get around this busy city just like a Hongkies.
We also observe very few tattoos on the young boys and girls. the girls dress quite stylishly, whether going to work or play. The guys, again, look like Goodwill or Salvation Army chic. Shoes and purses are the big deal here for the young women and girls.
And there must be a Rolex and Tag shop on just about every corner. How do they sell enough of these?
Macau, Macau, My Kingdom For A Cau
Can you believe that the zodiac sign for Macau is Gemini, the good and evil twins of folklore and reality? This former Portuguese colony has a definite Mediterranean vibe on the China coast. Top that with a Vegas style eastern end within a cricket bat’s range.
Macao sits 65 km to the west of Hong Kong. It was the first European settlement in Asia, only 450 years ago. But there has been intensive transformation since the Special Administrative Region (SAR) when China resumed sovereignty. Needless to say, it now a giant construction site.
But Macau is the only place in China where gambling is legal. Though we saw a thousand men playing mah jong last night at the restaurant, there is more to do here than gamble.
The Portuguese influence is quite evident, both in the palette of pastels, and highly organized gardens and greenery. So, the cobblestone streets, baroque churches, old stone fortresses and art deco buildings make us feel like we are in Lisboa, or at least, Vilamoura.
We took the high speed ferry over on Tuesday morning. We just spent the day, since tomorrow is departure day. We shall see what this day holds for two country boys from California.
It was a big waste of time. The casinos, like Wynn and The Venetian are huge, like Vegas. And the designer shops fill the arcades and shopping areas. But the retail is a real ghost town, nothing like Vegas. Most stores do NOT have any customers. The casino is busy in spots, especially the smoking areas. They have non smoking areas, which are nice, but essentially empty of gamblers.
The high speed ferry over was rather old and rickety. The ride back was on a newer model, with comfortable lounge chairs and a nice refreshment stand. I used my scop patch since it was a little rocky. I saw many old Chinese ladies getting sick, along with some children.
But we did have lunch at the Four Seasons. The wait staff here seems much happier than over in HK. We had a great roast pork, gai lan, char siu bau, and a Blue Girl beer. Perhaps it is time to break out of our rut tonight with some Thai or Korean food.
So far, we have not been upgraded on our return flight home tomorrow. I guess the new upgrade rules do not favor those of us who are not really frequent flyers. I will, however, buy some food at the airport. The food on United coming over was not fit for consumption.
Tonight, we will make sure we see the big light show at 8pm. It is an award winning show, according to most travel books and blogs. We shall see.
HK is a nice place to visit, but I could not live here. Just too congested. But the idea of not having a car is quite appealing. The food, not the shopping, is the big attraction in my gastro-estimation.
I guess I never realized how much Mike likes Chinese food. He devoured the duck last night, as well as the bau and the roast pork today. I just cannot handle the fatty foods very well. But I do like the very light beers here, as they have a very smooth after taste.
We finished off the gourmet gallop with a trip to a shabu shabu place nearby. It was Mike’s first time, but he was lukewarm to the idea, even though it was Kobe beef. Oh well, more for me. Until next time, when we are back home, and overcoming big time jt lag, it is goodbye from Hong Kong.
A popular market town on the sunny south side of Hong Kong Island, Stanley Market has a relaxed ambience, seaside environs and bargain buys making it world famous.
Seven days a week the open market around Stanley New Street and Stanley Market Road throbs with the passing parade of life as bargain-hunters from all over the world join in the fun of haggling with shopkeepers and stallholders. Choose from brand-name clothing and accessories, or simply irresistible souvenirs, ornaments and other Oriental knick-knacks. The market is open from 10:30am to 6:30pm.
Stanley also has beautiful beaches that are popular with windsurfers. And when we’re feeling hungry or thirsty, a wide variety of funky bars and great restaurants await nearby.
Among the more interesting restaurant sites on the waterfront is Murray House, a 160-year-old restored three-storey colonial building that was dismantled in 1982 from its original site in Central and then rebuilt in Stanley. It re-opened in 1999 and now houses the Hong Kong Maritime Museum as well as restaurants.
Stanley has become well known for its bargains in clothing, particularly silk garments and traditional Chinese dress as well as toys, ornaments, luggage, souvenirs, and Chinese arts and crafts. It is a popular destination for both tourists and locals alike. People are drawn here by the cheap goods that would usually fetch a much higher price elsewhere. In addition to several Chinese restaurants, Stanley is renowned for its many bars and restaurants on its waterfront along Stanley Main Street where visitors can enjoy a variety of different foods (including French, Italian, American, Indian and Thai) or relax with a beer and soak up the friendly atmosphere in one of its bars.
The website says: Stanley Market is one of the must-go places for tourists when they visit Hong Kong. You will find an interesting array of little shops selling silk garments, sportswear, art, Chinese costume jewelry and souvenirs. While a bit “touristy” if you are a tourist it will certainly help you to cross off all the items on your souvenirs-to-buy-Aunt-Jane shopping list. A hard morning of shopping is also nicely finished off by a good lunch at one of the many restaurants, which are the reason that Hong Kong locals also frequent the area.
Final Thoughts on HK
First, let me say that Hong Kong was a pleasant surprise to us. We heard about the shopping, but the food, people, and old time Hong Kong cityscape were great.
This is a shopper’s paradise, but on two distinct and disparate levels. First, the famous brands, like Louis, Prada, Chanel, the so called high end stuff. Secondly, on the other end of the shopping spectrum, are the many open air markets, like Ladies and Temple Street.
This tells me that I am a rather middle of the road shopper, as I did not buy anything here.
Much like in Japan, the young girls and women dress nicely, with much flair. they are not afraid of combining textures, especially with the intricately designed leggings, usually paired with beautiful knee high boots.
It is great not to see as many, tattoos, torn jeans, and flip flops. The denim is quite tailored and snug fitting. No below the hip stuff, with flabs hanging over. Of course, the women here are rarely chubby or overweight.
But the boys and guys look like Salvation Army or thrift shop chic. Rarely did I see a well dressed male, save for the Brits who work here, and wear a nicely tailored suit to work. As far as sheer numbers, the stores catering to women outnumber the men’s stores by a favor of twenty to one, OR MORE.
Both mature men and women like to dye their hair, in rather stark and dark tones. I just don’t get it. Mike said he could see my half a block away as my gray haired head bobbed its way through Tsim Sha Tsui, Soho, or other crowded places.
Orthodontists must not exist here either. Both men and women of every age, seemed to have gap or space problems. Maybe in my next life, I will be a HK orthodontist.
Generally, we do not cross the street until the green light says GO. The bus and cab drivers are relentless. I am so glad we did not rent a car. On the other hand, public transport is outstanding, safe, efficient, and clean In fact, the overall sanitation here was beyond our expectation.
It seems like most people speak English here, I say upwards of 80 to 85%. This makes it pretty easy to get around, even with the great signage here on streets and underground areas.
Street food is king here. When people get off of work for the day, they grab a skewer of some type of meat or fish, and walk to their subway station. All cuts of meat from the cow and the pig can be found. We did not see as much chicken, since duck is numero uno here. And the rice is of a rather poor quality and often mushy.
I just do not know who buys all the Rolex watches here. Every corner and block has several Rolex stores. We saw some that retail for over $100,000 US.
It stays busy from mid morning, to well into the night. The food stalls do not open until mid or late afternoon. People here love to eat. And most meals can be had for well under $5 US. I particularly like the noodle dishes, along with the fresh seafood, and Kobe beef.
Alcoholic beverages are relatively expensive. We stuck to beer and wine most of the time. Tea is free at most places, as well as the obligatory pot of hot water to clean the bowls, plates, and chop sticks on the tables.
As far as street hawkers, the faux Rolexes, tailor shops, and girly bars plant themselves along every street and alley. But we saw few homeless, though many handicapped were begging on the streets. We also found several faux monks soliciting donations. I made the mistake of giving one of them all of my coins. The waiter told me he was a fake. The real ones carry an ID around their necks.
So, until we get back to SE Asia again, good night, or morning, wherever you are.
(January 20-27, 2010)