Published: October 18th 2010October 18th 2010
After a relaxing weekend spent with my cousin and her family, we headed for Hong Kong.
Even though Hong Kong was right next to China, it was made a British Colony as part of the treaty that ended the Opium Wars in 1898. The British were given a 99 year lease and built a flourishing colony in the heart of Asia. In 1997, the lease expired and Hong Kong reverted to China. I am uncertain how it is governed, but from our POV Hong Kong is still very much a separate country from China. We had to go through immigration, we need a separate entry on our Chinese visa, they have a separate currency and the newspapers are not censored. Everything is more western because of the British heritage. The trains even say “Mind the Gap”, just like in London.
The weather in Hong Kong was hot and humid. Just being outside caused us to sweat and we really appreciated any opportunity for air conditioning.
Hong Kong consists of three parts. First is the tip of a long peninsula. The peninsula is called The New Territories (you have to love the “poetic” British names) and the tip of
the peninsula is called Kowloon. Across from Kowloon is the heart of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Island. The main city of Hong Kong Island is called Central but there are several other cities on the island. The third part consists of multiple islands in the harbor, the biggest of which is Lantau Island.
We spent our first three days with a nice lady named Karen whom we had contacted through Couchsurfing.org. She lives in the town of Mui Wo on Lantau Island which is a much more rural island about 30 minutes by ferry away from Hong Kong Island. We took the well-known Star Ferry from Kowloon (where we arrived) to Hong Kong Island then another ferry to Lantau Island.
Getting off the ferry we were struck by the hundreds of bicycles parked at the dock. It is obvious that many, many people commute by bicycle. Right on cue, Karen rode up on her bicycle. She explained that there are many places in Mui Wo that cars can not go so a bicycle is a necessity. She walked her bike as she led us the mile to her apartment. There is one road in her neighborhood but it
Central at Night
Hong Kong light reflecting off a passing evening cloud.
is limited to emergency vehicles only; everyone travels by foot or bike. Karen even keeps two bikes for guests. The apartment has two bedrooms and one bathroom, a living room and a kitchen. It is the entire second floor of a three story building but is only about 800 square feet.
Upon arrival at her apartment, we dropped our packs, had a glass of cold water and took advantage of Karen’s advice to plan our stay. Then Karen offered to give us a tour of Mui Wo so we all rode bicycles back to the pier and saw the business district (four square blocks), waterfront and the swimming beach and even went wading. We had dinner at a Chinese restaurant called Rome.
The next day we toured Lantau Island. We rode the bikes to the bus station then we boarded the bus bound for Tung Chung. It was a pretty ride up and over the center of the island on twisty, curvy roads through lush vegetation. Next we took the cable car to Ngong Ping. It took about 30 minutes in line before we boarded and most of that time the woman behind me was pushing me. She
kept bumping up against me and that is just the way the Chinese queue but it was still annoying considering there was plenty of room in the line.
We boarded the cable car and set back for spectacular views. The car travels almost 6 km and 1500 vertical feet to reach the top. At the bottom we saw the original Tung Chung fishing village now surrounded by skyscraper apartment buildings and the new airport which was built on a man-made island. At the top we saw the magnificent Tian Tan Buddha statue, large even from a distance.
Upon arrival at the top we ran the gantlet of restaurants and souvenir shops (and succumbed to the call of an ice cream bar). First we viewed the Buddha from the bottom of the hill and then we climbed the stairs to the top. The Buddha is 34 meters (112 ft) tall, weighs 250 metric tons.
Then we went to the Po Lin Monastery at the base of the Buddha; it was interesting to watch the people burning incense and praying. We both wished we knew more about Buddhism so we attended a multi-media show about the life of Buddha
Notice how all the houses are built on stilts above the water.
and the precepts of Buddhism. An added bonus to the show was it was cool inside.
After the show, we took the bus to Tai O. Tai O is still primarily a fishing village and secondarily a tourist destination. All of the houses are built on stilts over the water but my primary memory will be of the drying and dried fish and many other dried things that I could not recognize. First we saw a community museum where they gathered together anything old and interesting into one place. Then we wandered the market and ended up at a small Buddhist Temple where we were the only people. The temple was an interesting mixture of beautiful and functional. It had gold decoration, painted statues and scaffolding inside presumably stabilizing the building. It had a courtyard with a round door in the wall. It was mostly dark but did have some electric lights burning.
After the temple we walked through the cemetery to the top of the hill where we could see the endangered white dolphins. It was a very hot walk uphill in the heat and humidity so we were grateful we had our umbrella. At the top
were a shelter and a telescope through which we could see the dolphins. We saw six or seven dolphins pretty clearly along with a police boat monitoring to ensure the small boats did not break the rules.
I was intrigued by the dolphins so we took one of the small boats. It was only HK$20 each (US$3) and we got to go further into the village to see more houses on stilts then out into the harbor for a closer look at the white dolphins. They were about 200 yards away and we saw them surface and even stick their heads out of the water.
Upon returning to the village, we wandered the streets a bit more until it was time to catch the bus back. The bus ride had very pretty scenery and was air conditioned so was John’s favorite part of the day. We saw steep mountain peaks, trails through lush jungle and very pretty beaches. I am sure we could happily spend a week exploring Lantau.
We were pretty hot so after getting back to Karen’s, we grabbed our swimsuits and headed down to the beach. The water was quite warm on the top
A small fishing village that had skyscrapers sprout up around it like mushrooms.
6 inches but pleasantly cool under that. It was near sunset so we got a pretty colored sky to swim beneath. Then we met Karen at the grocery store and bought food for a Hong Kong BBQ; chicken wings, spare ribs, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, Korean mushrooms and sausages provided a filling if extended meal. Karen started cooking about 8 and took about 2 ½ hours until it was all consumed. She explained that a Hong Kong BBQ is a great way to socialize and eat at the same time….long and slow cooking.
The next day we spent several hours looking for a hotel for the second half of our stay in Hong Kong. One place we tried was the Mirador Mansion and its twin the Chun King Mansion. Mansion sounds impressive but this was unlike anything I had seen. It is 16 stories and built in a square around a central area. There are hundreds of small shops on the first floor so getting to the elevators is like running a gantlet of tailors and souvenir sellers. On the upper floors are tiny hotels and other businesses. We checked out three different hotels on just the 14th floor.
View from Victoria Peak
Looking down on Hong Kong Harbour.
All had a private bath. The first had a double bed plus a foot of floor space along one side. The second had two twin beds with 1.5 feet between them and some room at the foot. The third was full so we did not see the room. They were inexpensive by HK standards but it was basically a tenement building. We decided to splurge and got a nice room at the YWCA for just over US$100 per night. The irony is the cheap rooms had free Wi-Fi where the (relatively) expensive room did not have Wi-Fi at all.
We spent the rest of the day at the Hong Kong Museum of History and spent a very enjoyable three hours wandering the well-designed museum. We learned a lot about the history but would like to hear about the Opium Wars from the British point of view; they came off looking none too good.
The next day we took the tram to Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island. The ride was steep but short. We stopped once in the middle and it felt like we were hanging from the cable in mid-air because of the bouncing. The ride took
Tourists looking forward to checking out a pretty young lady as she emerges from the sea. All they got was me.
less than five minutes but the temperature difference was striking. The views from the top were nice and it was interesting to be so high up the mountain and to look out level towards skyscrapers. After looking at the various options for getting down, we decided to walk to Aberdeen. The walk was quite pleasant and probably 80% was shaded but it was pretty steep in parts and both of us were grateful to be headed downhill rather than up. It was completely paved and there were also several opportunities for getting off earlier and catching a bus back.
Upon reaching Aberdeen we boarded a bus bound for the southern part of Hong Kong Island. The drive was pretty and as we approached Repulse Bay we realized it had a beautiful swimming beach. So we got off and were soon swimming in the South China Sea. The only concern was we needed to guard our backpack because it contained both our money belts (including our passports) and our wallets (including our credit cards) so we had to take turns swimming. I went second and as I was headed back to shore a busload of Asian tourists came down to
Nan Lion Garden
These trees look like they came straight from Dr. Seuss.
the waterside. They did not have swimsuits so were just looking at the water and several of the men were hanging around waiting for me to get out of the water. Since my swimsuit is a bit too small, I am already very self-conscious and I did not want to get out in front of all those men so waited in the water for several minutes. They did not leave so I finally bit the bullet and did my best to arise from the sea in a dignified and sophisticated manner. As soon as they actually saw me, however, they stopped looking; I assume they were hoping for something good looking.
After swimming it was a long galloping bus ride back to Central then we took the Star Ferry across to Kowloon. It was almost 8pm so we stayed to watch the light show. It is very common in big cities in Asia to have lights on a building ranging from neon to LEDs that could project a multi-story TV. In Hong Kong there are at least 20 of these buildings and someone at the Tourist Office got the great idea to choreograph the lights to music. I was
Shaking cans full of sticks. When one fell out onto the ground they would read it and note what it said.
impressed with the ability to synchronize the music on the Kowloon side with the lights over a mile away on the Hong Kong Island side. I can just imagine the initial calls to the building owners proposing the idea.
Our last day in Hong Kong was spent exploring a Chinese garden and several Buddhist temples. First up was the Nan Lion Garden. It is a Tang Dynasty style garden with sculpted trees, a gold pagoda and koi the size of salmon. The trees were all very carefully pruned and many looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. There was a Buddhist temple next to the garden with statues of various Buddhas in charge of different things just like Catholic saints.
The next stop was the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple. Here there were a lot of fortune tellers and even several who spoke English that tried to get us to stop and learn our future. The buildings are beautifully decorated and the incense smells nice. The same held true for our third temple, the Hau Wong Temple. This one is 280 years old and is much smaller than the other two. There were lots
Incense sticks were burning in front of this temple fragrancing the air all around.
of statues of various Buddhas and a room with pictures of people who have died.
Then we went on to the Kowloon Walled City Park. The history of this neighborhood is similar to District 6 in Capetown except without the blatant racism. The government wanted to clear out a crime-ridden slum so they bought everyone out, moved them and razed the buildings. The difference here is that the official party line is it was a good thing to do where in Capetown the official party line is it was bad. It is all a matter of perspective.
We spent our last evening Christmas shopping for the nieces and nephews in the well known Temple Street Night Market. I tried to sing Christmas carols but with the temperature about 85, it was hard to get in the spirit.
Our next stop is the city of Kunming which is the jumping off spot to explore the western province of Yunnan.