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Published: June 14th 2006
After just over a month at home, a period of time which encompassed an incompetent attempt by H&R Block to complete my US tax return by the IRS deadline, it was time to head into terra nova again, this time bearing the proud battle scars of my Indian campaign rather than the clueless expression that had accompanied me to New Delhi back in November. The planning for my intended destination - Australia - was done in a different fashion to that initial trip. Firstly, my luggage was a subset of my Indian packing - no mosquito net, or doxycycline, or water purification tablets needed, for example, so little thought was required on that score. Secondly, I'd decided that detailed route planning was completely pointless, so simply having a vague idea what I wanted to see would suffice - the Rough Guide to Australia had been read once and once only. And thirdly, I would not be blogging every day of the trip, as my time in India had told me that interesting things do not happen every 24 hours, at least not in my life.
Qantas were doing a great deal, just over 500 GBP to Melbourne including stopovers in
Hong Kong each way, which attracted me despite their seats not being particularly leg-friendly. Just to further ram that point home, the hinge on my seat proved to be somewhat temperamental - if I squirmed a little too much, it would give way and deposit me into the lap of the guy behind. Since that wasn't a situation he was particularly comfortable with, I was forced to keep my seat upright for the duration of the journey. Needless to say, the chap in front of me felt no such compunction, so I went partially cross-eyed watching my TV screen. I also had my first exposure to the Australian sense of humour, as demonstrated by the father and son sitting next to me - when I said I was backpacking around Australia, the father told me to keep my eyes skinned for the numerous murderers prowling the country on the lookout for people like myself.
I'd been to Hong Kong several times before on business, so catching the Airport Express to Hong Kong island reawakened a few memories, in particular that of my first ever visit, when a stretch limo had taken me to my 5 star hotel, and the
night skyline - a rainbow of colours playing across the facades of the numerous skyscrapers - had created an indelible first impression. This time, on my own money, the business hotels were not viable options but, Hong Kong hotels being generally of a very high standard, I still had managed to bag a cheap room that was superior to anything I could have had in London for the same price. Unfortunately I arrived at the Cosmo Hotel 4 hours before they would let me check in, so an early stint of sightseeing was required in the interim.
Though I was visiting Australia at this time of year because I wouldn't have to contend with summer heat, Hong Kong was in a warm, very humid season and I was sweating within minutes of leaving the hotel. It seemed rather pointless too, as the day was overcast so I wasn't even getting the benefit of the sun for taking photos. I wandered over to the business district, to remind myself of the awesome enormity of the Bank of China building. The chirping street crossings were a soundtrack that I'd completely forgotten about, but the seamless join between East and West was
as I'd remembered it, with Marks and Spencer and dim sum restaurants living in happy harmony. I had brunch in a highly touristy area, but even so my request for water was met with a blank expression. I had to search the menu for the appropriate Chinese character for water, dimly remembered from my Japanese lessons.
On returning to the hotel, I was allowed to check in and was momentarily pleased to find I had a room on the top floor (27th) - until I saw there were only 2 lifts. I also had issues finding the room itself, as the numbers were all at ground level, a fact it took me several minutes to realise as I scanned various blank doors, hoping the numbers might suddenly leap out at me in the manner of one of those Magic Eye drawings. Those quibbles aside, the room itself was plush, with a flat screen TV of all things.
Evening entertainment was in the Nooch Bar, the hotel bar that was hyped as the liveliest place in town, but only had about 6 other patrons. I was happy to discover that the free wireless access in reception also extended to
the bar (though not my room), so some beer-fuelled e-mails were pecked out on my Pocket PC. A cover band consisting of a guy and a girl was performing and were significantly better than the last cover band I encountered in the Taj Mahal in Delhi, though the between song applause barely tickled the decibelmeter here too. There was even a creditable stab at "Lose Yourself", a song not normally covered successfully by Chinese rappers.
The following day saw me embark on further sightseeing on Hong Kong island. A first ever trip on the subway system reminded me very much of the cleanliness, punctuality, and comfort of the Tokyo subway. A visit to the Man Mo Temple left me choking on incense, which filled the air courtesy of myriad burning coils around the place.
Even though the sky was by no means devoid of clouds, I figured I should make a trip up to the Peak as I might not get a better chance, so I jumped on the Peak Tram and admired the view as the tram dragged itself up to the top. I lunched at a restaurant on the Peak - after I'd taken a seat,
I realised it was the same place I'd been to on my one previous visit up here, which had been at night for dinner with a couple of (now ex-)colleagues. I was pleased to note that the menu contained tandoori ostrich, no doubt made from the birds that roam all over India. Unfortunately the view was hopeless, more appropriate for studying the insides of a cumulonimbus than seeing Hong Kong spread out below.
Day 3 was devoted to a visit to Kowloon on the mainland, which was genuine uncharted territory for me. Reaching Kowloon required a voyage on the luxury upper deck of the famous Star Ferry, from which it was possible to see the full skyscraper panorama as we pulled away from the quay. With the cloud low yet again, there was an eerie effect with the lights at the top of the tallest buildings being diffused into a ghostly aura.
Arriving at Kowloon brought an unexpected and completely unwanted flashback from my previous trip, as a selection of Indian salesmen accosted me (and at regular intervals throughout the day) offering cheap Rolexes, massages, etc. With a sigh, I put on my don't-mess-with-me face and politely requested
all to go away.
A table groaning under the weight of assorted dim sum was one of the images that had tempted me back to Hong Kong, so I prepared myself for a day of wandering by ordering such a spread at the nearby Jade Garden restaurant. Strangely, there was an advert on the table offering a discount on one particular type of dim sum if you were an HSBC credit card holder, as though all other dim sum failed to meet the criteria to be associated with HSBC. An unusual meeting of the worlds of instant credit and the culinary arts.
Nathan Road is Kowloon's main drag, beginning with the imposing grandeur of the Peninsula Hotel. When my father was stationed in Hong Kong with the RAF in the 1940s, I'm sure he spent some time gadding about in the bar here. From this luxurious start, the street degenerates somewhat into a mass of department stores, restaurants, boutiques, and convenience stores. In one food store, I spotted a manager's special containing a set of ingredients that smacked of being simply what was left over in the fridge. The list started with vegetable marrow and peanuts and finished
with, of course, octopus. Parallel streets contained some more interesting emporia, such as wholesalers for shopfittings or fireworks. With the day being another steamy sweatfest, my progress consisted of scurrying from one air-conditioned shop to the next.
There were a couple of entries in the guidebook that persuaded me to footslog it for several kilometres up Nathan Road. One was a flower market, which I was hoping would be something along the lines of Pike Street Market in San Francisco (i.e. a riot of colours and smells), but which turned out to be depressingly green - maybe I was there at the wrong time of the day/year. The other was a bird garden, which left me both underwhelmed and a little sad. People were giving their birds an airing by hanging up their cages on purpose-built public trellises, but there were also several shops that seemed to be engaged in a competition to see who could cram the most birds into a small cage as avianly possible. I now know the sound made by hundreds of unhappy birds.
Nightfall heralded the opening of the Temple Street Market, a Kowloon institution that would have appealed more if I'd been
in a shopping mood. I then returned to the ferry terminal in time to catch the laser and light show, a nightly spectacle that accentuates the Hong Kong Island skyline to dramatic effect. Lights are displayed on all the skyscrapers, changing colour and winking on and off in a coordinated fashion to create ever-changing patterns. Lasers arrow into the night sky in a manner akin to a Star Wars battle scene. The low cloud added an extra atmospheric touch. I took my place in a crowd of other happily-snapping spectators and watched the show until the close, then headed back to the hotel for an early night in preparation for tomorrow's early flight.
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