|Travelogue: Hong Kong 2000||
Thursday April 6, 2000
Flying from Seattle to Hong Kong via San Francisco. This is the first leg on my second round-the-world trip of the year 2000. Talk about oodles of miles. This morning's first flight is a United Shuttle 737. My round-the-world ticket is in business class, but since this flight only has first and coach, I am in first. I have often heard people complain about the unpleasantness of air travel. I used to feel the same way. But traveling business class internationally and first class in the USA is really fine. I still wouldnít spend my days on airplanes just for the fun of it, but the seats and level of service are such that it really isn't a big deal. I'm not convinced of the value of going from business class to first class, but coach to business is a big deal as far as I'm concerned. Today's travel will have me in the air for 16 hours (2 to San Francisco, 14 to Hong Kong.) Thatís a lot of hours to be sitting in a metal tube in the air. Cramped into a coach seat with the seat in front of me touching my knees, that would be a dreadful prospect. In business class it will be no big deal.
Unfortunately, the woman next to me was coughing the whole way. I got very little sleep. I'm nervous about catching her cold. So much for the 'joys' of business class.
Friday April 7, 2000
Getting from the airport in Hong Kong to downtown is really easy. The train leaves directly from the airport and costs HK$100 (US$12.80). The train is fast, easy and clean. To keep you entertained there are video screens in the backs of the seats displaying information on Hong Kong, sports, stock information, exchange rates, news and an entertainment channel. Cool. From the train station there is then a free bus to all the downtown hotels. What a great way to encourage people to come here! Hong Kong's chamber of commerce really knows what it is doing.
I'm staying at the lovely Island Shangri-La. I had a very nice reception then was shown to an incredible room on the 52nd floor with awesome harbor view. Itís a large room (though not a suite) with a huge marble bathroom with shower, tub, and two sinks. There are both terrific terry-cloth bathrobes, and kimonos. Every amenity is included, there are two desks, a fax machine, and the curtains are drawn electrically by a button on the bedside console. One thing I particularly like is that there is tons of closet and drawer space. Best of all, it is blissfully quiet. However, the chandelier looks a bit silly in a bedroom. Floors 9 through 37 of this building are office space, with the hotel rooms occupying floors 38 to 55, so all the rooms are high up, and I imagine they are all probably very nice.
For my first night in town I am having dinner with my friends Dave-the-golf-pro and Dr. Dave at the Chinese restaurant in The Parkview where Dave has an apartment. Afterwards, we went for drinks at the restaurant where Dr. Dave's girlfriend is a singer. Somehow I managed to stay up until 1am local time.
Saturday April 8, 2000
Morning comes to Hong Kong in a shroud of mists - half atmospheric, half jetlag.
I went for a Dim Sum lunch with Dr. Dave at Grand Lake Restaurant in Sai Wan ("Western District") (telephone 2548-6838). After seating us, the waitress cleans our chopsticks and spoons for us by pouring tea over the utensils into a small bowl provided for that purpose. Dr. Dave tells me that we are being treated as honored guests, because normally we would be expected to do that for ourselves. Overall the Dim Sum was absolutely excellent, though we had a very hard time getting the things we wanted. Even though Dr. Dave speaks some Chinese, we still had trouble being understood. Afterwards we headed over to Lan Kwai Fong for a quick look at this famous nightly hotspot, then followed that up with some excellent coffee brewed to order at Kaldi's Kafe on D'Aguilar St.
Dr. Dave had to go to work, so I headed off on my own. I walked to the ferry station and took the Star Ferry (HK$2.20) across the bay to Kowloon, the mainland side of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is very easy to get around in; there are good sidewalks and nice pedestrian underpasses, the busses and ferries work well and are easy to understand. The signage is excellent. A very pleasant experience for the weary traveler. In almost every way Hong Kong is not what I expected. I was really expecting a grimy, gray city with so many people that you would have to force yourself past other bodies to make it down the street. It could hardly be farther from the truth.
I wandered around the streets of Kowloon for a while, looking in shop windows and taking in the general feel of the area before ending up at the famous Peninsula Hotel. Boy was I unimpressed. The Peninsula Hotel is a famous, ritzy hotel with expensive high end shops. Once upon a time this was the place to get high tea. I am told that now they use cheap tea and poor quality packaged cakes at tea. I skipped the overpriced tea, walked around, and found it completely uninteresting. Next I walked up Nathan Road with its unquenchable tailors and rip-off camera shops. I went into Kowloon Park - a wonderful respite from Nathan Road, full of fountains, statues, flowering trees and birds. Two old Chinese people were doing Tai Chi in the park. I walked over to where the Museum of History was supposed to be, but the Kowloon Park location is now closed. The museum has moved several blocks away to the corner of Austin Road and Chatham Road South next to the Hong Kong Science Museum. The Museum of History is said to be an excellent introduction to Hong Kong, so I got out my map and followed a reasonably straight route to the new location. Unfortunately, the new museum isn't ready yet! Apparently they closed the old museum in 1998, but the new one wont be open until 2001. Hmmmm...
The buildings in Hong Kong are really interesting. I am desperate to photograph them, but am thwarted on two accounts; first, it is a misty, overcast day, making the photographs come out flat and devoid of the life and breath in these buildings. Second, I desperately need a wide angle lens.
I love Chinese food, so being in Hong Kong there was no way I was going to eat anything else. When Dr. Dave called about dinner, I insisted on more Chinese fare. I had the concierge write down directions to the apartment where Dr. Dave and Sabrina live, and so armed hopped a taxi over there. We ate at a Cantonese restaurant in the Provident Center downstairs from their apartment. It was good but not great, and marred by a humorous but expensive misunderstanding. Dr. Dave ordered a bowl of sharks fin soup, considered a great delicacy. I was a bit unhappy about this because I am concerned about the overfishing of sharks that is occurring around the world, but I held my tongue. The owner of the restaurant took our order and said, "I give you for free". Wow. What a nice gesture, since sharks fin soup is extremely expensive. When the bill arrived at the end it was huge. As it turned out they had charged us for the soup after all, making up almost half of the price of the meal. We called over the owner and asked what was up. He read the bill to us, and when he got to the sharks fin soup he said, "Sharks fin soup, I give you for three." Oh, "three", Dr. Dave, Sabrina and I, not "free". Dr. Dave gave the owner a brief lesson in enunciating "th" vs. "f" in English, then paid the bill and we left.
Sunday April 9, 2000
Had breakfast at the hotel of Congee (rice porridge). It was saltier than that which I have had in Thailand, and I wasnít given the nice array of different spices to add to my bowl. Itís a lot less fun when you can't play with your food before you eat it.
After breakfast I was off to walk around the city again. Hong Kong really does have some very exciting architecture. One of the most striking building is the Bank of China building right in the heart of Hong Kong. I think it is a striking and dramatic skyscraper, though most Asians consider it to be highly offensive. The reason is that it thoroughly violates the rules of Feng Shui, the art of harmonious spaces. The building is full of sharp edges and dramatic lines, each of which is considered by the Chinese to be a mystical dart being thrown at the other buildings around it. They are so serious about this that the Governor of Hong Kong actually moved out of the official governor's mansion because the building is purportedly a Feng Shui sword slashing down the center of the mansion. The building was designed by I M Pei, and was built for the Bank of China, so it is difficult to believe that this is an accident. Some believe that this was Chinas way of driving a stake through the heart of Hong Kong. Others believe that the building was designed as it was to cast bad fortunes on the Hong Kong Bank next door.
Almost across the street from the Shangri-La lies the wonderful Hong Kong Park. The park is the number one place in Hong Kong for people to get marriage photographs done, and on this beautiful Sunday afternoon the park was filled with bridal parties lining up for the perfect shot. It is such a popular wedding spot that the city has even provided a marriage registry right in the park! It is quite entertaining watching group after radiant group of wedding revelers, punctuated by the occasional party that is obviously not having such a joyous occasion. Of course, as with most Asians I have observed, they take the process of photography very seriously, and when lined up for a photo they often look as stiff and grim as can be.
Not far from the marriage registry there is a lovely Tai Chi garden with excellent bonsai and meditation spots. With butterflies flitting in the breeze and birds singing, I could sit and sit. The Tai Chi garden is punctuated by tranquil water features whose water masks the traffic noise. It quickly became my favorite place in the park.
My next stop is the famous walk through aviary. It is huge and fantastic, far surpassing the San Diego Zoo. I have never seen such a large aviary. I was thrilled at the beauty and variety of the birds, and how comfortable they seem to be with human presence. Some kind of large raptor flew over outside the aviary, looking down at all the yummy little birds below.
I had read about the Stanley Weekend Market as a "must see", so I hopped on the #6 bus to Stanley. The ride costs HK$8.70, but they donít give change on Hong Kong busses and I only had an HK$10 coin, so I had to pay HK$10. The views from the bus on the 1/2 hour ride were great, though the market at Stanley itself was very disappointing. It is all the same stuff that is available all over the streets in Bangkok. Stanley has a very pleasant waterfront stroll, clean and new looking, but otherwise there is not much there. The only other attraction in Stanley is the Tin Hau Temple, which I found was not very interesting. I was able to buy some nice fruit at the market, including seedless lichis, which I had never seen before. I sat out on the waterfront and gobbled down the lichis followed by an excellent mango, then headed out.
After my brief time in Stanley I took the #76 bus from Stanley to Aberdeen (HK$9) to see the harbor there with its navy of "Junk" style boats. Aberdeen is more like what I expected from Hong Kong. Big, ugly apartment towers in poor repair, laundry hanging from windows, and a dirty harbor full of boats.
I had lunch at the "world famous" Jumbo Restaurant, self proclaiming to be "the worlds most luxurious floating restaurant." Uh huh. Sure. Sunday is definitely Dim Sum day in Hong Kong, which is what most of the diners were feasting on. I didnít really want to have Dim Sum alone (its just not the same as with a group) so I had steamed grouper. The grouper took a really long time, so in the interim I had an order of astonishingly good humbow (pork bun.) When the grouper arrived it was very good, quite fresh tasting. For desert I had an order of mango pudding. Surprisingly it was not as good as the mango pudding at the East Ocean restaurant in suburban Seattle. The total price for lunch was HK$312 (US$40).
As evening approached I took the #91 bus back to downtown Hong Kong. Again I had to pay HK$10 because I didnít have any smaller change. Along the way the bus went by a really cool looking cemetery at Pokfulam Road. I wasnít able to get off there; I'd love to go back and investigate. At some point I would love to hear an explanation of a landscape feature in Hong Kong. It appears that they put something like concrete over all the hillsides. I assume this is some sort of erosion control. Interestingly, they do not remove the trees from the hillsides before they pave. Instead they leave large round holes in the pavement around the trees and bushes. The end result is very weird looking - gray lunar-looking hillsides with moon-crater holes and trees sticking out (often at odd angles.) It made me think of something that Dr. Seuss might have drawn.
Monday April 10, 2000
Another dawn in Hong Kong, with mists shrouding the hills surrounding the harbor. The sun is a bright orange ball hanging above the horizon; its full light cut by the humidity and pollution. It is a striking view from the 52nd floor of the Shangri-La. I look forward to coming back.
For convenience I decided to have the breakfast buffet at the hotel before heading to the airport this morning. Everything on the buffet looked great, but none of it tasted as good as it looked. The made-to-order omelet was yummy though. For a charge of HK$195 (US$25 with service charge) the food ought to taste as good as it looks.
Coincidentally, the woman who checked me in last Thursday happened to be in the elevator as I was heading down to check out and escorted me over to check out. At least, I think it was a coincidence. I wouldnít put it past the level of service at this Shangri-La to have somehow orchestrated such a process. After checking out, she walked with me to the front of the hotel, where the free bus to the train station was arriving just as we got there. She flagged down the bus for me as the bellman ran to get my luggage, which he lifted onto the bus for me. It was a miracle of timing, which whisked me off with incredible smoothness.
At the Exchange Square train station it is possible to check in your luggage for most of the major airlines, but some form of incredulity kept me from taking advantage of it. I decided to bring my luggage onto the train, which was a snap as the excellent free luggage carts were readily available to help me with my bags and the huge elevators moved me effortlessly from floor to floor. The train was sitting in the station waiting to go and free porters took my bags from my luggage carts and put them on the train for me. Wow. The 23 minute train ride went by in no time as I played with the video system in the backs of the seats, then my bags were carried off at the other end by more waiting porters. A phalanx of luggage carts was arrayed in front of the doors of the train; how could this be made any easier.
All that is left is to check in with Singapore Airlines and fly to Singapore.
I must say Hong Kong took me by surprise. I was expecting a cluttered, dirty, concrete jungle; a bastion of capitalism holding back a wave of communism threatening to crush it from the mainland. I was expecting hustle, bustle and pollution, without a tree or blade of grass. Boy was I wrong. Yes, there are many huge high-rise buildings, often with laundry hanging from every window, and there is some pollution, but by and large Hong Kong is a fairly clean, quiet, efficient, and green city. Much of the architecture is quite interesting. The road system works well, moving the traffic along with few hitches. As a visitor, the traffic is better than Seattle, there are more trees and green areas than Florence, the metro is as good as Boston, the people are nicer than in Madrid, and the 5-star hotels are as good as any in the world. I had only allocated 3 days for Hong Kong, assuming that would be all that I could stand. Instead, I now find myself putting Hong Kong on my short-list of places to come back to.
© 2000, Andrew Sigal
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