Monthly Archives: March 2011
The first impression anyone would get from Hong Kong is that it is very clean. That might be a cultural thing, or it might be the severe penalties for littering. After India, it was a different planet. The people even the kids are quite orderly. They queue up for busses and everything else. They do not shove or cut line. Except for me. The school kids are well behaved when you see them on a field trip, they are even quietly respectful.
Another wonderful difference between HK and all the other third world cities I have been in, no one uses their car horns. The people are so polite that I do not think they would blow their horn to warn you that they were about to run you down. Also, the only motorcycles I saw in HK were driven by the police. Instead of every person over twelve having a Vespa, in HK there is a great usage of busses, the metro, trolleys and ferries. At rush hour they get really crowded. Even then there is a respectful sense about things. Instead of the people crushing each other on the Metro, there are workers with signs on the boarding platform that say “full” when the metro gets crowded, and people respect that and wait for the next train. Except for me. They run about 90 seconds apart, so the wait is acceptable. The metro and busses are also very economical. Gas prices looked about “normal” for a country that must import all of its petrol. Parking is truly expensive. The combination of these last two economic indicators lead to the extensive use of public transport. The only place I saw any reliance on motorcycles was in Macau. I did not notice much in the way of public transportation there, so motorcycles are the consequence.
Hong Kong is the most expensive city I have visited in my last year of extensive travel. Due to lack of time, and the fact that is not a place to consider retiring, I did not explore the supermarkets to figure out what my weekly grocery bill would be, so I cannot comment on that. I will say however that I perused many outdoor markets and found new fruits, and absolutely bizarre seafood. I hope these photos make you say “uh uh” as much as I did when I took them.
Hong Kong is a very tall city. Just about everyone lives and works in skyscrapers. I had the fantasy that someday, all these skyscrapers would be connected by Sky bridges from building to building to building and the people of Hong Kong would never have to touch the ground. The bridges could have convenience stores, dry cleaners, book stores and restaurants built in them, and with people movers a person could get from their home to their office quicker than taking an elevator 30 flights down, doing the cross city traffic dance, then another elevator 30 floors up to the office. I know that sounds rather “Jetson” but it would work. It would also leave the streets to us tourists!
So what about us tourists? Hong Kong is a tourist friendly place. It starts at the airport. I said this before, but I truly appreciate the immigration line which is a single snake type line so you never feel as if you got in the slow line. It went truly fast. The next nice surprise was the luggage carousel. There is a man there who receives each bag as it is spit off the conveyer, and lines the bags up nice and neat and orderly. I have never seen that done anywhere. Nobody shoves their way to the front to get to their bag. Except me of course.
The airport is a fair distance from the hotels, no matter which hotel you are in. If you go, book a tour agency bus ride, the cost of the taxi would be the difference between your economy fair and business class. Well, maybe not. The taxis are metered and regulated. The first two K’s are 18 HK $’s but after that they meter starts spinning like the wheels on a slot machine. We only took cabs when we got lost. And WOW, did we ever get lost a few times. Hong Kong streets are laid out like a Salvador Dali depiction of a nightmare. To get from point A to point B you will box the compass and change from ground level to elevated lanes at least three times. It makes you dizzy.
We stayed in a mid range hotel which was reasonably priced except for our last two nights. The reason for in increase is because of the “Rugby Sevens”. I never heard of this before but it is a series of international Rugby tournaments with a following of Jet Setters. The entire British commonwealth, and even the USA sends a team.
Our hotel had everything you want. I stashed away enough travel sized shampoos and soaps so that when we go on our next trip I do not have to worry if our hotel is not as generous.
I mentioned before that Mary Ann was determined to have a Hong Kong tailor made suit. Here she is with the tailor.
The experience was nowhere near as pampering as the tailor in Bangkok. There we were in a plush room with tea and beer. Here it was measure and move on. Also, the suits were cheaper in Thailand, and probably better tailored. So, if you have the urge to have a tailor made suit, go to Thailand!
I never wore jewelry before I started travelling. Now I have a ring from all the countries I have been to. I wanted a jade ring from HK. Have you got any idea what top of the line jade costs? We went to the Jade Market in Kowloon. I bought Mary Ann a jade necklace, which killed my budget. So I bought myself a nice looking jade ring. It looks like one I saw at an expensive jewelry store for 5,000 dollars, AMERICAN. This one cast me 50 dollars, Hong Kong. I know it is low grade crap, but I like it and I do not have to worry about losing it.
Another souvenir we purchase everywhere we go is a Starbucks coffee mug. Now we have a collection of them in our kitchen. Cairo, Beirut, Katmandu, Delhi, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hong Kong and Macau. I am not even a big fan of Starbucks, BUT it is a reliable place for a good cup of coffee. Every one of the hundred or so Starbucks in HK is just like the thousands of Starbucks anywhere. People do not go there for a cup of coffee as much as they go there to camp. They get a comfy chair, open their notebook computers, magazines or novels and make an overpriced latte last for hours.
Then of course T shirts. I have T shirts that I have never worn, but I always find one too cool to pass up, like this one.
Our last night in HK we had to experience the Hong Kong Symphony of Lights. You could say that every night in HK is like NYE. Besides all the high rise buildings lit up with decorative lighting, they have a half hour laser light show from the tops of most of the buildings. Every night!
On the harbor cruise to view the lights, Mary Ann made friends with a young couple from Beijing. They promised to become pen pals. The guy told Mary Ann she was his first foreign friend.
I wrote in an earlier post about the Hong Kong currency. The strangest thing is that three banks (HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank and one other) each print their own paper money. The only thing consistent is the color for each denomination. Here are the 20’s.
In short, I must say that I am glad I visited Hong Kong. I have nothing bad to say about it. Really, if you know me that is fairly astonishing. The people of Hong Kong are making the most out of the years before they become part of communist China. They treat tourists, and each other, really well. We only scratched the surface of things to do. For instance I never found the great camera store I hoped to find. I know it exists, but your dedication to finding anything at all in HK must be absolute. I think the best advice I can give a tourist is go ahead and get lost, the stuff you find will be amazing enough.
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They are instead three islands near Hong Kong, which we took whirlwind tours of this week. All three deserve more time, alas our time is limited. I have not blogged for three days simply because when we get back to our hotel, have some real menu items to eat, a couple of TsingTao beers (the best beer with Chinese food, but strangely not by itself), I just crash. I suppose if we were 25 again, we would sample the night life in Hong Kong, which I hear is responsible for this smile on Buddha.
Yes, believe it or not it is pronounced just like it looks like it should be pronounced. I have not delved into the history to find out who named it that, or why. Instead I will just assume it was where mad Cow Disease originated.
Kowloon Is a five minute ferry ride across Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong proper. By the way, when the Chicoms take over in 35 or so years, there will be no more English names for things. No Queens Blvd. or Prince Albert’s can. Nope, all the names will change to Mandarin. This will be tough on the locals as well, because they speak Cantonese. So to get to Kowloon one can take the ferry, or go under the channel in an automobile tunnel, or take the metro in another tunnel. We purchased what they call an Octopus card which is good on all local public transportation except taxis. Public transportation, including taxis, are one of the few bargains in the SAR. The what? The Special Administrative Region, the official name for “one country – two systems” rule in existence today. After buying our card, we walked for ages, it seemed like miles, underground to get to the metro platform. The first thing you notice after your sore feet, is that there is not as much as a gum wrapper on the ground. Hong Kong is CLEAN. No one litters. The fine for littering is 5000 HK dollars. (1US$=7.80 HK$, you do the math)
Kowloon is supposedly the bargain shopping area for greater Hong Kong. The most famous of the various shopping destinations is called Ladies Street. This is a six block long pedestrian walkway with hundreds of booths on each side of the walkway. Once you have walked a couple of blocks you notice that every 10th booth or so is selling the same junk, And I Do mean junk.
Now the only hawkers in all of HK are for tailors. There are probably more tailor shops in HK than any other city in the world. I thought Bangkok had a lot of tailors, but HK has BK beat. I hate being tall and white in Asia. The hawkers see me a block away and make a move for me. I have my radar out now. If I see a guy with a handful of business cards head toward me, I duck into a storefront, vitamin store, bathroom fixtures, lingerie, it does not matter. But they wait for me outside. They follow me at least a block telling me I am dressed like a beggar and should have a suit made, or three, special price for three! They pester me until I enter the hunting area of the next hawker for the next tailor. Mary Ann, who is the best dressed librarian in Sharjah had already decided she would have a suit made in Hong kong to go with the half dozen she had made in Thailand. She had already chosen her tailor, who happened to be in Kowloon, so the day was not a complete waste.
Our next day in fab HK was spent on another group tour. we like tours. Usually we hire a private car tour, just the two of us and a hopefully all knowing guide. But in HK they are prohibitively expensive, so we ride on buses with20 or so other people. At least most of these people are so old that I feel relatively young.
Lantau is the home of the worls “largest- outdoor- sitting -bronze Buddha”. Of all the buddhas I have seen in my travels he s the largest. I still do not know where the largest Buddha in the worls is. I think I will find out and put him on my bucket list.
Buddha sits on a hill over a very nice temple that is well used. Every temple sells incense for people to light and make prayers. This temple sold the largest incense sticks I have ever seen.
Lantau also has an amazing aerial cable ride which takes about 30 minutes to go from Lantau all the way to Hong Kong. It passes right near the HK airport, giving an excellent view of all the planes taking off and landing. This is a very busy airport as you might expect.
It also passes over an example of typical housing ing in BK. People here live in high rise buildings for the most part. One of our guides says the typical apartment is 500 sq feet. A person does not own an apartment ,only big companies. However if one chooses, you can rent a government subsidized apartment, but they are not as nice as these.
On to Macau.
Macau was a magic name to me when I was 8 years old because that was where all the really good firecrackers were made. That was all I knew about it. Now that is not the case. The fireworks industry has gone away and is replaced by casinos. In fact Macau now makes more money from wagering than Lost Wages, Nevada. It is another SAR. It pays no taxes to the Chicoms. In fact there are no taxes in Macau at all, which makes it a shopping haven. It is a separate government from HK and you must pass through immigration and customs going both ways. (Just a bit of a brag…I counted my the stamps in my passport while standing in line returning to HK. When I get back to the UAE, they will have the honor of applying the 100th stamp in my precious blue book. Wow.)
Honk Kong is a very strict place. they have rules and rules and rules. They are serious about them and fine you on the spot for violating them. Littering I have mentioned. They also restrict smoking to little permitted smoking areas. You can always find them because they have groups of people puffing away. ut the weirdest rule I have run up against is the customs regulation about how many cigarettes you can bring into the country. Get this, the number is 19. One short of a pack. If anyone can explain that I will be glad to hear it.
Macau being the gambling capital of the world,is now waging a civil war to build the largest casino. An old guy named Dr. Ho used to have the monooly on casinos in Macau. He also owns half the airport,docks, and other infrastuctures. Now, American and Australian companies are moving in.
There is another type of gambling one can do in Macua. The stakes are your life, or maybe just your sanity.
Macau was settled by the Portuguese. There is a long historyof Christain in-fighting in Macau with Dominicans, Franciscans and of course the Jesuits all trying to reign supreme. One of the iconic structures of Macau is the remains of the church of St. Paul.
And of course there are Buddhist temples and any tour in this part of the world will take you to a Buddhist temple. It must be in the licensing contract. Finally after visiting enough temples to start feeling outright religious, I found something unigue.
Our last stop was a casino, and thank Buddha we only got a half hour to gamble. I did not win any money…singing bowl or not. But I only had a half hour to lose. Mary Ann went to a facory outlet next door and further burdened our suitcases for the return tripwith some really nice and very inexpensive brand name clothes. If you come to this part of the world, HK is just fine. It is exciting and vibrant. But for better deals and more fun, be sure to visit Macau.
That is it for today. My next post will cover the Hong Kong Harbor Symphony of Lights. Stay tuned. Tell a friend. Make a comment. You CAN write a sentence can’t you? I should say thank you to my regular commenters.
Mary Ann took charge of planning the day, over a post breakfast beer.
She signed us up for a city tour. All in all it was a good experience. The only disappointment was when we got to “the peak” we were fogged in and could not get the best view of HK. We did however get some views from ½ way up the mountain. Also, due to the clouds and fog, my photos appear very washed out.
Somehow, we always end up with a good guide. Today’s was no exception. His name was Mr. Ming. He said we could just call him Dynasty. He told us many tales of lore about life in HK.
The agreement in place with Mainland China is called “one country-two policies”
This agreement is good for 50 years. 14 are over, leaving 36 years before the Chicoms take total control. That might seem like a long time, but many HK people are already taking Mandarin lessons. Mr. Ming has a fiancé from northern China. She cannot come to HK yet, because it takes ages to get a passport, and up to a year after that before the Chicoms will grant a visa to visit HK. Even worse, they want two children. The “one country-two policies” rule is in conflict with the Chicoms “one baby” law. So, after she gets a visa, she has to have one of her babes in HK, but she can only stay for two weeks, and leave the baby behind for Mr. Ming to raise. Chinese born in HK before the Brits left carry British passports and can move freely between the island and the mainland. Mainland Chinese are not so lucky.
He made sure we knew our bus number because a year ago, an American couple got on the wrong bus. It happened to be headed for mainland China. They got stopped at the border. They had left their passports in the hotel. They did not know the phone number of their guide. Basically they were in deep dim sum. The only thing that got them sprung was the little “I am on a tour” sticker everyone wears. The Chicoms let them go, but they had to work their own way back to their hotel. I have decided to carry my passport, although I seriously doubt I will get THAT lost.
We went to a mall before the tour started and looked at a couple of electronic type toys. I want at least on lense for my new camera, and Mary Ann wants an IPod loud speaker system. We went to the Bose store. They had everything. My wallet screamed “get the hell out of here”. I really do not think there were any “deals” to be had there, so in the next few days we are going to the neighborhoods where stuff is discounted. Problem is, stuff might be knock-offs as well. We’ll be careful.
Thanks for reading, tell a friend. Check back soon for the next chapter of our China syndrome excursion, and please make a comment. I get paid by the comment. One thousand more comments and I can actually afford a dinner in HK.
A week ago, Japan was rocked. The triple whammie was capped by a nuclear “problem” that as of this writing could still result in a meltdown, and possibly burn a hole straight thru the planet. This very unlikely event is called “The China Syndrome” in the west. In Japan they probably call it the New Jersey Syndrome.
We therefore came to China. Well Hong Kong anyway. Fragrant Harbor. Victoria’s Island. These are the names the brits used for it when they colonized it. I call it the last stand of the British Empire. Oh, they still drive on the wrong side of the street, but it is now a Chinese city, with twists. For instance, no need for a visa. If you want to cross into mainland china, you have to get a visa, but not for the island of Hong Kong. So, we came. We will see. Will we conquer?
Actually this trip had been on our agenda long before Japan started sliding into the sea. Mary Ann will be attending a conference here for a few days, and I am along for the ride.
We could have taken a non-stop flight on Emirates Air, but as good as that airline is, and the fact that it would have saved us 3 or 4 hours in travel time, it just is not worth paying 40% more. So, we flew Qatar airlines. Qatar is one of the few airlines in the world awarded 5 star status by whomever gives out ratings for airlines. I have flown Qatar back and forth to Thailand a few times now, and I am already on step two in their frequent flyer program. That clinches the decision to spend more time in transit. There are upgrades in my future!
To go anywhere on Qatar, you either start your trip or change planes in Doha. The Doha airport is a work in progress. The terminal has no regular gates with jet ways to board the flight. You must ride a bus from your incoming flight and another out to your departing flight. That is not rare. But in Doha, the planes park miles away from the terminal. You spend a very long time on the bus. Our continuing flight took off an hour after we arrived. So, we got off the bus, ran through the terminal, and got back on the bus. Strangely, the 45 minute flight from Dubai to Doha was on a triple 7. Big, quiet and comfortable. The 7 hour flight from Doha to Hong Kong was on an Airbus 330. The Boeing product is superior in many ways. But we got to HK safe, sound and on-time.
My excellent tour organizer, my wife, found us a really nice hotel in the Wan Chei neighborhood. The room is as good as a hotel room gets, with all the amenities including excellent Wi-Fi. We partook of dinner in the hotel last night. We had Tsing Tao beer on draft, which I have never had before. We ate pork and duck. We knew we were not back in the UAE! The restaurant had many shark fin dishes, which I passed on and will continue to pass on, for many reasons.
Across the street is the Happy Valley Race track, as in PONIES! As in GAMBLING! Wednesday night is the big night and I intend to feed the ponies, as in lose money betting.
Today we are off to see the town. Maybe a city tour in a double decker bus with no driver on the top. Maybe a boat tour in the harbor. Maybe a gondola ride to the top of the highest hill in HK. Maybe a trip up another hill to see a big Buddha. I do not care. It is all up to Mary Ann. Like I said, I am along for the ride. I just hope to find a Dim Sum restaurant and maybe a British pub with warm dark nasty ale, a banger and some spotted dick. Well, maybe not the pub.
The weather is cold and rainy, but no radiation from the neighbors, at least not yet. One thing I truly find refreshing so far….I have not heard a single horn! Now THAT is rare in Asia!
Stay tuned for photos and my normal dribble about the sights and sounds around town.
One more thing…the money. It is the HK dollar. 7.80 HK $s to 1 US$. Not only is it incredible colorful, but the bank notes are issued by individual banks! My first trip to an ATM gave me back HSBC notes. I thought it was not real money, but some sort of script. I asked a little girl at a desk, “Is this real money?” She laughed at me and assured me it was. When I got change, all the notes were issued by different banks. The same 100 HK$ with three different designs. Only the color remains the same. Very weird. The coins are cool as well, shaped like a lotus flower.
Our last tourist experience in India was to visit the home Gandhi was living in for the last four months of his life. The place has been turned into a museum to commemorate his life and his works. Like the man, it is both humble and impressive.
This was the only place in India that has no entrance fee. I was actually looking forward to paying a fee, because the tickets to places like the forts and the Taj make really great bookmarks! However I think the Mahatma would roll in his grave (if he had a grave, more on that later) if they charged an entry fee.
The home, called Girla house, is beautiful and very large with impressive gardens. Gandhi was living here in the first days of India’s independence and contributing to the development of the new constitution.
His bedroom is very simply furnished. A bed on the floor, a writing desk and a little statue of the three see-hear-do no evil monkeys. There is no spinning wheel like in the movie.
The other rooms in Girla house are covered with dioramas telling the story and philosophy of Gandhi. As you walk down the halls and read them, you notice quickly that they are not in any historical order. They do not really need to be. The story is not one that depends on chronology. It is timeless.
One display shows the story of his assassination. It does not mention the name of the assassin.
There are also multimedia presentations which, being contemporaneous, give a person a much better idea of how stark things were during English rule and afterwards. India was an oppressed country, driven to abject poverty by the English. When the English East India Company took control of India in the 1800’s they made it illegal to export anything from India other than raw materials. This destroyed the Indian textile industries, which is why Gandhi advocated “homespun” as a revolutionary tactic.
The most solemn part of the Girla house is the preservation of Gandhi’s last steps. He was on his way to prayers when he was assassinated. The pathway is marked with raised ceramic footprints, which I suspect are not his size, nor set at his stride. I did not see the little sign that said mere mortals must walk on the path next to his path, not ON the mahatma’s path itself. I got about halfway before I got chased off. But that allowed me to take these pictures for you.
The path leads to the spot where he was assassinated. I have seen where Lincoln was shot, so that is my only comparison. This one seems more special.
As you leave the Girla house there is a shop where they sell homespun cotton clothing. The last thing I need is more clothes, but I was compelled to buy a shirt made of revolutionary authentic homespun. It is quite comfortable and I cherish it.
Across a busy tree lined boulevard is the Gandhi Gaht. This is the spot where he was cremated. Hence, he is not spinning in his grave. This also set in expansive gardens. The simple black marble platform is all the great man needs.
Thanks for reading. Next post will be my final thoughts about Inja. Tell a friend and please make a comment. C’mon, you KNOW you want to.