Spring Vacation XI
China, Not China
by Jeffrey Scott Duly, Age 49
This trip goes to eleven! It is another solo venture. Click here to skip the report and go directly to the photos.
Prologue: I generally do not sit myself down and decide to travel. I usually have to get bitten by the bug. I wondered if the lower oil prices led to lower airfare (short answer, no) so I figured I would check fares on Kayak. Flights to various places I might like to go were about what I figured, but I looked at the Top Ten Deal Destination link and saw Honk Kong. When I clicked the link I saw a fare that I couldn't pass up. Seems it was cheaper to go to Hong Kong than most any other overseas destination. So the flight was booked, a hotel was found and a trip was planned. I knew little about Hong Kong other than that is was handed back to the Chinese by the Brits almost twenty years ago and that there was a Disneyland park there but with the help of the interwebs I found things I might like to do and see.
Flights to Asia are twice as long as those to Europe and you lose a day in the process due to crossing the International Date Line. I had a layover in Dallas before the long haul to Hong Kong. In anticipation of the flights I downloaded a bunch of podcasts to listen to on the flights. There were a lot of movies available on the entertainment system on the trans-Pacific leg and I watched many. Just on the flight east I watched Into the Woods, The Theory of Everything, Big Hero 6, and The Imitation Game, all of which were good. We had three meals during the 16.5 hour flight. First was a tortellini, salad, pea pods, roll and brownie. Then several hours later was a turkey sandwich and chips. Lastly shortly before landing I was served chicken and rice and a fruit cup.
Getting through immigration at Hong Kong International Airport was surprisingly easy. I needed to buy a return ticket on the Airport Express train and an Octopus transit card for my stay. Fortunately there is a tourist card that includes both. In fact it had three days unlimited travel on the MTR before you have to load up money on it, so that was cool. I went on the hotel website and found that they have a shuttle that runs to several stops in town and one of them is the Kowloon MTR station which is one of the stops for the Airport Express. My plan was if I got there close to the time it would stop there, twenty minutes past the hour, I would catch that rather than get there otherwise. Trouble is that the map of the stop was not too clear and I missed it. But being the planner that I am I knew the way to get to the hotel by taking the train up to the Olympic Station and walking about ten minutes to the hotel, which is what I ended up doing. Once I arrived I rested and eventually went to sleep.
Láihbaai luhk, 18 Seiyuht (Day 1): I had a plan for each day. This first day was going to be devoted to running around Hong Kong. The weather, however, made some changes in the plan. Getting up and out early at around 6:15 a.m. I went to see the Clock Tower, which isn't much other than a clock tower. Then I went across the harbour to see the flag raising ceremony at Golden Bauhinia Square at 7:50. I think this was the first time I saw the flag of the People's Republic of China flying on the trip. Next I was going to take the tram to the top of Victoria Peak to the Peak Tower and vistas of the city and surrounding areas of Hong Kong island. However that was a no-go. There was a fog or low cloud over the top of the mountain. Traveling to the top would have been pointless. Besides I would see plenty of fog later on.
So skipping the Peak for now it was on to the next stop of the day, the Hong Kong Museum of History. The exhibits cover pre-historic times up through the handover of the colony from the U.K. to China. It was a good visit. I was mostly interested in the colonial period and there was plenty of that. After the museum I was off to walk one of the several self-guided walks I had found on the website for the Hong Kong Tourist Board. This one was through parts of downtown Hong Kong. I didn't go in the same order but hit most of the things on the map, such as the Old Supreme Court Building, the Western Market, some streets that seem devoted to shops of certain types (dried seafood, herbal medicine, antiques), the Man Lo temple. After the walk I intended to catch the Star Ferry for a tour of the harbour but by the time I got there it had just left and wouldn't get back for another hour. After walking around the hustle and bustle of the big city I was starting to feel the start of a little pain in my left knee and I didn't feel like waiting around for a boat ride so I decided to call it a day and return to the hotel for a bit of a lie down.
I had read about the Symphony of Lights show that involves 40+ buildings on both sides of the harbour at night and figured that would be a good thing to see. Before that I had to get something to eat. Since I figured that a British pub would count as local food (they were a British colony less than twenty years ago after all) I went to a place called The Trafalgar. The cottage pie was okay, but would have been better without the all the peas and carrots in it. After that I made it back to the Kowloon side of the harbour to see the show. It was underwhelming. Not really much of anything. Some buildings with colorful lights that changed with music, others with lasers that shot off in different directions. But anyway the view of the skyline at night is quite nice. Then back to my room and some sleep.
Láihbaai yaht, 23 Seiyuht (Day 2): Enough of the city for now. After a day of urban exploring I was worn out a bit. I get that in most large cities. They are just too much to take in in a short period of time. But so much of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China is not urban I would have plenty of opportunity to get out of the city. Today I would travel out to Lantau Island. There is a cable car that goes up a mountain from Tung Chung to Ngong Ping where there is the Po Lin Monastery and Tian Tan Buddha, aka Big Buddha. Once again the weather was to do me in a bit. The trip up the mountain goes over some nice park land and has views of the island. Except on that day once we got to a certain altitude we got views of white. Yes, the fog had settled over the mountain. At the top of the cable car route is a little area of tourist attractions and shops called Ngong Ping Village. A short foggy walk through the village leads to the Po Lin Monastery. Near the entrance to the monastery there are 250 steps up to the Tian Tan Buddha. I climbed those steps to get a great view of fog. Seriously, at the top of the steps is the giant statue and it was almost invisible. I mean it was like Mount Fuji all over again. Oh well, when you've seen one Buddha you've seen them all. Actually that's not true. There are many Buddhas. So back down the steps I walked over to the Po Lin Monastery which was probably more interesting anyway. Lots of temples and more Buddhas to see. I also took a walk through some part of the nearby park to the Wisdom Path. It was also in Ngong Ping where I ate some real Chinese food. I had a bowl of beef and noodles in a broth that I had to eat with chopsticks.
The ticket I bought for the day was the Ngong Ping 360 Sky-Land-Sea Day Pass that included a bus ride down the mountain to the far end of the island to Tai O, a small fishing village that seems to attract a fair number of tourists. Part of the attraction is the traditional village where many houses are built on stilts over the tidal waters. Also included in my ticket was a boat excursion that traveled the waters of the village and then out into the open water to maybe see Chinese white dolphins that live off the coast. The wind was too heavy and the water too choppy for the dolphins to appear but the boat ride was pleasant enough anyway. Walking around the narrow streets of Tai O was interesting, with a myriad of pungent seafood stands, shacks and temples to be seen. Then it was back on the bus back up to foggy Ngong Ping for the white trip back down to Tung Chung and the train back to the city.
Once I got back to the hotel I went out to some of the surrounding crowded neighborhoods of Mong Kok, which includes the Ladies' Market, a densely congested market area on Tung Choi Street where there are stalls and stalls of cheap crap. After a day of rural exploring I was once again trapped in the urban jungle. Once I had had enough of that I headed back to the hotel. I found a small (and I mean small) establishment called Burgerman. There are only two of them in Hong Kong and one was just two blocks down Ivy Street from the hotel. I had a delicious wagyu burger, which was topped with fried onions, Japanese sesame salad and melted provolone. Mmm, good.
Láihbaai yāt, 24 Seiyuht (Day 3): I'm going to Disneyland! It was there. I kind of had to. Until the opening of Shanghai Disneyland sometime in the near future, with this visit to Hong Kong Disneyland I can now say that I have been to every Disney resort in the world (Anaheim, Orlando, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong). The park did not open until 10:00 a.m. but I wanted to see the hotels they have there anyway, so I got an early start and saw them before the park opened. There are two of them. The Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel was undoubtedly inspired by the Grand Floridian in Walt Disney World and is the nicer of the two. Disney's Hollywood Hotel is in an art deco theme. They will be building a third resort, the Explorers Lodge, between the existing hotels. I ate a little breakfast at the Hollywood Hotel in a little quick-service place called Hollywood & Dine. I noticed that in China they have bowls of soup for breakfast, similar to what they eat at other times of the day. I didn't really want that, so I just got some small banana muffins shaped like Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh, a cup of mango pudding and some odd-tasting milk. It was enough to get me started for the day.
I caught a hotel shuttle bus to near the park entrance, bought a ticket and was there when the park opened. I chose Monday to visit because I figured it would have been more crowded on the weekend. Hong Kong Disneyland is a small park. It has the lowest daily capacity of any Disney park in the world. Because it is small it is easy to get through quickly, particularly on days when it is not crowded. In fact by 5:00 p.m. I had been through it twice, including watching the 3:00 parade and having a table service lunch. They have mostly the same attractions that can be found at any other Disney park and some glaring omissions. Some popular attractions elsewhere that are missing include Pirates of the Caribbean, Tower of Terror and Haunted Mansion. They do have one great ride that does not presently exist anywhere else called Mystic Manor. Spectacular effects and a trackless ride vehicle combine to create a unique experience. But overall, I would rate this park lowest of all Disney parks. It's not bad, it's just not as good as the others. I had a really good big lunch at the Main Street Cornet Cafe, a Caesar salad, penne with American meatballs (whatever they think that is) and a glass of Sprite with pink grapefruit flavor, strawberries, blueberries and mint. Very good and quite filling. The other very good thing they have that is not in any other park (at least for now) is the nighttime parade, the Paint the Night Parade. I recommend watching a video of the parade online. The really cool thing for me was that the music, somewhat repetitive and techno, paid an homage to the Baroque Hoedown from the old Main Street Electrical Parade I grew up watching at Walt Disney World. Even though the park closed at 9:00 p.m. with the fireworks, I had pretty much done everything so I left after the parade.
Láihbaai yih, 25 Seiyuht (Day 4): It wasn't only Hong Kong I was going to see on this trip. Just as Hong Kong was a British colony handed back to the Chinese at the end of the 20th century, Macau was a Portuguese colony given back to China in 1999. I got to the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal in time to get a ticket for the 8:00 a.m. TurboJet ferry to Macau. There are different classes. I chose the Super Class, between Economy and VIP. It was much less crowded in Super Class. I was given a breakfast of a muffin, a bun and some fruit. After an hour cruising across the sea we arrived in Macau at around 9:00. After a brief stop at the Macau immigration area I found a cash machine to get some Macanese currency and then walked out of the ferry terminal and out to explore.
The Macau peninsula is not very large, but to save some energy I decided to take advantage of one of the many free casino resort shuttles that run from the ferry terminal to the hotels which are a little closer to the center of the city. I chose the Wynn because it seemed like as good a place to to start as any. From their I walked north to Senado Square, which has been Macau's urban center for centuries. From there I wandered to the ruins of St. Paul's Church and Monte Fort, atop of which is locate the Macau Museum. While there I enjoyed a popular local pastry, a Portuguese egg tart. I had a little booklet that had many self-guided walks in it, so I chose a couple of them. The first took me to several churches along the way from Senado Square to end up at the A-Ma Temple. The other walk I chose was far away from the end of the last and the only practical way to get there would be by taxi or bus. I chose the bus. After a long 45-minute ride I ended up in Coloane Village on the former island of Coloane. It was a nice stroll through a rural village on the water that seemed far away from the busier Macau peninsula.
The bus ride back was only thirty minutes and then I wandered around to find something good for dinner. I didn't find anything I would be interested in and I got a little lost in the process, so once I found myself back in the area where the casinos are I decided to just eat at one of the restaurants in a resort. I went into the Grand Lisboa and found the Round-The-Clock Coffee Shop, which wasn't really a coffee shop. I had a delicious Portuguese baked filet of seabass with olive and tomato sauce that was very filling. Then I hopped on the Wynn shuttle back to the ferry terminal and took the hour-long trip back to Hong Kong.
Láihbaai sāam, 26 Seiyuht (Day 5): I think a front must have gone through on Tuesday because the when I walked out in the morning to go to the ferry I noticed it was a little cooler and less humid. While Wednesday was not quite as nice, at least it wasn't so humid as to cover Victoria Peak in fog so I got up there that morning. After taking the Peak Tram up the mountain I arrived at the Peak Tower, where you can get incredible views of the island, the harbour and Kowloon. Much of Victoria Peak is park land. I took a walk around the Peak Circle Walk.
I had visited the Hong Kong Tourism Board website several times and found a lot of self-guided walks I might like. I had planned to do several on the last day, but since I did Victoria Peak that morning rather than the first day I just did two. The first took me from Nan Lian Garden to the Hau Wong Temple (by train) and eventually to the Kowloon Walled City Park. They do have some really nice parks over there and I can understand why. The busy urban areas of Hong Kong can get a little stressful after a while. A respite in a few parks is much appreciated. From the Kowloon Walled City Park I took the MTR north into the New Territories to Fanling to do the Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail. This was a walk that visited some little villages that have long been the home of the Tang clan. The old days were a bit dangerous what with marauding bandits and pirates and such, so five of the villages were walled. After a tiring walk around I caught the train back to Hong Kong Island.
To cap off the trip I went to an area called Happy Valley. Sound's nice, huh? Well the reason for going there was to go to the Happy Valley Racecourse, one of two tracks in Hong Kong. I'd never been to a horse race before and I now know why. Not much happens. Unless you are a horse lover or a gambling man, there not much going on. A race, a twenty minute wait, another race, another twenty minute wait, and so on. I mean it was somewhat interesting. The track looks great at night, particularly with the tall buildings in the background. I only stuck around for three races because I didn't really see the point in staying for any more, so I headed back to the Dorsett Mongkok for my last night's sleep in China.
Epilogue: I didn't have to head out early like every other morning so I relaxed a bit in the room before leaving for the airport. Using my return fare on my Airport Express pass I was back at the airport and ready to leave. One funny thing happened when I got to the ticket counter. When I gave the man my passport and he looked up my reservation he noticed I was going to Nashville. I guess that is not a place that Chinese people are used to saying because he pronounced it Nashwilly. I got some last minute shopping done at some of the many stores in the terminal, using up most of the Hong Kong currency I had left. When I got to the gate they were almost ready to start boarding. It was the least organized gate boarding I've ever seen and I've flown Southwest before. Anyway, when I was standing in a line at the gate I was behind an American couple who had a Chinese baby. I can only guess that perhaps they adopted him. But while the man was holding the baby over his shoulder, the child stuck his finger into his eye and popped his eyeball out of its socket. Holy crap that was the most bizarre thing I have ever seen. And he did it twice! It gives me the heebie jeebies just thinking about it.
Anyway, once on board I was ready for the long trip home. The return flight was not as long, about fourteen hours if I recall. Five movies (Birdman, Bad Words, St. Vincent, The Judge and This is Where I Leave You) and three meals (beef and noodles, garbanzo bean wrap, egg and cheese croissant) later I was back in the U.S. of A. and the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. I must have been on the handicapped flight because there were around two dozen wheelchairs there to help passengers. During the couple few hours of the layover I tried to remain awake. While waiting there was a flight to Panama City that was supposed to leave from the next gate over. They had to change planes because the one they were supposed to take was infested with bugs. No such trouble on my flight which got into BNA a little early and I was home by around 9:00ish.
So what is my impression of Hong Kong? Warm, humid and full of Chinese people. It was good to get out of the city when I could. Much like London, New York and other big cities it can get to be a grind after a while. Just as it was in Japan, I felt like the tallest person around. English is almost everywhere, except in certain places that cater to local Chinese. I never really had much of a problem communicating. Overall it was not a bad trip. I think I might be getting to old for this sort of thing though, especially traveling by myself. There were times I felt conspicuously alone even in a crowd of people. Then again maybe I was just feeling like the tall white guy in a sea of short Asians.
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