ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 38


A DAY OF PEACE & SERENITY ON LOVELY LANTAU
After 3 days exploring Hong Kong we needed a little respite from the noise, smells, rabble, and chaos of the city. In search of some peace and quiet we headed out to Lantau, the closest and most accessible of the Outer Islands. This sparsely populated, densely forested, mountainous island delivered the serenity we were after, and we even got to enjoy some time communing with nature. It was a great way to spend the day and gave us a much-needed break from the excitement of central Hong Kong!

 

 

Lantau is the largest of Hong Kong’s islands – its twice the size of Hong Kong Island itself. It’s also one of the least populated islands, with most of the mountains and coastal land remaining undeveloped and densely forested. Most of Lantau Island is national park, which is why it is often referred to as “the lungs of Hong Kong”. The beaches around Lantau seemed quite nice too, with clean white sand and palm trees for shade.

 

 

Lantau Island’s most famous landmark, however, is the giant Tian Tan Buddha perched high on Ngong Ping Plateau at the centre of the island. This 26m high bronze statue was built by monks from the nearby Po Lin Monastery and is a major tourist attraction.

 

 

The Hong Kong metro system has a link in to Tung Chung, the only town on the island. From Tung Chung there is normally a cable car that whips you up to Ngong Ping Plateau, right near the monastery and giant Buddha. Luckily* the cabe car is currently under-going maintenance and is closed; the only way up to the plateau was by local bus.
*I say “luckily” because this greatly reduced the number of tourists up there today – we virtually had the place to ourselves.

 

 

The bus ride was pleasant enough, with the views keeping us entertained. The funniest thing we saw were cows and buffalo crossing the road. Apparently they’re wild on Lantau and roam the island freely, munching on grass and blocking traffic. Not at all what we expected in modern, busy Hong Kong!

 

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It took 45 minutes of driving through the winding roads of Lantau to reach Ngong Ping, but once we were up there, it was great. The large plaza in front of the monastery was empty and took our time exploring the area. There were dozens of statues lined up along the open-air arcade, all of them fierce warriors and protectors of Buddha.

 

 

 

 

After admiring him from a few different angles, we climbed the 268 steps up to the Tian Tan Buddha (no small feat in this heat and humidity!). The statue sits atop a small hill, over-looking the entire island of Lantau and enjoying views across to some of the other, smaller Outer Islands of Hong Kong.

 

 

 

 

Surrounding the giant Buddha were six smaller bronze statues which we learnt are known as “The Offering of the Six Devas”. They are posed offering flowers, incense, lamp, ointment, fruit, and music to the Buddha, and symbolise the Six Perfections of generosity, morality, patience, zeal, meditation, and wisdom – all of which are necessary for enlightenment.

 

 

Opposite the statue, the Po Lin Monastery is one of Hong Kong’s most important Buddhist sanctums. It’s a lovely temple, richly decorated and incredibly colourful. There were a few people at the temple, praying and making their offerings. The smell of incense was thick in the air and it was lovely to experience the serenity of the place.

 

 

 

 

Open to the public, the monastery’s main temple houses three bronze statues of the Buddha (representing his past, present and future lives) in a a beautifully decorated hall.

 

 

 

 

Having explored the monastery and its grounds we set off for a short hike, starting with the Wisdom Path, This short walk into the forest around the monastery took us to a series of 38 wooden monuments inscribed with Buddhist verses.

 

 

 

 

From there we walked some of the way up Lantau Peak, which, at 934m high, is the island’s highest mountain. We didn’t go all the way to the top because it was stupidly hot and humid. We did, however, get to enjoy a nice couple of hours walking along the Lantau Trail. The whole trail is about 70km long and crosses the entire island; we just did about 8km of it and then caught the bus back down to Tung Chung.

 

 

 

 

From Tung Chung it took just 30 minutes by metro for us to thrown back into the midst of a busy working day in central Hong Kong. The pace of life in this city is incredible – everyone walks so fast, they drive like maniacs and even the escalators go super-fast. Walking back to our hotel we marvelled at how different things were on Lantau Island, just a few kilometres away. We have loved the buzz and the vibe of Hong Kong and would happily come back for more, but it’s also been great to have a day of nature and serenity. Especially since tomorrow we leave Hong Kong for “mainland” China and goodness know how chaotic and busy THAT’s going to be!

 

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 37


HONG KONG’S FABULOUS TIN HAU FESTIVAL 
Tin Hau is the Goddess of the Sea and the equivalent of Hong Kong’s Buddhist “patron saint”. Serendipitously today happens to be Tin Hau’s birthday and, since we’re here, we thought we’d join in the celebrations for this heavenly empress’s eponymous festival. The street parade of dragons, lion dancers, and religious floats was fantastic and, once again, we had an awesome day of festival fun! This festival thing could definitely become a habit…

 

 

The Tin Hau Festival is one of Hong Kong’s most colourful celebrations and is celebrated at all the various temples dedicated to this goddess. Many of the celebrations are quite low key and sombre; in the outlying village of Yuen Long, however, we were told, the festivities are quite something. We love a good festival, so we caught the MTR (Hong Kong’s ultra-modern, spotlessly clean and super efficient metro system) out to Yuen Long to join in the fun.

 

 

Yuen Long is a small township in the New Territories*, about an hour out of central Hong Kong. Being a fishing town Tin Hau has a strong and loyal following there. Which is why, every year on the 23rd day of the 3rd lunar month, the residents of Yuen Long have a big party in honour of Tin Hau. As we stepped off the train we could already here the deep throbbing beat of the drums and clanging of the cymbals. It didn’t take us long to find the festival.
*Hong Kong consists of 4 regions: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, the New Territories and the Outer Islands. Hong Kong’s territory was acquired from three separate treaties: Hong Kong Island as part of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842; Kowloon with the Treaty of Beijing in 1860; and The Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory in 1898 gave the UK the control of the Outer Islands and the New Territories. As of 1997, when the UK’s 99 year lease expired, Hong Kong is once again part of China.

 

 

 

 

The streets were a riot of colour, with many different troupes doing traditional lion and dragon dances, marching bands, and lots of flags being waved.

 

 

 

 

We found a spot to stand with the crowd and watch the passing parade, marvelling at the lion and dragon dancers as they jumped and wove their way along the streets.

 

 

 

 

It was incredibly hot and humid today and just WATCHING those guys dance was exhausting!

 

 

 

 

The colourful Fa Pau floats were great too. These large decorated towers were being taken to the temple, together with offerings for Tin Hau.

 

 

 

 

The street parade wound its way towards the temple, where celebrations continued and offerings were made. At this stage affairs became a little more sombre and, not wanting to intrude on people’s devotions, we moved and went for a stroll through Yuen Long.

 

 

The town itself was busy and a bit more chaotic than central Hong Kong, but interesting none the less.

 

 

After a few more hours of exploring Yuen Long we had run out of steam and so found our way back to the station, bound for Hong Kong Island and the cool comfort of our hotel room for our afternoon nap*.
*Due to the ever-present, oppressive heat and humidity we’re finding it best to split our explorations of Hong Kong into 2 sessions: morning and evening. The afternoons are the hottest part of the day, as it builds towards the inevitable 4:00pm storm. Once the rain passes it cools down wonderfully, making for pleasant evening outings.

 

 

 

 

Once it had cooled down we wandered back out looking for food and found a great little eatery tucked up in the top floor of a tiny shopping arcade. For $72HKD (about $12AUD) we had a great meal of stir-fried meat and veggies (free gristle included) with rice. We had aspirations of going down to Victoria Harbour after dinner tonight but then a thunderstorm struck and we dashed home in the rain to watch the lightening from our hotel room instead.

 

 

We’ve had a great few days in Hong Kong so far and have one more day to go. Not sure what we’ll do tomorrow, but we’re thinking it might be something quiet and (hopefully) not too crowded. Today was awesome, but the sheer number of people was quite overwhelming. Actually the sheer number of people EVERYWHERE in Hong Kong is quite overwhelming. And everyone walks everywhere so fast – even the escalators go faster than anywhere we’ve ever been! This is a full-on city that runs at full speed, 24 hours per day. It’s exhilarating and fascinating, but intense and exhausting at times too. Wonder how the rest of China will compare….

 

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 36


HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY FROM KOWLOON!
It’s Mother’s Day and, although we’re all the way over here in Hong Kong, we took the time today to think of our Mums – hope everyone out there did the same! Certainly Mother’s Day is a big deal here in Hong Kong; every brunch and yum cha place was packed with families and we saw lots of smiling ladies walking around with flowers. Seems love and respect of your birth-giver is universal!

 

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After seeing a bit of Hong Kong Island yesterday we decided to take ourselves over to the other side of Victoria Harbour today, to Kowloon.

 

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Historically Kowloon was the most densely populated part of Hong Kong, with refugees from mainland China congregating there and workers unable to afford the high rent prices on Hong Kong Island also living there. During the 1970s and 1980s, before China loosened its regulations around trading with the world, Kowloon was also where you could go to buy lots of cheap stuff that was made just across the border*.
*For years selling goods through vendors in Kowloon was a known, but not publicised, way for Chinese made products to be sold outside of China. This is how Hong Kong got its reputation as a good place to go shopping for cheap stuff. It’s still a great place for shopping, but with Chinese goods now available world-wide, shopping here does not hold the same allure it once did.

 

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Modern Kowloon is still the city’s main shopping neighbourhood and is also home to lots one of Hong Kong’s mots famous tourist sights: The Avenue of Stars. This water-front promenade is modelled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and has the names and handprints of famous Hong Kong movie stars imbedded in the walkway. We love cheesy kung fu movies* and recognised a few names along the way.
*Kung fu movies are the best known product of the Hong Kong film industry – for decades it was the third largest film industry in the world (after Hollywood and Bollywood). The political and artistic freedom Hong Kong had under British rule allowed movies to be made and distributed without issue. Although the success of the local film industry has waned in recent years, HongKongers are still very proud of their cinema legacy.

 

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And if course, who wouldn’t recognise this statue of Hong Kong’s most famous kung fu master…

 

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The best thing about The Avenue of Stars though was the view we got to enjoy across the harbour. It must be stunning at night when all the lights of Hong Kong Island are shining!

 

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From the waterfront of Kowloon we wandered up Nathan Road, the main thoroughfare in Kowloon and home to more luxury boutiques, shopping malls, and shops than we’ve ever seen. There were some very fancy shops in there (shops we would NOT have been allowed to walk into in our scruffy travel gear), but a whole lot of small shops and grimy-looking alleys filled with stores too. We saw every kind of shop imaginable – from clothing stores, jewellers, designer handbag shops, pharmacies filled with Chinese herbs, and everything else in between. More than once we were approached by touters on the street offering to sell us “genuine fake” handbags, watches, or clothing. We could have had a dozen tailored suits made if we’d taken all the suit-sellers up on their offers, and hand-made shoes were on offer too. Pity we’re on a strict luggage weight limit….

 

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We squandered hours just wandering through malls and laneways, with hunger and heat exhaustion eventually driving us into a likely looking (and air conditioned) yum cha* restaurant for lunch. The whole place was packed (always a good sign) and we had to wait a while for a table, but it was totally worth it. The steamed chicken and chive dumplings were awesome, and the prawn dumplings divine. Dim sum# is one of our favourite ways to eat and turns out Hong Kong dim sum on Nathan Road rocks!
*Yum cha means “to drink tea” in Cantonese and is a way of dining that involves eating a selection of small dishes that are accompanied by green tea.
#Dim sum is the term for the food you eat at yum cha. Basically dim sum are small, bite-sized portions of food, served hot or cold, and designed to be shared. Dumplings are our favourite kind of dim sum, but wontons, soup, stir fried veggies, fried rice, steamed pork buns, chicken feet, custard tarts, and tapioca pudding all featured on the menu today too.

 

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We ate way too much and went for a very sedate stroll through Kowloon Park to aid the digestive process. This large public garden was a nice place to wander and people watch. There were families enjoying picnics in the park, kids swimming in the public pool, and people practicing kung fu and tai chi. They even had flamingos in the park!

 

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The funniest thing we saw in the park was The Avenue of Comic Stars, which features a whole lot of statues of local comic book and cartoon characters. None of them were familiar to us, but there were some pretty funny ones in the mix.

 

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Having worked off our lunch we then caught the metro back across to Hong Kong Island and enjoyed our afternoon nap in our air conditioned room (love being on holiday!). Properly rested we then headed out for dinner and some more adventuring in Kowloon, this time at the Temple Street Night Markets.

 

 

 

The Temple Street Night Markets were a riot of colour, noise, and smells, with everything from food to mobile phones, watches, shoes, clothing, bags, lighters, sunglasses, hair accessories, toys, and condoms for sale. Everything was cheap and of excellent quality, or so we kept getting told. It was great fun checking out all the stalls and, even though we didn’t make any purchases, our evening spent at the Temple Street Market was certainly entertaining!

 

 

 

And thus ends our Sunday in Hong Kong. It’s been a great couple of days, and we’ve just found out that there’s a festival on tomorrow. We love festivals! We just have to work out exactly where and when the festivities are happening so we can go check it out. Tune in tomorrow to see what a Hong Kong festival day looks like…

 

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 35


NEIH HOU FROM HONG KONG!
Our first full day in Hong Kong and we are feeling excited, appalled, overwhelmed, exhausted and exhilarated, all at the same time! What a city! So many people, buildings, and cars! Such a mixture of sights, sounds and smells! One thing’s for sure, we ain’t in Kansas no more Toto….

 

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We arrived into Hong Kong airport late last night and, as soon as we hit the 30C and 90% humidity (this is at 11:00pm at night mind you), we knew we were in trouble. We thought Brisbane was hot and humid?! Holy crap, Hong Kong makes Brisbane seem temperate and pleasant by comparison! You don’t so much breathe the air here as chew your way through it. Thank goodness for air conditioners, otherwise we would be 2 puddles of sweaty gweilo* jelly!
*Gweilo is the Cantonese slang term for foreigners. It was once used pejoratively to mean “foreign devil” but today is used as a general term to mean “foreigner”.

 

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We arrived after all the trains and buses to the centre of Hong Kong had stopped running so our only option was to catch a cab to Sheung Wan where we’re staying. The taxi ride into town was hilarious and terrifying – we were both white knuckled, hanging on for dear life, as we raced along Hong Kong’s expressways at 130km/h in a clunky old 1990 sedan that looked it had already been in a few scrapes. Our cabbie must have been an aspiring rally car driver, the way he was screeching around corners, undertaking people at a million miles per hour, and using his brakes to the limit of their capacity. Let me tell you, by the time we got to our hotel we were WIDE awake!

 

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We eventually made it to bed and woke this morning, after a good night’s sleep, ready to explore some of this incredible city. Hong Kong* was once a British colony, and is now a “Special Administrative Region” within the People’s Republic of China. Under the principle of “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong is administered differently to “mainland” China, with many more economic, political and moral freedoms (at least for now). The mix of Chinese heritage with years of British rule has definitely left their imprint on Hong Kong – this is “East meets West” at its best. The street signs are in both Chinese and English; the food culture blends Western and Eastern; and all around us the architecture is a mix of ultra-modern skyscrapers and typically Asian roof-lines.
*Which roughly translates to “Fragrant Harbour” in Cantonese by the way. Makes sense, it does get a bit stinky in places, what with the heat and humidity and press of humanity.

 

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The city state of Hong Kong includes Hong Kong Island, Kowloon (part of mainland China), and hundreds of smaller islands. We’re staying on Hong Kong island itself and focussed our explorations there today, starting with the most iconic destination in all of Hong Kong: Victoria Peak. This 552m mountain is the highest in Hong Kong and sits just behind the main business district. Like millions of other tourists every year (and several thousands of them with us today), we reached the top of Victoria Peak this morning via the Peak Tram.

 

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Originally built in 1860, the Peak Tram runs from the Central district to Victoria Peak, covering a distance of about 1.4km and climbing 400m. The views from the tram as went up were great, and they got even better when we got to the top.

 

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At the top of Victoria Peak there are a couple of shopping centres and a whole lot of restaurants. It was soooooooo busy up there that we quickly ran away from the main shopping area and went for a stroll around one of the mountain-top walking tracks that loop around Victoria Peak. The rainforest that blankets the mountain was incredibly green and it was nice and cool (relatively) under the trees. The views across to the Southern, less populated side of the island were pretty cool too.

 

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When we’d had enough of the views we caught the Peak Tram back down and went for a wander through Hong Kong Gardens. This large, landscaped park incorporates a whole lot of public facilities (e.g. sports ground, children’s playground, wedding venue), as well as an aviary, fish-filled ponds, and a number of quiet shady spots to sit and relax. The gardens were nice enough, but a little too artificial and “perfectly constructed” for us. Obviously in a city this packed*, however, any green space is good space!
*Hong Kong has a population of 7.2 million people and very little flat land. This means lots and lots of high rise apartment buildings, very little green space, and a very high population density.

 

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From Hong Kong Gardens it was a short stroll to Statue Square and the main part of Central, Hong Kong Island’s main business district. This is where many multinationals and financial corporations have their headquarters*, and looked like an endless parade of big shiny buildings to us, way down on the ground.

 

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One of the bigger buildings was the HSBC Main Building (the headquarters of The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation). This shiny, metallic construction has an atrium you can visit where the unique characteristics of the building are explained to gawking tourists like us. Included in the list of impressive credentials were facts like this:
• The building has no internal support structures.
• Natural sunlight is the major source of lighting inside the building. There is a bank of giant mirrors at the top of the atrium which reflect sunlight into the atrium and into the offices around it..
• Instead of fresh water, sea water is used as coolant for the air-conditioning system.

 

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By this stage we were both dripping with sweat (due to the 38C + 90% humidity) and were keen for some respite. We caught the Mid-level Escalator* up to Hollywood Road and found an air conditioned café to chill out in (pardon the pun) for a bit before continuing our wanderings.
*The Central Mid-level escalator and walkway system is the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world. The entire system goes for 800m and conveniently links parts of Central together that would otherwise require a lot of hiking up some very steep roads.

 

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We walked along Hollywood Road for a while, stopping to admire the antique shops* lining the street. Unfortunately we’re not really in the market for a $25,000AUD Ming Dynasty porcelain vase, but it was still interesting to see what’s for sale. Some of the antique shops were jammed full of goods, with dust accumulating in the corners and all sorts of curios piled around each other.
*More than 100 years ago when it was first laid down, Hollywood Road was much closer to the coastline (since then Hong Kong has reclaimed a lot of land to extend its available land area). In those days, foreign merchants and sailors would put up the antiques and artefacts they “collected” from China for sale here on their way back to Europe. This is how Hollywood Road began its role as an antique market

 

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One of the highlights of our day was Man Mo Temple, which sits quietly amongst a confluence of modern apartment buildings on Hollywood Road. Built in 1847, this is the largest temple in Hong Kong dedicated to the gods of literature (Man) and war (Mo). The peace within the temple made for a nice contrast to the traffic noise and chaos just outside.

 

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This area is very “Chinese” and we had a good time getting lost in the narrow lane ways looking at the curiosities for sale in the shops. These little streets were packed with shops selling all sorts of dried fruits, herbs and medicines, seafood and dried meats. We saw dried fish skins, dried mushrooms, dehydrated ginseng root, dried oysters, dried clams, desiccated sea cucumbers, and even dried lizards on a stick (not sure if these were for eating or for boiling into some kind of medicinal broth).

 

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Thus, after a day of wandering the streets of Hong Kong Island, we’ve retreated to our air conditioned, gloriously silent hotel room for an afternoon nap and some recovery time. It’s been great to see some of Hong Kong, but what a day! So much noise! So much pushing and shoving*!

*We’re learning that queueing is a sport here, not an exercise in politeness and restraint like in Japan. One must claim one’s place and defend it by every possible means – elbows are especially useful. And never leave a gap between you and the person in front of you, otherwise this will be taken as an invitation for someone to slip in and fill said gap. The key is to be fearless!

 

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We knew Hong Kong would a bit of a culture shock after Japan, but that’s part of the reason we’re here. Considering we’re heading to mainland China after this, we intentionally booked these few days in Hong Kong to help us adjust mentally and physically to being a foreign tourist in China. It always takes us at least a day or 2 to adjust to a new city, let alone a new country and new culture, but today has left us pretty worn out. Dare we venture out this evening to see this amazing metropolis by night? Depends how brave we’re feeling….

 

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POST-SCRIPT

We did manage to head out after dark! We ended up going back up the Peak Tram to Victoria Peak for dinner and the best night time view ever. It had cooled down enough that it was almost pleasant and we got to enjoy a great meal overlooking the city and Victoria Harbour. Hong Kong by night is spectacular! So many lights – it was mesmerising. What a city!

 

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