Wednesday, April 23, 2008

More Hong Kong

21/04/08

Well, we were lucky; it didn't rain yesterday or today. In fact, today was almost sunny. But muggy – very muggy. The temperature is about 28°C and there's 75% humidity. That's what I think I understood from the sign above the metro entrance earlier today. Add to that a typically Chinese smell that comes from I don't know what – maybe the different food odors since there is always food cooking in the street. But to our western noses, it stinks.

Yesterday we explored Hong Kong Island. Our first adventure was the metro where we got our day passes and figured out which direction we were going. Our hotel is next to the Jordan station in Kowloon and very convenient to the waterfront in Kowloon (just one stop away) and the island (next stop). Our walking tour started near the airport express line which connects to "our" line at th terminus: Central Station. The walk just to get out of the station complex was really long and even took us through a shopping center. We finally exited at IFC (International Finance Center) Mall at the base of IFC Two, which, it turns out is the tallest building in Hong Kong. Of course, from the base, you don't realize that.

As we keep going through shopping centers, I think of my father and how impressed I think he would have been. China is where they make almost everything, right? And on our trip two years ago, we learned that the counterfeit market is not really counterfeit; it's surplus. They make more of the original goods than was actually ordered and sell that. So, you can find really cheap "copies" of anything you can imagine. Yet these shopping centers are filled with luxury shops that sell the "original" European and American brands at are priced accordingly. And on the street, at every corner, someone is pulling you in to the tailor shop for a suit ($160 US) or "copy watch -copy bag". They are very honest; they always say it's a copy.

Coming out of the mall, we were at street level, which, it turns out, is not for pedestrians. It took us some time to figure out how to cross the street to get to the waterfront where we had a magnificent view of Kowloon. And the ferries.... - the opposite of the day before. We walked along the waterfront and found the construction site of the project we'd seen the plans for at the Heritage Discovery Center. They are at the beginning – the landfill stage. The channel between Kowloon and the island is getting narrower and narrower – no larger than the river at Shanghai.

As we admired the convention center (inspired by the Sydney opera?) an old fishing boat passed by. I hope the picture is ok. It was so dark and cloudy, I may just have a silhouette of it, but that might be nice, too.

We headed inwards, towards the Financial Exchange, home of the Hang Seng. It was Sunday, so there were no business people about, but the were groups of women – and I mean lots and lots of groups lined up on cardboard "stalls" that they made by marking boundaries with upright cardboard or umbrellas. They lined the walkway. They were playing cards, eating, giving each other manicures, or just gabbing. Hundreds. I guess, since it was Sunday, they were just getting together. I don't know if they were Chinese women or immigrants. Our route took us through the Central Market and the groups of women were there, too. Non-stop from the Financial Exchange.

From the Central Market, we took the Mid-levels Escalator. This escalator runs for blocks and blocks uphill past Robinson Road. Of course the street below is a pedestrian street with steps and one imagines how tedious it was to get between the mid-level streets and the business section below before 1993. As you go up, it gets more and more chic. This seems to be where most of the westerners live. They are out walking their dogs. The restaurants are almost any kind of cuisine except Chinese. The escalators take you past the Mosque and, I noticed on the map, a synagogue is just a few blocks away. The ride seemed endless, but it was not.

Instead of going back downhill to get back on our walking tour itinerary we decided to cut over to the Botanical Gardens and find our way to the tram station to get the tram up to Victoria Gap. The garden is like the Jardin des Plantes in Paris – zoo and botanical garden in one. It's small, but pleasant to walk through. When we came out the other side, we were told that the tram was suspended because of a fallen tree (from the storm the day before?), so we had to take a bus. Unfortunately, the bus was crowded and, standing up, it was hard to look out the windows to see the scenery on the way up. The hills are very steep, so there is not too much construction and it's like driving through the woods.

Victoria Gap is the stop on the way to Victoria Peak where they have created the tourist trap. Well, not too much of a trap, thank goodness. There is a building with restaurants and shops and a viewing terrace. You have to pay to get to the terrace, but the view is worth it. By the time we got up there, the fog had lifted, so we could see the city below us. It's impressive. The buildings, residential and office, are so tall that people living or working at the lower floors must never see the light of day and you wonder how they breathe. It's like being in a well! I wouldn't say the view is beautiful, but it is certainly impressive. We had a very American lunch at Bubba Gump's. It was that kind of tourist place. It was also a good lunch.

We rode the bus back almost to the terminus, getting off at the Central metro station. I needed some time to rest after which we set off to discover the area just north of the hotel We walked along Temple Street, which is a night market. They were just setting up their stalls as we walked up the street. This is for tourists and not really very interesting, although I'm sure it's colorful at night. Then we cut through a street that is a permanent food market. In addition to the fruits and vegetables we didn't recognize, the ones we think we know are disproportionately big. Enormous carrots, for example. This street lead us to the Jade market, which is another tourist thing. There's not even all that much jade. They sell all sorts of baubles. So we cut through there rather quickly and kept going up Saigon street until we reached the street that specializes in electronics. We checked a few shops to see if we could find the high-speed memory card for Paul's camera, but no one had one. It was past 6 pm and what was astounding was the crowd in the street. The street was packed. It's a pedestrian street and jam-packed with people, most of them Chinese, so even if this is on the map for tourists, it's not a touristy place. This is the heart of the Mong Kok neighborhood, which used to be the densest area and was known for its brothels. The authorities are trying to clean it up, so there's this magnificent hotel tower sitting in the middle of some pretty dirty older buildings.

Paul wanted to see the lit-up buildings along the waterfront so we got on the metro and headed down there again. It was still hazy and we didn't know when all the buildings put on their show unfortunately. But it is still a lovely scene. We decided to head back up to our hotel neighborhood for dinner and found ourselves in a very popular restaurant that was packed with Chinese. Turns out it was a vegetarian restaurant. Very good. But I don't see the point of having vegetarian pork shops (made from bean curd) or vegetarian seafood dumplings. Why try to imitate the taste and texture of what it's not?

This morning we headed out on a walking tour of the antique dealers along Hollywood Road. The first challenge was to find the bus from the Central metro station. The guide book said the bus stop was in front of the HSBC bank, but we ended up in the wrong direction and a man at the stop escorted us to the right stop, which we would have never found on our own. It was not really near his stop and very nice of him to escort us like that. From the end of Hollywood Road, it took us all morning to zig-zag back to the Central metro. The street of antique dealers, the street of dried fish, the street of traditional pharmaceuticals, the oldest Buddhist temple in Hong Kong. Before taking the metro, we had lunch at a restaurant on Stanley street, not far from the beginning of the mid-levels escalators. This was the best meal I think we had in Hong Kong. I had shrimp dumplings in chicken broth.

After lunch, during which we dried off from our long morning walk in the mugginess, we went to the art museum to spend the afternoon in air-conditioned comfort. They've got a special exhibit on the French taste for Chinese porcelain, fabrics and other art. Most of the items were on loan from the Guimet museum in Paris. There's also an exhibit of recent modern art – artists influenced by stories. Several of the paintings had paper and pencil supplies and an invitation to write your own story of the painting. Interesting. Not to forget the museum's own porcelain collection and the jade and gold.

All good things must come to an end and we had to go outside again. We still had a few hours to go before getting the bus to the airport, so I indulged myself in a foot and a back massage. A foot massage is painful, but you feel so good when it's done. I love it. Paul waited patiently for me and refused all attempts to get him to have a massage. Then, it was back to the hotel, where I had time to start writing this. :I'm finishing it as we are flying over Australia, heading for Melbourne.

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