Archive for the ‘Hong Kong’ Category

Some neat pictures of Kai Tak airport, the old one in Hong Kong which required a ninety degree turn shortly before landing while flying between the skyscrapers.

I landed there a couple of times in the back of airliners, and once while flying a full-motion 747 simulator. I was surprised to discover that it was easier than I thought, but that was probably because I didn’t have real buildings to crash into if I screwed it up.

Harbour Buildings

Hong Kong Harbour

I think Hong Kong is a city that I could live in. I like being by the sea, and the interesting mixture of English and Cantonese. Unlike most of the other Asian cities I’ve visited it’s easy to get around because a large fraction of the population speak English. The public transport system is pretty good too, and I like the ferries.

Strangest thing is the way that people seem to amble everywhere as if they have no idea of where they’re going. Perhaps it’s because I was staying in the tourist area and people were shopping, but I don’t think so. Or perhaps they were just walking slowly to stay as long as possible in the blasting cold air from the air-conditioned shops.

Hong Kong Skyscrapers

But most of the time when I was walking around it seemed that if I wasn’t having to play tout slalom to avoid all the people handing out leaflets for tailors, trying to get me to stay at their hostel, or offering to sell me a ‘copy watch’ (fake Rolex), I’d be stuck behind a bunch of people ambling along the road, or even across it. I can see that the temperature might have had some effect, but it still seems strange for a city where ‘The business is business’.

The main exception to all of this are the schoolkids, who seem to rush everywhere at top speed, especially in museums. I have no idea at what age the metamorphosis occurs…

I returned to the same hostel/hotel as before, this time getting a larger room with no window. As before, the city was damn hot and the fan didn’t make too much difference. However, the room was cheap by Hong Kong standards. Very little else was, and although the immediate area was full of small, cheap-looking Chinese restaurants, almost all of them had menus only in Chinese. For the first time in years I had to resort to eating in McDonalds…

Hong Kong Clock Tower

The most annoying thing about the hostel was the wait for the lifts. They’re really slow and because of that lots of people press the call button then give up and take the stairs. Consequently the lifts stop at just about every floor and often noone’s there. As a result the lifts are even slower… Sometimes I had to queue for ten minutes just to get up to the thirteenth floor. I wasn’t climbing that many stairs in that heat!

The prize for the best cheap food in the city (or at least the best that I found) has to go to ‘Bon Appetit’, a Vietnamese noodle shop hidden away in a tiny alley on Hong Kong Island. For about HK$40 (about $5) you can get a large plate of noodles and a coconut milk and things drink. Shame I didn’t find it until late in my visit, as it was only a short walk and ferry ride away.

BTW, just for future reference, when I say ‘$’ I mean US dollars, and when I’m talking about local currency I’ll say ‘HK$’ or ‘S$’ or something like that.

The harbor ferries were pretty cool. I used them most of the time in preference to the MTR trains, partly because I was staying close to a ferry terminal and partly just because they’re more fun and definitely give a much better view.

Boat In The Harbour

Harbour Traffic

They’re split into two decks, the lower deck is for cheapskates like me who want to save $0.10 each way, but has the added advantage that you’re right down near the water and have no windows. This makes photography a lot easier, and Hong Kong is nothing if not photogenic. I eventually had to take strict control over my picture-taking urges as I was running through a worryingly expensive amount of film.

The ferry terminals try very hard to funnel people onto the upper deck to get their extra ten cents, to the extent of trying to hide the lower deck entrance away. I decided to try it out one day, and it’s a very different world up there. For your money you get a lot of upmarket shops and cable TV to watch as you wait. You also get your windows on the ferry, but I don’t see why you’d want them unless the weather was really bad.

I had planned to visit another net.friend here, but completely failed to find him. The phone number he’d sent didn’t work, and neither did the three others that Hong Kong Telecom gave me. I sent a postcard to the address he’d given so that he could call me, but that didn’t work either and I couldn’t work out where he was so I didn’t have chance to try to find it by foot. I had to make do by myself instead.

I spent some time checking out the job prospects as I thought I might want to come back next year. That’s a possibility, but the computer job market doesn’t seem as good as I’d been told. The Chinese takeover is another issue, but I’d hope they wouldn’t throw me out straight away. I’d hoped to talk to some of the employment agencies to find out what they thought, but they couldn’t manage anything more complicated than ‘send in your resume’.

The Mosque

The first full day I just went for a wander around Kowloon, and discovered Kowloon Park hidden away behind the Mosque. This was a Wednesday when all museums seem to be free, so I visited the History Museum inside the Park. Of course being free it was crowded with the aforementioned schoolkids. Hong Kong has certainly had a complicated history, and suffered from a lot of disasters in the last few decades.

I was going to walk down to the harbor, but on the way I passed the Space Museum and spotted the magic word ‘OMNIMAX’ and decided I’d better stop to visit. I hadn’t been in an OMNIMAX cinema since I was last in Boston and couldn’t really miss this one. The museum was a bit low-level for me, but I did rather want to try out the 1/6 gravity simulator. Unfortunately the queue would take longer to clear than the time I had before the films. I actually learnt a few things about cosmology from the Stephen Hawkings film, and ‘The Living Sea’ was entertaining, if preachy.

The only big tourist thing I did was to visit Victoria Peak, which I was told was compulsory. This is the highest point on Hong Kong Island, from where you get a great view of the city. I took the Peak Tramway, which has been carrying people up a steep incline in cable-powered trams for over a century now. I must say, the city looks a lot different when you’re inclined at over forty-five degrees to the horizontal!

At the end of the tramway is a large shopping center and most people seem to just stop there to admire the view while they shop. I also found the famous pagoda which appears in so many guidebook and postcard pictures taken from the Peak. While I was there yet another TV crew turned up, this time from the ‘Home Shopping Network’. I wonder how many more times I’ll be filmed on this trip…

Victoria Park

Hong Kong is surprisingly green. I’d expected the whole island to be covered with skyscrapers, but in fact it’s only some parts of the coast. Once you get more than about 500m from the sea you’re out in the wilds.

Not being a wimp, I decided to make the trek to the real Peak, about 150m above. I began the climb with some trepidation as it was surrounded by dark gray clouds – I’d picked a bad day to visit. The walk was long and steep, and the lampposts on the first stretch of road were covered with announcements of eternal love. Angel was either the most sought-after or most desperate, as almost everyone seemed to have been in love with her at some point…

Halfway there the rain began to pour. Luckily I’d stopped to take some photos next to a busstop, so I hurried over to the shelter and waited it out. A few more dedicated people passed by in both directions, but the rain was so hard that I could barely see them from more than twenty meters away.

As the rain stopped I carried on, past apartment blocks with vast numbers of Mercedes and BMWs parked outside. This was clearly a rich part of town. I stopped for a brief look at Victoria Park in the drizzle, and was the only person there, then followed the path up towards the peak. It split into two but I continued along what appeared to be the correct route according to my guide book. Ahead loomed a large collection of communications towers with microwave dishes pointing in various directions. The path lead in front of it but was very overgrown and I didn’t think I’d be going any further without a machete.

Skyscrapers From Hong Kong Park

I gave up, assuming that I’d either taken the wrong route or that so few people bothered with the climb that nature had retaken the path. It certainly appeared to have taken a dislike to the lampposts as many of them had their tops torn off. Either way, I was about as high as I could get on the Island so I spent a while taking pictures before heading back. This was a little complicated as the clouds which had been raining on the Peak when the city was in sunshine were now raining on the city while the Peak was in sunshine.

I walked slowly back to the shopping mall and stopped to eat. The sun set and I watched the city in the darkness for a while from the Pagoda, which rapidly filled up with crowds. In the distance on the seafront I could see the intermittent flashes as people photographed each other down there. It looked rather like a space battle from ‘Star Wars’.

Returning to Kowloon the reason was obvious. The Promenade was packed with people (mostly young Chinese) snuggling up with their SOs and watching the ships go by… or most often not watching the ships go by.

Hong Kong Park was another strange place to visit. It’s designed to look very artificial, and is surrounded by huge skyscrapers. Somehow they seem to go together with the artifical lakes and waterfalls. Most of the Park seemed to be full of people with huge lenses on their cameras taking closeup pictures of the flowers.

Since I had a few dollars left over I spent my last evening in Hong Kong watching Independence Day. Hmm, I can’t say it’s my favorite film, but at least Jeff Goldblum wasn’t as hideous as he was in Jurassic Park (I’m still waiting for the interactive version where you can choose who gets eaten; he’s top of the list). Somehow believable plots seem to go out of the window any time Hollywood gets near SF…

Hong King By Neon Light

I am, however, starting to feel rather like a cyberpunk myself, sitting in cheap hotels in Asia typing away on my laptop, with net access a perpetual problem. Aside from China, Hong Kong is the worst place I’ve been for net access. There was a club which met on Saturdays and allowed people to use the Net, but that’s now closed. There’s also a Net Mongolian Restaurant, but that’s expensive and you don’t get to use the Net much. There’s rumored to be a Net Hairdresser. But for another few days, no Net Cafe.

Luckily I switched on the TV for a couple of minutes one night and spotted an announcement for a new computer mall which was opening, so I took a trip down there. There is a Net Cafe there, but it’s not open yet. However, they did let me use their computers free for a few hours so I managed to check my mail and sort out my trip to Taiwan. Otherwise I’d have been in big trouble and failed to meet anyone there either!

Hong Kong Harbour

Boy, these late nights and early mornings are starting to get to me… I spent last night doing a last-minute pre-China email-check at the cyberpub then found some munchies to eat while I caught up on my journal. I woke bleary-eyed at 6am and grabbed a taxi to the airport. For once I actually got one for a reasonable price, only 250 baht. Of course, it was the last taxi I’d take in Thailand on this trip.

I have to say, Thai Air get the award for the slowest check-in so far. They took fifteen minutes to clear the three passengers in front of me, requiring several phone calls and long chats with the girl to the side. At least I had some entertainment as one of the guys behind the desk worked out on the baggage conveyor. Not too hard as there was no baggage going anywhere. Another 250 baht airport tax. I’m not used to this, as tickets between the US and Europe usually include the taxes in the fare. This is becoming a very undesirable drain on my finances.

Landing In Hong Kong

Changed my baht to Hong Kong dollars and wandered the airport for a while looking for something to spend my eight baht change on. Before I changed the money I’d wondered if I should keep some for drinks but didn’t feel thirsty, within a few moments of changing it all I did. Could have guessed. I looked for Yui but couldn’t see her, guess she didn’t make it.

There’s something strange about money. It seems that the money I have in my pocket determines the country that I think I’m in. When my pockets are full of baht I’m intellectually in Thailand, Hong Kong dollars and I’m in Hong Kong, etc. It’s another strange feeling that’s hard to explain. I suppose the ritual money-changing just seems somehow more of an end to my visit than immigration and customs.

Flying into Hong Kong airport was a real experience, even more so than the time I landed there myself in a 747 simulator. There’s a ninety-degree turn just before the runway, and as we flew in to land we were so close to the buildings and other planes that I felt as if I could almost reach out and touch them. At least this wasn’t as exciting as a few decades ago. I once spoke to a guy who’d been in the Air Force back then and flew into Hong Kong on supply flights. The approach path actually came steeply down the mountainside and they’d send the radio operator back to sit on the toilet in the tail and inform the pilot if he was about to hit the ground.

Chungking Mansions

Hong Kong was hot yet again. I picked a guest house at random from the ones I’d underlined in my travel guide and gave them a call. The Kowloon Hotel (actually a Kowloon Hotel, there’s another across the road charging ten times the price) said they had rooms from HK$150 to 350, and I arranged to visit. Changed some more money and took a bus to the hotel, in Tsimshatsui near the infamous Chungking Mansions, where the really cheap travellers’ hostels are. I would like to have saved some money, but I was rather put off the place by the tales I’d heard of the rats being afraid to go out at night for fear of being mugged by the cockroaches.

Touts immediately surrounded the bus, trying to get me to go to their hostels. One followed me all the way while I tried to find the arcade where mine was located, and took a lot of shifting. Two more tried their hand when I got inside.

Took a lift to the 13th floor. The `hotel’ is really a group of flats which have been split up into individual rooms and dorms. Cheap, but not bad for Hong Kong prices. She showed me a HK$180 room, which was small with two beds, a shared bath and a fan rather than air conditioning. Even had a view of the harbor between the skyscrapers, and a view of the vegetable life-form which was engulfing one of the delapidated buildings below like something from a bad fifties SF movie.

A Room With A View

I was grateful to grab a shower, and wished I still had some clean clothes to spare. I had no time for laundry and would need at least one set in China. Blurgh. As soon as I returned to my room rain began to fall outside. I watched the streets for a while, the interesting mix of dirty and rundown skyscrapers and streets packed with neon signs in Chinese and English. Being the tourist area most were for Rolex and expensive Japanese electronics.

Slept for a while, as I hardly had the night before, then got up to catch up on writing. I spent about an hour and a half wandering around the local area getting a rough idea of what was where, then found a Circle-K to grab some munchies and a Citibank machine to take some money out of my bank account. I returned to my room clutching my prize, a bag of potato chips (some strange Japanese seaweed flavor), preserved mango, Sprite and chocolate cake. I dozed off around midnight and woke up again at 4:45am to pack and head for the airport. After a hot night in the room I was glad to be able to shower and change my clothes.

Getting out of the hotel was a bit tricky, as all the doors were locked and when unlocked one was barely wide enough to fit through with all my stuff. Travel light, remember. I took the lift down and stood on Nathan Road (the main drag in Tsimshatsui) looking lost. While I was looking for somewhere with no yellow lines so that a taxi could stop to pick me up, one slammed on the brakes and ushered me rapidly in. I threw my bags in the back, then followed.

The driver was mad, completely and utterly. He stopped for a moment to grab a packet of cigarettes, then we zoomed off. He asked me where I was going and I told him I was visiting a friend who was teaching English in Beijing for a year. He said he was also an English teacher – he taught English to his daughter during the day and then drove taxis at night. He rushed along the roads, sliding the car sideways on corners into the outside lane, forcing the other traffic to get out of his way. `Don’t Worry’ seemed to be his mantra.

For a few moments we discussed the relative insanity of London and Hong Kong taxis, and he was amazed that London taxi-drivers could make enough money if they didn’t drive the way he did. We also thought that perhaps the city should do something like Monaco. Each year they could close off the streets and have a Taxi Grand Prix; `This car Formula One’, he assured me.

I was glad for the seatbelt as he threw the car round the last corner into the airport with squeals from the tyres and brakes. I jumped out and dumped my bags onto the pavement, then with a hint of wheelspin he roared off into the night in search of his next victim, oops, I mean passenger.

Yet another US$15 departure tax. I thought I’d saved money the day before, but now all my savings had vanished. Oh well. Changed some Hong Kong dollars into Chinese Yuan just in case I couldn’t do it in China, then waited for the plane. Took the bus out to it and climbed the steps in front of the idling engine, hoping noone would fall on the throttle and suck me in. A group of Japanese tourists followed, all with expensive video cameras. They filmed each other leaving the bus and walking up the steps and one had to be physically restrained by the stewardess as he tried to film the engine from close up. Like practically inside it…

Yay, a chance to sleep at last. Next stop China!