Hong Kong - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 210 (20)

Hong Kong

Monday 4th October

We went to be very early last night at shortly past eight in the evening but the fatigue from the past few days, the time difference between India and Hong Kong and our energy sapping colds must have all conspired to play tricks on our internal body clocks since we awoke this morning thinking it was late in the morning when in fact had only just turned midnight. The light that poured in through the thin curtains turned out to be the neon glow from the busy streets below but it was enough to trigger our internal alarm clocks to the point that we slowly became awake if not completely fully alert. We were both quite stunned when Sandy illuminated her wristwatch to reveal the actual time. Clearly we had not had enough sleep to sustain us through the remainder of the night but I find it hard to simply lie down and go to sleep on demand. My body has to first be sufficiently tired enough for me to doze off so I picked up the laptop and started to play some games on it to kill some time. Similarly, Sandy turned to her staple bedtime trickery and opened up one of her books to read using her little headlamp on the low setting, just bright enough to illuminate the pages enough for her to read.

It was about an hour later before were both back to sleep again and we slept right through to almost noon. It was a very much-needed rest after the turmoil and culture shock of relocating half way around the continent, into a completely new environment.

My common cold was still lingering but I sensed that the worst had passed. Worrying about Malaria, I scanned through the guidebook to check again for the symptoms but I really didn’t have any and this has put my mind at ease some more. If the cold doesn’t clear up in another day or two, then I will think about looking for a travel health clinic to get tested.

We didn’t have to go far for lunch today. Just walking outside our building lands us smack in the middle of a district that is rich in all sorts of culinary options. We were going to make today the first day that we tried Chinese food but for now, something a little more familiar seemed a lot more comforting and the nearby KFC would suffice just nicely. It was extremely packed inside the restaurant and after carrying our tray full of food around for a few minutes, we eventually had to settle for eating whilst standing up. It must have simply been that time of day since the place was very much emptier by the time we had finished eating.

We hadn’t really had time to go through the guidebook in great detail so we had little idea of what we were going to do today other than to take things relatively easy so we decided to get on the next tram and simply cruise through Hong Kong Island to take in the atmosphere. Hong Kong is a major metropolitan city and is teaming with people. Because of the holiday in Mainland China, there are even more people than usual and it makes for fascinating people watching. East meets West might be the best way to describe this place in that the vast majority of people are oriental yet there are so many similarities with Western metropolitan cities such as London, New York or Paris.

What sets this city apart from London, New York and Paris are the walkways everywhere. Not only are the roads and pavements bustling with people going about their daily business but also there are elevated walkways that criss-cross the roads just above the traffic. They dart in and out of high-rise buildings and represent a whole different level of movement of people throughout the city. Stairs and escalators connect this second tier with the rest of the traffic at street level and it makes for a very fluid movement in any given direction, as there is no motor vehicle traffic to worry about avoiding.

We got out of our tram in an area of the city known as Central, which is where the famous Bank of China building sits nestled amongst a hundred other corporate icons that shoot high into the sky. Feng Shui is somewhat of a way of life here and this particular building, with its slicing lines that project out into the city and through all the other competing banks, is the clear gold medal winner in the eyes and minds of the people of Hong Kong. Even if this form of architectural design doesn’t represent any scientific worthiness, the fact that the locals believe in it and consequently like to put their money where they feel it will be the safest, dictates that it is a force to be reckoned with and it is clearly working for the Bank of China.

Hong Kong is roughly split in two. A body of water slicing Hong Kong Island from Kowloon. Ferries crossings across the channel depart every few minutes and we decided that the best place to view the skyline would be from one of these ferries. Our ferry of choice was the Star Ferry, which is moderately sized and has a lower and upper deck. For a fixed price of just HK$2.20 ($0,30) each, we were whisked over to Kowloon in a matter of minutes. We didn’t really know what to do once we arrived so after a bit of walking around, we boarded the next ferry back over to Hong Kong Island again, although this time to the Central district. The two crossings were just long enough for us to snap a few nice shots of two skylines.

Wandering around the streets of Central, we noticed that several roads had been cordoned off and there were hundreds, if not thousands, of people sitting all over the roads and pavements, eating, chatting with each other and generally relaxing. To us outsiders, it seemed very much like there was some impending parade due to pass through so I asked a uniformed city worker what was going on. It turned out that nothing special was going on at all and that this was simply normal behaviour for the people of Hong Kong on a Sunday afternoon. They come into the city in their droves from all around just to meet with friends and partake in an afternoon picnic in the middle of the city. I can’t think of any other city anywhere in the world where this would work. I still find it hard to believe it here too.

We put the cameras into overdrive and snapped happily away, trying to absorb as much as we could before heading back to our part of town. Since we’d already experienced the walkways, buses and trams, it seemed fitting to try one of the other forms of transport not yet tried so we found the nearest entrance to the underground metro network and went subterranean. The Hong Kong metro, or MTS as it is known here, is by far the very best metro network that I’ve yet seen. It’s like it was built just yesterday and every conceivable improvement to any other underground network that you could hope to wish for has already been implemented here. Everything is automated and is done as it should be, right down to the smallest of details. The underground doesn’t feel like a lot of connected tunnels like London’s tube network. It’s very much airier and there are wide-open spaces with high ceilings everywhere. In fact, it doesn’t even feel like you are underground at all. Modern ticket machines are everywhere. You look at the map, which clearly indicates where you are, and simply touch the destination you need to reach. A display instantly tells you which coins or notes you need to deposit. Drop the coins in and instantly a thin plastic ticket is dispensed. The ticket doesn’t have a magnetic stripe on it but does have a very clear graphic of the underground network depicted with all the stations and crossover points. It’s like having a mini map of the underground right on your ticket. You then follow the overhead signs to your train line and decide which direction you will be travelling, based on the name of the final destination station at each end (similar to the Paris metro network). The platforms and main thoroughfares are all on the same level and there are glass walls with automatic sliding doors between the trains and the platforms. The trains arrive frequently and all the doors open and close at the same time so it is physically impossible to get onto the track. Inside the train there are electronic route planners above each door with lights that depict which station the train is at, which direction the train is moving and which stations have been and are yet to come. There is even a light that informs you which side of the train to exit from at the next station. These route planners are complimented by audible information alerts in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. The carriages are modern and very airy. There are no doorways between the carriages as such so it’s almost like being on one huge, flexible carriage. You could walk from one end to the other with being hindered in any way. The aluminium seats are more comfortable than they look and, again, everything is extremely spotless. Exits to the street are many and, if anything, this might be considered the only criticism of the entire network as it does sometimes feel that you are walking endlessly to get from the street to the train platform, depending on which entrance/exit you take.

Back up on the street level, we decided to visit one of the nearby supermarkets. It looked very small on the outside but much like many other things here in Hong Kong, this was very deceptive. Once inside, it was clear that this particular supermarket must have occupied much of the ground floor area of the particular high-rise that it sat beneath. This is a recurring theme here. Every one of the hundred of high-rise building that make up the city can almost be considered a mini city in its own right. Step through one of the many foyers into a building and you will be confronted with a maze of stairways, escalators and corridors that lead to a wealth of shops, restaurant and businesses. This is true of many of the lower floors of most of these buildings. In the building next to us, for example, the entire eighth floor is devoted to an Internet Café where some hundred or more terminals are mostly occupied with you people playing computer games and surfing the net. On the sixth floor of the building across the road, there is a travel agent whilst half a dozen or more floors of the building next to it house a plethora of restaurants.

Strolling around the supermarket was not too dissimilar from strolling around any other Western supermarket. Pretty much everything was available with Western and Eastern brands all mixed together. The only real difference that I could find was in the fish section. Naturally there was a wide array of different fish all laid out on ice with white coat clad fishmongers standing behind the counters ready to serve. What stood out at different were all the fish tanks containing live fish of almost every conceivable size, shape and colour. You really can’t get any fresher than that.

Having taking advantage of the availability of almost everything, we stocked up on some of our replenishables (toiletries and so on) and went back to our hostel room on the eleventh floor of the building opposite to sort out a selection of photos that would best represent out time in India. After doing this, we went down, across and back up again into the building next door to the eighth floor Internet Café and hooked up the laptop. It was high time that I updated my website and sent out another travel update. I think the connection was the fastest I’ve seen anything anywhere connected to the Internet and the update was very swiftly complete.

Having finished our Internet chores in record time, it was at last time for our first tasting of the local cuisine. It didn’t take us long to stumble into a building with lots of restaurants. Locating a suitable place to eat is very easy here since all the menus have not only descriptions but also colour photographs representing the dishes on offer. In fact, many of them have physical representations made in very realistic plastic in displays by the door. We found a nice restaurant that had suitably appetising looking dishes and were quickly seated. Aside from Sandy’s evident difficulty in mastering the art of chopsticks, the meal was really quite nice and very much better than I had feared. We each had a different variety of pork and the table was further dressed with dishes of vegetable and plain rice, steamed runner beans, and several other weird and wonderful items that I did not recognise by sight, smell or taste. Contrary to my own culinary edict, I tried everything on the table and, quite surprisingly, ate most of it. I think I am going to like Chinese food.

After the rather tasty and delicious meal, we wanted to give some consideration to what will happen after we are done with Hong Kong. We left this too late when we were ready to leave India and as a result, were subjected to a lot of stress of not knowing whether we would get a flight out when we wanted it or not. To make sure this would not be repeated, we wanted to find out what the situation would be for outbound flights to Beijing, the starting point of our tour through China. We had been earlier advised that the best option would be to get a train to Shenzhen, just across the border in Mainland China and then a flight to Beijing. By all accounts, the Beijing flights from Shenzhen are supposed to be cheaper than those from Hong Kong. At the CTS travel agents, however, we discovered the reverse to be true. The only fares that had listed for the Shenzhen flights were HK$1800 ($240) whilst they could put us on a Hong Kong flight for just HK$1020 ($140). The Shenzhen flight was a full-fare flight whilst the Hong Kong flight was a discounted flight. The agent advised us to call the head office tomorrow to see about a possible discounted Shenzhen flight instead, as this may yet be cheaper still.

When we emerged back onto the street from the building that housed the CTS travel agent, it was nearly completely dark so we decided to hop onto the next tram and simple cruise through the city to admire the city lights. Hong Kong is even more impressive at night. Fireworks erupt from atop many of the skyscrapers after dark. This is apparently a daily occurrence here. Most of the buildings are beautifully lit and many have colourful lighting effects that make them attractions in their own right. Tomorrow we will ascend the famous tram to the top of ‘The Peak’ for a nigh time panoramic view of the skyline of Hong Kong. It should make for a fantastic view of the entire city below us.