Hong Kong - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 211 (21)

Hong Kong

Tuesday 5th October

Getting up so late means loosing the first part of the day so Sandy was keen to shake us both awake a little earlier this morning. This is a bit of a double-edged swords since the longer we are active during the day, the more exhausted we are in the evenings. We are, after all, on holiday and there isn’t any pressure on us at the moment. Nevertheless, we were up and out by shortly after ten this morning we had already had breakfast at one of the many local restaurants and were heading for the MTR to take us to the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island to see the famous Po Lin Buddha.

At the nearest customer service desk underground, we bought a couple of Octopus cards. This a system for using the public transport networks without having to buy a ticket for each journey. You pay HK$150 ($20) for the card which has an initial HK$100 ($13,50) of credit on it. The remainder is considered a deposited that is returned, along with any unused balance, once you are finished with the card. You pass the card in front of the card readers at the entrances to the buses, trams and train platforms and your fare is automatically deducted. The card readers also have displays that show the fare and your remaining balance each time you swipe. Much like the rest of the Hong Kong transportation network, it’s a very efficient system that makes life very much more convenient.

It’s a good job that the trains run so frequently. With the automatic sliding doors shielding everyone from the track, you can hardly hear the trains coming or going and there is no gushing wind that precedes them either, such as in London’s tube network.

The train portion of our journey out to Lantau Island this morning would involve two lines with a change over at Central. The interchange station is vast and there are several levels. Each level is very open and the whole thing has more of a feel of a modern airport terminal than a train station. Escalators ad moving walkways help take the legwork out of moving from one train line to the next but it is still a bit of a trek nevertheless.

At the end of our second train journey, we had to leave the train station to catch a bus. The station at the end of the line doubles up as the entrance to a huge shopping complex beneath the shadow of a half dozen or more residential skyscraper. There are clusters of these residential housing blocks everywhere. Sometimes the clusters just merge into one and other to form vast areas of nothing but tower blocks. There must be thousands of them all over the landscape. Most of them look quite modern and are raised on stilts with shopping complexes, cinemas and all sorts of commercial outlets making up the structures on the first few floors that bind them all together. A lot of them look like they are still under construction and you very much get the feel that there is an enormous building boom here.

We didn’t linger for very long, save for to stop and buy some snacks and something to drink on the bus. The bus terminal was right outside one of the main entrances to the train terminal. The buses were mostly modern, air-conditioned, coaches and there must have been a good twenty or more different bus stops. There were quite a few people about but the bus terminal is also quite large and it didn’t really seem crowded. We found our bus stop, number twenty-three, and joined the queue of forty or more people all walking along in single file, slowly getting into a coach that was already standing there. We missed this particular bus but no sooner had it departed, than another immediately pulled up and the line started to move again. A man with a foghorn stood at the head of the line bellowing out instructions in either Cantonese or Mandarin, or perhaps both, I couldn’t tell. I suspect it was the sight of us that made him speak a little English. That brief part that we could understand was something about using the Octopus card if we had one. Indeed, the bus also had a card reader and we swiped accordingly as we got in.

Since we are both prone to motion sickness, we each took a Cinnarizine tablet. I knew nothing about where we were going or how long it would take to get there but I’m certainly glad I took the Cinnarizine because the route followed an extremely winding path that was narrow enough in places only to accommodate one vehicle. The coach had to stop from time to time to allow oncoming vehicles pass. There was also quite a bit of road works going on and we stopped again at numerous ad-hoc traffic signals. All of this made for a very stuttered stop and go ride. To make matters even worse, we were first ascending and then descending and ascending again on some extremely steep inclines. If there is another coach journey that is likely to make anyone more nauseous than this one, then I certainly don’t want to travel it. Sandy was late with taking her motion sickness tablet and consequently arrived feeling worse for wear. I don’t think I could have put up with much more either.

It was quite busy at the open-air bus terminal when we arrive but not overly so. The vast majority of the tourists were locals, all of which were walking around with cameras glued to their eyes. I couldn’t say if they were tourist mostly from China or from Hong Kong but certainly there were plenty of coaches leaving from the train terminal where we disembarked. We both marvelled when we saw for the first time the huge bronze Buddha sitting serenely at the top of one of the very steep hillsides. From a distance the sitting figure looks like it is carved smoothly from a dark stone and is perfect in every detail. He is sitting with crossed legs and holding his right forearm up with his thumb and forefinger touching each other. The other hand folded in his lap. A neat row of some two hundred and fifty steps ascends in a straight line from the entrance level to the base of the Buddha. Some interesting Chinese style archways and other buildings are dotted around near the base of the steps and I spent some time taking photos of these whilst Sandy sat down for a while to shake off the effects of the turbulent ride.

The structure on which the Buddha is sitting looks like it is part of the hillside that has been carved away to form the base structure but it is actually a building that houses a museum and some other interesting things. You have to first buy a ticket before you can scale the steps to the Buddha and there are two options for doing so. You can either buy a snack ticket or a vegetarian meal ticket. We weren’t quite sure what any of this actually meant but we did determine that either of these two tickets would gain us entry into the museum as well as the upper tier part of the base structure where you can actually touch the Buddha himself.

It was quite a strenuous climb, particularly on the heels of the coach ride from hell, but certainly worth the effort to get to the top. Not only were the views quite spectacular but we could also see a whole series of other buildings nested in amongst the trees down below and around the base of the steps. There was clearly more here than just the Buddha himself.

The Po Lin Buddha is the largest of it’s kind. There is a larger Buddha at Leshan in Mainland China (we intend to pass through there also) but it is mad of stone whereas this Buddha is cast from bronze. Several smaller statues, also cast in bronze, are seated around its base and all of them make for great photos. For a people that are so enthusiastic with their own cameras, many have absolutely no qualms about walking between a camera and its subject, just at the point of depressing the shutter. They seem to be blissfully unaware that others are also trying to take photos of the same things they were just snapping happily away at only moments ago.

The museum inside the base of the structure was interesting enough even though there was not very much translated into English but it was not very big. It’s round and covers a couple of different levels. We exited at the upper level where I couldn’t resist touching the Buddha’s leg. I did this just as I noticed the sign, in English, telling me to please not touch the Buddha.

From this upper level, we could see in the distance what was responsible for the barking noises that we kept hearing. There was what looked like a dog kennel or sanctuary not too far from the entrance to the steps. For some bizarre reason, this made me think of lunch. I tried to shake off the horrific premonition that suddenly flooded through my mind, as we wondered what was meant by the meal tickets that we were toting. Nobody was eating anything up at the top, however, and there certainly wasn’t any room for a restaurant there either. I asked a nearby staff member but communication was not happening. I pointed to my ticket and she pointed to one of the buildings down below, not far from the dog kennel as it happens. I tried again to shake off the premonition. Buddhism is a vegetarian religion I kept telling myself.

We eventually made our way back down all the steps and started to wander through the trees to see what all these buildings were about. Some of them housed various effigies of and shrines to various Buddhas. The locals were burning incense sticks and sticking them into cauldrons in front of the buildings and then bowing or preying. There must have been half a dozen or more of these areas full of slowly simmering incense sticks. The resulting odour in the air is actually quite pleasant. There were some shop stalls where you could buy all the incense sticks you could possibly want in all shapes and sizes. There were a wide variety of sizes. Most were about eighteen inches long and not much ticker than a matchstick. Others, however, were four feet long and as thick as my arm.

A couple of the buildings turned out to be restaurants where, depending on the ticket you bought earlier, you would be served a tray full of food. Neither of us, it has to be said, are particularly adventurous when it comes to foreign food, but some of it looked innocent enough and we did our best to sample the various things on offer. Other than the rice noodles, we couldn’t identify anything on display but it was all vegetarian. Fortunately, dog was not on the menu.

We found a space on a table with some French tourists. They had just sat down and were looking at their trays with a look as if someone had stuck something particularly smelly under their noses. We did our best to eat what we could and it really wasn’t as bad as I imagined. We probably wouldn’t have chosen these foods, however, given any other choice.

We each added another Cinnarizine tablet to our new culinary experience in preparation for the coach ride back to the train terminal. You are supposed to take these an hour before travelling so we wandered about a bit more, taking photos of people burning incense sticks and preying to the various Buddhas

Having given the motion sickness tablets more time to work their magic this time, the ride back was very much less of a problem. Instead of catching the next train back into town, we decided to explore the complex of buildings here a bit further. The extremely spacious and ultra-modern shopping complex illustrates that these people live very affluent lives. They are all well dressed in designer clothes, except for the children who wear various combinations of neat school uniforms, and most are toting MP3 players and/or mobile phones – even many of the children. Mothers push babies in modern prams and most of the men wear suits and ties. If Mainland China is anything at all like this, it will completely shatter my preconceptions about what to expect there.

We browsed around for a while in one of the large supermarkets. The range of products on offer is simply stunning. Most of the brands that I might expect to find in Europe or America are represented along with very many others that I’ve never heard of. Pretty much anything and everything that you ever wish for in a supermarket can be found somewhere here, stacked neatly on the well-stocked shelves down the many, smooth, brightly lit isles. Indeed there is more choice here than I’ve seen in any other supermarket anywhere else on the planet.

After a spot of lunch, we sat and rested for a while in one of the open courtyards near a dancing fountain that was entertaining some children. It was quite relaxing and made for fascinating people watching. Sufficiently energised again, we got up and made our way into the train terminal, through the automatic ticket barriers and down to our platform. We were on the train and headed back to Hong Kong a few minutes later.

All in all, it has been a very good day today. We didn’t spend very much money, which will do wondered for our daily average, and had a thoroughly enjoyable time. It was, however, quite tiring and it wasn’t long after we returned that Sandy was already into her pyjamas and off to slumber land.

I had received a phone call earlier from the CTS travel agents confirming that our flight tickets to Beijing (or Peking as they call it) were ready to be collected. I decided that I would nip across the road to collect these and return via a brief visit to the neighbouring Internet Café. Both of these chores were swiftly dealt with and I returned only to find Sandy fast asleep so I went back outside to soak up some more of the atmosphere. Hong Kong at night is an absolutely amazing place. This part of town, known as Causeway Bay, is very much like New York’s Time Square, but with an oriental twist, and seems to be the restaurant capital of the city. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of restaurants everywhere and on all levels. They range from the very chic and expensive to the smallest of street side vendors that cook your food for you on the spot and hand it to you. Most have someone standing out front trying to attract potential customers and many hand out leaflets to the same end. Hong Kong’ers are very much into whatever is the latest technology and the street level is littered with dozens of shops selling every conceivable mobile phone that exists. It seems like mobile phones are a national pastime here.

My beard trimmer has been damaged and I was trying to find a replacement. Since everything electronic can be found here I wasn’t expecting too many problems finding a shop that sold them but it was not to be. I only found one place that sold them and all they had were the rechargeable type and I was specifically looking for one that operated on batteries. Then it struck me. I started to pay closer attention to all the men in the city and I couldn’t find a single man with facial hair. No beards or moustaches anywhere to be found. No wonder I couldn’t find a beard trimmer.

I did stumble a cross a small street stall full of watches and spent HK$30 ($4) on a nice calculator watch. This will come in very handy for the continuous currency conversions that we are always trying to do in our heads. With a new currency and a new rate of exchange every time we cross another border, it can be quite confusing at times to keep track of our rate of spending.

Another obvious difference between the lively streets of Hong Kong versus that other great cities of the world is all the street level shops that sell live fish, shrimp, lobsters, crabs and just about anything else that lives in water. Other places sell equally strange things such as different mushrooms and herbs, for example. One stall that I saw was selling skewers of various types of meat, prepared for you right there on the spot. One of these rows of skewers looked a little different and upon closer inspection, I realised that it contains chopped lengths of octopus tentacles. I hope I’m never hungry enough to want to try some of these things.