Hong Kong Day 5 - Ambition over Sense

5 October 2009

Sunday 4th October

After all the walking we did yesterday, we woke up to a hot sunny morning that was the perfect weather for relaxing in the shade with some iced tea and a few beers.

Instead we went on an exhausting hike around Sai Kung East Country Park.

But first, a quick breakfast in Sai Kung itself, a rural town in the New Territories in the east of Hong Kong. We’d met up again with Will’s friends Sylvia and Winnie, who found a basic cafe. No tourist-friendly menus in English here, so I just had what they were having, which turned out to be a beef noodle soup that was pretty much exactly like SuperNoodles - I had no idea they were such an authentic oriental dish. They were served with a fried egg and a frankfurter on the side. Classy.

They give you free tea in establishments like this, which you can drink if you want, but the locals tend to use it for rinsing their cutlery. It simultaneously says a lot about the quality of the tea and the standard of washing-up.

We then took a bus to the middle of nowhere and began our hike. From what Will had told us, it would be a 3.5 hour circular route via a beach, and we had the option of an easier walk or a slightly harder but more scenic one, so we chose the latter.

It was certainly scenic - the hiking path rising and falling through forests and scrubland, over rushing streams and under impressive peaks.

But it was really too hot to be doing too much hiking - in the 31 degree heat we were sweating bucketloads. We were going through our water supply surprisingly quickly - we’d each brought 2-3 litres and it was gone within a few hours, so we were keen to reach the end of the hike.

We could see the beach - and it looked to be quite far in the distance. We weren’t expecting there to be much in the way of water supplies there either in such a remote location, so we were wondering whether we’d have to turn back.

We took a wrong turn at one point. We’d passed a few people on the hike, but we were having to fight our way through the undergrowth on this path. Fortunately we turned around before we had a chance to get ourselves totally lost and stranded without water. A ride in a rescue helicopter would have been exciting but ultimately embarrassing.

This was clearly not the 3.5 hour easyish circular walk we were expecting. But by some miracle, about 20 minutes after we’d rejoined the correct path, we heard a car. A road! Civilisation!

An information board showed us that the circular walk was about 8 hours in length, and rated “challenging”. But there was a road at this point with taxis plying their trade, and a half-hourly minibus.

A map showed us the village of Sai Wan was about an hour’s walk away, by the beach, and a minibus driver told us we could buy water there. So we didn’t have to abort the hike yet.

The walk to Sai Wan was easy, along a wide and well maintained path. Apart from by boat, it’s the only way to access the village. We seemed to reach it quite quickly, and the first thing in the village was a small cafe with a well-stocked fridge full of iced tea and water, which hit the spot beautifully.

We wandered down towards the beach and picked up ice lollies. By the beach was a ramshackle terrace restaurant, where Will, Sylvia and Winnie sat while me, Rachel and Nick went for a paddle. The sea was wonderfully warm and the beach was reasonably clean apart from a light dusting of polystyrene. We watched small white crabs darting across the sand, and failed to catch the tiny fish swimming in a stream that ran down to the sea.

We rejoined the others on the terrace. I ate a ramen which was rather similar to breakfast - a noodle soup with some kind of processed pork and a fried egg.

The walk back to the minibus stop was much easier now that it had cooled down a bit. We soon caught a bus and it took us back to Sai Kung, on roads past the occasional loose cow, one of whom was standing at a bus stop as if she was hoping to go shopping.

We went to a bar for a few well-deserved beers, then went to have some relatively expensive but excellent sushi. A public minibus took us back to Mong Kok, its large LED display keeping passengers constantly informed of its exact speed lest they complain about dangerous driving.

It was a relief to get back to our scabby hostel room for a good long sleep.

Hong Kong Day 4 - Parklife

4 October 2009

Saturday 3rd October

We fancied pancakes for breakfast so we went to a place called Pancake Colour. I ordered a mango pancake and was told that I was looking at the wrong menu. So I ordered a mango pancake from a different menu and was told that Pancake Colour wasn’t doing pancakes. But they were doing crepes. I thought they were the same thing, but hey ho. Although they were indeed offering mango crepe as a valid menu selection, I was intrigued by the sweet potato option so went for that instead. It was better than I expected, but I think it is better if it sticks to its role as a vegetable. The crepes were full of cream - rather too filling for breakfast, but then I’d already stuffed my face earlier that morning with a load of brioche from the 7-eleven shop opposite the hostel.

Will then left us to spend the day with his family, so me, Rachel and Nick were left to fend for ourselves. We headed south to take the Star Ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, a short hop of only a few minutes, but one of the top items on the “must do” lists in the travel guides.

The area around the ferry was full of hawkers desparately selling their wares. “Nice suit, nice suit?” “Copy watch, copy Rolex?” Strangely I felt compelled to buy none of these things.

On Hong Kong Island, various walkways raise you above street level and it can be a little difficult to find your way around. We strolled for a bit taking photos of the skyscrapers and the old-fashioned trams.

In the large atrium under the Norman Foster-designed HSBC building, a mass of Philipino housemaids and nannies were enjoying their day off away from the houses of their employers. They were all over this part of town, in the parks and even the subways having picnics.

We ambled around Cheung Kong park, then got somed iced coffees and explored the Zoological & Botanical gardens. It was hot and humid - pretty tiring and so a slightly worrying sign for the massive hike we’re planning for Sunday, when 31 degree temperatures are forecast.

We then went to yet another park, simply called Hong Kong Park. The viewing tower gave us some impressive views of yet more skyscrapers and Victoria Peak.

It was time for food and we stumbled across a Vietnamese place. I had lemon chicken with rice, probably the most conventional by my standards of all the meals I’ve had here - I even ate it with a knife and fork. Tasty though. Nick had Vietnamese sausage with peanuts and satay sauce. There were two chilli symbols next to it on the menu which Nick presumed was out of five. It wasn’t. It was too painfully hot for him to finish.

Today’s full moon meant it was the mid-autumn festival. We walked around Victoria Park which was decorated with lanterns and where various festivities were taking place including shadow puppets and scary people in white makeup singing in high-pitched voices.

It is a festival tradition to eat mooncake, which according to Will should have one salty egg yolk in the middle surrounded by a beany paste. The one that we bought had sugary seeds and nuts in it - not bad a bit like sweetened hamster food for me.

Hong Kong Day 3 - Bone Crunchin' Good

3 October 2009

Friday 2nd October

A rather shorter day than yesterday. I finally woke up at about 3pm - it seemed like I’d reverted to UK time and would have to recover from jet lag all over again. We didn’t leave the hostel until about 6 and it was already getting dark.

We went to a cheap and slightly grotty place for breakfast, by which I mean lunch, by which I mean dinner. We had a prawn dish and a couple of chicken dishes - one very spicy, the other much like a KFC really, except for the boney pieces of chicken they used. We wondered why all the chicken meals we’ve had in Hong Kong have been gristly and boney - what did they do with all the chicken breasts? I think they must use all the chicken feet and internal organs and so forth, then say “chicken breasts? Who the hell wants to eat a chicken’s tits?? DISGUSTING!” and then chuck them in the nearest bin.

Our quest for free wi-fi sadly had us resorting to a Starbucks. We sat and made vague plans for our remaining week in Hong Kong - touristy stuff on Hong Kong Island on Saturday, hiking on Sunday, and a trip to Macau at some point.

We went to a place for desserts. I had blobs of ice cream in gelatinous rice, all in a sesame soup. I thought it was OK though I couldn’t manage all the sesame soup - it’s quite a sweet, black liquid and I thought it would be better condensed into a small amount of thick sauce rather than a big gloopy soup.

On the way back we passed a sweet shop and Will bought a huge amount of pork and beef jerky. They also sell sweetened duck kidneys which sounds intriguing. Will says they’re good. I might pick up a bag for the office. It would certainly be different, and I probably wouldn’t have to buy very many - indeed I’d probably be excused from buying any kind of sweets for my colleagues ever again.

Hong Kong Day 2 - Words in the Sky

2 October 2009

Thursday 1st October

It was a public holiday in China to mark 60 years since the founding of the People’s Republic, and the television was showing a military parade taking place on the mainland, all missiles and people waving flags. Mercifully all that was confined to the TV - on the streets of Hong Kong everything seemed the same as yesterday. I did see one guy selling flags later on in the day but nobody seemed to be taking him up on the offer. Clearly no major sense of Chinese patriotism here, although I suppose most people didn’t mind their day off work.

Not that everybody had the day off. Our driver Jackie, provided for us by Will’s aunt, was back to take us around the more suburban areas of Hong Kong. But first we needed breakfast, so he took us for Dim Sum, where we were joined by two of Will’s friends Sylvia and Winnie, and also his grandmother. She did a great job of embarrassing Will, although sadly in Cantonese. We ate various dumplings, chickens feet, some boney pork thing, noodles and rice followed by a few sweet dishes - a couple of types of sponge and one resembling a custard doughnut. All washed down with Jasmine tea which I wasn’t a fan of - it tasted like what I imagine I would get I if I filled a kettle with water from my fish tank.

We drove Will’s gran back to where she lives, in a big house up Victoria Peak with Will’s aunt, who has been treating us all very generously even though we haven’t seen her yet. We then headed out to the New Territories, which is a more rural part of Hong Kong. Here the residential blocks are smaller, maybe 4 storeys high instead of 30.

We visited Kat Hing Wai, which is a village in the walls of an old castle (“old” meaning pre-colonial, i.e. pre-1898. Any building over 100 years old is pretty rare in Hong Kong). It felt a bit strange wandering through the narrow alleyways between people’s houses, because this is otherwise just an ordinary village - there’s not really anything to see apart from the old women at the entrance wearing big hats, who were desparate to charge people HK$10 to take their photo.

We then saw the Kam Tin Tree House. This is an abandoned house which has been completely swallowed up by a tree, the tall roots breaking through and wrapping themselves around the brickwork. There were a couple of old temples nearby, though again they were only “old” by Hong Kong standards. We went to a small museum called the Ping Shang Tang Clan Gallery, which had a few pictures headed “the olden days” of children in the 1970’s. Yes, back in the mists of time, when people slightly older than me were growing up.

Then we went to the worst cafe in Hong Kong. The menu was purely for tourists - I ordered a coffee and that traditional Chinese dish, a cheese and ham sandwich. The coffee was cold and then a little later they came back to tell me they’d run out of bread, so couldn’t make any sandwiches. I ordered a beef stew which turned up on a skewer. Either an amazing physical feat, or a mistranslation.

We then saw the Wishing Tree at Tai Po. Traditionally, you could tie your written wish to an orange and see if you could make it land on a branch. But it turned out that was a good way of damaging the tree, and branches started falling off and injuring people, so you can’t do that any more. Now you have to attach your wishes to a nearby noticeboard instead - I can’t see that being as much fun somehow.

We then went back to Victoria Harbour to watch the holiday fireworks. It was the same place from which we’d seen the disappointing light show two days previously, but much more packed now. The Chinese should know a thing or two about fireworks, and they didn’t disappoint - the display was huge and included a few types of firework I’d not seen before. I was particularly impressed by the fireworks that made images in the sky - heart shapes, smiley faces, and finally Chinese characters. Writing in the sky with fireworks - clever stuff. Plenty of non-ironic “ooh”s and “aah”s from the crowd, and in front of us a sea of people recording every moment on cameras and phones - people who presumably prefer not to witness things in the present and instead live it for the first time when they play back the video.

We then headed back out to the New Territories for dinner, to the Hei Hei Chinese Kitchen. Whereas I’m quite familiar with the concept of a BYOB restaurant, this was BYOF - you bought the seafood ingredients for your dinner, live, from the shops opposite, and then they cooked it for you. Jackie was rather generous with Will’s aunt’s money and we had a feast of clams, barnacles, scallops, prawns, bigger prawny things, fish and mussels. We also had more of those pigeons, though mercifully that was one ingredient provided by the restaurant - we didn’t have to catch our own. An absolutely fabulous meal, and as fresh as it could possibly be.

We stopped off on the way back into town for dessert. Nick had been keen to try a fruit called durian, which he’d heard smelled absolutely disgusting yet tasted delicious, so he wanted to see for himself. We went to a place called Lucky Dessert which offered various desserts using durian, as well as more sensible ingredients. Nick had durian rolled in glutinous rice and Will had durian pudding. I went for a mango jelly and Rachel had a hot mango pancake roll. The mango desserts were lovely, and durian was “interesting”. It smells of onion - not as bad as I’d imagined, though odd for a fruit - and it tastes to me like a root vegetable, maybe a turnip or swede. It’s not bad per se but I think it would be rather better as an accompaniment to a roast dinner than as a dessert. I only had one mouthful - Nick had a whole dessert and found the worst thing was the aftertaste, which lasted for a hours. An evening of durian flavoured belches is probably why durian is like Marmite to the locals.

Jackie dropped us off near Knutsford Terrace which is full of bars. We went to that most traditional of Chinese drinking establishments, the Irish bar. We had several Bailey’s cocktails until we were kicked out when the place shut at 3am. We briefly went into another bar which was a little too loud - and then a Coldplay covers band started playing, and we made a hasty exit.

We then went to Joe’s Billiards Bar. Two men were asleep on the bar as we walked in. It was pretty late already and it soon became even later, as we knocked back more beer and enjoyed the free wi-fi. We left at 6am and the subway had started running again, so we took it one stop back to our hostel. The area looked completely different, bathed in the early morning sunlight, with hardly anyone around.

Hong Kong Day 1 - (Octo)Pus and Guts

1 October 2009

Wednesday 30th September

For breakfast I had a “congee with assorted pig’s organs”, as the English translation on the menu so appetisingly put it. A congee is a kind of savoury rice pudding. The pig’s organs were exactly that - bits of liver and something tubey, possibly intestine? Who knows. There was also something that might have been tripe, or might have just been some really fatty pork. Fortunately there was bacon in it as well. At least, it tasted like bacon. I think I may have been a bit too adventurous for breakfast. Luckily the rice pudding bit was pleasantly filling, so I didn’t go hungry, but I kind of wish I’d just gone for the chicken or the beef like the others did. I should have known really that it wasn’t going to be the easiest thing to eat - there’s a good reason why menus don’t say “assorted pig’s organs” back in England. We prefer them mashed up into what we call “sausages”.

We picked up an “Octopus” card from a subway station. It’s much like London’s Oyster card, a pre-pay transport smartcard that removes the hassle of buying tickets. I wonder if all such smartcards have aquatic names and/or begin with the letter “O”?

We spent the day exploring more of Kowloon. We took a stroll through the Goldfish Market, which is really just a street of pet shops. The fish weren’t too exciting - exactly the same as the varieties you can see in any fish shop in Britain.

We spent a while trying to find the computer market, being sent one way and then the opposite several times by the people we asked for directions. We found it eventually, but as with the goldfish it wasn’t particularly exciting -nothing you couldn’t get in the UK, and not amazingly cheaper either. The main reason we wanted to find the computer market was for some free wi-fi. Although the hostel has free wi-fi, it’s possibly the slowest internet connection available in the entire world. Maybe because it’s unsecured so everyone in this huge residential block is using it to download pirated films, or maybe it’s connected to a man in a booth using morse code to tap out messages to the other side of the globe, but it’s so slow it’s almost unusable. I was expecting Hong Kong to be so full of free wi-fi that cups of water would spontaneously boil from all the microwave radiation, but that unfortunately appears not to be the case. Sadly the wi-fi in the computer market was barely faster than the hostel.

We went to a shopping centre called Langham Place which is in a big tower with long escalators, and had a quick snack of chicken wings, scallops and wasabi dumplings. There was an astrology installation which told me my forecast for September was that I would meet a new love interest in the course of an educational activity. Fortunately for Rachel, with only a few hours left of September at that point, it was an unlikely outcome.

We took a quick ride on the subway one stop from Mong Kok to Prince Edward to go to a bar where we drank Tsingtao beer and cocktails, and a snack of duck’s tongues which left everybody wishing we’d ordered something different instead. We then went to a pretty good sushi place and then at last we finally found a decent free wi-fi connection, although we had to resort to a McDonald’s “McCafe” to get it. But at least we’d got our internet fix.

We returned to the hostel and flicked through some of the Chinese TV channels. Will has been teaching Nick some of the Chinese characters. Nick seems to think he will be able to figure out the entire language if he asks enough questions. I think it might take a while.

I quite liked the variety of adverts. During just one break, there were ads for:

  • an aloe vera, jelly and apple tea drink. Sounds mad.
  • a laser mouse. Don’t think I’ve ever seen an ad for a computer mouse on TV before.
  • a really slick advert for a night school. The fees must be absolutely ridiculous for them to make such expensive adverts. They have some huge billboards around too.
  • Injured at work? Mercifully only one of these.
  • Something warning us to beware of landslides.

Compare this to your typical British advert break:

  • Car insurance comparison site
  • Ocean Finance
  • Car insurance comparison site
  • “Allo mate. Car insurance eh? What can you do?”
  • Car insurance comparison site

Then changing to a music channel for a few seconds to find they’re showing the same adverts, then:

  • Car insurance comparison site
  • Compare the market
  • Compare the meerkat
  • Compare the merkin
  • Compare the mollusc
  • Car insurance comparison site
  • Car insurance comparison site

Then shooting yourself in the face.

So it’s nice that I’ve been able to get away from all that and put it from my mind while I’m on holiday.

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