Hong Kong Wanderings

A quick introduction; I’ve finally whittled down my notes to what you read below, which consists of our quick adventures in Hong Kong, and reads best after continuing from the previous article from Macau. It is however as unfortunately long as the last entry even with merciless trimming, so I’ll sprinkle it with photos to make it more palatable in the future. Oh and all money is in HK$, before anybody gets excited…

We disembarked the uber-ferry and weren’t too keen on lugging our bags a few blocks to the hotel. We already had our bags inside the first cab on the rank when he asked us our destination. He backed off, raising his hands:

“Oh no. Kowloon Hotel just over there. One way tunnel. I don’t go through”, he said, pointing off in the direction of the hotel.

Not knowing cabbies legally can’t refuse a rideI we hauled our bags back out and started walking in the gestured direction.

We walked through a hodge-podge of roads, constantly weaving through throngs of people, dragging along our bags and picking them up constantly due to large “Uneven Ground” plastic coverplates which littered the sidewalk, no doubt covering holes to the core of the earth. After not recognising any street names, we finally found a bus stop checking the route, I noticed between the street we stood on and our hotel read a stop called Tunnel. It turns out that we arrived at a different ferry terminal than we’d planned and were on the wrong side of the harbour.

We hailed a cab, almost missing it due to the driver preferring a suitcase-free lady behind us, who was kind enough to yield to these desperate tourists. $130 and one tunnel under the harbour later we arrived at the Kowloon Hotel. After checking in and magically losing one of the room keys inside the room (still not found) we decided to do battle with Nathan Road before peeling off into a sidestreet to find food.

The first big difference with Hong Kong today compared to the last time I was here (in 1988) is they’ve finally banned spitting in the streets. It used to be awful walking around through a mass of people who (as a kid) appeared to all be contributing to Spitoon City, all the time ensuring your shoes didn’t catch a prize as you walked.

Also (since SARS I’m guessing) they’re more aware of spreading contagions. There’s government billboards extolling the virtues of covering your mouth when you cough and sneeze (something a lot of older locals still enjoy) and a step by-step-on how to wash your hands properly. A few buildings even have guards with heat sensing guns to stop hot people entering.

As with all unfortunate travelers on Nathan Road you soon learn ways of dodging and dismissing the hawkers, although traffic stops (and people inexplicably stopping dead in front of you, another fun pastime for people here) effectively trap you with the pitchmen. You have to give it to the watch guys though, promoting their fakery on the steps of Omega and Rolex boutiques, offering to take you to their “shop”, gesturing off along Nathan Road. Nearly all of them are cheerful and don’t seem to hold any grudges against tourists, although the occasional one mutters under their breath as you walk away.

As is common knowledge, you buy nothing from the stores on Nathan Road. We picked a side street and got out of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that’s typical at night. After five minutes we’d screened a dozen restaurants and not feeling adventurous we settled on a hotel restaurant at the Ramada Inn, where my salmon portion (although melt-in-the-mouth) matched in portion of the duck I had in Macau.

In the morning we tried the breakfast buffet at our hotel with what seemed like half of England, then visited the Space Museum on account of it being across the road. It was the first thing I’ve seen reasonably priced here, costing a mere $30HKD for a seven day pass which gets you into eight of the museums in the city.

We arrived just in time for screening a film in the Stanley Ho sponsored planetarium/theatre above the museum, “Stars; The Powerhouses of the Universe”. The planetarium was a larger and more modern than the only other one I’ve visited, in a museum in Oahu. The show itself was good, covering basic space fundamentals but never really getting into any detail. The largest problem was the focus and time spent on the horoscope, no doubt due to how superstitious the locals are.

After that we walked through the museum (which wasn’t quite as good as what NASA has to offer in Florida) it was surprisingly devoid of what China is doing in space now. A live view of the sun (courtesy of a machine I forgot the name of) was interesting, as was a gunpowder pigeon that blew an hilarious grey plume of smoke to propel itself.

On the way back we discovered the subway and underground shortcuts that make it easy to avoid the crowds and traffic, and were surprised to find even more boutique shops underground. It’d be interesting to see just how many of the same boutique stores are in the Kowloon. Of these Chanel stands out with an interesting gimmick; they only let four or five people in their store at any one time, and make everybody else wait in a line outside. It seems to work as every time we passed there was at least ten people willing to excitedly wait to impart with their cash.

We braved Nathan Road again (which is less busy during the day) and thought we’d try to find some sort of food court in a shopping center. Instead we found more exotic restaurants, so we settled on a Korean place. Knowing the sort of spices we were in for, I asked and was assured my dish wasn’t hot. I’m glad I picked mild. After lunch we walked through an expensive wine shop that fills you with dread as you carefully shuffle around trying not to break any holiday-ruining bottles.

Along with the endless boutiques and electronics stores, Nathan Road has natural medicine stores which have open air boxes of what I can only describe as dried dead things. We passed one as the shopowner was carefully rearranging horrible yellow sticks with his bare hands, making them into neat rows. Immune systems here must be invincible.

The main difference between our hotel here compared to Macau seemed to be an unwritten dress code. We stopped for a quick drink in our hotel bar and got ignored by the bar staff on account of not being dressed well enough. Everybody in a suit got top service, free finger-food and good seats, while everybody else (the few Aussies) had to fight to be served at all. The doormen were also of the same opinion.

The next day to orientate ourselves we took the open-top Big Bus Tour which does a full loop of the tourist district in Kowloon. Aside from near decapitation from tree branches, we had a better idea of the area afterwards. They generously included free Star Ferry transfers, which turned out to be worth a whopping $2.20HK each. Across the harbour we caught the other bus and got off at The Peak. Catching the gravity-defying train to the top, we ascended through the smog into clear air before entering more smog near the top. Unsurprisingly we were greeted with another four storey shopping center. With the bad smog we didn’t pay for the viewing deck, and managed to find our way outside. As it turns out there’s just another three storey shopping center, although to be fair it had an unusual assortment of stores and took an enjoyable hour to browse through. How these storeowners make a living is anybodies guess, as hardly anybody was around and they hold such a completely eclectic selection of goods.

Catching the train back down the hill, our bus driver decided to do a u-turn in a space about as wide as the bus. For the next fifteen minutes we Austin Powers’d back and forth, gaining a half-degree of turn every time, missing parked luxury cars by a hair every time. Traffic backed up and turned around in either direction to avoid us. We were laughing too hard to notice that he’d finally made it.

After the tour concluded we noticed everybody running for the ferry – not knowing how often they came we decided to join the fun-run and only just made it through. What we didn’t realise is that there’s two decks on the ferry, and tourists normally take the upper deck. We’d ran onto the lower deck and were greeted with diesel fumes from the engine bay, spewing out of the center of the boat. Not the nicest way to travel, but it got us back across the harbour.

Also included in our bus deal was the night tour, which takes you on a slightly different route than the day tour on account of the city lights. The single best part is you enjoy Nathan Road without any hawkers bothering you, and take in the seemingly endless neon madness above.

The driver told us to check out the “spectacular lightshow”, which happens at 8pm every night on both sides of the harbour. Hundreds of people lined the shore, and with them we watched the single crappiest public display I’ve ever seen. A few green lasers dance around the sky and harbour, as buildings twinkle and do their own thing, none of which seems to go with anything else. We were so unimpressed we couldn’t tell if was about to start when it was announced that it was over. Perhaps our side of the harbour (all but impossible to see) was better.

We’d seen an American restaurant advertised and with my insatiable love of baby-back-ribs decided to try Dan Ryan’s Chicago Steakhouse. The ribs (although pricey at $218 for a full rack) were quite good – not as nice as the rib houses in the states, but this was a steakhouse in HK. Speaking of steak, it’s amazing how expensive a good slab of beef costs here; depending on the cut you’ll spend between $350 to $700 for what you’d pay a pittance for at home. When I see tourists here taking cryopack steak home on a plane I will laugh no more.

After making it out of a tailors building alive we walked up Mody Road, headed for more museums. On the way we stumbled upon and into a a bar called Sticky Fingers, where we managed to arrive at happy hour. Two drinks later ($90HK) we were back on our way to the Science Museum.

The museum is a collection of practical exhibits that let people experience science, not just read about it. Hanging proud and imposing from the ceiling is Betsy the DC-3. It was Cathay Pacific’s first plane (bought second hand after WWII ended), which they sold then later searched for. Turns out it was still flying in Australia in 1981, but now it’s in retirement as the second largest exhibit at the museum. The largest, which I will call The Big Marble Machine, is a four storey mechanical maze that orange-sized marbles navigate. We asked an attendant when the next show was, and she led us half way across the museum floor until she found an exhibit that was out of order. Pointing at the sign she smiled and nodded until we did too.

In another section, the occupational health and safety exhibit (which is laughably ignored in HK) there’s a frankly morbid sound of a worker falling to his death from scaffolding, made worse by a mannequin lying contorted and dead on the ground of a worksite. It got the point across, but I doubt how many construction workers pass through here.

Aside from that the whole museum is aimed at kids, so we didn’t spend much time there. The kids themselves though don’t seem to get much out of it either, racing around pressing buttons just to see what happens, with no attention to why or how.

We tried to visit the History Museum (located opposite) but for some reason it closes on Tuesdays. Walking a block we picked out a little Cantonese restaurant off Science Museum Road, which served authentic meals on tiny wooden tables (with tinier wooden seats) and was the cheapest lunch we had, coming in under $40HKD each with drinks. Along with the local dish I tried their Grapefruit Green Tea which was one of the more interesting tastes so far.

Night had fallen so we made our way to the night markets on Temple Street and the Ladies Markets (which are now ladies only in name) after that. As you walk through shoulder to shoulder foot traffic you’re treated to an huge selection of tourist trinkets, iPhone accessories, weird dried food, counterfeit clothing, odd electronicsII and counterfeit watch and bag stores.

The big name counterfeit brands are still available, but not out on display here. As you shuffle through the markets there’s small card-tables between stalls, with one or two men sitting down looking busy or drinking tea. If you seem interested they whip out a laminated book of their wares. In the case of watches they have a glossy magazine filled with at least a hundred different models. These blokes rely on warnings from one of their lookouts (whom patrol both the market and behind on the sidewalk) whereby the books and the men disappear into the crowd. Police walk by, then the men slink back out and set up shop again. It all happens on the long established drug-dealing model – all orders are given to a runner who runs off somewhere to the drop, returns the goods to the seller, who is then handed the money to run off again.

After the markets we walked into what must be called Shoe Street – almost every store on both sides is a different named but identical store with various brands, with oddly shrinkwrapped samples lining the walls. The prices are high enough that you can’t know if they’re genuine, but low enough to be cheaper than in the USA. Interestingly, they run a co-op of sorts; I asked to try a pair on and was told they were at another store. A runner was sent who arrived ten minutes later, exhausted, with the shoes. Unfortunately they were too big, so I asked for the half size less:

“They are at another store, please wait a minute!”, they said again, and another runner was sent off. I sat down this time. Ten minutes later the runner jogged back inside and handed me the shoes. These ones fit, so I asked if they had two pairs:

“No”, was the reply, without consulting the computer. I don’t blame them. Somewhere between the first and the hundredth shoe shop the night had got away on us, so we caught a cab back and retired.

The next day we bought prepaid Octopus cards, which have to be the best public transport idea ever. Aside from subway traveling (swiping your wallet to pay) you can also grab an icecream from the many vans around the streets, buy from convienience stores and no doubt more things we never discovered. It’s almost a second currency in the tourist districts.

We took a trip to Happy Valley to check out the track, which for the most part is a public ground you can wander around in as you please. We didn’t realise that various Rugby teams were practicing there for the Sevens, and so ducked a ball from England as we walked past, wondered who the green & black team was (the Kiwis geve thumselves uwey) and caught the start of an exhibition match between two others, being held sadistically on astroturf.

The historic trams operate in the area so we caught one for a mystery tour of the area, of which we were the only tourists aboard. Strangely enough you pay on exit, so although I was interested to see what happened if you didn’t have the cash, we had somewhere to be. Making our way back to the hotel in time, we caught the small cushy tourbus that would take us to the races at Sha Tin. The entire bus were Australian sans a singular strange American, the driver and our seriously unfunny guide Ross, who plied us with jokes so pathetic they passed below the bad-funny range.

The track and grandstand at Sha Tin are simply massive (making Happy Valley look like Melbourne), and the night races were a good experience coupled with the free-flowing alcohol, odd mix of Aussies (even by Australian standards) and a surprisingly good quality buffet. I got value from the Haagen Daz freezer. Three races along we were herded down long hallways filled with hundreds more tour groups (nearly all Australians again) down elevators and into the area where the horses parade before the race, where the singular American told me his master betting theory:

“This is how I bet right here. The one that takes the biggest shit right before the race, he’s feeling good after that shit, so my money’s on him.”

Laugh all you want, but there was a large group of Australians disappointed by the lack of bowel movements afterwards.

Our esteemed Ross, hopelessly ineffective to control us was welcoming who I can only describe as an asian Conan O’Brien, who usurped our group into his (Ross joining us as a silent peer) as he worked his best stand-up routine while taking us out to the track itself to watch the still emboweled horses run a race. After watching a few hilarious winners jig around in circles we followed Conan back upstairs to our tables to watch the rest of the races.

The next day we caught the train out to Chai Wan, then boarded one of the many green minibuses for an hilariously rough ride speeding along the cliff-faces and one way streets towards Stanley, to see the markets everybody raves about. Turns out you really can skip the markets, with the same amount and type of fakery available in the city, albeit cheaper. The genuine watch, sunglasses and videogame shops led me to believe there’s been crackdowns; the watch shop even had a sign, “Do not ask us where you can buy fake watches. We do not know anything about them”. Except that they’re fake. And we don’t sell them.

The real reason people should visit Stanley is the little turquoise-watered harbour and the restaurant strip surrounding it. We decided to try The Boathouse, where I consumed the HK take on African Chicken. After walking lunch off around the foreshore (and missing the museum by ignorance), we caught the 16M green bus back on an equally rough ride back to the train station and managed to get home without taking one single misstep. By the time we got back it was time to hop to Monkok for dinner, where we picked a nameless local bar/restaurant where we managed to eat and drink for $200HKD total. There really is a lot to be said for eating away from the tourist restaurants.

The next day we decided to train to Aberdeen, but figured we’d see the previously closed History Museum before going out. Five hours later we left the museum and gave up on Aberdeen. If there’s one museum you don’t miss it’s this one. Amongst a crazy assortment of themes, priceless artefacts and stuffed animals, they’ve relocated entire historic stores (complete with furnishings and contents) into a street you can walk down and peruse inside as if you were there. You can even board a 1:1 scale Junk. Once through the main museum they have a completely separate wing for traveling exhibitions of which we walked through the Han Nobility Exhibition, a small sampling of the main artefacts held on the mainland, which date from 206BC to 8AD.

The next morning we decided to take the train out to the furthest station on the MTR red line to have a look around. At the station there’s a real shopping centerIII with local prices (some a quarter of the cost of the city) amongst an enormous hi-rise complex of at least twenty identical towers. After which we saw the sign for the UK Museum and paid them a visit, to find out it was actually the Uk Museum, an interesting (if basic) historic walled village that had been restored.

Catching the train back to the city we stopped off to experience yet more more markets, and ended up afterwards inside the Golden Center; a crazy computer market on two floors, with shoulder to shoulder people snaking through single-file corridors between narrow shopfronts selling identical products. The claustrophobia here was a little much (even by HK standards) so we slowly made our way out into fresh air. Catching the train back we found ourselves in what must be afternoon peak hour and sardined our way into the carriage.

The trains must really jolt to start when full, as it caught a lot of travelers by surprise, including an elderly chap who was saved only by swinging from my arm by both of his. We spoke not a word of either’s language, but shared uncontrollable laughter for the rest of the trip.

Knowing I’d seen the last of the subway, I decided to regain my arm strength by using up the last dollars in my Octopus card on an icecream. As we’d neglected to have lunch, I ate a red bean flavoured lamington (surprisingly nice), and a green tea lamington (not so nice) for lunch on the run. Sadly it was time to pack our bags, sleep, eat our last breakfast with stuffy England, and catch the airport shuttle to the huge, shiny new HK airport. Bizarrely we had to travel an extra kilometre to terminal two, and once checked in travel by subway back to terminal one. After a great flight back we found ourselves seemingly back in time at KL airport.

It truly is an awful airport, with slow customs and even slower baggage. Nobody stops people from piling up just outside the exit, and every time I’ve been through at least five-hundred people crowd around four doors, unwilling to move an inch to let you through. Catching the courtesy bus to the nearby Tune Hotel, we discovered courtesy here means you pay $1. We tried to tip the driver but he told us he had no change for a five. Electing to use our paid airconditioning (extra) instead of sitting outside in the blaring heat drinking semi-chilled drinks, we took it easy for while.

Being me I’d packed by bag so I could whip it open in KL for clean clothes and close it again, without mucking around. I noticed water on the outside of my bag in odd spots in airport, and figured it got wet somewhere. Opening the bag I realised my folly; in the last minute in HK I decided not to throw away a twenty cent can of Coke and packed it instead. The can had erupted somewhere along the line, with the inner top of the bag soaking most of it up, with my clean clothes doing the rest of the job. I was angry enough to check that all the dirty clothes in bags were completely fine.

We returned our wet bath towels when checking out to get our towel deposit back (I kid you not) and caught the $1 courtesy bus back to the airport.

Bidding a fine farewell for us, KL turned on a thunderstorm which put a good two inches of water on the tarmac – not enough to stop the pilots, but enough to make fun of running to the plane a wet goodbye to the damned place. The flight after takeoff was non-remarkable, and some hours later we were tired, but glad to be home.

  1. Although that was the least of our problems as we soon discovered. []
  2. One stall sold only calculators. []
  3. Incidentally owned by the MTR. []
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