Friday, December 12, 2008

Honk Kong and Macau, gateways to (my next) Asia (experience)… (Day 78) PART I

Four days already in crazy and unexpected Hong Kong, I am trying to gobble up as much of the city’s atmosphere (without dying from the pollution)

(Where I am now: On a Turbojet High Speed Ferry in Macau Port on my way back to Hong Kong., seat 22A)
Date: Thursday11Dec- What time is it: 19:15pm. What am I listening to: the Chinese guy serving drinks and he’s loud)

Hong Kong. What do you know about it? I admit I knew very little till I got here and obviously you can’t know everything in 4 days but think from where I came from, it’s big progress. What words come to your mind? Big, busy, polluted, financial center, special, China but not China? Well it is all of the above and so much more…

Pack ‘em up, raise them high.
After Dubai, it’s difficult to be impressed by big buildings. Even Tokyo was big but nothing compared to the huge business towers (and residential condominiums) you get to see in modern Dubai, despite the fact that you have desert all around and the area is not so densely populated. Hong Kong made me stand corrected. It’s not the size or height of the buildings that is impressive alone (it is believe me) but the way and location these buildings have been built.

Huge residential buildings rising up to 50 floors or more, the one next to each other in the most improbably places, like steep hills, rocks and whatever you can think of, it makes you wonder how they actually did it when the streets below remind you of these old neighborhoods in Athens where you can barely fit two cars side by side. You walk and look up and these towers seem to converge into the sky. And we are not talking about modern buildings- a lot of these look like they were build in the sixties. This is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. If all the above doesn’t convince you, then think about this: About 7 million people live on an area of 1100 square kilometers! I didn’t understand what dense meant till I walked around the streets.

First Impressions

“You will see, Hong Kong is very different to Japan” Kaori said on the last day before I left Tokyo. She was right. This is not about better or worse, it’s just about different. Both cities offer a lot to a person that lives there so I will not take sides (but I have made my little comparison below)

I arrived on Monday, rather late at night and took the amazing Airport Express train to Downtown, where my friend Fabio picked me up. I am quite fortunate I have to say in this trip. I am staying (on my own!) in Vanessa’s (that’s Fab’s girlfriend) wonderful studio on the 18th floor of one of these old residential buildings. It’s really great. The view is pretty spectacular, 18 floors is not that high for HK standards but it sure is for me.

We dropped my backpack and headed out for a drink. The first impression you get is that there are way many more signs in English than in Japan. After all it an official language here, even used still at courts of law. Hong Kong “belongs” to China, after the British handed it over in 1999. After a period of uncertainty that influenced the housing and stock market (no one could predict what Big Brother China would do), Hong Kong is stronger than ever (ok ignore the terrible global financial situation that has hit everyone the past year).

Until this, Hong Kong was a booming mega-polis, with super expensive real estate. So China has implemented the following amazing: “One country, two systems”, allowing significant autonomy to HK, except in areas of defense and security, continues applying English law and maintaining all the capitalistic characteristics of a free market economy. You see it everywhere. In the cars (Bentley? Ferrari? Lotus? Porsche? I’ve seen it) but also on the people. You also see a lot more foreigners (white, non-Chinese) than in Tokyo. We passed by Hollywood Rd, a standard hang out place, full of bars and restaurants for foreigners and it felt like Geneva wines and tapas: Suits holding wine glasses or pints, drinking up and chatting in English. “I’m so fed up of this type of fun and socializing” said Fabio and while thinking of Geneva in January, I couldn’t agree more with him. He jokingly said: Look at all these English and French guys, most of them are bankers without a job”, indicating that the financial crisis has arrived here as well. Not for the noodle-eating backpacker but that’s a different story altogether..

Small trip outside Hong Kong – go see Tian Tan Buddha.

Fabio is generally pretty tied up with work these days so in the mornings I didn’t get the tour guide service I got from Kaori in Tokyo– however it was also great to be a bit on my own again, in a place that was quite different but still easier to manage than Tokyo from a language standpoint. I don’t always understand the English that the Chinese try to speak but at least they make an effort. I used the metro system quite a bit. It is immaculate, fast , very modern and probably the easiest way to move around the city in rush hour. Taxis are also dead cheap. I was delighted to see that the Flag starts at 1.6 Euros, any ride in town is about 4-5 Euros, a nice déjà vu I hadn’t seen for 4 countries since I first started my trip in Buenos Aires.

I headed off for Ngong Ping which is on Lantau island (no need for ferry it is all connected with bridge even for the metro). That is where Tian tan Buddha resides. He was truly amazing. First of all to get there, after you alight the metro you take the most amazing cable car I’ve ever used that takes you through a couple of small valleys over some hills, until far in the background you see this massive bronze Buddha statue. He is the biggest sitting Buddha in the world, measuring a 26meters (34 if you add the base) and weights 202 tonnes. Pretty Amazing. I got there, climbed up the stairs and stared…

Wait a minute, this looks a bit familiar I thought, until I saw one of the signs saying that Buddhists were incredible impressed by the sitting Buddha in Kamakura/Japan, I could only smile and think, “I’ve seen that one as well last week in Japan!”

Food from hell and a wonderful boat ride.
I love the food here. Everything. We started the first day with dim sums (a Hong Kong classic) and kept on going with noodles, pork, Indian curry, even salmon at a fancy Canadian restaurant. Food is good quality and very cheap. You can have a good main for about 3-4Euros.

Unlike Japan, ordering is slightly easier because the staff speak English, you will still need an English menu or end up pointing at photos but it works ok. I headed of yesterday (Wednesday) to see some other parts of the city and get a visa for the next country I am going (can’t tell you yet…). Around 1pm I was practically starving, so I decided to try and get something to eat. The neighborhood I was in is apparently famous for its food market and street food stalls. An interesting thing worth mentioning is that Lunch break is really respected here. People take the time to have a proper (albeit a bit rushed) lunch break. And since food is rather cheap, they all eat out. I decided to chose the place based on “natural selection”. Which is the place filled with most locals? I found it. A few people queuing outside the door and through the windows I could see ONLY Chinese, office workers, students, old people. “This is it” I thought and went in and asked for an English menu. They had one. Cool

Surprise #1: I was seated on a two-person table opposite an old lady. Now, being in Geneva (and away from Greece for a while) I don’t mind at all to share a table for coffee. But when we are talking about eating noodles at a 30cm distance of the other person, that’s just a bit too close. She was nice, I couldn’t say “bon appétit” but she was also hungry. You could hear it when she was sucking the noodles out of the bowl… It’s ok to eat boodles with a slurping sound, as long as you don’t make more noise than the next person.

Surprise #2: I eat anything. I really do, ask my friends. No matter how bitter, sweet, hot, spicy or whatever, I can probably eat it and even enjoy it. So as I am looking at the menu, the waiter hovering over me, he says in broken English: “Try noodles. Honk Kong beef noodles, the king of noodles.” Why would you settle for anything less than the King, I though and said ok.

Then he says, “how spicy? Low, Medium low, Medium, Medium high, or high? Low better?”
I am thinking, no, medium is ok wondering how can they have 5 different levels…
“Medium low better, better for you” he says. Ok, I agree reluctantly thinking this is just going to be a mild dish.

Five minutes later my hot, steaming noodles with beef arrive. The King is here. It was a huge bowl (see photo) with noodle, beef, veggies and some red things floating in it. This was not beef noodles, these were the noodles from Hell. I have never eaten a hotter dish. Lips numb from the spiciness, nose running (tissues nowhere to be found) and tears in my eyes, I could barely eat the meat and noodles. The soup was simply a volcanic residue cooked in red pepper. I gave up after the first 10 spoonfuls, headed for the bathroom and washed my face and lips which by that time were completely numb. Next time, listen to the dude, he’s seen more guys get burnt than anyone…


Now that I’ve visited quite a few cities, I love making comparisons. So Hong Kong is like Sydney. In some ways of course. Another waterfront city with different parts and islands that are connected with little ferries, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to take one. I headed off for the island of Lamma which is the largest inhabited island opposite Hong Kong, a lovely little place with significantly cheaper property to rent and a laid back atmosphere.

I got there around 12, and decided to take the 1hr trail to the other side of the island. In effect, this place is two big villages, with a few house scattered here and there, and a couple of nice sandy beaches. Suddenly, you are transported away from the noise and swarms of people in Hong Kong to a lovely, little coastal town, with fresh fish restaurants, little tractors modified as little cars and green green nature all around. I found one of the beaches on the way and laid down to take a nap (my standard habit anyplace I go) and realized I was the only person on the beach at that time. The sound of waves coming and going and the sun slowly coming down turning the sky into a deep orange.

I headed back around 5pm with a ferry that had an open deck. Feeling the sea breeze in my face as we approached Hong Kong from the sea, you get to see the most wonderfully lit city skyline, I couldn’t help but remind myself just to make sure I am aware: This is Hong Kong...!

A quick comparison: Tokyo vs. Hong Kong

Taxis: Tokyo 0-1 HK
Dead cheap in HK. Always available and easy to get at any point. Drivers don’t always speak English, especially if you have to say a road name in Chinese, your accent is usually so bad, they don’t get it. I like the GPS and immaculate Tokyo taxis but frankly a 4 Euro ride in HK can take you anywhere

People – noise & respect: Tokyo 1-0 HK Ok, the Chinese are extremely noisy, cut queues, run you over with their suitcases, talk loudly on their cell phones anywhere… Fabio says the mainland is even worse! Bright exception, first day in town I am looking over my LonelyPlanet guide and this Chinese gentleman with a tweed jacket and cane ask me in excellent English: “You look lost, would you like some help?”

Pollution, Environment: Tokyo 1-0 HK Forget it. Hong Kong is extremely polluted, noisy, a lot of it has to do with the smog coming from the factories from mainland China but really I hadn’t seen so much car pollution since Buenos Aires. Recycling is a joke, as any other sustainability activity.

Metro: Tokyo 1-1 HK I have to hand it to the Chinese/HK people. Their metro is immaculate, fast and very efficient. The reason this is a tie is because Tokyo is a much bigger network. Also The Tokyoans (…) are so much better in packing themselves in the metro cars. After Tokyo, these guys here seem to have so much space around them when they say, Ah it’s full.

Language: Tokyo 0-1 HK. I like the sound of Japanese more but here everybody speaks at least some English. It was an English colony after all!

Clothes: Tokyo 1-0 HK
Obviously a rich metropolis like Tokyo has so much more to show, people are much better dressed, you don’t see rags and sruffy people. Here, in HK, everything is more normal. Also nothing comes close to the extreme outfits of the Japanese girls…

Girls: Tokyo 0-1 HK
Now, don’t fight! This is my point of view. HK girls are more beautiful. They have fuller lips, less make-up and smile back when you look at them, even to me – and I am not the Alpha male specimen at this moment with my scruffy hair and beard. Aris might have a different point of view but I am sticking to this.

So this was part 1 of Hong Kong – I stll have to write about interesting Macau – if I have some time….

I am now at HK airport, flying off in 1hour to Ho Chi Minh City… that is Saigon for those stuck in the sixties… Goooooodmorning Vietnaaaaam! (I've already landed in Saigon!)


Incredible residential high rises, stacked next to each other

Telecabin to Tian Tan Buddha - amazing views

Kostas and Buddha (hello, peace)

Another piece for my collection

Beautiful statues surrounding Buddha (only 2 tons each)

Kostas and statues...

Overlooking the mountain

Standard Hong Kong accommodation

Little shrine on Lamma island

Beach on Lamma

Fisherman on Lamma (my favourite photo?)

Part of the trail on Lamma, great views of fishing village

Sunset, taking the boat back to Hong Kong (no filters!)

Spectacular Hong Kong from the sea

Ticket to hell (spicy food)


katerinak said...

your noodles experience!
you havent considered that perhaps to ward off 'foreigners' and keep it a local joint they were playing a trick on you? in any case still very funny!

Chris W said...

Welcome to Asia - hot food and no napkins / tissues. Same thing as in Singapore, where we went for Chili Crab and Christoph was sweating, with a running nose, dirty fingers - and then nothing to wipe all that off. Great !
Hey man, this reminds me my trips to Hong Kong sponsored by our dear fragrance friends - wonderful memories. Continue to enjoy !