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Hong Kong Heat

Alice and I have long felt that no vacation is complete unless the riot police show up, so when Overseas Adventure Travel called us last Friday offering to cancel the Hong Kong leg of our trip, we didn’t discuss it for long before deciding to proceed. After all, we thought, what’s the worse that could happen?

Turns out that the answer to that question is, “A street skirmish a few blocks from our hotel, resulting in Molotov cocktails being thrown.” Fortunately, that took place a few hours before we arrived at said hotel, blissfully unaware that it had taken place.  It did cause some traffic delays that prolonged our wait for the driver at the airport. We walked into our hotel room at about 11 PM and dashed of a note to our family assuring them that we were safe, we saw no evidence of unrest, and Mom, please lay off the Ambien.

The middle part of that sentence, as it turns out, was mostly but not 100% true. Looking down from our hotel room, we saw a fleet of police transport vehicles turning down the street, and a very small number of (presumed) protesters running very, very fast away from them. But from our vantage point on the 32nd floor, I would not characterize it as a visceral experience. (Turns out that our hotel is across the street from a large police station.)

Everything was calm the next day (yesterday), and the city is quite normal though there are scattered signs of unrest: graffiti, wall posters, and the like. But for the most part, it is business as usual in Hong Kong. And there is a lot of business: Hong Kong hums with a population of 7.5 M but a wall-busting population density of over 17,000 per square mile (almost 7,000 per square km). This year it will receive just about 60 million visitors, including us.

There are several regions of the city, distributed over the mainland and a few islands, but the hub and best known parts are Hong Kong Island itself, and — a stone’s throw across the bay — Kowloon, which is the peninsula at the southern tip of the mainland. Many of the major tourist destinations lie in those two areas. The city has changed unrecognizably in the 39 years since I was last here but a number of the major sites are eternal verities: Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island still offers spectacular panoramic views of the space-age skyline; the Star Ferry still plies the bay for under half a buck US; Stanley Market still has the look of a polite Moroccan souk. We only have two full days here, so in our usual fashion we checked off a fair number of boxes yesterday alone.

The weather is hot and humid, a damp hazy 90 F (32 C) at 85% humidity. The operative word is “sweat” so rather than deal with public transport we relied a lot on taxis to get us to various transportation termini. The first of these was the tram that runs up Victoria Peak, the 1800′ (550m) peak that dominates the island and is the go-to spot for the most traditional panoramic view. The tram ride is very steep and more than a little rattly with almost Victorian-looking cars, like some venerable theme park ride, and one of the primal HK experiences. The trip alone is, um, worth the trip, but the view is the destination.

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The tram terminus at the top is now a virtual shopping mall, but you can hike upwards from there to the more idyllic Governor’s Gardens at the actual peak. It’s a steep uphill mile, which in this weather is an Olympic-class workout for your sweat glands. But we did it.

Returning to sea level, our options were either to return to the hotel for a shower or maximize the sweat content of our clothes by continuing to explore; we opted for the latter by taking a taxi to Stanley Market at the southern end of the island. It’s a less crowded area, with some resort beaches on Tai Tam Bay, which has beautiful aquamarine water. Stanley is basically a waterfront resort and shopping area whose traditional draw, as I mentioned, is a souk-like tchotchke market a couple of blocks long. It’s like Marrakesh with slightly fewer pickpockets, and if you keep your eye out there are some nice items to be found (found, of course, by Alice). But mostly, being a warren of narrow shaded alleys, it’s cooler than everywhere else.

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(Historical side note: this being a former British colony, I wondered if the eponymous Stanley was the same Lord Stanley who was the late 19th century Governor General of Canada and after whom hockey’s Stanley Cup is named.  It isn’t: Hong Kong had a different Lord Stanley, who was the British Colonial Secretary about 50 years before the hockey guy. Apparently Stanley was a good name to have if you were part of 19th century British colonialism, which was a growth industry at the time.)

We wandered around the market for a while before ducking into a side street into a pleasantly crowded hole-in-the-wall noodle restaurant for lunch. Hong Kong is notoriously expensive but in fact there are a myriad of such restaurants that can be both very cheap and excellent. This was one: we had enormous bowls of noodles, dumplings, and shrimp for a total of not much over US$20 for the two of us.

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By this time we were the consistency of wet sponges and our clothing belonged in a pro football locker room so we retreated back to the hotel for a couple of hours before striking out again after sunset. Our mode of transport this time was the Star Ferry, which along with Staten Island is one of the most famous ferries in the world. It is certainly one of the most charming means of transportation in Hong Kong, making the five-minute shuttle across the bay between Kowloon and Hong Kong every few minutes for an utterly negligible amount of money — literally pocket change — while offering the most wonderful views of the skyline, especially at night. When in HK, you cannot not take the Star Ferry.

Hong Kong’s skyline does not even remotely resemble what I saw in 1980. It is now a sea of high-tech high rises, many of them pulsing with animated light displays; no still photo can do it justice but here’s one anyway.

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The Star Ferry terminal on Kowloon is a block or so from the southern end of Nathan Road, which used to be called Hong Kong’s Golden Mile. It’s a less-impressive version of Tokyo’s Ginza, a straight two-mile neon stretch of traffic, high-end stores, boutiques, and legions of skeevy little guys (for some reason they are all five feet tall)  trying to sell you Rolex watches and designer handbags. Oddly, they all phrase it exactly that way, like they all went to the same Skeeve School: “You want Rolex watch or designer handbags?” Even more oddly, a few seem to have pangs of conscience by actually asking “You want fake Rolex watch or designer handbags?” You have to admire their candor.

We successfully repeated our side-street-hole-in-the-wall restaurant strategy to get a good inexpensive dinner, then continued our humid hike up Nathan Road. (Even at 9:30 PM, the weather was oppressive.) Our end point was the Temple Street Night Market, a sort of demimonde version of Stanley Market, four or five blocks of close-packed white-tented vendor stalls selling food — the occasional wiggling crustacean — and… crap. To characterize the wares as knockoffs would mostly be an insult to knockoffs since that term implies the existence of a quality original. This stuff all looks like it’s designed to fall apart ten minutes after you buy it. The only possible exception might be the gaily-decorated USB flash drives, all of which I am quite certain come loaded with only the highest-quality malware sure to make your home computing experience an exciting one.

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That is not to say that absolutely everything was low-quality and unoriginal. There were some decidedly original decorative metal plates, about the size of car license plates, sporting amusing slogans, designed perhaps to brighten up a dorm room or nursery. My favorite one said “NEVER ONE NIGHT STAND SHE CUT OFF YOUR DICK AND THROW IN RIVER”, although Alice preferred “SAUSAGE HUNTER.” Inspired by these new life mottoes, we strolled back down Nathan Road and took the Star Ferry home and to bed.

 

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Categories: Hong Kong | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

London Calling

I expect to have my laptop back — and thus be able to post my final Namibia entry — within a few days, but in the meantime I’ll leapfrog in time a little bit to our first post-Namibia destination. ( And you knew that had to be the title, right?)

If the aliens ever land and want to know where the Capital of the World is, you could make a pretty good case for pointing them to London. You might be able to make a stronger case for New York City in the past 80 years or so, but for a couple of hundred years prior to that it would have been a no-brainer for London. It’s stodgy, lively, vast, intimate, and generally schizophrenic all at once, with traditions and about one-third of its architecture rooted in the 11th century.  Another third of the buildings seem to have congealed some time in the 1940’s, and the rest looks it has been taking lessons from 22nd-century Japanese architects.

Of course, one of the more recent non-architectural traditions is Worrying About Brexit, probably for good reason. The most recent source of angst as I type this is a report that came out yesterday predicting that British farmers’ profits will be cut in half as a result of Brexit. This could put real pressure on the milk supplies to make the batter for fish and chips.

Our stay in London was a brief one: just about three days, much of which was spent looking up old friends. (And one new one. I have for some years been following the beautifully-written travel blog “Are We There Yet” written by Italian ex-pat Fabrizio S, living in London. We have been following each others’ blogs and corresponding by email for about two years and have finally met face to face!) But we managed to hit at least a few of the high spots: St Paul’s, the Tate Modern Gallery, and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace (viewed in person daily by over 45 billion people, most of them standing in front of me). So here are some obligatory London Tourist photos:

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Lord Nelson overlooks Trafalgar Square

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St Paul’s Cathedral,. Yes, we climbed to the Whispering Gallery.

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Iconic Tower Bridge

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The latest Harry Potter movie.

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Westminster Abbey

You will note the scaffolding around Big Ben in the second to last photo. I have warned you about this in the past: when Alice and I travel, there will be scaffolding. So far in our globetrotting we have seen scaffolding around the Parthenon, scaffolding around the Via Veneto, scaffolding around the Washington Monument. So if you ever go to a major world heritage monument and see scaffolding, you can be sure that we’re around somewhere.

One of our go-to stops on this trip was the London Eye, the famous 450′ Ferris wheel built for the millennium celebrations in 1999. It’s a great sight in and of itself, fitting oddly but somehow comfortably into the local skyline, and of course affording a spectacular view of the city.

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We arrived at 2:15 PM on a cloudy afternoon amidst an enormous throng of visitors, and were told by the automated kiosk that we could buy either a regular admission ticket for £26 or a so-called FastTrack ticket to jump part of the line for £36. Hmmm, tough call. How long would we have to wait? Well-ll-ll-ll, we were informed, with the Fastrack ticket we could get onto the Eye at 4:00, versus a plain-old cheaper regular ticket that would allow us on at….. 3:15 PM. I asked the nice uniformed attendant how this could be, and was told, “Well, so many people sign up for the FastTrack tickets that it makes the wait longer.” OK then.

The ride takes a half hour, during which time the wheel rotates only once. There are 32 ovoidal capsules (Alice was quite scandalized when I described them as suppository-shaped), each holding 25 people, which means that at any given moment 800 people are enjoying the view and peeking down into Parliament.

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There is a lot that has changed in London in the decades since I last visited, most notably the ethnic mix, about which a lot of people angst, since “ethnic” in this context is a sort of code word for “Muslim”. I heard grim tales about areas where no Westerner or immodestly-dressed women dare to tread without getting glared out, and it is all rather overwrought.

It is certainly true that London has a far more diverse ethnic array than it did when I last visited, over 25 years ago. (The mayor is a Muslim, Sadiq Khan.) It is also true that there are areas that are heavily Muslim: there are blocks at a time when all of the store signage is in Arabic as well as English. But to us at least, the general feel of those areas is not a whole lot different — and no more threatening — then, say, Chinatown in San Francisco. There are certainly visibly many Muslims in traditional garb in the streets, but it by no means feels like an isolated enclave; there are lots of other ethnicities walking around as well, all looking quite unconcerned.

I suppose it is quite possible that women in particular might receive a lot of hostility for being seen as dressing too immodestly. But context is pretty important: I guarantee you that you’ll receive those same looks today by walking around in revealing clothes in the orthodox Jewish sections of the Williamsburg neighborhood of New York City. Ethnic mixes change, cities change, countries change, and in general I feel that the threat is more to our perceptions and self-image than anything else.

Of course one of the upsides to all this newfound diversity is….better food. English food has its reputation, of course — and completeness compels me to report that the aptly-named “Mushy Peas” is still a dish here — and it has long been the case that you were better off frequenting Indian Restaurants. But now there’s a lot of everything: Middle Eastern, of course, and even (to my amazement) the occasional taco truck. So things are looking up.

But a lot of the old charm is still there, even as ancient cathedrals nestle up against 50-story steel and glass extrusions. Our hotel was adjacent to St James Park with its long lake, country gardens, ice cream stands, and enormous diversity of waterfowl.

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The Guard still marches, the weather is still rainy, and overall it was great to be back.

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Underneath the Millennium Bridge

Categories: UK | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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