Sunday, October 24, 2010

Five nights in Hong Kong

Continuing from my last post as we departed China for Hong Kong...

Once on board, we settled in for the 2 hour ride to Hung Hom Station, Kowloon. After eating our noodles, we even managed to procure some draft beer from the dining car -- our excuse was trying to use up our Chinese yuan although we didn’t quite accomplish that! We had to clear immigration again when we reached Hong Kong, then got some Hong Kong dollars from an ATM machine before buying our subway tickets to East Tsim Sha Tsui. It was just one stop to our station and we followed the directions emailed by our hostel for the 5 minute walk to Chungking Mansions.
As we had been warned, the entrance to the “mansions” is packed with touts, mostly Indian, offering to sell you mobile phones & sim cards, watches, custom-tailored clothing, and rooms at guesthouses. We pushed through the crowd and got in line at the first set of elevators which we rode up to the 7th floor before realizing we were in the wrong section of the building. There are really no words to describe the layout of these buildings other than to say they are an absolute maze of money exchange businesses, shops, restaurants, and budget accommodations that look like a total fire trap to me! Not to mention there are plenty of shady characters hanging out waiting for an unwary tourist to take advantage of.
the guy on the right tried to sell Greg a "custom-tailored suit" just before I took this photo
After we got back down to the ground floor we found an information desk and got directions to the correct set of elevators for block D, which we then took to the 7th floor where we checked into City Guesthouse. Again, the process is about as unofficial as you can imagine -- all reservations are noted by hand in a large logbook and all payments are made in cash. We had to wait about 15 minutes for our room to be cleaned and when we were shown to our room (721), I understood how they were able to clean it so fast -- it measures about 10’x6’ with a 3’x4’ all-in-one bathroom which practically requires sitting on the toilet to take a shower! With the two single beds, the only open floor space is about 5’x2’ so it is really a quite cozy place. I guess we are lucky in that our room is in a corner and thus has windows on two walls so we get good natural light. And, with the outside temperature hovering in the mid-90’s with very high humidity, we are also thankful for an air conditioner! All of this for US$82.50 per night -- and this is considered budget accommodation and was one of the absolute cheapest places I could find. I even tried Couchsurfing but the host I contacted was already booked during our time here.
I'm standing in the corner of our room on the bed just to show how small our room is.
After sorting out where we would store our things (mostly under the beds), we double-checked our internet access -- free wifi and access to Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Google Docs, etc. YAAAAYYYYY!! Then we headed out into the heat have a look around our neighborhood and get better oriented for our upcoming days of sightseeing. We walked along Salisbury Road until we reached the Star Ferry pier, where we stopped at the Hong Kong Tourism Board and got excellent advice & maps from the English-speaking staff. Then we continued along the promenade, with its great views of Hong Kong Island across the harbor, down the Avenue of the Stars, until we eventually spotted a waterfront bar where we settled in to drink some pricey beer ($60HKD or $7.75USD for .5 liter of Hoegaarden draft) and eat free peanuts. It was the perfect spot to relax & people-watch and we ended up staying to watch the sunset and buildings light up across the harbor.

We finally left the bar around 7pm and walked back into the bustling area near the mansions where we had dinner at Palki Indian Restaurant. There is a high percentage of Indians and Africans in this area so I figured Indian food should be pretty good and it was. We shared murgh sagwala, vegetable makhani, garlic nan & steamed rice and the total bill was US$23. Of course, we are accustomed to paying much less for a comparable amount of food in mainland China, but Hong Kong is an expensive city for everything!
We returned to the chaos of the Chungking Mansions and ascended to our room for a much needed shower and sleep.

We slept in today but for me that meant getting up around 9:30 while Greg stayed in bed until 11am. Our plan for the day was to get caught up on uploading photos and blogging then venture out in the late afternoon to have a look around the Mong Kok area. Part of our reasoning is influenced by the hot weather. With day time temperatures above 30C and high humidity, it makes sense to wait until it starts to cool off a bit before going outside. Plus most sights are open until fairly late in the evening so there is no need to rush to see them during the middle of the day.
We had accomplished a lot by 3pm as well as taken a break to have some coffee and eat our instant noodles. So we walked to the train station (less than 5 minutes away), bought Octopus cards (pre-loaded value cards that can be used on almost every form of public transportation as well as at convenience and other stores), and took the train 4 stops to Prince Edward station. From there it was a short walk to the Yuen Po Bird Garden and the Flower Market. While I did enjoy looking at all the birds for sale and listening to the sound of so many songbirds in one small area, it is kind of sad to see all these creatures trapped in their tiny cages. The flower market, which is really just a couple of blocks of almost nothing but flower shops, was very pretty to look at, especially all of the varieties of orchids. Prices seemed very reasonable and a lot of local people were purchasing fresh cut flowers as well as potted plants and other greenery. I also thought it was a bit funny that there was one very large shop dedicated to selling Christmas decorations.
We started walking south on Fa Yuen Street where we were surprised that the vendors at the open air market were not at all pushy in their sales tactics. It did appear to be a more local market versus one catering to tourists and I was happy to make a couple of small purchases: a reusable bag for 10HKD and a long lightweight polyester scarf to use in mosques or just as a decorative accessory for 15HKD. I spotted plenty of inexpensive gifts that I would have loved to purchase for friends and family but space constraints in my backpack prevented me from going crazy so I resorted to just taking pictures.
We continued south through the Ladies Market area and then down Shanghai Street. We eventually entered the Temple St Night Market where we stopped for dinner at Hing Kee, a bustling block of restaurants, all with the same menu but with separate indoor and outdoor seating areas. Wanting to try a local dish I ordered the fried oyster pancake (20HKD) for Greg & I to share as an appetizer and the chicken & taro in a clay pot (40HKD). Greg wasn’t feeling adventurous and ordered sweet & sour pork (40HKD). We also shared a couple of large bottles of Harbin beer (16HKD). Everything was freshly cooked and delicious with my main dish tasting a bit like chicken & dumplings -- a kind of Chinese comfort food. It was also a fun place to people- & food-watch as well.
After dinner we continued exploring the Night Market, where things got a bit more interesting when we passed through the X-rated section! As Greg had his eye out for Chairman Mao watches the entire time we were in China, I decided to buy him one and bartered with a street vendor for it and a deck of Mao playing cards. The asking price of the cards was 38HKD and the watch was 50HKD. After a few minutes of negotiation I walked away with both for 50.
We gradually made our way back to Tsim Sha Tsui, stopping at a bakery where I bought raisin walnut bread to have with my morning coffee and then at a 7/11 for our instant noodle bowls (which are more expensive here than they have been in China; 8.5HKD=1.10USD versus 3.5CNY=0.53USD). We returned to Chungking Mansions and settled in for the night.
Today we took the subway to Hong Kong Island. I wanted to take the Star Ferry, but the subway made more sense in terms of routing. We got off at Sheung Wan station and used the excellent free walking map provided by the Hong Kong Tourism Board to navigate our way around the streets lined with specialty shops selling ginseng, bird’s nest, and exotic dried herbs & seafood. I noticed that all the shops that sold sharks fins had their windows frosted so you couldn’t see inside and had “no photos” signs posted. From there we continued along Hollywood Road, gazing through the shop windows at all the fantastic antiques, particularly the carved woolly mammoth tusks. We also went inside fascinating incense-laden Man Mo Temple which is currently undergoing renovations and getting a fresh coat of paint.
We eventually arrived at the Central Mid-Levels Escalator, the world’s longest covered escalator. It is actually divided into more sections than I expected so you constantly have to step off, walk a few feet, then get back on. The escalator ascends through an area called SoHo which was filled with a wide variety of restaurants & bars although we did not stop. We rode all the way to the top and then had to negotiate a series of steeply inclined pedestrian walkways and stairs to eventually reach the western entrance of the Zoological & Botanical Gardens. As the weather continues to be quite hot & humid, we were feeling a little parched, so after looking at a nice variety of apes and other caged mammals we stopped to drink a beer as the sun was slowly starting to set. It is so nice to have this oasis in the middle of all the high rises, not to mention that entrance is free! After a short loop around the gardens and a peek at some of the birds in the aviary, we descended to the nightlife district of Lan Kwai Fong.
We quickly discovered that this area plays host to some great bars & restaurants where you can settle in for a few hours and pretend like you’re anywhere but Asia. Most places offer happy hour drink specials, another bonus in this expensive city. We chose Al’s Diner as our home away from home and easily passed almost 3 hours eating huge hamburgers with fries, drinking beer, watching 80’s music videos, and people-watching. We finally had had enough around 9pm and took the subway from Central back to TST, bought our instant noodles, and settled in for the night.
Today was a bit less adventurous; we again waited until late afternoon to get out for a walk around TST, covering the areas around Austin Road, Hillwood Road and Knutsford Terrace. After an hour or two of exploring, we decided to have dinner at a Guangdong style barbecue restaurant. I ordered the crispy skin roast suckling pig, roasted chicken livers and garlic broccoli to share while Greg had the barbecue pork.
After dinner, we walked to the harbour to watch the free Symphony of Lights show which happens at 8pm every night. We bought a couple of beers & some peanuts at a 7/11 and snagged seats at a waterfront table, then waited about 30 minutes for the show to start. It was fun to watch, if a bit anticlimactic. Afterwards we headed back to the mansions and settled in for the evening.

Per the recommendation of a friend as well as with some helpful information from Lamma Island.
We decided to take a side trip to Lamma Island today. First we took the Star Ferry from TST to Central Pier 7, then walked to Pier 4 where we boarded a ferry for the 30 minute ride to Yung Shue Wan. The typical tourist activity on the island is to walk from there to Sok Kwu Wan along the paved “Family Trail.” The path is about 3km long and, as it was the weekend, was filled with Hong Kong residents out for a stroll. The trail was also steeper than I expected so we got a good workout, but it still only took us about 1h10m to walk from village to village.
Besides the crowds, the unfortunate aspect of Lamma Island is the huge power plant visible for at least 2/3 of the trail. I, for one, would not be swimming at the beach with the plant adjacent!
 The highlight of our trip to the island and reward for completing the hike was eating dinner at Rainbow Seafood Restaurant overlooking the boat docks in Sok Kwu Wan. We ordered the 398HKD (for 2 people) set menu which included deep fried squid with sweet & sour dipping sauce, 2 small lobster tails with butter sauce, 2 scallops on the shell with garlic & transparent noodles, steamed whole jackfish, steamed bok choy, stir fried rice with pork & shrimp, fresh pineapple & melon, and jasmine tea. We also shared a bottle of Blue Girl beer. The sun set as we were eating so it was dark when we took Rainbow’s free ferry back to Central. By pure chance we boarded the Star Ferry from Central to TST just as the light show began, so we actually got to see it from the boat. A nice way to end our time in Hong Kong!
We checked out of the guesthouse at noon and walked about 10 minutes to a bus stop for the A21 to the airport. The bus is much cheaper than the train and involved less effort due to our location in TST. We only waited about 5 minutes for a bus, then the ride to the airport took about an hour.
Upon arrival, we were first told that our Royal Jordanian flight had been cancelled! We were directed to another service desk where the airport staff called the airline to confirm and determined our flight was actually not cancelled; however we could not check in until 6:30pm because RJ only operates the one flight from Hong Kong daily so their staff will not be on site until nearer the departure time. We could not go through security & immigration without a boarding pass and thus could not access the airside Traveler’s Lounge with my Priority Pass, which is how we planned to spend our time waiting for our evening flight. I attempted to talk my way into two other lounges with no success. At least the luggage trolleys were free so we didn’t have to haul our backpacks around!
We went upstairs to Level 4 where there are numerous restaurants plus a food court and decided to eat Thai food for lunch. It was really good and fairly priced, so that helped with my frustration over the check-in/lounge access issue. We eventually returned to the check-in area to await the RJ staff. I killed some time walking around and shopping (not buying) but was happy to note that 7/11 and Mannings (drugstore) both had the same prices and general merchandise as in the city center. The airport also has free wifi so that provided another alternative to waste away a few hours if you’re carrying your own laptop.
We finally checked in for our flight around 6:30, cleared security & immigration, and boarded a train for the short ride to the terminal. Then we had to walk a good 10 minutes to where the Traveler’s Lounge is located. As it was already within an hour of boarding time, only I went into the lounge as Greg would have had to pay $27 as a guest on my pass. It was nice to get out of the fray of the terminal, but the lounge was a bit crowded in the sense that there was too much furniture in the space. Nor was I hungry and thus did not take advantage of the complimentary hot meal on offer. I was also disappointed there wasn’t more portable snack food I could stash in my carry-on bag for later and had to settle for a few small sandwiches and a bottle of water.
Soon enough it was time to meet Greg at the gate to board our flight. Only then did we discover that it was not a direct flight to Amman but had a stop in Bangkok! So we had to endure a 2.5hr flight to Bangkok, wait in our seats for about 45 minutes while some passengers deplaned, the cleaners came through, then new passengers boarded, and then a 9hr flight to Amman. They served full dinners on both flights, but as it was already after midnight when we left Bangkok and we had eaten on the first flight, we opted to sleep as much as we could on the second flight. Of course, really getting any rest in a cramped coach seat is almost impossible so we were still quite tired when we arrived in Amman around 5:15AM local time. We quickly proceeded through the transit area and entered the Crown Club using my Priority Pass, where we were able to get a couple hours sleep in their “quiet room.”

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