Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Hello from HongKong. More than just High Towers

Exploring ‘Central’, the Famed Escalators, Man Mo Temple and Stanley:
Monday, Jan 11. 2016: Bombay-Delhi-Hong Kong

         Hong Kong had never been on my Bucket List—to be perfectly honest, few places in Asia are! Still, when the opportunity presented itself, I was more than willing to tick it off my Yet-To-See List. Finally today, at 8.00 pm, I boarded an Air-India flight for Hong Kong. Two hours later, we were in Delhi and another two hours later, we were airborne again.
Tuesday, Jan 12, 2016: Hong Kong
Exploring ‘Central’
         When I awoke at 6.30 am local time, we were in Hong Kong. I had all of three hours sleep—but it was sound. By the time, I disembarked from the aircraft, I was fresh as a daisy and ready to begin my exploration of the city. The airport is an exact replica of the ones I had just passed through in Delhi (which is simply humongous) and Bombay (which has a spiffy new one that is a clone of every other airport around the world). That’s the trouble with globalization: you never know where in the world you are at any given time when you are jet setting!
                 I cleared Immigration fairly quickly, retrieved my baggage from the carousel (I was really glad I had  it in as connecting in Delhi would have been super painful had I been lugging around my wheeled case with me). I picked up a couple of maps (which have more ads from local businesses than any location information—such a joke!), changed currency (currently, you get 7 Hong Kong dollars to a US dollar), and followed signs to the local Bus Stop. I had been instructed by the folks at the Youth Hostel to take the E21 bus from the airport and to get off at Stop 21 which is Yen Chau Street. The buses arrive every 20 minutes and since I had just missed one, I sat in bracing morning temps and awaited the next—which arrived impressively promptly. The bus does not take notes and the bank teller had given me no coins. Luckily for me, a sweet girl on the bus gave me change and for HKD14, I was on my way, The ride took 1 hour and dropped me about a 7 minute walk from the youth hostel which I was very easily able to locate through a map that I printed out from Google Maps. It is amazing today how easily I can find my way around the world without speaking a word of the local lingo—thanks to the internet. Talking of which, although I expected English to be far more widespread than it is, few people actually speak the language here. However, all signage is in dual script which is a huge boon to the traveler.
            Check-in time at Mei Ho Youth Hostel is 4 pm—so I did what I do whenever I arrive too early at my destinations—I stashed my baggage in the Left Luggage Locker Room and was off. It was about 8. 30 am by then and I was starving. Fortunately, the youth Hostel has a lovely Dining Room with a choice of 4 kinds of breakfasts: American, English, Chinese and Hong Kong. I chose the Chinese and received a big bowl of congee and two pork momos (rice flour dumplings filled with minced pork) and coffee (my choice instead of the Chinese jasmine tea which usually comes with the Chinese brekkie). I have to say that I had my doubts about the congee which looked awfully bland—but when I tasted the first spoonful, it was delicious. Doctored with a bit of chilli sauce, it was even better. Bits of chicken and fish floated in it as did coriander leaves and fresh ginger. The momos were also tasty and very filling indeed. I was ready to face a day on my feet.
Exploring ‘Central’:
               Of the many reasons I repeatedly choose to stay in youth hostels is that they are so centrally located, extremely safe and always staffed by youngsters who can speak English. Taking directions from the Receptionist, I found my way to the Subway station (called MTR here—short for Metro) and bought an Octopus card. This is similar to London’s Oyster Card—you top up as you use it. Each customer pays HKD50 as a deposit but you will get it refunded when you return the card. With HKD100 in the card and a metro map in my hand, I was off.
                I got off at ‘Central’ which is in downtown Hong Kong. When you emerge from the Metro, you are at Statue Square—so-called because its focus is a sculpture of Lord Jackson who ran the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation for years and put the country on the world financial map. Fittingly, the HSBC building, designed by Britain’s late Norman Foster, dominates the square. In fact, three skyscrapers make their presence felt at this point: apart from the HSBC building, there is the Mandarin Hotel (which was once the tallest building in the city) and the Bank of China Tower (designed by the Chinese-American architect, I.M. Pei) which is crisscrossed with decorative stripes that cut across it—talk about ‘cutting edge’ design!
              After I rode the escalators at the HSBC Building (just so I could tell Llew I had been inside it!) and rubbed the paws of the twin lions named Stephen and Stitt that guard the entrance (named for the two bigwigs of the bank—a Mr. Stephen in Hong Kong and a Mr. Stitt  in Shanghai), I left. Incidentally, the HSBC Building at London’s Canary Wharf has replicas of these two lions guarding its front. (Must make it a point to look for them when next I am there!).
               Across the street in a verdant park is an exact replica of Sir Edwin Lutyens’ Cenotaph as stands in London’s Whitehall. Designed as a memorial for ‘The Glorious Dead’ of World War I, it came into its own after World War II when so many thousands joined the ranks of the fallen. In Hong Kong, it represents the Chinese who died fighting for the British in WWI and then the Chinese who died fighting against the British as colonial power grew more crushing. Standing at the Cenotaph, I could see the Hong Kong Observation Wheel (which is an exact replica of the London Eye). I think you get my drift—all over the world, it is not just advertisements and merchandise that are identical, but now monuments as well!!! No wonder we have no idea where in the world we are!
            Another lovely old relic of Hong Kong’s colonial past in this area is the Old Supreme Court Building—a domed, colonnaded edifice that looks completely at odds amidst the glass and concrete jungle that has sprouted up around it. I took in these lovely sights and then decided to follow my guide books to take the elevator to the 43rd floor of I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower to the Observation Deck for great views of the city. Only when I got there, I was informed that it is now permanently closed to the public (since last May)! Disappointed, I began to walk in the direction of what is known as the Tri-Level or Mid-Level Escalators.
Riding the Mid-Level Escalators:
                 The Escalators get a great deal of coverage in guide books and they are significant in a curious kind of way. First of all, Hong Kong, like Rio, is composed of a series of islands many of which are hills and mountains. All human habitation clings to the slopes of mountains. Hence, the escalators make sense as they allow you to get from one level to the next without expending too much sweat equity. As you ride this series of mechanized walkways, you skim the streets below, climb ever higher and get bird’s eye views of the goings-on down below. Built in 1993, this purely practical device has gained tourist attention and is now something every visitor must do while in the city.

Visiting the Man Mo Temple:
           I had decided, after seeing dozens and dozens of temples in Japan, that I was going to select just two or three temples in Hong Kong. And I need not have worried. The Hong Kong Chinese seem less religious than their Japanese counterparts: there are very few temples and all the guide books tell you to visit just one of them: Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Street which is easily reached when you hop off the escalator at the very top. A ten minute walk takes you to a very old temple complex that was built in the 1840s and wears its age very proudly in the midst of the other modern buildings that surround it. Inside it, I learned that Man is the short form for the word Mandarin which means writer or book keeper (I had no idea!) and the deity is therefore always seen with a pen in his hand. Mo is the God of War and the two are always worshipped together. Somehow the saying, The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword’ leaps to my mind in this curious juxtaposition of deities.
               The smell of incense is strong inside as devotees buy joss stciks to burn as they pray for their children and their need to make good grades! Loads of visual interest inside can also keep one’s camera clicking…but note that it is a working temple and there were lots of people praying, leaving offerings of fruit and candy to the gods and burning incense. Certainly worth seeing and having seen this one, I did not feel the need to visit any more temples on this trip!
Lunch in a ‘Cooked Food Center’:                  
          By this point it was 1. 30 pm and I was hungry. There is only so far you can get on a bowl of congee! Not knowing where I was going to eat or what I was going to buy, I passed a building close to the temple complex with a most interesting name: The Cooked Food Center! I saw a lot of people going inside and a lot coming out—and I thought, heck, why not? They say that when you travel, if you want the best food, you should eat where the locals eat. Well, let me tell you, I followed the crowd, up the escalator, past the market below from which the strong smell of fish emanated and gradually disappeared as we climbed higher.
              On the third floor, we were in a gigantic hall filled to the rafters with mainly young people deep in their bowls of broth and rice noodles. There must have been at least a thousand people in that place—all young, all professional, all hungry. I was the only non-Oriental person in that space and I did not know the first thing about what to order or who to order from!
            Luckily I found a girl who could barely make herself understood to me in English. I simply told her to tell the waitress that I would have what she was having as the menu was not in English. It was a giant bowl of what looked like Vietnamese pho—a flavorful broth with a fried egg and two large slices of (yes, seriously) canned luncheon meat! That said, it was very delicious and at less than HKD 22 (about US3), I simply couldn’t go wrong. Half way through it, I realized, I could not eat any more noodles. Filled to bursting, I went in search of a bus that would take me to my next destination—Stanley!

The Charms of Stanley:
     By this time, I was feeling the ill effects of lack of sleep as well as fatigue for I had been on my feet since 9 am. I would rather have taken public transport than walked and when a passer-by suggested I walk towards the International Financial Center and Exchange Square to take a bus to Stanley, I agreed. I hopped into the Metro at a small stop and got off at Central and followed exit signs to Exchange Square where I found the Bus Terminus. There, I followed directions in my guide book and hopped into the No. 6 bus to Stanley (the last stop). It was like deja-vu all over again—as I got on to the upper decker and took the seat right in front (under advice from my brother Roger who knows Hong Kong well). He warned me that there is nothing much at the destination but the ride is lovely—so I should try to bag that seat. And he was so right.
              Sitting in the front, I had my favorite views of the city—from the upper deck of a bus. However, I have to admit that I nodded off to sleep quite often and completely missed the entry and exit from the famous Aberdeen Tunnel that goes under the sea. Still, when I did awake, we were in one of the most elite and expensive parts of the city. Populated mainly by white expatriates and their Filipina maids and nannies, this area is a series of high rise towers that overlook the water for Stanley lies at the tip of Hong Kong island. It is a former British colonial stronghold and has a fort and an army barracks there—called Murray House—which is today a building filled with upscale restaurants that offer water views. I did enter Murray House to admire its colonial architecture (it too is double storeyed like the Supreme Court building) and its ambience and then made my way to Stanley Market.
           Usually buzzing during the weekends, it was quieter today but you can still get very good designer knock-offs here, wonderful silk goods like scarves and ties from China and tons of pearls and jade. I took a quick look at the wares and then walked through Stanley Plaza which is a more modern version of the older bazaar—this one is a mall and has all the trappings of such places. Shopping is an obsession in Hong Kong and there is no dearth of places to spend your money if you are that way inclined.
            Back on the No. 6 Bus to Central, I was seriously in need of some rest. Needless to say, I napped on the bus again but not at the tunnel and before I knew it, darkness had fallen over the city and I was ready to head back to the hostel to actually check in and relax in my dorm. I hopped off the bus at Admiralty, one stop before Central and found my way back on the red line. Hong Kong is very like any Chinatown anywhere in the world with a lot of the wares occupying not just the shop itself but the pavement outside it. There are lights galore—the running kind—what my mother used to call “Jig Big Lights” and they give every street the exact same look—so that you can get well and truly lost if you do not have a map and don’t know where you are going when you emerge out of the metro station.
              Fortunately, I did have my map with me and with very little difficulty, I found my bearings and was in the hostel by 7. 15, checked in and found my very comfortable 4-bed dorm—two bedrooms with two beds each and an attached bath. My roomie was a girl from the Netherlands named Nora who is also traveling around Asia alone—she is in her late-teens from what I can tell. We chatted a bit and I discovered that she covered today all the places I intend to do tomorrow.
 It was time for a shower and I loved the one I had—hot, steamy, very refreshing. My dinner was two kinds of cookies from Marks and Spencer (Pistachio and Almond and Belgian Chocolate) with a tub of Honey Yogurt and with that I felt full and ready to blog, do a bit of reading about places I will be seeing tomorrow and get to bed.
             Thanks for following me on my travels once again. For the moment, I say Bye for now and until tomorrow…            

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