Friday, January 15, 2016

Riding Hong Kong's Unique Public Transport. Plus Museum of History

Thursday, January 14, 2016
Covering Hong Kong's Last Bits and Bobs:

    Since I had a 5. 30 pm flight from Hong Kong to Manila in The Philippines, I set my alarm for 8.00 am to leave me enough time to pack, have breakfast and finish the last bits and bobs of Hong Kong that I had left undone. As it turned out, I awoke without my alarm by 7. 30 and got an even earlier start. It was a fitful night's sleep and I did not feel rested when I awoke.
     Half an hour later, I had washed and dressed and gone down to brekkie. I chose the Hong Kong Breakfast--scrambled eggs (which were my choice--it usually comes with a fried egg), toast and butter, a giant bowl of soup that had elbow pasta and mushrooms in it. Having tried all three breakfasts at the Youth Hostel, I can say that the tastiest was the Chinese one with a huge bowl of very flavorful congee and two pork momos.
     Back in my room, I locked my case, stripped my bed (as instructed) and took my bed (including my duvet cover) and bath linen downstairs. Any place that offers impeccably clean down duvets to its guests with individual covers that are changed each time sheets are changed is simply a miracle to me. I could not have had this luxury even had I opted for a pricey hotel--which is one of the reasons why I still think youth hostels world-wide are simply the best value for money (if one is traveling alone). I checked out, stashed my case in the Left Luggage Locker and was off. I would pick it up at the end of the morning's rambles en route to the airport.
Racing to use Hong Kong's Unique Forms of Public Transport:
     I had three items on my agenda for the morning and I knew I had to race through them all as I set myself the goal of returning to the hostel by 1. 30 to pick up my case and leave for the airport. I wanted to use all of Hong Kong's unique forms of public transport. Having used the excellent Metro (Underground) system and the double-decker bus system (a legacy of British colonial rule), I headed to the Sham Tsui Po Metro station to make my way to Central so that I could get to the famous Star Ferry Terminal to ride it across what was once called Victoria Harbor.
     Since I had my bearings well, I found the closest way to get to the Metro station. I bought a single ticket from a dispensing machine (as I am running out of money on my Octopus card and since you can only load the card in multiples of HKD 50 and I am leaving today, it made no sense to do so).  I was at Central in ten minutes and having taken instructions of the Youth Hostel receptionist, I followed signs to the Star Ferry Terminal.

Getting to the Star Ferry Terminal:
     Since my hostel is located on the island of Kowloon (known simply as Kowloon), I was going to make the Ferry Crossing to Hong Kong Island. The Harbor is simply like a wide river and the crossing take about 12 minutes; but it is one of the most spectacular crossings in the world as you head towards a concrete jungle that features the work of some of the world's most talented architects such as I.M. Pei and Norman Foster. Also the Star Ferry is legendary--having been the one and only crossing between these two spots for centuries. For of the price of a coffee today (HKD 2.50), you board one of the most antiquated navigational systems in the world--the assistants still pull the ferries in to anchor them with long poles with hooks at the ends of them!
     Because Hong Kong is such a well-planned city, you do not need to get on the streets at all once you get off the Metro at Tsim Tsa Tsui. For a good deal of time you walk underground past some of the most amazing underground stations I have ever seen--filled with shops, restaurants, bakeries, etc. When you emerge upstairs, you are opposite the iconic Peninsula Hotel (which I had entered last night). You go past it and head towards the famed Clock Tower which is another old relic from the past.

Getting to The Clock Tower:
     This delightful Clock Tower--an Edwardian relic from the British colonial past--was built in 1910. It was part of the train station on the Kowloon-Canton Line that took passengers from Hong Kong to China. This was one of the lines run by the Orient Express--although its European counterpart is much more famous. When the station building was demolished in the mid-twentieth century, when presumably the railway line was shut down--the Tower was retained and it is a lovely piece and a very warming sight. It is composed of red brick and grey granite and sports a white faced clock at the turreted top.
     I hurried off to the Star Ferry and its fleet of battered green and white boats. You walk along antiquated gang planks and arrive on board and since there were no more than 20 people--almost all of then tourists--when I made the crossing, I had my choice of seats. In the days gone by, before the construction of the metro, I am told the ferry was always filled to capacity with hundreds of Chinese grandmas pushing and shoving to get to the markets on the other side or to get back home with their bags filled with smelly fish and fresh vegetables! Not any more. The Metro is now the way to make the crossing (much faster although far more pricey and completely lacking in ambience).
     It was an overcast hazy day--so I did not get good pictures. But no matter. I enjoyed every second of the sail as I took in the buildings--the curvaceous Hong Kong Convention Center and the towering International Finance Corporation (IFC) Tower which is today Hong Kong's tallest building. These are framed by the Peak which I had climbed yesterday. A very stirring sight indeed and very interesting. 

Making my Way to the Trams:
     Having arrived on Hong Kong Island and having ticked off Ride the Star Ferry from my To-Do List, I headed to wards the Trams. Once again, I did not need to get on the streets. Once you disembark, you arrive at a long Footbridge that somehow manages to wind its way around the great commercial skyscrapers as it skims above the streets. Below you, traffic whizzes past in an extraordinarily organized fashion. You keep walking and taking in the sights of the buildings (now up close and personal) and finally arrive at the descending staircase for the Trams.
     A word about Hong Kong's Trams: Again, they are a relic of the past and one to which Hong Kong's people still cling fiercely. I am old enough to remember boarding trams in the city of Bombay where I was born. As a little girl, I did not live far from what was then known as Mazagoan TT (for Tram Terminus). I can recall boarding them with my Dad and taking them all the way to VT (Victoria Terminus) station. I remember the 'ding-ding' that the driver made by pulling on a bell each time the tram approached a station and to get pedestrians off his tracks.
     I was determined to ride on one of the trams to evoke my own personal history and in taking the Footbridge to Des Voeux Street where the trams run, I somehow found myself in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel! The staff there were very polite as they led me to the descending staircase to get to the trams. What makes Hong Kong's trams unique is that  they are the world's only double-decker ones. I have ridden trams recently in former Communist Eastern Bloc countries such as Hungary (in Budapest) and in Poland (in Krakow) as well as in Vienna in Austria. But these Hong Kong ones are like stately ladies--they are tall, thin and almost statuesque and they seem to flow or roll along with little mincing steps. They are a true delight to watch as they glide over their tracks in the middle of double-decker buses, taxis, some of the world's most expensive cars, etc.
     I found a tram stop at Pedder Street and waited for about 10 minutes for one going to Kennedy Town (the destinations are clearly marked in the front) and I sailed along Des Voeux Street for about 10 minutes till I arrived at the end of the main skyscrapers. Using my Octopus Card, I paid for my ride as I alighted--it was HKD 2. 50 for the ride (no matter how far you go--same as the cost of the Star Ferry Crossing). These rides have to be some of the world's best bargains. I climbed the spiral staircase (which is at the front and the back) and got to the front center seat for superb photo ops as the city crawled past me. The irony of my situation was not lost on me. Here I was in one of the oldest transport systems in the city passing by some of the most cutting-edge architecture and shops selling the most up-to-the-minute technical and digital devices. This simple pleasure was for me a
absolutely fascinating.
     I then retraced my steps back, and following clearly-marked directions on the streets, returned to the Star Ferry Terminus on the Hong Kong side in order to get back to Kowloon. Thus, I had two lovely sails across the Harbor for less than the cost of a single Metro ride. This time, I was able to get lovely views of the Piers with the buildings framed behind them. Ten minutes later, I was emerging on the island of Kowloon and walking straight towards the next item on my agenda.
The Tsim Tsa Tsui Promendade in Kowloon:
        Getting to the Museum of History, I walked along the famed Promenade to which every tourist rushes for the most all-encompassing views of the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island at the back. It is a beautifully paved and well decorated space, full of contemporary sculpture around the Center for Contemporary Arts. I took the mandatory pictures and hurried off. 

Arriving at the Museum of History:
      By this time in the day, it was about 11. 00 am and I had about two hours to get to the Museum of History. The guide books say that if you have time to see just one museum, it should be this one. It is easily reached past all the other museums in the district, each of which has lovely note-worthy architecture.
     Getting to the Museum meant a long walk of about half an hour from Tsim Tsa Tsui station--although it does not look that far on a map. You follow the underground exit signs and emerge on top. But from there, it was a further walk of about 15 minutes. I wondered if I should abort my mission as I would be left with very little time in the museum at the rate I was going.
Exploring the Museum of History:
      Eventually, I was glad I stayed the course. The Museum has been recently refurbished at the cost of about a billion HKD and the expenditure shows. The biggest attraction is 'The Story of Hong Kong' which consists of 8 galleries that trace its history from the pre-historic period to the take over of the island by the Chinese from the British in 1999. I raced through the earliest bits but then spent a while on the Folk Traditions Gallery which showcases a typical Chinese wedding ceremony as well as a wedding processing--complete with people who take on the persona of dragons, etc. These were grand and very visually stimulating. 
        I then spent about an hour focusing on the Colonial History which is of special academic interest to me. It turns out that the British acquired the islands that comprise Hong Kong as a result of a treaty called the Treaty of Nanking signed with the Chinese in 1845 as a result of war reprisals. You can see a replica of the actual Chinese-drawn Treaty and of the stone column that was formerly in Nanking Cemetery.
      As soon as they acquired the islands, the greedy British had to find some way to equalize the trade imbalance that existed in the passion that their people had developed for tea. They were buying a whole lot of tea from China and had to find a way to get the Chinese to buy something of equal value from them. They hit on opium--grown in British India (in Dacca, now Dhaka in Bangladesh!) and began shipping this to China. In no time at all, the Chinese became badly addicted to the stuff and when attempts were made by them through their local Governor Lin to stop the import of opium into their country by the British, the infamous Opium Wars began. The entire story is told through lovely vignettes in a gallery that is framed by a two-story colonial port building set against old Kowloon Harbor with a British steam boat and an ancient junk sharing space in the water.
        The next most fascinating bit of the museum for me was the reproduction of a typical Hong Kong street in the late 1800s--similar to the street in Victorian London that you go through at the Museum of London. This part comprised a bank, a pawnshop, a typical Chinese grocery, a herbalist's dispensary, a tea shop, etc. It was all brilliantly done and I could have spent hours in this section had I more time. 
       There was also a section on the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong in 1944 during World War II and had I more time, I am sure I would have learned a lot more from it as well. As it was, I merely skimmed through all of it.
        Contemporary Hong Kong of the mid-1900s is represented well too--there is an actual cinema hall that screens films three times a day from that epoch. I sat through one screening for a few minutes before leaving to look at a soda fountain, a modern grocery store, etc. All rather wonderful stuff. The last section showcased items for which Hong Kong became famous in the 20th century--toys, lighting, lanterns and plastics including Thermos flasks which I found very interesting.
     About an hour later, I left the museum feeling very glad that I visited it. It provided marvelous context for my visit to the city and the wondrous sights I had seen. I would heartily recommend this as a Must-Do Item for anyone who has more than three days to spend in the city.
Getting Back to the Airport:
        From this point on, it was only a matter of making my way back on the metro to the Youth Hostel, picking up my case and leaving for the airport. I was well in time and on the E 21 bus which takes about an hour to get there.       
        The bus ride was very peaceful as we went along bridges that knit the outlying islands of the New Territories together. In an hour, I was in Terminal 1 and headed to the Cathay Pacific Airlines counter for my flight to Manila--only to discover that it was 45 minutes late. However, I was grateful for the rest as I had walked my feet off over the past three days and I was more than ready to sit down with a sundae and something to read.
     At 6. 30 on, my flight finally left Hong Kong. By then, darkness had fallen over the city and as we took to the skies for the 2 hours flight to Manila, I dozed off. A light snack was served on board and as the time flew, I was in Manila.
Overall Impressions of Hong Kong:
     I was really very glad I finally got to Hong Kong and explored it with some degree of efficiency.  Apart from the main tourist sights such as The Peak and The Central area, I had a chance to get to Macao and to participate in the local life of the people by riding the transportation networks that they use daily.
      I am increasingly realizing, the more I travel, that global exploration is far more than merely seeing the tourist sights--it is, in fact, about experiences. It is about participating in the kind of activity one does not commonly have the chance to experience: in this case, it was the Star Ferry sails across the Harbor and the riding of the double-decker trams.
      I found that Hong Kong Island is a far more modern commercial hub that Kowloon--the spiffy glass and concrete constructions that comprise the world's financial dealings are here. However, in Kowloon, regular residents of Hong Kong go about their business. Here is where the flea markets are: selling all manner of daily items such as fresh fruit and veg, pirated electronics, toys.
      It is a teeming city and I was amazed at how crowded it is. In so many ways, the crowds reminded me of Bombay. I was simply not prepared for this.
      I was also amazed at how little English is spoken here. Even when children go to English schools, their speaking skills are minimal. Given the fact that this was a British colony for more than 150 years, this really surprised me. It was as bad as Japan in terms of trying to ask for or get directions anywhere. When I was in Shanghai, I did not find the city crowded at all (and yet China is the world's most populous country). But Hong Kong...well, let me just say the crowds of were overwhelming.    
       The people also love to shop--they just buy and buy and buy. Every Mom and Pop shop is packed  and doing roaring business. As for the designer stores, there are three Prada shops there and I saw at least six Gucci ones.
       There is a world of difference between the way 'regular' people live (in modest, many-storied apartment buildings, as in India--all studded with air-conditioners) and the way the wealthy live (mainly in sea-facing apartment buildings along the coast that are rented out to the white expatriate banking and trading community). In fact, I am told that Repulse Bay and Stanley through which I had taken a delightful bus drive on my first evening, comprises some of the world's most expensive real estate and is owned by Chinese billionaires who make their money through such investments.
      The city is impeccably clean and the people keep their neighborhood and areas quite spotless. Wares spill out of shops and occupy half the streets that have been turned into shopping plazas.
        As in any big city in the world today, traffic is a hassle as there are simply too many cars everywhere.    
       Smoking is rampant and both genders seem to smoke equally frequently.
       The shops are full of strange-looking food that I could not recognize--all sorts of crackers and dried fruit (a lot of plums). 
       Well, I guess that's what I picked up on my brief visit. I am glad I had a chance to see it all for myself.
Arrival in Manila, Philippines:
       I had been instructed to take a taxi from the airport to my hotel and I was delighted to find that my conference organizers had arranged for me to be picked up and assisted every step of the way--this is the difference between taking a self-arranged holiday and getting to some place on official business! The young man who assisted me at the airport was called Voltaire and in no time at all, I was in a Coupon Taxi and for a flat rate of 530 Filipino pesos (about US$6), I was dropped off at my hotel--the Lotus Garden Hotel in Ermita.
      Needless to say, I was exhausted when I got there and could only just undress and climb into bed having made all wifi connections.
     Until tomorrow....





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