Saturday, October 11, 2008
It’s hard to believe that we will be disembarking in Singapore in just 11 days. It seems like we just came on board. Nonetheless, we have been to fascinating places already with even more exotic ports to come.
Today, we were in Hong Kong. Even the sound of it does something, doesn’t it? It’s no longer the seedy backwater portrayed in the old black-and-white films; it is a modern, thriving, vibrant city which rivals Shanghai for high-rise office buildings on its exciting waterfront. There are differences, of course. The Hong Kong roads are smoother; the highway system is more developed; and the people are definitely more Westernized. There is a hustle-and-bustle of a business-oriented city that escaped the Communist takeover. In other cities in Asia and Eastern Europe, there was a feeling of inferiority and depression, especially in Budapest. It was as if these places were still suffering from the mind-set of oppression. The Hong Kong attitude is anything but depressed.
Because we were here two years ago, we were the line leaders today. We had decided to introduce Ed and Roxanne to the highlights without paying HAL prices; we also picked up a Canadian couple at breakfast who asked if they could tag along. Places that must be seen include Victoria Peak, Repulse Bay, Aberdeen and Stanley. We were able to get to three out of four today. The Aberdeen floating village will have to wait for the Pettuses’ return.
We started around 9:15 by walking through the adjacent Ocean Mall [to which the Amsterdam is docked] and heading to the Star Ferry. This ferry service, which costs $1.70 HKD, connects Kowloon, the mainland where we are tied up, to the island of Hong Kong. The cost is really minimal since the Hong Kong dollar is only valued at 14 cents in US dollars; the one-way fare, therefore, is about twenty cents. The ten-minute crossing brought us to a terminal which incorporated a shopping complex, which we avoided, and a system of overhead walkways which took us over about six blocks of heavily trafficked downtown roadways. By following well-place signs, we had no difficulty finding our way to the Victoria Peak Tram station. The walk from the Star Ferry was probably over a mile, the last 3 blocks of which were very uphill. We felt like we were walking to the top of the Peak.
Because we were early, we had only a five minute wait for the tram to arrive. It is an upside down cable car – the cable lies under the tramcars much like those in San Francisco. We boarded the tram and were careful to sit on the right-hand side of the car. This afforded us the best view as we ascended 1500-foot Victoria Peak. The angle is so steep, almost 45 degrees at some points, that it appears that the highrise apartment buildings in the hillside are slanted. Of course, it created is an optical illusion by the steep pitch of the mountain.
Once atop Victoria Peak, Hong Kong’s highest point, Roxanne, Ed and the Canadians decided to pay extra to go to a higher observation point on top of the Tram building. While they did this, MA and D got cold drinks at the dread Starbuck’s. We shared a table with a young, apparently Chinese, girl who, we discovered, worked for in finance for Franklin Templeton; she had been in HK for a year after living for the previous sixteen years in the Fort Lauderdale area. In fact, she had gone to school at Florida Atlantic in Boca and University of Miami. It was like old home week. We were joined at the table by the rest of our group when they had taken enough pictures from the observation deck. Rather than walk the outdoor path to see Hong Kong from a slightly different angle, we rode the Tram back down the hill. At the bottom, there was a horribly long line waiting to board trams for the Peak. We felt smart for having arrived so early that we had no line to contend with.
Our intention today was to take public transit from the Peak to Repulse Bay and then Stanley. We found out that there was no bus service connecting the Peak to either place. We were disappointed but at least got to use the round-trip tickets for the Tram. When we reached our starting point, we split up because there are no minivan taxis in HK. We and the Pettii took a cab to Repulse Bay, leaving the Canadians to find their own taxi.
Repulse Bay is named for a British naval vessel which was stationed there for defensive purposes in the Nineteenth Century. It is now a public beach which we visited in 2006. Today was warm enough that the beach was busy, but not crowded, with locals who were enjoying a Saturday cooling off. We walked to the far end of the beach [our real destination] where there were Chinese and Chinese-inspired displays. There were also several little Buddhist shrines with burning incense. Mostly, though, there was a profusion of reds and golds, dragons and Chinese gods and goddesses. Ed took pictures so he would k now that he had been there and we headed for Stanley.
The Stanley Market appears to be a collection of storefronts selling knockoff and other cheap merchandise. While there some “legitimate” stores, most are selling junk. Before finding ways to enrich the local merchants, we decided to find someplace for lunch. We ended up in a dive on a side alley and were the only Westerners in the place. The employee who saw us walk in spoke passable English and asked if we minded sharing a table with four locals with spiked hair. Of course we didn’t mind! This was authenticity. We were handed menus in English with pictures as well as printed English menus. Eventually we got the young man’s attention again and were able to place our order – each couple ordered “mixed meat” dumplings and Singapore street noodles. And real Cokes! We have decided that high-test Coca Cola is the nectar of the gods.
Anyway, the Cokes came first, for which we were grateful, but the waiter did not bring glasses of ice as he had for our tablemates. We decided later that he was probably smart to serve the drinks that way. He also did not bring glasses of water, again probably a good idea. There is no telling what surprises might have been waiting for us in the water or ice.
The dumplings came in a bowl of soup and noodles with a vegetable stalk of some sort and a spinach leaf in it. The dumplings were a disappointment after the steamed ones we had had in Shanghai several days ago, and the “mixed meat” included shrimp which Roxanne is allergic to. The street noodles were good and very spicy. By the time our food arrived, the four tugs had left and a family of three had replaced them. The wife/mother spoke English and told us the food was okay. We assumed she meant that it was safe for us to eat, which was very reassuring. We ate as much as we could, then paid and headed out for shopping.
We bought several presents and a necklace for MA. We wandered some more and came to the Stanley waterfront, a markedly different area from the market. Here, there was a wide pedestrian-only esplanade fronting the beach. On the city side, there were countless tourist restaurants and bars. MA and D both said it reminded them of the bars and bistros surrounding the Old Square in Prague. They were full of Westerners and we were glad we had not eaten in this area. We had come for the experience, not for restaurants full of Holland America passengers.
We were going to take the bus back to the Star Ferry, but taxis were plentiful that we took their presence as a sign that we were to take one. Our cabbie took a slightly longer-than-necessary route to the Ferry terminal but avoided the heavily trafficked roads and came over the hills on a two-lane road that had more twists than we could count. Let it be said that there were no straight sections to this route. None. Nada.
Once again, we were lucky because there was no crowd for the ferry and less than a one minute wait for the gates to open. We enjoyed the ten-minute ride back to Kowloon [the mainland side of the harbor], found our way through the shopping center and were home. Once we had all had a chance to wash up, we met in the Crow’s Nest for another Coke before going our separate ways prior to dinner.
MA and D went to the Explorers’ Lounge for a drink before dinner and were joined by Roxanne while Ed went to Deck 8 [Lido] to take pictures of the light and laser show which starts at 8 o’clock. Every night, office buildings in HK put on a show which includes the aforementioned lasers and light displays on the fronts of many of the offices. We watched it with Roxanne from our dinner table while we waited for Ed.
We will be in HK again tomorrow, then we have a day at sea before making port in Danang, Vietnam on Tuesday