There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Peak, Markets and a Trip to Ap Lei Chau: Part 7 of Hong Kong and Macau


In 2004, on the first morning of our first trip to Hong Kong, we took the tram up Victoria Peak. It was time to do it again.

After a leisurely start - best not to tangle with the rush hour – we took the MTR under the harbour to Admiralty and walked to the Peak Tram Station, pausing to admire the towers of Central.

The towers of Central, Hong Kong
Victoria Peak, more usually ‘The Peak’ is, at 552m (1,811ft), the highest point on Hong Kong Island – though there are considerably higher peaks in the New Territories. For most of the year Hong Kong is hot and humid and the more temperate climate of The Peak attracted the early European settlers. It remains a desirable place to live, boasting the world’s highest property prices.

The Peak, on Hong Kong Island, is due south of Central and one third of the way to the south coast

In the early days residents reached their homes by sedan chair. Warning: digressionary rant approaching. The sedan chair, along with the (man hauled) rickshaw, must be the most offensive forms of transport devised by man. If you take a taxi or even a cycle rickshaw you are saying, ‘I can drive/cycle, but I don’t have a car/bicycle available so I will hire yours.’ Taking a sedan chair was saying ‘I can walk, but I’m too important, you carry me.'

Difficulty of access limited development until the Peak Tram (actually a funicular railway, not a tram) opened in 1888.

The Peak Tram arrives at the lower terminus
The tram, which climbs 400m in a distance of 1.4km, originally had wooden carriages hauled by a static steam engine but over the years has undergone frequent upgrades and the occasional rebuild. Despite limited to Peak residents it carried a remarkable 800 passengers on its opening day, now open to all it transports 17,000 on an average day.

Lynne - one of today's 17,000 - waiting to set off
The well-documented optical illusion of the nearby towers appearing to be falling backwards into the mountain, is quite alarming. Being an illusion caused by motion it cannot be photographed so here is a view up the track instead.

The Peak Tram is on the way
The upper terminus is located in the Peak Tower shopping complex. In 2004 we had difficulty finding our way out and having become no cleverer in the past 12 years we again spent time travelling up and down escalators seeking the exit. Perhaps they do not want potential customers escaping easily - or maybe at all, the interior reminded me of a scene from Labyrinth where David Bowie’s Goblin King tries to prevent Sarah from rescuing her infant brother.

Inside the Peak Tower at the upper terminus
Egress was finally achieved! 150m below the summit (occupied by a telecommunications facility and closed to the public) is a round-Peak walk. We paused after a couple of minutes walking to admire(?) the Peak Tower from the outside. Locally it is known as The Flying Wok.

The Peak Tower - or Flying Wok
On a good day the walk offers magnificent views, and it had been a good day when we set off. Sadly by the time we reached the top the mist had descended and whether looking east over Wan Chai and Causeway Bay….

Looking east over Wan Chai and Causeway Bay
….or north over Central and across to Kowloon, the mist was the clear winner.

Looking over Central and across to Kowloon
We had a better day in 2004 but back in the days of film we took fewer pictures. The 2004 photo below is essentially the same scene, though concentrating on Kowloon rather than Central. The grassy point this side of the Yau Ma Tei Typhoon shelter is now the West Kowloon Cultural District – and no longer grassy.

Looking over Central and across to Kowloon, July 2004
Trying to photograph anything more distant was a waste of time, but I include a murky view of Lama Island as we walked across it on Thursday (see The Transit of Lama) from the dimly visible power station to the bay on the left hand edge of the picture.

Lama Island
We completed our circumambulation of The Peak, a pleasant walk, if a poor photo opportunity, took the tram down and returned to Kowloon to find a lunch of beef and fried noodles.

In the afternoon we wandered through the food markets in and around Reclamation Street.

The regular meat market sold good quality produce….

Meat, Reclamation Street, Hong Kong did the fruit and veg stalls.

Fruit and Veg, Reclamation Street, Hong Kong
The seafood area was more interesting, with large crabs….

Large crabs, Reclamation Street, Hong Kong
….and assorted sea cucumbers.

Sea cucumbers, Reclamation Street, Hong Kong
Tofu looks like cheese but the rich smell of Pont l’Eveque is absent. Although most tofu is bland, taking on the flavours of whatever it is cooked with, there is a ‘stinky tofu’ which smells far worse than the ripest of cheeses. It is not much sold in Hong Kong but can be found as street food (or so I read, I have not encountered it).

Tofu stall,  Reclamation Street, Hong Kong
And then there were the oddities we were not entirely sure about. Is this rat on a stick? Paddy field rats – very different from our sewer rats – are eaten all over SE Asia. We chickened out of barbecued rat on our way to the Bolaven Plateau in Laos, and once watched two lads cooking their own catch over an open fire in rural China, but we have not (yet) eaten rat ourselves.

Rat on a stick? Could be something else, Reclamation Street, Hong Kong
It was our last full day, so in the evening we returned to the Woo Sung Street Temporary Food Hawkers Bazaar, ramshackle purveyors of fine Chinese food.

Woo Sung Street Temporary Food Hawkers Bazaar
Feeling unadventurous we stuck with favourites new, the mottled spinefoot we discovered last Wednesday, and old, lemon chicken - a distant relative of the dish available from every Chinese take-away in Britain.

Fried mottled spinefoot with salt and chilli, Woo Sung Street Temporary Food Hawkers Bazaar


Our last day, but as we did not have to be at the airport until the evening….

...we took the bus to Ap Lei Chau to see Brian and Hilary, now residents of Torquay, for 20 years before that residents of Stafford and for 20 years before that residents of Hong Kong, where their son and daughter both now live. Friends for many years, they have spent much of the last week showing us parts of Hong Kong and Macau we had not met before.

Conveniently the 171 bus stops in Gascoigne Road, 50m from our hotel. It travels south east to the Cross Harbour Tunnel….

Entering the Cross Harbour Tunnel to Hong Kong Island
…emerges in Wan Chai….

Wan Chai, Hong Kong Island
..and then heads straight for the Aberdeen Tunnel.

Entering the Aberdeen Tunnel, Hong Kong Island
Once on the south side of Hong Kong Island it is a short trip to the Ap Lei Chau bridge. Instructed to get off directly after the bridge we almost missed the stop; the bridge, crossing the neck of water between Aberdeen and Ap Lei Chau Harbours, is low key and we were looking for something more obvious.

Ap Lei Chau lies just off the south coast of Hong Kong Island
Ap Lei Chau (lit: Duck Tongue Island) is a small island off Hong Kong’s south coast. Formerly known as Aberdeen Island its single settlement was shown on a Ming Dynasty Map as Heung Kong Tsuen (lit: Fragrant Harbour Village) so it may well be the original ‘Hong Kong’. Its 1.4km² are home to 87,000 people, making it (according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia) the second most densely populated island on earth. Warning: Digressionary Factoid Approaching. Wikipedia’s most densely populated, Ilet a Bruee off the coast of Haiti, could hardly be more different. This isolated scrap of land smaller than a football pitch is home to 500, giving it a population density of 125,000 people per km² almost twice Ap Lei Chau’s 67,000. The curious might enjoy Is This the most Crowded Island in the World (and Why that Question Matters), an informative and thoughtful article by Alex McGregor.

One of Ap Lei Chau’s inhabitants is Brian and Hilary’s daughter Lauren. Brian met us at the bus stop and we walked back to Lauren’s apartment where they were staying.

Lauren lives in one of a group of towering up-market apartment blocks beside the harbour. Accommodation in Hong Kong is ludicrously expensive so the apartment is tiny (though bigger than the one our daughter and son-in-law lived in when they taught English on the Chinese mainland) but redeemed by a balcony overlooking Ap Lei Chau harbour. The sun had decided to shine today, so the four of us (Lauren was at work!) had coffee on the balcony.

Ap Lei Chau Harbour
The Jumbo Floating Restaurant (just above the tree tops on the left in the picture above) is world famous, but generally regarded as a tourist trap rather than a gastronomic resource.

After coffee we took a walk round the island’s northern shore. Although the harbour has many expensive yachts, at ground level it is easier to see it has working craft, too.

Ap Lei Chau harbour
In June Aberdeen hosts a Dragon Boat racing festival, and the boats were stored beside the harbour.

Dragon Boats, Ap Lei Chau
Further round we posed with the tower blocks of Aberdeen in the background…

The tower blocks of Aberdeen
We also dropped into the Hung Shing Temple.

Hung Shing Temple, Ap Lei Chau
Hung Shing was a Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) government official who was so wise and righteous he was made a saint and continues to guard people, particularly fishermen, against natural disasters.

Hung Shing Temple, Ap Lei Chau
A little shopping for lunch also involved a look round some of the food stalls.

Sea food on sale, Ap Lei Chau
Back at Lauren’s apartment we had beer on the balcony and then a lunch of corn cobs, ham and smoked duck sandwiches, and custard tarts. Then we sat on the balcony until it was time to take the bus back to Kowloon – and that was pretty much it for this trip.

A big thank you to Brian and Hilary for this day and also The Transit of Lama, two days in Macau, and Sai Kung and the New Territories – see links below. In all these posts I conspicuously failed to photograph them, except at meals and occasional rear views.  I apologise, so in case there is any doubt, this is what they look like from the front.

Brian and Hilary eating flapjacks in a car park

Monday, 28 November 2016

To Sai Kung and Deeper into the New Territories: Part 6 of Hong Kong and Macau

Hong Kong is one of our favourite cities - this was our fourth visit and I would be disappointed if it was our last. We have always stayed in Kowloon, an exciting, vibrant place whose 2.1 million residents pack themselves into under 50km²*. It is the crowds that give Hong Kong its vitality, and they are also the reason I doubt that I could live there. I am used to having space; the hordes and their energy are a wonderful novelty, but eventually I fear they would grind me down.

Our friends Brian and Hilary lived in Kowloon for 20 years before moving to Stafford. Like me Brian appreciates the countryside, open fields, trees and unconfined fresh air, simple restoratives that Kowloon conspicuously fails to offer. How then did they cope?

A slice of Kowloon
In 2005 we stayed in a hotel called the 'Seaview' and this was the sea view, only available from the 14th floor breakfast room
Hong Kong island was ceded to the British in the Treaty of Nanking in 1843. The Kowloon peninsula, as far north as Boundary Road was added in 1860. Both are densely populated in the extreme.

Boundary Road Kowloon, everything to the right of the road is in the New Territories
In 1898 the British acquired the New Territories from the Qing emperor on a 99-year lease. The New Territories comprise a large block of land north of old Kowloon, and also the 'Outer Islands', Lantau, twice as big as Hong Kong island, Lama which we visited on Thursday, Chung Chau which we visited in 2005 and 2010, and many others. The territories make up almost 90% of Hong Kong's land, but house only half its population. There are some densely populated areas, urban Kowloon has expanded north from Boundary Road to the Kowloon ranges, and there are many other settlements of towering residential blocks, but there is also a green rural hinterland.

Map (borrowed from Wikipedia) showing the New territories in green, Hong Kong Island and 'old' Kowloon in grey
In their later years in Hong Kong, Brian and Hilary rented a weekend cottage in a quiet village that was everything Kowloon is not. Perhaps it was a survival strategy. We have often admired their painting of the cottage with its backdrop of fields and hills, and today they were going to see the real thing.

We took the MTR north and east to Diamond Hill, well beyond Boundary Road, so legally part of the New Territories, but being on the northern edge of the urban sprawl it is administered as part of Kowloon. This was an area of squatter camps until the 1960s, but times have changed.

Diamond Hill and the Kowloon Ranges, photo taken from the Chi Lin Nunnery in 2010
No diamonds were ever found here, the name is derived from a misunderstanding of a Cantonese word for ‘quarry’, but if gemstones are required they can be found in the Plaza Hollywood shopping mall which glitters inanely above the MTR station. In its basement, providing a welcome touch of gritty realism, is the bus station. We met Brian and Hilary there and boarded a 92 bus for Sai Kung, running (no, not really, I exaggerate) upstairs and bagging the front seats like a gang of kids.

Kowloon is further south and east of where the name appears on this map.
Diamond Hill is north east of Kowloon city, Sai Kung is further north east on the coast
The thirty-minute journey was largely through the urban margin, a land of bus stops and fly-overs, there were rural sections too and the odd moment when urban and rural clashed dramatically.

Clash of rural and urban on the way to Sai Kung
We found Sai Kung lounging in gentle sunshine beside a harbour of pleasure boats and fishing craft. It felt very much a separate town, its style different from the urban sprawl which is not so very far away.

Sai Kung from the top of a bus
Alighting at the bus station we headed towards the minibuses for the next stage of our journey.

Minibuses are integrated into the transport system and use the same octopus card readers. As the authorities kindly allow older visitors to obtain senior octopus cards (at no charge) each section of the journey cost the princely sum of HK$2 (20p). We have used Hong Kong buses before, but not the minibuses and if Brian and Hilary had not been with us we would not have been able to; they have numbered routes like regular buses but no fixed stops, you stand by the road and wave when you want to get on and give the driver a shout when you want to get off.

We took the No 7 minibus north and a little east from Sai Kung into the large irregular-shaped peninsula which makes up most of Sai Kung Country Park. This was a genuinely rural area, nothing but vegetation beside the well-made two-lane road, precipitous green clad hills in the middle distance and blue sky above. Hong Kong was showing off its best November weather, warm and clear with fresh air from the South China Sea rather than smog drifting down from Shenzhen.

After some 15km Hilary said, 'We're here,' and the bus came to a halt in a place which seemed, to my inexpert eye, to have no distinguishing features at all.

'This way,' she said. The minibus disappeared into the distance as we set off down a narrow concrete path, identical to the motorcycle tracks that criss-cross rural Vietnam.

Down the concrete path to Pak Sha O
The path winds through the jungle to the village of Pak Sha O, just a few hundred metres from the road. A traditional Hakka village, it has been largely (some sources claim ‘completely’) deserted by indigenous people and revived by ex-pats. The paddy fields were unused for years but are now operating as a market garden. The company that owns it is not local and the men toiling in the fields are ‘guest workers’ from the ‘mainland’ (i.e. the People’s Republic of China, not Hong Kong).

Market gardening at Pak Sha O
When Brian and Hilary had their cottage, Pak Sha O still had indigenous residents and before reaching the village we went to pay our respect to Mrs Yeung, their former neighbour. There was nobody at the Ancestor’s Memorial Hall and very little to commemorate any of the former villagers. It felt a sad and neglected place, but people move on and eventually they no longer remember the hall of memories.

Memorial Hall, Pak Sha O
In the village, Brian and Hilary's house had new tenants, though they were not there on a Monday.

Brian and Hilary's house is on the left of this group, Pak Sha O
The Yeung’s house was derelict, their family moved away long ago and no longer need it.

The Yip's house, on the right of the group is derelict, Pak Sha O
The village felt like a forgotten backwater, the buzzing of insects and fluttering of butterflies, the only activity. All was peaceful, seemingly a thousand miles from the bustle of Kowloon, though in reality that is only a short distance away. To prove there are still indigenous residents an old woman came out of her house with a night-soil bucket and deposited the contents on her vegetable patch.

Pak Sha O and its peaceful surroundings
Our protracted wander evoked happy memories for Brian and Hilary, among them Mrs Yeumg pottering out with her night soil bucket and tipping the contents onto her vegetable patch. We were just amazed that such tranquillity is possible in Hong Kong. [update: All was not as it seemed. Planning permission has been given to build 30 houses in Pak Sha O, despite it being in a country park and there being no access road. Read the full story in the Sai Kung Buzz]

We made our way back up the concrete path. One memory Hilary shared was of her daughter Lauren encountering a king cobra near here. Unless your unlucky enough to step on one in the undergrowth, any snake should slither away from you as fast as you run from it. That is the theory and it worked for Lauren, much to Hilary’s relief. I hope never to have to put it to the test.

Lynne and Hilary walk back up the path from Pak Sha O
Back on the road we waited for the minibus. Brian and I walked down to the corner to make it come quicker. (What do you mean ‘silly’, it worked).

Making the bus come quicker
Back in Sai Kung we strolled along the harbour looking at the fishing boats and pleasure craft.

Sai Kung Harbour
....and then the sea food restaurants lining the harbour. The spectacular shellfish included several species I had never seen before.

Shellfish collection, Sai Kung
I think we were looking for a recommendation Hilary had been given, but we sat down at the last restaurant in the line so I don't think we found it. I doubt there was really much to choose between any of them in menu, quality or price.

Faced with such a huge variety of sea food it was easiest to choose the set menu: fried squid, aubergine and mince, clams in black bean sauce, mushrooms and vegetables, and fried rice. It was very good, but if I had the fortune to be a regular visitor I would be more adventurous and explore the menu in depth, like the young Chinese couple at the next table who worked diligently at dismantling a couple of crabs, a messy but obviously pleasurable business.

Lunch at Sai Kung
Well-fed, we strolled round the town.

Lynne and Hilary explore Sai Kung
 There is not a lot to see in Sai Kung,but we dropped into the Tin Hau temple,….

Tin Hau temple, Sai Kung
… - always worth a look.

Inside the Tin Hau Temple, Sai Kung
And then it was time to leave the New Territories. When the 99-year lease ran out in 1997 the New Territories had to be returned to China. Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon peninsula had been ceded to Britain in perpetuity so they could legally have been retained. Hong Kong without the New Territories would have no airport and an international border bisecting urban Kowloon.  Worse, if a modest portion of the New Territory’s 3 million residents attempt to migrate south, already densely populated areas would become unsustainable. Better, then, to negotiate a settlement with the Chinese for the whole territory which recognised Hong Kong’s unique position. The resulting ‘one country, two systems’ has generally worked well for almost twenty years. How long it will continue is anybody’s guess.

That evening, unlike the previous one, I agreed with Lynne that lunch had been both excellent and filling and we did not want to go out to eat again. Not for the first time on this trip we dined on cocktails and peanuts.

*Kowloon has 43,000 residents per km², by comparison Manhattan, by far New York’s most densely populated borough, has a sparse 28,000.