A Travellerspoint blog

Hong Kong

Into China proper

The mainland ahead

34 °C

Leaving Hong Kong was bittersweet. We’d embraced the comforts perhaps a little too easily and were hesitant to give them up: for one week, the Langham became the home we don’t have; our haven; the vacation from the vacation that we needed; a chance to catch up with family via webcam and with the world via BBC World, CNN and the Wall Street Journal.

On the other hand, we didn’t set out on this adventure to camp out in luxurious hotels for extended periods, and our departure from the Langham therefore happily marked the beginning of our main phase of travel through China, Tibet, Nepal, India, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. It would be a while before we’d see a turndown chocolate on our pillow again, but that’s clearly a small sacrifice for the privilege to travel on this extended basis. And so we leave Hong Kong. Our baggage is lighter again, having packaged up about 10 kilograms of excess kit (including sleeping bags, a few clothing items, some technical kit, books etc). And our travel party happily increases to three, with the addition of my good friend Martin who is joining us for the next several weeks through China. I’ll try to persuade him to write an entry at some point, as long as it’s not entitled ‘the horrors of travelling with Jacquie’….

Anyway, after a brief delay at Hong Kong International, we arrived into Guilin an hour later than expected at about 9.30pm, and were immediately welcomed by the driver arranged by the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat. For the grand sum of 220RMB (about US$28), the three of us were driven in a very comfortable Volkswagen Santana the 40 kilometres or so to Yangshuo. As we raged through Guilin’s streets, flashing full headlights every minute or so to warn oncoming cars and pedestrians of our presence, groups of local Chinese hung out on street corners watching aging televisions. Women – starkly lit by a single unshaded lightbulb, or worse by a fluorescent strip, played cards while they watched empty shops.

We drove through Guilin at seemingly break-neck speed, dodging three wheeled carts and playing chicken with trucks coming right at us. Sitting in the front passenger seat, Martin nervously clutched his chin as we dodged pedestrians and swerved back into our lane, sometimes only just in time. The traffic eased, and I allowed myself to doze off for a few moments, preferring to surrender to my thoughts than observe the actions of our seemingly suicidal driver. He clearly knew the roads, though, and was just as anxious as we were to reach the destination that was 90 minutes too far away.

Leaving the bleak lights of Guilin behind, I was startled from my snooze by the swerving of our car as we dodged yet another truck in our path (ok, technically we were in the truck’s path, but you get the idea). Surrounding us on all sides were the immense, black silhouettes of the rock formations we had come here to see: the dramatic limestone karsts that this area of China is so famous for. The road was lined with trees on both sides, so our view was punctuated with thick foliage curtains that frustrated the view, but the presence of the karsts was unmistakable. My excitement building, I was reminded just how wonderful it is to arrive somewhere new in the middle of the night, not quite knowing what to expect when you pull back the curtains in the morning. I couldn’t wait for the daylight!
As we drove the last few miles, our excitement grew all the more. In between the karst silhouettes and the thick darkness of the overcast night sky, we saw a few lights punctuating the landscape. Confirming our proximity, the driver rolled down the window as we bumped and curved, allowing the warm, humid air to hit us like concrete. One final turn and we had arrived. It was a little after 11pm, only seven hours or so of restless sleep before the karsts would reveal themselves in all their glory.

Posted by jacquiedro 06:43 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Can We Weekend Again?

Enforced Relaxation in Hong Kong

overcast 24 °C

Friday evenings used to offer the promise of a relaxed Saturday morning, and the excitement of a weekend. No longer! While every day is kind of a weekend for us (in the sense that we are taking an extended break from paid employment), the World Trip has become our job, and - though it may be hard to convince you of this - every day is work. There's constant planning, research, execution, writing, packing, moving, laundry etc etc. We are perhaps inevitably 'relaxing' even less than we were back in CA! Not complaining, of course - it's the price of this kind of concentrated travel experience and we wouldn't change that for the world, but an interesting observation that I thought worth sharing.

This weekend, we wanted a weekend again. Turns out that we won’t be in one place for this long (seven nights!!!) for the rest of our trip, so we wanted to take the opportunity to rest up and regroup. We won’t see a ‘first world’ hotel again for more than a month, so we wanted to enjoy it! As I write, Lloyd is enjoying a much needed deep tissue massage to set him up for the month of ‘heavy lifting’ ahead! And we are likely to spend much of today (Sunday) on enforced relaxation!

That said, we did manage yesterday to head out of the very centre of Hong Kong to visit the Chi Lin Nunnery which is a Buddhist monastery. We weren’t allowed to take pictures of the many large gold statues of bodhisattvas (those who have achieved enlightenment), nor would we have felt comfortable doing so as this was an active place of worship for the majority of visitors. But you can see for yourself that the Nunnery is a series of buildings around landscaped courtyards whose beauty is only magnified by its urban setting. It’s not as old as it might look in the photos – part of it dates from the 1930s, but some of it was finished only just before the Millennium. If it looks impressive, bear in mind that the buildings use only traditional Tang Dynasty techniques to hold the structure together – that means no nails anywhere.


Opposite the Nunnery is the new Nan Lian Garden that only opened in November last year. Funded in part by the Government, but maintained by the Nunnery, the Garden is intended to preserve Tang Dynasty landscaping techniques. Once again, it is set right in the middle of an extremely built up urban area, but offers an oasis of calm, with beautiful water features and perfectly landscaped terraces. Well worth seeing.


After the Nunnery, we headed to the Hong Kong Museum of Heritage which turned out to be rather similar to the Hong Kong Experience at the Museum of History (so no need to do both if you are coming to Hong Kong). We found ourselves participating, however, in another of the Tourist Board’s Cultural programmes, and sat through a surprisingly interesting class on Cantonese opera (with our student teacher very capably demonstrating classic opera moves and singing styles). After the brief class, we were invited to observe a ‘real’ Cantonese opera in progress (part of the Heritage Museum’s program to –well- preserve Hong Kong’s Heritage). And so we found ourselves unexpectedly tortured by the ‘Siege of An Zhou’, a happily brief opera. Our ears may have been tortured, but it was wonderful to see some of what we had just learned in practice, and to experience the flamboyant costumes and make up of the Cantonese opera.

This is me with Cantonese Opera Make-Up (Simulated!)

We made it back to the hotel in time for the complimentary afternoon tea (infinitely better than the Peninsula!), and then we worked on the blog until it was time to head down to Victoria Harbor for the 8pm Symphony of Lights! Now, the sound and light show - which utilizes Hong Kong’s sky scrapers as the canvas – happens every night, but with one special, added ingredient on Saturday nights: fireworks!



Posted by jacquiedro 21:05 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

An Almost Perfect Day in Hong Kong

Peninsula Peaked a Long Time Before J&L Arrived!

semi-overcast 26 °C

Since we arrived, the weather has been quite grey, with overcast skies and intermittent showers. When we woke on Friday, we could see that the day was going to be a little more hopeful, so we decided to take advantage of what could be our one good day of weather and take the tram (actually technically a funicular railway) to the top of Victoria Peak. For the second time, we took the wonderful MTR over to Hong Kong Island, and then strolled through the Hong Kong Park to the Peak Tram station. Of course, given the weather, the rest of Hong Kong had the same idea, but it took only thirty minutes in line to find ourselves trundling up the 1.4km route up the side of Victoria Peak. The tram - in a less sophisticated format – has been operating since 1888, before which you had to be carried up in a sedan chair!


This being Hong Kong, the first thing you come to when you exit the tram is – of course! - a shopping mall! As anti-shopping as we are, however, it wasn’t hard to resist the temptations oozing from about 100 shops before we finally reached the viewing platform. Even with less than perfect weather, the view was quite spectacular.
To escape the masses, we left the viewing platform and took a two mile wander around the Peak Circle Trail. It was hot and very muggy as we walked through dense forest, but every so often the trees would clear revealing some even more impressive views of the city.




It’s not until you go back down Victoria Peak that you can appreciate the tram’s capability. At it’s most steep point, the tram operates at an angle of 27 degrees! Descending amidst Hong Kong’s sky-scrapers certainly amplified the experience, but the view is so awe-inspiring (and the ride so short) that you really don’t have time to be nervous at all.


After our Victoria Peak experience, we headed to the harbour to complete another essential Hong Kong experience, and cross from Hong Kong to Kowloon on the world-famous green and white Star Ferry! The Ferry runs every five minutes or so, and is tremendously efficient at unloading and loading passengers. You can choose from the cheaper lower deck (at HK$1.70 or about US$0.22) or the upper deck (at HK$2.20 or about US$0.28). For our first trip, we opted for the less expensive option and waited on the lower platform until the arriving passengers were offloaded. A light bulb flickered and we descended into the Ferry’s belly with about one hundred others. The crossing was noisy (we were right by the engine room) and – even though it was very short – we both felt a little bit of nausea so we agreed we’d treat ourselves to the upper deck next time.


So, how to finish our perfect day of Hong Kong sight-seeing? There was only one option, so we strolled from the Star Ferry pier up to the Peninsula Hotel for afternoon tea. For many, this is an essential Hong Kong experience and it’s never hard to persuade me to enjoy a pot of tea out of a decent china cup, so despite the cost, we enthusiastically waited in line. After a short wait, we were seated and ordered our afternoon tea. Now, I have had the good fortune of tea at the London’s Ritz (snooty service but gorgeous surrounding and food) and – more recently – at the Old Nelson in Cape Town (incredible service, food and value), so I feel like something of an afternoon tea connoisseur, and I have to say that the Peninsula just failed to deliver. In fact, it offered some of the poorest value for money we’ve experienced on the trip so far.

For our US$52, we received: two pots of tea (and the Afternoon Peninsula was a pleasant blend, I grant you!), five tea-sized sandwiches (two ham, two cucumber, one salmon which Lloyd generously let me have), one bite-size quiche, two slices banana bread, three scones, and three bite-site cheesecake-y type objects. We gobbled up the sandwiches, the quiche and one scone each, but frankly weren’t too impressed with the remaining offerings. In Lloyd’s words: “You won’t go hungry, but your taste buds might die of boredom.”

So, if the tea itself was disappointing, at least we enjoyed a first-class ambience, right? Well, no. The service was average if we are generous. Very generous. We received our food tray before the tea arrived, and after all was served, no-one bothered to check on us the entire time we were there. It took almost ten minutes of focused effort to secure the bill (if we had walked out without paying it probably would have taken them half an hour to realize it), and we generally felt that the overall experience had been an overpriced waste of time. Our advice? Skip the Peninsula at all costs.


Even if afternoon tea was disappointing, it couldn't possibly upset the fantastic day we had enjoyed. We spent the evening admiring the view from the hotel's 36th floor lounge, enjoying a glass of wine and nibbles, and planning the days ahead.

Posted by jacquiedro 20:48 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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