Friday, March 17, 2017

Tuesday, March 14: Cheung Chau (Mark)

On this, our last full day in Hong Kong, we decided to spend the day on the island of Cheung Chau. It's west of Hong Kong, just south of Lantau, and is fairly small. We were originally thinking of Lamma, but decided it would involve too much walking (a big consideration given my foot problems on this trip).

But before that: Breakfast! We decided to go to a restaurant for breakfast today. Hong Kong has an affinity for toast, for some reason: a lot of restaurants advertiser their "toast sets" for breakfast. We decided to see what the hubbub was about, so we found the nearest restaurant that prominently featured toast on the menu. The breakfast was fairly simple, your choice of eggs and meat, and toasted bun with sweetened condensed milk drizzled over it. It was pretty tasty, though Liz was disappointed her sausage was basically a hot dog. Dale got the congee, which was porridge-like. Our waiter was the most chatty we had, and he wanted to talk to us about what we thought of Donald Trump (we all agreed: we can't stand him) and how he needs to do something about housing prices (I decided not to share my copious opinions on that issue).

We took the Star Ferry to Hong Kong island, and then hopped a couple of piers to the west to catch the boat to Cheung Chau. We got a little nervous about the tour group that joined us on the boat, especially after our experiences with tour groups yesterday. We sat on the lower deck, which was fairly spartan. We had to move back seats where they had the tarps set up to avoid getting sprayed with ocean and rain water.

Cheung Chau is dumbell-shaped, with the main village in the center. It was raining a bit when we reached the shore, and continued to do so for the next hour or so. We saw the tour group walk north, so we decided to head west. Cheung Chau is officially car-free, except for emergency vehicles. Of course, there are still people who use golf cart-like vehicles, and small forklifts and other small cargo vehicles, but definitely no regular cars. Bikes rule the day for transportation, and we saw more bikes here than any other place in Hong Kong.

Our first stops were to see the ancient stone carvings and the mini Great Wall. We walked along the beach but somehow missed the stone carvings. The beaches are a little dirty, with quite a bit of garbage washed up on them. Hopefully they're cleaner in the high season. The sand was very course, with grains the size of chunks of sea salt. We traversed the beach and eventually the path started ascending. The mini Great Wall is basically a walking path up the hills, it had a good vantage point. We walked down to a lower vantage point to get another view of the area, where we happened upon a couple in a compromising position who probably weren't expecting to have tourists show up nearby. After a few uncomfortable minutes, we moved on. We found the stone carvings on the way back - they weren't directly on the path and were easy to miss.

Fire beaters were found all along the path.

 After observing them for a few minutes and snapping some photos, we headed back to the village for food and rest. We grabbed a couple of snacks first: Liz got a potato spiral on a skewer, and I got a mango mochi. The potato thing was basically a big, spiral potato chip, but they had all kinds of seasonings for it. I was expecting my mochi to have some kind of mango-flavored paste inside, but I was wrong: It was pretty much fresh mango pulp. Much tastier than I was expecting.

We did a little more exploring before lunch and found a temple (pretty, though they're all starting to look the same at this point). Right outside, there was a bamboo structure that was being built, presumably for the bun festival that takes place in the spring.

Since this was a fishing village, we decided to get seafood. Liz and Dale ordered scallops, and I got razor clams. My meal was rather interesting given they piled everything on top of the shells, and it came in a very flavorful black bean sauce. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Our restaurant was facing the marina, so we got to enjoy a nice view as we ate.

After eating, we passed by the harbor to double-check the schedule. The local McDonald's was holding a promotion for Pi Day, which we weren't expecting (they don't write their dates in the same order as Americans, so I don't think it has the same significance here). But they were offering apple pies for HKD 3.14, which is less than 50 cents, so how could we refuse? Liz and I each got one, and celebrated Pi Day.

We next took a walk westward to the pirate cave. The cave was a stash hideout for Cheung Po Tsai, a notorious pirate from the 18th century. The cave was under a rock formation near the shore, and we approached it with a bit of trepidation. I was at first unwilling to go too far in, and we let another group of tourists (three women from Singapore) check it out. They didn't stay in there too long either. Liz proposed that we both go in together, and use our phones to light the way for each other down the ladder. This worked out well. The cave was not terribly huge, and the spaces weren't all that tight, either. Liz and I both went all the way to the opposite side, and emerged from the cave to the surprise of the Singaporean tourists, who weren't expecting to meet up with us there.

We made our way back to the village, and bought a few more souvenirs. The shop wasn't attended well and it took us a while to find somebody we could pay, but we did get some necklaces for the girls. We took the ferry back to Hong Kong Island, and then the Star Ferry back to Kowloon. We bought a few more things in TST station (mostly Omiyage for Liang and the girls) and headed back.

After resting for a bit, we decided to try out the nearby Thai restaurant. It definitely had a very different menu from Thai restaurants in the USA. I think they adapted the menu to suit Chinese tastes, much in the same way that Chinese food gets modified for American tastes. Liz got Pad Thai, Dale got mustard greens with salty fish (anchovies, it turned out) and I got seafood fried rice with pineapple.

We headed back to the apartment, and Dale decided to step out and visit the Night Market one last time while Liz and I retired for the day. Thus ends our final full day in Hong Kong. It was a good trip, and I'm glad we went.

  • Cheung Chau has very small ambulances, surely meant to navigate narrow streets. We figured that since there's no private cars or taxis there, people probably use the smaller ambulances to get medical care for things we Americans wouldn't normally use ambulances. We have no practical way of verifying that, of course.
  • People all over the area sweep using brooms with great big brush heads, that are often half the length of the broom itself. It seems like a bit of an odd tool to me, since it won't be very precise - but I've only ever seen them used outdoors also, so maybe they have different brooms for around the house.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Monday, March 13: Ocean Park (Liz)

The sun finally came out today! And it was perfect timing for heading to the non-Disney theme park of Hong Kong, Ocean Park. A new rail line opened in December which drops you off pretty much right at the entrance to the park so that was a nice bonus. Ocean Park contains a combination of sea life, other animals, and amusement park rides. The park is situated on a large hill and is divided into an upper section and a lower section. We began by taking the gondola (my first gondola ride) to the upper level of the park. It afforded spectacular views of the sea and was a much longer ride than I anticipated, at least 10 minutes. The upper part of the park didn't have too many people in it which allowed us to go on rides at record speeds, never longer than a 5 minute wait. Believe it or not the bumper cars had the longest wait time so we decided to skip those. The most thrilling roller coaster was called the Hair Raiser and had the most terrifying entrance I have ever seen, where you enter through the mouth of a deranged clown. Another ride was Space Needle-esque where you enter from the bottom and sit facing outward in a circle looking out the windows and it slowly takes you up to the top of the needle and rotates you around so you can get 360 degree views of the park and surrounding areas. Not thrilling at all but it provided the best views of the area and we were lucky enough to not be surrounded by clouds like all past days! We also rode on a couple water rides and were able to dry off fairly quickly afterward due to the nice weather.

Gondola selfie 
Making our way to the upper level of the park

The park included two varieties of panda: Red (pictured here) and giant.

The upper level of the park also had many marine exhibits. One aquarium was dedicated to sharks. It was by far the largest number of sharks I have ever seen at one time. Some looked friendly and others looked absolutely vicious. Another aquarium housed various seals and sea lions, and another had Chinese sturgeons, and yet another had more seals and walruses. We didn't go to any of the shows presented that day, but we did make a stop at the marine life breeding center where the trainers work and care for dolphins. We had the best view of dolphins I've ever had aside from our dolphin encounter in Cabo, and there were only a couple other people in the room too! Unfortunately the penguin exhibit was closed but there were so many other things to see that we didn't mind.

This shark was just asking me to take his photo.

After exhausting the upper level of Ocean Park we headed back down to the bottom via the Ocean Express themed train. Mark described it as the most steam punk train he's ever been on. The lower level of the park was definitely busier than the upper level but there were hardly any rides aside from the children's area. We started at the panda exhibit. Ocean Park has 4 pandas which were all gifted from mainland China. Only one of the pandas was visible but he was active and pretty cute, the first time I have seen a panda. There were also some red pandas in a separate display. Upon leaving the panda area you come to an exhibit of goldfish. Sounds pretty boring but these were by far the craziest looking goldfish I've ever seen. Due to extensive goldfish breeding, some looked incredibly bloated while others had weird sac-like features in unusual places.

Our next stop was the Australia exhibit. I was very excited about this one because they had advertised koalas in the exhibit. Koalas are very sensitive to noise, so they only let about twenty people go inside at a time in order to more easily maintain a quiet atmosphere. Some tour bus style tourists came up behind us in line and tried to push past me, oblivious to the fact that they were required to wait to enter the exhibit. I had actually read a warning about this online so I firmly held my ground and they were impatient and decided not to wait in line. Once we got in we saw several wallabies roaming the ground and two koalas in trees. One of the koalas was curled up asleep and you couldn't see its face, but a keeper was working with the other one to give it fresh eucalyptus and help it eat. the koalas were about twice as large as I had imagined they would be but just as cute as I thought they would be!

Our final stop was the main aquarium. We had to wait 10-12 minutes to get inside. Now, I don't think there is anything that frustrates me more than tour bus groups. The leaders waving their flags around, the tourist themselves in large clumps that are difficult to maneuver around, and the obsession so great with taking photos that I don't think these tourists even take the time to observe or take in the sights or exhibits in question. Well, we were squashed in line in the middle of several Asian tour groups. I think the tour groups must have received a large discount for entering the park after a certain hour.They were loud. They were rude. And they had way too many selfie sticks. There were several ladies ahead of us in line "sneakily" taking selfies which included Dale and his beard since they found it so fascinating. Inside the aquarium, they would push in front of us to be able to get a better photo of a certain fish and take selfies with just about every different tank. Most of the tanks had images (not words, so it should be understood universally) indicating no flash but these people completely ignored it. I'm surprised they don't understand that flash makes for a horrible photo in an aquarium anyway. At one point a middle-aged woman came up to me speaking in a language I didn't understand and gesturing at me and at her camera. I assumed she wanted me to take a photo for her. I agreed and she somewhat forcefully linked arms with me and led me to her group of friends. Come to find out, she wanted to take a photo with me. I'm not sure if I was the first westerner she'd ever seen or if she was amused by my sunburn, but I humored her and we took a photo together acting like besties. The finale of the aquarium was a very large tank including large stingrays and hammerhead sharks. Dale really liked the hammerhead sharks. Maybe even more than I liked the koalas. But honestly it was a relief to get out of the aquarium and out of Ocean Park by the time we were done. Overall it was a very fun adventure!

Giant tank of only milkfish

Giant spider crabs. Very giant.
After arriving back near our AirBnb, we looked for dinner. Dale spotted a Malaysian Chinese restaurant and we decided to check it out. It ended up being an excellent find, probably the best dinner we've had. Dale and I both had the Special Malaysia Meal, which included curry soup for me, a sour & chili soup for Dale, beef and pork satay, a mixture of shrimp and veggies in a sweet and sour style sauce called sambal shrimp, and then chicken curry with hard boiled egg. Everything was delicious and incredibly flavorful! I also ordered a passionfruit smoothie because it was on the menu and PASSIONFRUIT. Mark ordered laksa, which I thought resembled Skyline chili without the cheese which he also enjoyed. Seriously if you're ever in Hong Kong you need to go to this restaurant called Malaysian Chinese Restaurant on Jordan Rd.

Such a feast!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sunday, March 12: Victoria Peak (Mark)

We planned on going to church this morning, and after some wardrobe consulting from Liz (she rejected Dale's choice of tie to go with his shirt) we took the MTR to Hong Kong island to attend sacrament meeting. The church building is in the bustling heart of the city, and in many respects is a "showcase" meetinghouse for the church. It's the first meetinghouse I've been to that has receptionists, for example. We took the elevator up a floor where the chapel is. We were greeted by many church members and had some conversations. Much of this branch is American, but not all of it - there were a few Australians, Koreans, and Filipinos in attendance as well. We happened to be there for branch conference, and they were reorganizing the branch presidency. The old branch president was moving to Saudi Arabia with his family. Most branch members don't stay long, but some we spoke to had been in Hong Kong for over five  years.

Our next objective: more dim sum. We had a specific place in mind, called Tim Ho Wan. It's in the complex of Hong Kong station, and it's a Michelin star restaurant. There was quite the line when we got there, so we were glad to have not waited. It took us over a half hour to get through the line. Was the food worth it? Yes! It was delicious dim sum and we all especially liked the pork buns. Instead of the soft, squishy buns you normally get, these ones were like a combination of melon pan (complete with cookie-like topping) and pork bun. It was a great combination. We also had an interesting petal cake, which was some kind of gelatin with a floral flavor to it, and a few other dim sum standards. It ended up amounting to just over thirty dollars for the three of us. It's the world's cheapest Michelin star restaurant.

They couldn't be bothered to smile because the food was too good.

Next up, we wanted to hit up the peak. We wanted to take the peak tram, but I was a little concerned about visibility. We found out that we could take the 15C bus to the tram terminus, so we wandered until we found the main bus depot. While we were there, we noticed an interesting scene: Lots of Filipina women had set up little places for them to hang out and socialize. They were often blankets or cardboard boxes - it almost resembled a series of box forts. Most of them are maids or other types of household assistants, and Sunday is their only day off. So, they converge onto Hong Kong island to hang out with each other. We also happened upon a filming crew. I don't know if they were filming a movie, a music video, or a commercial, but there were ninjas involved, so it must be awesome.

Now that's what I call REAL ULTIMATE POWER!
We found a bus 15, and hopped on it, but then realized that this bus went all the way up the peak, and not to the tram. Oh well - we figured we could just take the tram back down if we really felt like it. The ride was very windy and offered some good views as we ascended, though the low clouds obscured things a bit. It took a little over half an hour to reach the top.

The top of the peak is a very trendy, touristy area. If I didn't know better, I might have guessed it was somewhere in the United States. There is a mall up on the top, and some very overpriced restaurants. It's mostly tourists up there - I figure it's the Hong Kong equivalent of going to the top of the Space Needle: the locals generally avoid it. We couldn't even go to the top of the lookout tower without paying for a ticket, but fortunately, there are a few other places to get a view. We hung out by the viewpoint maintained by the Lion's Club and enjoyed it for a few minutes. As I suspected, the view was nebulous, but it was still nice.

We ended up taking the tram back down, which was an odd experience. The grade is very steep, as you might expect, but the seats were all facing uphill, so we were going backwards. The grade also varies in its steepness throughout the trip. It was fun, however, and I enjoyed riding another form of transportation on this trip. Turns out the peak tram is built and maintained by a company based out of a city that Dad knows well: Thun, Switzerland.

Me, geeking out about a thing on rails.
We weren't entirely sure where to go next, but we figured it was too early to head back to the apartment. After some deliberation, we decided to take the Ding Ding to the west and look through some of the markets. So, that's exactly what we did! The markets are full of a wide variety of trinkets and souvenirs, copies of the little red book, Bruce Lee movie posters, knock-offs of popular intellectual properties, and various forms of erotica (often on playing cards). We looked around for things the girls might like and eventually settled on a necklace for Claire.

The market was nearby the Man Mo Temple, and we ventured in for a look. It was built in the mid 19th century, which is what counts for old in Hong Kong. It was very busy, with many local worshipers coming to bang the drum, ring the bell, and burn offerings (usually paper effigies of popular products, so they don't end up burning the real thing). The ceiling was covered in spiral-shaped incense, and there were also many lanterns placed around the temple. The smell of incense and amount of smoke in the temple was so strong, Liz couldn't stay in there for more than a few minutes.

We decided we'd had enough of the island for a day and decided to head back to Tsim Sha Tsui for food and some relaxation time. We decided on getting food first, but we wanted something other than Chinese food this time. It was harder to find non-Chinese food than we thought. We searched up and down several streets near our apartment in TST, and only found Chinese restaurants. We knew there were Korean places near our apartment, so we finally found one in our price range and gave it a try. We were glad we did: it was delicious. I had spicy pork with rice, and Liz and Dale both had bibimbap. It of course came with an array of Korean condiments and kimchi for us to enjoy. Our meal was delicious and we were glad we went.

After chilling in the apartment for a bit, Liz and I ventured into the night market. It was not unlike the markets we went to on the island earlier that afternoon, but it was night time and it was just a bit seedier. We found a few items to get for the girls: sets of training chopsticks, and a waving cat toy for Olivia. We stopped for some ice cream at a nearby McDonald's on the way home. I got a standard vanilla cone (less than a dollar when converted to USD), and Liz got a swirl of vanilla and sweet potato. She liked it, but I'm not as into sweet potato as she is.

  • MTR trains are very frequent. In fact, I think the longest we've had to wait for a train was three minutes. Not only are they frequent, but they are long (often 8 train cars long) and very spacious inside. In spite of how many trains come by and their capacity, they are almost always busy and I'm standing up more often than not. The people here really put the MTR to use.
  • Jaywalking is common and often necessary. Pedestrians often have a long wait at crosswalks, and wider avenues usually have some kind of pedestrian shelter in the middle, making it more easy for a person to jaywalk. I don't really mind jaywalking, it's just a little more dangerous when you're used to cars being on the right side of the road. Liz forgot about this detail at one point and stepped into the road when she should not have (thankfully, the driver noticed her with plenty of time to slow down).