Goodbye China

Trip Start Mar 06, 2005
Trip End ??? ??, 2006

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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

May17th Hong Kong
The journey to Shenzen (the town on the border between Mainland China and the new territories) was one of the shortest but one of the most expensive we made in China and on boarding the train we realised why. A sleek Modern train with air con cabins fresh white linen and attendants dressed like airline staff. There were video monitors set into the wall by every bunk and touchpad opening doors. By comparison to other trains in china it was like something from a SiFi movie.

The border crossing itself was distinctly low tech by comparison to the method of arrival, we walked across the actual border through a series of shopping mall style passageways which at times were quite confusing as few signs indicated which way to go.

After the usual form filling, passport and immigration checks we eventually entered the new territories and boarded the Kowloon Canton Railway (KCR) bound for HK island via a tunnel that runs under HK habour from Kowloon. This was a an excellent ride of about 40 mins again in state of the art air con comfort in a 'metro' style train.

On surfacing in central HK the first thing we noticed was the climate, hot and VERY sticky the effort of carrying our rucksacks to the taxi point left us drenched in sweat.
We had already booked our hotel from the internet a few days previous. They had special offers that were only slightly more expensive than the hostels that were available (well that's our excuse) besides we wanted to have a little luxury before heading to India and what better place to indulge ourselves than HK.

HK is everything you immagine it to be a bustling metropolis with a strange fusion of modern China with an air of Englishness and the obvious physical remnants of british rule, trams, post boxes, and orderly driving. HK Island is surprisingly small only 11 x 15 km with the majority of development on its northern shore overlooking Victoria harbour and facing Kowloon on the mainland. This is the heart of HK and provides the images that everyone recognises, highrise office buildings jutting skyward, which are some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

We decided to use the four days we had ahead of us to explore the most obvious attractions and indulge in a bit of luxury item shopping, generally spoiling ourselves eg buying deodorant which is not sold in mainland China, and a visit to Marks and Spencers. In otherwords blow the budget! Which, by the way, so far we had managed to keep within.

After a night in a soft white fluffy bed cosseted by air con and room service our first stop was to be the 100 year old Funicular tram to the summit of Victoria peak, the highest point on HK Island at 522 metres. The Peak commands the most spectacular views of victoria harbour and the city skyscrapers below.

The first path to its summit was created in 1859 and the suggestion of building a railway to the top was laughed at due to the incredibly steep gradients involved. However wealthy British merchants desperate to escape the summer heat and malaria which was rife along the shoreline eventually built the funicular which opened in 1888 and is still in operation today.

The ride to the top really pushes you back in your seat. The journey only takes around 10 mins as you rise 386 vertical metres to a cafe and shopping centre at the top. On the way you pass some fantastically located, palacial homes (traditionally owned by wealthy british expats and govt officials but nowadays by Chinese tycoons).

The view from the top is wonderful during the day but truly memorable at night...we made a second visit to see night fall over the city (see photos).

One of the other main attractions of HK is the shopping, genuinely world class shopping with every designer name you can think of available in some extremely luxurious surroundings. Of course we felt obliged to take advantage of the situation and indulged in a bit of luxury item shopping...great fun.

Jane made the decision to have her hair cut really short as the weather was so late one night we ventured into town and did the deed. For moral support I also had a 'number two' which meant almost having my head shaved! Janes hair looked great but all my cut did, was to make me look 3 stones heavier and several IQ points lighter.

Sporting our new haircuts we decided to sample one of the delicacies of HK and try a Dim Sum restaurant. We selected one packed with chinese and managed to squeeze our way onto a table were we waited for 30 minutes to be served (despite speaking to several staff) and a further 35 minutes, with only our drinks for company, waiting for our first dish to arrive. But the wait was worth it... because it meant that I got to taste the most TRULY DISGUSTING substance I've ever had the misfortune to put in my mouth. Not 'dim Sum' more like 'Grim Sum'. I ejected it directly into my napkin and we left straight away much to the bemusement of the staff and our fellow diners (braver than me!). Having spoken to others since we feel we must have been unlucky in our selection of venue....or dim Sum is one of the worst foods in the world. All the other food we tasted in HK was fantastic and any number of Chinese quick food restaurants can be found all over town...and are definately worth a visit, especially for breakfast noodles!

Getting around in HK is very easy and made easier with the 'must have' OCTOPUS CARD .This travel card can be charged with an amount of money and used in all manner of shops restaurants and most importantly public transport systems. As nearly all forms of transport insist on the exact fare being presented this card is invaluable!(and you receive a discountd rate for using it).
The cheapest mode of transport is the tram system which rattles along the harbour front as it has done since 1904. Although very slow its a great way to get a feel for the special nightime atmosphere in HK. The line nowadays runs a good distance back from the sea as land reclamation projects have moved the actual harbour front forward.

There were many things that we didnt get chance to see during our 4 day stay mostly due to lazyness (terrible to admit but we have become a little blase about sightseeing)I'm sure if we had come direct from the UK on a four day city break we would have crammed much more into the time available. We didn't see the white sandy beaches, any of the other islands, Kowloon, Macau or a trip on the Star Ferry although bad weather prevented our attempt at this. However one thing we just had to do was visit the famous 'Happy Valley' racetrack.
So off we went one night to a floodlit race meeting (I'd never been to a racecourse before). It was spectacular, the setting of the track is an added bonus. It is nestled in the middle of a cityscape with tower blocks surrounding night these offer a twinkling backdrop to the floodlit action on the course itself. Add to this torrential rain (guess we're just lucky) and the scene is set for a great nights entertainment.

We eventually fought our way through the crowds, worked out how to place a bet, and then advanced to the trackside (sheltering under a leaky brolly) only to see our selection limp home second to last. This pattern continued all evening it seemed that the harder we studied the form in the racing paper we'd been given, or the louder we shouted / hurled abuse at our naggs the worse they performed. So with one race left to go we opted for the blindfold 'finger stab' selection method and out of sheer frustration we placed everything we had 'to win' and guess what.... WE WON!!! The winnings paid for our entire evening out, including meal and drinks with a little left over ...fantastic, what a great night out! We retired to our hotel soaking wet, tired, but laughing all the way.(even if we had lost I would still recommend it as a great way to spend an evening in HK.)

Overall we found HK to be a great pace to visit for a short city break a nice mix of the ultra modern with a traditional side which can easily be found by scratching under the surface. A little exploration goes a long way!(Make the most of the transport that's available don't try and walk any distance or you'll end up soaked in sweat!)

One of the best experiences in HK is leaving it. That is to say the actual act of leaving has to be one of the most enjoyable and well organised of any place I've ever visited. There is a city centre 'check in' for the Airport (which is a good distance away) you simply take your documents and luggage to a central location and 'check in' as if you were at the airport. You then catch a lift directly to a rail link (30 mins)into the airport terminal and the next time you see your luggage is at your final destination..brilliant! To add to this great experience you travel on an ultra modern, quiet and fast 'tube' link to HK airport (voted the worlds best), which has a food and shopping complex that is vast, if you can't buy it here, it can't be bought!

We left HK sad that our Chinese experience was over but excited that India lay ahead!
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