Monday, May 21, 2012

[Tourist] Day 9: Welcome to Hong Kong, Would You Like an Octopus With That?

As has become a recurring theme, I was up at 4:30. It's as good an hour as any, though just once I'd like to see the clock read "8:00" when I wake up. Might be nice for some variety.

I had two hours until they began serving breakfast at the Regency Club on the 23rd floor, so I spent the time catching up on things and working on the trip report. About 5:30 I became really hungry and the solution made me laugh. In Chicago, for reasons I cannot quite recollect, I decided to purchase a Big Grab (or whatever the hell it's called) sized bag of Cheez-Its. These then stayed in my backpack through three flights and two lounges. Ah, but now in Hong Kong they fulfilled their purpose in life: providing pre-breakfast sustenance. Thank you, honorable Cheez-Its!

I also discovered that my plans for staying in touch, a combination of Skype and Google Voice, worked well enough. Happy to be living in 2012.

Normally I'd spare you the details of my showering (is that a sigh of disappointment I hear? Must be my imagination!) but my god it's huge. The, um, shower, that is. You could easily fit three or four people. And that's enough for that line of discussion.

After showering I faced a mild shirt disaster. I had planned on doing laundry on Day 10 of the trip at a laundromat near the Hyatt. Unfortunately I'd not planned the number of shirts properly and so all I had left was my Arsenal jersey. It seemed somewhat appropriate given that the final game of the season would be taking place that night, but could I have looked any more like a tourist? Oh wait, I'm a 6'1" white guy walking around Hong Kong, there's basically no way I'm not going to look like a tourist.

On the way up to the Regency Club for breakfast the only person I encountered was an Indian gentleman wearing a Bayern Munich shirt. I think I'm going to be alright. I wished his team luck in defeating the hated Chelski in a week's time and then headed in for breakfast.
For those who were wondering what was in that Swiss Air amenities kit

Ample breakfast spread in the Regency Club

That Diamond Trial was the best decision I made on the trip
 My goodness, what a spread. I'm not much of a breakfast person, but there were so many appetizing things that I ate my fill. I had no idea what thousand year egg congee was but I did remember seeing reference to it on Chowhound, so I ordered some. Delicious! Having a large breakfast every day in Hong Kong proved invaluable because the intense humidity completely sapped my appetite and I found it difficult to eat lunch and dinner on the first few days.

I also had three Coke Zeros. That's for the record, of course.
View from the Regency Club on the 23rd Floor - I hate that Canon building so much

Does pork become more or less kosher over 1000 years?

Gotta have more carbs

Congee = Delicious

I've eaten so much salmon on this trip. SO MUCH
 The original plan for Day 1 in Hong Kong had been to visit the ultimate tourist destination, the Peak - complete with Tram ride. But some early morning reading of my guidebooks turned up that Sunday was just about the worst day imaginable to brave Central as not only would I have to contend with the usual tourist crowd, but many of the city's Malaysian and Filipino workers had Sundays off and spent them in Central and on the Peak.

I called an audible and drew up new plans to start the day by travelling to Stanley Market. This would require a bus ride. Shameful Admission Number Whatever The Hell We Are Up To Now: I hate buses. Just absolutely hate them. They trip every anxiety I have about traveling somewhere new for the first time. First you usually need exact change. And you have to know exactly where to wait for the thing. And you need the right stop because there's that odd part where you have to signal for a stop before the stop but how do you know it's before the stop if you've never been before? Anyway, it's a mess. Give me a subway any time. When I spent two weeks catsitting for my brother in Manhattan a few years ago I would walk a mile extra if it meant I could avoid taking a crosstown bus.

But there was no avoiding it in this case. I had no desire to pay the cab fare to compensate for my personal shortcomings and if you can't overcome your fears while traveling then really what's the point?

My trip would ostensibly start with one of the world's greatest tourist deals: less than 50 cents American for a ride across Victoria Harbor from the side I was staying on (Kowloon) to Hong Kong proper aboard the Star Ferry. When the second or third most-recommended experience in a city also doubles as a needed form of transportation, I'm pretty excited about it.

There was only one problem: I needed an octopus. You see, people in Hong Kong are tremendous Detroit Red Wings fans and to travel anywhere in style and comfort, you need an octopus. Alright, everything I just said is a lie but it would be great if even one person believed me. What I actually needed was an Octopus Card, Hong Kong's gift to the world. You load up this beauty with cash and then you use it for everything. Ferry rides, bus rides, subway rides, McDonalds, 7-11, you name it. Only problem is that to the best of my knowledge, and by my knowledge I mean the knowledge of the Hyatt concierge, you couldn't buy one at the Star Ferry terminal.

So I descended into the bowels of the Tsim Sha Tsui/East Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station in search of my octopus. It only took about five minutes of aimless wandering and I had found someone who would sell me a completely legitimate octopus. After another twenty minutes of wandering wherein I should have taken a left at Albuquerque (have I used that reference already in this trip report? Feels like I have), I found my way back to the street and headed off sans map in search of the Star Ferry terminal.

I'm not going to say how long it took me to make the five minute walk to the Star Ferry Terminal. I'm just going to pretend like I meant to explore Kowloon and that the thirty minute walk was intentional. Yup, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Shortly after this experience I managed to work out how to open PDFs and ebooks on my iPhone and I was never mapless or guideless again.

Some observations from the walk:

1) I love the name Kowloon. Why? Because of 1998's oft-forgotten Squaresoft RPG SaGa Frontier. The idea in the game was simple: why give you one boring, poorly-written and stupidly long story when we could give you seven that made you repeat the same side quests ad naseum? It was the perfect JRPG in that regard and it featured a town called Kowloon. Fond memories for then-17-year-old Danny.

2) Holy cotton thermal underwear Batman, it's hot. Hot is probably not the right word, actually. Temperatures never topped 85 or so. But the humidity. Oh my god the humidity. I live in Florida. I've visited Disneyworld in August. I'm not a stranger to humidity. This was not 100% humidity. This was 500% humidity in that somehow Hong Kong has managed to condense space-time and borrow humidity from the future or from Las Vegas. Or both. I literally could not keep hydrated no matter how many times I whipped out my octopus at a 7-11 for massive bottles of water. And we aren't going to even mention the sweating. I'm sure I looked absolutely awful. Thankfully travelling alone means I don't have to impress anyone. Yeesh.

3) Someone was doing Tai Chi at the Star Ferry Terminal. Someone else would later be doing it at the Maritime Museum in Stanley. It looked very relaxing. I could go for some of that.

4) When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey I could not understand how McDonalds was the number one fast food chain. We had two in all of the towns that I had visited. There were easily more Burger Kings and probably more Wendys. Then I moved to the midwest where there's a McDonalds at every highway exit and suddenly it all made sense. Similarly there was a 7-eleven down the street from my house and that was the only one I'd ever seen until years later. How could it be so popular? Well, it turns out that 98.6% of the world's 7-elevens are located in Hong Kong. True story. Alright, it's not quite that much BUT according to the fine folks at Wikipedia, 7-eleven density in Hong Kong is second only to Macau so I'm not far off. This called to mind a Facebook post I made earlier this year when 7-eleven inadvertently opened it's fourth store within half a mile of our college. I thought that had to be a record. There are places in Hong Kong where I can see four 7-elevens from one spot! Best part of 7-eleven? They love my octopus. Oh yes folks, this is going to be good.

Where were we? Here's a photo of the Clocktower outside the Star Ferry Terminal. I was totally trying to find this on the way to the terminal, you guys. It was like 100% intentional that I ended up there and if you say otherwise you will feel the wrath of my octopus.
Fortuitous clock tower

IFC tower - 5th largest building in the world....but is there a ride inside of it?

More shots of the Hong Kong skyline

I love how the building on the left is a miniature version of the IFC Tower - brilliant!

Looking back to the Kowloon side

"A field full of tires that is always on fire, to light my way home"

The bridge to the airport that I missed last night because I was sleeping in the taxi

Look, either you're the first ferry or the seventh, you can't have it both ways
 Wow, I'm already on page 3 of this trip report and it's not even 8 AM on Day 9. Let's move this along a touch shall we?

I forgot my sunglasses in the room for your amusement, so the ride on the Star Ferry featured lots of squinting and fighting off glare. After disembarking the ferry I made my way to the Exchange Square Bus Station. Oh no - did I want the 6? The 66? The 260? The 6X? The 6A? OHGODIHATEBUSESSOMUCH. I nearly got on the 260, aka the Stanley Express, and was glad later that I didn't because it cuts right through the Aberdeen Tunnel instead of going over the hills. I settled on the 6, which is like the Coca-Cola of buses to Stanley: the classic that keeps getting better with time.

I sat in the upper deck as recommended by my travel guide, but it would have been even more helpful if they'd recommended sitting on the right side of the upper deck. As it was my photos there came out like crap and it was raining on the way back so those photos came out like crap too. Or I'm just a crap photographer. I'm willing to go either way on this one.

But the ride, oh the ride. It was fantastic! It was so amazing that I'm thinking about going back on the morning of my flight out and just riding the bus there and back. You start by climbing the hills overlooking the city. It makes for some amazing views of the city and the harbor. I particularly enjoyed the terraced cemeteries. I am always amazed by the ways in which civilizations have developed funerary practices to meet their local geography and climate. Random aside, but I highly recommend a competent cemetery tour if you're ever in New Orleans.

Alright, where were we? Oh yes, amazing bus ride. After you hit the summit you begin descending into the southern portion of Hong Kong island, which is much more relaxed. The busses are marvels created to set the minds of people like me at ease. The Octopus system could not be easier. Tap the card against the reader on the way in (it reads it in less than a second) and then grab a seat. No exact change needed. And there are electronic signs that indicate the name of the next stop so you know when you need to signal. Plus the busses are remarkably efficient. I don't think we ever stopped for more than 30 seconds as people got on and off.

The views of the hills, the lush greenery and the South China Sea are just breathtaking on the southern portion of the drive. My words don't do it justice but if you ever come to Hong Kong, ride the 6 to Stanley and sit on the upper right on the way there and the upper left on the return.
You have no idea how many photos of these buildings you are in for
 Stanley itself was neat, though not half as awesome as the trip there. I arrived at about 8:30. My guide had said that Stanley Market, a crowded flea market popular with tourists and ex-pats, was to open at 9. My guide was wrong. But that gave me some time to wander the promenade and enjoy the views of the sea and the hills. I also checked out this historic building. It's historic. Just trust me on that.

Plus nearby was a temple that the guide described as perhaps the most moody interior on the island. The guidebook was wrong, again. I switched to a different guidebook after this.

At this point the market was just beginning to open. I walked through in about five minutes just to see what there was to see, but since outside of Disney parks I'm not much of a shopper, I was content with my quick lookthrough. I caught the 6 back to Central and got on just as torrential rains began. Missing the rains was a good thing, but it did screw up my photos on the ride back. Trade-offs, right? The highlight of the return journey, other than the incredible views, was the five-year-old in front of me who kept saying things like "whoa" every time we turned a corner and another incredible sight greeted us. His excitement added to the coolness of the experience, much like how riding Soarin' is always better when your vehicle is full of people who've never been before. Oh god, Disney is infecting the non-Disney pages of the trip report. Abort! Abort!
Stanley Promenade

View from Stanley

South China Sea (aka view from Stanley but I *just* used that caption)

Oh boy - Main Street USA?! Hey. Wait. Where the hell is Donald?

Murray House - feel the history! Go on, feel it. Touch the history. Just a little bit. Please? Okay, we're done here.

This interior better be moody like the guidebook said

If the mood they are going for is "elementary school cafeteria" then BAM, Mission: Accomplished

I thought you needed more history; plus this photo came out well

I'll take six. Too greedy? Fine. Four? Three? Two? Can I at least sit in it? Fine, I'm leaving, no need to call security
 The bus dropped me back off around 11 AM, which left me in a bit of a quandary. The humidity was roughing me up quite a bit and I felt rather sleepy. I also wanted to make sure I was awake at 10 PM for the final Arsenal match of the season. I made the call to return to the hotel for a nap, with the thought that afterward I'd walk up to the Museum of History and then take in the Temple Street Night Market before returning to watch the game.

The Ferry ride back was equally enjoyable, this time with the added bonus of a busker playing John Denver's Country Road in the terminal. Did not see that one coming at all.

In the terminal I decided to try out my Octopus card on a vending machine. They had a drink that looked a lot like a Chinese Arnold Palmer and at that moment there was nothing I wanted more than a Chinese Arnold Palmer in my mouth. But I somehow screwed it up and instead got some Pocari Sweat.

Not clue what it was, but it was tasty enough and did not appear to have too much sugar in it. Much obliged, vending machine. Much obliged Mr./Mrs. Pocari for your sweat.

The walk back to the hotel entailed a trip up Nathan Road, aka the Golden Mile, aka "Would you like a tailor? Watch? Copy watch?" Road. Every five feet someone tried to sell me something. I tried my usual no headshake but that was clearly going to be insufficient. Tomorrow's post will have my solution to the problem.

I also stopped in at Chungking Mansions, which is a huge block of, well, I can't explain it properly. Here's the Wikipedia entry. Don't tell my students I just did that. Thanks.
Lesson for life

Third tastiest sweat I've ever tried

When you do what you love then these two boxes won't look so different

There were other teams on this sign too, but let's be honest: Mancunians are illiterate

What happens in Chungking Mansions stays in Chungking Mansions, along with one of your kidneys
I napped for about 3 hours and then headed out. Shortly after leaving the hotel, still wearing my Arsenal shirt, I passed a gent in a Spurs shirt. I believe protocol meant that I should have pushed him into oncoming traffic, but instead we both smiled and wish each others team good luck that night.

The Museum of History was pretty cool. complete with a massive walk-through exhibit called The Story of Hong Kong. It took me about an hour to get through, which for me is quite impressive. I'm not much for art museums (I'm giving the Louvre a pass in Paris; one of the joys of traveling alone) but I am always up for a good historical or scientific exhibition.

It was still pretty early at that point and the Night Market would not get up and running for a few more hours. On the way back to the hotel I decided to get some lunch/dinner. I wasn't actually hungry, thank you humidity, but it seemed like a good idea anyway. I found a local place that seemed to have a decent crowd inside and I gave it a try. In the part of Tsim Sha Tsui where the Hyatt is located I didn't have much hope for authentic or great Cantonese, but I was pleasantly surprised.

The menu had quite a few good options on it, and I was tempted by the pigeon, which is supposedly a local specialty. But I decided that like the impeccable Jew that I am, I should go for the most kosher thing on the menu and I ordered the crispy pork skin. Somewhere my Sunday School teacher was grimacing.

The look on the waitress's face when I ordered the pork skin was priceless. I think she was expecting me to order the fried rice? I've never had pork skin before, but this was quite tasty! I'm not sure if I was supposed to eat all of it, as there were parts that seemed awfully cartilage-like, but why not? I especially appreciated that she didn't even offer me chopsticks (hey, I'm not that bad with them) and just brought me a fork.

I returned to the hotel and then immediately passed out again. I didn't want to. I wanted to write some of the Disneyland trip report. But this was a losing battle. I force myself up at 6:30 and headed up the Regency Club to see what their evening cocktails consisted of. I had a few very light things and then I stumbled down to the street in half-zombie mode and purchased some Red Bull.

The Red Bull proved quite effective, which was unexpected given my history with the stuff, and I managed to watch the Arsenal match on a jumpy, laggy illegal stream. Mostly I followed a blogger's minute-by-minute report of the game that he was getting by watching a slightly less-jump less-laggy illegal stream. What a world! Arsenal barely pulled out the victory, securing third place and a spot in the Champions League. Oh, and I guess those deplorable #*@& from City won the title. I hope they are happy with it. Maybe we could save the whole world a lot of trouble and just sell Premier League titles at Tesco to wealthy resource tycoons? I'm not bitter. Not at all.

At midnight I decided to call it a night. Or so I thought. For more on that, as if anyone has actually read this entire massive entry, come back tomorrow.

You already got your history earlier dammit, why do you want more?

Seemed appropriate given my quote in the local paper during the school year
Worst. Jew. Ever.

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