Saturday, October 5th - Somewhere Over Asia

The most difficult part of a trip like this for me is the potential for not being able to sleep on the flight and given the length of this flight that is a bit of a problem as it could mean I am going for several days without sleep (assuming I want to adapt to the time difference in Hong Kong right away). In this case both Mel and I were able to sleep shortly after Monsters University then woke a few hours before landing. The plane was still in darkness so Mel turned on Iron Man 3 (have been intending to watch this for some time and she was lucky that the movie was just able to complete before landing as she watched throughout breakfast).

There was the obligatory turning on of the cabin lights to signal that the crew were tired of everyone being asleep and it was now time to shove some food in front of us. There were only two choices, one being a veggie and the other being “congee” which is a Chinese rice soup and one of my favourites so we both opted for the soup. Not a good choice. Food does taste pretty bland on airplanes but in this case it was not nice at all. I ended up emptying my salt and pepper into it to try to improve the flavour and it did, marginally.

Opening the blind beside me I was momentarily dazzled but eventually my eyes adapted to see…white. Lots of it. It was only as we descended into Hong Kong that I was first able to see mountains poking up out of the clouds then eventually the ground as we broke through the cloud. Buildings, lots of them, but, knowing the area I knew this was not Hong Kong but southern China and likely the Shenzhen area. Remembering back to my first visit it was nothing like this - it is amazing the amount of “progress” the Chinese have made here. The ever-present massive container ships were queued up in the ocean for entry into Hong Kong as we circled around the south of Hong Kong island past Aberdeen and Repulse Bay. Even in Hong Kong the difference over the years is startling with large numbers of apartment buildings now littering areas that were previously forest and mountains. Seeing the Tsing Ma bridge that links the island on which the airport sits, Lantau, to the rest of Hong Kong I knew we were getting close. Seeing the ski lift adjacent to the airport that takes visitors to the Po Lin monastery we sat back for landing.

The day was pretty much done when we landed at 5 pm, nicely about 40 minutes early. Where did Saturday go? Oh yeah, in the air…

I love the Hong Kong airport. It is so spacious and, dare I say it, relaxed. The mountains around the airport are shown off to great effect with the large windows throughout the terminal and it’s various buildings. The airport has grown considerably and we had quite a trip to get from the plane to immigration including an automated train located about 100 feet below the gates.

Waiting for the train to the terminal

The whole process is seamless with our passing through immigration in about 15 minutes then another 30 minutes later we had our luggage and we were exiting the security area.

We had arrived.

So, now what? I spotted the Hong Kong Airport Express desk just in front of us so I made my way over to that. I had figured that the simplest way into the city, particularly after such a long flight, was to take the Hong Kong Express train which takes us directly to Hong Kong Island (the “HKEL” station) where a free shuttle operates to take us to our hotel. I prefer to take the bus but it is not the quickest nor does it really go to where we need to go and with the free shuttle on offer (and the fact we are on holiday) simplicity won out. Queuing for a few minutes we had our tickets - A reasonable $160 for the two of us (which is cheaper than the rate for people using the stored value “Octopus” cards they use for transport and also cheaper than two single trips, it turns out) and, bonus, they accepted Visa so my somewhat small cache of cash remained untouched.

Hong Kong Airport Express Ticket

That was one less worry but we also needed some refreshment so we spotted the welcome sign of 7-11 - Try not to laugh. In the UK we do not have any and I have an affinity for their crushed ice drink - Slurpees. Particularly coke. In this case it was not a REAL 7-11 as it did not have Slurpees but it did have drinks so we stocked up on water and coke for the trip ahead.

000 (sigh)

Outside the 7-11 Looking for a Slurpee Machine

Passing by Japanese ramen and dim sum restaurants we made our way the short distance to the Hong Kong Airport Express train station. Waiting a few minutes we made our way on board the modern, air conditioned, train. The aisles are massive and the seats are ample with large areas for luggage on either sides of the doors. The televisions in each car were mildly disruptive but really there was not much to see outside of the windows anyway as much of the trip is underground though we did see the ski lift to the monastery that we had seen from the plane briefly as we zipped by. The quiet trip only took a short amount of time before arriving on Hong Kong Island.

On Board the Hong Kong Airport Express

Bringing our phones with us of course always brings to mind the cost of using them while away. Imagine my surprise when a few weeks before leaving I was told that it would be possible to use my phone in Hong Kong without having to pay any fees for using the data (Internet) features and, as a bonus, I can make calls to the UK as if I was in the UK! This will make using it far less expensive. I fired up the phone and had it pull down all of my emails while we were on the train. I have made a promise that I will not read my work emails while away despite the phone valiantly pulling them all down anyway.

Arriving at the station we used our tickets to touch in through the large electronic exit gates to find that the area where the hotel shuttles arrived was right in front of us (well, we didn’t know that straight away, but confirmed with someone). Standing out of the terminal in the underground garage the heat of the city was evident as I watched for the bus to arrive. A short time later the bus with “Cosmopolitan Hotel” written on it pulled up. Now, we are actually staying at the Cosmo Hotel but the bus had a small “Cosmo” written on it as well so I was reasonably confident it would take us where we needed to go but it was still a bit nervous as I knew there are several hotels with very similar names in Hong Kong and some of them are not on the island (where I knew our hotel was).

The driver grabbed our bag and put it up front as we found seats in the small but comfortable van. He quickly drove us through the heart of the city with the massive buildings on either side of us with incredible illuminated advertising lighting up the early evening sky. He was not in the mood for sightseeing as we made our way along large highways to the hotel. As we passed into the Wan Chai district then past the enormous building of the Happy Valley racecourse I started to relax as I knew our hotel was located just opposite. Pulling up to the back door we had reached our destination.

The lobby looked significantly different than I remembered it from my stay with my mother a few years ago. Much nicer, larger and a lot busier. The staff looked a bit confused as we presented ourselves at check-in. It became obvious “oh, you have a reservation with our SISTER hotel just down the street”. Ah. Out onto the busy street we trudged the 100 feet down the street to our hotel and this looked much as a remembered it - A lot smaller and not so nice looking. On checking in they immediately tried to get us to pay for a larger room for $480/day which would almost have doubled what we paid for our room in the first place…so we politely declined. What was a bit annoying was that they charge for Internet with even the larger room only having slightly cheaper Internet…I guess I am getting spoiled with hotels in the US and the UK offering free Internet now as a matter of course.

Our room is on the top floor - The 27th - Though actually the 23rd as there are a few floor numbers skipped due to the fact that in Cantonese they sound like bad-luck words such as “death”. 2706 is in the corner of the floor and looks south over the Muslim cemetery stretching up the mountain next door and, to the far left, into the Happy Valley racetrack.

Our Room

Hong Kong island is basically a oval stretching east and west with a long stretch of mountains along the middle. The hotel is on the north side of the island, nearest to the harbour so looking to the south we are looking up the mountain with a number of high rise apartments lit up all the way up to the top. They will find space to build them wherever they can. Why am I looking a the scenery and not the room? Well, because there is not much really to say about the room. It is tiny with a small desk near the window that quickly became cluttered with our bottles and bits and pieces. There are two beds but we were told at check-in they would be changed to one for us tomorrow. Beside the bed there is a small closet with room to hang some clothes with a safe below it (thank goodness) and below that another nook holds the small fridge with the obligatory highly-priced snacks and drinks. On the other side of the closet, immediately to your left as you enter, is the bathroom with a bath/shower and toilet. The small vanity space was quickly filled with our toothpaste, toothbrushes and other toiletries. 15 minutes after arriving and it was already cluttered. Can’t imagine what it will be like when we start picking up souvenirs. Here’s hoping they are not big…The room is freezing so Mel immediately started tinkering with the thermostat for the air conditioner. Here’s hoping it is not as noisy as it is all the time.

View Out Our Window

I plopped myself on the bed nearest the window for a few minutes to investigate the television which has a few English language channels - CNN, Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel and BBC World - Of course, this quickly lost my attention. We were here, we need to get out and see something! We agreed to go for a bit of a walk despite it getting close to about 7 pm at night by now. Besides, we should really have something to eat as we felt quite hungry despite having eaten only about 3 or 4 hours ago.

A quick stop at the concierge for directions we headed out into the night. The hotel is on a busy road (Queen’s Road East) with three lanes of traffic in either direction so to cross we have to climb up a bit of a hill to the traffic lights with it’s pedestrian crossing. Next to the hotel there is a Sikh temple which we had a peak into which showed a service under way with the chanting (singing?). The beeping of the pedestrian crossing indicated it was safe to cross (slow beeping that increases frantically as the light prepares to change…). Following the concierge directions we walked down a series of steps between two buildings past a public swimming pool and a hospital. A back road led to a REAL 7-11, that is, it had slurpees! In this heat and humidity they were very welcome - and cheap at that at $5 each (about £0.50) - A coke for me and a fanta for Mel.


A bit of a communication problem but drinks obtained.

001 (hurray!)

This is the older, traditional, part of Wan Chai with small shops on narrow streets leading off in all directions. At night there were several stalls open on the sidewalks selling steamed and barbequed food (with little, if any, English though I am sure we would be able to figure it out if we wanted to try). People sitting out on the streets talking, drinking, eating, and just enjoying the buzz. Finding a congee shop that looked quite nice (but is really for breakfast) we instead visited the neighboring restaurant, “Wah Hong Restaurant”, that looked a bit like a 50s diner with linoleum floors, mirrors on the walls, and red seats throughout. We ordered our food largely by pointing at the dishes in the English/Cantonese menu (with pictures as well) then waited a very long time for it to come. While we were waiting Mel had a “milk tea” which is a drink that the locals seem to like that she did not find terribly nice (it is basically Chinese tea but with milk in it…I don’t like it really either) and I had, due to a bit of a communication error, a coke. But we were well done our drinks when we looked around for our waiter to whom we started making motions at…He got the picture. I think they had forgotten our order. We were beginning to get a bit tired so something like 45 minutes after we ordered we were grateful to finally get…not what we ordered. Oh well. Mel had crispy noodles with chicken mushroom which she thought was OK and I had shanghai noodles with chicken and what looked like sandwich meat. Oh well, it was alright but not a very good start to the holiday eating regime. At $135 (£13.50) we could not really complain about the price though. The place seemed to a bit with a few people though with a large group sitting in the odd round room in the corner of the restaurant looking out onto the street. They definitely knew what they wanted and got their food in time. Something tells me we will not be back though.

Wan Chai

Having left the Hong Kong map given to us by the hotel back at the restaurant we made our way (by my memory) down to catch the Star ferry across to Kowloon from the Wan Chai pier located beside the convention centre (that was built in time for the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China). On the way we passed by a number of small bakeries selling interesting looking items - Looks promising for picking up things every night for breakfast the next morning should we have problems finding somewhere to eat. The area was busy considering it was getting later in the evening as we wound our way down the streets then up an escalator to an open-air elevated (but covered) walkway. Once above the street the world changed a bit with the slightly chaotic street life replaced with ordered restaurants and shops in the buildings we passed through. Spotted a few places we may want to eat in as well…

The last bit of the elevated walkway took us over some construction right on the harbour near a bus station where we climbed down the stairs to enter the ferry terminal. A bit of confusion found we were able to purchase ferry tokens from a machine which we used to get through the gates to the waiting area where we looked at the interesting souvenirs in a plastic case - Some models of the trams that run throughout the island, models of the ferries themselves and other interesting items. A few minutes later and ferry arrived.

The Star Ferry is, of course, a Hong Kong institution. It may be getting old and is not the quickest way of getting around but it certainly runs frequently and is well used. It is a great way of getting across the harbour and at night it offers fantastic views of the city that was lit up around us. Mel was working overtime on her camera taking pictures every few seconds. That is the thing with digital cameras you can take so many pictures so quickly with no real limitations on the numbers. We were not the only ones taking pictures on the crowded ferry. I was simply content to be back in Hong Kong as I soaked up the atmosphere of the boat as it gently rocked across the harbour to the Star Ferry terminal at the end of Kowloon in Tsim Sha Tsui. The lights of the buildings reflected on the dark waters of the harbour with only the noise of the ferry in ears. We had made it. This is Hong Kong.

View out of the Star Ferry Window

Arriving in Kowloon about 10 minutes later the terminal was, as always, very busy. Oddly I spotted several Falun Gong protesters with a stand containing pictures. I know this religious group is very much persecuted by the authorities in China so encouraged Mel to give them a wide berth. We were forced by physical necessity to use the toilets at the terminal and, surprisingly, they were not as bad as you might think for free toilets located in the middle of the city (and on a pier). They smelled a bit…but they were clean. Mel and I were impressed. It is such things that make us happy…

Picturing the Harbour

The view from the Kowloon Public Pier, immediately to the right of the Star Ferry, was amazing with the sky-line relatively clear - It is still smoggy but not as smoggy as I have seen it before (of course the first time I visited here it was not smoggy at all and it seems only in recent years with the build of industry in mainland China around Hong Kong has the pollution become more of a problem). The whole area along the water is a public promenade with the cultural centre, science museum, and art museum the public buildings located there. This is the end of the moon festival so there was a large display of animal and human figures lit up above a fountain beside the clock tower behind the cultural centre.

Moon Festival Display

Everyone was having pictures taken there and the place was just humming - All along the water there were stalls set up of photographers vying for trade - Taking people’s pictures with the background of the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island. We sidestepped these and continued along the water to the “Avenue of Stars” stretch which has the hand and foot-prints of famous Hong Kong people in concrete panels all along it’s length (including, of course, Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee). The only food we really saw on offer was from a small stand with quite a large queue outside of it for grilled squid…Mel did not really like the smell so we gave that a miss.

The harbour was not calm with many tourist boats going back and forth in addition to the ever-present Star Ferry going back and forth. But, it is quite calming in a way to watch the water with the shimmering lights of the city. There are so many more buildings than when I was last here - It was amazing then, it is more so now.

Reluctantly we realised we were going cross-eyed…and we were going to miss the last ferry back to Wan Chai so we made our way back stopping for a few minutes to look in the clock tower at the original bell on display. There is always something surprising here.

Ferry and the Harbour

The Wan Chai ferry is a lot less busy than the other Star Ferry that goes to Central so it finishes a bit earlier in the evening. It does mean that it runs a bit less often as well. We made our way up the stairs and around the corner to purchase our tokens, yet again, then waited for the ferry to arrive. During our wait I noticed a rather large cockroach running along the floor - This caused a bit of a stir for Mel and others…Looked pretty friendly to me.

Despite our stupor we managed to retrace our steps to the hotel where we collapsed into the beds.

⇒ Continue to Sunday, October 6th - Wan Chai, Hong Kong