Tuesday, March 27, 2012

And ... Home (Views Over Asia)

So now - at last - all the photos from our three-week, thirtieth-anniversary holiday of last October are up on my Flickr photostream.

The last day of the trip - an extended version of the 29th of the month - involved a 4am start (which is no great fun), a drive through the small-hours but nonetheless well-illuminated streets of Hong Kong, and the discovery that even Hong Kong airport doesn't really get moving that early. It took a little while for the catering to open up, but eventually we managed to find breakfast, and decided to try some local paper-wrapped rice-based thing.

Hmm. Possibly an experiment too far. Let's just assume that it's a taste which locals acquire from childhood, shall we?

So we boarded our Qantas 747, and spent the next few hours largely on a route that Marco Polo might, I guess, have regarded as familiar (assuming, modern theories notwithstanding, that he didn't just make stuff up), just a few miles higher up, in much greater comfort, and with some watching of movies and TV on the back of the seat in front. Were those the Tian Shan mountains down there, and if so, where was Shangri-La? And was that the Taklamakan desert? Not sure, but anyway, does flying over count as going in?

Ah well, those are not modern concerns. Modern concerns are things like Qantas grounding their entire fleet for a few days due to a large-scale row with their air crew union, which we only later discovered happened while we were in the air. Hmm. Dodged a last-minute problem there.

Which brings me ... back to where I was months ago.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Views of Hong Kong

The photos from our big holiday last year are nearly all up now; I've just finished putting up the biggest day's worth of all; the 28th of October. That was the one full day we had in Hong Kong. Fortunately, we had planned to cram a fair amount into that time.

Still, it was just one day, so it's probably stupid of me to draw conclusions about the city. On the other hand, this is my blog.

What I almost said is that Hong Kong is extraordinary. But that's just not true, really. In a very important way, it's the most ordinary place on Earth. (Except perhaps in the small matter of scale.) Human beings have been building cities for the last five or six thousand years, I guess, and Hong Kong seems to me to be the modern quintessence of the city. It's not actually the biggest, it's certainly not the most beautiful, but it does the thing that cities have done for almost all that time, but which cities in the West have largely given up doing - and it does it much better than most of the developing world mega-cities. That thing is partly make money, or perhaps just make some people rich, but even more important is being seen to make people rich. Which is why Hong Kong - bustling, plutocratic, adaptive - is still sucking population out of its rural hinterland (relatively backward, almost feudal) at a formidable rate - the ancient power of the promise of The Big City. However, as modern Hong Kong has modern medicine and sanitation, it doesn't kill those immigrants or its own children especially fast, unlike most cities in history (although it's managed slightly more in the way of plague in recent years than most developed-world cities), so it grows instead. And the smart and the lucky get rich, and flaunt their wealth, and buy showy gold ornamentation - gold stuff that would barely look out of places if it emerged from a Sumerian archaeological site.

Anyway - in the morning, of our day, we had a coach tour planned. So after breakfast in the hotel's previously-mentioned multi-ethnic buffet restaurant, we grabbed a taxi to the starting point, got ourselves onto the right coach, and set off. The coach promptly headed out of town past a couple of minor landmarks, and took us away from the urban parts of Hong Kong Island and into the rather greener south. This is an area with a fair amount of, essentially, very expensive suburban development, but it also encompasses places like Aberdeen Harbour, our first stop. This is a working harbour and home to a fishing fleet, but it's also a tourist destination with a giant floating restaurant, and a location for scenes in James Bond movies and the like. Also, according to the guy on whose boat we took a brief tour of the harbour, one of the big yachts we saw moored there belongs to Jackie Chan, and the big house overlooking the harbour is also his, so I guess the place has multiple sightseeing options covered.

Then we were  back on the coach and along the coast, past Repulse Bay (evidently a serious plutocrat playground) to Stanley, which would pass as a pleasant small seaside resort in Britain, apart from the thing for which it seems to be most noted; Stanley Market, a mass of stalls selling a lot of the sort of stuff that people come to Hong Kong to buy (silks, souvenirs, and so forth). However, we weren't shopping much, so we found a local restaurant and grabbed an early lunch of dim sum.

And then we rolled back over the hills at the centre of the island, admiring some views on the way, to catch what was probably the most dramatic view of all - the one from Victoria Peak, above the city. (Okay, I also managed to find a green tea and date ice cream there. I could get used to that stuff.) Readers will note that we took a fair number of pictures. The other thing about the Peak - apart from its status as an up-market residential and recreational area - is that access to and from the centre of the city below can be by a specialised tram, and we rode that down, passing the upper floors of skyscrapers as we went, to meet our coach and return to our starting point.

Which basically gave us the afternoon and evening to explore the city for ourselves on foot. To start with, we found ourselves in Times Square. (Yes, that's what it's called. Hong Kong displays an unlimited willingness to nick ideas from other cities if they seem saleable.) We then wanted to make our way from there to the waterfront, so we looked at a map and set off in the right direction. And within yards, we were out of the realm of shiny skyscrapers and expensive shops, and in a bustling street of grocers and fishmongers, the latter of whose wares were so fresh that they were often still flapping around.

This brought home to us something that we'd already begun to register on the shuttle from the airport the night before; Hong Kong really doesn't seem to have "neighbourhoods" in the sense that those of us used to Western cities think of the word. We were staying in a moderately swish hotel, and had cause to pass even fancier places - and yet, within a few yards of the door, one could be passing shabby cafes and very ordinary residential blocks. We didn't encounter anything that felt threatening, but the shifts in urban atmosphere over a few paces could be startling. It seems that, when something is needed in Hong Kong, it gets put where there's a space, regardless of what else may be around - and presumably the land prices are just high everywhere.

Anyway, we found the waterfront, and most importantly, something that had rightly been recommended to us. A ride on the ferry between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, on the mainland, costs about 20p per person, and may be the best tourist trip for that money anywhere on Earth. Hong Kong sprawls along both sides of the straits that it uses as a harbour, and looks pretty good in late afternoon light. (Actually, I suspect that it looks good from that viewpoint in most lights.) And so it was that we came back to the mainland of Asia. Gawping a little, in my case, perhaps.

(Other observations when looking round Hong Kong harbour areas; well, a "typhoon shelter" turns out to be a bit less dramatic than the term makes it sound. Basically, it's a bit of harbour that's reasonably sheltered from bad weather.)

The area where the ferry docked had a few tourist sights of its own close to hand. To start with, there's a clock tower, which is actually all that's left of the old Kowloon-Canton Railway Terminus of colonial times. Then there's the old Marine Police Headquarters, now a luxury hotel; this used to be perched on a small hill, but that's now been dug away to accommodate a shopping centre. Then, heading back to the waterfront, we took a stroll along the Avenue of Stars.

I mentioned that Hong Kong happily pinches ideas from other cities, didn't I? Well, it pinched this one from Hollywood, obviously. Yep, hand-prints of famous Hong King movie stars in cement, plus a couple of only-slightly-tacky statues.

Working back round from there, we hit Nathan Road, Kowloon's big shopping street (with jewellers selling some of the previously-mentioned gold), before getting up as far as Kowloon Park. That was a bit of an accidental discovery, to be honest, but worth the time, with not only a range of greenery but a sculpture walk and a pool which serves as the home for a range of bird species, including a flock of flamingos.

After which, we crossed a major road by a footbridge and had a brief look at the glittering skyscrapers of a modern waterfront development. (Okay, yes, another one.) By this time, dusk was falling, so with some difficulty, we found our way down to street level through a slightly maze-like covered shopping area, and wandered back down to the ferry terminal.

Another trip across the harbour later, we were looking for dinner on the evening streets of Hong Kong. The guidebook pointed us at the Luk Yu Tea House, a handsome establishment, all wood panelling and slightly old-fashioned style, where we had what was certainly a very decent Chinese meal... Perhaps not anything I'd have been surprised to get in the UK, though. Perhaps we should have ventured into some of the wilder parts of the menu (I just didn't feel up to trying frogs' legs), or perhaps we should have gone their in the afternoon (their dim sum are supposed to be excellent).

By then, though, we really needed to be getting to bed - we had an insanely early start the next day - so we added our last Hong Kong experience; a tram ride back to the vicinity of the hotel. Actually, we got off too early, and spent a few minutes noticing that no-specific-neighbourhood-atmosphere effect, but in due course we found the place and crashed out.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Views Over the Southern Seas

I've got a few more pictures up on Flickr from our big holiday last October, but the 27th was mostly a day of travel. Still, if you're going to be travelling between cities, there's something to be said for travelling between Sydney and Hong Kong.

So we woke up in central Sydney, made our way by shuttle bus to the airport ... and spent several hours in the air, with the occasional glance out of the cabin window to see, first the northern Outback, then the Indonesian archipelago sliding past below. I forget which films I watched on the back of the seat in front... Anyway, in due course we landed in Hong Kong and took a bus to our hotel. By that time, it was quite late, so we ate in the hotel's pretty good multi-ethnic buffet and crashed out.

Notes and reflections on Hong Kong will accompany the next day's photos. But there are a lot of those to sort out and polish up.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Views Around Sydney, Over a Museum, and Under an Aquarium

Another day's worth of photographs from last October's big holiday have now gone up on my Flickr photostream.

The 26th of the month was our last full day in Sydney and in Australia, and we spent it catching on a few things we still wanted to see in the city. Unfortunately, it was another grey day, so the photos aren't postcard-perfect, but it had its points of interest.

We started by heading down to the Hyde Park/Macquarie Street area, to look at a few of the oldest public buildings in the city (mostly from the outside), and the park (named after the one in London, apparently) with a grandiose quasi-classical fountain at the north end and its grand war memorial at the south. Macquarie Street, by the way, is named after an early governor of New South Wales, who managed, by dint of improvisation, luck, and employment of a convict fraudster who turned out to be a competent architect, to give the place a decent colonial-Georgian start in things like its first substantial church, its mint, a barracks building, and its hospital. Incidentally, the bookshop in the old mint building has the most substantial door I've ever seen in a bookshop...

Then we turned right to head towards Darling Harbour once again. This is one of those city-centre areas which is clearly designed to look good to visitors and to show what a cool city this is, and it's pretty good at this. The children's playground not only has lots of water features; it has a working hand-powered Archimedean screw (very educational); there's a really nice-looking Chinese garden (confession - with limited time in hand, we didn't pay to go into that, but got some nice pictures through the gratings in the walls anyway); and so on.

But we passed on through, because we were heading for the Powerhouse Museum, south-west of the bay. I can best describe this to British readers as an Australian combination of the V and A and the Science Museum, only smaller and newer than either. Hence, along with an interesting assortment of land and air vehicles, many of local relevance (the steam engine which pulled the first passenger train in New South Wales, Aussie-built aircraft, rocket nosecones recovered from the Outback down-range of Woomera), there were examples of Australian industrial design and the like (Speedo swimming costumes, for example). There were also a number of entries from an art competition which simply took "Lace" as its theme, some of which were definitely interesting - not least the wrecked, rusting pickup truck, its bodywork converted to intricate lacework by application of a plasma torch, and the pieces created using 3-D printers (which are, I get the impression, becoming the avant-garde designer-artist's toy of choice these days).

But in due course, we moved on and back to Darling Harbour - to take a very quick look at another transport-related museum, the Australian National Maritime Museum. This has much of the stuff that one would expect - including a boat made of beer cans as well as canoes, record-breaking speedboats, big models of battleships, bits of lighthouses, and (when we visited at least) an exhibition about immigrants sailing to Australia in the 20th Century. But it's the stuff outside, parked on or next to the wharfs on the Harbour, that really commands attention, including as it does a destroyer (HMAS Vampire), an Oberon-class submarine (HMAS Onslow), a trawler with a heroic war record (the Krait), and a small but complete lighthouse.

And then we crossed Pyrmont Bridge to the last serious tourist attraction of the day; Sydney Aquarium. This is, well, a fine aquarium, with a couple of big tanks where one can do the "walk around under the water" thing, one holding dugongs, the other sharks. The latter, incidentally, looked really good, and one had to read the labels quite carefully to determine that actually, none of them would be terribly interested in eating people. I can quite believe that some species suffer very badly from looking so much like man-eaters that they get killed on sight, despite actually being harmless shellfish-eaters. There were some other good things in the aquarium, incidentally (not to mention a Lego Moby Dick), but as the lighting was generally at aquarium levels, it was hard to get decent pictures.

Then it was back to the hotel (via coffee and cake at a place in the Queen Victoria Building) before heading out for dinner at the same Thai place up near the rocks which we'd visited before. Yeah, it was good Thai food.