An Eastern Journey – Part 2

Leaving Japan, I felt a bit sad, despite having seen all we aimed to apart from an Onsen, which is a traditional bath and a Geisha show.   It had certainly been a whistle stop tour, as you can read in part 1 of this blog and I would dearly love to return.

Initial impressions of Hong Kong were not that favourable as it is such a stark contrast to Japan. Whereas Japan is ordered and exceptionally clean – Hong Kong is more like London with much hustle and bustle; after all it is the most densely populated metropolis in the world. I was however excited at the prospect of meeting up with our friends Pelham and Karina who had invited us here to celebrate their wedding – the away fixture as they called it – see previous blog of their English wedding

Hong Kong was under British rule for almost 155 years, until July 1997 when it was handed back to China (with the exception of about 4 years during WW11 when Japan occupied it).   Hong Kong is on China’s South Coast and is split into three main regions – Kowloon, Hong Kong Island and the New Territories.

The name Hong Kong is believed to have its origins in a Cantonese phrase meaning ‘Fragrant Harbour’. This may be due to the fact that incense factories were all around the north coast of Kowloon and the produce was stored in Aberdeen Harbour for export, before Victoria Harbour had been developed. It is also nicknamed the Pearl of the Orient due to the way the skyscrapers in Victoria Harbour light up the night sky. Hong Kong has a kind of fusion culture which is a combination of both Chinese and British culture; however since its independence, their own unique culture is developing and people will proudly refer to themselves as Hongkongers. The official languages are both Cantonese and English.

We purchased an Octopus card which is by far the best thing to get on arrival in Hong Kong and is similar to the London Oyster card, in function but the similarities end there – the travel using it is incredibly cheap and the small initial outlay lasted us for our entire trip.

On our first night, the guys from England headed out drinking with Pelham whilst the girls visited ATUM; a dessert restaurant, with Karina. The restaurant was located in Causeway Bay and we boarded a tram to travel there from our friend’s hotel. The tram is an icon of Hong Kong, running since 1904 and the largest fleet in the world to be exclusively double decker trams. Once inside the restaurant we were bought an appetiser drink in a test tube. Then began the business of having a dessert designed in front of us. It was an absolutely amazing experience to watch the art works being created, especially when they made ice-cream with liquid nitrogen. Eating it all was even more enjoyable. We then joined the boys in a roof top bar on the IFC mall, overlooking the harbour.

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The following day, Karina’s uncle had arranged a busy day of sightseeing. It was fantastic to have a local to show us the highlights of the city and he certainly was a character. First stop was Nan Lian gardens in Kowloon. These were stunning gardens with koi ponds and I was able to capture the picture that had been used to illustrate the Hong Kong Lonely Planet guide – a golden pagoda! We then had lunch in the Chi Lin Vegetarian restaurant there that had a beautiful waterfall cascading down the outside of the building.

Golden Pagoda

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We boarded the private mini bus, he had arranged and headed to the New Territories and Lam Tsuen wishing tree. The wishing tree is where you tie your wish to an orange and throw the orange into the tree – if it stays in the tree, your wish will come true. The old tree is now too unstable after a branch fell down in 2005, so there is a new tree and only plastic oranges are used, which can be bought from sellers on site. You can also buy a plastic lily pad with a candle, attach a wish and float it on a pond. There were statues of all the twelve Chinese zodiac animals nearby the tree, which was a great photo opportunity.

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Next we visited Che Kung temple. The temple is dedicated to Che Kung, a military commander whom legend has it, ridded Sha Tin of the plague. There is a golden windmill by the giant golden statue of Che Kung which people believe spinning the sails of, brings good luck. I had my fortune read there, from a piece of paper selected by which stick falls out of the pot when you shake it, whilst telling Che Kung your wish and one of Karina’s friends kindly translated for me. I felt much better about the impending move after this when he said it would be a safe and secure home but wouldn’t bring us great fortune.

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Our final stop was Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island, at 552m – what a view from the viewing stations and even better from the Peak Tower. Sadly we didn’t have time to ride the 125 year old funicular railway, so were taken up and down by mini bus.

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Dinner that night was a marvellous experience that I will never forget. The Jumbo Kingdom restaurant is a floating restaurant, moored in Aberdeen Harbour which you travel the short ride to by boat from Aberdeen Promenade. There was an opportunity to dress up as a Chinese Emperor and his wife and have your photos taken which was great fun. The banquet meal was delicious although I declined to sample the thousand year old egg! This is a Chinese delicacy and whilst not literally a thousand years old, it is a chicken, duck or quail egg, preserved for several weeks or months in a mixture of either ash, salt, quicklime, clay and rice hulls depending on the method used. It certainly looks rotten as it is a dark brown colour.

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The next day we had a much needed lazy day in the hotel before leisurely getting ready to catch a taxi over to the W Hotel for Pelham and Karina’s wedding banquet. I had selected my Oasis dress in V&A Appleby print as I felt that it had a sort of oriental feel and accessorized with gold sandals and a gold clutch.

Outfit at wedding

On arrival at the hotel, we were greeted by life sized cardboard cut-outs of Karina and Pelham. We were also able to peruse the album of their English wedding.

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A red envelope was given to us which custom has it you place money in for the bride and groom. The red symbolises good luck. Opinion on the amount of money to be placed inside is divided; some say it should be digits that end in an even number as odd numbers are seen as bad luck whilst others suggest amounts ending in odd numbers are more favourable because they are harder to divide, hence meaning the marriage should be stronger. The figure should also not include the number 4 as this number is seen as unlucky due to it sounding similar to the word for death; interestingly lots of buildings don’t have a fourth floor because of this. When the bride and groom arrived in Chinese dress – they performed a tea ceremony welcoming their respective in laws.

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Following the ceremony we all found our seats for the banquet. In each place was a square purple box with a photo of their English wedding on the front. The colour theme for both weddings was purple.  There was much debate about what the contents of the box was, with many people suggesting that it might be soap, but it was in fact tea.

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There was a lovely slide show of Karina and Pelham growing up, followed by photos of them together. Karina and Pelham both changed into their outfits from the English wedding. Karina sang a beautiful song to her parents, as well as singing with her Mum when she had changed into a cerise pink gown. There was an opportunity for karaoke and we all went up and ‘helped’ Pelham with a song. The banquet was delicious and seemingly never ending – course after course, after course was brought out. Karina had a final outfit change into a beautiful layered pinky peach taffeta dress.

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The banquet ended at 11 so I, my husband, Pelham, Karina and other guests from the UK made our way to nearby Ozone Bar. This is the highest bar in the world at 484 metres on top of the International Commerce Centre.  Inside is very futuristic with refractive glass.

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On Wednesday following a walk in Kowloon park where we saw turtles and flamingos along with people practising taichi, we decided to add another country to our list and took a boat trip over to Macau. This is a peninsula of China, to the west of Hong Kong and is often referred to as Asian Las Vegas as it is the only legal place which the Chinese can go to in order to gamble. The country has Portuguese roots as it was a colony of theirs from mid-16th century until 1999 and it is the most densely populated region in the world. It has its own currency of Pataca but Hong Kong dollars can also be spent there. I was most upset that immigration in general appears to have dispensed with the rubber stamp method on entering the country. For Japan, Hong Kong and Macau I simply received a tiny piece of paper (called a landing slip) like a receipt placed loose in my passport. I like my passport to document where I have been and having googled it since, I see no reason why I cannot staple these into my passport as a souvenir.

A local speciality associated with Macau is a Portuguese egg tart; naturally I had to try one from one of the many food stalls. This is an egg custard filled pastry case and I really liked it.

Egg tart

The main site to see in Macau aside from the neon lit casinos is the ruins of St Paul’s cathedral. Only the façade of the 17th century church remains following a fire in 1835.

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After exploring this and Monte Fort which ironically has a cannon pointing at Grand Lisboa Cascino as if it disapproves; we checked out Na Tcha Temple, built in 1888 and a tiny temple behind the ruins of St Paul’s; before indulging in some shopping. My husband bought my Christmas present which was a Pandora bracelet which although it is readily available in the UK came with a charm that is exclusive to Asia. We finished our trip with noodles at Cheong Kei, which is Michelin recommended.

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Our return journey from Macau was far from plain sailing. We had to give up on finding the bus back to the port and get a taxi. Little known to us, we had been booked on a set ferry back and we struggled with the language barrier to explain our predicament to the officials. In the end we were forced to pay for a full price first class ticket if we wanted travel when we did. We did get a free meal out of it though.

We rose early the next day to travel on the metro to Tung Chung where we picked up the first departure of the day on Ngong Ping cable car over to Lantau Island. The cable car was officially opened in November 2006 but there was a soft opening that preceded this on 18th September where only 1688 tickets, each priced at HK$88 were sold as the numbers were considered lucky in Feng Shui tradition. It is a 5.7km long bi-cable ropeway, the first of its kind in Hong Kong and offers 360 degree views of Lantau Island on its 25 minute journey.

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The sights of the green mountains are truly beautiful but by far the best sight is of the Tian Tan or big Buddha, emerging from the trees and standing tall, watching over the Island. Upon disembarking the cable car, we took the short walk to the bottom of the 268 steps and climbed part of the way up to the Buddha which is a bronze statue, completed in 1993, weighing 202 tonne and the largest seated bronze Buddha in the world. It really is an impressive sight.

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On our return to the cable car we stopped into some of the shops in Ngong Ping cultural village and I couldn’t resist this beautiful dress.

Chinese dress

Our next stop was one of the highlights of our time in Hong Kong as I am still a big kid at heart. We visited Disneyland. The park is small in comparison to Euro Disney but there is a lot of magic packed into a very small area. Even the MTR train that takes you there is decorated with Mickey.

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We began by taking the little train around the perimeter of the park before having lunch and I couldn’t resist Mickey themed waffles for afters.

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Next I purchased a pair of mini mouse ears before we assembled on Main Street for the parade.

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We tried a few gentle rides as my husband is not big on scary rides. We both really liked the Buzz Lightyear ride where you competed against each other to score points for shooting Zurg (which I won) and afterwards had our picture taken with Buzz himself.

Buzz

disney castle

We watched the Lion King show which was fantastic. Before we left we checked out the gift stores and watched the evening light parade on Main Street.

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After briefly stopping off at hotel we made our way to the nearby Temple Street night market. This bustling street bazaar sells all manner of trinkets, clothes and other wares and has often featured as a backdrop in movies. There are often impromptu opera performances and fortune tellers however we arrived too late to enjoy those. I did purchase a lovely set of chop sticks and a fake Jade bangle as well as a very cheap fake bag of a very sought after make. Jade is considered by the people of Hong Kong to have mystical qualities. What was even more fun was the haggling with the vendors. When we had had our fill of the pushing and shoving, we ducked into one of the many noodle bars and enjoyed a large meal, washed down with a local beer.

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Our final day in Hong Kong had dawned. We headed out to see 10000 Buddha Monastery on Po Fook Hill in the New Territories. It was a very hot day and the hike from the nearest station up 431 steps which are lined with 500 life-size gilded Arhan statues was a very tiring one. Eventually we reached the temple which is decorated with some 13000 gold miniature Buddha’s. There are several other temples and a nine storey pagoda. On our descent from the Monastery we were met by two monks who put bracelets and necklaces on us and blessed us before asking for money; we declined and gave them back the things they had adorned us with.

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We travelled back to check out and leave our cases before making our way down to the Victoria Harbour area, named after Queen Victoria. We decided to sample the famous afternoon tea at the Lobby of the Peninsula Hotel. We had to queue for about an hour to be seated and were lucky that they decided we met the dress code as we were casually dressed in preparation for the night flight home that evening. The Peninsula Hotel opened its doors in 1928 and is a bit like Hong Kong’s version of The Ritz. It is a mix of oriental glamour and traditional colonial Britain with beautiful white pillars, embellished with gold. The tea was called Peninsula in Pink and raises awareness of breast cancer and donates to local breast cancer charities for the month of October. There were some pink cakes and we also received a pin badge commemorating it. Whilst we ate we were serenaded by a string quartet.

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Our bellies suitably full, we looked for the Avenue of the Stars but unfortunately it was closed. We walked past the Former KCR Clock Tower, a 44m clock tower which was once part of the Southern Railway terminus and onto the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry concourse where we decided to take a cruise on the Star Ferry.

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The boat tours all the harbour’s stops and means you get a great view of the Hong Kong skyline, with the Bank of China Tower and the huge HSBC building being two of the sites.  The HSBC building is a British designed building which was finished in 1985 and was at the time one of the worlds most expensive buildings. The original star ferry which takes passengers between Kowloon to Hong Kong Island which started passenger services in mid-late 1870’s, still runs and is still a very cheap way of seeing the Harbour.

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We then walked back to our hotel via the Rosary Church, the oldest Catholic Church in Kowloon which was consecrated in 1905 and remained in tack during WW11. Since 2010 it has been a grade 1 historic building. Although the mass was all in Cantonese, you could still work out what bit of the service they were performing.

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We killed some time over coffee in Starbucks before getting our transport to the airport. I will never fly the late flight again as the airport was so boring with all the shops closing up. As on the way out – I slept for most of the flight home.

I really enjoyed our stay in Hong Kong, despite initial first impressions, but feel I have probably seen most of what I wanted to see there – except for the pink dolphins. It has however aroused my interest further in a trip to mainland China. I really felt blessed to be able to celebrate Pelham and Karina’s marriage with them and wish them many happy years together. Karina’s family couldn’t have made us more welcome and her uncle was a fabulous tour guide. It was also lovely to meet their other friends and family from the UK who were able to make the journey too and I look forward to a reunion with them in London at the end of January.

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