Hobbies in Honkers

People who know me, and my regular readers, will know I have three main hobbies in life. They are cycling, baking and music making.

Baking in Hong Kong is basically a no go. I don’t have A) any equipment or B) an oven. I’m also unwilling to invest the necessary cash in order to acquire tins/bowls/ingredients and an oven. I miss baking horribly. It used to be one of my major de-stressing activities as well as being a leisure activity that brought me actual joy. There is noting better than seeing a cake, set of cupcakes or new invention come to fruition. Obsessively staring through the oven window door to make sure you spot any kind of peak/dip in the sponge. My amputation from baking has made me incredibly determined to master pastry when I return to the UK.

Music making has been my staple source of therapy for about three years. It’s a great way to vent without really bothering people with your issues. You hide them in lyrics and melodies. When it comes to writing music, I have a partner in crime. He is, unfortunately, still in the UK and I find it really hard to get inspired without being in the same room as him. I enjoy the to and fro, the childish bickering and the general nonsensical conversations we have whilst drinking and writing. It’s not the same when you’re 8000 miles away. Music making is also a no go in Hong Kong.

Cycling. Cycling you can do in Hong Kong! I bought myself a bicycle. It folds and I decided he’s called Brian.

Now, he’s no Daisy. I miss Daisy. Brian will do for Hong Kong. You can cycle along the tram tracks when on Hong Kong island which is quite useful. They get you away from the traffic but there is the extra danger of getting wheels/tyres stuck in the tracks or generally falling off when crossing tracks (metal is basically ice for a cyclist when wet).

The New Territories in Hong Kong actually have a good amount of segregated cycle tracks which are for use by any and all. The most popular runs from Tai Wai all the way up to Sheung Shui. You don’t have to own a bicycle to take part. there are plenty of bike shops that hire out bikes for the day. I decided I would venture into the unknown territories of cycle paths and see what the fuss was about one weekend.

First of all, I wasn’t sure of the exact logistics so I decided to hire a bicycle rather than taking Brain. I paid $60 to hire a bicycle from a place in tai Wai. The $60 was for all day hire, which I think is ok value wise. The bicycle was maintained at, what I would call, a poor to medium level (I had to have them tighten the brakes and gears before I would pay them). Here’s a picture.

To anyone who isn’t ‘into’ bicycles, it looks like a standard bike.  I saw it and thought… ugh, mountain bike, badly scaled gears, knobbly tyres on tarmac, saddle that is actually twice as big as my bum, handlebar grips that will indent their hard rubber pattern into my hands within 10 minutes, gear levers so far away from my brake levers that I will need to move hand position constantly, plastic pedals with slim to no grip on them and finally front suspension forks which are entirely preposterous on any bicycle which you use on tarmac. It was at this point that I realised I am a bicycle elitist and I needed to deflate my ridiculous expectations of hire bicycles. So I got on and rode it.

We began our cycle at Tai Wai. We followed the path all down the side of the canal which was lovely. There were plenty of places to stop and rest along the cycle path. We also saw good amounts of nature. I managed to get a snap of a crane in the throws of catching a fish.

As we cycled, the path became more and more densely populated with cyclists. Most of them looked to be riding hire bicycles like us but we spotted quite a few people on high end bicycles in full lycra cladding. Most amusingly, a man on a folding bike who was kitted out as if cycling the Tour de France. This really did make me chuckle as the sheer volume of cyclists using the path made any form of decent cycling impossible so there was really no point in wearing any kind of performance enhancing gear. ‘Performance’ is not an option on the cycle paths of Hong Kong during the weekend. They are teeming with cyclists who are either out for a relaxing ride with their families and/or friends, inexperienced or just in no kind of hurry to get anywhere. And who can blame them with scenery like this/

I will be very honest and say that I did not expect cycling on the cycle paths to be as popular as this and so expected a much quieter time of it. On reflection, that was naive of me.

The reason cycling in the UK struggles to attract this volume is, in my option, the poor facilities. our cycle networks and paths are badly advertised and poorly executed. We have very few segregated tracks and people simply do not feel safe when presented with vehicular traffic (for good reason). I once cycled the 35 miles of Sustrans cycle route from Boston to Lincoln in Lincolnshire and saw only 7 other cyclists in all 35 miles. For the most part, the path was separate from vehicles (as it is converted riverside railway track). The parts on the road with traffic were quiet country lanes. The encounters I had with vehicles were few but each was terrifying. Large HGV lorries careering along a road at 50mph barely slowed down. Cars and vans did not slow down at all. Inexperienced cyclists would have been quaking in their boots because even I had to take a few deep breaths to recover my nerves.

In Hong Kong, these cycle paths are genuinely, 100% free of vehicular traffic. Every junction crossing is managed via either underpass or light controlled crossing. There is no ‘fend for yourself and rely on your wits’ factor involved, well, not with anything much heavier than a person on a bicycle anyway. This makes cycling on the paths feel very safe indeed. As a result, everyone feels safer and that they can include themselves in cycling on them, as well they should. It is a fabulous facility for novice cyclists and people who want to see the sights by bicycle rather than on foot. There are some good views to be had.

Personally, I would dissuade any experienced cyclists from using these paths during a weekend unless they are prepared to be surrounded by people on bicycles who have no self awareness or slightest inkling of good cycling practises (e.g. a shoulder check before moving out or simply the ability to set your seat at the correct height). The cyclists I encountered were 95% completely oblivious to anything going on anywhere. The locals in Hong Kong cycle the same way that they walk. Completely erratically and without any regard for other living, breathing things.

In a way, cycling on the paths in Hong Kong was almost as terrifying as the square mile of London (a.k.a. the City of London) during rush hour. In London, there are very few cyclists venturing on their ‘first rodeo’. Sure, there’s still some awful cycling going on but, for the most part, it presents a manageable risk. Cyclists in London are rather predictable, for example, if there’s a bus stopped on the left, the cyclist is probably going to veer out to the right with no hand signal or shoulder check. That, I can anticipate. What I cannot anticipate is a reasonless swerve into my front wheel or a random direction change which leads to a collision with a wall, subsequent de-saddling and general carnage for anyone behind.

Riding alongside the locals on the paths was the only thing for a very, very, very, long time that has made me not want to be on a bicycle. I was positively grumpy by the time we arrived at Tai Po water front park. Thankfully, the park itself was far less crowded than the path leading to it. Tai Po water front park is also very beautiful as you can see. The path runs right through it.

It had been my intention to go much further than Tai Po but, there was no way I was subjecting myself to more of the local lunatics on bicycles.

In summary, if you are an experienced cyclist, use these paths expecting the worst and you may not be as shocked and frustrated as I was. If you are a novice, enjoy the safety of the paths and use them to build you self awareness and general riding skills. They are a great asset to Hong Kong and I hope many more people use them (with the correct expectations).

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National Day in Hong Kong

National Day is held in order to celebrate China’s independence and becoming the People’s Republic of China. As Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, it is celebrated here too. There is a public holiday on the 1st October in order to celebrate. If the 1st October falls on a weekend, National day rolls over to the next available week day. This year, the public holiday for both Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day fell on the weekend, therefore, we got a Monday and Tuesday off. Marvellous!

The National Day celebration in Hong Kong consists of a fabulous fireworks show. The fireworks are set off from Victoria Harbour which is just down the road from our flat in Wan Chai. We walked over to the exhibition centre in Wan Chai to watch the show. All the roads were closed to vehicles which was useful as there were thousands and thousands of people showing up.

The fireworks were utterly stunning. The first few fireworks actually formed star shapes in order to symbolise the Chinese flag. This picture is blurry but I did manage to capture one of them.

The rest of the fireworks were incredibly impressive. I thoroughly enjoyed the show. It lasted 12 minutes and was utterly awe inspiring. Here are a few of my pictures.

The last 2 shots are the build up to the finale of the show which was so bright that my compact camera simply could not cope.

Finally, here are our smiling faces mid show. I can conclude that Hong Kong did National Day proud with the fireworks.

Something big, bronze and better than expected

One of the tourist attractions in Hong Kong I have been wanting to tick off the list is the big Buddha. He is a massive bronze dude, sitting on a hill looking out to China. As he is so large, they had to build him quite a long way away on Lantau island. There are several ways you can get to Lantau and see Buddha. You can either take a cable car from Tung Chung or you can take the number 2 bus from Mui Wo. We opted for the bus.

Before the bus however, we had to get off Hong Kong island proper. This involved a ferry from the central piers across to Mui Wo. I enjoyed the ferry actually. You get a good view and it feels a bit novel. Here’s a snap from the ferry of the view.

Once we arrived in Mui Wo, it was a case of waiting and queueing for the bus. It was actually a coach which transported us to Buddha. The drive is fairly scenic and I felt set us up nicely to see the Buddha.

Once we arrived at the villange (I call it a village but there are shops and food places all over as part of the complex), we were feeling peckish. We dived into a food place not in the main village. It’s a noodles and rice place just off to the left of the entrance to the Buddha complex. We had a pretty good view of Buddha as we sat and lunched on noodles and iced milk tea. Even though the place was right next to the Buddha village, the prices were still fairly reasonable. This is a snap of the view we enjoyed.

Once refuelled, it was time to tackle the steps to Buddha. Buddha is actually a fairly new attraction. It was erected in 1993 and has 263 steps leading up to it. The steps are not a hard climb but it does look a little intimidating from the bottom.

There’s not a lot to see or do on the climb up apart from to stop and look at Buddha getting bigger and bigger as you get closer and closer.

The grounds that Buddha was built in are actually part of a monastery so there are plenty of other things to see and do around Buddha but, whilst ascending the stairs, there’s not much else to to look at. On the ground, you can find twelve statues which represent the twelve animals and guardians of the Chinese zodiac. There is also the Po Lin monastery temple and associated structures to see and look around. Anyway, back to Buddha. Here’s a picture from about two thirds of the way up the stairs.

Once you are at the top of the stairs, there are some truly stunning views of Lantau island. There is endless greenery and, if you look closely, you can see circular structures off in the distance. I have no idea what they are but you can see them. This was my favourite view from the top of Buddha. You can just see the yellowish roof of the Po Lin monastery temple to the right of the picture.

Surrounding Buddha are six lovely ladies (the six Devas) all offering something to him. Here’s one of the Devas below making her offering.

Despite being a very popular attraction, I still found the big Buddha to be an incredibly enjoyable place to visit. The top platform really is stunning to walk around and there is plenty of space. It was peaceful, serene and impressive. You can go inside the platform if you wish, for a fee, but we did not bother as we felt there was plenty to see already. I would highly recommend big Buddha as a place to go whilst in Hong Kong.

Once we’d had our walk around and admired the views, it was time to go back down those blinking stairs…….

Once down at the bottom again, we decided to explore the Ngong Ping village. It is packed with shops and places to eat. They have a mini carnival feel to the place and do have performers parading through the streets at certain times of the day. We had quite an enjoyable walk around really. There are some interesting bits and pieces to look at and even a Starbucks coffee for those of us who cannot live without a shot of caffeine every 3 hours. I bought an admirable amount of souviners before we got in the queue for the cable car ride back to Tung Chung.

The wait for a cable car was around 45 minutes. There are two different types of car. A standard cabin (which has a solid base) or a crystal cabin (which has a see through base). We opted for the standard cabin as neither of us had a burning desire to see the ground a few hundred feet literally beneath our feet. On the ride, we spotted what looked like a walking trail which would allow you to ascend to Ngong Ping on foot. It was decided that would be an adventure for another day. The view from the cable car is impressive. I feel we chose the best combination of transport to Buddha that day. Up on the ferry and bus, down on the cable car. I feel one way is enough for the cable car as the views cannot differ so much between the up and down trips. Here’s one of the views looking back towards Buddha (you can spot him to the left of centre in the picture)

On arrival to Tung Chung, we caught a bus back to Wan Chai. Thus, our day was finished. I really would advise visitors to make the trip out to Lantau and see Buddha. We didn’t look at the Po Lin monastery temple or anything and still felt like it was entirely worth the trip. There are plenty of tourist photo opportunities too. You can pose with your Chinese zodiac counter part or, if you like, pose as if you too are serene and composed like Buddha.

Side note about this circular platform. When sitting on the ground in the middle (as I am in the photo), there is an amazing echo when you speak thanks to the acoustics of the platform. It reminded me of the acoustics at Golkunda fort in Hyderabad. Very cool indeed!

Not the kind of Festival I’m used to.

One of my reasons for moving to Hong Kong was to experience a different culture and have a bit of an adventure. My first few weeks here did not present many (or any) opportunities for either oft these things. This left me feeling rather disillusioned with my choice. Fortunately, some culture reared its head recently in the form of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Mid-Autumn Festival is basically a harvest festival. You can read up on the roots of it on Wikipedia.

Modernisation of the festival has brought moon cakes to the fore front of the festival. These are baked ‘cakes’ filled with paste and egg yolks. Naturally, we tried one. The symbolism of a moon cake centres on the egg yolk in the cake as it is supposed to emulate the moon. They vary in size and filling. We had a moon cake filled with lotus seed paste and three egg yolks. Here’s a cross section of the cake to give you an idea of them from the inside out.

It’s an odd texture and taste overall. I wasn’t particularly fond of it. The egg yolk was actually rather revolting. It seemed to be in layers and, when eaten, disintegrated into particles. Very odd indeed and really not appetising. I shan’t be hanging my liver out for another moon cake any time soon.

Another tradition of Mid-Autumn Festival is to light lanterns. Big lanterns, small lanterns, electric lanterns, candle lanterns, lanterns that look like something, lanterns that don’t look like anything…. literally, every kind of lantern you can think of. We headed off to Victoria Park which held the main lantern attraction in Hong Kong. It was called the Lee Kum Kee lantern wonderland and really was quite impressive. Here’s a snap of the structure with the full moon shining in the back ground.

On the inside, there were many, many more lanterns and lights. It really was a joy to behold. This is a snap of the inside.

We queued for about 40 minutes to get inside the structure and it was worth the wait as we managed to be inside whilst the music and lights show took place. The music was suitably inconspicuous but blended really beautifully with the changing light colours. The music and lights only happened once every 15 minutes so we were pleased we caught it. I managed to film a section of it. There is also marginally amusing commentary.

There were plenty of other sections to the festivities in Victoria park including an entertainment village. The village was packed to capacity so I couldn’t get in to take any photos but we did manage to get close to the stage. The stage was home to a variety of acts throughout the evening. We saw traditional dancing and also some acrobats in our time there. Here’s a taste of some dancing we watched.

A little further along the park there were wishing lanterns. You could hang a completed wishing card from the structure. I, unfortunately, did not have wishing card to hand so I just took a picture of how it looked instead.

There were also over sized lanterns around the park too. My favourite was the rather un-scary and pink dragon. You can just see the green (and rather more scary) bat in the background.

Lastly, there was a row of shops opposite a large staging area. The shops were mostly food and drink but there were a few other stalls with lanterns and small crafting items. The staging area was for the Tai Hang Fire Dragon dance. The area wasn’t really very well set up for crowds. The video screen was at floor level, it had not been raised so when the crowd got a few people deep, anyone under 6 feet tall could not see a thing. The staging area was blocked from view, as was the screen. It was actually a huge disappointment to have waited for so long and to be able to see nothing. The best view I got was by taking photographs of the screen and then review the photos. This didn’t last long however, as my camera battery died. The best snap I got was this one. This is a picture of the dragons head as it was being adorned with various bits of incense and ribbon.

There was approximately 45 minutes of dragon preparation where various people and groups adorned it with incense and gifts. Once the dragon was stuck up with incense sticks and lit, the dancers performed. I can’t comment on the performance  I couldn’t see it. We were so agitated by the lack of view, we left about 10 minutes in. We were gutted.

Despite the disappointment of the fire dragon dance, I still thoroughly enjoyed my Mid-Autumn festival in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong – doings so far

I’ve been in Hong Kong just over a month now and I have managed to see a few sights and do a few bits and pieces. This blog post should give you a short overview of what I have been getting up to.

Music & lights show at Victoria harbour

Every night, there is a music and lights show at Hong Kong harbour. The show starts at 8pm (local time) and can be watched from either the Hong Kong Island or Kowloon side of the harbour.  We were stood on the Kowloon side of the harbour and I would like to make a second visit in order to view from the Island side. This was our view on arrival.

There is a commentary which goes along with the show. This is only in English on certain days of the week (which days, I don’t know because I’m a really informed and helpful blogger like that, sorry). We attended on a Friday night and the commentary was in English. Having heard the commentary, I can assure you that nothing would really be lost if you did not go on  an English speaking evening. The majority of the commentary is introducing the buildings which light up as part of the show. I, naturally, cannot remember a single one of their names. However, I do remember the building that looks as if it multiplies triforces.

Anyway, I digress. We were stood up on a viewing platform for the show. It was a good vantage point and I can recommend the view. Once the show started, it was actually quite entertaining. I was expecting a mediocre to dull experience so was pleasantly surprised when I actually quite enjoyed it. The buildings light up in time to the music and also have laser beams (a.k.a. LAZORZ) coordinated across them. The music is cheesy enough to fuel the entire of France for a decade. I managed to get a fairly decent (ish) picture of the show in action. You can see LAZORZ to the centre and left of the picture.

All in all, for something that is free and held nightly, it’s well worth a visit and a look. I think a good job has been done.

Hong Kong Walks

The Hong Kong tourism board have quite a lot of leaflets and information about what to do and see in Hong Kong. One of the leaflets they issue is ‘Hong Kong walks’. Thus far, I have completed one of the eight walks so I will tell you about it. The walk was called ‘Central & Western District – Travel Through Time’. Well, I didn’t travel through time in any way, shape or form, but I did enjoy myself.

Western Market

You begin the walk near Sheung Wan MTR station. I did not take the MTR however, I took the tram. The Hong Kong trams are cheap (currently HK$2.30) but slow. If you’re not in a hurry when on the island and you can use the tram, you should. It’s a novel experience. Anyway, The first sight you see is the Western market building and contents.

The building dates from 1906 and houses some shops and a restaurant. I was left entirely underwhelmed by the Western market. After seeing and experiencing far grander buildings and markets, it feels like quite a poor effort at conserving some of Hong Kong’s history. In England, we are very good at preserving culture, tradition and ceremony. Hong Kong does not boast the same. You can see that, even on my picture, the building is not fantastically maintained. Paint is peeling form the main name sign and the place generally looks tired. The shops inside don’t redeem much either. They are over priced and an uninteresting range of jewellery and clothes. I was rather disappointed by this introduction to Hong Kong culture so I decided to plough ahead.

Dried seafood and odd medicines street

These streets house all manner of dried seafood and medicine shops. I had to stop guessing what the dried seafood was originally as I quickly decided that if it can be dried, it is in these shops! It’s quite an assault on the senses. I didn’t buy anything as I genuinely couldn’t have told you what it was or how you would use it.

The odd medicines street was rather less interesting as all the odd things were in jars so you couldn’t really prod or shake them in order to aid the guess work. I did get a picture of ‘Bird’s Nest’ which I still have no idea about but looks really odd.

It was definitely interesting to walk around guessing A) what things were and B) what on earth they are used for.

Hollywood Road & Upper Lascar Row

Hollywood Road is renowned for being the antique central of Hong Kong. the shops are full to bursting of everything you would expect to find in curiosity and house clearance shops. It really is a rummager’s paradise. As is Upper Lascar Row. The ONLY way to describe it is as a car boot sale but with no car boots. It was simply incredible. I defy you to not find something you thought time had forgotten in Upper Lascar Row. I saw all manner of things including computer systems I thought had been lost to the abyss and odd ornaments which I presume have been sat on or generally mistreated badly because they can’t possibly have been made to look like that.

Well worth a look if you enjoy nostalgia and sheer disbelief at what people are selling. Also, at what they are watching. I saw one stall holder enjoying some pornography on his portable DVD player whilst making sales. I kid you not….

Man Mo Temple

Man Mo temple is the first that I have been into here. I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t what I saw in Man Mo.

The first thing you notice about the temples is the smell. So much incense is burnt in the temples that the air is hazy and thick with the scent. I lasted about 10 minutes before my throat and eyes were feeling the effects of it. I took a picture of the incense coils attached to the ceiling. I have never seen anything like them before! I suspect they do not exist in the UK as the health and safety police would not have it. The hot ash drops off the coils randomly so can, and does, land on you. Dependant on reaction time, you may or may not get burned.

I had seen various make shift shrines in the streets where offerings of food and (fake) money are made to appease ghosts but the shrines in the temples are much more grand (as you expect). There was an awful lot of food at the Man Mo shrine. Some was bought and some was home made biscuits and cake. All together, intriguing.

There was an audio tour available inside the temple but I did not take it as I really was overwhelmed by the smell inside (thanks to the copious amounts of incense burning everywhere you looked). I’m sure it would have been interesting and informative but my eyes and nostrils would not allow me to dally.

Mid Levels Escalator

Hong Kong boasts the longest covered escalator in the world. It is about 800m long and goes through some pretty interesting parts of Hong Kong. There are coffee shops, food places and watering holes galore in SoHo which the escalator just happens to run through. It’s definitely more of a useful tourist attraction than something to stand next to and say “Ooohhh, Ahhh”. I took a photo anyway.

Duddell Street stone steps and gas lamps

There are only four gas lamps remaining in Hong Kong. You can find them at the stone steps on Duddell Street. They date from 1875 and were the oldest things I saw that day. The steps make for a good photo opportunity as demonstrated below.

Legislative Council Chambers

The building, which is now the Legislative Council Chambers, used to function as the Hong Kong Supreme Court. It’s really quite nice to look at and provides a stark contrast to the surrounding skyscrapers which are all fine examples of modern architecture. It was actually lovely to see a more classic building nestled in amongst a sea of modernisation.

And there ended the walking tour. I took the tram home and collapsed. The walk took approximately 90 minutes. It was an easy walk and, overall, worthwhile.