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Trip to Hong Kong

Wednesday September 3, through Thursday September 11, 2014


The last time we were in Hong Kong was May 1992. At that time Hong Kong was a British "colony" (by whatever name). On July 1, 1997 governance was returned to China, as a "Special Administrative Region" - under the principle of "one country, two systems." This allows it to retain much of the unique Hong Kong organization and culture, largely independent of China except in foreign relations and military defense. We wanted to explore the differences, and to reacquaint ourselves with this great city.

After we returned home, the news was filled with riots centered in our "home base" in Hong Kong. China announced that they would nominate the candidates for elected office, rather than nominations by the people of Hong Kong. If I lived there, I probably would be upset, too. We wish the residents of this wonderful place peace and success.

Geography is confusing - the first time I was there, I did not know where I was! Hong Kong is an island (with many distinct areas, such as Central, Admiralty, and WanChai (where we stayed this trip, about a mile from where we stayed the first time). This is Hong Kong, Hong Kong. But across Victoria Harbor, North of Hong Kong island is Kowloon Peninsula, Hong Kong, the southern tip of the mainland, 5 minutes away by "Star Ferry" or "MTR" underground train. And the next portion of the mainland that is part of Hong Kong is "New Territories," at least 30 minutes away by MTR. Beyond the New Territories is China, like a different country, with an international border, passport, and visa requirements. There are over 200 off-shore islands that are part of Hong Kong; the largest is Lantau, where the new international airport is located.

Overall Hong Kong has 407 square miles of land area, much of which is so hilly that less than 25% of it can be developed. With 7.2 million people, that is over 18,000 people per square mile, or over 70,000 per developed square mile - comparable to Manhattan. (Tokyo has more land for more people, so has 6,700 people per square mile.) There are no formal cities or towns within Hong Kong, but 18 geographical districts with independent councils and representatives to the central Hong Kong government.

Trip Summary

Our flight was from Austin to Dallas then non-stop to Hong Kong - a mere 16:50 crossing the date line and 13 time zones. We left home on Wednesday morning, and arrived late Thursday afternoon. Since we were chasing the sun, there was no night on the flight over. Despite the long flight, jet lag was minimal since you start in the morning, have three meals on the flight, watch 4-5 or more movies, and arrive in time for dinner and bed.

The return flight was almost 2 hours faster - only 14:55 from Hong Kong to Dallas. When we left the hotel in Hong Kong about 9 am Thursday morning, it was actually 8 pm Wednesday in Austin. By the time we got home it was 8 pm Thursday, and we were ready for bed. Most of the flight was at night, despite departing and landing on Thursday. The date line plays tricks.

The trip was relatively cheap despite the warnings that Hong Kong is expensive. Each round trip ticket was $1,289, the very nice centrally located Metropark Hotel WanChai was US$1,027 with tax and tips for seven days. Most meals were under US$50 for both of us.

Arrival September 4

It is like any large airport arrival, with an underground train to "Terminal 1" and all signs in English as well as Chinese. Immigration and customs is efficient and painless. A paper exit permit will be placed in your passport by Immigration, and will be collected when you leave.

Travel Tips

You can buy an "Airport Express MTR" train trip to Tsing Yi island (first stop), Kowloon (second stop), or Hong Kong island (final stop). The train leaves every 10 minutes for the 24 minute trip to Hong Kong. The nominal ticket price to Hong Kong is HK$100 each, or HK$180 round trip. Look for group tickets for the Airport Express for as few as two people for HK$160 (US$20.65 for both of us) but they must be purchased the day of travel. If you take the Airport Express train to the city, they provides free busses from the train station to most hotels (in our case, across the side street from our hotel).

At the same time you buy the train ticket you can get your Octopus card. This is a proximity card that you tap as you enter the train turnstile, and again as you leave, and it deducts your fare from the stored value, making travel very easy. The card costs HK$50 (US$6.45), but HK$41 plus any residual stored value is refunded when you leave, making the real cost of using the card only US$1.16. When you buy the card, add at least HK$100 stored value ($12.90). The card is not only good at MTR stations, but for bus and ferry, and also for museum admission, McDonald's and similar restaurants, and even many vending machines. You can add money to the card at any MTR station. The only place you shouldn't use your octopus card is on the Airport Express train, since it charges full fare, rather than the various reduced fares offered with the special Airport Express Train tickets.

If you are over 65 be sure to get the "Elder" Octopus card. Suddenly most travel is US$0.25 or less (some even free), and you are automatically given the senior discount (often 40% or more) when you use it to pay admission at museums and other attractions.

Credit cards are widely, but not universally, accepted, and are NOT accepted to buy MTR travel or Octopus cards. Therefore you need to stop at an ATM before you reach the train. I suggest withdrawing HK$1000 to start. We took out HK$2500 (US$323) which was far too much, since credit and octopus cards are widely accepted and ATMs are readily available.

You will love riding the MTR. It is clean, simple, fast, and inexpensive. Install the MTR Tourist app on your iPhone, either before you leave or once you are in Hong Kong (free WiFi provided by the city is available in many locations). The app not only shows the MTR route and time, even if multiple connections are required, but also the connecting train platforms and station exits. That app also suggests various tourist attractions. You can set up and save an itinerary using WiFi at your hotel, and refer to it without roaming charges while traveling.

Last travel tip: In New York City, underground trains are called Subways. In most other cities, including Hong Kong, a Subway is an underground tunnel to cross a busy street. The underground trains in Hong Kong are called the MTR. You will not find any trains in a subway.

First real day - Friday September 5

Hong Kong is a busy, clean, picturesque city. We did not encounter any areas we felt were unsafe. Most of the busses and trolleys (trams) are double deck. Taxis are inexpensive and widely available, but the MTR is faster and cheaper.

Side note: Most MTR trains are 10 or more cars long. There are no dividers inside the train between the cars. Look the length of the train as it bends like a snake going around curves and up and down hills through the underground tunnels. When the train starts, you will feel a breeze from the front, as the air that was sanding still compresses at the back of the now-moving train, and a slight breeze from the back as the train slows down, with the air still moving.

The first destination was Hong Kong park. Among the many attractions was the Tea Museum... but we enjoyed the park as we strolled there.

There were numerous fountains - this part led to the aviary. Maybe someday.

The Tea Museum - primarily how to properly prepare the different types of tea, and many priceless historical teacups and teapots. The building was originally the British Governor's home and office.

The low building to the right of the Tea Museum is a "chop" museum - A chop is your seal, often made of stone, and often stamped in red ink. In Eastern cultures the chop historically was the way you "signed" a document, corresponding to your written signature in western cultures.

The office buildings behind the Tea museum are the Lippo Center, designed by an American architect to break the monotony of boring skyscrapers. The 44 and 48 story towers are dubbed the "koala trees" because of the resemblance to koalas clinging to a tree.

The next stop was the "Peak Tram" - the steepest funicular in the world, built in 1888 and rising over 1000 feet in less than a mile to an observation area at one of the highest points in Hong Kong. It is so popular with the locals that we were advised to avoid the weekend.

Tourist Hint: You will want to buy admission to the Sky Terrace as well - the observation deck at the top. Just use your octopus card to enter the Tram and the Sky Terrace, or you can buy a combined admission when you buy your Tram ticket. Round Trip with observation deck is HK$80 (about US$10), but for seniors is HK$39 (US$5). The Octopus card charges the one-way fare to go up, but only the difference between the one-way fare and round trip for the return trip, and handles the senior discount for the tram and the Sky Terrace.

Once at the top, you can see much of Hong Kong city, the harbor, and Kowloon across the harbor. About the middle of the picture you can see a building that appears to have XX on the side. Just to the right of it, and slightly towards us, are the "Koala tree" buildings shown above.

To accommodate the tourists, they have to have some special photo opportunities at the top. The glass sign in front of Jenny says "I'm now at the top of Hong Kong. Cool!"

Okay, maybe more than a couple things at the top for tourists. Rickshaws are no longer licensed in the city, having been replaced by taxis and public transit, but for years they were a primary means of public transportation.

In another direction you can see one of the major fresh water resivoirs (the lake at the bottom of the hill) and on the island the three smoke stacks are from the electric power plant.

From the top you can see the Peak Tram on the way up and down the hill. A steel cable over 1 3/4 inches in diameter pulls the car up (gravity pulls it down). The motors that drive the two cables are at the top of the hill. There are two trams, and in the middle the track splits into two for the cars to pass, but at the top and bottom the track is "one lane" wide. You can see the cable for the "other" tram, on rollers between the rails, downhill (up in the picture)

These are the mid-level apartments meaning that they are half way up the mountain. At first people rode Rickshaws up to them. Later this afternoon we rode the "mid-level escalators."

I found a better picture of the Mid-Level Escalators on the internet than I was able to take... note each segment down the hill. This is the world's longest outdoor covered escalator, a half mile long and climbing 443 feet (over 40 stories). Basically each segment is a block long. Those that are at street level, you walk across the street to the next segment, as in the picture. More often it is elevated so you can get off the escalator at each cross street, and walk down stairs to street level. From 6 to 10 every morning it goes down to take people to work. It takes 20 minutes to change the direction, so from 1030 to midnight it goes up. There are stairs or ramps next to the escalator so you can walk the other direction.

Jenny was mad at me at the end of Friday. She said that we had covered the activities she had planned for several days in the first day. Of course, by the end of the week she still had many days of activities that would certainly require us to come back.

Saturday September 6th

Today we are going to take a ferry ride to an island... well the side of Lantau island opposite the new airport. As we approached the Central Pier, they were building a giant Ferris wheel, apparently to compete with the London Eye, the Star of Nanchang (China), The Singapore Flyer, and the High Roller in Las Vegas.

We started at the Central Pier 6 for the ferry ride to Mui Wo (slow ferry leaves now for a 60 minute ride, the more expensive high speed ferry only takes 40 minutes but doesn't leave for a couple hours). At Mui Wo take bus 2 to the end of the line at Ngong Ping - at the monastery (about 50 minutes of scenic ride).

The monastery food is vegetarian. Just before you enter you can get a burger or other foods, and a beer.

We got a kick out of the milepost inside the monastery. USA, Statue of Liberty, 12,968 km (red); Australia, Sydney Opera House, 7,381 km (green);, PRC Great Wall, 1,972 km (cream); Africa, Cape of Good Hope, 11,881 km (black); UK Big Ben (Blue)

The primary attraction is the Big Buddah, it may be the largest bronze Buddha in the world, but there are larger made from other material. Note the pilgrims and tourists on the stairs up to it.

The main monastery building is dramatic.

Visitors are welcome inside with many rooms as dramatic as this.

We took bus 23 (almost an hour) from the monastery in the center of the island back to Tung Chung MTR station on the airport side of the island.

At the MTR station is a huge "Citigate Outlet Mall," bustling with shoppers but the prices did not seem very attractive. Outside the mall was a collection of artistically painted plaster elephants, on display now, but eventually to be sold for charity.

If you don't want to take the bus to and from the monastery, a cable car runs from near this MTR station to near the monastery with only 25 minutes travel time. Round trip varies from HK$150 to HK$235 (up to US$30 per person, round trip).

Back in the city (by regular train, not the Airport Express), Jenny found some fabric she couldn't live without at the "Western Market." The first floor was tea houses and tourist junk, the second floor was entirely fabric shops, and the third floor was by invitation only to people planning a too expensive wedding.

Sunday September 7th

Coffee is not as universal in Hong Kong as it is in the States. But it is available at McDonalds, and Starbucks is present (but not as often as McDonalds). Yes, we sinned and went to McDonald's for breakfast... multiple times. But the Hong Kong McDonald's breakfast had some unusual menu items - like this pasta and vegetable bowl with a fried chicken breast cut into strips. Remember, this is McDonald's, not limited to sausage and egg McMuffin.

We went to Church, then headed for the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, near MTR Che King Temple Station, 35 minutes out in the New Territories. Out in the country, so to speak. But look at the apartment buildings being built next to the station.

An unexpected surprise was a feature exhibit of Bruce Lee, a Chinese-American martial arts master, and dance and film star. But he only made 4½ movies before his untimely death at age 32 in Kowloon. The museum had an extensive exhibit, in addition to a very interesting (long) movie on his life.

Another special exhibit was chairs - of all types, ages, and functions. The chairs were interesting. The descriptions were interesting. But only a few of the descriptions matched the chairs in the exhibit. Ugh.

Back in Kowloon, a local fencing school staged what they called a flash mob with about 150 of their students. They didn't do anything, as you would expect a flash mob to do, other than pose for pictures and advertise their school. But it was interesting seeing 150 kids of all ages march along the waterfront with swords.

The Star Ferry crosses between Kowloon and Hong Kong every few minutes, and is such a symbol of Hong Kong that it's unique boats are part of every Hong Kong movie. The green and white boat on the right is typical, but one of the boats is brightly colored. What's unique about the boats? They are pointed at both ends, so they don't have to turn around going back and forth across the harbor. They have been in operation since 1888, and carry over 70,000 passengers per day. Typical fare is HK$2 (about 25 cents), but seniors like us ride free (swipe your "Elder" Octopus card, the turnstile opens, but zero is deducted).

Every night at 8 pm the buildings put on a light and laser show, set to music (played through the waterfront speakers) based on animating the normal building exterior lighting. My pictures at night without a tripod, in a dense crowd, weren't good, so I borrowed one from the internet. But you really want to see the animated lighting show, not just a still picture. There are numerous videos on YouTube, but I recommend this one - If you want a short version, start at the 8 minute point.

Monday September 8 - Hong Kong Markets

Hong Kong (Kowloon) has many street markets, often 3-5 parallel streets, with markets along several blocks of each street. Our first adventure was to the bird market.

Many different types of birds, along with bird cages and accessories. Locals even take their birds for walks, carrying their cages, and hanging them nearby at street cafes.

The bird market also sells food. Live food. Wiggling worms. Or in this case, bags of live grasshoppers (I think).

A few blocks from the bird market was the start of the flower market. Block after block, store after store.

Some stores were specialized, like this purple orchid shop. Yes, a store full of purple orchids.

Some shops were large. We watched one shop load what looked like twenty 6 foot tall office plants in one Odyssey type van for delivery.

A few blocks farther we came to the fish market - the kind of fish you look at, not the kind you eat. The vendors were adding oxygen to the bags, so the fish would probably survive a long ride home. Note that a HK$20 bag of fish is only about US$2.50

Every kind of tropical fish was available, from the inexpensive smaller fish ...

... to the very expensive larger fish.

As well as fresh and salt water aquarium setups.

Then we came to the Ladies market. At one point the focus was lady garments, purses, scarfs, etc., but it has degenerated into a general "junk" market. It was raining lightly, so the sky was dark, and the shops were covered.

Jenny learned to haggle at this market. "Give you good deal. Worth $200, give you for $100. No? How about $50. No? What you give? HK$20. Okay, sold."

As we left the Lady's market (having survived one of the several streets of market) we ran across another unnamed market, with beautiful produce

... as well as flowers and the inevitable junk.

Then we came to the Jade market... or what was labeled as the Annex to the Jade market. We didn't want to find the main market!

The choice was huge. We were warned to not buy expensive Jade unless we were expert in grading it, but there were lots of inexpensive pieces.

They were just starting to set up the "Night Market."

But we were not buying produce, and were about marketed out.

Tuesday September 9

We always enjoy maritime museums, so did the one in Hong Kong as well.

Lots of amazing models and the stories that go with them....

... and not just historical boats. There were various oil drilling platforms, and this model of a deep sea explorer.

It included a discussion of the ship building heritage of Hong Kong. Note the reference to A. King shipyard.

Click here for a full page picture of the sign at the right - depending on your browser or viewer you may be able to see more detail and perhaps zoom in if needed to read the detail in Chinese.

What's the big deal about A. King Shipyard? In late 1936 and early 1937 my father worked at that shipyard, representing the owner, "supervising" the construction of the "So Fong." That ship is still sailing, currently available for charter in Mallorca.

The red sail junk frequently seen around the harbor is known in English as the Aqua Luna (in Chinese it is named Cheung Po Tsai, after a pirate). It was built by hand using historical techniques and launched in 2006. The sails are only for show - it it motorized and carries 80 passengers on two decks.

From the maritime museum, you had a great waterfront view of the Hong Kong convention center. Certainly more dramatic than the place I remembered where I gave a talk in 1992.

Wednesday September 10

On Wenesday, our last full day, we finally got time to visit the Hong Kong museum of History. It covers the whole history, from geological formation to present time. Not very ancient history included wildlife, from birds to bears and tigers, presented in amazing exhibits - can you see the several birds in this picture?

In another gallery they had a model of a tomb that had been recently discovered and excavated by archaeologists.

Then Jenny pointed out that the entire gallery had been built as a reproduction of that tomb.

Many Chinese traditions were shown, from theater to festivals to weddings. This wedding procession includes the bride carried in a special red bride's wedding litter or shoulder carriage. She may not see the sun on her wedding day.

A life-size Junk was recreated in the museum. It was a family home as well as a working fishing vessel

In 1953 there was a fire in the makeshift housing primarily used by refugees from mainland China, leaving 53,000 people homeless. The government built public housing, initially intending to provide 24 square feet per adult, and half that space per child. Cooking was done on the balcony or hallways, and bathrooms were shared by everyone on the floor, but it was an improvement. This model room was intended for a small family, but might have actually held a dozen or more people. (Today facilities are much better; almost half the population resides in some form of public housing.)

Note the round disk against the wall. Chinese tradition is that nobody is at the head of the table, so tables must be round. We were in a "fancy" restaurant, and apparently the number of guests in the reservation for the next table was increased. The waiters cleared the table, brought a larger disk, brought two more chairs, and reset the now larger round table. On the largest tables, a lazy Susan was placed in the center.

Thursday September 11

Return home. Jenny didn't notice until too late that we were going to spend all day on airplanes on "9/11"

Travel Tips

The same bus provided by the Airport Express Train that took you to your hotel will take you back to the central terminal without charge - the bus runs about ever 20 minutes.

The best Airport Express Train ticket for two or more people is a "group" ticket, which must be bought on the day of travel.

Once you arrive at the airport, it is quick and easy to turn in the Octopus cards and get most of the cost of the card itself back, plus any balance remaining in your octopus account(s). Of course it comes back in Hong Kong money.

Final step is to change any remaining Hong Kong money back in to American or other currency.

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