Hong Kong Trip – Day 2 – Hong Kong in your Face

I awoke at 7.30am feeling partly refreshed but still a little jaded after the journey.  Sleeping wasn’t too difficult, despite the 30 degree heat, as air conditioning comes as standard everywhere in Hong Kong and boy wasn’t I glad!  After a breakfast of Char Sui Prok bun I felt ready to face Hong Kong for the day.

Our first stop was Causway Bay on Hong Kong Island and the imigration department.  Hong Kong has recently introduced a new, biometric, ID card.  Clara had missed getting one as she had not been back to Hong Kong in over a year and so she had to make a visit to get her card.  We travelled to Causeway Bay by bus number 23 which leaves from the end of Clara’s road.  The bus ride took about 20 minutes on an air conditioned bus, that also had a TV at the front to force more adverts and strange Chinese programming into your brains – if you didn’t get enough from looking out of the window!  You won’t be surprised that bus drivers are worse than those in England (and most of them are pretty bad) and with the roads being extremely hilly and having frequent hairpin bends things get a little scary!  The journey allowed me to see the many streets, complete with overhanging signs that Hong Kong is famous for.

After getting off the bus it was a short walk to the immigration center, but it was now that we could feel the real heat of Hong Kong and also the bustle of people trying to get down the pavements.  The immigration center was chaotic – at the moment it is people over 80 who are getting their identity cards, so it was also full of VERY old people!  After waiting in line for 30 minutes we got a ticket that allowed us to return later for Clara to get her card.

We now had to travel to Sheung Wan to book our trip to Macau on Friday where we will be visting our friend Sunny.  We made a short walk to Causeway Bay Mass Transit Railway (MTR) (underground) station and walked down the air conditioned corridors to the platform (London underground please take note!).  The journey was fast and much like the London underground, apart from the train does not have separate carriages and is like one long snake.  It is also possible to take mobile phone calls along the whole route!  The journey was very fast and efficient and we paid for it all using an Octopus Card (same as the Oyster card for London Underground), it was also cheap, as the whole day’s travel cost less than $20 (£1.50).  We booked our trip at the travel agent and stopped for a dink in a local cafe (complete with geese with heads ready to be carved!).

During the first couple of days we have to visit a number of Clara’s family and today our next appointment was with Clara’s grandma and aunty for lunch in Wan Chai.  On the way there we took a walk along one of Hong Kong’s many covered walkways and I took some photos of the buildings, including International Finance Center, the tallest building in Hong Kong (and home to Lehman Brothers HK Office).  It was now starting to get really hot and walking around even in the shade was very difficult!  We then took our next method of transport, the Hong Kong tram, to the Weston Hotel where we were having lunch.  The trams are mostly very old and look as they have done for nearly 100 years.  They are not air conditioned but the journey only costs $2 (10p) for any distance along the route.  You get on at the rear of the tram and then pay when you get off at the front.  We stood upstairs, and due to no air conditioning the journey was uncomfortably hot – despite every window being open.

On arriving at lunch and saying hello to Clara’s grandma (Ma ma, lei ho), I found it was everything I expected.  When we entered I was the only Westerner in the restaurant and everyone was sat in large groups around circular tables – most people had come from work.  We enjoyed a lunch of dim-sum (Yam Chi) – basically tea and lots of small plates of food.  We enjoyed prawns, beef balls, rice, turnip cake and custard tarts – very much like English custards but hot.  The lunch was all washed down with plenty of green tea.

After lunch, when we had finally cooled down (I had lost about half my body weight in sweat in the morning alone!) we went for a walk around Wan Chai, back to Causeway Bay and the immigration center.  Along the walk we visited a street market, which sold everything from clothes to food.  We walked along a number of streets that had fish mongers and butchers, including live chickens (which are now back after bird flu has subsided).  The smell takes a little while to get used to (its pretty bad) and in all fish mongers the fish are live and swimming in small bowls of water.  Some fish even try to escape, splashing water everywhere.  I also saw hundreds of live frogs squashed into a box at $10 each (75p), terapins, and every seafood imaginable!  This is definitely the real Hong Kong but not for the faint hearted!

While Clara picked up here ID card I went for a short walk myself around Causeway Bay.   I didn’t see too many sights and the temperature was really too hot to stay outside too long!  Clara rejoined me after a while and I had my first taste of Hong Kong shopping.  Clara wanted to go to the $10 shop (yes, basically its poundland, but bigger and cheaper!), to get some little things.  This visit took around 1 hour (yes I did say 1 hour), as the shop is quite big and has lots of things to see!  After this we visited Sogo, a large department store to get some food and basically it seemed to be like Debenham’s or House of Frasier.

After finishing our shopping we took the number 23 bus back to the mid-levels escalator (a long mechanised stairway up the hill) which we travelled on up the hill back to Clara’s house.

Tonight I’m off out in Hong Kong – more to come soon…

Hong Kong Trip – Day 1 – What I have learned about Hong Kong so far

Here’s a quick list of what I’ve learned so far that I didn’t already know:

  • Hong Kong is much larger and much taller than I every imagined
  • 50% of the cars in Hong Kong are taxi’s (see my pictures), with the other 50% being BMW’s, Mercedes Benz, Porsche, Lexus – hardly anyone drives a normal car!
  • Hong Kong is much hillier than I expected, with most roads up hills being at least 30 degrees (or that’s what they look like).
  • No one can drive properly!

Hong Kong Trip – Day 1 – The 36 Hour Day

Everything started well as the taxi pulled up outside our flat 3 minutes early.  Only five minutes before I had  bet with Clara that the taxi would arrive 10 minutes late as normal!  Today was finally the day that I got to go to Hong Kong. I had been waiting months and now all that stood in the way was the journey that would take nearly 24 hours.

On arriving at York Station we found our train was on time.  After checking the timetable boards and listening to the annoucements the train should arrive on time at Platform 5.  Now, for anyone who knows York Station, the trains to the south normally come into Platform 3, and to get from Platform 3 to 5 is around a 2-3 minute walk over a bridge, or under a tunnel.  As the final annoucement, “The next train to arrive at Platform 5 will be the 13:00 service to London Kings Cross”, chimed, myself and Clara waiting paitently by the platform edge.  To our amazement (or should I say horror) a GNER train started to pull into Platform 3 and a hurried annoucement on the tannoy annouced a platform alteration!  Needless to say 5 minutes later sitting breathless on the train we were not happy!  And the explanation from GNER – “That had to be network rail, we wouldn’t change a platform at that short notice…”, but no apology (not that I’m surprised).

The train journey passed without event and we arrived at Kings Cross some two hours later.  We had already purchased our underground tickets so we went underground.  This was my first trip on the underground since 7/7 but things didn’t really seem to have changed that much!  The underground was pretty deserted, but that’s fairly normal for a Sunday afternoon.  We boarded our (quite hot) Picadilly line train to Heathrow and prepared for the 45 minute ride.  As we got on Clara said to me, only 24 stations to go…

We arrived at Heathrow about 4.30pm and after finding out that checkin opened at 6.30pm we found a seat to wait.  For once public transport had actually done well and we arrived in plenty of time.  We had deliberately allowed ourselves plenty of time, and due to the new security restrictions that had come online recently, that was probably the best bet.

We started queuing for checkin about 6.30pm.  After 15 minutes of queueing we were appraoched by a Virgin Atlantic employee and asked if we would like to do a DIY checkin.  We knew that the system existed but had never used it as we did not know how it worked.  The employee walked me through the process on a small touchscreen, all you needed to do was to scan your passport and the machine recognised you as passengers on the flight and printed out your boarding card, all in 2 mintues flat!  Yes, I’m a techie, and that impressed me!  But then we saw the weakness of the system!  Once you have done the DIY bit, you have to hand your baggage to an employee.  To do this, however, requires you to stand in a queue for 2 checkin desks.  Now, this would work very well if everyone who did the DIY checkin followed the rules!  We were waiting in line for 15 minutes before we even moved one place forward, due to problems with someone in front.  The next two people in front of us had a bag over 30kg in weight (which the ground staff are not allowed to move) and so spent 10 minutes arguing with the staff over why they couldn’t take the bag.  Eventually they had to remove some things, but JUST FOLLOW THE RULES…  Eventually about 30 minutes after queuing up we got to the front and handed our bags in which took only 2 minutes!  So DIY checkin is a great system, let down by the human element that still has to take place!

After checkin we immediately went to the security check point to go to the airside.  Due to the heightened security we knew that this would take longer and wanted to get it out of the way.  As we approached we saw a queue about 100m long to get into the security point.  To be fair to the staff at Heathrow the queue was well managed, and people had plenty of information on what to take (or not to take).  The queue was moving fairly briskly and it only took 10 minutes to get to the first passport control check.  The shock comes after passing through this point, as queues of another 30 minutes to get to the metal detector are required!  On getting to the metal detector you had to take off your shoes and all other belongings and have them x-rayed.  There were also random searches of people and bags, as well as swabs taken for explosives etc.  This part would have been simple, but at an international airport it was VERY difficult!  There are ratial stereotypes for a reason – and the stereotypical Brit can queue very well (and we pride ourselves on that) – now unfortunately this does not extend to everyone!  And that’s what makes things difficult!

After another 2 hours of sitting in the departure lounge we finally moved to the gate to start boarding.  At Heathrow after being taken to the gate you have to sit in another departure lounge.  We sat in front of a window to look at the plane we were going on, an Airbus A340-600 of Virgin Atlantic.  As we sat there our faith in humanity was questioned once again!  A (English) girl came towards the window to look at the plane and squeezed behind our seats (into a 20cm gap) to look out of the window.  We thought this was a bit rude, but the girl was fairly young so didn’t bother too much.  As her dad walked up five minutes later and basically shoved us out of our seats, we were less than pleased!  Had it not been an airport, with heightened security checks (and therefore paranoia) we wouldn’t have only moved to a different seat…

By now we were 12 hours into our journey but only about 300 of the 6000 miles were out of the way.  As we boarded the plane we were given our meal, a choice of three options and myself and Clara both took the Singapore noodles.  The meal was very nice, and had everything including cheese and biscuits all washed down with chinese tea (from an authentic looking chinese teapot – why do they do this on a plane?!)  We then started to play with the inflight entertainment (more on this from a technical point later).  Within 5 minutes I broke my system by trying to look at the inflight map (why have it as an option when it always breaks the system?!).  After a 10 minute reset we started to find all the movies and TV we could watch – all on demand!  Sadly, with all the TV available we were too exhausted and slept for a few hours.

This is probably where day 1 should end, however, it didn’t seem to end for us, so I’m going to continue!  We were woken about 6 hours later for the breakfast meal on the plane.  Again we had three choices on the menu, full english breakfast, cheese omlette or seafood congee.  As a last effort to remember my roots we both took the English option and again the food was good.  By the time breakfast had been cleared away, the pilot came over the tannoy to annouce we would shortly be landing in Hong Kong.  Many people will know that in 1997 Hong Kong built a new airport called Chek Lak Kwok which is situated on Lamma Island to the West of Hong Kong Island.  The landing at the old airport was reportedly one of the most spectacular (and scary) in the world.  The landing at the new airport was still good as we flew along the coast of Lamma Island we could see the many new high rise buildings springing up along with beaches, and many, many boats.

The landing was uneventful and as we taxied to the airport you could see just how massive the new airport is.  It took around 5 minutes of driving to reach the terminal and we could finally get our feet on solid ground.  We had our first taste of Hong Kong life as even before the seat belt signs went out, many Hong Kongers were up and about ignoring the cabin crew telling them to stay seated, trying to get to the front of the plane, to get off 10 seconds earlier than everyone else!

On entering the terminal it was obvious that this airport was built to be bigger and better than any other in existence.  The terminal buildings are very modern and to get to the arrivals and immigration we had to take a 1 minute ride on an electric train (think the Doclands Light Railway but in a tunnel!).  After disembarking we moved onto the next obstacle of immigration.  This was only my second journey outside the EU and so I’ve very little experience of immigration.  On the plane we were given entry cards for Hong Kong to be filled in and handed in with your passport.  At this point Clara also decided to leave me and enter Hong Kong using her Hong Kong ID card.  So, I managed to follow the crowd and get my passport stamped.  I was now granted leave to stay in Hong Kong for 180 days (if only!).  The luggage turned up without any problems and we left the arrivals to meet Polly and Andrew, Clara’s parents, who were waiting for us.

After saying our hello’s we only had the last stage of the journey to get back to Clara’s parents house in the Mid Levels.  The first stage of this was to take the Airport Express, a fast train from the airport to Hong Kong Island via Kowloon.  The airport express is an extremely modern and very punctual (as nothing else will do in Hong Kong) train service.  The journey takes 23 minutes to Hong Kong Island and passes over the Tsing Ma suspension bridge between Lamma Island and Kowloon, one of the world’s longest bridges (maybe it is, but I don’t have time to check!).  My next taster of Hong Kong came as the Hong Kong express stopped outside the Central station.  Apparently for this train to stop was basically unknown and Andrew was soon standing up trying to see what was holding us up.  I suggested that maybe they should come to Britain and try our railways, where I have been stuck at signals for 10-15 minutes without anyone batting an eyelid!  The delay was only 3 minutes but that seemed to matter if you’re in Hong Kong!

As we arrived at the station the sheer scale of Hong Kong became obvious.  The station was clean, modern, efficient and everything that Britain never seems to be!  On leaving the station was joined the taxi queue and waited for a taxi to approach down the road.  The taxi area is more like a grand prix track than a waiting area.  There are wardens to direct the taxi to the right area and 10-15 taxi’s per minute arrive, and all pick up passengers!  The reason for the popularity of taxis is there convenience and price!  Our journey home only cost $43 (about £4), for 15 minutes.  The next shock was that as myself and Clara had two suitcases the taxi driver would stand them in the boot, holding them in place with an elastic rope and two pieces of metal (apparently this is quite normal?!).  The journey home game me time to have a good look at Hong Kong.  The journey was hectic, with frequent bad driving, hard braking, lane changing – but everyone seemed to be doing the same, and no-one really seemed to mind!  We passed some of the taller bulidings on the way home and now it was becoming obvious I had underestimated Hong Kong.  On a map, it seems very small, but the scale was bigger than I could imagine.  After the 15 minute journey we arrived back at Clara’s parents house and the journey had ended.

After a home cooked Chinese meal of Char Sui Pork with the family and Clara’s friend Grace, we retired to bed exhausted, but still trying to sleep due to jet lag – as it was only 5pm GMT!