Kickstarting 2011 with a trip to London
Add Your Blog Blog Topsites Three weeks in London
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Two full days of sun and its short appearance for three days must be considered fortuitous in the three weeks of January 2011 that I was in London, UK. Noted more for its short days which get dark by 3pm, London still has its charms, its cold, wet and dreary weather notwithstanding.
A free offer of accommodation prompted me and my wife to kick off the first day of the new year with a trip to London. We arrived before 3pm the same day at Heathrow airport, Terminal 3, which doesn’t do justice to the city.
The terminal takes one back forty years but boarded up internal areas show the efforts by the airport authority to upgrade its facilities. It is a convenient arrival and departure point for travellers, compared with the airport’s newer generation terminals, as Terminal 3 is the focal point for public transport to London.
Still, wiser judgement prompted me to arrange for taxi transport as I was put off by the thought of lugging two big suitcases and two hand luggages between the steps of at least two underground stations required to bring us from the airport to our accommodation at Canary Wharf. Information about public transport at this website, www.tfl.gov.uk, was most useful with tips on things-to-see-and-do at this other website, www.visitlondon.com
The first hint of how cold it gets hit us as we were guided to the short-term car park. It is like living in a giant fridge with the wind trying to get through four layers of winter clothing! The driver took us to a Mercedes car which he owns. Coming from Afghanistan, he epitomizes the immigrant made good and has been in London for nine years. He is part of a contact network for private airport transport from Heathrow to the city and owns the Mercedes which goes for about $35,000 for a new car, according to him.A city for all seasons
London is a city for all seasons, if one is not put off by the layers of clothings needed to keep warm and by the short days, grey sky, cold wind and frequent drizzles in winter!
London’s attractions are as varied as befitting a city that has held court for its influence in politics, economics and culture. There is an experience for everyone, from the history or culture buff to the architecturally inclined as well as the nature lover, and of course, those addicted to shopping and food.
“Awesome” best sums up the experience for a first-time visitor walking past grand old buildings, many with characteristic pillars and columns. Ornate is the word to be applied to many of these centuries old buildings, often designed with arches leading to passageways to yet more offices, residences behind their main facades, while others open up to shopping arcades.
For nature lovers, it is possible to take long walks in the city’s large public parks without working out a sweat. Even in winter, some hardy plants and trees provide a visual treat in their faded, yet attractive winter colours.
The bonus from a walk in the park is in seeing the wide variety of birds and squirrels looking for food from visitors. Add the cosmopolitan population living in the city, who serve up a multitude of delectable treats as diverse as its theatre offerings, and it is no wonder London is a city for all seasons.
With a cooking tradition that goes many years, it is not surprising that bread, for example, can be baked in flower pots, perhaps, raising a question today, "why do we need baking trays?"
While much has been mentioned about its comprehensive public transport, the city is surprisingly easy to go about on foot as many different attractions, especially within central London, are located within walking distance. The convenience of overland connections is a bonus for visitors with a yearn to check out towns outside London and the list of sights and things to do is greatly expanded.Getting a grip on public transport
It is a breeze to get about to various London locations via public transport using the metro and buses. It is the first city to have underground trains providing a comprehensive network of connections. The tube network comprises 270 stations and 400 kilometres of tracks.
While maintenance engineering works are to be expected for such a long-running public transport, the tube, as it is known, is in the throes of ongoing upgrading exercise. Be prepared for long walks when connecting with other services between stations, many of which operate underground.
Some routes require you to step out of the existing transport, and, at the same station, catch an alternative train timed to arrive almost immediately. To catch the right train, pay attention to the LED signages highlighting the final destination of each train.
An alternative is to take the bus but bear in mind that bus stops are too numerous to be indicated individually on the map. It helps to keep tabs on the signages onboard alerting one to the upcoming bus stop or to listen to announcements but this information service appears to be optional.
While there are machines to purchase tickets for each trip, visitors lacking local knowledge are better off buying a pay-as-you-go Oyster card which is a stored-value card, or a Travelcard which is valid for a fixed number of days, irrespective of the number of trips taken on the tube and buses during that period.
On escalators, commuters will overtake from the left, so do stand on the right. But when walking between stations, keep left so other commuters can overtake on the right. That is one quirk about using the city’s underground metro.Essential London
Except for three days in Paris, we spent almost three weeks in London, therefore, those with shorter visits will do well to make time for some of these tourist sites,happenings and activities.Thames Cruise
A visit to London is not complete without a cruise on the Thames river. One end of the cruise is at Greenwich, a world heritage site, southeast of London. As the boat wends its way westwards from Greenwich to central London, one cannot help but be intrigued by the unfolding of the past, the present and the future. The journey is a time trail taking in historical sites like Tower Bridge and its adjoining castle with a traitors’ gate. This timeless historical tower co-exists with modern residences and commercial properties along the bank.
Passengers also get a first-hand view of the future of London cruising by impressive modern buildings at Canary Wharf. It can boast of having the tallest building in the UK, One Canada Square, 50 storeys high with a roof pyramid that tops up at 235 metres. Its commanding presence, however, is being frittered away by a new development, the Shard Tower, standing at 300 metres which is due for completion in 2012.
The other option is to start the cruise at Westminster ferry point and head towards Greenwich. Do bear in mind that discounts are given for holders of the travel stored-valued Oyster card as well as for those above 60 years.
Changing of the guard
Buckingham Palace is the venue for a grand ceremony involving changing of the guard that has drawn tourists all over. Not that well publicized because it is further away, a visit to the royal family’s residence, Windsor castle, also offers opportunity to enjoy the stirring music and spectacle of the mounting of the royal guards.
The parade in London is certainly a draw for thousands of tourists. Accompanied by military band, the soldiers march into the palace grounds through the gilded main gate tor the handing over ceremony. They march out through another gate which gives equal photo opportunities to the crowd gathered in and around the Victoria monument.Parks
Near Buckingham Palace are two parks, St James Park and Green Park, which have been havens offering respite and tranquility in the middle of London , both within walking distance and well served by the metro.
While bare trees are to be expected in the cold season, the lake at St James Park is a sanctuary for squirrels and a great variety of birds with hardy plants competing for attention in their faded winter colours.
A short walk from the two parks is Hyde Park, which is well known as a venue for upholding free speech with its Speaker’s Corner, where orators share their views on world affairs every Sunday. Each of London’s many parks has its own characteristic appeal and they are all united in being peaceful havens in a city reputed to have the highest number of parks. Theatres
Culture vultures will find a programme worthy of their interests in London from opera, musical, drama and comedy through to burlesque or cinema offerings. This city is known for its arts culture and theatres abound, many within stone’s throw in central London, especially the belt between Covent Garden and Leiceister Square.
Prices direct from the ticketing office are not cheap, so get onto the Internet. Check out the events and book online at www.seetickets.com or www.getintolondontheatre.co.uk. Some form of payment via the Internet is required and tickets can be picked up at the theatre just before the show starts.
We took in two shows, a musical for all ages entitled “Wicked” with impressive backdrop sets and a musical entitled “Mamma Mia” honouring the music of Swedish singing sensation Abba.Shopping and street markets
London is a shopping mecca. Westfield Shopping Centre, the biggest shopping complex, is a good place to get a sampling of the range of retail offerings. Although it is located outside the established shopping areas of London, it is well served by the tube and Shepherd’s Bush and White City are two of the four tube stations close to it.
Within greater London, street decorations for Christmas added to the festive air at the well established Regent and Oxford streets in early January. The options for shoppers, of course, extend beyond these two streets as retailers offering everything from foot and fashion wear as well as accessories, and even supermarkets, drive up the sales fever with attractive discounts.
Although we missed the long heard of mad-rush for post-Christmas winter sale, shops in the city continued to attract many looking for bargains. The shopping fever appeared to continue unabated in January with people stocking up for the next winter.
The city’s appeal is not just the shopping streets with designer wear for male and female, or the boutiques and accessories shops but also the street markets with their rich history, some going back more than a hundred years. The distinctive street markets include Leadenhall market within the old financial district, Greenwich market and Borough market, near the London Bridge tube station.Greenwich
To get a different flavor from big city, we decided to take the metro, Docklands Light Railway, from Canary Wharf to Greenwich, a quaint town south east of London.
It is the site of the Royal Observatory which sits atop a hill within London’s oldest park, Greenwich park. It is the starting point for the Greenwich Meridian where time is measure in terms of GMT+ providing a common basis for those having to know the time difference between countries.
Greenwich is a world heritage site. Despite its immense contributions to astronomy and science, it retains its small town allure. The landscape is dominated by residences, many with chimneys while historical buildings are located in a quarter nearer the river. It is one end of the cruise route and a good starting point for the Thames river cruise.
Located near the cluster of historical buildings at the river, Greenwich market, which opens from Wednesday to Sunday, highlights the town’s cosmopolitan appeal. The vibrant marketplace is an experience of sense, smell, sight and taste.
Visitors can get to see unusual items from customized plastic bracelets to sheepskin rugs and leather products through to ethnic cuisine including Caribbean, Portuguese, Italian and African. Its management has informal one-hour sessions for would-be traders to make their pitch to sell their wares at the market. Decisions on new stall holders are based on uniqueness of their offerings which keeps the market evergreen for interesting products and services.Food
Turn a corner in just about any street in the business district and the coffee and sandwich outlet can be found. A coffee culture is certainly deeply entrenched in the city. The players include local, regional and global brands.
Fish and chips is a staple but be careful with your order in neighbourhood outlets. A large order for chips may get you really big bag with too much for even two persons. At tourist spots, train stations, through to any gathering points of retail outlets, fish and chips are inevitably offered, especially as a takeaway. The best such joint, we find, is at the open ground at Tower Bridge, within what looks like a ‘dungeon’ on the ground floor. It serves the staple with a good measure of greens and the fish is done just right without too much batter which goes well with a beer.
Eating healthy is a common theme for a new generation of outlets offering fusion food of the east and west. The extensive array of vegetables and herbs , along with proteins, are offered with soups, wraps, rice and noodles and are done fast food style. Budget about five to seven pounds per head and add couple more for drinks.A mecca for architectural photography
Because of the road closures on our arrival, the detours within central London provided first insights and a contrast of the diversity of its architecture. Bearing in mind the city’s long history, and as far as the eye can see in the dark, London is replete with a network of narrow streets and many grand historical buildings.
Featuring carvings and ornate patterns across the length and breadth of the façade, each building exudes a character of its own. These grand old ‘dames’ maintain a dignified air, whilst located, sometimes incongruously, cheek-by-jowl with modern metal and glass complexes.
Through the centuries, the country’s long-preferred choice of bricks, stones and concrete have led to most intriguing architectural landscapes. Striking brick-homes with chimneys, outstanding historical commercial and public properties lend a different perspective to the landscape amidst modern developments.
These historical buildings are great subjects for photography, especially during the rare moments of a blue sky, and the imagery of angles, pillars, columns, form, structure and shadows become the order of the day for the photography buff.
As for modern structures, the saving grace is the ability to work with new materials that add dimension, shape and form to such developments to make up for the lack of architectural details associated with historical buildings.The old and new financial district
The closure of numerous streets around central London for the new year celebrations was in a way a blessing in disguise. The airport is located west of the city whereas our accommodation at Canary Wharf, the new financial district, is on the east. While navigating through central London, he had to make several diversions to avoid the roads that were closed until 6pm that day for the new year celebrations.
Arriving at our destination, the open area of Canary Wharf was a fairyland of blue lights that adorn the trees, presumably a part of the Christmas decorations, a sight made complete by ducks swimming and seemingly enjoying themselves in the cold water.
After a 1-1/2 hour taxi journey from the airport with lots of diversions, we reached our destination, a studio apartment at Marsh Wall, Canary Wharf. We were treated to a vista like any modern city - well-lit modern skyscrapers of all shapes and sizes towering above a row of colourful low-rises by the water.
The spanking new offices and some residences are built on what used to be the docklands under a bold master plan to rejunevate the area as the new financial district of London. After a slow start, its successful transformation can be seen in the 100,000 people working in the area, which becomes obvious at crunch-time when everyone heads for home on the tube in the evening.
As with any modern metropolis, Canary Wharf is a far cry from the old financial district just a few stops away at the Bank tube station.
The Bank of England building sits within the old financial district which exudes a stately charm. Its unique appeal is exemplified by the nearby Leadenhall Market which is a gathering point for people working in the area.
An alluring collection of shops and stalls operating in a maze of streets under skylight canopy is busy with many people standing around to enjoy a cuppa or a bite testify to its popularity. The outlets offer not just beverages , sandwiches and western meals but also Malaysian food.
As for Canary Wharf, its big shopping mall spanning the basements of several buildings within the development, is like many similar ahopping centres anywhere. Much bigger in scale with many food joints taking on a healthy theme, and copycat coffee and sandwich outlets, along with other shops offering everything from supermarket items to household and fashion wear and accessories, it attracts many shoppers but somehow lacks a certain charm.
Labels: holiday, London
An April cruise-fly trip covering three Asian countries (Part 3)
Macau: Here we come
The red turbojets of the ferry operator stand out at the Hong Kong-Macau ferry pier at Hong Kong island. Being rather early, we are resigned to wait for the 1:30pm ferry but the staff are fairly relaxed and allow us to board the ferry even though it is one hour early.The one-way ticket costs HK$146 each and a time slot must be indicated unless you are booking for immediate departure.
The ride is uneventful and with all windows frosted, it is somewhat boring but one-hour passes by soon enough. When the turbojet begins to slow down, it becomes clear we are at our destination.
Custom and immigration formalities are soon dispensed with and getting out of the restricted section, while deliberating the direction to catch a taxi, we are accosted by a lady. She offers to bring us to the Ole London hotel but professes not to know its location until after making a phone call to ask for direction.
Having read in Macau tourist websites that many places on the peninsula are within walking distance, I am taken aback by her quote of HK$200. We start to walk out toward the taxi stand and the price is brought down to HK$150. Having to lug two luggage, I suppose, convenience becomes the keyword although my sixth-sense tells me to continue walking towards the taxi stand. On hindsight, it should also be cheaper, just HK$60 to HK$70, I later learn, to catch a nearby taxi. To take this private car, we actually have to a longer journey by foot, cross an underpass, to a carpark opposite the ferry terminal.Old quarters
A less than 15-minute journey and we are at Ole London hotel which has recently been renovated. It used to be a guest house. Offering wireless Internet, the room is basic and clean, and at HK$550, is decent rate for peak period. Located at the old quarters, it is 5-minute walk to the historic centre, and about 25 minutes walk to the integrated casino resorts built by overseas investors who broke the monopoly on gambling by its well-known casino magnate, Stanley Ho.
Unlike Hong Kong, Macau does not hit you with the over-powering presence of skyscrapers but lets you absorb its local flavour and its contrast of new and old quarters. One caveat, though, is to get your hotel and address written in Chinese which you can show to the taxi driver as to avoid misunderstanding.Narrow, hilly streets
With its labyrinth of narrow and sometimes hilly streets, and buildings standing cheek by jowl, the old quarters is a little like Hong Kong island. The architecture is different and eye-catching apartments dot the landscape though some of the old buildings are in need of a paint job.
All kinds of businesses can be found at the shop houses, especially in areas that still attract tourists while others in quiet streets are shuttered, a consequence, perhaps, of the new shopping centres sprouting up in the newer sections of Macau.Local flavour
At one of the narrow roads behind the hotel, pockets of people can be seen waiting to go into a few shops. It turn out these shops at Rua De Felicidade are offering sharks fin at very competitive prices while others are selling local delicacies such as almond cookies, peanut-based snacks, barbecue pork and cuttle fish.
Needless to say, dinner is taken at one of the food outlets at Rua De Felicidade which offer delicacies favoured by many Chinese – sea cucumber, fish maw, dried scallops and cabbage – in two claypots and rice for a total of HK$220. On another occasion I give the local pork burger, complete with bone, a try.
At one end, towards the inner harbour area, which is the older and quiet section, Rua De Felicidade meets up with Avenida De Almeida Ribeiro, what I consider to be the ‘main road’, but for most part they are parallel. At the other end, Almeida Ribeiro leads to the new section where the integrated resorts are.
One particular trait of Macau is the many female riders on scooters zipping about on the streets which is not as common in Hong Kong or Singapore.Culture this way, gambling that way
In the day, the ‘main road’ provides bearing to head to the Senado Square, the renovated cultural hub whereas at night it points to the bright lights of integrated resorts, a good 25-minute walk away.
Senado Square comprises renovated buildings of yesteryear housing modern businesses selling fashion wear, accessories, interspersed with money changers, local eateries, including fusion and local version of fast food such as pork hamburger. Through side roads, it is linked to various historic sites like churches, temples and fortresses.
At night, from the ‘main road’, the integrated resorts beckon and the grand daddy is the established Grand Lisboa with its over-stated and colourful animated lights that one cannot but help notice.
To one who understands Chinese, the lighted signages of several pawnshops one street away from the integrated resorts is telling about casinos that give rise to a secondary industry when gamblers don’t know their limit.Gambling enclave
A check on the Internet shows there are 36 casinos in Macau, from the older and smaller operations to the massive new generation integrated resorts. We decide to be acquainted with five resorts, the Lisboa, Wynn, MGM, Sands and The Venetian. From the Internet, I recall that a free shuttle service is available from Sands to The Venetian at Taipa island which is linked by bridges to the peninsula. No doubt the common attraction is gambling but each resort has its different appeal.Lisboa
At the Lisboa, the owner has decided to share his collections of jade and other ornate carvings at the lobby. Other attractions at its lobby include multi-carat precious stones that are out of reach of masses but will nonetheless leave a deep impression what money can buy.Wynn & MGM
Wynn resort has its musical fountain outside the hotel where water sprays dance to the music along with multi-coloured lights making it a must-visit spot at night. Our visit to MGM Grand resort is rather short as it is near to lunch time and what is memorable are the famous lions, giant replicas. Within the hotel, we come across a large scale replica of building facades that are reminiscent of movie sets. Taking centre-stage are two curved staircases leading to a grand second level which can pass off as the entrance of the palatial mansion.Sands
Sands catches the eye from afar with its use of black and gold façade. It is memorable for the shows that are staged within its casino which are shown on two giant screens. While here, we decide to have buffet lunch at HK$108 per head. It offers an interesting spread ranging from Japanese selections like sashimi to vegetable tempura, all laid out in a food line which also includes western cold dishes, Asian hot dishes. There are also a variety of greens along with choice of noodles that are cooked to customers’ orders and, of course, the cakes and confectionary and drinks.
After lunch, we take a walk down to the road level where the shuttles to The Venetian and other gateways to China are stationed. It’s a 20-minute trip over a bridge to the Taipa island where The Venetian is located.The Venetian
Everything about the Venetian is on a big scale and it is obvious when one gets nearer the site that the building and windows - read rooms – seem to go on and on, some 3,000 rooms!
The shuttle drops us off in a very big car park and we enter the West Lobby. I interpret that to mean there are four lobbies which is not surprising. As we enter the main entrance, a few groups of visitors crowding the lobby are making their way into the resort too.
We quietly follow a tour leader of one English-speaking group of visitors. Soon, we are making our way from ground to second level where the mega-shopping mall is located.Living up to its claim
Considering it is very bright and sunny outside, we are surprised to find clouds and a lot less glare in the mall, thinking the Venetian’s architect has used the skylight to good effect. It quickly became clear an artificial sky has been created throughout the shopping mall to provide a balmy climate for shoppers.
Shopping is done under Venetian streetscapes complete with canals and gondolas staff by a mix of musically included Italian and local gondoliers.
Its website claims it is the second biggest building in the world and the biggest shopping mall in the region and I’ve no reason to doubt it, considering there are four sections to be covered in the walking tour, and many escalators lead to its mega-casino. There is a wide selection of shops selling all manner of products from fashion wear, undergarments, accessories to fast food, local food and coffee joints can be found here.
One attraction at the Venetian is the Cirque de Soleil show and we take in a spectacular 1-1/2 programme where performers appear to ‘fly’ in and out effortlessly, above the audience, doing their acrobatic feats and acting out spectacular fantasy roles in the best tradition of choreography in 3D perspective.
Time flies when one has new things to constantly check out and six hours passed very quickly before we decide to take the shuttle back to Sands at 10:30pm. It was a short 10-minute taxi ride back to the hotel costing HK$50.
In the morning of our departure, a reminiscent walk at Senado Square serves to round up the trip. The new air-conditioned food outlets notwithstanding, I cannot help but partake a bowl of piping hot congee from one of the many roadside stalls operating at several side-roads. Then it is time to check-out and off to Macau airport for a flight back to Singapore.
Labels: Asia, cruise, culture, Hong Kong, Macau, photography, The Venetian, travel, vacation, Vietnam
An April cruise-fly trip covering three Asian countries (Part 2)
Hong Kong, southern China and MacauAfter Danang
We are at sea for two nights after leaving Danang where very slight listing of the ship from time to time suggests the waves are stronger, as borne out by the froth that could be seen from my porthole. It has been bright and sunny during the day and the jacuzzi at the stern of the ship and swimming pools in the mid-section are full of sun worshippers.Twinkling lights to skyscrapers
Early the next morning, the presence of more passing ships and increasing presence of twinkling lights are first clues that we are approaching the outlying islands of Hong Kong. From my review of maps downloaded from the Internet, I can tell we are passing Lamma island, south of Hong Kong island.
As we sail around Lamma island, despite the early morning mist, Hong Kong hits you straightaway with its long Tsing Ma bridge in the distance and impressive skyscrapers dominating the Kowloon and Kong Kong island.
Costa Allegra is slated to berth at a cargo port at Kennedy town, on Hong Kong island which is opposite Kowloon, where the passenger terminal is, but supposedly occupied,. All passengers are treated to outstanding views of the tall skyscrapers built almost to the water’s edge, as the ship is assisted alongside the berth. Here again, the shipboard communication could have been improved, as a free shuttle run to Kowloon was available but not all passengers were aware of the service.
Hong Kong is a nice lower 20 degree Celsius around mid-April. Having made plans to go to Lantau island and take a ride on the much written about Ngong Ping cable car We quickly disembarked to take a cab, costing HK$40 from Kennedy port to Central station on Hong Kong island. From here, we board the MTR at the Tung Chung MTR line to its last stop, where else, but at Tung Chung, at Lantau island.Ngong Ping: Impressive cable car ride
At Tung Chung station, a fair-sized shopping centre is good reason to do a tour of the place before we proceed to a neighbouring facility housing the cable car station. As we didn’t pre-booked tickets, we have to wait 45 minutes in an ever-growing queue because of the Good Friday holiday. It costs HK$107 round trip each for a normal cabin. The cable car ride is impressive going ever higher, taking about 25 minutes altogether.
It traverses a short stretch that takes one across a mid-point overlooking the airport and then makes a right angle turn to go all the way uphill to Ngong Ping village. Along the way, one can take in the panoramic views of the mountain and neighbouring seas. The sight of the long trail of cable cars at this stretch of the ride is equally breathtaking.
A large Buddha on top of a hill at about 500 metres height, where a monastery is located, is visible before one reaches Nong Ping village, located on a plateau, comprising a series low buildings in Chinese style architecture selling local artifacts, desserts, delicacies and fusion food. We had a satisfying lunch at Zen Noodle Café costing HK$190 for four persons which rounded up the trip to Ngong Ping village. The cable car ride is equally spellbinding.
On the way back, just one station away, we switch MTR at Sunny Bay to catch a dedicated train ride to Disneyland Resort. As there are no children in our group, we are not keen on getting into the resort so we just took a quick look of the view from within the station. All we see is an archway with the Disneyland Resort name but we understand subsequently that we have to walk out of the station for a few minutes to get to the entrance.Good MTR network
A word about Hong Kong’s excellent integrated mass rapid transit of MTR. It is a very convenient and fast mode of transport that takes visitors close enough to most interesting sites at reasonable costs. Furthermore, we bought the Octopus cards which can be also be used on the tram service at Hong Kong island and some buses that ply along the touristy venues as well as the famous Star Ferry to Kowloon.
One needs to put HK$50 as deposit and initially pay another HK$100 upfront for transit fees, as the balance can be refunded at the last MTR stop before you leave Hong Kong.
One point to remember about MTR stations in the city is that there are many underground exits and it is important to remember the right one to use or you can end heading the wrong way.Budget hotel on Hong Kong island
After taking the Tung Chung MTR at Lantau back to Central station at Hong Kong island, we take a cab back to the ship. Thereafter, I collect my luggage from my sister’s cabin as she and my dad are taking the full 14-day cruise, I disembark and take the same cab to check into a boutique hotel, Mingle on the Wing, at Hong Kong island, Wing Lok Street, which I have pre-booked. It’s a nine storey building with four rooms per floor.
Considering the weekend is a Good Friday and Easter Monday, and obviously the peak season for hotels, I manage to get a room for about HK$550 a night for three nights. Although very compact, the room has a modern bathroom and comes with free Internet cable connection.
We only found out that our hotel is less than five minutes from one of the many underground MTR exits at the end of the second day! Until then, thanks to the cool weather, we enjoy taking the longer roundabout surface route to the nearby MTR Sheung Wan station, one end of the Island line traversing Hong Kong island, west to east.Waterfront
We find we can walk to the waterfront in the cool April weather in less than 15 minutes. To cross major road between the waterfront and interior roads, we quickly learn to use overhead bridges and MTR tunnels, with the help of map of the neighbourhood map downloaded from the Internet. We find our way to upmarket Times Square shopping complex housed within the International Finance Centre.
Located at the waterfront is the row of piers to catch ferry rides to various islands, including the turbojet ride to Macau, which I will be using in three days time.
And of course, the well-known Star Ferry is available to cross over to Kowloon, which is over all too soon, just five minutes.
Although we heard about the light show at the waterfront, we are too early, but just the rows of the buildings lighting up one after another at mainland Kowloon is a sight to behold. It’s an experience unique to enjoy the Hong Kong
harbour with its tall brightly lighted buildings jam-packed at the waterfront.New and old
There is no lack of places to eat on Hong Kong island. On the first night, dinner is at one outlet belonging to a chain of a new fangled food joints but the highlight in our search for eateries is cap by our success in locating a traditional Chinese dim sum restaurant. Located at 188 Des Voeux Road, it is just 10 minutes walk from our hotel. For two mornings, it is dim sum breakfast, ala Hong Kong style, comprising congee and three plates of dim sum costing around HK$85 at Sportful Garden Restaurant.
Another worthwhile experience is walking around the older part at the western fringe of the commercial area and shopping streets of Hong Kong island, where buildings stand cheek by jowl.
A part of the area is marked by steps and slopes leading to the residences at the mid-level. The roads are narrow but the different businesses and road-side stalls selling everything from fruits, household knick-knacks, antiques to Chinese medicine, snacks, desserts, drinks, eateries and other items made for an interesting walking tour.
We did find our way to the famous Lan Kwai Fong street where pubs bring their speakers to the front doors to blast their very loud renditions of music and songs, enough to justify a hasty retreat to the more peaceful but nonetheless busy and narrow streets.Southern China
On the second day, after an early lunch, we decide to catch up with a relative who works in Dongguan. The trip starts with the MTR at Central station - the Tsuen Wan line that runs north to Kowloon. A switch to a different line is required and at Mongkok station, we change to the Kwun Tong line. It takes us to Kowloon Tong station, where we again change trains, this time taking the East Rail line which is headed for Lo Wu, the final station straddling Hong Kong’s border with southern China.
After getting down from the MTR at Lo Wu, and passing through Hong Kong’s immigration counter first, we then cross a short stretch within the same building where we find ourselves again presenting passports but, this time to China’s immigration authority. It is a surreal experience crossing from one country to the next and all located within the same building! As a special administrative region, I suppose there is a need for separate immigration stamps!
Lo Wu is the southernmost transport hub with mass rapid transit and train connections heading north into China. It is massive complex with buildings forming a U-shape and my first glimpse of the China and a quick lesson on how everything is scaled up to cater to its big population. There is a big bus interchange at road level underneath one of the non-airconditioned shopping centres and equally big open public area, presumably for community gatherings. The shopping centre is replete with vendors selling clothes, fashion accessories, bags and luggages with restaurants taking the bigger units at the corners of the buildings.Dongmen : Ladies market
A subsequent short MTR ride north to Dongmen or East Gate was a quick introduction into China and its teeming population! The sight of pedestrians within the shopping precinct fully occupying the side roads with scant regard for cars and motorcycles sharing the same space is an educational experience.
Amidst the busy streets and pavements, shops take their one ups-man-ship seriously as some station their staff on ladders outside the shop front to draw attention to the offerings within.Styling hair at own expense
One notable trait about shopping in China, which is also practised in Hong Kong, is that shop staff are required to pop into a saloon to have their hair styled and the cost is taken off their salary! Also, a treat to shoppers is the lively environment and interaction between sales staff. Every so often, a staff is heard declaring in Cantonese - to the best of my knowledge – about a sale made or an impending trip to the store-room, which almost immediately invites a chorus of response from others, an endearing shopping experience.Old habits : New facade
The modern façade within the shopping belt belies the disparity in living standards of its people, typical of a country that is as big as China. Along the roadside, one can spy an occasional parent toilet training their young charges in full public view doing what comes natural over grating-covered storm drains by the pavement. Public toilets appear to be hard to come by and may be another reason for turning a grating-covered drain into a public toilet.Zhang Mo Tou and Dongguan
Getting back to Lo Wu after Dongmen, we hop onto a train, not an MTR, which travels at fast clip of 160 kmh to the next town, Zhang Mo Tou, a journey of 20 minutes. There we are driven to the next town where our relative works in Dongguan, a half hour trip.
Along the way, we see blocks of four or five storey apartments that are obviously abandoned and all dark, the consequence of factories retrenching staff, who have since left for their home towns and villages. The abandoned buildings are a rude awakening of the consequence of the global recession. But the bleak sight takes a turn for better when we pass by strawberry farms by the roadside when we are out of town.
Having myself visited factories and process plants in different sectors in my work, I am impressed by the tour of the factory, in which our relative is in-charge. It makes pressure vessels for hot water systems of buildings, among others. We have dinner at a hotel-cum restaurant at Dongguan which is sumptuous and surprisingly at very reasonable cost. The meal of Peking duck, scallops, broccoli and stuffed bean curd skin cost a total of CNY180 or about US$26.
With energy fully topped up, we are driven back to Zhang Mo Tou to catch a train back to the border town of Lo Wu where we go through immigration formalities in reverse, presenting our passports in China, then at Hong Kong, before taking the MTR back from Kowloon to Hong Kong island. It is almost midnight when we get to Central station which is followed by a 20-minute walk back to the hotel.More Hong Kong itinerary : Victoria Peak
Having head so much about the bird’s eye view of Hong Kong, we made a beeline on an internal road at Pier 7 where bus 15 picks up passengers for a trip to Victoria Peak. Rather than take the funicular train, we decide the trip by normal bus will provide breathtaking views, as it wends it way uphill, which proved to be right.
At the top, the bus stop under a building and we gain access into what is a three-storey neighbourhood shopping centre. Here there are shops selling knick-knacks and eateries from coffee joints to restaurants offering fusion food. A viewing gallery at level three provides a nice view of neighbouring peaks and apartments built atop the hillsides. Unfortunately, the clear blue sky we are hoping for is nowhere to be seen and the view is of skyscapers being masked by a layer of fog that refuse to dissipate in the two hours we are at Victoria Peak.
Getting out of the shopping centre, a short walk brings us to another smaller building, this one housing the funicular train station which also has eateries within. We wander to an access road on one side of the building that leads to a track going slightly downhill allowing one to to get to the mid-levels. We decide that a return trip on the scenic bus ride is a good choice and bus 15 brings us back to the waterfront pier, after which we walk back to the hotel.
With half day left of our four days in Hong Kong, we take a tram ride to Wanchai where we imbibe in the flavour and sights of the traditional shopping streets. Subsequently, we catch the MTR back to Sheung Wan where we exchange the balance of money left in our Octopus cards for cash. Then it is back to the hotel to check out and off in a short taxi ride to the Hong Kong-Macau ferry.Cosplay
At an earlier trip to Mongkok shopping street in Kowloon in the evening, there is a male and female dressed up in costumes to do with some local TV series. The streets in the vicinity are closed to traffic. Standing on chairs, the 'actor' and 'actress' will move and act out their parts when shoppers put some money on the road beside them.
Labels: Asia, cruise, culture, Dongguan, Dongmen, Hong Kong, Lo Wu, photography, southern China, travel, vacation, Vietnam