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Saturday, 22 June 2019

Travels in the Land of the Dragon, pt 8 (final)

Hong Kong

If you've managed to wade through all the previous posts, congratulations on your stamina!  It's been great to re-live the trip by writing this and editing the 800-odd photos taken as it helps to cement it in our minds as everything was so full-on at the time.

Flying from Beijing to Hong Kong was only a bit over 3 hours and we arrived to high temperatures and crippling humidity.  We were staying at the Park Hotel in Kowloon, right amongst the shops and restaurants.  The Park isn't to the standard of the hotels we stayed at on the Chinese mainland but is nonetheless well-appointed and comfortable.  The staff were excellent and the dining room for both breakfast and dinner was superb.

During the last part of the China trip, we'd both developed coughs and colds so the plan was to take things a little easier.  Ha!  The best-laid plans.....

A Kiwi friend of ours (thanks Bruce!) had lived in HK for 3 years and before we left, had given us a great guide of things to do and see.  The weather forecast (high temperatures, low cloud and heavy showers) affected our plans but we were able to hire a guide (Rex) to show us the sights, some well-known and others less so which provided a great mix.

Kowloon waterfront, looking towards Hong Kong Island

Note Jennie's light cotton top, she's a sight smarter than me.  I wore a lightweight travel shirt which was darker in colour.  With the humidity and heat, we were both soaked with sweat in minutes. Jennie looked as fresh as a daisy throughout and I looked like someone had chucked a bucket of water over me.  (Ok, dangerous mistake on my part - ladies don't sweat, they glow, sigh....).  By the way, the observation/ferris wheel across the harbour is 60 metres tall, just to give an idea of scale.

Hong Kong Island

The observation/Ferris wheel is 60 metres high and the International Commerce Building on the right is 484 metres and apparently the 9th highest building in the world.  No charge for these fascinating facts.  We crossed the harbour on one of the ferries shown in the photo which only took a few minutes.

About to get on the Ferris wheel

Jennie looking fabulous, me looking like I've fallen in the harbour

Great views from on high

At the start of the tour, we were under the distinct impression that our tour consisted of mainly motorised transport as Rex rattled off the words, ferry, open-top bus and tram.  These were merely short connectors to what was essentially a walking tour covering several kilometres in sweltering conditions.  Our plans to take it easy were rapidly coming off the rails.  Oh dear......

Next stage was a trip on an open deck bus for half a dozen stops to the next part of the walk.  At least the breeze sitting up top helped dry my shirt out in readiness for being soaked again.

Yup, that's tall all right - all 118 storeys of it

Arty farty reflections

Traditional Chinese medicine outlet (I think)

Lovely blossom in a courtyard

Scooter with decent weather protection - a good idea in Hong Kong

Bye bye bus - back on foot

Traditional bamboo scaffolding - not much in the way of lashings!

Our guide Rex, thought we might to see something a little different from routine sightseeing, which is how we ended up at the old Police Married Quarters (PMQ)!  Originally opened in 1951 to provide accommodation for an increase in police numbers, the small multi storey apartments often housed large families.   One example had 9 family members living in an apartment of 350 sq ft!  Beds were tiered or simple fold-away mattresses and cooking and meals were often done on the balconies outside the apartments.

Model showing the original apartments

In 2014, the building was re-purposed and turned into studio workshops for creative young designers and the like at attractive rents. We wandered round several floors and these designers and artisans were producing some impressive art objects, jewellery, paintings and so on.

Apartment converted into a designer store

Cool children's chairs

Nice place to chill between the two apartment blocks

A painted "graffiti" wall on one of the side streets

Next spot was a stroll round the old central police station, jail and courthouse.  Part of the complex dates back to 1864.  It's been renovated with part of it showing what the jail was like, plus cafes and restaurants.

  Shadow projection in a cell showing corporal punishment

Two new arrivals being processed!

What was once an exercise yard for prisoners

We were rather taken by the tree at the far end of the photo above.  Although they can't be seen in the photo, it had gorgeous pink flowers.  A plaque said that it was Plumeria Rubra or Red Frangipani, native to Central and South America. Really attractive.

Plumeria rubra

We were becoming rather footsore with the slog in such taxing conditions but thoroughly enjoying diving in and out of the lanes and alleyways.  Next stop was Pottinger Street, extremely steep with uneven cobblestones.  Bad enough in dry conditions but would be really tricky when it's wet.  There are market stalls towards the bottom which Jennie took advantage of for a bit of shopping.

Steeper than it looks

After a bit of shopping, we hopped on one of HK's famous trams to get us to a place where we could have some afternoon tea.

Hong Kong tram

Tram internals - nice to rest our feet

Photo op - soaked through again and stuffed

Rex lead us to the tea rooms which were at the top of some narrow and winding stairs and said his goodbyes after showing us where to find the nearest underground station (The MTR) which would take us back under the harbour close to our hotel.  Really enjoyed his company.

A delicious selection of cakes for afternoon tea

Refreshing China tea

Negotiating the MTR including changing trains was incredibly easy with good signage and trains departing every couple of minutes.  Why can't every country be that good?

The other thing which was really noticeable was the sheer number of supercars in the streets - Lamborghini, Maserati, Porsche and so on.  Given that they would rarely get out of first gear, status was clearly the main objective.  Of all the high end cars, the Tesla electric brand had a significant presence.  Far more practical for Hong Kong conditions, I would have thought.

We had the best part of another day in HK but with our sniffles and with it pouring with rain, we decided to chill in the hotel before heading for the airport in the middle of an electrical storm.  Fortunately, our flight departed on time and we were able to lie flat and get some reasonable shuteye before landing in Auckland some 11 hours later.

A wonderful holiday full of surprises and meeting lovely people.  Wonder what's next?

Friday, 21 June 2019

Travels in the Land of the Dragon, pt 7

Beijing, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City

Another early start to avoid the worst of the day's heat and crowds - it was a 3 day public holiday.  At least it was in Beijing itself and only a half hour drive from the hotel.  It involved over 4 hours of walking in high temperatures, covering a good few kilometres so good hydration and walking poles were a great aid to enjoying the day.

On the way, it was a good opportunity to look at the architecture and Beijing was like the other centres we visited - modernising at a rapid pace, good infrastructure and clean.

Home base of China Television

Modern hi-rises

Like any other city in the world, only with more courteous and patient drivers

Arriving in Tiananmen Square on a hot sunny day, there was little or no personal sense of history or connection back to the photo which captivated the world of the lone protester standing in front of a tank almost exactly 30 years ago to the day.  It was planted with colourful flowers and although the government buildings and museum which  flanked two sides were more severe in terms of architecture, there was nothing particularly remarkable about it.  Just a pleasant area to stroll about in.

Tiananmen Square - a landmark place in the world from another time

Mass plantings in the Square

On one side of the square was the entrance to the Forbidden City with a photo of Chairman Mao, showing that he hasn't entirely been consigned to the past.

Chairman Mao gazing across Tiananmen Square

The one emotion which struck both of us on entering the Forbidden City was one of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the undertaking - it's HUGE. Constructed in the early 1400's, it consists of 980 buildings and covers some 180 acres.  Mind-blowing stuff.

Spectacular glazed roofing tiles and ornate decorations

Amazing detail

An internal moat

Only a fraction of the total area

One of the many lanes leading to other parts of the complex

Large bronze dragon

It's a big walk in hot weather and we were more than ready for a late lunch.  Eating out, particularly among young people is as popular in China as it is in the West and there were large queues at some restaurants which were clearly favourites.  As always, a great selection of quality foods.

Colourful restaurant entrance

Spoiled for choice!

Delivery service on the restaurant strip

On our last night in China, we went along to see the Legend of Kung Fu show.  It's a story about a young monk's mental and physical journey to becoming a warrior monk, encountering physical and mental challenges along the way.  As with the previous show, world-class computer-aided visual effects supported the performers.  It was fabulous and easy to see why it's renowned, both in Beijing and when it goes on tour round the world.

The novice monk being initiated

The novice growing up

Into training

Into temptation.....

Finally becoming a warrior monk - full circle

After the show, it was final goodbyes to the people we'd become close friends with as Jennie and I would be the first to leave early in the morning for our connection to Hong Kong and doing our own thing.  Sad, but hopefully, we'll catch up again sometime.  

Some general thoughts about the China part of the trip.

Viking.  Outstandingly organised in every respect.  Although we've travelled extensively (mostly on land-based trips but a couple of other cruises), it was our first trip with them. We were seriously impressed with both the itinerary and organisation - pretty much faultless.

Viking escorts.  All the escorts on the trip were ultra-competent and couldn't do enough for their groups.  As previously mentioned, our escort Iowa (Aihua Xian) had extraordinary people and organisational skills.  A tireless worker with an unflagging sense of humour.  I would have jumped at the chance to employ him pre-retirement.  A great ambassador both for his company and country.

Airlines.  Chinese airlines and airports are modern and efficient - no adverse comments whatsoever.  We arranged our international travel through our regular NZ travel agent.  It was Cathay Pacific business class and it was really good.  The main reason for travelling business class was to be able to sleep horizontally on a long haul and hit the ground running.  The best business class airline we've ever experienced is Qatar Air.  Fantastic in all respects which made an 18 hour non-stop flight to Doha tolerable.  They have justifiably won world's best airline again. 

China.  Hugely impressed with the rate of progress, infrastructure and cleanliness. People treated us with warmth and friendliness everywhere we went.  It's easy to forget among the political posturing between nations that most people everywhere want a safe, comfortable life and are thoroughly decent people.  It's normally the politicians and their self-interest who screw it up for others.

Rating the trip.  Going on safari through Kenya and Tanzania in a Toyota Landcruiser has been our No.1 vacation but that's a highly personal choice, longer and more expensive.  However, the China trip is right up there in terms of overall enjoyment and seeing another culture.  Highly recommended to anyone.  From our perspective, the trip starting in Shanghai and ending in Beijing was ideal for us as it progressively increased the amount of walking we did and was good preparation for the longer walks at the end of the trip.

Beijing airport business lounge - got it to ourselves for the trip to Hong Kong!


Next and final post - Hong Kong

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Travels in the Land of the Dragon, pt 6

Beijing and the Great Wall

The flight to Beijing started well with loading being spot on time and it went downhill from there!  Thunderstorms in the Beijing area had caused inbound flights to be delayed and we missed our take-off slot.  Consequently, we sat on the tarmac for over two hours until another window opened.  Everyone was completely philosophical about it and time passed quickly with passengers intermingling and chatting together.  Unfortunately, the additional time meant that we missed out on a tour of the old quarter Hutongs in Beijing by rickshaw but again, it was just a case of c'est la vie.  The Kerry Hotel was yet another 5 star hotel.  A little older than the others but still lovely and very welcoming.  It had the best pillows I've ever slept on.  Oh for a bit more space in our luggage, haha!

Let me start with a bit of flippancy, which may be a pointer towards what passes for my sense of humour and also my engineering background.  The next photo is not normally associated with a blog on travel.  May I introduce the toilet in our Beijing hotel.

Not quite a life of its own but initially seemed like it

First trip to the bathroom was slightly unnerving.  It senses your presence and starts a discreetly hidden fan to.... well, you know.  It also auto-flushes when one walks away, either standing up or sitting down.  Hours of fun could be had trying to fool it!  The seat and lid also raise and lower like a medieval drawbridge at the light touch of a button.  A small light also comes on as one approaches.  Presumably a helpful aiming device for the middle of the night without bringing you into full consciousness.  But wait, there's more......

Note the silver control panel mounted on the wall.  One may select jets of water of varying temperatures, velocity and spread, directed at selected parts of one's anatomy for varying reasons (with uncanny accuracy, I might add).  Indeed, some guests may never leave their room but this description does not constitute an admission, you understand.

I'm not sure whether it's the engineer in me or a warped sense of humour but it wins my prize for an unnecessarily over-engineered appliance, not to mention providing temporary amusement!

Right, back to sanity........

The drive to the section of the Great Wall in the Badaling Hills was about 90 minutes or so from our hotel.  It was an early start to beat the crowds and the worst of the heat on a cloudless, humid day.  Not long ago, this section of the wall would have required a substantial trudge over steep terrain to reach the base of the wall.  However, a funicular elevator has been installed to get you a lot closer which was a godsend.

Funicular elevator

A few minute's walk from the top of the elevator and we were on the top of the wall.  I'm normally a calm, unemotional type but internally, I was a jumble of emotions with the wall under my feet and looking at it stretch out into infinity.  Having marvelled for 60 years or so at one of the greatest achievements of mankind, never having imagined that I would be one day standing on it; was an overpowering and glorious sensation.  We walked for a few kilometres along the wall in temperatures around the mid 30's C and high humidity.  Regular hydration and walking poles helped enormously.

Stretching into infinity.....

Some steep and uneven sections


Some pretty hostile country


Old geezer and Jennie inspecting something on the wall


In a trip full of highlights and surprises, the Wall was my personal highlight.  I think it was the knowledge of it over the decades and never thinking I'd actually see it which was the clincher, plus the sheer endeavour which mankind is capable of when it sets its mind to achieve something.

Coming back to the parking area, the beautiful topiary was a sight to behold as per the photo below.  Not neglecting my motorcycling friends, I also photographed a motorcycle in the car park.  Most powered 2-wheeled vehicles in China are scooters and virtually all proper motorcycles no bigger than 250cc.  We did see a bunch of large capacity bikes whilst we were heading to the wall, but these may have been tourists from Hong Kong or similar.

Colourful topiary

Motorcycle in a Wall car park

Lunch back in Beijing was a delicious multi-course affair accompanied by excellent cold beer and some of the local fire water at 56% alcohol which took your breath away.  Well worth trying though!

Kathryn, Richard, Greg and Janet - wonderful company and lots of laughs


Lethal stuff - down it in one hit, don't sip!

The afternoon was to become a rather expensive exercise with a visit to a jade factory!  Naturally, the bracelet which Jennie fell in love with happened to be top quality jadeite with gold settings.  Must say that the workmanship was exceptional. Hmm..... must get it insured.

Amazing attention to detail

To walk off lunch, we had a stroll down the Ming Tombs Sacred Way, which stretched for nearly 2 kilometres.  Lunch and heat made it a bit of a challenge but it was both picturesque and interesting.

Sacred Way entrance

A long haul to the other end

Richard, Kathryn, Jennie and me by one of the many carvings along the Sacred Way

Driving back through Beijing, we went past the Olympic stadium and swimming complex - pretty impressive.

 "Birds Nest" Olympic stadium

Having missed the rickshaw ride in the Hutong area, Iowa organised a casual walk through this old area of Beijing.  Being old and traditional, the housing isn't grand but it represents a past way of life and it was fascinating.  It seemed somewhat of a clash of old and new with new BMW's and Mercedes parked outside some of the dwellings.

The alleys of the Hutongs


Hutong courtyard and house frontage


Part of a private courtyard in the Hutongs



Interesting 2 seat 3-wheeler just outside the Hutongs


.... and a rather well-used one inside the Hutongs


There was a communal meeting square for the Hutong residents and there were loads of them out enjoying themselves with various activities.  We were fascinated by a woman who had some real skills keeping what looked like an oversized badminton shuttlecock constantly on the move.  I took the following two videos.

Now that's skill!

A whole heap of fun!

After walking a pretty substantial distance during the day, we stopped to have a tea demonstration - how to make it and tasting various teas.  I must say that there was a huge variation in taste, most of them being delicious and refreshing.  The young woman who gave the demonstration was great fun.  She picked on about three of us regarding age, waistline and ummmm..... stamina, suggesting that proper Chinese tea would transform us!  Much hilarity from wives and the rest of the group!

Tea-making demonstration with a sassy young lady

The day wasn't quite finished and some of us headed out that evening for a traditional wood-roasted Peking Duck dinner prepared in the traditional way which was utterly delicious.  Some tired and well-fed people tumbled into bed that night!

Peking Duck being carved


Slightly worrying bird-shaped pastry desserts!


Next - Beijing, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City