I Finally Make It To Sevens Heaven
Anyway, the Chinese restaurants in Budapest are only fair, and I was really craving some good Chinese food, so I decided to go find some – in Hong Kong. After all, November is early summer there and winter was approaching Hungary, so a jaunt to the sunshine, plus some real authentic Chinese food, was irresistible.
Of course, I had made my flight and hotel reservations before all the Hong Kong demonstrations began in early October; I was so pleased to see Murphy was still watching out for me. I’d probably arrive and have to settle for a tent on Nathan Road in Mongkok, one of the premier shopping districts of Kowloon, Hong Kong’s northern appendage.
I chose a small guest house in the Tsim Sha Tsui area of Kowloon, at the southern end of Nathan Road. My tiny “hotel” was located in a large complex of five tall (16-story) apartment-hotel buildings called Chungking Mansions. An acquaintance of mine who was the former police chief of Hong Kong, and who now lives in Australia, was in Budapest for the summer, so I was able to ask him about my choices. When I told him where I was staying, he just shook his head sadly and told me he hoped I enjoyed crowds and hustlers and Indian food stalls and being accosted by hookers. I responded that that was why I traveled.
Anyway, I made my standard preparations: I packed appropriately for the weather (a check of the weather channel revealed it was to be in the mid-70s during the day and low 60s at night, a nice change from Budapest’s impinging winter winds), ensured my toiletries and numerous meds were all present and accounted for and topped up my Kindle (sounds dirty doesn’t it? “Hey, Honey, how’d ya like to top up my Kindle?”) with several new and old favorite books to read on the plane and while crossing Victoria Harbor on the Star Ferry.
My flight was long but relatively easy: took off around 4:30 PM on Thursday, November 6, for a five-hour flight from Budapest to Doha (Qatar), then a two-hour layover and off for another seven-hour flight to Hong Kong. Piece of cake. I ate and watched a movie or two and read my books and even managed a few hours’ sleep on the final leg. Arrived at Lantau Island airport around 2:30 PM on Friday, November 7; the temperature in Hong Kong was around 25 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit); the humidity was 87%.
I found the Tourist Information booth at the airport and got the information and products I needed to begin my Hong Kong adventure. I managed to change some money, picked up an Octopus Public Transport Card and found my way to a local bus that dropped me off right in front of my hotel. Easy as pie.
I entered the main entrance to the Chungking Mansions five-building block, hustling my way past the Indian touts and other hustlers in the main floor lobby area, which was crammed, crammed, full of shops and booths selling everything from electronics to snacks to clothes to jewelry to bedroom slippers. I stared straight ahead, employing the Camel Look I had learned from Mustafa in Egypt; head up and back, look straight ahead and down my nose at the floor in front of me, turning my head neither left nor right, and not even deigning to acknowledge the screaming, shouting, grasping, sellers on all sides. I had learned my lesson from a master.
I asked at the Information Desk for directions to Block E. I turned right, turned left and there was my elevator, with the various guest houses noted on a sign for each floor. Each block has two elevators/lifts – one for the even-numbered floors and one for the odd-numbered floors. There was often a wait to use the lifts, going up and coming down. I stood in a short line and after watching the lift go up and down a couple of times, I was able to enter and take it to the 12th floor and there was Flat E1, the Golden Maple Leaf Guest House.
(An excerpt from the Golden Maple Leaf Guest House’s website: “For muscular men and slim women with long legs, please choose rooms with double bed for one person accommodation or give us an advanced notice.” As far as I was concerned, the slim women with long legs could leave their contact details for me at the front desk.)
Anyway, my room was as tiny as I had seen advertised. The bed took up most of the space (although it was on tall legs, so there was plenty of room underneath it to store suitcases, shoes and stray children). The bathroom was the size of a closet and contained a tiny sink, toilet, bathroom tissue dispenser and a hot water heater with attached shower hose. The entire bathroom was the shower. But it was all newly-refurbished and it was clean and neat and Leisha, the owner, was friendly and helpful; I rarely asked for more in my hotel rooms. I quickly changed into shorts and a polo shirt and headed back outside to take my standard orientation tour (no pun intended).
It was still raining lightly when I finally got down to the ground floor, but never let it be said your favorite intrepid traveler was deterred by a heavy dew, so off I went in search of dinner – or a late lunch, if you prefer. I found a nearby restaurant touted by a beturbanned Indian gentleman sporting a great mogul moustache, beard and turban; I couldn’t resist his come-on, so went in and had dinner: spicy beef with mushrooms and peppers and a Tsing Tao beer – a good start to my visit. It was my initial introduction to Hong Kong food prices, and it wasn’t cheap: a total of $92 Hong Kong dollars (HKD). To convert to US dollars, merely divide by 8; so pretty much a standard European price for a standard meal.
And so on to my after dinner walk. First impressions of Hong Kong: it is crowded! So many people. Chinese and Indian hustlers looking to sell all the men a handmade suit; local massage girls; guys hawking ‘copy watches’ and iphones and all sorts of other electronics. These hawkers are ubiquitous but not truly annoying; they don’t chase you down the street as they do in other countries, and if you just ignore them, no problem, they leave you alone after an initial attempt to get you to buy something. So I put on my Camel Look and engaged my Stumble Upon Automatic Detection Radar and wandered around the busy early nighttime streets of Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui district. And pretty soon – sooner than you might expect – I did, in fact, stumble upon a small pub just a couple of streets from my hotel: Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, an obviously Australian-owned bar and restaurant which was likely to offer the sort of evening’s entertainment for which I was looking. (Ned Kelly was an infamous Aussie outlaw way back when; you can look him up on the Internet).
My choice of drink for this first of many nights I spent at Ned Kelly’s was Tetley’s beer, and I’m afraid I imbibed too many of them during the week. I soaked up the atmosphere along with the beers, talked sparingly to the French family (they didn’t have much English and my French is unfortunately limited to “Voulez vou couchez avec moi?”), but we were also joined by Kevin from England who was in town for the cycle races, so it all worked out in the end. The band mentioned they’d be having a jam session on Sunday evening, so I knew I’d be around again. I wandered off around midnight, a very happy and jet-lagged camper.
Saturday started off with breakfast at McDonald’s and then a jaunt down to the Star Ferry Pier, site of the world-famous Star Ferry (what else?), which I rode (free, no less, as a Senior Octopus Card holder) across Victoria Harbor and then had a long walk around the Central District of Hong Kong.
After a brief lunch on the run at an Indian street stall, I hiked up to the Avenue of the Stars, which is at the end of Nathan Road, about 100 meters from my hotel. I walked the famous promenade with all the other tourists and admired the views looking across Victoria Harbor to Hong Kong’s well-known skyline. In preparation for my initial perusal of the Temple Street Night Market, I took the MTR (Metro) to Jordan Road and, on the way to the market, discovered May’s Hot and Spicy House, a small restaurant off on a side street.
Well, it was just outstanding. It’s the only restaurant I have ever eaten in that has every single item on the menu followed by a spicy chili indicator - one, two or three chilis. May advised me to go with the one-chili dishes and I’m glad I did, as even that one-chili pepper steak with veggies was enough to scorch my taste buds. Luckily I accompanied my dinner with a Tsing Tao beer (or two) to help cut the heat, or I probably would have sweated out a quart of liquid.
After all that sweaty shopping and bargaining I felt the need for another beer or three, so it was back to Ned Kelly’s for more music and alcohol. This time I was seated next to a Norwegian ship’s officer in charge of the ship’s electronic systems. Cool guy. He also told me about another nearby pub, Delaney’s, which was actually just around the corner and only about 30 meters from my hotel. I stopped by there on my way home, only to discover they were showing the international rugby match between England and New Zealand. I managed to catch the second half when I found a stool next to James from Sydney. After several Kilkennys, I staggered the few feet to Chungking Mansions and managed to catch the lift without having to wait. Lucky for me.
Slept in Sunday and, since the sun was out briefly, I thought it would be a nice day to go up the Peak Tram. I took the MTR to Central and walked about ten minutes to the starting point of the tram. As I rounded the corner where the line usually begins, I saw the line guide ropes were only about halfway filled; not too bad, about a ten minute wait and I’d be up. I started toward the entryway, when a guard motioned me across the street – to the other part of the line, which must have contained about a hundred people or so and would be at least an hour’s wait, if not more. I figured the Peak could wait until another day, so I continued my acclimatization walk around Central for a while, then caught the MTR to the Diamond Hill stop, got off, had lunch in a noodle shop and walked the fifty meters or so to the Chi Lin Nunnery.
The Nunnery was a peaceful place, full of low trees and pools and Buddhist shrines, none of which allowed photos. I checked it all out then went across the street to the Nan Lian Gardens, another oasis of calm in the middle of the city. The afternoon passed quietly.
On Sundays Delaney’s Irish Pub and Restaurant offered a special roast beef dinner, complete with Yorkshire pudding, vegetables, potatoes and a drink. There were only two other couples in the place when I went for an early meal, so it was quiet and the service was speedy. Love those Sunday English dinners.
The jam session at Ned Kelly’s started around 6:30, which is about when I arrived. This time I was seated at a booth with people from the UK and also with Jan from Denmark. Jan, it turned out, was the liaison person between the local Danish seamen’s Church and Ned Kelly’s, as the supplier of the special Turkish Pepper bon-bons imported from Denmark used to make a drink called a North Sea Oil. This drink consists of stuffing around 20 of the chocolate bon-bons into a half-full bottle of vodka and letting the mixture steep overnight. The next day the mixture was put into the freezer and, when ordered as a shot, taken out, shaken (not stirred) and put into a shot glass for instantaneous consumption. Interesting taste, sort of licorice, but not bad. Jan and I had several that night, with Tetley’s chasers for me. Always fun to find a new taste treat in my travels.
OMG, up at 6:30 to shower and shave and walk up Canton Road to the China Ferry Terminal and hit the watery trail for the 60-minute cruise to Macau. I was able to catch the 7:30 ferry, although the cheap seats were sold out so I took the Super Duper Amazing Luxury Seats (Really! That’s what they’re called! And they were only around $35 US) and settled in for the ride. No mingling with the hoi polloi for this traveler! It was still cloudy so nothing much to see as I whiled away the time, read a book and ate the complimentary breakfast snack that came with my ticket. The seats were like Business Class on an airliner, complete with magazines and barf bags. Of course, the air conditioning was turned on High, so I damn near froze on the crossing.
Upon arrival at the ferry terminal, I sought out the Tourist Information Desk and was so pleased to find it closed. I should have known it was a portent of things to come. Anyway, I managed to find a bus that supposedly went near the main part of Macau’s Old Town, and hopped on to see where I wound up. Asking a fellow passenger about my stop, I was told I had just passed it, but could easily walk back. Great. Anyway, I did end up at Largo do Senado (Senado Square) just before 9 AM; at least the Tourinform office there was open.
As it turned out, Macau was a complete and utter waste of time and money. If you ever visit Hong Kong and someone says you should go to Macau for a day or two, DO NOT GO! Unless, of course, you’re going for the casinos and gambling, that’s a different story. I hit all of the recommended tourist spots and believe me when I say they are all something less than spectacular. In fact, they are something less than average.
Senado Square was small and dismal, and I quickly left it on my way to the ruins of St. Paul’s, which, it turned out, is merely the remaining façade of an old church.
And that was it. Nothing else to see or do if you’re not there for the casinos. I had lunch – finally – at a nice little Portuguese restaurant, Alorcha, where I had some veggie samosa, beef steak with egg and chips, a potent red wine and caramel pudding. I walked around for a bit, then decided to head back to the port, where I whiled away several hours reading. My ferry returned me to civilization by 6 PM. What a wasted day.
An unsatisfying dinner of “mixed vegetables” (it was just kale) rounded out my bad day. I strolled the Avenue of the Stars for a while then hit the sheets. I figured tomorrow had to be better. Such a shame; I was really looking forward to visiting Macau (my 60th country – well, it’s a Special Administrative Region and is listed separately, along with Hong Kong, on the list of Countries of the World, so I figure they both count on my List of Countries Visited).
As things sometimes go in life, Tuesday was a nearly perfect day, in direct contrast to Monday. Up fairly early, I took the MTR to Central Station, then found the Central Bus Terminus and took the express bus to Stanley, a small former port town at the southern end of Hong Kong Island. It was about an hour’s drive through hills and country roads and trees and narrow cliffside roads. The bus dropped us off at the top of the Stanley Street Market and I walked down into the center of the town.
Well, it was excellent. The marketplace was just large enough so I could find all the souvenirs and goodies I hadn’t found in Kowloon or Hong Kong. The people were friendlier and more laid back and the prices were even better (and I could still bargain). I wended my way through the booths along with the other tourists out for the day. Although there were people in the town, it wasn’t nearly as crowded as the Hong Kong city markets, so we all had space to breathe and room to maneuver. I loved every minute of it.
With my purchases in hand (including a really nice Hong Kong rugby jersey), I walked down the short, but colorful, oceanside promenade, complete with restaurants and pubs. I passed on the large Irish pub and a little farther on found my home away from home: The Smuggler’s Inn, a small bar festooned with the leavings of previous visitors: the walls and ceilings were covered with business cards, paper money in small denominations, expired driver’s licenses, photos taken in the bar and elsewhere and lots of handwritten notes from the many travelers who had stopped in for a pint. It reminded me of the For Sale Pub here in Budapest, and I felt immediately comfortable.
Around 4 PM I decided the sun was close enough to being over the yardarm and made myself comfortable at the bar of the Smuggler’s Inn. It was Tetley’s Time! I pinned my business card at the top of a column near the bar and felt good knowing I was once again represented in one of the world’s best bars. The only other customer in the place turned out to be a ferryboat captain from Southhampton, England, named Richard. We socialized away the evening and night and before we knew it it was time to catch a bus back to Hong Kong. We bid a fond farewell to Mary Lou and entrusted our lives to Fireball Kwan, our intrepid bus driver. The trip that took one hour during the day took only about 35 minutes in the dark of night. Richard and I were on the front row of the upper deck and saw every single tree branch and blind curve hurtling toward us with surprising speed.
Safe and sound back in Hong Kong, we took the MTR over to Kowloon and decided on a nightcap at Ned Kelly’s, which Richard hadn’t yet visited. We left the bar around 11 PM or so and I shuffled back to my hotel, content with having spent as close to a perfect day as I was likely to have.
On Wednesday I decided to try the Peak Tram again, so arrived at the jumping off point around 9 AM and, lo and behold, there were only about 10 people in line this time and no one across the street. I rode the tram to the top and exited, eager to see the views and inhale the air and revel in the peace and quiet --- and found myself in one of the tattiest shopping compounds since the Temple Street Night Market. I fought my way through the glut of tacky little souvenir booths and burst out into the Peak’s main terrace and found myself facing --- another shopping mall! On top of Victoria Peak! Talk about carrying crass commercialism way past its limits!
Sure, the views were good, even though it was a cloudy day, and the air was nice and the terraces were lovely in the morning haze, but --- a shopping mall? And not just any shopping mall, one containing high-end brand names and several luxury stores; as if these same stores down below in the city couldn’t suck out enough money from all of the tourists, there had to be even more of them on the Peak. Sigh.
My shoulders slumped with the futility of it all, of trying to get away from such a single-minded consumer mentality even for a few minutes. It was 9:30 in the morning, and not a single full restaurant, of the many available, was open on the Peak, so I had to wait until 10 o’clock to even feed myself. I had hoped for a snack bar and I had found a wide selection of choices. I wandered around looking at the views, which were getting better as the fog cleared, then settled on a dim sum restaurant for my breakfast. Very nice, and even the large insects seemed to approve of my choice, as several of them walked by my table and waved their feelers at me as I ate.
I finally succumbed to my body’s demands and had a nice steak for lunch at the Outback Steak House near my hotel. The price for a nice 8-ounce steak was very reasonable, which is not the case in Budapest, so I thought I’d indulge myself. The afternoon darkened into early evening as I continued my street explorations of Kowloon Park and Connaught Road. You really have to see Hong Kong to believe how so many shops and restaurants and stores can be crammed into such a small space. Of course, people live and work in gigantic skyscrapers, many as high as 50 stories or more. I kept looking up at these amazing buildings and was glad that my flat in Budapest was only on the 4th floor.
I ran into my ferry captain buddy Richard as I was looking for a place to have dinner later in the evening, and we promised to meet up at Ned Kelly’s later on; I was becoming a real regular there. After a light repast of satay chicken, rice and tea I hit Ned's for music around 9 PM and stayed until the band’s final set around 11:30. Once again, I was drawn into conversation with several locals and even got invited to another bar on Friday night.
My visit was winding down to its final days by this time. On Thursday I did more explorations around the Central Hong Kong area, including taking the mid-levels escalator all the way up. I whiled away the day walking and sightseeing around town, including Wan Chai and Causeway Bay and Happy Valley; no rugby matches while I was in Hong Kong, but at least I got to see the famous Rugby Sevens grounds. Had a nice lunch of dim sum again after finding out my favorite hot and spicy house was closed during the day, but mostly just wandered around town. I was at the Star Ferry Terminal by 8 PM to catch the early Pulse Light Show with the rest of the tourists and the few locals who hadn’t already seen it, which was fun and interesting.
Friday, my last full day in Hong Kong, was Quest Day. I always set aside at least half of one day of my visits to strange and exotic places to search for two special gifts for my daughter and her husband Tony. I try to find the local university bookstore to see if they have their t-shirts on sale, as Morgan likes those. And, of course, although they are getting harder find these days, I still check out cities for a Harley Davidson store so I can get Tony a local Harley shirt. And Friday was no exception.
I rode the MTR and then the bus into the hills to the west of Hong Kong and found the University of Hong Kong (HKU). It’s HUGE, but I persevered and followed their maps and asked a few people and was taken pity on by a passing English teacher, of all people, and finally found the visitor’s center. Retracing my steps, I returned to Central and walked along Gloucester Road looking for the local Harley store, which I found without too much trouble. To see if I actually did find the gifts I was looking for, you’ll have to ask Tony and Morgan, but at least it was another fun Quest Day.
Some final shopping in the afternoon and then dinner again at May’s Hot and Spicy House, this time the Pepper Cayenne Chicken (this dish had two spicy symbols next to it on the menu!); mmmm, good, but had to have two beers to go with it. For my last night, it was once again back to Ned Kelly’s for more great music. This time I was seated with Dave from Dallas, who also owned a factory in Miskolc, Hungary! The world just keeps on getting smaller. A late night snack of calamari and a few Tetley’s, and all was once again copacetic. I said a final farewell to my new waitress friends and told them I’d return when possible.
Saturday and Sunday were, of course, travel days. Hit the Hong Kong airport in the early afternoon, leaving plenty of time to check in and clear the various obstacles (screening, customs, passport control, etc). The city continued to live up to its well-earned reputation as the Mecca of Consumerism; the Hong Kong airport is more like a huge shopping mall with planes and runways attached. Yep, all the big name luxury stores were present and accounted for, just to suck that last tourist dollar out of you before you leave forever. My plane left on time at 6:30 PM and arrived in Doha nearly 9 hours later. A few hours’ sleep in Doha airport’s Family Quiet Room and off again at 7:30 AM local time, arriving in Budapest at nearly 11 AM local time. Whew – long trip.
So, Intrepid Readers, there’s my Hong Kong adventure. I turned the heat on in my flat when I got home, unpacked quickly, went out shopping for food and finally caught up on my lost sleep for the next day or two. All for now, have a great holiday season and watch this space for new adventures in 2015.
Suggestions as to where I should visit next are appreciated, as I’m running out of places I want to see.