Friday, December 01, 2006

"Visions of China"

Just back from a very enjoyable and long overdue break to Hong Kong and environs. We stayed in the fantastic Langham Place Hotel high above the colourful chaos of Mong Kok, in Kowloon, opposite Hong Kong Island itself. The Langham is the tallest building in Kowloon, perched above a 'high-end' shopping mall, crowded in with colourful street markets, mad restaurants and more neon than you can shake a stick at. I preferred Kowloon to the smarter 'Central' district on Hong Kong Island. It has bags more atmosphere and I for one felt as though I was in a Japan video for ten days. So, while my lungs are still full of temple incense, and my nostrils remember the stench of corner cafes cooking tripe and the fug of the pollution, some highlights and/or recommendations:-

'Central' is good fun, and reached by Star Ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui at the bottom of Kowloon or a couple of metro stops. We enjoyed the street markets, Hollywood Road 'Antique District', the ex-pat bars and some of the streets that cling against the 'escalator' that carries you up the steep levels. The majority of Central is 'office land' however, like our City but negotiated largely above ground by walkways and shopping malls to keep determined bankers and brokers out of the humidity. Of the bars in the (largely) ex-pat district of Central we spent a very enjoyable afternoon getting hammered with our friend Jon (also over from London) in 'The George' (traditional Olde Worlde pub with 80's music) followed by '1997' (Gay on Fridays but only until 10: they actually take down the rainbow flag and the entire crowd changes within 20mins) and Soda on Wyndham St.

Talking of Gay pubs, there aren't any really apart from Tony's in Bristol Avenue (mental karaoke bar) which was very friendly and seem to really like Brit visitors and Wally Matt's (trad pub), both in Kowloon. Hated the 'Rice Bar' in Central which was empty apart from bunches of funereal lillies and a couple of ancient suspicious looking ex-pats. It's dark and the walls are covered in drapes. We called it the 'last chance saloon'. Out of there in ten minutes especially as the barman wouldn't let me smoke (unusual for Hong Kong... no wonder it was empty).

The street markets are mostly in Kowloon, and very cheap. The goldfish and flower markets are beautiful and very relaxing. The Temple Street night market is amazing, mainly full of tat to be honest but very colourful. Loads of fortune tellers and street food too. Our favourite was the Bird market. I bought a bird cage (God I bought loads of rubbish back, as ever) and we had a chat with a Minah Bird which was hilarious.

Saw some amazing temples, including Wong Tai Sin in New Kowloon which is a good one. Large, with a 'good luck garden' to wander around in and other areas too. Lots of fortune tellers again, and face readers. Amazed that so many small domestic temples are everywhere, on street corners, cemented into walls, in dry cleaners, car exhaust shops. The only places you don't see them are in the sanitised office block area of Central and the shopping malls.

Had a few trips out including to (Portugese) Macau which is worth going to for the Portugese restaurant 'A Lorcha' (have octopus salad followed by clams and pork!) and Lantau which is really tranquil. Of the two Lantau was my favourite. It takes about half an hour from Hong Kong on a ferry to get to Lantau then a bus for a hour to get to the monastery. You can get a combined ticket to go up the enormous bronze Buddha on the hill and a veggie meal in the monastery afterwards (but not with the monks). It's not really spoilt or touristy and I felt very relaxed and at peace with myself afterwards. Of course then we went and sunk ten pints of lager in Central.

Also went to Stanley, a sort of rich ex-pat's enclave with a very touristy market, but it's nice by the harbour and a huge temple to Tin Hau (she's to do with the sea), and a smaller more isolated temple a walk away from the harbour. Went to Aberdeen (nice fishing port) on the south side too, but not much there apart from the wholesale fish market.

We had some astonishing dinners. Breakfasts were solely bacon and eggs in the hotel (call me old fashioned) but the good thing about having a foodie for a partner meant that we tried loads of different places and had some amazing things. I'm not that adventurous normally but we went everywhere from back-street caffs to huge clamourous dim-sum restaurants full of shouting families, main-road noodle bars and out-of-the-way restaurants where almost everything was in Cantonese. In the majority of places we ate in we were the only westerners and it's worth knowing that lots of places off the beaten track have at least one English language translation menu even if it's not strictly accurate. 'Shun De Yummy Fish' is good (you can choose your own eel) on one of the roads parallel to Temple St (possibly Woo Sung St) and 'Heaven on Earth' on Knutsford Terrace is a good Chinese restaurant popular with westerners and locals alike.

'The Peak' is worth going to. If you can cope with the 'white-knuckle' 45 degree tram ride up the side of the hill to the 550 odd metre summit. The safety record is spotless but you never know. The view is amazing if the air isn't too polluted, but there's a ghastly couple of shopping malls at the top. The one you have to go through to get to the actual viewing gallery is just depressing and unnecessary and one of those ones where you are tricked through the shops with no option to bypass them.

I had hoped to see some traditional Chinese painting. Luckily, we caught the last day of the Qi Bashi show at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, traditional views of landscape and nature on silk scrolls. Enjoyed the show even more as reading about Qi Bashi himself (1864 to 1957) he sounds like an awkward old bugger who had strong ideas on how his work should be bought and sold and seems to have spent most of his time thinking up rude signs (in perfect calligraphy) for his studio door to keep out the riff-raff.

Can't wait to go back. Would also like to explore further into China. I normally only ever go west rather than east so it was all new for me.