Saturday, May 30, 2009

Hong Kong - The One True Love of My Life.

Oh Hong Kong, How I Love You, Let me Count the Ways...

In all seriousness, when you're going through some serious junk in life, there is no better city in the world to be in than Hong Kong. You can't help but get caught up in its vibrancy, bright lights, gorgeous islands, and excitement and forget everything else. This was trip #2 for me to this vivacious city and it was just as good, if not better than the first.

We had just about 5 days to spend in this city, and we didn't waste a minute. First, after checking into the Marriott Courtyard on Hong Kong Island, we went down to Central via the trolleys, which are just so fun. We walked around a bit, gazed at the skyscrapers, as ya do, and then walked over the land bridge and watched all the construction of the land reclamation. Amazing that they can just build something out of nothing - and make the harbor smaller at the same time.

Took the star ferry over to Kowloon and had a few pints at Delaney's Irish Pub, before heading out to have dinner with some Hong Konger friends. We had an amazing night of Chinese family, Chinese food & beer, and catching up with friends (and a new baby!).

Ferry away from HK Island

New Baby! Good Friends!

Day two found us getting up early and heading out to the islands. Do yourself a favor - if you ever get to Hong Kong, don't stay in the concrete jungle the whole time. While HK & Kowloon are amazing, HK's real fun lies elsewhere. We took the ferry out to Cheung Chau and walked around the whole island (takes about an hour and a half or so) where we met a man in his 60s from England who told us about living in various countries during his life in the army, and being the author of a few books, his his crazy life, then and had lunch by the water. Next, we took another ferry to Peng Chau, which is much smaller, and has less to offer, but still beautiful and has some good hiking trails. To end our night we ferried over to Discovery Bay, which is where the richest of the rich live and play. Five star restaurants and Irish pubs in an area along the beach, where we stopped to have dinner. The owner of this steakhouse we went to, ended up giving us free liquor all night and after having my first go with Grappa, we were all pretty smashed and ferried back, drunkenly, to HK Island. Let me just say that this ferry was so amazing - high speed hydrofoil - completely set up with free wi fi. THAT'S how you know you've just spent time on the richest island... most ferries don't come with such luxuries.
View atop Cheung Chau's highest point:

Cheung Chau's Main Street/Fat Guy Little Bike:

A long walk off a short pier in Peng Chau:

Anyway, Day 3 we had brunch with the Director of the Syracuse Study Abroad program near HK University, and then we ventured to try out the new Crystal Cable Cars on Lantau Island to head up to the Giant Buddha. While I saw this last year, its such a cool area that it's worth seeing twice. We took one of the world's craziest bus rides down the island and headed over to Tai Wo, a village completely on stilts. We had lunch in one of the shops, walked around a bit, and then got on one of the boats to go on a Dolphin Watch. Hong Kong is home to pink dolphins that are actually the color of bubble gum. They're unique to the area and their color is unexplained. We were unlucky in seeing them though. Tai Wo was one of the coolest places I've seen though - the tide comes down so low that its a trickle of water, but comes up so high that the houses must be built on stilts many meters high just to keep the villagers dry. We came back that night to Central Hong Kong and went out in Lan Kwai Fong to some swank clubs and bars with some local girls that my friend had met previously... but being exhausted from all the hiking we had a few beers and headed back to the hotel.

Cable Car & Buddha:

Tai Wo:

Our last full day, we headed out to have some delicious Mexican Food at Taco Loco in the Mid-Levels, play some cards at the diner in Lan Kwai Fong, and then headed out to the New Territories to have dinner at a local seafood place where you pick the catch out yourself, bring it to the restaurant, and they make it in any style you want. First we had tea with an SU professor, who before dinner drove us out to the HK Wetlands. UNbelievable that an area as small as HK has one of the largest most important wetlands in the world.

We enjoyed a night out playing Chinese card games with our friends, and drinking in Kowloon. The next morning was our last, and we woke up for massages in Central HK, and then had Dim Sum with our friends before heading to the airport to return to our various places.

Oh Hong Kong, you steal my heart every time... I'll be back soon enough.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Adventure Continues On: CHINA!

It was nice to get away from all the drama of the past couple months. In April I spent nearly two weeks in Southwestern China & Hong Kong. Flew into Chengdu, met up with friends a day later, and then we overnight trained it to Kunming. Afterwards, we flew to Shenzen and walked over that beautiful, beautiful border to Hong Kong.

Chengdu was an unexpected delight. I got in a day before my two friends did due to their lack of understanding numbers and dates, but it worked out really well. I stayed at the Sim's Cozy Garden Hostel, and it might have been the best hostel experience I have personally ever had. First, I booked a 3 person suite because I assumed there would be 3 of us, and since there wasn't was just going to eat the cost. However, since the hostel was not full, the staff was so sweet that they just put me in a single room for the night which was much cheaper. And having a huge double bed with my own bathroom was a nice way to start my trip. Woke up bright and early and decided to walk around the city. Just took a map and asked them to point me in the direction of town. Now, if I had been smarter I would have done the Panda preserve this day as I learned it was definitely an early morning activity, but instead I had a wonderful day of walking and sight seeing. I stopped by the WoLin Monastery, one of the 4 largest buddhist temples in China and had tea for a few hours while reading my book in their tea garden. Beautiful weather, incredibly nice Chinese people... couldn't have asked for a better day.

Sim's Cozy Garden as seen from my room ^^
WoLin Monastery Grounds vv

My friends showed up that night and we walked around and drank a bit (gotta love that Tsing Tao) on some street corners and set off the next day to wander around town a bit more. We spent the next night at the Sichuan Opera at the recommendation of Sim (the Hostel owner) and he swore by it so much that he said if we hated it, he would refund our ticket price. Well, the man from Singapore did not lie. The Sichuan Opera was incredible, and perhaps the word Opera is a bit strong. It's more reminiscent of a 1920's vaudeville act with Chinese flair than a boring ol' Opera. There were fire breathers, and puppeteers, and bands. Excellent experience in an outside theater with tea & peanuts at your seat, and offers of ear cleaning and massages while you waited for the start. We spent our last day renting bikes and biking out to one of the people's parks in the main area of town and finding food. My counterparts might not agree with me, but Sichuan food is some of the best food I have had in the world. The spices they use are just otherworldly and delicious. I had these cold noodles in a red spiced glaze twice in my 3 days, and still crave it. They were just at street food stands, and super cheap.

No Trip to China is complete without a viewing of Mao^^

The Sichuan Opera ^^

Funny Grass Signs are the Park vv

We booked an overnight train from Chengdu to Kunming that totaled 22 hours. We chose the soft sleeper cabin, and in my mind there is no better way to travel in China. The three of us had our own 4 person cabin, and enjoyed the unbelievably surprisingly gorgeous countryside views of China. The only thing that ruins it is the sporadic factory dotting the hills and fields, but eh, such is China.

Kunming is almost tropical. It's fairly close to the border of Laos and has red dirt and palm trees everywhere. It's a small city, but has been rated the most liveable in China (Chengdu being #2). We stayed at the Cloudland Youth Hostel, and while no where near as incredible as Sim's Cozy Garden Hostel, it did offer clean rooms, free wi-fi, a convenient location, and a decent restaurant. We stayed in a dorm since their private rooms were all booked, but it wasn't a terrible experience.

We did a tour of a number of Kunming's parks and did some hiking in the 3 days that we were there. Kunming is vastly green and mountainous and is truly beautiful. We even went up to the tomb of the man who wrote China's national anthem, and it was much more lavish than the tomb of the man who wrote the Star Spangled Banner, I can tell you that (his grave being in Rome, NY and has very little fanfare surrounding it).

After spending a significant amount of time in these two cities, I would never again recommend Beijing or Shanghai to anyone. Those cities are great don't get me wrong; they're worldly, beautiful, and the epitome of China's future & history. However, if you want something that's distinctly Chinese, a place where English is around, but not enough to be used, cleaner air, natural beauty, and has an abundance of traditional culture, head to another part of China. I mean - this guy looks relaxed doesn't he?