[These "Travel Notes" are just raw brain-dumps, collected whenever I had a chance to sit down and type during the trip. See December's various topics for more reader-friendly post-trip writing.]
A fourteen hour flight, with an hour added for boarding, taxiing, deboarding... in a tight middle seat between two guys who really didn't need the coffee/tea they ordered early... the elbow jabs were not avoided by ceding them the armrests, but the worse part was the stereophonic nose-picking and uncovered coughs. They did calm down during their sporadic ten-minute naps through the flight. I persevered.
Coming back into Hong Kong, I had forgotten the natural beauty of the coves, the mountains, the hazy dawn, the fishing villages, all visible on the airport ride to town. Unexpected happiness at seeing stacks and stacks of air-conditioners in apartment windows.
The new Hong Kong limits on tobacco imports seemed to be aimed at commercial carry... once he saw my three two-ounce tins it became clear that it was for personal use only, and not an issue, even though I was about 140 grams over the duty-free limit of 25g. Didn't have to pay extra. I hope it's as relaxed when I come back from Yunnan, where I hope to score some of the local tobacco. Maybe the measure is aimed at mainland arbitrage.
Yesterday I arrived at the airport towards 6am, and was checked into my hotel by 9am. I'm at the Metropark Hotel Kowloon, 75 Waterloo St... a little rundown, and full of shell-shocked tourgroups, but just a few quiet blocks away from the heart of Mong Kok. After a quick unpack I took a two-hour walk, getting reacquainted with the side-streets, rebuilding the habit to look the wrong-way-around for left-driving traffic. Then a four-hour deep nap.
Jetlag hasn't been a problem. I credit pre-visualization, smart napping, and melatonin. For the week before departure I set a watch to Hong Kong time, regularly drilling myself on what time it "really" was. Even a brief afternoon nap in the days before leaving can set up a two-sleep-cycle kind of day instead of one big sleep cycle, making it easy to flip over into a different two-cycle schedule on arrival. It's hard to tell how effective melatonin actually is, but I do know that I've felt more comfortable when I've had it than when I haven't.
Last night I meandered down Nathan Road to Tsim Tsa Shui, just catching the end of the harbor laser show. CitiBank ATMs were where I remembered them, and I got my Octopus transit card renewed. It took a little bit of work to find Hau Fook Street, nestled between Cameron and Granville, then a little more work to settle on a restaurant... I had been hoping for barbecued pork, but may have gotten there too late. Had some wonderful golden roasted chicken, atop chicken-stock rice -- like Singaporean Chicken Rice, but without the chili sauce. Some excellent mustard greens in oyster sauce, and a glass of iced almond milk. Whole thing came to HKG$50, about US$7.50.
A pint of dark Kilkenny Beer in the foreigner bar district cost HKG$65. Also scored a packet of Bourbon Borkum-Riff tobacco at a cigar shop, but that was like HKG$130... nearly US$20. Wasn't sure how much of this price-doubling was because I was in a foreigner area, how much was due to local regulations.
Back up through Jordan Road area, though Temple Street Night Market, up to Mong Kok Station, down through Ladies Night Market... unsure of distance, because I hadn't yet found where I had packed my pedometer, but I'm guessing 6-7 miles. It looks like the Stinky Tofu stall at 41 Dundas may have moved for pending construction, but I managed to find some other suppliers.... ;-)
This morning I took a six-mile walk up through Khadroorie Avenue and Braga Court... tree-lined mansions of the wealthiest 150 years ago, just blocks away from the most-densely-populated neighborhood on earth. The signs for "Clean up your dog poop" were in English, Chinese, and Malay... it's the domestic servants from Indonesia and Malaysia who actually walk the dogs there. Then out to try to find the remains of the last walled village in urban Hong Kong, Ngai Tsai Wan... I enjoyed the streets of Little Bangkok, and paid my respects to Kowloon Walled City Park again, even though I couldn't find the exact place where the smaller walled enclave had been. Then back to the hotel for an afternoon rest, before going out into the city again.
Thu Nov 4, evening: Odd experience... what could be seen as racism in a crab shop. I'm still ambivalent, but at least I got fed.
The Hong Kong palate is not known for its love of chiles. Across the Pearl River Delta, in Macau, the Portuguese trade with Africa and India brought assertive and fiery spicing. In British-influenced Hong Kong, not so much. Even the Thai food here, sustained by its domestic servants, is said to be sweeter and oilier (and far less chilier-er) than more-worldly Thai cuisine.
So I was always intrigued by the Temple Street Spicy Crab shop(s)... multiple storefronts which seem to be served by a common kitchen. Sidewalk tables, under a tarp for the rain, three corners out of four, on Temple near Saigon. Always wanted to try it, but too crowded whenever I had passed by.
This time I got there by 5pm, when the crew was still shelling shrimp, tables not set up. I waited, smoking a pipe out of the rain under the new Temple Street gates, gently dissuading the Thai massage girls who wanted me to come inside, until I saw some people starting to sit down. I was at the third table occupied for the evening, just before 6pm.
A waiter asked me "Beer?" I pointed to the San Miguel placard on the table, got set up with a 640ml bottle for HK$20. Meanwhile other tables were ordering food, getting served. A half-dozen other tables of Asians later arrived, also had their orders taken, received food. I got up and looked around for the waiters, all disappeared. Looked across the street, and the cook staff were starting to eat their dinners.
Looked around the restaurant. All the tables with food already were Asian tables, even ones that had arrived a half-hour after me. All the food-less tables were non-Asian.
Later, after 7pm, the cooks finished with their toothpicks, got back into the kitchen, and food started coming back out again. Just before I slipped a twenty under my bottle of San Miguel and split, I got my Tung Choi with Preserved Tofu (which was superb), and another ten minutes later got the crab. I had nursed that one bottle of San Miguel for nearly 90 minutes.
The only tables which had been able to order and had gotten their food were Asian. The only tables which hadn't, weren't.
How did I feel? Hungry, of course. Upset about the lack of guidance, sure. The inequality? Well, perhaps we all look the same. Temple Street gets a lot of tourists, and many of them are admittedly kind of dweeby. The same type of treatment with the races reversed would have been a scandal in San Francisco. But San Francisco Values are pretty dweeby too.
I remain ambivalent. The lack of guidance is the mark of stupidity. But it's still rather a stupid primitive planet, so I'm willing to chalk that one up to my own ongoing education.
Very striking though. All the Asians got served nearly an hour before the non-Asians, even those many tables which had arrived after me or the other whiteys. It's their party, though, so they set the rules.
I really liked the greens with fermented tofu though. It's that cheesy type of tofu, which is mashed down into a piquant sauce, a wonderful coating for the stringy greens. I still don't understand what role those chiles play in the normal Hong Kong palate. But at least I finally ate at that crab shop... even if I did have to sit in the back of the bus.
Fri Nov 5: Shenzhen.
I wasn't well-prepared for this trip... finalized my schedule less than a week before leaving, and didn't have a chance to update my maps, nor scope out best places to go. I was happy just to have been able to visit, though.
Shenzhen is the part of mainland China just north of Hong Kong's New Territories. It's the place of the iPhone Suicides, and also Ground Zero of the Shanzhai knockoff culture. Last time I visited Hong Kong, in Spring 2009, I had gazed wistfully across the immigration line at Lok Ma Chau (nothernmost HK railway terminus), knowing that only a visa had kept me from proceeding. This time, with a multiple-entry visa, I was good to go, so I went.
First, the train ride from Kowloon to Shenzhen alone is beautiful, subtropical mountains and oldtime villages... highly recommended even if you do nothing else than look out the train windows, perhaps stop off in Tai Po or other New Territories towns. It gives a very different perspective on the totality of what Hong Kong has to offer, the natural splendor of the greater Hong Kong area.
Once you get off at Lok Ma Chau, you can exit Hong Kong immigration, walk across a river on an enclosed bridge, and enter the Peoples Republic of China immigration. Very dramatic, to be stateless for the five minutes it takes to walk across the river. Very hair-prickling, to realize you're on two different sets of closed-circuit cameras simultaneously.
Fortunately they accepted me, and I exited The Process, to walk freely in Shenzhen.
Had no idea where to go, so I slowly reconnoitred the immediate vicinity. Got a Shenzhen map at a nearby convenience store... wallsized, it was. Negotiated an early lunch at a nearby diner, English-free but with pictures... turned out to be a Denver omelet and fishcakes with rice and tea, similar textures, but good.
A few things I noticed very quickly. It was fun to be in a Mandarin-speaking area again, where I didn't have to doublethink my feeble Chinese language skills. The people were more fun too... many more "Halloo!"s, much more honest curiosity about this odd lone foreigner, and much much much much easier to get a smile from people when I responded to the stares.
I took the subway line a few stops north, to the civic center. It probably isn't representative of the whole, but man, it was impressive... big ol' new buildings, grandiose... the Shenzhen Museum alone was architecturally startling. It seemed like the whole area was just recently redone, like a Singapore done 2000-style. Still had beautiful old Banyan trees shading the sidewalks, don't know how they managed to pull of old growth in new growth like that.
I meandered south, roughly parallel to the subway line, in a light rain. I did manage to find some older buildings at one point, and could see the South China influence. But I was also in international expo area, with biergartens and Brazillian barbeques alongside fresh Chinese fastfood joints and Cartier-style luxury malls. Also saw a few street hawkers making fried noodles on carts. I don't have a good sense of how the whole scene fits together.
Walking eight miles in the rain tuckered me out, though, and it was a shorter jaunt than I would have liked. I saw next-to-zero consumer electronics shops; still don't know the districts. Now that I have a recent detailed map and a lay of the land, I hope to make a day-trip again at the end of the month, when I return to US via Hong Kong.
I was in Shenzhen. That's about all I can say. I was impressed by the expansiveness, the modernity, the natural beauty that I saw. Shallow, true, but one more step forward....
Sat Nov 6: Street markets & subways
Rainy day in Hong Kong, my last day of four here. I'll be coming back for four more in three weeks, so it's not so bad.... ;-)
Jet lag hasn't been a problem, and I usually wake in the middle of the night for the bathroom anyway, but my mind still races a bit towards 3am, so I'm not yet quite fully here. I enter "airplane mode" and let my brain ramble while my body lies still, but it still feels a stopgap. Glad I planned a few days in Hong Kong to handle the timezones, then a few days in Kunming to get used to the altitude.
Walking a heck of a lot. In SF I thought I usually did 3-5 miles a day with up to 8 miles once or twice a week, but with the nifty new Omron HJ-203 pedometer I learned it's more usually 5-7 miles, with peaks about ten. Here in Hong Kong I've been averaging nearly ten miles a day, even when taking it relatively easy. I really enjoy the automatic pace-counting of the device.
Rain started yesterday, light enough to not be uncomfortable, but changing the pedestrian environment enough to revamp daily plans... saw a couple of people get poked today by poor umbrella use, and the little mushroom clouds add volume to the sidewalk, slowing speeds dramatically.
I wasn't sure what I'd be doing until I started doing it. Fallback plan was to do some subway touring. riding out to a station I had never visited, then getting out and walking around. The rain proved light enough that I could explore the north end of Mongkok first. Some of the intersections I remembered from similar walks in spring of 2009, when I spent a week exploring the New Territories... funny how the memories came back, how I knew what was coming next... up along Fa Yuen and the Gold Fish markets north of Argyle, then past Playing Field Road to Fuk Wing, Fuk Wa, Pei Ho and other un-PC street names to Apliu Thieves Market. It was Saturday morning and the scene in full swing, some streets dedicated to traffic, others to street stalls with produce or clothes or other niches.
One new area to me was full of holiday ornamentws... Santas and tree globes and other western seasonalities, quite jovial.
On Apliu St I picked up another 18" keychain (US$3), and a pocket AM/FM radio for local stations in Yunnan, and for baseball next spring (US$7). Then I spent a good hour walking through the electronics shops, seeing what they had for sale.
Mobile phones were still the big thing... dozens and dozens in each storefront, mostly Nokia and Motorola and Samsung and various PRC brands. I wasn't savvy enough to evaluate the prices, but it was easy to see that this was the major portion of many stores' offerings.
There were a few iPhones, usually highlighted towards the front, but very few. And of those, most of those seemed to be in boxes that never mentioned the word "Apple". Now I wish I had checked the San Francisco Apple store to see their actual packaging before coming over... maybe 75% of what I saw triggered my BS alarm, and I caught a whiff of clerk concern when this westerner started looking at the boxes too closely. Apple was a status brand for the customer, but was not the major concern of the retailer. After all those years of seeing pirated Dreamweaver and Flash, it was a little satisfying to see the same dynamic applied to Apple.
Tablets were few, at least at first. Most of the tablet form-factors were actually pocket televisions, or GPS displays. Later, towards the north end of Apliu Street I saw more Apple-branded and Android 1.6 or 2.1 tablets, and variants like "aPad" and more. The iPad boxes seemed poorly printed and did not really mention Apple... slogans like "This changes everything, Again" and "FaceTime", but not what I'd expect from legit packaging. Again I wished I had checked Apple's own packaging before coming over. I did see two stores that had what seemed to be Apple's normal pricing, but I have no idea if those were actual selling prices, or just initial bargaining prices. Guessing, I'd say 80% of the Apple-branded stuff smelled like knockoffs, but I don't know enough to be sure. [Update: Real Apple boxes do indeed say "Apple Cupertino" etc on the back.... ;-) ]
No Samsung Galaxy Tabs, no Dell Streaks, no Android 2.2 tablets. The vast majority of tablets felt like Shenzhen products. At the higher-end Apliu places tablets had a meaningful presence but still didn't seem to be volume sellers. (I have not yet found anyone actually using a tablet on the subway, street or restaurant... all phone-like form-factors.)
I saw a lot of other wonderful items... dog-bark silencers, loudspeakers-on-belts, great hardware tooling like personal mini-torches and precision screwdriver keychains, laser globes, digital calipers... more than my mind could retain. Felt like Radio Shack during Tandy's prime, just updated for 2010. Prices were cheap enough that I could easily have busted my luggage limits had I wished.
By this time I had reached the northern end, at Yen Chow Street and Dragon Center, so I entered the building and rode escalators up, up, up, with wonderfully funky views of Sham Shui Po from above. Sure enough, top floor had the food courts just opening up, and I grabbed a bowl of Sichuan-style rice noodles with preserved vegetables, peanuts and fishballs for less than three bucks, enjoyed the championship ice-skating rink lessons going on nearby. and trundled back downstairs to the street.
(One thing I really enjoy about China is that it reminds me of my youth in Long Island, with rough commercialism just maturing, the Hempstead Farmers' Market stalls (with few farmers), the early strip malls... the energy, the vitality, the raw edges to many of the ventures. Feels alive.)
A little more window-shopping, then I found an alley under a tarp, lit a pipe, started people-watching. That's one of the benefits of smoking a pipe... you can stop in any out-of-the-traffic place and seem to be doing something, even though you're really doing nothing. A guy in a wheelchair rolled into my alley, stood up and dropped his pants to urinate about six feet away. Another street guy had gotten a bowl of noodles somewhere and sat down behind me to eat about half of it before leaving the rest on the street. The strolling police gave me the once-over before deciding I was innocuous. A number of Africans passed through, some in a hurry, some unsure where to go. Indonesian domestics in headwraps, schoolboys in uniforms, very well-dressed young ladies, mothers with grandmothers and infants out on their errands, sweating porters carrying boxes to storefronts... a whole range of people. Sometimes I attracted a curious glance, mostly not.
Then down into the subway. From Sham Shui Po down to Admiralty on the island, then a transfer out to North Point. I got out here, where I had never been before... where Chinatown moved after Sheung Wan and Kennedy Town started getting too upscale. I walked a few blocks, enjoying the street stalls and negotiating the foot traffic, through clothes markets and wet markets and Chinese opera theatres and other activities. I finally found an outpost of the Cafe de Coral restaurant chain and clumsily negotiated a bowl of roast pork noodles and milk tea. Had trouble finding the MTR again, but went back under the harbor and out to Po Lam, out near Clearwater Bay.
This town was beautiful, but very planned... blocks of new 30-story apartment buildings among tropical mountains, pretty near the eastern coast. Banyans and shopping centers and plenty of local buses, and I was very careful to put out my pipe when the signs told me to.
Then back to the MTR, and the Kwun Tong line overland/underland to Mongkok. Some stations were empty, while others packed the bus. I don't know volumes, but it's a safe bet that many of the HK MTR lines carry more traffic in a day than the entire SF MUNI does in a week, and they do it much faster and with higher carrying capacity too. I avoided the busiest parts of Mongkok on a late Saturday afternoon, but the sidewalks were still a sea of people. Down to Waterloo, and back to the hotel.
On this Hong Kong leg of the trip I got reacquainted with places I had seen, explored some more in depth, and visited places I had never been. At the end of the month I hope to do a little more, return to Shenzhen with a little more smarts, and maybe make a daytrip to Macau too. And I still need to discover how Temple Street handles an oyster omelet. Wonderful. :)
o I stumbled across a one-of-a-kind character I had first read about online... an older gent who was one of the few remaining makers of high-quality wire utensils such as strainers and scoops. He had a little stall on Soy near Shanghai. It's possible to machine-manufacture wire strainers, but pro cooks like a certain quality, and he made each strainer by hand, to order. I didn't speak with him or even catch his eye, but I appreciated his presence.
o I often sing while walking, partly because I almost always have an internal soundtrack going, partly to help slow centerwalkers up ahead realize there's someone behind. (Lots of people don't have 360-degree awareness while on the street, and the slower ones tend to weave around the center and make things harder for everyone else.) Tunes in Kowloon included "Winter Wonderland", "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (have you ever heard Bessie Smith belt it out!?), "Little Elephant Walk", "Mood Indigo", many others. I use a straight-up wordless vocalese for the melody, enunciated in percussive semi-quavers, with bass notes during the fills, and a sibilant high-hat on the offbeats. Works very well with the cane in rhythm.... ;-)
o Hong Kong folk would have reason to feel sophisticated compared to others... they're expected to be comfortable in both English and Mandarin (two notoriously difficult languages), and their native tongue is Cantonese, which may be more complex than either. I admire them greatly. I really love the human tonal quality of Cantonese... compared to Beijing-style speech, it's like comparing a polite New Orleans drawl to New Jersey English. Even though I did some cram review I had little opportunity to speak, couldn't get my brain in gear in time, barely even automated the universal "m'goi" (which can mean "please", "thank you", or "sorry").
o Trip out of Hong Kong was adventurous, but in the end, easy. Plane left at noon. At 8am I checked with the lobby whether I had to do anything special... turned out the next one was at 9:10, and it's the start of a multi-hotel run, and I'd probably arrive at 10:30. Tight, for an international flight, but doable. We left more like 9:20. At one of the later hotels, the Grand Century Plaza near Mongkok East station, we pulled away before someone realized she had left a bag in her room. Lots of tight bus turns at that hotel, but we went back and waited while she went up and found it. Then the driver was passed by all the taxis, cars, and trucks on the way to the airport. Then the check-in gate was changed to another terminal, and the boarding gate required a bus ride to reach. Still arrived with plenty of time to sit and wait, however. (One funny thing at boarding... the loudspeaker announcement got stuck in a loop, something like "chi guai boy toy chi guai boy toy chi guai boy toy chi guai boy toy". The glitch fouled the rest of the boarding procedure, and we left a half-hour late. Still arrived pretty much as expected though. Just one of those days.... ;)