Choo Choo Trains and Hong Kong
Friday, Nik and I took a casual morning at our Yangshuo hotel to catch up on emails, blogs and general news on the internet. I also logged on to Skype, and was able to talk to my sister and her family for one last time while we were in Asia. It was nearly 10pm her time, so I didn’t expect to see my oldest neice, Aubrey, because her bedtime is normally around 8pm. So you can imagine how excited I was to hear, “Mommy, make it bigger” in a little 3 year old voice as our webcams connected for the first time. (She was talking about the camera display of me on her computer screen)
Aubrey and I chatted for a little while. I asked her how her day was and she gave me all the details. Then I learned that they are now calling me “Toot” because of a children’s book I gave to Aubrey a few years ago called “Toot and Puddles” where Toot is a little piglet that travels all over the world while his best friend, Puddles, is happy to stay at home. Of course, they correspond with postcards so that Puddles knows what Toot is up to…and that is one of the many ways I have found to talk to Aubrey, so it’s appropriate that I am now nicknamed Toot.
Then I told my niece that I was going on a Choo-Choo train tomorrow, and she was very excited. Of course, my sister explained that my train probably won’t look exactly like the trains she is used to, but I still promised to send Aubrey pictures of my adventure, so here they are, beginning with one of many Choo-Choo trains.
Nik and I arrived in Hong Kong on the overnight sleeper train from Guilin on Saturday morning around 10:30am. Wait, I take that back. We arrived in Schenzhen, a town in mainland China that hosts the border between China and Hong Kong, at 10:30am. We didn’t actually arrive in Hong Kong until 2pm after a torturously long procession through customs. I will never complain about the customs lines at the airport any more after this one. Not only was everything being conducted in underground subway stations where every check point was a mile away from the previous one, but we were also carrying all of our luggage AND there were about 50,000 other people trying to get into Hong Kong at the same time. Luckily we had slept a little bit on the train because we had our own 4-person cabin to ourselves, and we were smart enough to bring some snacks with us. So it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but we still arrived a little tired and very hungry.
Once we were through customs, we made our way to the Lo Wu MTR station and boarded the East Rail Line train that took us into town. Three connections later, we arrived at the Causeway Bay station on the Island Line and made our way through the upscale underground shopping mall before emerging into the Times Square plaza that was filled with this beautiful art installation by Carrie Chau. We whizzed past all of the Chinese teenagers taking photos of themselves, and found our hotel, The Causeway Bay Guesthouse. As expected, the alley was narrow and the room was teeny tiny, but it was impeccably clean and the manager that greeted us was extremely gracious. We set down our bags, relaxed for a bit, then took off to explore the neighborhood before dark. We came back pretty early and called it a night to rest up for the next day.
Sunday morning we found pastries at a local bakery then stopped by McDonalds for good cheap coffee, and headed to Victoria Park. Victoria Park is one of the largest urban parks in Hong Kong, just north of Causeway Bay. We had hoped to see the morning exercises like we did in Beijing, but we were a little late so we only saw a few stragglers. We were able to catch a few of the more Anglo weekend sports like bocce ball, tennis, swimming and basketball.
We also witnessed one of the most phenomenal things I have ever seen. Around 10am on Sunday mornings, the women of Hong Kong and surrounding areas flock to the Causeway Bay, Admiralty and Central neighborhoods. At first, I thought they were coming to shop because these areas are really just huge street level shopping malls, but no. They were coming here to be here. Sure, some were shopping, but most were sitting on the sidewalks, streets, stairs, park benches, overhead walkways and underground subway connections chatting and eating with their friends. They were in groups of 4-15 and each group staked their claim by patchworking small plastic squares together, and some even built extravagant cardboard walls to protect them from the view of their neighbors. It was like one huge city-wide pre-game tail gating party, only there weren’t any tails and there was no game. They were all women, they all had delicious home cooked food, and they all took their shoes off before stepping onto the sacred plastic picnic cloth. Absolutely fascinating!!!! And if you happen to know more about this bizarre ritual, please let me know.
Back to Nik and I’s day. As with most of the cities we have visited, our first day was spent wandering through the streets seeing what we could see. After Victoria Park, we made our way to the water’s edge and around the exhibition center, and realized that this town really is amazing. It has a huge, busy and beautiful waterway that is respected by the people that live here as well as those that travel here, and it works as a major international port. We eventually made our way to the Central area to go to the IFC Shopping mall because Nik wanted to check out the Apple retailer to gaze at his new dream computer, the all-aluminum MacBook Pro, then we walked around the streets to find a camera supply store that no longer exists so Nik could look at the wide-range Nikon lenses and look into a camera cleaning kit. After visiting 3 of the Apple retailers and no less than 8 camera stores, he decided he wasn’t ready to buy the computer and did purchase a small camera cleaning pen. It was a successful shopping trip in his mind…to me, it was a little silly. But I can’t complain because I did get to see the city, which was my only goal for the day, and there was a continuous stream of women tail gating on the sidewalks, so they kept me entertained!
We also made our way to the Central Mid-Levels Escalator, which is the longest outdoor escalator system in the world and spans over 800 meters. It carries pedestrians from the commercial center up the steep hillside into the “mid-levels” which is filled with residential towers, little boutique eateries and shops. The escalator was opened in 1994 and we could tell that it has created a thriving vertical main street that would not have been possible without it. No one would have ventured that far away from the subways and streetcars on foot just to go to a little Italian restaurant. But now, they take a leisurely fifteen minute ride on the escalator, and they’re there.
Unfortunately, the highest point of the escalator was beyond the scope of our little tourist map, so we had to wind blindly through the midlevels hoping we were going the right way for at least an hour. Luckily, Nik has a pretty good sense of direction and we made it to Hong Kong Park around 4pm. This was not a specific goal, but it turned out to be fantastic. Hong Kong Park has a pretty large walk-through aviary that houses over 600 birds, and we walked in around 4:15pm, which is about an hour before sunset, so the birds were very active. They were so beautiful and colorful that we sat there until they closed at 5pm. It was getting pretty dark, so Nik wasn’t able to take many good photos, but the ones he did are beautiful.
After that, we headed back to the hotel and Nik did some work on his computer, and I went back out to wander through the bustling late night streets of Causeway Bay. I window shopped and people watched until 10, but I had to retreat to get my beauty sleep for the next days’ adventures.
Monday, after pastries and coffee, we took the subway across the bay to Kowloon peninsula to wander some more. We started out walking through Kowloon. It was nice, but I couldn’t completely appreciate it because I had the worst headache I have ever had in my entire life. I finally stopped at the restroom to blow my nose and to my surprise, while blowing, my ears popped and the pressure behind my temples subsided. Sorry for the gory details, but I never knew that mucus could clog my head so badly. Needless to say, I was blowing my nose every 20 minutes for the rest of the day. It seems like my body likes to break down after a month of constant travel. I couldn’t keep anything in my stomach after a month in India, and now I can’t seem to keep stuff out of my head in China.
After the park, we wandered through the neighborhoods, which were a bit more work-a-day than island, and once again, went to a shopping mall to find a decent lunch. Then we tried to find the industrial harbor, but were unsuccessful and instead found Toys-R-Us. Neither of us had been to one in several years, so it was like time-warping back into childhood. I was disappointed because the entire place was divided by brand, gender and color, and nothing was uniquely Chinese. Oh, and the entire lower level of the shopping mall where the Toys-R-Us was, was filled with designer kids stores. It was ridiculous. Who in the world would pay $2000HKD ($250USD) for a kids pair of jeans? Not me.
Finally, we made our way back to the surface and boarded the Star Ferry boat to cross the bay back to Hong Kong Island, and back to the hotel to rest.
Our goal for Tuesday was to get out of town to see the old walled villages. Of course we didn’t know how to get to them or what they were called, so we simply boarded the train in the direction we assumed would be right, and got off at a station we thought we recognized. From the train station, we saw what looked like an old village, so we left in that direction and found the Shan Heritage Trail. It took us through a bizarre makeshift old/new neighborhood where the only access was by foot, and the distance between structures was less than twelve inches (and this is where all the electrical wiring and plumbing was organized…how did they maintain it? who knows!).
We wandered through there for over an hour and received several strange looks, but were generally left alone. Then we crossed through the train station to a new residential tower complex that was the complete antithesis of the one we just left. Here, the entire old neighborhood would have fit on a single floor of one tower, but there were eight towers with over thirty stories each…which means 240x more people live in the new complex than lived in the old. Pretty insane.
And then it was Wednesday. The last full day of our Asia trip. The last day of completely new things. The last day in Hong Kong. The last day of just me and Nik for a while. The last day of life as we knew it.
I was sentimental, Nik was not. Well, not as much as me anyways. For him, it was just another day of travel.
We had saved the best Hong Kong adventures for last day, the streetcar and the Peak Tram. Lucky for us, the man upstairs had also saved the best weather for our last day. The temperature was warm and the skies were clear, so when we made it up to the top, we were greeted with an amazing view of Hong Kong.
These are the trains that Aubrey will love and recognize!!
*Photos by Nik. And here are his Hong Kong blog posts: