December 30, 1998 Just call me Tai Pan
I have been reading James Clavell's epic novel of Hong Kong, Tai Pan, and as usual, I have difficulty separating reality from the fantasy world of whatever book I am reading. Clavell's novel takes place in the mid 19th century and tells the tale of the beginning of British colonial development on the island of Hong Kong. Therefore, modern Hong Kong was quite a shock to me. I had this picture of Opium clippers and canon bearing, three-masted warships from HRM Navy, and so on. What I saw was ultra modern, and unbelievably large. Hong Kong is a huge, vertically developed city, with towering skyscrapers as far as the eye can see in either direction. Actually, the skyline is similar to Manhattan in ways, except that there are hills rising up from behind the developed coast of the island. Instead of the Hudson river, the harbor runs between the island and Kowloon, on the mainland. All of the buildings on the island face the mainland, not the sea, although I admit that I not seen the other side of the island, so I have no idea what it looks like.
We arrived at the airport after a pleasant flight on China Air from Bangkok. We had the good fortune to receive an upgrade to the upper deck of the Boeing 747-200. We had giant seats that reclined 45 degrees, with fully extending footrests and adjustable headrests. Each seat comes with its own digital entertainment system, with a selection of in-flight TV, video, shopping, and nintendo video games for free. Kristina and I played roulette for a while, then I tried Street Fighter II, but became bored quickly. As with Royal Nepal Airlines, we had the seats, but without the service. Still, it was comfortable.
Once through customs our level of excitement had increased, for we were about to meet Ed Peters for the first time. Ed and Kristina have been corresponding via the internet for over two years, and had developed quite an e-friendship, but had never actually met face to face. Ed had written to say that he would come to the airport to pick us up, and that we should be looking for the "tall, devilishly handsome chap" standing around between the two arrival gates. As we emerged from customs into the sea of people, we began to look around and try to pick our mysterious comrade out of the crowd. To the credit of Ed's modesty, we picked him out of hundreds of people by following his self description. There were only three people of his stature (six foot two inch Asians being fairly rare) and two of them were butt ugly! That left the dashing young gent who was walking along while looking intermittently at us, as we were doing to him, until I finally mouthed his name: "Ed?" I said clearly enough for the deaf to read my lips, and his face lit up. "Dave?" he mouthed back at me, and the connection was made.
January 1, 1999
Happy New Year
Ouch. I haven't had this much fun in a long time. In fact, our New Year's celebrations have entirely made up for the depressing Thanksgiving and lonely Christmas we experienced. I have to thank our gracious and generous hosts, Ed and Phillips, for inviting us to tag along on the party circuit. We began last night with fabulous Indian food in the company of some good friends of Ed and Phillips, Mark and Angelica, and Angelica's mother. During our meal, we discovered that Angelica's mother lived next door to my great great aunt in Beijing, some thirty odd years ago, and remembered her quite well. It was a marvelous coincidence, and we began the night on a positive note.
From there we took a cab to the FCC, which is the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong. Ed, Phillips, Mark and Angelica are members, and we were in for a terrific evening as their guests. This was the happening place to ring in the new year, without a doubt. Ed explained to me, as he showed me the collection of recognizable photographs on the wall, that the man who shot the famous picture of the Huey airlifting the last people from the U.S. embassy in Saigon was somewhere in the club that night. Also, he said, was an ancient woman whose observation of German troops advancing became the first announcement of the beginning of World War Two! I was impressed. Then he pointed to the big screen TV monitor raised above the bar, where CNN correspondent Susan Yu was delivering some kind of news- I could not hear what she was saying over the band. We are going to her BBQ tomorrow, Ed tells me. Cool. Mark offers me a beautiful Montecristo cigar, "one of Fidel's finest!" he says. I have another martini, which after some instruction, the bartenders have worked out to a science- "No lemon! no twist with the olive! one or the other!" I keep screaming, over the music. By the third martini, they have it down. I am on my way to six martinis and a very enjoyable evening.
The next morning, we wake up way too early, and it
takes at least a minute to focus. I quickly down an entire liter
of water and three advil, and try to put my clothes on in the right order.
Our social schedule is full, and we are off to the next "do". This
party, however, requires that I borrow a shirt and tie from Ed, as it is
the annual egg nog party at the famous Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon.
Now this is what all hotels should be like: first class all the way, with grand colonial architecture, and a Rolls Royce Silver Phantom II, one of two ever made parked out front for guests to rent. Inside, the lobby is simply beautiful, and we are offered a choice of egg nog, champagne, and fresh squeezed orange juice by an honor guard of 30 attendants all in a line as we entered. The servers are circulating everywhere with trays of wonderful canapés. There are sliced smoked salmon crepe rolls with caviar, giant mounds of gravlox on soft black bread wafers with a dill sauce, excellent foie gras d'oie (that's goose liver pate for those of you non-francophiles), and so much more.
I was in heaven. Then the pipers began to play. A troupe of eight bagpipes, of the Hong Kong Police Band, marched into the grand lobby playing amazing grace, and I nearly wet myself. There is nothing quite so moving as the sound of bagpipes, especially when they are playing amazing grace. The resonance of the instrument, which requires no artificial amplification to have an enormous sound, hits you someplace deep and makes you search for your Scottish heritage. I was moved almost to tears, and I wasn't even drunk. Thank you, Ed.
January 2, 1999
As with David, Hong Kong did not prove to be
exactly as expected. I anticipated the high rises, but not the open
spaces. Hong Kong is made up of islands and reclaimed land. There are also,
quite a few hilly regions with no development whatsoever. I think
that's what surprised me the most. Sai Kung, where Ed and Phillipa live,
is a suburb area, around an old fishing village, against a mountain backdrop.
Ed is a travel writer and he and his wife, Phillipa, and daughter Natasha, have lived in Hong Kong for years. They left the UK on an around the world trip years back and wound up settling in Hong Kong. Neither Ed nor I can remember exactly how we met over the internet; I think he answered a query I posted on some site about around the world travel. He has proved to be a fountain of advice and information over the last few years, and now, very generous by letting us stay in their tiny apartment for a few days and shepherding us to various events.
Yesterday afternoon, after spending a few hours trying to recover (me from my chronic cold and David from too much Nog), we went to a party given by Susan Yu, a Chinese American (and fellow Californian) transplanted to CNN's Hong Kong office. I guess I was expecting something posh, but instead we found a familiar site; a tiny apartment filled with 70's dance music, heaps of take-out food and drink, and nice people. We met quite a few expats, most who had been living in Hong Kong for 10-25 years. I met one entertaining, but lecherous older fellow, who introduced himself to me and said, "Nice to meet you, you have nice boobs" while looking down my shirt. I was rendered speechless for the first time in my life, unable to muster a witty reply. A fun time was had by all.
After spending three nights sleeping of the floor of Ed and Phillipa's tiny apartment, we decided it was time to get out of their way. However, Hong Kong is horribly expensive as we have come to discover. I would say it's on par with New York or London for food and accommodation. After spending some time in a couple of discount travel agencies yesterday, we learned that many of them offer discounted rates for local hotels.
The other option for budget travelers is an area in Kowloon called the Chungking Mansions. These are huge, old, high-rise buildings, filled with shops, stalls, and money changers on the bottom floor, and restaurants and guesthouses on every floor above. We checked them out and the elevators are dilapidated, the hallways smell, and the rooms are a pitiful, windowless, run down closet at best. I am not exaggerating when I say that we saw cockroaches and a dead rat in one of the hallways. Now, I'm sure some are better than others, its just a matter of spending the time looking for one. They range in price from HK$150-300 for a double, prices negotiable. At the travel agent we found hotel rooms for HK$350 and up for rooms that the rack rate was over HK$1000 a night. Our room at the Ramada Kowloon was over 60% off the rate in the brochure.
We have been investigating traveling around mainland China for the remainder of our time before we go to Taiwan on the 14th. If we had more time we might have been able to travel on our own, by train, but as usual, we find ourselves operating under time constraints of our own making. So, for the first time ever, we find ourselves contemplating an organized tour (gasp!).
Initially, we looked at an 8 day tour to Beijing (the Great Wall, Forbidden City, etc.), Xian (the Terra Cotta Warriors) and Guile (rivers and caves). However, this proved to be realistically out of budget. We decided that Beijing held most of the things in which we were interested and that we couldn't come all the way to China without seeing the Great Wall, no matter the cost.
For the sake of argument, we investigated prices for the train and for flying to Beijing, and hotels in Beijing versus the cost of the tour. Turns out that the train takes over 24 hours and costs HK$1000, each way. The airfare, round trip was HK$2700, for a three hour flight. The tour includes round-trip airfare, 7 meals, nice hotel, taxes, transfers, and all sightseeing (Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Great Wall, Ming Tombs and Beijing Opera) with English speaking guide for HK$4300 per person for 4 days/3 nights. Yeah, yeah, it's a lot on money, but probably cheaper and easier than trying to do it on our own in the same amount of time.
Our first night in the hotel we went to the Temple
Street Night Market which is mostly a collection of streets stalls selling
clothing, sunglasses, and souvenirs. We were looking for food and found
a group of food vendors set up under a permanent canopy. Although all the
signs were in Chinese characters, the vendors welcomed us in, showed us
to a table and gave us menus in English. The first place we sat featured
a hot pot menu where you get a steaming pot of broth and lots of
goodies, meat, seafood, vegetable, noodles, to dip into it. Unfortunately,
it was pricey for street food, and dinner would have cost us over HK$220.
The next place we stopped featured duck, so we ordered roasted duck, noodles
with pork in broth, and fried prawns with chili and garlic. All good, and
with 2 beers, HK$170 (US$20). Still, as compared to dinner on the street
in Bangkok (US$ 3), it was a fortune.
January 6, 1999
After spending a few days in Hong Kong, seeing the
sights including a wonderful exhibit of Ancient Egyptian art at the
new Hong Kong museum and the world's longest escalator, we decided to go
to Macau for a night. Macau is a former Portuguese settlement slated to
go back to China at the end of 1999. From what I had read, and photos I
had seen, I expected a "little Portugal", complete with European style
streets and buildings, little cafes, etc. What we got was a Chinese style
Las Vegas, or rather more like Laughlin, NV.
We took the Turbo Cat boat from Hong Kong and arrived at our hotel around 2 PM, hungry for lunch. So, we set out in search of a little restaurant and some Portuguese food. We walked all over the town, and discovered many Chinese restaurants, big hotels with casinos, but no Portuguese food. We did see a bit of the old town, the ruins of the old church, and a few pastel colored old buildings, but wound up having possibly the worst lunch in the history of this trip. David actually sent his food back, it was that inedible.
For dinner, our friend Ed had recommended a restaurant
called Fernando's so we set out for that in a Taxi. Little did we know
that it was a long, expensive ride away. Fortunately, the meal was
quite good and we had a nice bottle of Portuguese wine to go with it.
We had planned to do a bit more sightseeing the next morning but we both awoke not feeling well. I had a fever which I proceeded to medicate with Advil throughout the entire day, trying to get it to go down. We went back to Hong Kong and spent the entire day in bed, resting.
January 8, 1999
This morning I woke up with a fever of 103 F and
realized something was really wrong and it was time to go to the doctor.
I had already been sick for weeks, but this was something new and it was
time to use that health insurance we had spent so much money on. We were
supposed to go to Beijing on a tour tomorrow and I didn't want to miss
out on that.
I called the health insurance company, got them to recommend a doctor and off we went to a clinic. My doctor, a Chinese woman who had trained in Washington DC, was wonderful. Of course, by the time I got to her, my mysterious fever had temporarily disappeared. She took chest x-rays, did blood tests, and diagnosed me with atypical pneumonia. Lovely. But, she said I was well enough to go to Beijing. So, back to the hotel room armed with antibiotics, codeine cough syrup, etc. Fever came back, and sure enough a nasty sore throat complete with white spots, so add strep throat to the diagnosis for good measure. At this point all I wanted to do was chuck it all in and get on the next plane home. Waaahhh.....
January 9, 1999
But, we persevere and get on that early AM flight
to Beijing. David also developed strep throat, but managed to fight it
off without antibiotics.
One of the really good things about Hong Kong is their MRT, or subway system, which has a new train that links directly to the airport. They also have two stations in town that allow you to check in for your flight and check your luggage before you even get to the airport. We did this and it worked wonderfully. It's easy, and also much cheaper than taking a cab or an airport bus to the airport.