Sunday, May 2, 2010

China Diary Part III – Majestic Hong Kong


[For new readers I would like to point out that this is the concluding part to my two earlier blog entries under the titles, China Diary Part I and China Diary Part II.  Part I related to my visits primarily to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China in and around Beijing.  Part II related to my experiences of Olympic Beijing and futuristic Shanghai.  Before these, I had posted my experiences of the momentous total solar eclipse of 22 July 2009 which had provided the real motivation for my journeys through China]


After the Eclipse


After the deeply etched experiences (see my earlier blog tilted “The Great Total Solar Eclipse of 22 July 2009 from China”) of the day of the total solar eclipse which took me to a hilly resort near Anji city, I returned to my hotel in Hangzhou, rested about an hour and then set out by walk to explore the famous West Lake and its neighbourhood close by.  The gloomy overcast sky that had greeted me on my way out in the morning had returned in full measure and it was actually drizzling when I reached the famous lakeside.




The West Lake


Surrounded by mountains on three sides, with an area of around 6.5 square kilometers and a circumference of around 15 km, this lake is situated in the western part of Hangzhou city.  It is a vast shallow lake, with an average depth of around 2.3 m, and divided by causeways into five areas. West Lake is not only famous for its picturesque landscape; it also embraces many aspects of Chinese culture.  Many ancient buildings, stone caves and engraved tablets in surrounding areas are among the most cherished national treasures of China, with great artistic value.  The lake and its environs have all the elements of a traditional Chinese garden but on a much grander scale.  It would have taken me at least a whole day to explore its more important features, but I had only a few hours.  So I wandered around the water front, explored the picturesque wooded areas, absorbing some of its spectacular scenery and taking some not so spectacular pictures because of the frightfully dull and hazy weather.  Here is one of the few good pictures I took:
After returning to the hotel I realized that I had not made a return railway reservation to Shanghai the next morning.  Too tired to walk up to the station, I requested the hotel receptionist to help me out which she promptly did, but for an exorbitantly hefty additional service charge to my hotel bill.  I had planned to get back to Shanghai, travel in the world’s fastest commercially operational train to Pudong airport there on the way to Hong Kong, my last destination.


Back to Shanghai


When I went to the railway station the following morning and got into the fast non-stop reserved train to Shanghai, I looked at my ticket to find out that it had a carriage number alright, but no seat number!  When I asked the attendant to help me find the seat, she pointed to me a corner of the carriage, signifying in very courteous but unmistakable terms, that I had to travel standing there!  So the ‘reservation’ had been available only for a ‘standing seat’ that is quite familiar to us in India!  This was a totally new experience for me, since back home in India a railway reservation always guaranteed at least a seat if not a berth in the train.  I could not complain, not only because of the language barrier but also because of the fact that there were many standing passengers like me with ‘reserved’ tickets on what appeared to be a rush-hour high speed popular train. 
Even as I contemplated a two hour long standing journey, a bright idea flashed to me.  I had purchased a light weight, but very sturdy, ‘Aristocrat’ suitcase in Mysore just for the China trip.  I laid it on the carriage floor the long side up and gingerly sat on top to see if it would support my not inconsiderable weight.  Lo and behold, it did!  I could in fact sit almost as comfortably on it as on a sturdy stool.  So I reached South Shanghai railway station two hours later with hardly any discomfort.   Very recently, I had the need to repeat such a ‘suitcase journey’ in a heavily overcrowded train from Bangalore to Mysore, of course with an unreserved ticket!


Maglev Train


The magnetic levitation (Maglev) train linking Longyong Road station in Shanghai to the Pudong International Airport is known to be the world’s fastest commercially operational train of its kind (gliding along a thin cushion of air created by strong varying magnetic fields between the track and the underbelly of the carriages) in the world.  It covers a distance of 30 km in 7 min 20 sec with a maximum operational speed of about 430 km/hr.  I was keen on experiencing this ride before leaving Shanghai for Hong Kong. 
When I reached the Shanghai South railway station, I realized that I did not have much time to reach the airport and so had to take a taxi to reach Longyong Road station, the starting point for the Maglev train.  When I came out of the sprawling futuristic hemispherical railway station to join the queue for taxis, I had a rude shock.  There was a very long serpentine queue of people and not many taxis to pick up the passengers.  I could very well have missed the flight if I had joined and waited in the queue.  As I contemplated my next move, a taxi driver who had deliberately parked his vehicle some distance away and not in the queue to pick up the waiting passengers, noticed me, came up to me and asked if I needed a taxi ride.  When I showed him a map of Shanghai with Longyong station marked on it, he took out his calculator and entered a figure which was as outrageously disproportionate to officially sanctioned rates as most of us are used to in metropolitan cities in India.  I had to bargain hard and did so using only the calculator keys and without any spoken word exchanged.  Finally we agreed on a figure not as outrageously high as I had initially feared.  He took me to a nearby place from where he picked me up in his taxi apparently without being noticed by any controlling policeman.  He may well have had a working arrangement which enabled him and his ilk to break the rules as blatantly as we are used to in India!   I had a hard time reminding myself I was in what was still, officially at least, a communist country.  
It was quite a long taxi drive through busy roads and dense traffic before I could reach Longyong station, but with good time to spare.  On the way I revisited some sights I had seen before and many I had not.  The taxi passed over one of the bridges across the river Huangpu. There were not many people waiting to board the Maglev train.  I didn’t need to stand in a queue to buy the train ticket for which there was a small discount since I had an air ticket to fly out of the city.  Soon a train from the airport arrived at high speed, decelerating rapidly.  There was no rush to board the train; indeed not many people boarded it.  I took a few pictures of the train and the station before getting inside a carriage.  Everything was high tech and highly futuristic.  Inside the train I could see a speedometer displaying the instantaneous speed of the train.  Looking out of the window I could only see a blur, but distant objects could be made out easily.  Here is a picture of the Maglev train before it left the station:


Hong Kong


I did not have much time to explore the expansive Pudong Airport, but what little I could glimpse was very impressive.  Apparently, preparations were on to make it ready to receive millions of additional visitors during Expo 2010 the following year.  I went through the exit formalities and checked into my Dragonair flight for the 2 hr 40 min journey to Hong Kong.  I had another excellent in-flight vegetarian meal and was soon landing at the sprawling Hong Kong International Airport for the second time during my China trip.
By any yardstick the Hong Kong International Airport is among the top five or six largest in the world.   It is as important a gateway to the rest of the world as Hong Kong harbour was (and still is) during the maritime era.  The construction of this airport on a largely reclaimed island together with the construction of road and railway links to Kowloon and Hong Kong are among the greatest engineering achievements of our time.  The magnificent Tsing Ma Bridge, the world's longest span suspension bridge carrying both road and rail traffic, is the key link between Hong Kong and the international airport. The bridge is 2.2 km long, with the main span stretching around 1.4 km.  The entire project was completed in record time to meet the deadline for the handing over of Hong Kong to China at the end of a long lease period to Britain in 1997.  Hong Kong is now a special administrative territory of China; it enjoys enormous economic independence and has its own currency.  It is also one of the most densely populated regions of the world with a matching density of very majestic high rise buildings.  
Despite the political character of Hong Kong my Chinese visa was not valid there and I had to obtain a 12-day tourist visa on arrival at the airport.  Almost all officials at the airport wore face masks to ward of the swine flu threat and I felt more like being in a large hospital.   All visa seekers had to fill in a form declaring that they had no symptoms characteristic of any flu and I might have faced a medical examination if I had even sneezed casually.  Fortunately there was no problem and I was soon heading towards a bus bound for the city with a visa stamped on my passport.


A memorable incident


The only major unsavoury incident of my entire China trip occurred immediately after I got into the bus bound for Hong Kong at the airport.    The bus fare was HK$38 and since I did not have any small change I handed in four ten dollar bills to the driver and walked towards one of the numerous vacant seats.  He stopped me, told me rather gruffly that the fare was $38 and he would not accept anything different!  When I told him I had no change and didn’t expect him to give back the 2$ change, he was in no mood to listen and asked me to get down and procure the exact change from somewhere within the airport premises.  I was indeed flabbergasted.  Before I could react in any way, a youngish lady who had obviously seen my plight walked up to the driver, handed him $8 in small change, took back a ten dollar bill from him, handed it to me and signaled me into a vacant seat very gracefully.  For once she was not Chinese and later I learnt she was of Portuguese origin from Macau.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to know more about her. I thanked her profusely and tried to hand the ten dollar bill back to her even as I apologized to her for not carrying any change.  She waved me away pleasantly, firmly refused to take the bill, said the matter was too trivial to merit any concern from me and said she was very happy to have been of some help to me.  I still owe her the eight dollars and there seems to be no way to pay it back, but my debt of gratitude to her is truly incalculable.   I am hoping against hope that she will somehow get to read this blog, identify herself and give me the pleasure of repaying the debt in the fullest sense of the term.
This seemingly inconsequential incident left a profound impression on me.  In a matter of minutes I had sampled both the worst and the best in human behaviour.  How fortunate that the first preceded the second!  My faith in basic human decency had been fully restored immediately after one small jolt and my persistently positive mood was firmly reset for the rest of the China trip.  I enjoyed the long bus trip from the airport to downtown Hong Kong, passing through picturesque settings, including the 2.2 km long bridge and a long underground tunnel.
I had made a confirmed reservation in what was advertised as ‘Hotel USA’ located in Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, one of the busiest locations in the city.  In the airport bus I found a couple from Macau, of Brazilian origin, who were also heading for the same hotel which they had known before.  They helped me get down at the right bus stop and took me to a large building, partially under repair, right on the busy road. The ‘hotel’ was distributed in small portions in different floors with an ‘office’ located in the corridors of one of the floors.  A person who turned out to be the proprietor of the hotel took me to the seventh floor where one of the ‘deluxe’ wings was located.  It was indeed a very well maintained wing consisting of a number of excellent individually air-conditioned rooms, each with its own high tech attached bath room.  But the biggest surprise was that these were the smallest single occupancy hotel rooms I had seen anywhere in the world!  My room was just about 8’ x 4.5’ in size, windowless, but maintained in spotlessly clean condition and completely insulated from the street traffic noise.  The owner told me that the size of rooms in most hotels in Hong Kong is exceptionally small because of the prevailing real estate demand and value. I had no alternative but to accept my room, but had no real problem living in it for the rest of my stay in the city.


Victoria Harbour


The famous Victoria Harbour is situated between Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula to the north. Its deep, calm waters and strategic location on the South China Sea was instrumental in Hong Kong's establishment as a British colony and its subsequent development as a major trading centre.  Famous for its spectacular views of the Hong Kong skyline, Victoria harbour is the major tourist attraction of the city.  It was just five minutes away by walk from my hotel and that is where I spent the rest of the day.  I started with visits to the Hong Kong Science Museum and the Hong Kong Space Museum surrounded by a beautiful park.  There was one old beautiful clock tower of obvious heritage value.  I saw some spectacular harbour views in day light and waited for nightfall to see the magnificent Symphony of Lights, featuring more than 40 of Hong Kong's skyscrapers in a stunning multimedia extravaganza punctuated by dazzling laser lights of all colours.  The bad weather continued to follow me and dampened the enjoyment of the evening somewhat.  Here is a picture of the skyline I took during the night show with a hand held camera.  Notice the thick dark grey clouds spoiling the view significantly.
After exploring the neighbourhood a little more, including the famous Peninsula Hotel and an underground shopping complex, I walked back to the hotel for a good night’s rest after another busy day that had started early in the morning in far off Hangzhou.


The Peak


The Peak (popular name for the Victoria Peak) is a small mountain located in the western part of Hong Kong Island and has an altitude of about 550 m.  It is a major tourist attraction offering spectacular views of central Hong Kong, the high rise buildings, the harbour and the surrounding islands.  Public parks and posh residential buildings make the Peak a very attractive place.  It can be reached either directly by a circuitous road or by tramway.
I had planned to explore the Peak on the second day of my visit to Hong Kong.  I saw a tourist information office on the harbour, entered it and asked a smartly dressed lady at the desk for instructions on how to reach the Peak.  She welcomed me warmly, took out an excellent map of Hong Kong, marked out our location, explained how to get to the mainland by a short ferry ride, where to get a bus and the number of the bus that would take me to the foot of the tramway and how to reach the top of the Peak by tram.  She gave every bit of information I needed in some of the crispest and clearest language I have heard anybody speak.  For good measure she let me keep the map as well.  She was the very epitome of her profession. 
Armed with this information it was very easy for me to reach the Peak.  As the double-decker bus passed through the streets of the city I could see and photograph some of its finest buildings on either side. The bus stopped at one such building at the base of which the entrance to the tramway was located. The steep ride uphill in a vintage tram car was exhilarating. There were several spots at the top from which most of Hong Kong and its skyscrapers were visible in much better viewing conditions than on the previous day.  Here is a picture of me against the background of the skyline, the harbour and Kowloon:
Perching on the top of the Peak at 400 metres above sea level is the Peak Tower (see picture below) which is one of the most stylish architectural icons of Hong Kong. With an eye-catching design characteristic of the most modern architecture, this spectacular building stands out among the galaxy of impressive buildings in Hong Kong. Inside the Peak Tower, there is a dazzling array of shops, restaurants and entertainment halls set against the beautiful backdrop of the city. It boasts a 360° viewing platform - the Sky Terrace. Standing at 430 metres above sea level, the Sky Terrace offers breathtaking panoramic views of the city.
I spent practically the whole day at the Peak and was back at the harbour promenade for another view of the spectacular Symphony of Nights.  In between, I did a lot of window shopping in the shopping complexes around the harbour. 


Ocean Park


The Ocean Park is a vast area on the southern side of Hong Kong Island consisting of numerous conservation facilities, aquatic exhibits and enclosures as well as entertainment zones.  It has three major areas – the Lowland, the Headland and Tai Shue Wan – interconnected by a large network of cable cars (see picture below) and outdoor escalators.  At the ‘Amazing Asian Animals’ exhibit one can see some of Asia’s rarest animals, including the great giant Pandas, red Pandas, giant salamanders and alligators.  The dolphin show in a beautiful amphitheatre seating hundreds of spectators provides a special attraction several times a day.  There is a spectacular display of goldfish at the ‘Goldfish Treasures’ exhibit.  The Park is also the home for over a thousand sea jellies in a special enclosure.   The Ocean Park is committed to promote and support animal conservation in Hong Kong and throughout the Asia region. It has, in cooperation with other conservation organizations, launched various conservation programmes for a number of endangered species, including whales and dolphins. In addition, it has successfully bred rare species of birds, sharks and butterflies.

Guided by the map I had obtained at the tourist information office on the previous day, I took a bus ride to the Ocean Park.  Inside the park complex a friendly official approached me and gave some very valuable suggestions regarding how best to explore the vast complex and at what times I could see some scheduled events, including the dolphin show, for mass viewing.  My immediate interest was in the great Pandas for which a special climatically controlled large enclosure had been built.  I could easily three different types of Pandas from a distance and could even take a number of high zoom photos of these very rare animals.  Unfortunately, none of them came out well focused and this was a great disappointment.    So was my attempt to shoot the dolphins later in the day.  However, I could get some spectacular shots of the jelly fish.  Here is one of them:
The Ocean Park Tower was another special attraction.  People could stand on a circular platform which was slowly lifted up to a considerable height in a slow screw type motion, giving them a 360 degree panoramic view of everything in the neighbourhood. 
I spent practically the whole day in the Ocean Park and returned to the hotel room late in the evening.  For the first time on the China trip I indulged in some TV viewing.


Disneyland


I woke up on the last morning of my trip to China in anticipation of being back home by the following morning.  I had also decided to spend the day in sheer entertainment and relaxation at the famed Asian edition of Disneyland.  I had spent a whole day seeing the original edition of Disneyland USA in California way back in 1967.  So there was something special about this day.
The Hong Kong Disneyland is located on Lantau Island, not far from the International Airport, and could be reached from my place in Kowloon in about 40 minutes by a Mass Transit Railway (MTR) train.   I had to change over to the Disneyland Resort Line at the Sunny Bay Station and reach the very impressive Disneyland station a short distance away.  A short walk from the station took me to the main entrance of Disneyland, modeled very much on the lines of the original Disneyland as far as my memory could tell.  Bad weather continued to follow me and showed no special consideration for me even on my last day.
The entry fee was a whopping HK$ 350 and, as a senior citizen, I was lucky to get in at half this price.  When I reached the entrance there was a small crowd waiting for the gates to open.  This happened with much fanfare and ceremony at the stroke of 10 AM.  We were all welcomed into one of the magical worlds created by the great Walt Disney.    The entry into the park was through Main Street, USA, which gave a highly realistic feeling of being transported in both time and space to an idealized town in America long back.   The old world architecture was breathtaking in its beauty and everything appeared spotlessly sanitized.   From here one had the option to turn right to reach Tomorrowland or left to reach Adventureland or go straight ahead to reach Fantasyland.


“It’s a small world after all”


I first went through Tomorrowland for nearly two hours, but was not impressed much with the gadgets and exhibits that were designed more to dazzle than to educate.  Then I branched out into Fantasyland which was far more enjoyable as well as impressive.  I spent a much longer time there and felt transformed into a seven-year old, experiencing the sights, sounds and fantasies I had missed out when I was actually of that age.  The most memorable and lasting experience was in the “It’s a small world” pavilion in which the visitors are carried in self propelled boats through a long winding waterway surrounded by picturesque settings, performing ‘an imaginative journey around the world and experiencing the joy and wonder of creatively costumed dolls, elaborate sets, unforgettable music and for the first time ever, (ones) favourite Disney Characters’.  The animated singing dolls of all types in colorful costumes representing all parts of the world were absolutely fabulous.  This was fantasy at its glorious best, designed to bring out the child in every adult, however young or old.  For the seven to eight minutes during which the journey lasted I had totally forgotten myself and was like any other child around me.  The words and tunes of the magnificent song in English titled “It’s a small small world after all” still reverberate in my memory; the sights even more so. The reader can hear the song at the following website: http://disneynuts.com/smallworld.mp3.  The reader can also see any of several versions of the video clip available on YouTube.  However, nothing can ever match the joy, thrill and excitement of seeing the whole show in person at Disneyworld’s Fantasyland.  So much so that, after coming out of the show and ruminating over it in a mesmerized state for some time, I went back to experience it all over again, though it meant standing once again in a long serpentine queue.   I now regret not having done so a third time!  Such indeed was the effect it produced on me.  Here is a picture of the magical pavilion of the “It’s is a small world after all” show:
My last destination was Adventureland and the rain which had started as a drizzle earlier while I was in Fantasyland turned into a downpour and, like most others, I had to seek shelter wherever possible.  This prevented me from embarking on a Jungle River Cruise in a nearly open boat.  However I made it in time for the hour long Festival of the Lion King enactment in a large hemispherical theatre accommodating well over a thousand spectators in well designed galleries. It was billed as one of the great attractions of Disneyland and lived up fully to this reputation. 
It was now time to say goodbye to a delightful Disneyland, regretfully including what was for me at least its biggest attraction, the small world show.  I retraced my train journey back to my hotel, packed up and after a little rest, boarded a bus to the airport, this time with no problem about the exact fare.  I was poised to bid goodbye to a majestic Hong Kong with all its colonial legacy and glory.


Goodbye, China


At the Hong Kong airport I exchanged all the left over small change with me for a large cold milkshake, went through the exit formalities and boarded the Dragonair jet for a nonstop flight to Bangalore.  As the aircraft taxied out and picked up speed the memories of the past thirteen days flashed through my mind at matching pace and I bade a silent goodbye to China.  In flight I was once again served an excellent vegetarian dinner and, after a four hour journey with some discomfort caused by air turbulence only towards the approach to Bangalore, landed five minutes before time at the Bangalore airport late in the night or, more appropriately, very early next morning.  I was back home at Mysore after a short overnight stay in Bangalore.  Thus ended the most memorable overseas visit of my life.


Epilogue


When I first contemplated my trip to China I was arrogant enough to rationalize that the only reason I had for going to that country was to view the total solar eclipse on the morning of 22 July 2009.  My early experiences in Beijing were humbling enough for me to realize that there was a great deal more to do in China than just see the eclipse.  I learnt this lesson from the ordinary people of an extraordinary country that has achieved what is undoubtedly the greatest economic miracle of our times and is a super power in every sense of the term.

3 comments:

SNU said...

Excellently well written travelogue - the best I have ever read so far in my life time :) In fact, in 2005 I had been to HK when Disneyland was getting built - but the write up about the HK visit took me back in years. I enjoyed every bit of it ...Very very articulative....Thanx for sending me this Blog !!

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