Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Shown Around the City

Nothing like some local knowledge to give you the upper hand on city discovery, and all that jazz.

I headed out at 11:30 to meet up with someone at the Houston Centre around noon. Apparently the Houston Centre was only fifteen minutes away. I was significantly early. But, finding a place to sit down, I could read for the next forty five minutes. That wouldn't be a problem. Nothing like killing time, learning about the inner workings of mid-nineties Vanity Fair.

Noon. Still no show. I'd been hanging around the Satay restaurant for some time now, and I was beginning to wonder – would my guide ever show?

So who was this guide? Who was it that was to show me the workings of this city-island? An old student of mine. Now in University, through the magic of the internet, she discovered that I was in Hong Kong at the same time she would be there visiting her father. She said that she could play tour guide, and who was I to refuse? But at twelve twenty, and then twelve thirty, I started to wonder.

Perhaps we had agreed to meet at half past? But no. Still, I waited. At twelve forty I was ready to leave. In fact, I had decided that she was not to arrive, and as such I left the building and began to make my own way through the city. But no – no – clearly there must have been some hold up. I headed back. But then at ten to I thought, alrighty – clearly there has to be some point when I leave, otherwise I'll be here all day. So with that I headed down the escalator ready – in theory – to call it quits for this meeting.

Just as I reached the bottom of the mobile stairs, before heading out into the bright sunny world beyond, there she was – with her father – coming up to meet me. Apparently traffic had been terrible. Traffic – all I know is about those crazy mobile tube things that run underground.

Her dad was a Hong Kong local, and knew the city very well. Over the course of the next few hours the two of them would show me around the city and take me to a number of places that I would have overlooked were I to have gone at it on my own. But the great importance of this day was not so much the sights, as it was the food. Yes, the food.

It started with them taking me for a slightly-delayed lunch. Singapore food, I have decided, is delicious. Though not as spicy as I had it sold to me as. I wonder, do they think – huh, white people, and thus not make it hot... or does your average Chinese person not like hot food? Or were these restaurateurs pretending that Singapore food was spicier than it every really was?

Still – delicious.

From there we headed back down to the bay to check out the walk of stars. I had each name pointed out to me and explained. Those names that meant so very little to me before were now fleshed out. It was also at this point (I don't know if I claimed this happened the first time I was there – if so that was a lie) that I discovered why Bruce Lee was called the Little Dragon. Looking at the Chinese spelling of his name, I could recognize that that was how the characters read.

We also walked through the many market streets, where it became apparent once more that Asia would not be a place in which I could pick up tacky touristy earrings. There was a temple, and there were residential districts. There were many things worth seeing that were seen on this day – but once more, it wasn't about that. It was about the food.

I had heard of Chinese street food, but could not find any. This was a most upsetting thing for me. But this girl, and her father, knew the tricks. They knew were to find it. And in no time flat I had myself a giant bowl full of chopped up pigs skin, cow stomach, and fish balls.

Me and cow stomach – we've been at odds ever since my first experience. This time it looked different than it had before. But who was I to turn down such a potential treat? Plus there was a tasty sauce poured on top.

So bite after bite I ate the stomach, and I tell you what – it's not that it's bad, it's just that there are so many other treats that taste better, so why would you ever force yourself to eat this? But never mind that. Next was the pig skin . I've eaten pig skin before. In many forms. In fact I would bet most people have had pig skin.

Pork rinds? Pig skin. Delicious crackle? Pig skin. But sliced and momentarily boiled? This was a new gooey-chewy way to devour it for me. It was actually pretty good. I would have it again. The fish balls were just that – fried balls of clumpy fish. Had em before, they're always a good treat. But the skin – that was what surprised me. At the end, I had to toss some of it away, not because I didn't like it, but because I was too full. I had just had a huge Singapore feast, you know.

While I was eating, a box of iced tea was produced and handed my way. I had avoided this since I saw it, expecting it to be bitter and terrible. But, unable to refuse a gift, I tried it and it was – marvelous. Yellow juice boxes of iced tea? The perfect – strange, yet familiar – combination of flavours. Many more would need to be consumed before I left this SAR.

It was a good day, and interesting to hang out with a past student of mine. I didn't really know how to act, so I wasn't myself, but I certainly wasn't in teacher mode. Forget that. It was about thirty/seventy split. Probably for the best, any more than seventy percent me is difficult for even hardened veterans of my antics to take.

Eventually leaving, with many thanks exchanged, I was left to my own devices. I had just been given one piece of advice: Don't hike up to The Peak. Take the cable car.

Solid tip, but unnecessary, as I was not one to ever want to hike again – remember, no more hiking this trip! But what would be good was a ride up the worlds longest outdoors escalator.

I was a little disappointed by this escalator. Rather than one giant twenty minute escalator to nowhere, it was actually a series of escalators that kept going up, but then you'd need to break away and walk for a bit, and then head back up the next one. Hardly an epic sight worth being in the Guinness book of world records.

It didn't even take twenty minutes. 17:17:99.

Once at the top though, I found myself in the mid-levels (the name for a place that would be right at home in a Bethesda RPG) and there there was also a sign pointing out some walking journeys through the city. One pointed to The Peak, Lower Tram – thirty minutes away. Sounded like as good a destination as any. And, after all, it was a beautifully clear day – you could hardly ask for better lookout weather.

Walking, walking, walking – and somehow I lost the path. I was keeping pace with this older guy in front of me. I wasn't really following but he was going the same way as I was. Eventually I think we went up when we should have gone down, and no longer were signs pointing towards the tram station. The road became lines with trees – a beautiful jungle amidst a city, not unlike one Max might have created in his very own room (not some place down the street where he ran to, but his own room – where the phases of the moon still change indicating something more than it was just one night, Spike! Anyway.)

While the signs to the peak may have ceased, I did come across a sign leading to the peak itself. Huh. Well, sure why not? Up I started to walk. And up. And up. Everywhere I looked Filipinos were walking dogs, or small children, which pretty much amounted to the same thing. Here the class divide, and a wee bit of insight into who the working class are, was made obvious.

I continued to climb.

Wandering along paved switchbacks I eventually started to curse myself for starting this task. Why could I not have just taken the lift? It got to the point that I thought I'd be cursing myself forever, but then a new sign – The Peak, 30min. Well that's nice that it knows the speed that I'm walking, and that all people of all age go at the same pace. Apparently there'd be an end to my climb, in just half an hour.

The half an hour was less than fun. When I heard voices coming from above I thought it would be over. It was just a work house. It was not. One more section to go and then I was at: The Peak.

Let me tell you, The Peak? It's just a complex of shops, and fast food, and a wax museum. I thought, is this all? And the look out pavilion, you had to pay more than it would have been worth. That was it, I give up. But no – there was a lion's look out where you could go for free, and while the top level was full of people with no hope of getting to the ledge to set up my mini-tripod, there was a secondary level below it. Which most people tend to neglect, thus giving me a straight shot to the edge, and allowing me to take images of the city below, over which the fog and smog had started to roll. Of course it had. Beautiful when I was down there, but by the time I'm up – and tired...

For the next hour and a bit I camped out, securing my spot on the edge reading, waiting for the sun to go down. As darkness fell, and the city lights came to life, I had to admit that it had all been worth it.

At eight the light show started, but without the view from the Avenue of Stars it was less than spectacular. You missed out on the music and the lasers, and the spots (which I now saw didn't come from the buildings, but across the bay). Still – Hong Kong at night? It is as spectacular as I was told it would be. And the fog only added to the appearance of layers and depth in the night.

When the lights had ended it was time to go back down. I was going to take the cable car, pay the extra money, and just be done with it. When I got to the car, no line only twenty minutes earlier, there were now over one hundred people waiting. This was less than good.

I reckoned it would be quicker to walk. But it was dark and spooky. And no one else was walking – maybe they knew someth... oh, a couple started walking down the hill. Excellent. This is my chance. Like a thief in the night I started to follow them. Not creepy at all, being followed down a big spooky hill in a strange city at night by someone who looks like me.

After three or four minutes they stopped, let me catch up, and asked where I was from. We started chatting, and I was no longer quite as frightening. They were from Australia, the man from Vancouver forty years ago, but now living way aways over seas.

Down the hill, talking about how we'd still be waiting at the top, and how they bought tickets to take the cable car up, but after thirty minutes waiting in line they bailed and just hiked up. Clearly it was for the best that I missed the lower peak station then.

As we wandered we took in the silence of the city, and the abandonment of the nocturnal hours until like a flash in the night there was a great flash in the night. Cameras started going off, loud pumping music filled the streets, and neon signs reflected off of the pale, pasty white skin of Americans, and Australians all clamoring to throw back one more pint. From the quiet and secluded world we ended up in the part town.

Glowing devil horns, and party favours were sold to anyone drunk or high enough to think they were a good idea. Most likely they would be lost before the purchaser could question why they had them the next morning.

The night was alive. But we? We were just pushing through it, down to the water. To get there we needed to push a taxi out of the street – it had stalled – but once done, we continued to the water, and made our way to the ferry. The couple insisted on getting my ticket (all of 2.5HKD) and then found me a seat by the window to look out and take pictures. There are few better ways to see the Hong Kong harbour. And for what amounts to thirty cents? Highly advisable.

Once across, we made our separate ways, and I went out to the water, looking across, and photographing, for a while longer. Unable to take my eyes off of the city lights, I would have gladly stayed there all night. But the observation deck was closes at eleven.

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