Following on from my last post about my previous trip to Scotland I thought Id make a few modifications to my arrival after the last fiasco. Id booked both trips at the same time and the same details so instead of driving for hours I realised this time I would be arriving during school holidays so get a car park near the school, put the reflective window blinds up in the van, put up blackout blinds, open the window slightly, spread the sleeping bag out and a couple of hours restful sleep..
..of course I chose the morning the municipal bins get emptied…. One of these days Ill get it right or just spend a few quid extra and book a ferry at a reasonable hour.
The plan this time was along the same lines as last time except do the east coast instead of west. So start off with a couple of days in Edinburgh, then up to Inverness, attend wedding, nurse hangover, then go down the north east coastline to Aberdeen, then down to Dundee and home. Simple enough.
It was difficult to get a hotel in Edinburgh city centre and although I was driving ended up getting a hotel on the outskirts on a bus lane and just bussing it in to town. I remembered driving into Edinburgh 15 years ago and it was a nightmare then, and all other trips had been by coach/air to the ice hockey so was drunk most of those trips.
A couple of days before leaving I realised why it was so difficult to get hotels, it was right smack bang in the middle of the Edinburgh Festival. I briefly considered touting around for some festival work as I was bringing the van and could bring more kit but decided against it, festival work meant late nights, sitting up editing then sleeping in and missing all thats going on around you. So it was the usual shoot from dawn til dusk then see what parts of the festival I could fit in around it.
Like the previous trip, I had been coming to Scotland for years but between the days in and around Glasgow and Edinburgh I saw more of Scotland than I ever had before.
I love Edinburgh, the new town and old town are beautiful parts of the world and between this trip and the ice hockey trips Ive seen it summer and winter. The buzz in and around the festival should be seen and sampled at least once in your life as is like nothing Id ever seen before. The sheer volume of events and people trying to drag you for free into low turnout daytime events makes it quite a lottery.
The weather was kind for the first couple of days which is unusual for Edinburgh summertime but allowed me to cover most of the photos I wanted to take in the first day and a half. Which left a couple of evenings free and I went down and chanced my arm for the Edinburgh Tattoo tickets.
Id tried their website before leaving but it was all booked up so hoped I’d get a chance of a cancellation ticket. So half hour in line and I had my ticket. I wasnt sure what to expect as I was a bit wary of the whole British Military thing and if it would be a gung ho type of show but I was pleasantly surprised. The show started with a flypast of a Tornado jet on full afterburner. From the reaction of the people around me I wasnt the only one that thought it was something coming from the speaker system other than a real live jet!
What followed can only be described as one of lifes true experiences. Dozens if not a hundred assembled bagpipes and drums playing in front of one of the worlds most picturesque castles to the setting sun. Any photos or videos dont do the whole experience justice. One group particularly stood out was a drumming group from Basel in Switzerland – google them and have a look at some of their youtube videos.
Go, see, hear, feel and enjoy.
The rest of the time was spent just wandering from place to place, running up blisters on my feet, sitting down briefly before moving on quickly for fear of missing something. Edinburgh, like my previous London trip will have to be visited away from the festival just to see some of the galleries and other ‘normal’ events. The only other show I managed to take in was Irish comedian Andrew Maxwell. I had photographed Andrew Maxwell before when he fronted a comedy show for Amnesty International during the Belfast Festival so it was good to go as a punter and watch the show rather than working.
If there is a problem with these busy places in busy times is that people dont really have time for interaction. When I was in Glasgow people had the time to stand and chat all day, but Edinburgh was just too busy so it was one of those trips where it was just a run around taking lots of pictures. A better trip for archive purposes but a bit dull on the travel side.
For that reason I was glad to get on the road and just head north to Inverness. The plan was to get booked into the B+B then head down to the Castle to have a look over the wedding preparations and inevitably get myself a job or two to do. Yes you did hear me right, a Castle.
Seeing as I got there and helped out I was elevated to family status and get to spend the wedding night in the Castle with a few hairy arsed Irishmen who unlike myself decided to dress up in skirts for the evening. Spend the night in 600 year old Castle, yes I’ll have a bit of that! Haunted? Nahh dont worry to much I’ll probably be that drunk we will be singing along in no time.
Somewhere along the whole stag weekend to wedding timeline someone had told the bride that myself and one of the other Irish guys had ‘sensible heads’. Now that can mean anything from helping to tidy up after the event, to explaining in haltering french to a series of CRS riot police with barking snarling rottweilers that your friends arent fighting, they are merely singing boisterously and will leave if I ask them (yes true story, and yes Im glossing over it). So I was put in charge of the evening BBQ, so long day, alcohol, fire, etc etc. You get the picture. I was also put in charge of lighting the chinese lanterns. Its a good job it rained the day before as that Arboretum in the Castle had taken hundreds of years to mature and we almost (see the use of the word we there instead of I) wiped it out with a few misplaced chinese lanterns.
I decided not to take any pictures the next day. I think sitting in front of the computer a couple of weeks later saying WTF quite loudly a lot before realised Id just wasted hard drive space and shutter clicks on photos which couldnt even be described as ‘arty’.
What I did remember though was speaking to someone who suggested I take a day trip up to Orkney. Sure enough there was one the next morning but it was a 3 hour drive and left at 10, so up at 6am before breakfast at the B+B. Still not happy about that. Now anyone that knows me will know I dont take breakfast but I do when travelling, you cant wander about from dawn to dusk without one. I know it makes no sense to ignore that when at home but I never said I did make sense do I?
I called the ferry company and told them Id be leaving early and to give me a ring if anything happens so I can turn round. Only now do I realise that at no point did I leave them my number, I guess Im used now to ringing people and them quoting my number back to me on caller display.
You can see where this is going, cant you?
The weather in Inverness was crap, the weather in Scotland was crap, in fact the only clear part of the whole British Isles was Orkney. Looking good!
I missed the bit about the 35mph winds.
So up at the crack of dawn, no breakfast, 3 hour drive, got to the ferry office only to be told ‘cancelled today, come back tomorrow.’ Slight problem with that in that tonight Im supposed to be in Aberdeen which is a 7 hour drive direct from here and then on to Belfast.
Now John O’Groats is known as the end of the earth, and I swear to God that the map had ‘here be dragons’ over it. A bleak desolate place whose only claim to fame is that is a bleak desolate place. I shouldve known really!
At least they have a cafe. Can I have a breakfast please? Sorry no eggs or bacon. I can do you sausages and toast though. By this stage Id have ate my shoe leather if Id had any shoe leather.
So got out my trusty tablet and had a look at nearby attractions which were indoors (was raining horizontally at this stage). A couple of miles up the road there was the Dounreay nuclear power station visitors centre. Now when I first read that I thought if I turned up there my balls would end up glowing in the dark. Maybe I shouldnt have shared that particular piece of information. Why is it when anyone mentions nearby nuclear power station I feel I have to put a lead shield in my boxers. Its not as if the rest of me is immune.
Anyway it was the only thing within any range that either was open or looked mildly interesting…
…the fact it had closed 3 years ago hadnt reached internet land yet.
Nor had I noticed that Id left my satnav directions on shortest rather than quickest so pissed off, tired, hungry, I thought Id just head for my hotel in Aberdeen – 7 hours away, get something to eat, hot shower, early to bed and see what the morning looked like.
Of course the shortest route was along 40 odd miles of single track road which, if I’d been in my alfa, would have been one of the most memorable driving experiences of my life. I wasnt, I was in a high sided van with dubious brakes and with an odd noise coming from the gearbox in an area with no mobile reception and no houses, towns, anything. By the end of that road I could have crushed coal into a diamond if Id put it between my ass cheeks.
On the way back to Aberdeen I took a detour past a couple of RAF bases, Lossiemouth and Kinloss. The clouds were low and the Tornado jets even lower. The displays those guys were putting on made the tattoo display look pedestrian.
So I arrived into the Granite city to rain and more rain. Jesus what a place. Dull cold and grey. Id been told about how grey the place was and to say everything was granite didnt really prepare me for how grey the place was and yes everything was made of granite. Thoroughly depressing looking place. Im sure even sunshine wouldnt brighten this place up.
Cold, tired, hungry again I checked into the hotel and just went out for Pizza. Getting back into the lift I was joined by a young lady on the same floor who happened to remark on how good my pizza smelled. I was past the point of caring so did the old ‘I’ll share it with you if you want’.
I’ll not go any further with this part of the story, except to say, Aberdeen turned out to not nearly as bad as I’d thought and I’ll be buying more pizza and travelling up and down in the lift in every hotel I visit from now on! Although at the time of writing Im in Las Vegas and some of the ladies Ive met in the lifts will obviously not be swayed by mere pizza!
I was a bit tired the next day so thought I’d just drive home and pay the obligatory, get the hell out of Cairnryan early fee.
I seem to do more catching up posts than real ones but its the nature of the beast, it seems to be either a feast or a famine. The 6 weeks leading up to the end of the financial year are usually quite hectic which is odd as the previous 6 weeks are usually dead. OK theres nothing odd about it, budgets need to be spent, events need to be organised when its not raining or snowing and so on.
I just havent had the time to do a blog entry (I have to sleep sometime) in the last few months with one thing and another. If you think the blog is in a bad state over the last couple of months, you should see my house and garden!
Im on the road again with a week in Scotland doing various bits and pieces but that will no doubt be a blog post in another six months.
Ive been doing a lot of commissioned work and might blog about some of them when the embargoes and first publication dates are up.
Add to that the fact that Ive migrated web hosts, merging my sites into one which followers of me on twitter will notice didnt go swimmingly and tried two different packages, pulling a couple of all nighters to try and get it resolved.
Its been an interesting few weeks on the news front. We had the whole pastygate affair and the threatened tanker drivers strike. Which had people stockpiling pasties, Im sure someone was that stupid, and queues for petrol stations even no strike had been declared.
The pasty issue was about charging 20% uk tax on heated pasties and sausage rolls in shops, although if they go cold by the time you get to pay for them you dont have to pay the extra. Im sure it makes sense to someone.
As for the petrol, a government minister said that in the event of a strike it might be worthwhile keeping your tanks topped up and some spare fuel in the garage in a jerry can. Of course that go translated into PANIC!!! with stations running out of petrol and so on. I heard the original statement and it was nothing like what was reported, although Im sure it coinciding with the end of the financial quarter and moving a lot of consumer spend into the quarter (instead of filling up the next week) had nothing to do with it.
Eventually common sense returned but I’ll fill up again tomorrow just in case
Some parts of England also have a hosepipe ban, which living in Northern Ireland and having got soaked walking round Glasgow the last two days seems ridiculous. It hasnt rained enough in England for the last two years, maybe they shouldnt waste as much and just pipe it in from Scotland? If it gets to national security precautions expect some shock and awe and pre-dawn airstrikes on reservoirs north of the England/Scotland border (when do they declare independence?)
I did manage to fit a trip to Liverpool in as well. I was sick when I left home and got worse during the trip so was confined to the house most of the time. Of course I did get a ticket for Anfield for the quarter final of the FA Cup. I would have to be dead to miss that one. My nephew left me to the airport and then got sick himself the next day and had to go to hospital. The doctor asked him if anyone else in the house was sick and he informed him that his uncle was over and had coughed over him the last 3 days. Over from where? Ireland but hes just back from Hong Kong! The doctors face went white. Was he anywhere else when he was here? Yes he went to Anfield (along with 40 odd thousand other people) and I think the doctor nearly fell over. My sister had to intervene and explain the irish phrase (only back) could mean any time period and that I had returned in November and nobody near me had died in the meantime.
On a rare evening off I happened to see that the old mini series ‘Harrys Game’ was available on demand player on the tv so sat and watched that. Filmed in Belfast in 1981 it tells the story of an IRA man and the British agent sent to kill him. It was a good show at the time but now I kept asking, did we really live like that? Filmed in the areas I grew up in, looking at it now its more of a social study of the times and most of the places are barely recognisable. It was enough to get me out and about with the camera on a few mornings to revisit some of the spots.
BBQ season is also upon us, well ok maybe not us and I dont really have a BBQ season as I have had one in the depths of winter with the bbq lit just at the back door and the food served in the kitchen! Ive now gone to the 2 BBQ scenario, the trusty gas one to cook the food without poisoning everyone and a new charcoal version with some added smoke chips to hot smoke certain parts of the food. The first experiment was with a side of salmon I sliced up into steaks, cooked through then sat for an hour or so smoking on the charcoal. Beautiful! My mouth is watering now.
Pity Im now trying to cut back, two months of working morning noon and night without a day off and Ive put on a couple of stone just eating crap. Glasgow really isnt the place to try and cut back on the fatty food and the stodge, but more on that later.
Over the next couple of weeks it will be time to get the boat ready and into the water, then the festival of football that is the European Championships. I might even do some more work!
What I wont be doing is travelling too much this summer due to the amount of work so will be looking to arrange a few trips later in the year. Ive only one booked at present and thats another trip to Scotland mid August but you know what Im like, watch this space….
I awoke with tired legs from the last couple of days walking round and dodging the throngs of christmas shoppers. It was one of those dull grey flat days that I had been expecting for the entire trip, Id been lucky with the weather so far. Luckily enough this was the day Id picked to go calling on clients and most were organised for mid to late afternoon when it would be getting dark anyway. So to compensate for the late start, the dull crappy day I thought I’d sample some of the local cuisine (yet again). When I’d stayed in London before everthing was horrendously expensive, I thought this trip would be no different. I’d ordered an oyster card in advance and loaded it up with the equivalent of day rates for the trip. Its not hard to believe that after only 2 and a half days in London, the transport costs had exceeded the entire hong kong trip!
The hotel had a couple of ‘greasy spoon’ type cafes across the road so I thought Id give them ago. Id chosen to stay between cricklewood and kilburn as Id wanted to sample a bit of non-tourist London. One of my aunts had lived up near Tottenham for a while so was keen to get out and about with ‘locals’. The ‘locals’ in the cafe consisted mostly of Irish and Polish men, the type of guys who would be usually working on building sites at this time of day if it wasnt for the recession.
The fry up would have choked 2 horses, never mind one, and cost about 7 quid and I genuinely thought I wouldnt eat anything else for a week. Prompting the later in the day well worn phrase of ‘no, I’m not hungry, but I could eat something’ that became the passphrase for my Canada/US trip last year.
Spending most of the morning in and out of the London transport system you get the feeling of how it has seemed to have grown organically rather than someone actually sitting down and designing it. It may have been designed, indeed it wasnt until I was 21 that I realised that Northern Ireland busses and railways actually had a timetable rather than just turning up and waiting for the next one.
Glad I wasnt taking many photos today as the train broke down, tube line was closed, roadworks for the busses and I only had 200 quid cash on me so couldnt take a taxi into town.
I could have been a one off but in my 4 month sojourn in London I decided Id try out this commuting lark for a week to see if I could hack it. My girlfriend at the time was living in Felixstowe so Id get the 6:30am train to Ipswich with the supposed connection to London Liverpool street which would put me at my desk by 8:50am. Well thats the theory… I dont think I was at my desk before 9:15am any morning. Im sure things have improved but at the time I worked with a guy who had a similar commute, he saw his kids only at the weekends despite living in the same house. He would be out of the house in the morning before they got up and back home long after they went to bed. I know its necessary but what sort of a life is that, not one for me really.
So I ask again, how on earth are they going to carry off the Olympics? Im only adding these lines in to wind English people up, every time theres an Olympics or World Cup or any major event, a lot of the pre-event publicity is on how much of a shambles it is going to be.
Reminds me of sitting in an internet cafe in Tokyo during the 2002 world cup. A number of US journalist were giving one of the fifa officials earache about all the problems they were having and one said ‘we told you about these problems yesterday’, to which the very polite official said ‘no sir, the problems you told us about yesterday have been fixed, these are new problems’. I suspect that wont be the case in London
As well as spending the vast majority of the morning in various states of waiting for parts of london transport to arrive I thought Id head over to Harrods and have a look round at how the other half lives. There had been an edtiorial in the papers about how Knightsbridge and Kensington had some of the most expensive parking in the world. I can well believe it as one of the houses I walked past cost more to rent per month than my whole house originally cost me!
I took a walk past One Hyde Park and joined the window shoppers outside the McLaren shop, some of the most expensive real estate in the world. I felt I didnt have enough money to even stand on the street outside! Across the road is Harvey Nichols and I’ve never been there, billed as the young persons Harrods I’ll have to have a look the next time Im over as I needed to get across town for various meetings. Just as I walked down the side, one of the security personnel asked me to move on. Well I was moving on, just not quick enough obviously and I wondered what was up. He said he thought I was paparazzi and Lady GaGa was about to come out and they’d been asked to clear the pavement. I laughed saying Id photographed her before but was heading on anyway. Oh PS mate, your building is on fire….
In between meetings I managed to get to the Imperial War Museum and their Don McCullin exhibition. I only had a quick look round, not enough to do it justice. Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.
I had a few follow up meetings on my last full day but during the free time the weather did work out for me again.
The phone apps Id mentioned in my last post did work wonders for highlighting some of the current events and I made a detour down to the South Bank for the chocolate food festival. No purchases here but wandering round the smell of cooking chocolate was enough!
It might seem odd but in the whole time Ive been coming to London I cant remember ever going anywhere near Buckingham Palace. Probably one of the must sees, if for nothing else than to say you have seen it. Its one of those weird places where tourists gather and just stand and stare. I watched loads of people just staring through the gates and I wondered if they thought the Queen would just pop out and say hello. Its not as if they just stopped, took a photo and cleared off, it took me about 15 mins to walk past the area and most of the people who were there when I arrived were still there and still staring through the railings. Would hate to see if if there was something on!
I enjoyed my trip to London, maybe I needed that break away from it to go back and appreciate it as one of the outstanding tourist cities instead of just a place to work ridiculous hours. I certainly saw more of it in my 4 days here than I did in the whole 4 months of working there. It was good to go back and wander round some of the old haunts and have a look round some new places. I’ll certainly be planning a return sometime in 2012, but maybe not anywhere near the Olympics
It had been almost 14 years since I last stayed in London. Well not strictly true I had spent a few nights in London since then but part of a medivac journey doesnt really count
London is one of those places I love to visit but would hate to live there. 16 years ago I spent about 4 months working in the west end of London. It involved working there 5 days a week and returning home to weekends which really meant getting in late on a Friday night, doing the washing and drying clothes on the Saturday and then packing for a Sunday night flight to be at my desk for 9am on the Monday. Not much of a life really and sounded a lot more glamourous than it actually was. After a month or so I tried to work 12 hour days monday to weds so I could get home earlier and when the offer of a permanent job came, I was never so glad to turn a job down in my life. Yes I spent time in some great hotels and got the opportunity to eat in some great restaurants but after a while all you want to do is go back to your hotel room and get room service and watch tv.
So I spent some time away from London but would always get over sometime during December, if for nothing else than to take a wander round Harrods and splash out a little.
Id organised this trip to go over and do some quick coffee meetings with some of my London clients. Its odd but I worked for a client in London for over 4 years and it was a good relationship with the client but we never met once in that period and I realised that this was the norm with my current clients so thought Id make an effort to press the flesh. I know I was probably asking too much to get the chance to go round and do some stock photos as it would be totally weather dependent and booked a month in advance it was pretty much a see how it is when you get there trip. If all else failed I’d go to a few exhibitions and I might even do some tourist stuff.
The way the flights worked out Id arrive after dark in London and had pretty much the first evening to myself. The question was then do I take in a show, go for a wander, go to the cinema, veg out in the hotel or… …well to cut a long story short I ended up at Chelsea for a champions league game. A great chance to get some quick street food which looking back on it I wish I’d missed. Not long after returning from Hong Kong where the street food there had sort of spoiled me So when I couldnt decide if the bap had more bread than the sausage I knew Id made the wrong choice!
Still the game was a good result for Chelsea and when the great Fernando Torres was introduced at 80 odd minutes it was time for me to leave and get a quick train home. Turned out to be a great move on my part, with delays, breakdowns and so on it took over an hour to get across London. How on earth are they going to hold the Olympics?
When I worked in London one of my bosses was one of those typical London bosses, when he invites you out for Lunch, it is of the liquid variety. I learned this to my cost one Friday afternoon when I went out with him and a load of the senior managers. After 4 pints I couldnt remember what my name was but I do remember the whole pub laughing when I kept saying ‘no seriously lads, what are we having to eat’. I have no idea how I ended up back in Belfast that evening. The guys had always said that if I was ever in London looking a pint at 6am that I should get myself down to Smithfield Market. Under the market theres a pub called the cock and as long as you order breakfast you can get drink as well. Now as a light drinker the pint didnt really interest me but rather the opportunity to get a fryup that would choke a horse and be made up of every meat under the sun. I waited 14 years for that fry and can I say it was worth the wait. I would thoroughly recommend it and get yourself down to the Smithfield Meat Market (London City Markets) if you ever get a chance. If you are a social networking afficionado (I occasionally use twitter and use facebook for family and friends) then please dont send a message to everyone you know saying that you are enjoying a breakfast at the cock. Innocent enough until some so called friends leave the ‘breakfast at’ part out of their requoting. Sigh!
Seeing as it was such a ridiculous time in the am and the sun was just coming up I headed down over the river for some early morning city views. Going past St Pauls I got a first glimpse of the Occupy London protest and the ‘ring of steel’ around the London Stock Exchange. Lets be honest I remember some of the rings of steel thrown up here in Northern Ireland,so a few crash barriers and fat lads in dayglo jackets doesnt constitute a ring of steel London.
I do have to say it was an absolutely beautiful morning and whilst cold was probably one of the best Ive ever seen there. I would have mostly stayed there in the summer when at times the heat is oppressive, I remember coming out of an air conditioned office one day for lunch only to stay in the revolving door and go and get crisps and cola from the vending machine.
I spent most of the morning wandering in and around the City hoping to set upon some bankers and give them what for but they must have all been sitting in their office, banking, or something like that.
I had a fair idea of the types of photos I wanted so took a wander up around Westminster and in and around Whitehall. It was a good opportunity to try out some of the travel technology Id first tried at my path to enlightenment in Hong Kong. I had downloaded a london transport app, a tube map, walking and guided tour apps and was using google maps to navigate. Despite having an engineering degree and a masters in electronics this felt very weird. Id always travelled everywhere with a map and found it strange to be standing in Trafalgar Square and then finding the nearest highest ranked pub lunch within 100 yards. Sure enough my facebook and tripadvisor friends didnt let me down and I ended up in the excellent porter house just off covent garden. Of course only after Id sat down and ordered did I realise it was an Irish pub and just across the street from Rules where Id unsuccessfully tried to book a lunch.
I then made almost a fatal mistake, I decided to go for wander up round Regent Street and then Oxford Street in late evening a couple of weeks before Christmas. Only the previous weekend the police had closed Oxford Street because there were just too many people in it for safety.
Im sure it was nowhere near that now but John Lewis is an odd place to sit and have your dinner, like a bad comedy sketch Id tried to get in somewhere to sit down and made the mistake of trying to navigate through shops when I found myself outside the John Lewis Cafe. With the glories of trip planners, sat nav, tube maps I worked out that it would be a hundred yard dash to Regent Street tube station and then only one change to my hotel.
Ok so I’ll admit it Im chicken and I bottled out and went back to the hotel to watch the football on tv. Theres only so many shopping crowds you can brave before it takes its toll and if its this bad now, whats it going to be like come the 2012 Olympics?
The main areas I wanted to visit were Stanley and the Stanley market, the Aberdeen ‘village’ and its fish market, Sha Tin and the 10,000 buddhas monastery and if possible fit a trip in to Ngong Ping on the morning I was leaving.
Travel in Hong Kong is so easy and so cheap, stanley and aberdeen are less than an hour on the bus and probably less than 2 quid return, Sha Tin is a bit further for a few quid more and Ngong Ping isnt that far from the airport (if you can avoid going anywhere near Disneyland).
I didnt think Id been to Stanley before but walking round the market it did look vaguely familiar, if I had been there before it was only to the market. Thats not really a surprise as the first time I was there it had been a closed peninsula due to the British Military base and the 2nd time it had just been turned over to a Chinese military base. 14 years later commercialism and development have taken over but the market is still thriving and the peninsula has mostly been opened up with only a small part of it still reserved. I took a wander up to the Military Cemetary and walked past a field that was very familiar to me. Id definitely not been here before as it was within the old military base and it took me a while to work out why it was familiar. Back in 1977 when I was seven years old we had a batch of photos sent to us of my cousins in Hong Kong and here was the very same field complete with school on the cliff face in the background. I think I still have that old yellowing photo somewhere but here I was standing in virtually the spot the photo was taken. I resisted the opportunity to take a photo from the same spot as it wouldnt have anywhere near the meaning and time has moved on. How much time has moved on is almost like watching a sci fi film at the time. Back in 1977 the post took weeks to get to us and if you wanted to ring HK we went down to the only phone in the street and contacted the international operator and ‘booked’ a time for the call. That night I went back to the hotel and sent my cousin a message on facebook!
As well as the hustle bustle of the market where the prices seem to be lower and more ‘fixed’ than the other more touristy markets in Kowloon. The market here seems to be more for doing business than for haggling and getting the feel for things. Dont quote me on it but my feelings of Stanley market was that the goods were of a higher quality than other markets, certainly the silk/traditional clothing and the electronics. Times have indeed changed when you walk through the market dodging low flying toy helicopters.
The Murray building and the Tin Hau temple are worth a look, the temple if for nothing else than to see the weird tiger skin hanging on the wall. The official story was that it was shot by a local policeman as it ravaged the place, others say it was an escapee from the zoo shot by the Japanese during the invasion as well as other equally wild but equally plausible stories. Why its hanging on the temple wall 70 years later though isnt really explained.
I didnt get the chance to sample the waterfront restaurants as the US Navy was in town and the place was bunged and they didnt look like the type of guys to argue with… …although saying that I do remember starting an argument with Dutch special forces in a night club in Prague (over women of course) which ended up with us in a singing competition at a tram stop long after the sun came up with no women in sight (well none that didnt have a look of disgust on their face).
Moving swiftly along the next trip was to the quaint fishing village of Aberdeen. To be fair though even 14 years ago it was skyscrapers and very little left of a quaint fishing village.
I fancied having a wander around the famous fish market where the local fishing boats unload their catch and it is auctioned off, packed into lorries still alive, then shipped around the country. Its a proper working area so isnt accessible to everyone so as long as I watched my steps, got out of peoples way and didnt make a nuisance of myself Id be ok. Surprisingly I did do all of the above but my problems came from a different direction. Learning my lesson from the previous trips out at rush hour I went against all guide book advice to get across first thing and thought Id catch the last hour of trading, which was useful as the workers were more open to photos than during the mad phase of the operations. I also thought I’d learned from my blisters of the previous few days so first thing I burst all the existing ones and dressed the sores…
…only to find out the whole fish market tanks are live fish, crabs etc. Now back home everything is packed in ice and then sold, here they are kept in live tanks, transferred to live tanks, then transferred to vans with live water tanks and then into the restaurants where they swim about until lunchtime. What has this got to do with blisters, well all the tanks overflow keeping the fish alive so the full floor of the fish market is under about 2 inches of water. Salt water. Ow…
I thought that there wouldnt be a better place to get some seafood for lunch so took the courtesy ferry across to the famous jumbo floating restaurant. Id been to the restaurant before but hadnt actually eaten there but this time would be different. Its an amazing place and again I had old photos of my aunts dressed to the nines having nights out on the 3 storey floating restaurant complexes. Of course I was in my usual look like a pauper and try not to get robbed sweaty travel clothes so thought a cordened off screened area awaited. I got the top restaurant and asked for a table for one. Certainly sir, what name is the reservation under? Eh? Its sunday lunchtime, we are fully booked. Ah balls! I still havent eaten at the jumbo restaurant!
It was the same story in a lot of the restaurants and the town centre was hectic so I took a sampan tour of the harbour (again dont pay the main price, haggle, pretend to walk away and so on) before heading into the town for some Char Siu fast food style.
The journey to Sha Tin was interesting as it was good to be back on an integrated transport system, tram from the hotel to central, subway to Kowloon Tong station then old KCR train to Sha Tin station, no more than a few minutes delay in each station and no more than a couple of quid single. Oh how Id long for that a month later in London, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Id avoided Sha Tin for a couple of days as one of the big horseracing meetings was on. Now with family history and considering Id been going to Horse Racing since before I was born (think about it) I did feel Id miss out but needs must and all that, gotta use the good days for photos!
Id missed the 10,000 buddha monastery on previous trips so thought Id pay it a visit this time, directions were simple, out of the train station, past the traditional chinese village, up the hill and its on the left hand side. I did this but didnt think it looked like any of the photos Id seen in the old guide books but having had enough photos published in guide books and mentioned in blogs before about trades descriptions and photos in blue skies etc I though it might just be one wee small area of the monastery that all the photos are taken of.
It was hot, humid, very polluted and a lot of steps to the top of the hill (which the guidebooks warn you about). I got to the top and most of the lower levels were chinese columbariums where the ashes of the dead are placed. Not having been to a big buddhist monastery before I didnt know it was normal.
Up until this point Id been walking around on memory, a 14 year old guidebook and well, lets be honest, using the force. Standing at the top of this hill, sweat pouring out of me, sore leg, finding it hard to breathe with the pollution and almost out of water I thought Id turn to technology. I had downloaded the trip advisor hong kong app and thought Id just check with it using my smartphone and waited on a gps fix….
…Standing in this Buddhist temple I started to contemplate my own personal path to enlightenment as the gps fix locked and the trip advisor app loaded. I clicked on the tourist spot the gps indicator was flashing at. ‘This is the Po Fook Hill cemetery that many people mistake for the 10,000 Buddha monastery which is on the opposite facing hill’.
I turned around to see the monastery, on the opposite hill indeed with all the steps down and all the steps up. I had indeed had my path enlightened although I dont think Buddha would have approved of my language at this point. Further reading of the Po Fook Hill site revealed the presence of a lift to the top from the car park. I know buddhists sometimes ring bells but do they have a clucking one?
Down at the entrance to the real 10,000 Buddha monastery I was accosted by one of the fake monks who inhabit the site who block tourists path until they part with some cash. This guy was head and shoulders taller than me and kept stepping in my way. Which didnt do the bad leg nor the blisters any good. When he grabbed my arm he got a full mouthful of Belfast vernacular. Im assuming he wasnt fluent in English but the speed of his letting go and backing off did indicate I had helped enlighten him somewhat.
When I say the top of the path to the ten thousand buddha monastery was breathtaking I meant it. I couldnt bloody breathe! Good job theres a wee shop up there selling tea and water etc. The monastery itself is worth a visit and check out the embalmed body of the founder mounted on the altar! Take a trip up to the top of the 9 storey pagoda. You cant see anything out of it, I just want you to suffer like I did
Every so often, no matter how bad you feel, no matter how bad a day you are having and how wrecked you feel there is always something that will crack you up. Just outside the toilets in the monastery was a sign, which yes is well meaning and warns tourist to not feed the monkeys but….
Just the mix of the words ‘beware’ and ‘monkey attack’ had me in near fits of laughter as all I could imagine was me standing taking a piss in the loos only to be set upon by Bruce Lee trained ninja monkeys. The idea of monkeys all dressed in black flying out at me through the bushes was just too much!
On the train back I had a look through the trip advisor app and the number one tourist attraction in Hong Kong was the symphony of lights down at the harbour. Now I hadnt seen this before and everyone raved about it online. So I went down an hour early, picked my spot, got jostled endlessly by ignorant tourists but thought it would be worth the hassle. In the hour or so before the kowloon promenade speakers were knocking out classical and some rock music, just the sort of accompanyment you would expect to a sound, light and laser show which incorporates most of the buildings in Central Hong Kong and some of those in Kowloon (the Avenue of stars is the best place for viewing). When the show started it was a half hour long and to be perfectly honest seemed like a lifetime. Those who rated this the number one thing to see in Hong Kong were either staying on a boat in the middle of the harbour or really need to get out more. Now I appreciate the music may have been ‘classical chinese’ music but to me it was just ding ding noise but then again Im starting to sound like the tourists I used to slag off the last times I was here, so heres a short clip of the finale so that you can make up your own minds but dont hold your breath…
The last trip was up the Ngong Ping cablecar to the Ngong Ping tourist village and up to the Big Buddha. The plan was simple, get to the airport, check the bags in, get to the cable car and then spend some time at the big buddha. Of course what it didnt tell you was that you can check your bags in at the airport express terminal…. … in Hong Kong Island, not at the airport and I really thought I was going to be stuck here all day lying on my bags in an airport. Thankfully there was a left luggage place so I went to the cable car unburdened! Which was just as well as an hour standing in the queue with it just long enough to think it wasnt worth spending the extra tenner for the queue jumping ticket. Trust me it is! You can also opt for the glass bottomed cable car. Not for me in a million years – my fear of heights is bad enough but when you are in a cable car and can see planes taking off way down below you, gaving a glass bottom is quite likely to bring on an evacuated bottom if you know what I mean.
Speaking of which, Ive always had this ‘rule’ of traveling. Dont eat anything dodgy during the entire stay and if you want to go for say that chinese herbal tea from a street stall or the seafood prawns from hong kong harbour then do it on the last night/day, that way if you get the shits on the plane home it doesnt really matter. This has been a good rule for me and one I tell everyone, probably because Ive never ever put it into practice…
…until now. It wasnt the fear of heights that scared me on the cable car trip, it was the fear that every fart might end up sounding like trying to squeeze the last bit of shower gel out of the plastic container.
Packing the immodium in the left luggage perhaps wasnt my brightest idea.
The pollution was so bad you could see very little and almost had to be on the big buddha so photos were pointless and with my stomach doing somersaults discretion was the better part of valour and time to start winding my way home.
Overall it was a good trip, Id seen a lot more of Hong Kong than both my previous trips combined but thats down to this being a work trip rather than a holiday. I would recommend Hong Kong to anyone, even if it is just to wander around the place, get some good food, do a bit of haggling and shopping and maybe get to some of the outlying places rather than just central and kowloon.
One of the most famous, accessible, cheap and most memorable sights in Hong Kong is the star ferry journey across the harbour. As I mentioned in my last blog post the journey isnt as long as I remember it due to the land reclamation in the harbour. Some locals joke that in a few years you will be able to walk to the island without getting your feet wet!
IF you have a couple of hours only in Hong Kong make sure you take the trip. If you have more than a day make sure you take it at night as well. Check out the seats as they are all reversible and you just move the back depending on which direction you are moving in. Also keep an eye out for the moving gangplank when boarding, particularly in a heavy swell and sometimes the night crossing can be a bit hairy in one of the most congested areas of sea on the planet!
After the food excesses of the previous couple of days it turned out to be a McDonalds day. As much as I dont eat this stuff, well almost ever, out where my hotel was the cafes and restaurants didnt open until 10am (another reason for lying in) and McDonalds was open from 7am. 10am is all well and good in the summer months but when it gets dark at 4:30-5pm and you need to get photos taken then time really is money. So using my octopus card I just went in pointed to a breakfast menu and stood and waited. Normally Im very anal about research but how far wrong can you go?
Well ok you get this…
When I first took the lid off I thought WTF? Someone has accidently dumped my egg, burger pasta and cheese into a bowl of hot water. Then I thought hold on check around and see what other people get. Yes the same thing. Odd. As usual I ended up wearing some of it and realised I’d better go on a diet when I get home because I dont stain the top of my trousers any more I stain half way down my shirt (you can work that out yourself!
I had a few things on my must see list from previous trips and one of those was to see people do Tai Chi in the parks. In the previous trips I’d failed to see any purely because it seems to be mostly done at 7am and well, lets be honest I only see 7am if Im coming home or if the house was catching fire. So rather than the mass numbers you see in all the guidebooks (usually old looking photos – does it happen any more?) I happened to catch a few folk in one garden in central.
Down at the Star Ferry terminal the previous there had been loads of police knocking about with cordoned off areas. Nothing unusual there I just assumed it was a queue for some famous person signing or queue for a ticket launch or some other thing. I found out today when I saw the length of it that it was the queue for the launch of the iPhone 4GS. When I say queue I mean over 3000 people queued up. Yes three thousand! I was at the opening of the apple store in Belfast and I think there was one sad loser who queued all night and felt a right prat because number 2 in the queue didnt show up to 6am. There were perhaps about 150 people total, if that? Now all the mac evangelists I know are quite sad people. Its a cult or religion rather than a piece of over styled average technology but come on. At what point did people turn up and queue for 3 days think ‘maybe they only have 2000 in stock?’. Maybe they had more. Very sad indeed, get a life folks its a bloody phone and not a very good phone at that! The reason why the police were there was that scuffles had broken out at the front because people had been paid over 1000 pounds to stand at the front of the queue for other people. Now I can understand queueing up for 3 days and nights for a grand, I would be tempted myself but paying the grand? plus the price of the phone? Come on. Still it didnt stop me exploiting the situation and wiring in a few photos to a news agency.
One other thing on the list to see was the noonday gun down in Causeway Bay. A hangover from the British occupation where this cannon would be fired on the shoreline every day at noon by the Jardines company. It had apparently stopped for a couple of years but was going today. Give it another 6 months and it wont be anywhere near the sea which will be odd having this row of Cannons on a pier a few hundred yards inland. Access to the gun is limited to the half hour after the gun is fired and access to the gun area is a bit convoluted, down through the basement of a hotel. One of those times you ask for help or directions and are led down stairs, down a corridor, past heating ducts into the darkness when every ounce of sense you have is screaming at you to get the f**k out of Dodge and you laugh at the stupidity of such people in daft horror or zombie movies. Well I followed a couple of women down so I thought if they started disappearing one by one it was time to leg it.
The whole firing the cannon ceremony was typically British lots of spit and polish and loads of old colonialism thrown in for good measure but ultimately pointless. Still it keeps the tourists happy.
Speaking of the British and colonialism and all that. On my first trip to Hong Kong it was still a British Colony and I found most of the tourists were the panama hat, linen suit wearing brigade whose daily duty it was to be loud and thoroughly insult and be rude to the natives. A few were looking forward to going back to Mainland China control to get rid of the foreign oppressors. Of course now the chinese people barge into you, are loud and seem to spend the day being thoroughly rude to the natives. The American Navy were also in town and… well you get the picture. I guess most tourists seem to be the same regardless of where they come from and where they go.
Hong Kong is a shoppers paradise but it isnt as cheap as it used to be. As I mentioned in the previous post everything seems to be available on ebay for not much more and without the hassle of lugging it around, luggage weight restrictions and customs declarations but it is still fun to haggle regardless. Todays markets were the fresh food market in Yaumatei and the Jade Market. Now my first experience of a chinese fresh food market involved my first trip were we went into China for the day. The food was fresh as it was indeed, still breathing. The coach trip didnt realise that if you went around a market pointing at things they were generally fished out of their tank or cage and beheaded on the spot. 10 mins in to our 1/2 hour visit I was the only one left in the place.
It reeked of cow faeces, blood and the noise was amazing. I didnt mind the tying the goat up and slitting its throat, food has to be got somehow, what turned my stomach was the guy clearing his head, nose, throat and lungs up and spitting it into the fish tank to be completely devoured by the fish. Now I know you are probably retching now at the thought, I can still see it and will probably see it to my dying day. Thats one thing that has improved. My first two times people just decided to dump the contents of their mucal cavaties at each and every opportunity. You would never put your bag down on the floor in a tram, bus or even restaurant. To be fair to one of my previous travelling companions even my chicken dinner didnt taste the same when the crowd of builders at the next restaurant table put half the contents of their brains on the floor next to us.
Im assuming the outbreaks of SARS and bird flu hit all that on the head. Originally I thought people wearing facemasks about town were just paranoid, turns out it is a health issue but its one enforced by doctors in that if you have a cold and go in to town with millions of other people you wear a facemask to limit the chances of infecting someone else. A couple of weeks later on the London Underground I wished that rule applied here. Would probably breach our human rights…
Markets now are a lot more civilised places but the food is still fresh and some of it is still breathing. When I say food I mean things that you could possibly stick in your gub. Im assuming the more disgusting it is the more of a ‘delicacy’ it becomes. You cant say its not fresh though and remembering my first trip I remember seeing every single part of four pigs hanging up for sale in a butchers stall. When I say every single part, I mean every single part and you could tell there were a couple of male pigs in there as well. Think about it… ….but it took me a long while to eat pork sausages again.
The Jade Market is another good memory having visited it on previous trips with a couple of cheap souvenirs still around the house. As long as you realise you are probably buying cheap plastic then you cant be far wrong. Lets be honest if someone asks me for a tenner for a piece of polished jade stone and settles on a pound then the odds are its up there with my jade dragon story. If I havent already elaborated on that one before I’ll do a later blog post on the tat, sorry souvenirs I’ve bought around the world.
Ive mentioned the silk embroidery before and theres nothing like this and the range available from Hong Kong, just make sure you haggle in the night markets although places like Stanley Market shops have better quality and the prices on show are pretty much it although in bulk with cash you can get a deal.
Ive mentioned my chinese rosewood furniture before and the hollywood road is one of the places to go but a better deal was had on Queens Road East.
Unfortunately or rather fortunately the shop I bought all my stuff from had moved. To cut a long story short (would be a first) I ordered a dining room table and wooden bureau to my spec, colours, seats etc and paid the money to have it delivered half way round the world. Simple transaction and of course my mate (who also ordered some stuff) only researched how to do business in China after we came home. Oh the handing money and business cards over with two hands is polite and one is rude. Oops, now who were acting the colonialists? You dont do a deal straight away as its more polite to accept the sweets they offer, ok so I insulted the locals too, talk about family, ok yet again, and then come back the next day and do the deal. Ok you get the picture about insulting the locals.
So it would take six weeks to make and six weeks to ship in a container. It was only when we got home and arguably sobered up that we realised we’d just paid a couple of grand to a stranger in a small shop halfway round the world and did we really expect the stuff to be delivered on time. Well I can tell you it wasnt delivered on time, it came a week early. Despite the jokes from people at home it backed up all the advice we had been given before going that chinese people do business with trust and honour and I had hoped to call into the same shop and thank the owner or more likely their son or heir for the great service we received from them.
Ive had a fascination with Hong Kong ever since I was a kid. I’ll not blame one of my favourite cartoons ‘Hong Kong Phooey’ and I’ll not even blame one of the greatest marketing exercises of all time with every cheap plastic toy known to man being branded as ‘Made in Hong Kong’ but rather that two of my aunts lived there for for a couple of years in the mid to late 70s.
One of my aunts sent us some chinese style pyjamas – all black with embroidered dragon on the back and her house when she returned to the UK was full of beautifully carved dark chinese rosewood furniture.
I first got the chance to go to Hong Kong back just before it was handed back to the Chinese. It was an interesting trip as I went with an ex-girlfriend who wasnt ex when we booked it. Interesting is certainly one way to describe it. As a result I thought I had unfinished business there and went back just after the handover with a couple of mates. The rest is a bit hazy and although I did buy a lot of furniture and had it shipped home I still dont think I did the place justice.
Cut to last year and at some point in the year the wee voice in my head said ‘you should get yourself back to Hong Kong’. So when a gap in the schedule opened up in November I thought – why not, good to go and see how the place has changed in the last 14 years and update some stock photos. Oh and not to spend any money on ‘stuff’. Saying that though I did go out with a half empty bag just in case. Well not so much just in case but to bring back some tacky dragon embroidered pyjamas for every kid I know!
As usual nothing is straightforward. I hadnt flown British Airways since my accident on their plane back in 1999. I wasnt looking forward to that aspect of it but time to try and put some demons to rest. Of course BA require some extra passport details and it being a relatively new passport (less than a year old) I didnt know them offhand. I got the passport out and filled in the details until I got to the ‘sex’ section. Right here in block letters was the word ‘female’. Oh shit! Only 3 days to go no opportunity to get the passport changed. I convinced myself that it wouldnt be a problem as I had already been allowed into both Canada and the US on this passport. Maybe the border guards were too polite to say or maybe just thought it was a bad hair day. Either way it put paid to any plans to nipping across the Chinese border into Shenzen in case I couldnt get back to HK and be stranded in the special economic zone until the end of time.
There was probably a greater likelihood of being detained at heathrow but either way passing through immigration in both places would be squeeky bum time.
I need not have worried as other as the interminable delays in getting through to heathrow terminal 5, nothing of any real interest happened on the way out. Ive always disliked heathrow but now its just a hole of a place. 3 hours to get from terminal 1 to terminal 5? I could have crawled it quicker.
It was my first time at the new Hong Kong airport, the last trips were to the old Kai Tak airport where you flew between the skyscrapers and then banked heavily and hoped you landed on the runway. I’d always heard stories about looking out the window and seeing people on balconies above you. Id put this down to exaggeration but I can honestly say it was a sight to behold and one of the truly remarkable sights I’ve ever seen.
The rain had followed me all the way and although it was ‘cold’ by local standards, standing waiting for the bus to the island I couldnt get rid of the jumpers and coats quick enough. The bus was straight to the hotel door and then it was changed, showered and out down to the star ferry. Its here the changes became noticeable. A couple of extra skyscrapers but the old shoreline is now well inland, something that would sting me later on when I recognised some places from my previous trip and thought ‘sure its only just down there…’. Yeah, maybe 14 years ago but the ferry crossing is now about 1/2 the time it used to be and the boats havent got any quicker!
Hong Kong was as manic as I ever remembered it with the added complication with people stopping or slowing down to reading texts, websites, facebook etc on their phones and tablets.
The last trips I didnt really get the chance to eat some true chinese food as one person refused to eat anything that looked dodgy and on another trip travelling with a mate who thought a spring roll was a bread roll with salad in it!
Off I went to the temple st night market and to temple spice crab cafe. I of course ordered the spicy crabs without actually knowing what I was getting. At 30 quid for a street cafe meal I really should have had my head read but was glad when this arrived….
…of course never having eaten crab before I really didnt have a clue. I was also out of practice with chopsticks and no-one around me was eating crab so I didnt have a guide. Firstly let me warn you, when they say spicy crab, they mean spicy! As I enjoy chinese food I have a cupboard full of chinese ingredients so you would think I would recognise spicy rice full of dried chillis. Well you would think so, wouldnt you. It burned on the way in and it burned on the way out. Finally a couple of New Zealand tourists took pity on me. They recognised I came from a cold place in the Northern Hemisphere and that we need to use tools to crack crab legs because the shells are thick! Down here its warm water and the shells are so thin you can crack them with your teeth. They obviously havent seen my dental bills! When Id stopped eating bits of shell and putting out the fire in my mouth I really started to enjoy the spicy crabs, but it had taken me so long to get round to it that the place was closing with that famous chinese way of letting you know your time is up by taking your table away and turning off the lights.
I had a quick look round the market then went back on the ferry. By this time the trams had stopped and public transport was winding down, so instead of getting one of the cheap taxis I thought Id walk back to the hotel. It was a lovely warm balmy night, leg was fine and sure it wasnt that far from what I remember….
Next morning it was out with the antiseptic cream and time to bust the blisters from the night before!
Since my last visit almost all of the transport and some of the small shops and restaurant chains (7eleven, mcdonalds etc) use the octopus card. This is a smart car payment system which makes the whole transport thing so easy which calls into question last nights exploring! Just touch it to the payment terminal and away you go. No fumbling for change on the tram! Probably one of the more useful things I bought in hong kong, particularly as it is soo cheap to get around. I think I spent about 25 quid in total for all the travelling, some breakfasts and supplies from the 7-11. Compare that to over 40 quid in London a month later for half the time and far less travel….
I was up reasonably early for a couple of reasons, one being jetlagged, two being the jcb dismantling the building next to the hotel and the dynamiting going on beneath the hotel in extending the MTR. The view from the hotel window wasnt exactly scenic and for me at least is one of those views you only get in Hong Kong. Not a view of the harbour but a road on stilts snaking through the high rise apartment buildings and one of those buildings being dismantled from the top down by a JCB. How the hell do they get up there in the first place? Heavy lift helicopter?
It was still a crappy day and really poor for photography so I thought Id change my plans, get out early, get up to the markets, have a look round and then get some general tight in shots of things. Of course in hindsight getting on the ding ding local tram during the rush hour commute into the central district probably wasnt the best idea in the world. A good excuse for sleeping in for the rest of the week.
The tram may be cheap but it is slow and crowded so although I was head and shoulders above everyone else on the tram it meant my head was touching the ceiling for the whole journey. About half way there I cracked, got off and went for a walk down the dried seafood street. Id seen a programme about shark fin fishing a few weeks previously and this seemed to be the place where they were all sold along with every sort of dried ‘thing’ you would think it was possible to eat and an awful lot of stuff you wouldnt think of eating in a million years! Maybe starbucks for breakfast isnt such a bad idea after all! Although very weird to get a christmas latte and cranberry danish with piped festive tunes in 21 degree heat in the middle of china.
Lunch however was a totally different proposition. Id read in the guidebooks about the dim dum restaurant up in Mong Kok that is the proud owner of a michelin star. I have eaten in michelin starred restaurants before (all the ones in Northern Ireland) but never for less than 10 quid! There are no bookings here, so you turn up get a number, be told it will be ‘about an hour’ and then wait.
One tip is not to go in a group, split up into groups of 2 and just go an enjoy the food and talk about it later. It is a very small restaurant so if you go singly you will be put at the table with someone else. Luckily I was put with a chinese man who was interested in where I was from, what I was doing and why I had ordered enough food to feed a family of 4. I thought he was joking. He wasnt and my doggy backpack was testament to that. It was still less than a tenner and michelin starred! My about an hour was really about an hour so I’d went for a wander, came back filled in what I wanted and then crammed into my spot right in front of the serving area. This is what Hong Kong is all about, ordered chaos but with a superb result.
I had read people saying that the pork buns were to die for and again thats no exaggeration. I hardly touched the congee and if I knew what it was in advance I’d probably have not bothered. The chicken feet were ‘interesting’ and I can say Ive been there and done that and the sticky rice would indeed have filled me as it was. So if you want something to fill you up, takeaway from a michelin starred restaurant without waiting then I recommend ordering the sticky rice and pork buns then finding one of the small local parks to sit and eat in.
If you only eat in one place in hong kong make it one dim dum ( Tim Ho Wan) on Kwong Wa Street Mong Kok. It is worth the wait.
Hong Kong is a great place for markets, from the night markets to the jade market, the goldfish and bird markets to the ‘fresh’ food markets some of which is still alive, be sure to go and visit as many as possible. The night and tourists markets just seem to be a physical implementation of ebay these days but in the days before ebay they really were sights to behold. Well worth a wander round and be prepared to barter and never go for the top price.
Even though I said I wasnt going to buy anything, I did think I’d get myself something for Christmas! Pity it didnt last beyond Christmas but what do you expect for a tenner, although Im glad I didnt pay the 30 quid asking price!
I think my headstone should say something along the lines of ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ but more likely to say ‘watch this’ or ‘I know I shouldnt be doing this but whats the worst that can happen?’
Ive been here (whereever here is) too long already as I wanted to add ‘Eh?’ at the end of that sentence.
Its hard to tell where I am or when I am or what bloody year it is. I know Im sitting in the hotel foyer in Nashville, that bit is easy, it says it on the leaflets in front of me. I havent slept in the same bed twice in almost two weeks. Now normally that would be one hell of a boast but by now it just means a pile of washing and not believing what the gps says.
It was a simple concept this trip, Saskatoon to Nashville 2-3 days of easy driving, sightseeing, looking around us, 5 days in Nashville and the same on the way back. Put into that few a words and saying it not too loud and not mentioning it to anyone with any sense in their head and it really did seem like a good idea at the time.
We started well enough, we left Saskatoon early on Friday night (I think it was Friday, I had to look it up) and hit Regina and stay at Nathans house (promised Nathan a mention in the blog, so there you go Nathan, youve got a mention and thanks again for letting us stay at your house). So Nathan had been away himself for a while so looked a bit shell shocked when we arrived just before midnight. Nathan was off up himself in the early hours of the morning, before we’d managed to prise our eyelids open. I had heard a lot about him, his trips to the world cup in South Africa and various other football games. At another time we’d probably have spent a lot of time swapping football stories over a few beers but it wasnt to be – maybe in Brazil
We had great intentions of getting up and on the road early but it was absolutely chucking it down. Id been introduced to the concept of basements in Canada, where we tend to convert attics to add extra rooms, all the houses here seem to have basements to do the same job, Nathans was superb with the TV room underground. Also its common practice here to take your shoes off going into the house, probably why all the carpets and floors look really good years on.
But you dont want to hear about that, you want to hear about the Wicklow Cafe which was about as irish as well something that isnt really irish. I misread the menu and ordered their 8 oz burger, but what I had ordered was a double 8 oz burger. It was big enough to choke a horse or as a mate of mine once remarked, thats probably the whole arse of a cow…
Now I take pride in being able to inhale food rather than just bite, chew and digest like normal people but even I had to take one of the burgers out so I could get the rest in my gub.
Im pretty much setting the scene for this trip, its all really about the food to be honest.
That and the ‘Are you hungry?’ ‘No, but I could eat something’.
As we drove south the fields on both sides of the road were flooded, and I mean really flooded, at one point the protective banks had burst on the road and we were sent out the way by a cop, it will be worse probably by the time we get back. The train line was flooded and the trains stopped, some of the wee villages had their fire crews out pumping water from the centre of town. It really did look like something out of a disaster movie…. ….it would turn out to be small change.
The next big hurdle was the US border, last year I went to Argentina and the stupid idea of having to clear US immigration even though I wasnt leaving the airport for a transfer meant that one of my exit visa cards wasnt collected by the air crew. So at some point I thought I was going to be scooped. I didnt fancy sitting on a case for 11 days in the arse hole of nowhere waiting on my friends coming back to me. It would also be difficult trying to justify my photo selection for the tour book. ‘But these look like all the same pictures of the same place with feck all but horizon’, ‘Ah you dont understand art’, ‘get the f**k out of my office and dont come back’. Maybe I could get them to buy postcards and stick them in the album.
Even though Id a new passport I thought something would sting me so I got called into the office and there on the wall was my mate Barack of the Moneygall Obamas. I thought it might not be wise to mention this at this time. It was bad enough we crossed the border in an SUV with totally blacked out windows. Now my car at home has the rear windows tinted, the guy tinting them said not to get the limo tint would look like I was in a hearse…
…so even the border official couldnt see me, but of course the xray they were taking of the car probably did. What do you mean they dont x-ray the cars….
I suppose it could have been worse, I could have been chained up with a gimp mask in the back seat, I nearly bought one of those once, for a photo prop you understand but I did think that if the plane went down and my family went to identify my belongings, even though I was dead, it would be a hard one to explain. Still…
Oh and the old Jedi mind trick of ‘you dont need to bring me into the office’ didnt work either.
Anyway to exaggerate a really nothing happening, I got through and passed from the arse hole of nowhere Canada to the arse hole of nowhere USA. I dont mean that to be derogatory because they were definitely the best arse holes of nowhere Id ever been. Nothing but flat boring land for miles. It is weird and interesting but after 1000km it all gets a bit, well, ‘samey’.
As the sat nav had said we dutifully turned left at North Dakota and kept driving into the night.
Time to find somewhere to stay and being behind schedule we were never going to make it to Sioux Falls so we settled on Jamestown and spent a while driving round to find a hotel room and ended up in the Holiday Inn for the night.
Jamestown is famous for having the worlds largest buffalo statue. We saw it at speed from the road and it was a massive bloody buffalo statue. To be fair though I dont know what competition they have and if someone told me the worlds largest buffalo statue was 3 feet tall I would believe them.
Time to hit the road again and now whizzing through South Dakota, trying to keep within the speed limits. Whilst we did have the technical wizardry of a sat nav, my co-pilots had their trusty map with the route in yellow highlighter. Long thought out in advance but not the route I would take but hey looked more interesting. Of course the map was a one off, bought for the purpose, treated with care as it was the blueprint for the journey, carefully looked after, folded up properly and stowed in the same place.
Then of course some shit for brains photographer decided that a photo of the map with on the car bonnet (sorry hood) with a couple of coffee cups on it would add to the journey. I should have of course used empty coffee cups….
…it will dry out…
…besides its more lived in, needs some tomato ketchup, blood and maybe a bit of vomit and wee stains to make it a true road trip map but maybe thats just going too far.
Time for lunch, well its always time for lunch or should I say breakfast, even in Dennys at 10pm I asked what was good there and the manager read out the entire menu but highlighted the breakfasts!
It was a nice wee local restaurant with a staff of about four thousand, with more staff than customers but the people welcomed us in and asked where we were from and what we were doing etc. Really nice to see and the food was good too. This is a half skillet apparently. Id hate to see the size of a full one.
We were a bit unlucky as we hit about 50 miles of roadworks on the trip down to Sioux Falls and Sioux City. The plan was to see if we could get down to Kansas City or St Louis for the evening. Although I might make a detour along the way to visit someone I know from the internet. Now normally every person I have met on the internet or converse with is nice and a good person – I have to bloody say that, most of you are reading this and know where I live. But occassionally you just come across someone who one day would benefit from two fairly well built Belfast boys turning up on their doorstep in Hicksville USA, saying nothing and just smacking them in the mouth. ‘Thats for nothing, wait until you do something’. Wont be such a smart arse in forums then would we? Oh and we could still do it on the way home
All joking aside, the journey from Sioux Falls to Kansas City was a bit of a nightmare but nothing compared to what the people living there have went through. We had all vaguely heard something about floods last year and this but hadnt even thought it would impact on us, after all it was a while ago, wasnt it.
We were all dozing off through the afternoon as the heat creeped up but one ‘holy f*ck’ from me had everyone looking out of the window. Long diversions into the countryside as the main road just went straight under the Missouri River. The levees had been breached and there was devastation everywhere. Roads closed, houses covered, streetsigns just sticking out of the water and fields just looking like a big lake with trees sticking out of it.
Its one of the issues with travel in the US, all the roads seem to be a grid system, odd numbers north/south, even numbers east/west but when a road is closed you have to go across and then down and this added maybe a hundred miles to our journey. It did make it more interesting… …interesting in a Top Gear visits Alabama sort of way. Or put in the Belfast vernacular, a couple of dicks in a pickup truck and an ex cop car ‘acting the ballix’. Racing each other and us stuck in the middle, unarmed, in hicksville usa…
We managed to gt rid and get back on the highway again, just in time to ignore the roadsigns for the last 1000 miles or so that advertise which turns off the motorway turn into gas stations, food establishments and hotels. No we decided to take the turn off that took us into downtown St Joseph. Now buildings that are boarded up, people sitting on their porches eyeing up the fresh meat, sorry visitors. 20 mins of driving around produced the sort of physical reaction that meant it would be difficult to put a playing card between our arse cheeks…
Im not exaggerating how bad this place looked, earlier on the trip there was the floods devastation and we had driven through an area that had been hit recently by a tornado with the odd building wrecked but this was on a different scale. Maybe getting a few rifles as soon as we crossed the border might not have been a bad idea.
We decided to push on down the road to catch up time and go halfway between Kansas City and St Louis in a place called Columbia and try and find a hotel. It was my turn to drive and although I dont think Id ever driven in the US at night, nevermind in pishing rain, in a thunderstorm that there were weather warnings about, I thought Id give it a go. After all whats the worst that could happen. Besides which it would be a dry run for the return trip in case we were running late and had to drive through the night to get back to safety, sorry Canada.
One thing I discovered early on is that the US could fecking do with cateyes and luminous lane markers on the interstates and highways. Driving in heavy rain at night it really was a case of keep it between the hedges. The whole driving experience was interesting. A few friends work for a company that makes the see sensors that measure tyre pressure and other things to do with the wheels. These seemed to be widely used in the US and is it any wonder. There are so many different road noises, all of which would have me normally pulling in to check for a flat tyre, wonky wheel or part of the car falling off! But the sensors would tell us if there was any problem with the tyres. Good idea. Now tell us where the road is and we are laughing.
I managed to make it through the main part of the thunderstorm without shitting myself, well mostly.
As the roads cleared I just saw on the side of the road some sort of animal, now it was like a racoon or badger. It ran right across the road in front of me to the central reservation. Id slowed down but driving this big boat of an american car at night, in the rain on the wet road I wasnt going to break too hard.
Unlucky for the Racoon who was on a suicide mission and having made it to safety decided to retrace his steps.
This led to the inevitable ‘thump’ ‘thump’ and the inevitable ‘f*ck’ ‘f*ck’ from me. Silence from the rest of the car and then this big broad Belfast accent ‘Joe, weve had this car for three years and havent hit nathing! You bloody hit a raccoon on your first attempt’.
What could I say? I must have been in slight shock as what I thought I would say and what I actually said are two different things.
Firstly, ‘God I hope that was a raccoon and not a man in a fancy dress suit or davy crockett hat’
closely followed by
‘have you ever hit a pigeon? They just explode in a hail of feathers you know!’
Hard to drive through the night when you are fighting back tears of laughter..
We reached Columbia without further incident except to find out there was almost literally no room at the inn at 1am. So we would all have to share a room.
It had been a traumatic experience and eventually something has to give. Now if you consider Id been eating enough food to keep a small nation going for a week you can see where this is going.
When you make that sort of bathroom deposit, generally speaking a formal written apology might be more appropriate than the old ‘you might want to give that a minute before going in to clean your teeth’.
Id like to formally apologise to my travelling companions for any inconvenience or stinging eyes, runny nose or general feeling of illness caused as a result of my actions.
No more cracker barrell platters for me. Well not for a few days anyway.
Its late now and Im in a half decent hotel in Nashville and its time to get on with the rest of the trip so thats it for now. Just to say we took a quick run into the Gaylord Opryland hotel. And yes for all the Norn Iron people reading this who have just spat out their coffee, yes indeedy theres a huge hotel run by the Gaylord corporation. Now its childish immature and just plain wrong to laugh at the mention of the word Gaylord but you have to admit when you see a big butch guy who would beat seven shades of shit out of you wearing a t-shirt and cap with the words ‘Gaylord Security’ all over it, its hard not to laugh.
The place seemed quite dead and it wasnt until we went on the boat tour (yes they have an indoor river with fish and ducks and everything) that we realised that this time last year the whole building was under 20-30 feet of water. The mall across the parking lot still hasnt re-opened – probably a total loss. The cinema still has advertising posters from May 2010 on the walls. Brings it all home with a bump.
Ireland is often described as having 40 shades of green, its usually not until you go away from the place and then come back that you see this. On the bus from Belfast to Dublin airport for my trip to Canada and the US it was a good chance to take the time to look around me. Often Im just driving down the road and dont get to see the scenery rushing past. Im going to be seeing a lot of scenery rushing past over the next couple of weeks.
As I write Im sitting in Saskatoon, Canada. Home of the land of the living skies and they arent kidding. It does feel odd to not really see any hills and see cloud formations over prairies into the distance.
Its been a long journey so far, Belfast to Dublin, overnight in Dublin airport, then off to Toronto, couple of days in Toronto then off to Saskatoon.
Thing is though it doesnt really feel weird/different at all, it all feels pretty normal, another day, another city. Ive never been to Canada before but felt as if I had, Ive a few Canadian friends through my association with the Belfast Ice Hockey team and through working for a Canadian company for 4 years in a previous life.
So far its been the friendly welcoming country that everyone has said it would be.
I started in Dublin and got the chance to look at the new airport terminal as I was staying in the grounds of the airport for an early flight to Toronto. The new building is impressive but I got the overwhelming feeling that there were a lot of one way tickets being bought. A lot of young people at the airport with very heavy bags and a lot of tearful goodbyes. Looks like the old days of emigration have returned.
I was flying out with Air Canada and have to say I was impressed with the service on the flight, even though at one point the captain pointed out a Delta airlines flight only 1000 feet below us! Canadian customs wasnt as big a pain as their US equivalents and it was then on to the hotel via a bus with power connections and free wifi – whats that all aboot?
I was a bit concerned about the hotel in all honesty, Id booked it in advance via priceline and of course the day after Id booked and paid for it with no refunds allowed, two reviews came up which called it a dump, smack in the middle of the red light district. Charming! At least it would allow for interesting photos.
I neednt have worried as I somehow managed to get a suite, which I didnt know about until I got into the room and wondered where the hell the bed was – oh that would be down the corridor.
Quick shower and out and down to Yonge Dundas Square to have a look around. It did seem odd that the city tour busses started their last route at 4:50pm and there was no night version so be warned if you are only there for a day! The ticket is valid for 7 days but not a lot of use to me with only one full day in Toronto and then on to Niagara Falls. Did I mention I would be going over Niagara Falls in a helicopter? Ah minor point.
I’ll not go into too much detail about the trip, I’ll leave that to the photos when I eventually get home and eventually get the thousands of images edited and uploaded, I’ve just a few proofs done and uploaded here.
Toronto is a great city as you would expect, very welcoming. Id recommend the open top bus tour and the harbour tour but the weather I had was rubbish, more like Belfast than Toronto so do be warned. I didnt get the photos I had planned but then again what I had planned on a 36 hour schedule was probably unrealistic anyway. Certainly the blisters on my feet and the sunburn from an overcast day will testify to that.
Im not going to say Niagara Falls was a disappointment, it just wasnt that big a deal. I did the day tour which stopped very briefly at a winery and allowed me to purchase a couple of bottles of the famous ice wine and then little more than a drive through of Niagara on the Lake (which lets be honest is more than enough).
I was looking forward to the Maid of the Mist trip but had been tempered by comments from a few Canadians I met at Iguazu Falls in Argentina. Id been under Iguazu in a fast rib and when I say I got soaked there I got soaked right through to the shorts despite wearing waterproofs. Niagara was a bit tame in comparison.
Of course I still havent got over getting into a helicopter and just taking off so that was again a high point of the trip so far. Weather wasnt particularly great but the photos still arent bad at all.
Friends do say that trouble follows me everywhere so the flight from Toronto to Saskatoon was scheduled for the first day of the Air Canada strike so up early to see if I could get my flight at all! Got checked in ok and even got some photos of the strikers!
It was then on to Saskatoon and staying with my friends Stephen and Tera Maguire. Theres been a lot of catching up and just chilling out, but mostly eating! Tomorrow we depart on a 3 day drive from Saskatoon Canada to Nashville USA. Its a punishing schedule but should be yet another one of those trips of a lifetime.
Oh and I have to mention Tim Hortons, no particular reason but anyone who has been to Canada will know what I mean…
Will try to keep the blog ongoing as the trip progresses…
On 31st May it is the 100th anniversary of the launch of the RMS Titanic hull. There have been various commemorations here over the last 2 months to mark milestones in the building of the ship.
Now you have to ask the question about celebrating next year the 100th anniversary of the sinking, an event were over 1500 people died. Thats just under half the number of people killed here during the troubles in one night. I hope the events scheduled for next year will be more memorial than a celebration.
Which is why it has been interesting to see the events scheduled for the various milestones in the Titanic launch 100 years on. As the t-shirts say ‘Titanic – it was fine when it left here’.
The Titanic has held a fascination for people and in particular local people, long before Winslett and DeCaprio stood on the fake deck doing the king of the world thing. Belfast has always taken a pride in building the Titanic which again is odd for something that deficiences in the design and construction played a part in the downfall. The shipyard itself also has a checkered past with a part of the community. At the time the titanic was built it was predominantly made from workers of one religion. This isnt surprising given the demographics of the area. It did lead of course to the bias, discrimination and intolerance that vast majority always seems to bring. My own grandfather worked their briefly. That was until they found out he was a Catholic. One day he went to put his work coat on, found the end of his sleeves stiched up as he put it on, his ‘colleagues’ grabbed him, tied him up and threw him into the Lagan. Luckily he was a strong swimmer and they hadnt tied him as tight as he thought. He managed to get free and get to shore. His last working day in the shipyard and if he hadnt been as lucky I wouldnt be writing this blog post today.
Of course along with obvious bias (500 Catholic workers out of 9-10,000) there were also some untrue myths. I remember being told the ‘No Pope Here’ story by my Grannie when I was a kid. The story went that the hull registration number of the titanic was 3909 04 which is no pope backwards (ok you have to squint). Now this rumour was believed yet there is absolutely no evidence for it whatsoever. Thats not to say it wasnt chalked up somewhere and the rumour grew up from that, but it was an idea that was prevalent here for years, wrongly.
The RMS Titanic was christened ‘unsinkable’ by many and of course rumours grew up about comments about God not being able to sink it, and well he did. I dont think God works like that. 1500 odd people killed to prove a point, no, I dont think so. There was also rumoured to be a mummy being carried and it was the result of a mummies curse, or something to do with gold being carried aboard.
The Titanic didnt really sink for any of these reasons, just the usual, corporate greed, arrogance, human failing, laziness and stupidity. All entirely human reactions.
The sinking was a result of a chain of events, which unfortunately like any catastrophe any one of which would have prevented the sinking or at the very least prevented the huge loss of life.
The White Star line were under pressure to provide the fastest Atlantic crossing so they put pressure on the captain to go as quickly as they could. If they had heeded the iceberg warnings and slowed down they might have had more time. Common practice at the time however was to continue at speed as they thought any iceberg would be seen in time, not taking account of ship speed and turning circle etc.
It was a moonless night which mean visibility was low. They did see the iceberg before it hit but were going too fast to change direction and current thinking was that the helm crew turned the ship the wrong way in a panic steering the boat into the iceberg instead of away from it. The deck watch were hindered by the binoculars being locked away by a sleeping crewman so they couldnt see far enough. The crew did see a ‘haze’ before the collision but that could have been pack ice instead of an iceberg which they hit.
The design and construction were flawed, a lot of the rivets were substandard (poor workmanship or cost cutting) which caused the hull to buckle rather than tear so it was the plates coming apart that. The rudder wasnt large enough although it was large enough for contemporary design but that design didnt take account of increases in ship speed, design and size. It was a fraction of the size it would have needed to be to avoid the ice at the late stage it was seen. (about 30-40 secs in advance) The Titanic would probably have survived if it had hit the iceberg head on, it would have been disabled but wouldnt have necessarily sank.
After hitting the iceberg the titanic did continue forward for a while which helped flood the ship, if it had stopped it would have survived long enough before help arrived and perhaps the ship would have been saved or at the very least everyone would have survived. The design was compromised because increasing the bulkheads would have impacted first class accommodation and it wasnt thought that the ship would flood as much, so as the water flooded in and the ship moved forward the floodwater progressed through the ship.
The Titanic was criticised for not having enough lifeboats when in fact it had a few more than it was legally required to do, there was no legal requirement to have enough spaces on lifeboats for everyone on board. Even so if the lifeboats had been filled then perhaps another 500 would have been saved.
The nearest ship had its radio off and saw the distress flares going up but the captain assumed it was just a party. They could have got there before it sank and saved a lot of people.
There are many other points and coincidences which added to the sinking but all bad decisions or good decisions based on bad knowledge or experience at the time. A lot of small decisions linked together contributing to a catastrophe. Then add to this the whole insurance, where theres a blame theres a claim, attitude which was about at the time which has muddied the waters and hid truths for almost a century. Which also includes the many conspiracy theories including the ones I mentioned above.
There is no doubt still a fascination with the ship and a recent Channel 4/National Geographic programme went through stages of reconstructing parts of the Titanic or the processes used at the time. Part of the hull was reconstructed and remains as a sculpture down at the Thompsons Graving Dock where the titanic was built in Belfast.
The Harland and Wolff shipyard is now a tiny fraction of what it used to be, specialising now in ship repair and assembly of wind turbines. The area it once dominated is now rechristened “Titanic Quarter” and was to be a showpiece development in Belfast. New apartments, offices, open spaces, the Titanic Signature Project museum building, the regeneration of the area. This was all scheduled to be built or underway by the 100th anniversary of the sinking.
The property crash killed a lot of the development, lots of overpriced empty apartments which are the result of legal battles. Apartments were built to current specifications at time of design with the current prices, greed took over and people bought as investments and there were rumours of apartments being bought and sold before they were even built. Lots of the apartments were bought as investments and when the crash happened the prices sank and so mortgages couldnt be obtained for apartments ‘worth’ a fraction of what the legal sale price was agreed at. There was a lot of greed involved from the developers through to people trying to make a fast buck and for a lot of them that idea has sunk without trace – sound familiar? I remember being in conversation with people who thought their investment in two or three apartment deposits was a license to print money. An Unsinkable investment as it where?
It is all a bit of a disaster really but no lives have been lost, its probably going to be at least 10 years behind if it ever gets completed at all. The Signature project is ongoing and the tourism aspect is growing.
It all reminds me of the time the names were being put forward for what is now the Belfast Giants ice hockey team. One of the names put forward was the Belfast Titans to tie in with the Titanic theme (they play in an Arena built in the Titanic Quarter). It was then pointed out that having something which associates the Titanic with ice, in Belfast, may not be such a good idea after all.