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!
Well it has been over a month since I got home and well over a month since my last blog post. When I wrote the last blog post I was still sitting in Canada, pretty much packing up and ready to get the flight home. Did I say ready? Well prepared to get the flight home is more appropriate.
Its hard to believe its been a month already, just as it was hard to beleive a month traveling had gone by. In the last few weeks Ive been catching up with my other photo work, getting back in touch with students, starting to wade through the thousands of images to be edited, captioned and uploaded to various sites and sitting watching the rain bounce off the windows.
Its been a tough couple of weeks, not just from the work perspective and the fitting it all in whilst trying to get a house and everything back to normal. The boring mundane ordering of heating oil and cutting the grass dont quite compare to flying over nigara falls in the helicopter but they have to be done.
Its also been a wrench leaving my friends, its not that I dont have good friends here but there is something about traveling together that bonds people. I have 3 close friends that I have traveled the world with and I remember the first day they met, it was down in dublin airport and none of them had met before. I had traveled with them all individually but not as a group so hadnt even considered the dynamics. Our first task as a unit was to report all our luggage missing on arrival so it was a baptism of fire. There is something about the bonds of friendship made whilst traveling that go beyond normal friendship and I have that in abundance now with my friends here, in Canada and in South America.
People have asked what the highlight of the trip was, of course there are loads of things I could mention and already have in the blog but like my trip to South America there is one thing that stands out for me, the people I travelled with and the people I met. Whilst I didnt quite need emergency room treatment as in Buenos Aires, I was treated like a friends by strangers and welcomed into the family by people who didnt need to do that.
Oh but here, did I mention we got buzzed by a crop duster in North Dakota?
With the recent events in London and indeed Belfast it is sometimes easy to draw the conclusion that the world is going to hell and in a bloody quick manner but when someone in nowheresville Iowa comes over to your table and asks how you are and what you are doing there and recommends the platter then its not that bad. When you are invited to a family barbecue even though you arent part of the family but feel like it by the end of the evening then it shows there are more good people than bad in the world.
But Im not knocking the sales of water cannon photos or soldiers on the streets.
It was my first trip to Canada and definitely wont be the last, I felt at home there, I felt as though it was the same as here only different. Ive been so taken with the place I spent the first couple of weeks looking at visa regulations and work permits and the like. There is a danger that the grass is always greener and boy if I complain about the winters here then…
…well you get the point.
I have always been a traveler, even when I didnt know it, its not really about the start or the end or even the bit in the middle, its about the journey as a whole, its not so much about what you see but how it affects you and what you do about it afterwards. Its about meeting people and seeing that we are pretty much the same the world over, we want to be fed and a roof over our head and if we can all have a laugh in the process, so much the better. The world financial system can go down the toilet but as long as you can put food on the table, thats pretty much all that should matter.
I am back to earth with a bump here but it is home and always will be home, I missed the soft grass and the soft rain (ok Ive had enough of that already) and sitting out on the lough fishing as the sun goes down is now an experience having met someone who has never seen the sea. Not to mention the freshly caught mackerel barbequed with friends.
Im waxing lyrical about the trip and the place but I’ll bring it back to the people, it would not have been half as much fun without the old and new friends on the trip and I think if we’d sat in the house for a month it would have been equally as enjoyable.
Just saying thank you isnt really enough, I am a wee boy from the Falls Road in Belfast, I should never have seen the things Ive seen (good and bad) and would never have imagined Id have been to the places I only ever read about or saw on a wee small black and white portable tv as a kid. That means its all an experience, its all good (even the bad bits).
Life is not a rehearsal so even if its just lying on the grass, sitting out in the rain, go and do something you havent done before, say yes to something you would normally say no to and see what happens along the way.
So thanks to everyone I met in the US/Canada, its been emotional Its also been great craic and would I do it again – 4 weeks ago I’d probably have said no, now I’ll say maybe, in 4 weeks time I’ll probably have a bag packed.
After Ive got the rest of the photos edited of course…. ..better get back to work and pull a few all nighters!
Firstly a couple of my usual bug bears with travelling in the US or more specifically, spending money in the US. You walk into a shop and it might say 2.99 for a large coffee so you hand over 3 dollars to be told it actually costs 3.27.
That price doesnt include tax sir.
It just doesnt.
FFS sort it out, get with the rest of the real world, if its in electronic format or stick on prices then add the sodding sales tax. If you are a hotel and quote 91 dollars then charge me 114 on my credit card then I will bloody well complain to my credit card provider in the UK. Ok I wont but its the principle of the thing.
Bloody stupid idea.
Oh and dont get me started on tipping. That 2.99 coffee now costs me 4 dollars as we tip here. Just pay your staff decent wages and include it in the price of the coffee! Its not rocket science.
How much to license this photo – 50 dollars – ok can you invoice us? Yes that will be 325 dollars total then. What? Well tax and sales and admin and issuing a paper invoice oh and we request a 500% tip at all times.
Bloody hell, travelling through the US is just a series of Ryanair purchases.
Right, got that off my chest.
Facebook is a marvellous thing, it enables me to turn my phone off and avoid all those Indian call centres, wedding price list requests, photography students looking summer jobs and the odd strange request to see if I can help photographing bull semen. (yes that is real – you really couldnt make that one up – 2 calls – each time I was travelling and in the middle of the night where I was).
Just turn on wifi and use facebook on the phone for updates.
Well thats when it does update of course, which explains why Im sitting in my boxers with a cup of coffee in my hotel room when the leaving time has been bumped forward to 9:30 and the rest of the team are in the hotel lobby.
Still they went and got me a cracker barrel breakfast – took them a bloody hour and a half but if Id got my arse out of gear quicker it wouldnt have been a problem.
Today it was all about Memphis, getting to Graceland. Its hard to meet someone who isnt an Elvis fan of some description so being this close and not going would be a waste of an opportunity. Yes its about a 4 hour detour but we may not be this way again so didnt want any regrets. The original plan was to stay in Memphis and spend the evening on Beale Street after Graceland but with the change of route home due to the flooding (including a nuclear power station – safe my arse!) and the apparently horrific crime rate in Memphis, it was wise to get on the road as soon as we can.
I had expected that Graceland would be a bit OTT but I cant really say it was that out of place. Elvis invented bling long before the word bling ever came along and certainly if I had his money, fame, good looks and status Id be a hell of a lot more tacky than he was. Again you have to remember this was in the 50s/60s/70s so totally beyond the normal for then but compared to some of the tat thats shown on MTV its quite tame.
It was a great insight into Elvis life, I was only a kid when he died and remember seeing TV pictures of people with candles outside Graceland and here am I standing in the house itself. The upstairs is still closed to visitors, the sceptics saying that when the visitors start to dwindle they will open that as well but I prefer the conspiracy theory that hes sitting up there in his rocking chair having a laugh at the rest of us.
Hes not really dead at all but working on a duet album with Michael Jackson and going out for a morning ride each day on Shergar.
Just in case he was at home we pressed the old original gate intercom to see if we could catch anyone out.
Another must see was the Lorraine Hotel, on this spot Martin Luther King was shot as he walked out of his hotel room on the second floor. Its now the National Civil Rights Museum and has a wreath where he fell and the car is still parked outside. Judging by the coach loads of people arriving and leaving this too is an important spot.
As Beale street was close we headed for a walk down it and a quick drink in one of the bars. There is a bar there just serving slush cocktails but unfortunately as we were all going to be driving at some point it was the one and only non-alcoholic one in the bar. We probably looked like aliens all asking for the non-alcoholic varieties.
The downtown area has a bad reputation and the place was swarming with cops, I suppose it is reassuring there are that many squad cars around but inevitably lead to the ‘lets get the f*ck out of dodge’. I wonder if Dodge City is nice
Doing such a momentous trip really gives you an appreciation of what the life of the interstate truckers is like, hours and hours of open highway driving, not knowing where you are sleeping and all that. Each day we drove a larger distance than is possible in Ireland in a straight line. Sooner or later you are going to end up in the water!
A few years ago I did a tour of the west coast of the USA and tried to keep off the interstates and visit some of the non-chained restaurants, hotels etc on the way. It made for a more interesting trip and ave Gorman did an ‘unchained’ trip where he did just that but with a lot of hassle.
Of course the problem with doing this is that there are few roadsigns and driving off the interstate seems to be meant for locals, not tourists. Of course if we had turned the voice on, on the sat nav we might have got by better but with the huge amount of flooding and roads closed it was inevitable that we would get caught up in it.
The other issue with this sort of travelling is that sometimes when you give yourself a cut off time for driving and just pick the nearest hotel/motel then you can end up staying somewhere where you have absolutely no clue where you are. Our first stop after Memphis was somewhere near St Louis but to this day I still have no idea where.
It does have its plus point though as you find wee places like Mount Pleasant, the town square looking like the set out of back to the future and lovely local diner where the local poetry group was meeting and doing some readings etc.
Oh and they served food as well.
For me this is pretty much the real USA, people here are very welcoming and want to hear strangers stories and have the time to sit and chat with them. I like others often judge the book by its cover and often only get to see major cities, airports etc which are impersonal in most nations but get out into the sticks and meet some real people and the attitude changes. Without doubt in every small town we were welcomed and genuinely felt guilty that we didnt have more time to spend in those communities than just sitting in some nice but bland hotel waiting for the next tour bus.
It gets to the stage you do just live out of your luggage and it was time for me to buy some new luggage. The wheels had literally come off my previous bag (bought in Chicago funnily enough) and I got a set of new ones which will probably kill my baggage allowance on the flight home. How come when you leave home with 5kg left in your allowance, and you buy nothing (ok a bottle of Jack Daniels, oh and some ice wine, oh and new socks and boxers and and) your bag is overweight on the way home.
Saying that though I did used to regularly fly with one airline which would not penalise people for being overweight leaving Belfast but would sting them severely on the way home.
As we decided to give the area involving the flooded Nuclear power station (which was safe apparently) a miss we headed North via Iowa then Minneapolis (which I still cant pronounce). This gave us the opportunity to visit the Mall of America.
Now it is argued that this can be seen from space but someone should tell the highways agency it might be worth while sticking a few signs up. The only signs we saw were within one interstate turn and by then it was too late, that was after the sat nav took us 10 miles out of the way. Even in the hotel across the road where you could see the Mall itself, people were asking for directions.
We arrived at the Mall just after closing so had something to eat – sorry no photos – I was too hungry – buffalo burger I believe, just in case you are wondering. Got a hotel across the road and then would hit the mall in the morning.
The mall was amazing, not just for the size of the place.
Oh and wee tip, if you are busting for a pee, run into the mall of america with one of your travelling companions, head straight for the row of urinals where he decides to make comment on the vastness of the mall with the immortal words ‘can you believe the size of this thing’ whilst relieving himself, you tend to find the people around you zip up quickly and head out of the bog with wet fingers.
Have to say I nearly peed all over my shoes at that comment I laughed so much…
The Mall has a funfair which would rival one of the disney resorts but we couldnt stay and only saw about 1/10th of the shops before hitting the road. We needed to get to the border for 9pm to make sure all the road crossings were open…
We raced through the flat lands of North Dakota, which has to be seen to be believed. I know people tell you its flat but you have no comprehension of the term. Even when Im out on my boat on the sea in a flat calm day you can still see coastline and mountains in the distance, this is just flat. So flat we could see the crop duster dusting the fields in the distance. They would dust, fly up and round then fly under the power lines, over the interstate and start dusting again. When he made his turn when we approached he probably thought he would time it just right to pass behind us. Of course with me hanging out the back with the camera giving the driver instructions to hold up just enough let him pass in front of us, well lets just say it was very close and I can still almost taste whatever they were spraying.
We reached the border about 10pm and Canada was closed. Sorry folks, closed for the night, try again later.
Like seriously? WTF? So we drove back the 12 miles to the nearest town and scared the shit out of the local cop by walkin up to the car in the dark and asking directions to a 24hr border post.
He did wish me well on my journey and Im sure the guy was genuine and meant well but when hes sitting in his car with his hand on his gun, its not very reassuring.
On the way to the 24hr post this stupid wee bird decided he wanted to hover over something on the road just in front of us as we were doing 70mph. We didnt get to see the aftermath, probably just disintegrated, like pigeons perhaps.
We got to the border post and it was a less arduous experience than entering the states.
Do you guys have any alcohol?
I have a bottle of Jack Daniels Single Cask I bought at the factory.
Do you guys have any livestock on board?
Are you sure?
Ok then, on you go.
Pulling out of the border post it did feel like a weight removed but we couldnt get too complacent as not more than 100 yards on a deer ran out across the road in the darkness and behind it a whole field of deer looked on.
It was all about putting the miles in then, up to Brandon and do the drive around looking for hotel at 1am in the morning. Found a lovely hotel – Victoria hotel or something like that – beautifully cooked hot breakfast – again no pics, sorry I was starving but it was eggs benedict.
Packing the car in the morning the front of the car was covered in dead mosquitos, oh and a small black bird headfirst into the headlight assembly, cartoon style with feet sticking straight out. Straight to the scene of the accident! The border guard must have seen it, he couldnt have missed it!
Finally we managed to make it back to Saskatoon.
The stats are 11 US states, 2 Canadian provinces, 2 time zones, 4642 miles driven in 11 days, one dead raccoon, one smuggled illegal immigrant dead bird, back in time to put the kettle on before band rehearsals.
Would I do it again? Standard answer is not in a million years, then ask me a week later and its a maybe and a month later I’ll be planning the next one.
Thing is though, after 3 full days in Saskatoon we are on the road again to Winnipeg for another 9 hour each way drive and a couple of days at the Winnipeg folk festival.
Ah this rock and roll lifestyle, you could get used to it…
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…