Hong Kong II: Far from the madding crowd

Hong Kong Lantau, 11-13 November

To arrive in Tong Fuk Village from Kowloon is like stepping into a different world. Away from the masses and the madness, this one street little village on the South China Sea consists of little more than a bus stop and a couple of houses, plus a hotel, a restaurant and a tiny beach store. And of course its main attraction: a perfectly empty stretch of sand!

Our hotel, Tong Fuk Octopus, is more a shared bungalow than a hotel. We’re greeted by lovely youngster Andy from Sheffield, who stays in the other room. Our afternoon is spent lazing on the beach.

In the evening we head out to the only restaurant in town, The Gallery, which turns out to be a great place to eat. It’s run by Englishman Dave, who grills big slabs of meat out on the terrace, and the pizzas aren’t bad either. We hit a low once in China when we got served frozen pizza with five spice, cucumber and carrot, but this is the real deal: freshly made, woodfired and delicious!

It’s a full moon tonight, and in testament to that, the evening takes a bit of a weird turn. One of the diners, a guy who’s clearly suffering from poor mental health, decides to wander into a neighbour’s house after finishing his risotto. The resident swiftly chases him out, but then a mob of 20 angry guys shows up, the local mafia family we’re told, and starts harassing the poor, distressed guy. Thankfully someone phones the police who manage to get him in the back of their car before things take a turn for the worse.

The bar is full of expats and it has a good atmosphere so we stick around for a couple after dinner drinks. Earlier tonight, Lauren read the TripAdvisor reviews for The Gallery, which are all excellent, except for one, which was submitted just last month:

Have been here once before. Came back tonight for a platter and a drink.
After sitting for 10 minutes the foul smell of the sewage/urine made it too uncomfortable to stay and eat so asked for our platter to take away, to which the western guy propping up the bar (presumably the owner) shouted ”how am I gonna do that? It’s a platter because we serve it on a platter- how can we do it for take away?”
I nearly explained to him he could simply put it in a box, the same as you would a take away pizza but chose to go somewhere with better service instead. We ended up having a great meal nearby…

Naturally we have some fun winding up owner Dave about this bad review, and to be honest, you can easily imagine him shout “How am I gonna do that?” at a customer in his Cockney accent. On the other hand his place doesn’t seem to smell of either sewage or urine. The real question however remains, how did the guy end up “having a great meal nearby”, as the nearest restaurant is literally on the other side of the island..

While Dave is dealing with all of this, he’s also busy trying to keep a drunk girl from Minnesota from climbing over the bar, and then a woman in her pajamas enters and starts looking intently at everything inside the place, and I mean everything: the wall decorations, the potted plants, the beer fridge, the tables and chairs, as though she’s at an art exhibition, hands folded behind her back.

In hindsight it *is* called The Gallery, so I guess this was always going to happen! We look at Dave and his expression is priceless (like a great piece of art), here’s a man losing all the will to live, wondering to himself if he will pack it all in and go home.

I hope he won’t though, because A: We had a great laugh, and B: This *is* the only restaurant in town. If you happen to make it to Tong Fuk make sure to pop in (pajamas or no pajamas) and say hi to Dave.

Back at the hotel we have a cup of tea with Andy for the perfect, pleasant end to an eventful evening.

Our hotel’s neighbours

The Hong Kong area keeps on surprising us when we leave the beach and head out of town for a bit of sightseeing. Tai O is a small and quiet fishing village with traditional stilt houses on the west coast of the island. After The Venice of Kerala (Alleppey), The Venice of Rajasthan (Udaipur) and The Venice of China (Fenghuang), here’s to present you The Venice of Hong Kong!

Unlike the traditional villages we’ve seen in China, Tai O isn’t overly commercialised, in fact, the villagers don’t seem to be bothered either way by the presence of a few tourists, which makes for a nice change. The town seems a little empty at times, and some of the houses are run down, yet Tai O retains plenty of charm. Judging by the quaint, colourful decorations you find everywhere across town, some initiatives to reduce plastic waste and even the presence of little cat homes someone has built for strays, it is clear that the people of Tai O take real pride in their village.

Not far from Tai O, next to the village of Ngong Ping, sits the giant bronze Tian Tan Buddha statue, the most iconic attraction on Lantau, looking over nearby Po Lin monastery and the South China Sea.

Po Lin Monastery was originally known as The Big Hut, when it was founded in 1906 and consisted only of a stone chamber and thatched hut. In 1924 it was renamed Precious Lotus Zen Temple, a name much better suited to its current grandeur. We’ve seen a ton of famous temples in mainland China, and this one ranks up there with the best of them.

The Grand Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas is a new addition completed only in 2014. We’ve sure seen a few Buddhas on our travels so far, now we’ve seen ten thousand (and one big one) more.

Tian Tan Buddha, the large bronze statue of Buddha Shakyamuni (aka Siddharta Gautama) was made in 1993. The Buddha is depicted teaching in the lotus position, seated on top op a giant lotus flower. The base has been modelled after the Altar of Heaven from the Temple of Heaven we’ve seen in Beijing.

Surrounding the statue are six smaller statues, known as The Offering of the Six Devas. The Devas gifts of flowers, incense, lamp oil, ointment, fruit and music symbolise The Six Perfections necessary for enlightenment: Generosity, morality, patience, zeal, meditation and wisdom.

The nearby Path of Wisdom, unfortunately all written in Chinese.

We finish our time on Lantau exactly how we started it: by lying on the beach and doing absolutely nothing. Ah, ’tis a hard life! To just rub it in a tiny little bit more, it’s 25 degrees Celcius here, while at home it says it’s 0. Happy autumn to one and all!

This morning we got up at 5AM to get ahead of any possible riots and succesfully caught the first bus to the airport. Twelve hours later we’re checked in safe and sound at our hotel in Philippines.

Hong Kong: Fighting for Freedom and Democracy

Hong Kong Kowloon, 7-10 November

On the 7th we leave China by fast train to spend a week in Hong Kong before jetting off to the Philippines.

We had prepared and booked our big Asia trip quite a while in advance, but a lot can happen in 6 months time. When we decided to visit Sri Lanka it had known peace for almost ten years, and then the Easter bombings happened, yet out of our whole itinerary, Hong Kong would likely have been the last place we would’ve expected anything to go down.

Since the protest movement started off in mid-June as a response to China’s extradition bill, many countries including the UK have issued travel warnings for Hong Kong. Until we got to China we’d been following the news every now and again, in the end deciding to go ahead with our visit as planned.

Media has a tendency to sensationalise stories, and as such, news articles about Sri Lanka described the situation as being on the verge of sparking into another civil war, but when we got there, people only seemed to be interested in putting the destruction behind them and get on with their lives. Granted, with a lot riding on tourism, it would be in the country’s best interest to make tourists believe visiting Sri Lanka is safe, but even still we didn’t witness any friction between Sinhalese, Muslims, Christians and Tamils. That is, nothing worse than a bumper sticker in poor taste, or a randommer talking shite at the pub. At any rate, nothing that warrants headlines warning about civil war. Hong Kong on the other hand is a slightly different story.

As a former colony of the UK, when Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty, the so-called Basic Law was agreed, ensuring Hong Kong to retain its economic system, currency and people’s rights and freedoms for 50 years. Though only set to expire in 2047, China has been keen to get an early start on re-assimilating Hong Kong by slowly eating away at its liberties, for instance by introducing the extradition bill. What started as a peaceful protest has now spiralled into a violent fight for freedom and democracy, against the (inevitable) Chinese rule.

On Thursday we have no trouble getting out of China and into Hong Kong, although, Lauren is pissing herself laughing when it takes me a while to get my exit-stamp, because border control is scrutinising the three photos they have of me: a passport photo with a shaved head, a visa application photo with hair, and then the photo taken at the point of entry where I have a totally suspect looking moustache!

Our hotel is right in the busy centre of Kowloon on the fifth floor of an apartment building. With a population of 7,5 million living in a relative small area, Hong Kong is famous for its small living spaces and the room does not disappoint; you can touch both walls at the same time. At least it has a window and a (tiny) private bathroom, plus it’s clean, which is the most important thing.

The stairway has seen better days

We’re around the corner from the infamous Chungking Mansions, a building with 4,000 (mostly foreign) residents, low-budget hotels, restaurants, shops, and ‘other’ services. Out in front, Indian men are offering tailor services, as well as hash and Charlie.. Just 5 minutes away at the harbour every evening you can catch a light show.

Our first night in Hong Kong is pretty rough. The walls are paper thin and we have a couple of speed-freaks staying in the room next to us, making noise throughout the night and even trying to open our door, which thankfully is locked securely. First thing we do in the morning is speak with the manager. It turns out our neighbours are residents rather than guests, but thankfully the manager is very sweet and understanding (witnessing the sleep-deprived desperation on our faces) and she immediately moves us to a quiet floor and into a bigger room.

On Friday the protests start. We hear marches in the early morning, when news breaks that Alex Chow Tsz-lok, a 22 year old student has died of cardiac arrest after sustaining head injuries from a fall at a carpark on Monday, after police fired tear gas at protesters. Although the cause of his fall remains unclear, there is evidence of increased police violence against protesters (and vice versa).

We don’t see much else of it when we are out shopping for a tea egg and visit nearby Kowloon Park, which has a large terrapin population and, surprisingly, a Rhinoceros Hornbill!

In the afternoon we take the famous Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak. The line was first opened in May 1888, and has a maximum steepness of a whopping 48%! The Sky viewing platform at the top offers great views over the city.

Tamar Park on Hong Kong Island is a patch of green space on the river’s edge which is the perfect place to enjoy a picnic on Saturday in the glorious sunshine with views of Kowloon.

While we’re in the park some people are setting up a stage and then a lot of police begin to arrive. It turns out a vigil is being held here in the evening to mourn the death of Alex Chow, which is attended by a huge crowd of up to 100.000 people.

On Sunday we head out to one of the many country parks surrounding the city. For such a major city there’s actually a surprising amount of green space to enjoy, plus a bit of wildlife to see on top of that.

On our final night in Kowloon we take the ferry across to Hong Kong Island where Lauren has found a rooftop terrace accessible through a shopping mall. A rare bit of public space, where you can enjoy your cheap carry-out right next to an expensive bar. We’re now exactly in the middle of our trip, so it’s the perfect time to talk about all the fun times we’ve had so far.

With this our time in Kowloon has come to an end. Hong Kong has probably been our favourite city so far. Though pretty expensive, it has a good vibe to it, and it’s very easy to get around. Hopefully we’ll be back here at some point.

Contrary to the UK’s travel advice, it has been safe to travel here, but when we’re planning our next journey to nearby Lantau Island we find we may run into some trouble yet. The Indian shopkeeper next to our hotel tells us another big strike will be happening on Monday and checking the LIHKG forum and Reddit confirms this information.

Thankfully when we leave the next morning our metro station is still in operation, but it turns out that half the lines in the city have been shut down. While on the metro we hear that another protester has been shot by police at point blank range using live rounds and the video footage is pretty gruesome. The metro doesn’t make it to the final stop, but after a big delay we manage to arrive to Lantau by bus instead.

In the meantime things are kicking off all over the city, producing some pretty surreal images of police firing tear gas and live rounds and protesters throwing petrol bombs in the centre where we just came from. Railway services have now been suspended and roads are blocked, so it looks like we made it out in time; We’re completely safe here in the sleepy little Tong Fuk Village on the coast. While we do worry a bit about making it to our scheduled flight out to Philippines in a few days time, we feel for the people of Hong Kong in their fight for freedom. We’ll keep you posted.