Archive for March, 2016

Hong Kong, China (Day 3)

     We spent Friday, March 4, our last Hong Kong day exploring Kowloon, where we were docked. We exited, as we did every day, through the cruise terminal, located in a very large shopping mall.  The mall is filled with high-end fashion boutiques & its basement has endless numbers of them selling only fashion branded clothes for babies & children (really!).  This mall attracts some 200.000 shoppers every weekend.  Would you buy high priced designer clothes for a child who will grow out of them in 6 months?

     We walked over to the clock tower, located in an area called Tsim Sha Tsui, originally built in 1915 as part of the terminus of the new Kowloon-Canton Railway. The terminal building was demolished in 1975 but the clock tower was left standing alone.  We saw a photo of the harbor from around 1950 in which this tower, only about 135 feet tall, seemed to be the tallest building around. Near the tower was a museum complex, including the Art Museum (which was closed for renovation).

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     Across the street is the venerable Peninsula Hotel, built in 1928 primarily for those arriving by train. Its interior is luxurious, but the most interesting thing is that it was about to undergo cleaning or renovation.  Workers were perched about 6 stories in the air on a bamboo scaffolding they were in the process of building.  There were no nets or cables or other safety devices that we could see.  This is a city with a lot of construction in progress & we wondered just how tall they would build a scaffolding out of bamboo, lashed together by rope or (as one person told us) by plastic ties.  Yikes. When we returned later in the day the scaffolding was completed & being covered in plastic sheeting.

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     We walked up Nathan Road to the History Museum.  Nathan Road is one of the primo shopping streets in Hong Kong, a wide street about 2.5 miles long (although we didn’t walk that far).  It is lined on both sides with clothing boutiques, electronics stores, etc.  It seemed to us to have two kinds of shopping, expensive & very cheap.  On each block we would be approached 3 or 4 times by men offering cards for tailor shops or knock-off designer watches (Rolex, Cartier, etc).  We couldn’t understand why the guy who was 3rd or 4th on the block would think we might want his watches when we had already turned down 2 or 3 others within sight offering the same thing.  How do these guys make any money?

    The history museum was pretty interesting, although it was long on dioramas and reproductions & short on actual artifacts.  We learned a lot about the opium wars & the colonial years, as well as the brutal Japanese occupation & the days of housing shortages after the war, etc.  On the way back down Nathan Street we stopped in Kowloon Park.  To get there you had to climb a set of stairs that was interestingly painted only on the risers & not on the top, looking like a painting from below but just stairs from above.  Hong Kong’s largest mosque was on the left behind a wall of trees & there was a sculpture garden that also had a lot of nice flowers at the top.

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     We crossed back from Nathan Street to Tsim Sha Tsui through an underground crossing that was filled with pictures & text about Hong Kong film stars.  We recognized some of the stars & some of the movies, but not others.  After some exploration in the waterfront area we found the Avenue of Stars, an elevated plaza with handprints of many Hong Kong film stars and statues of a few, including Bruce Lee, seen here with his least successful apprentice.  We returned to the nearby ship & prepared to depart for Vietnam.

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Hong Kong, China (Day 2)

     We spent our 2d day in Hong Kong, March 4, exploring a different part of central Hong Kong island.  We spent some time in two narrow shopping streets filled with vendors, Li Yuen St East & West.  Here you could purchase anything from clothes to souvenirs to food, at very reasonable prices.

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     In 1994 Hong Kong opened the world’s largest escalator system.  It consists of more than 25 lengthy covered escalators set end to end in a continuous line up to the middle of the side of Victoria Peak.  Designed for commuters who live uphill & work downhill, the escalators run down for a couple of hours in the morning & up the rest of the day.  The lower escalators are really tilted moving sidewalks since they lack stairs but the upper ones are actual escalators.  We rode all of the escalators to the top of the system . . . but then we had to walk all the way down (on stairs next to the escalators) since the escalator only runs one way.

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     After descending the hillside we walked around a number of streets on Hong Kong’s west side.  The ambience here was quite different from Central, where everything is presented in two languages in a continuation of Hong Kong’s English heritage.  This section of town had little English and fewer high rises.  There are shops here selling food, ginseng, bird’s nests, live snakes (a folk remedy for cold weather), tea, herbal medicine & food.  Often we had no idea what was on display, usually in plastic bags, because they were labeled only in Chinese.  We did walk down one street populated by vendors who make “chops” to order.  A chop is a block of stone that is an ink stamp, & you can have one made with your name in Chinese characters (although I doubt many purchasers can tell if their name is correct on the stamp).  In this area we passed Western Market, a Victorian built in 1906 as the waterfront Harbor Office.  Nowhere near the water today, it has a tacky shopping mall inside.  We stopped for some coffee & rolls & to rest our feet in that old Chinese institution, Starbucks.

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     In this area were tall tenements, with washing hanging from the balconies. They didn’t look very pleasant.

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     We walked up Hollywood Road to a park on Possession Street, which is the location where the British first landed in 1841 to take possession of Hong Kong after the Opium War.  It was on the water then but (you must be guessing this by now) it is far from the waterfront today.

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     We walked through Cat Street and up Ladder Street (the whole street is steps up the steep incline) to reach the Man Mo Temple.  This area was lined with very expensive looking shops selling jade, antiques & silver & gold.  One silver emporium was catering to the Star Wars crowd.  Man Mo Temple was built in the 1840’s & is dedicated to the god of literature (Man Cheong) & the god of war (Mo Tai), the latter reputedly popular with both the police & criminals. The spiral incense coils hanging from the ceiling (purchased by worshippers) can burn up to 3 weeks, & all the smoke made us yearn for a relatively quick exit.

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     We walked over to see the old police station, originally built in 1864, which is located in a neighborhood with Victorian homes.  The homes were all undergoing restoration, so there wasn’t much to see beyond the police station.  We then walked back to the ferry, perusing some vendor streets on the way, & returned to the ship.

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     We were told there was only one junk left in Hong Kong’s waters, but in the evening we saw two of them from the ship.  We walked over to a nearby restaurant with our Sydney Opera friends Bruce & Cindy for a really delicious Peking Duck dinner.  When we returned the Hong Kong cityscape was lit up again, and tonight Debbie Bacon played and sang on the top deck with the city lights as a background.

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     Finally, tonight there was a show on the ship by Chinese performers.  There was a musical duet of two women playing string instruments, a dramatic dragon dance in which a very long paper dragon was operated by about 10 guys holding sticks attached to it & a pair of women dancing with long ribbons.  Finally a man whose superpower was changing masks while you watched without being able to see the change.  This worked & I don’t know how, but I suspect that there was some kind of mechanism in his elaborate headdress that made it possible.  Altogether a short but interesting & entertaining show.

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Hong Kong, China (Day 1)

     The last episode ended with us sailing from Jakarta anticipating four relaxing days at sea.  But no.  It turned out that there was a typhoon of some sort off the coast of Vietnam that gave us gray foggy weather and roiling seas most of the way to Hong Kong.  So it was relaxing with no shore touring, but would have been a lot more so if we had not been constantly trying to avoid falling down or knocking into walls!  Happily, the weather began to abate somewhat as we neared our destination, so the very early morning sail-in to Hong Kong harbor on Wednesday, March 2, was gray & foggy & windy, but the sea was not so rough.  Unable to stand the strong wind on the front of the ship, we retreated to the Crow’s Nest, an inside venue on the top deck with panoramic windows facing forward.  But the windows were pretty dirty, so we returned to the front of the ship for the last leg, as entering the protection of the harbor greatly reduced the wind.

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     We docked right in the middle of town.  On one side of the harbor is Hong Kong island & on the other is Kowloon peninsula jutting out from the mainland, where we docked.  Right next to our dock is the Star Ferry terminal.  The Star Ferry is a venerable institution hereabouts; for about 30 cents fare (1st class yet) it will take you across the harbor. 

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     Hong Kong is way too big & diverse to see everything in just three days.  It has more than 10 million people and more high-rise buildings than any other city on Earth (almost 800 in our source, but more are going up every day).  Originally not much more than a collection of fishing villages, Hong Kong became something of a trade center in the early 19th century when China began opening up to European trade.  The British imported quite a lot of tea from China & the Chinese were indifferent to western goods, so a serious trade imbalance arose.  The Brits closed it by shipping opium, which grew in its Indian possessions, to China, causing a predictable epidemic of addiction.  The Chinese, alarmed about this, tried to cut off all opium imports & even seized & destroyed a large shipment in Hong Kong.  The British refused to tolerate this & started the opium war to force China to permit the opium trade to continue.  The Chinese were easily overcome by superior weaponry, & the resulting treaty in 1842 not only resumed the opium trade but gave possession of Hong Kong to the British, which they continued until 1999.  A second military action 20 years later gave Britain dominion over most of Kowloon & in 1899 China leased the New Territories & Lantau island to the British for 100 years.

     The Japanese ruled Hong Kong during World War II, a very harsh period of food shortages and repression.  After the war the British were back & Hong Kong began to experience exponential growth, partly from people fleeing the civil war in mainland China.  From 1945 to the mid-1950’s its population grew from about 600,000 (depleted by the war) to some 2.5 million.  The housing shortage was acute, with people living in “cage houses,” which were little more than a bed in a large room with a cage enclosing it, & squatter villages.  A devastating fire in one of the large squatter villages led to the construction of public housing projects, the first high-rises in Hong Kong.  Today there is little to be seen other than high-rises in the central part of Hong Kong.

     We had downloaded some walking tours, so we walked over to the Star Ferry & crossed to Hong Kong island.

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    We wandered around Central for about an hour looking for the beginning of the walking tour, which turned out to be right next to the ferry terminal.  Apart from seeing lots (lots!) of high-end international brand retail outlets, this walk reinforced the impression from the sail-in that visually Hong Kong is all about skyscrapers.  Looking up from the street you see tall buildings all around, and very little sky (apart from what is reflected in the glass walls of the buildings).  The main streets are so busy that there are overpasses and underpasses for pedestrians to get across.

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     Our first stop was Statue Square, which once held a statue of Queen Victoria but now only one of a 19th century manager of the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank (HSBC).  Reputedly a busy place on weekends, it was tranquil when we visited, with several interesting fountains.  On one side is the Legislative Council Building.  Built in the early 1900’s to house the Supreme Court, it was home to the legislature until 2011, and now is said to house the Court of Final Appeal.

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     Chater Garden is a park in the middle of the high rises, with a fountain & lots of fauna.  It was the site of the Hong Kong Cricket Club from the mid 19th century until 1975.

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     On the south side of the garden is Des Voeux Road, a busy street with tramlines running down it.  This street was built as part of an early 19th century land reclamation project.  Land reclamation has continued ever since, narrowing the harbor by about a kilometer so far, so that today this street is nowhere near the water.  The popular double decker trams are part of a line laid down more than a century ago.

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     Two important bank buildings were next.  The HSBC Bank tower was built in the 1980’s for almost $1 billion.  This bank has been in this location since 1865, however, and issued Hong Kong’s first bank notes in the mid 19th century.  It is notable for being supported by an external rather than a central structure.  Its escalator was the longest in the world when built & it is guarded by two stone lions who have been there since 1935.

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     Next door is the 70 story Bank of China Tower, the tallest building outside the United States when it was built in 1990.  Designed by I.M. Pei (who also did the West Wing of the U.S. National Gallery), it implements  the principles of Feng Shui to maintain harmony with its environment. As a side benefit, its design also interfered with the feng shui of the bank’s competitor, HSBC, which could bring HSBC bad luck even while bringing Bank of China good luck.

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     We walked up a steep hill, past the Duddell Street steps, built in the 1880.s, with the only remaining gas lamps in Hong Kong.  We passed the former French Mission building, built about a century ago, & St. John’s Cathedral.  Built in 1849, it is the oldest religious building in Hong Kong.  A funeral was letting out, so we stopped back later to view the inside.

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     At the top of the hill was Government House.  Completed in 1855, it was the residence of the British governors until 1997 and is now the residence of Hong Kong’s Executive. The tower was added by the Japanese during WWII.  When built, this building overlooked the water but today no water is to be seen.

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     Across the street (if you can find a crosswalk) is the Zoological & Botanical Gardens, established in 1864.  It has a number of exotic animals & birds (most impossible to photograph because of cages) and a statue of King George VI.  A very nice place to spend some time in the midst of this bustling city.

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     We walked down to the station for the Peak Tram, which would take us to the top of Victoria Peak.  The tram has been operating since 1888, before which it took hours to reach Victoria Peak.  Today it is just a few minutes on what is billed as the steepest tram in the world (we believe it; riding it was almost like lying down).  The top terminus is a largely glass sided building with great views, which is full of shops & restaurants.  We had a pizza there; the pizza was good, but the view was spectacular.  We were very lucky to have a clear & sunny day for this; the peak is often enclosed by clouds & fog.

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     We descended in the tram & headed back to the ship on the ferry.  On the way we passed the giant ferris wheel, spinning very slowly, which we had seen during the sail-in.  It was reputedly built to compete with the one in Singapore, which we will be riding in a couple of weeks.

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     When the sun goes down Hong Kong really lights up with an unbelievable amount of neon.  There is a light show (accompanied by music if you are in the right location) during which the buildings change color or light design & some are even animated, with green lasers flashing from the tops of some buildings.  We watched from the top deck of Amsterdam & it was really something to see to end our first day in Hong Kong.

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Jakarta, Java, Indonesia

     We arrived in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, on February 26.  This city long predates the coming of the Dutch in the early 17th century.  They rebuilt it in Dutch style, made it the capital of the Dutch East Indies & named it Batavia.  It became known to sailors as a place to avoid because disease was often rampant & there was a decent chance that if you landed here you might not live to leave.  The Dutch were expelled by the Japanese in 1942 & after the war Indonesia became independent, with this city, renamed Jakarta (a variation of its original name of Jayakarta), as its capital.  Today Jakarta is a (very) bustling city of more than 10 million, with lots of high rise concrete buildings and huge traffic problems (part of which stem from the lack of an effective public transit system).  It is also hot (at least it was when we were there) & we found it the least pleasant location of our three stops in Indonesia.

     We were greeted on the dock by the obligatory Indonesian dancers, these in costumes making the look like large puppets.

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     We spent a lot of time on the bus this day because of the heavy traffic.  We had a police escort again, but it didn’t seem to do us as much good as the day before.  Our first stop was Taman Mini Indonesia, a large park where the typical architecture of each of Indonesia’s provinces is reproduced.  In the center is a lake with a miniature copy of the entire Indonesian archipelago inside it.  If you have been to Disney World, the idea here is similar to the back part of Epcot Center, where there are several squares near each other reproducing the architecture if different countries.  This was the brainchild of Madame Suharto, wife of Indonesia’s president for some 30 years, and was completed in 1975.

     We visited two of the provincial sections.  The first was Sumatra, the home province of our guide.  Its architecture was colorful & fairly oriental looking, with thickly thatched roofs curving up to points on the ends. They had a lot of decoration of carved & brightly colored wood.

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     The second provincial section we visited was West Papua on the island of New Guinea.  This was entirely different, demonstrating the ethnic diversity of this very large country.  The buildings & artifacts here looked more African than Asian.

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     We drove back into town (a very long drive because the traffic was getting heavier) & visited the Museum Nasional.  The original building dates from 1862, although there is a modern addition.  This is a huge museum with a vast and eclectic collection of artifacts, from ancient stone sculptures to musical instruments to textiles to furniture to wayang puppets.  There was no way to see it all in the small time available to us, and we had no time to read about the many artifacts we saw.

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     After lunch we stopped to look at, but not visit, the Presidential Palace & the Monas (National Monument).  The marble monument is more than 400 feet tall with a golden flame on top that is covered with more than 75 pounds of pure gold.  Irreverent locals sometimes call it “Sukarno’s final erection.”  There was a very large police presence on the monument grounds, leading us to wonder if it is considered a terrorist target.

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     Our penultimate visit was to Taman Fatahillah, a square that was the center of old Dutch Batavia.  Several buildings here were built by the Dutch and now house museums.  In this area of town we drove along several canals.  We were told that the Dutch built the canals, inspired by those in Amsterdam.  The largest building in the square is the old Batavia town hall, built in 1627, which holds a museum today. There were a lot of active people in this area, including some guys who appeared to be levitated in the air (it wasn’t apparent how they do this).

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     It turned out our only visit here would be to the Wayang Museum, in a 1912 building to the right of the city hall in the photo above.  It was pretty interesting, containing a very large collection of puppets, most from Indonesia but some from elsewhere.  There apparently are performances here as well, but not while we were there.  This is just a small sample.

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     Finally, we went to Sunda Kelapa, the old port of Jakarta.  Actually, this port has been in operation for centuries, before there was a real city here at all.  Too small for modern ships (like Amsterdam), this port is home to the Phinisi schooners, the only commercial fleet of sailing ships still in operation.  Built on the island of Sulawesi, these schooners are still loaded & unloaded on this dock by hand & with winches.

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     We drove back to the pier through pretty bad traffic, including lots of motor bikes, but the traffic really wasn’t as bad as advertised.  Maybe this was just a good day.  The folks with green jackets sell rides, I guess it’s a lot like Uber.  And this is a good place to put the rest of the flowers we saw today.  In particular, there were a lot of flowering trees around town, often lining the roads or canals.

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     We sailed away shortly after sundown, heading for four relaxing days at sea to unwind & rest up from three long (but very interesting) days of shore excursions in Indonesia.

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     Those of you who signed up for email notifications probably received a mystery email yesterday that turned up an error message when you clicked on the link.  You haven’t done anything incorrectly & there is nothing wrong with the blog.  That was my (Rick’s) mistake.  I accidentally posted “Hong Kong (Day 1)” out of order, then tried to fix it by amending it to add a later posting date.  That worked & now it will appear in a few days when it is supposed to, after the last Indonesia posting.  But I wasn’t quick enough to keep the email notifications from going out before the blog post was pulled off the site.  For those who may be puzzled about that, this is the answer along with my mea culpa.