My Travel Map

My Travel Map

01 September 2009

Hong Kong and the New Territories

Hong Kong. This was the last stop on our travels through China, and it was my least favorite by far. Hong Kong is a beautiful and bustling city. Though, like many large cities, it has a seedy underside...and thanks to the massive business opportunities that Hong Kong provides, this underside was much, much seedier than I have experienced before. The hostel/budget accommodation options are all pretty terrible. We ended up in the Chunking Mansions in Kowloon (across the harbor). I would never, ever recommend staying in Chunking Mansions or Miriador Mansions nearby either. They are not mansions. They are vertical slums, and it was this revelation that was one of my first strikes against Hong Kong, which boasts such better conditions compared to the mainland. There is a very wealthy ex-pat population, who are being paid disproportionate amounts of local currency for their occupations; in any Western country, they would be paid much less compared to the national average income. So sure, for these wealthy foreigners, the opportunities in Hong Kong abound. They are normal middle class people that are suddenly made millionaires. This heavily skews the system. Prices in many places are on a high, Western level (like that of a large American city). Though I have to admit, food and (some) beer prices weren't bad. The limited space, which drives real estate up to overwhelming levels, also plays a key role, especially in the housing options. Don't get me started on the "Hostel Association", which I genuinely believe is controlled by the Triads. Basically, what I'm getting at, is Hong Kong CAN be an incredible city, IF you have a lot of money to throw around.

So after that rant...Hong Kong. It is DEFINITELY a beautiful city. I didn't take too many pictures at all in the city itself. Missy and I ate some good food. We had Macanese food (from the nearby city of Macau) and I even found a French Canadian place that served decent poutine. I can't even find poutine in the States! Basically, you can get ANY kind of food you want in HK, and it is probably going to be good food too. I did like that. I also liked the Peak. Victoria Peak basically IS Hong Kong Island (the main bulk of it at least) and there is an amazing old tram that takes folks up to near the top. There is quite the establishment set up there for tourists. Missy and I enjoyed a coffee on the balcony with these views. Then we took a little stroll and waited for the sun to set to get the city lights. This was a really nice feature of the city. As you can also tell from the pictures above, our luck with the weather persisted in HK. It was overcast the entire day with periods of light rain.

So this is a bit of a story. You probably find yourself thinking, ok, Drew has gone mad. These pictures are not of Hong Kong. First of all, I did go mad in Hong Kong. I genuinely hated the double bed-sized, solid tile (to keep pest levels low) closet that Missy and I had for a room in the Chunking vertical slum. I could not spend another night there, and I was also upset with the weather. So Missy and I decided the next morning to check out early, and get the hell out of the city. We had heard of an amazing place called the Sai Kung Peninsula, which is a territorial park that occupies the east of the New Territories. We also heard that we could camp on the beach there, which we were both excited about. So, we decided to do something random. We spent the morning looking for a place to rent/buy a tent, which is a lot harder than you think it would be in such a big city. Apparently, there aren't THAT many outdoor enthusiasts in HK. We finally found a decent place that sold tents. So, we bought one. I was very, very upset that despite the fact that this tent was made in China (like everything else), it was not sold at Chinese prices. No, it was sold at Western prices...just about 90% what I would pay for this tent at REI. Frustration. Then came the ordeal of finding a place to store our excess baggage. We found out that one of the main train stations (and only one) had such a service. Fortunately, it was on our way to get to Sai Kung. So, we consolidated our necessities into my backpack (including the tent) and a small pack for Missy. We stored Missy's pack and an extra bag with a whole lot of extras (mostly our various souvenirs picked up along the way) at the train station. Then we were off, for what turned out to be an interesting adventure.

We got to Sai Kung town in the mid-afternoon after a couple rounds on the subway system and a long distance bus. We quickly found ourselves in a cafe, which had amazing burgers (to Missy's delight) AND local seafood dishes (to my enjoyment). The cafe owner was a very nice and friendly woman. She was intrigued to see us show up as we were, with our plans to get to the park and hike in before dark (which was still possible at this time). She even helped us get a cab, which would take us in and drop us off along the park's main (and pretty much, only) road. So we were off again after a very filling meal and a quick stop at a 7-11 to get some extra food and water. The cab ride took us into the park and literally dropped us off along the side of the road, in the middle of a Southeast Asian jungle. This was the trailhead, and we started on our 5 km hike to the beach. I also had a nice map of the park from the store we bought the tent at. Anyway, I was shocked to find that the trail was paved most of the way in, and also to find a couple ghost villages and livestock along the trail. Missy and I were scared to the point of loud screams by a cow (or bull? ...we couldn't see it through the dense underbrush) that DID NOT like us walking where we were, but we quickly realized it was (somewhat) domesticated and got by quickly. We finally got to Ham Tin beach, seen throughout these beach pictures. It didn't look like this at the time though as we got there just about at sunset and there were thunderstorms rolling in. We got our tent set up and a small fire started just in time to make a mad dash for the tent due to a large thunderstorm (NOT fun). We were tent bound the rest of the night thanks to the rain and lightning.

We woke up the next morning to more dreary, cloudy skies. Hooray. I was not happy. We decided to wait it out another day (the weather forecast had only said 30% chance of rain with scattered thunderstorms...) to see if the weather improved. We took a short walk up and over one of the hills to a more remote beach nearby. I say more remote because we had the luxury of "a small fishing community" (we only ever saw one fisherman and his daughter). You can see their buildings in the second beach picture, with the dominating Sharp Peak in the background (we saw this and the peaks around us get struck repeatedly by lightning the night before). The fisherman provided food and drink for very, very good prices. He also rents sleeping bags and sleeping pads, but it was so hot and humid, and the sand was soft, so we didn't need these. Missy and I ate brunch and dinner here, and the food was amazing. Once again, the meat and seafood were as fresh as it gets. The beef probably slaughtered and cut up by a neighbor somewhere up the valley and the seafood was whatever he caught that morning. Amazing. There was beer too, which was a delight. So we hung out with the fisherman and his daughter for the day. Some ex-pat and local hikers came through, and we were briefly entertained by another local fisherman, who was really friendly and quite the character, in his big broad-rimmed round glasses and what appeared to be a massive diaper (really his form of a bathing suit...if you've ever seen old Japanese movies, you'll have an idea of what I'm talking about).

That night, we had just got the fire started when we started to notice that we were being bothered by some kind of winged bug, which we couldn't see well in the dim light. The problem got worse, much worse. It got to the point where Missy and I were literally slapping ourselves silly to keep the building swarm off us and running around the fire screaming "What are these things?!?!" We got in the tent and spent about the next half our killing all of the bugs that were on us and that got in the tent for the brief seconds we had the flap open. We had no idea what they were. I called them "zombie bugs". They were a somewhat transparent orange, about a quarter inch long, with much longer wings. I referred to them as "zombies" because their wings fell off very, very easily (turned out they shed them), but the little creatures would just keep crawling around as if nothing had happened. As far as Missy and I could tell, we hadn't been bitten, but it seemed they were definitely attracted to us and wanted to get in the tent. With our headlamps, we could see thousands, yes thousands, of the little things swarming the outside of the tent. This was somewhat unnerving. And by somewhat unnerving I mean pretty damned scary. The things reminded me of flying ants (the male/new queen versions), and that made me think of termites. However, I'd never heard of flying termite swarms, so I continued to be on edge about the situation. After being absolutely certain that there were not any more living zombie bugs in the tent (I did NOT want to find out the next day that these were some kind of horrible insect that burrows into skin, or even worse, orifices...yea, use your imaginations on that one), we fell into a very uneasy sleep. Missy and I both had nightmares involving bugs. When we woke up in the morning, the only evidence that we weren't absolutely insane were the dead zombie bugs in the tent, and lots and lots and lots of wings scattered in the sand around the tent and the fire pit. When we stumbled our tired and terrified and confused selves up to the fisherman's hut, we found lots more wings and even a few live specimens. Unfortunately, the fisherman could not speak too much English, definitely not enough to tell me what they were. And I had no Cantonese, so we essentially could not communicate outside of the English/Canto menu. The real kick-to-the-you-know-where came in that we woke up to clear, blue skies. All of the pictures you see here were taken that morning.

Needless to say, after the experience with the zombie bugs, we wanted to get the hell out of there. We had no idea if the bugs would return at night. Frankly, at that point, I was ready to head home to Colorado. I really, really was not liking HK and the New Territories. We took a quick hike up the trail to get a nice view of Ham Tin beach and the coastline before packing up and going. Once again, it was teasing us with how beautiful it was. The hike out was mostly uneventful other than the two cobras along the trail. Yes, cobras. Missy and I were making great time in the lovely weather getting out of that zombie bug infested paradise when I saw off about six feet to our left, just off the paved trail, two very large black snakes. Then, the instant I put my arm out to halt Missy and said "wait, snakes" they let me know what they were by putting their hoods out. They didn't stand up to eye level (which they nearly could have done...these were very, very large snakes...I estimate an easy six feet if not more), they just laid there and simply put their hoods out. Well at that moment, I somehow avoided soiling myself and said: "Holy $h!t Missy those are cobras!". Then I had the awful realization that I didn't know what continent spitting cobras lived on...I knew that it was EITHER Africa OR Asia, but I didn't know which. That was scary. So I told Missy not to look at them, I got between her and the snakes, and we very quickly shuffled past them. We got far up trail before we turned around and stopped to think about what we just experienced. I apologize now that I have no photographic evidence, but Missy had the cameras and she absolutely refused to let me go back to get a picture (which I was honestly debating). If I had known then that these were King Cobras and NOT spitting cobras, I would have insisted, but I couldn't remember under those conditions that spitting cobras are only found on the African continent. I also didn't know that King Cobras are found in the New Territories and Southeast China, though they are supposedly very rare. I have troubles believing the rarity considering we saw TWO very large ones on a well traveled hiking trail.

Back in civilization. We had a rather shell-shocked lunch in the nice lady's cafe again. Then we wandered around Sai Kung town a bit, while debating where we were going to head to. I'm one to normally have a good plan and book a hostel ahead at least by a few days. Not so for this leg of the trip. Sai Kung is awesome, I wish we could have stayed there the rest of the trip. It is a cool little town surrounded by water and these amazing mountains, but for some very, very odd reason it has absolutely no public accommodation. This is really odd; it is a significantly large coastal town (I'm talking 10's of thousands of people here), well known for its amazing seafood, and definitely is well known amongst the yachting and sailing communities. Many of the seafood places, with their tanks and tanks of all sorts of live shellfish and fish of all kinds swimming around in them, are quite expensive simply because their primary clientele consists of wealthy yacht/sailing ship owners who just pull in and eat. There are NO hotels, NO guest houses, NO BnBs, and NO hostels. It's an outrage, and I highly recommend getting to Sai Kung, and it's territory park peninsula. It turned out the zombie bugs were a swarm of termites, which is apparently not common either (we just had exceptionally poor wildlife timing on this part of our trip). They are mostly harmless, unless you live in a wooden structure they can infest and cause to collapse down on top of you. Supposedly, there are similar swarms in other semi-tropical areas, including the southeast US. Once again, we apparently had really bad luck with our timing here.

So, with Hong Kong city off the list of places, and absolutely no accommodation in Sai Kung. We headed for Lantau Island. I tried to book a hostel near Lantau's giant Buddha statue, which was supposed to be quite nice, but that involved dealing with the mafia, aka the Hong Kong Hostel Association. It's impossible to deal with them. There are random closures of the hostels, and the "managers" are apparently never in. The hostel owners that I talked to were not big fans of the "Association", to which they had to pay fees for "services" that did not work (like calling to book ahead). They also block much access to booking online, which really made the whole thing frustrating and kind of scary since we had no idea if we could get a room when we showed up. Anyway, Lantau is a heavily forested and mountainous island to the west of Hong Kong. HK's airport and HK Disney World are both also on the island. We took the subway out to it, which is awesome, and then took the long cable car ride up the mountain to the Giant Buddha statue complex.

People clamming/shrimping in the shallow bay below us. It was funny to see them halfway across the bay and still standing waist deep in the water. It was also cool to see their mud trails being taken by the currents.

We got up to the Buddha just in time for another torrential downpour. We had a quick bite at the overly priced restaurants between the statue and the cable car complex before making our way out to the hostel, which was in the middle of the jungle on the next hill over from the Buddha. I thought it was abandoned when we got there, and we were both nervous about the warning signs for mosquito-borne illnesses like Japanese Encephalitis and Dengue Fever. The owner was there however, and we were the only people staying there, up on the mountain in the middle of the jungle, with him. It was kind of like the Bates Motel, Hong Kong style. Yay. Honestly, the owner was nice though, and I really felt bad for him since he said a lot of troubles were caused by the "Association" and their fees and "services". The hostel was really decrepit, with cracks in the walls and inescapable dampness thanks to the ongoing rain. It was just another uncomfortable night, but at least there were no bugs!

The giant Buddha statue. It's actually quite amazing to see, even in the rain. They were doing construction on the site though, which really, really took away from the atmosphere. Somehow, heavy machinery and jack-hammers just don't seem to go with Buddhist Monasteries in my mind. Maybe I'm just weird. Anyway, once again, we found ourselves getting the hell out of there the next morning. It was raining, tropical storm style. We took the first public bus out to Mui Wo, on Lantau Island's Southeast corner. Silver Mine Bay there was supposed to be beautiful with a nice beach. Once again, Lantau is a beautiful island, heavily forested and mountainous. Mui Wo seemed like a cool little town and we ended up just splurging for a night at the Silver Mine Beach Hotel. We paid a decent price and got a great room that looked down over the beach and bay. However, the torrential rains continued the ENTIRE day. We braved the storm to go get lunch at an ex-pat pub and also to wander the town market, which was not bustling and exciting thanks to the weather. Then we just headed back to the hotel to watch the dragon boat races from our room, which was awesome. Dragon boat racing is a big thing in China, and HK was having it's big annual festival for the races. It was incredible to watch the teams training and racing, all in the downpour, loud drums and all. It reminded me that as much as I did not like my experience in Hong Kong, it was still an amazing place with an incredible culture and history. We flew back home the next day, after our 3+ week journey through China. I don't know if I'll get back to Hong Kong at some point in the future. If I do, hopefully I'll have more money at that point to afford staying in hotels, or maybe they will improve their hostel situation between now and then. I definitely hope the weather is more cooperative.

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