There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Transit of Lamma: Part 2 of Hong Kong and Macau

In 2004, on the first full day of our very first visit to Hong Kong we took the Peak Tram to the top of the island and walked round Victoria Peak. We shall do it again this week. We had excellent views over Kowloon and the harbour and, as we moved round, of some of the ‘outer islands’, the huge bulk of Lantau – far bigger than Hong Kong Island – lurking in the misty distance. Further round,  little Chung Chau, may not have been visible, but we visited in 2005 and again in 2010 lured by the seafood restaurants lining the dock. Closer was Lamma Island, its flat northern end dominated by a huge coal-fired power station. ‘I don’t think we’ll bother going there,’ we said. We took no photograph, 2004 was our last year using film and we did not waste film on ugly things, but the map below gives an idea of how these places are arranged – and you can use your imagination for the rest.

Hong Kong
Thanks to my friends at TravelChinaGuide who so ably organised our 2005, 2010 and 2013 visits
Shortly after their marriage and long before we knew them, our friends Brian and Hilary took up teaching appointments in Hong Kong. They stayed for 20 years, returning to England with their two Hong Kong born children in the early 90s. For the next 15 years Brian and I taught mathematics in adjacent classrooms, shared an office and discovered we had interests in common: walking in the countryside (Brian features in most of the walking posts on this blog), good food, fine wine and malt whisky (always quality, never quantity, we are unfailingly abstemious) and travel.
Brian and Hilary did not return to Hong Kong for some years, but once they were retired and both their (now adult) children had returned there to live visits became regular.

We had long planned to meet up in Hong Kong and enjoy their insider’s view, and this year the plan finally came to fruition. The first trip came as a surprise. ‘Lamma Island,’ Brian emailed. ‘Meet you 11.30 at Yung Shue Wan.’ Yung Shue Wan is right beside the power station.

Lamma Island, Yung Shue Wan and the power station can be seen in the north east of the island
They would take a ferry from Aberdeen on the south side of Hong Kong Island (near Ap Lei Chau on the top map) while we would travel from the outer island ferry terminal at Central. Our quickest route was to hop on the MTR (Mass Transit Railway) at nearby Jordan Station, hurtle under the harbour to Central Station and walk to the ferry terminal. But we had ample time, so why spend a pleasant morning grubbing about in the bowels of the earth?

Like yesterday evening we strolled down Nathan Road, this time turning right at the bottom past the Peninsula Hotel. The Peninsula has been offering ‘the best of Eastern and Western hospitality in an atmosphere of unmatched classical grandeur and timeless elegance’ (their web site claims) since the 1920s. Grandeur and elegance do not come cheap.

Peninsula Hotel, Kowloon

From the tip of the Kowloon peninsula we took the Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island, at just over a kilometre one of the world’s greatest short journeys.
Star Ferry Dock, Kowloon
Hong Kong is an unsentimental city, anything no longer paying its way is ruthlessly discarded for something newer, bigger, shinier. But there are exceptions. With six tunnels, three road, three rail connecting Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, the Star Ferry, popular with tourists, but ignored by locals in a hurry is no longer necessary. And does it make money? With a regular fare of HK$2.20 (25p), I doubt it, but we did not pay the regular, or indeed any, fare.
On the Star Ferry, Hong Kong
Octopus cards, like London’s Oyster but with more legs, are the best way to pay for public transport. With an Elder Octopus card, available to over 65s, residents and tourists alike, bus, MTR and ferry fares are a flat HK$2, except the Star Ferry, which is free. Hilary deserves the credit for discovering this and we had taken her advice and acquired cards while passing through the airport yesterday.
Passing the ferry going the other way, Star Ferry, Hong Kong
The Star Ferry dock is adjacent to the Outer Islands Piers and after a short walk and a brief wait, we were on our way to Yung Shue Wan (lit: Banyan Bay).
Leaving the Outer Island ferry terminus
Modern catamarans lack the romance of the old-style ferries but are swift and efficient, our journey taking just 20 minutes.

With no cars and no buildings allowed above three storeys our first impression of Lamma was of a peacefulness entirely alien to Kowloon or Central.

The island is noted for having many artists and musicians among its 6,000+ residents and Yung Shue Wan, a pleasant little fishing town and by far the largest settlement, is also home to many middle-class commuters and European expatriates. We did not even notice the power station as we sat in a small park and waited for Brian and Hilary, who arrived a few minutes later on the Aberdeen ferry.

Lynne arrives at Yung Shue Wan, Lamma Island
Despite Yung Shue Wan’s wealth of sea food restaurants we did not linger, but set off south...

Leaving Yung Shue Wan with Brian and Hilary
…walking a track which dipped to the coast where we paused for a roasted bean in a beach side café. As we continued the path rose gently. The landscaping meant we had seen little of the power station, but we could not avoid it completely.

The power station, Lamma Island
The path rose to cross the spine of the island, traversing countryside that felt almost wild, a new Hong Kong experience for us.

Lynne and Hilary nearing the top of pass, Lamma Island

Once over the pass we could look across to the south side of Hong Kong Island…

Looking over to Hong Kong from Lamma
 …and, a little further on, down into Sok Kwu Wan and the largest fish farming site in Hong Kong.

Sok Kwu Wan and its Fish Farms

Descending to sea level we rounded the end of the bay and entered the town, which consists largely of seafood restaurants on platforms over the water. The 5km ‘transit of Lamma’, a very pleasant and easy walk at a gentle pace had taken a little over an hour and a half, including coffee stop. It was now past 2 o’clock and I was not alone in feeling ready for my lunch.
Sok Kwu Wan from the end of the bay
(the distant high rises are, I think, on Ap Lei Chau and island so close to Hong Kong you can walk over a bridge to it)

We selected a restaurant and ordered the seafood feast; scallops in their shells with glass noodles and breadcrumbs, prawns, clams in black bean sauce, fried cuttlefish rings, Chinese vegetables and fried rice were washed down with several bottles of beer. It was as fresh as it should be in such a location and all expertly cooked.

Feeling well fed and contented, we left the restaurant and walked past the fishing harbour to the ferry piers.
Fishing harbour, Sok Kwu Wan, Lamma Island

We intended to take a ferry back to Aberdeen and then walk to Brian and Hilary’s daughter’s nearby apartment. Sok Kwu Wan ferry port was not as sophisticated or well signed as its Central equivalent and we found ourselves standing on one pier, watching the Aberdeen ferry depart from the next. Ferries are not frequent, so we took the next one to Central.
Back in Central there was no point in going all the way across the island just to come back, so we confirmed tomorrow’s meeting place for our two-day jaunt to Macau, said goodbye to Brian and Hilary and strolled back to the Star Ferry.
At this point I must apologise for my lack of diligence with the camera. Not only did I (untypically) fail to photograph the food, we also spent the day with old friends and the only pictures I have of them are of their backsides. So, a ‘sorry’ to Brian and Hilary and to prove they are fully rounded three dimensional individuals, here is a front elevation, taken in the less exotic, though still very pleasant, surroundings of the Lake District.
Brian and Hilaru (and Lynne) front elevation, somewhere near Elterwater, 2012
Later we went for a stroll to purchase some peanuts and to price a bottle of Famous Grouse I had spotted in a small shop in Woo Sung Street. They want just over HK£100 (£11) so I bought it.
Unsurprisingly we were not very hungry in the evening, but fancied something small. As all Chinese dishes are shared, we decided to share a single dish and returned (yet again) to Woo Sung Street and its Temporary Cooked Food Hawker Bazaar.
The endearingly scruffy Woo Sung Street food hawkers bazaar as it appears in daylight
Always game to try something new, we chose goose intestines (we try these things so you don't have to). The intestines themselves, like an overly al dente non-vegetarian spaghetti, were forgettable, their purpose presumably to add cheap protein to an otherwise vegetarian dish, but the sauce and vegetables made it all worthwhile.
Hong Kong and Macau

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Delights Revisited, The Sheraton at Dusk and Woo Sung Street: Part 1 of Hong Kong and Macau

After a leisurely breakfast, we made our way to Xiamen airport.

Flights to Hong Kong are short (80mins), but with the usual waiting and then a delay caused by the blustery conditions it was early afternoon before we reached Hong Kong. We completed the formalities and boarded the Airport Express which whisked us from the airport to Kowloon Station in 20 minutes.
Kowloon spreads further west and south than it appears from this map.
Kowloon Station is west of  Nathan Road which runs from Mongkok through Yau Ma Teu to Tsim Sha Tsui at the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula
Thank you to the good people at TravelChinaGuide who organised several of our China trips with commendable efficiency

We first visited Hong Kong in 2004, on our way to see our daughter, then teaching English across the border on the Chinese mainland. It was our first visit to east Asia and Hong Kong’s enduring British legacy (they drive on the left down thoroughfares called Temple St and Austin Rd) allowed us a gentle orientation before crossing the border and plunging into the maelstrom that was Luohu bus station. We returned in 2005 and again in 2010 (by then I had started this blog so you can read about that here.)

This seven-day trip was planned to cover different ground, but started in familiar surroundings, the evening involving two contrasting pleasures we have enjoyed on every visit.
But first we had to find our way to our hotel. From Kowloon Station free shuttle buses do the rounds of the main hotels. We got on the right bus, but got off at the wrong stop and had to trundle our cases along two or three hundred metres of a drizzle bespattered Nathan Road.

Hong Kong island became British territory by the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 after the First Opium War. Kowloon was added to the Crown Colony in 1860 and a straight road 3.6km long was built north from the harbour to Boundary Street, the limit of British territory (until the New Territories were leased from China in 1898). Originally called Robinson Road it was renamed Nathan Road in 1909, after Sir Matthew Nathan, Governor of Hong Kong 1904-7. As Kowloon’s ‘High Street’ it is always crowded, and not the best place for dragging two bulky suitcases – with or without drizzle.

We checked in, settled in and dried out. Just before dusk, in a now dry and surprisingly warm evening, we set out on the 20min stroll to the end of Nathan Road. We always enjoy this walk, checking out the jewellers shops...
Idiosyncratic jewellery, Nathan Road, Hong Kong

and counting the touts offering to make an almost instant suit, or sell a 'copy' watch (it looks like a Rolex, but...) and threading our way through the crowds around Chunking Mansions. Built in 1961 as a residential block, the 17 storeys now house some 3,000 people and dozens of cheap guesthouses, curry restaurants, African bistros and sari shops.
Chunking Mansions, Nathan Road, Hong Kong

Entering the Sheraton Hotel, near the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula, we took the lift up to the Sky Lounge and settled ourselves at one of the big windows overlooking the narrow stretch of water between Kowloon and Hong Kong island.
Dusk, Hong Kong Island
Watching darkness fall and the lights come up across the water is as fine a free show as I know.
Darkness falling on Hiong Kong Island
Like many free shows there is a cost; in fairness to the hotel, you should buy a drink to ‘rent’ your table. A dry martini and a Singapore sling are not cheap options (not that there many) but the Hong Kong Sheraton's dry Martini has long been the standard by which I judge all others.
A Singapore sling and a dry martini, Hong Kong Sheraton, Sky Lounge
Meanwhile, outside the window darkness fell.
Darkness has fallen on Hong Kong Island
By 7 o’clock it was fully dark and time to leave. There is a laser show later, but dinner was calling, and we knew where we wanted to eat it.
We walk back up Nathan Road...
Nathan Road, Hong Kong

… and not far from our hotel diverted left for the second part of the evening. Compared to the opulence of the Sheraton Sky Lounge the Woo Sung Street Temporary Cooked Food Hawker Bazaar (snappy title!) looks a little ramshackle – alright, very ramshackle. After 30+ years in business it is still 'temporary', but it is permanently a joy. We discovered the bazaar in 2004 and every time we return I fret that, like many of Hong Kong’s dai pai dong’s, it will have disappeared, tidied away in the name of progress, hygiene and modernity. We were relieved and delighted to find it still there and still thriving.
Woo Sung Street Temporary Cooked Food Hawker Bazaar (photographed in the afternoon a few days later)
Clams in black bean sauce are always our favourite here…
Clams in black bean sauce, Woo Sung Street Bazzar
….and with an old favourite, something new, fried mottled spinefoot with salt and chilli. I had never heard of spinefoot but, Wikipedia tells me, there are 29 species of spinefoot (or ‘rabbitfish’) living among coral in the shallower waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The more colourful species are popular in aquariums, the duller, like our mottled friend, Siganus Fuscescens, are fished for food – and excellent they were, too.
Mottled Spinefoot, Woo Sung Street Bazaar
Dinner and a couple of beers - Hong Kong brewed San Miguel - cost considerably less than two cocktails at the Sheraton. The quality at both is excellent and the surroundings make a pleasing contrast.

The Tulous of Fujian: Part 11 of South East China

After two poor breakfasts in Wuyishan, our slightly odd re-purposed apartment block hotel provided a fine Chinese breakfast. Fortified with vegetables, noodles, a tea egg, cake and fruit we set off with S for a lengthy journey into the interior.

We left Xiamen in drizzle, the tops of the tower blocks lost in the mist. The weather improved as we headed west along the motorway and by the time we stopped for a comfort break the rain had almost ceased.

To visit the Hakka communities we drove around 150km west from Xiamen
Leaving the motorway where the land became hilly we followed narrow roads that wound between tea plantations, banana groves and orchards of oranges and pomelos, the huge pomelos hanging from trees looking far too flimsy to bear their weight.

We paused at a banana stall where S bought some red bananas and some more normal looking bananas he said were ‘special’.
Buying unusual bananas, somewhere west of Xiamen
We scoffed the 'nanas as we drove deeper into the hills. The chunky red ones had a denser texture than ‘regular’ bananas but the flavour was the same, those described as ‘special’ had a more normal texture but tasted weirdly like apples - special indeed.
40 minutes later we were entering Fujian’s Hakka heartland. The Hakka are a Han Chinese group originally from the Yellow River Valley who migrated south to avoid war and famine. Many settled in scattered areas across southern China while others kept going and now make up a substantial proportion of the Chinese diaspora across south east Asia. There are estimated to be 30 million Hakka in China’s seven southern provinces (3 million of them in western Fujian) and maybe as many again living outside China.

The Chinese government, with their usual grim desire to regiment all tourism, have built an enormous office for the Tian Luokeng Scenic Area with parking space for hundreds of buses and countless cars. S popped in to buy tickets while we regarded the empty car park with satisfaction.
Tian Luokeng Scenic Area Offices
S had previously told us that he was not only Hakka but was born in this area, so first he took us to see an ancestor shrine…

Ancestor Shrine, Tian Luokeng Scenic Area, Fujian
…and then a forest. He referred to the trees as cedars, which looks doubtful to me, but this piece of ancient woodland clearly had some importance….
Old woodland, Tian Luokeng Scenic Area
Then he took us to the Tian Luokeng Toulu Cluster, the region’s main attractions.
The Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
‘Hakka’ means ‘guest’, though the Hakka have not always been welcome guests, particularly in Guangdong Province where the Punti-Hakka Clan Wars (1855-67) resulted in a million deaths. Defence, at least in the Fujian/Guangdong border region, was provided by tulous. Tulous (Lit: earth houses) were built with a single entrance and walls up to 2m thick to provide safe homes for as many as 80 families. Tian Luoken is one of the 46 clusters making up the Fujian Tulou World Heritage Site.
Walking down to the Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
Tulous are unique to Fujian and we first heard of them on a previous trip from Fujian tourism advertisements. We had expected them to be museums of the 'how life used to be' variety. We had never imagined tulous to be fully functioning, living communities, but they most certainly are.
Just one door for the whole Tulou, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian

We had a quick look inside the first one. Strangely reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Globe, the building is divided like a cake into vertical wedges, each family occupying a slice with a room on each floor.
Inside a tulou, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
Then we took a walk through the village to the next tulou.

Walking through the village to the next tulou
Tourists are usually confined to the ground floor, but as we were the only visitors and half the residents seemed to be S’s cousins, we had privileged access. Looking down from the first floor we could see the shrine and the well - all-important in the event of a siege. The central area, now concreted over, was formerly used for growing crops for such emergencies.

Looking down from the first floor, Tian Loukeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
The rooms contained little more than a wooden bed and a rough mattress. There is no piped water so night-soil buckets stand outside each door and these are taken out to the fields every morning and the contents used as fertilizer. I would not want to carry a full bucket down the steep and difficult stairs!

Lynne among the night-soil buckets, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
We ventured onto the top floor, because we could…

Top floor, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
…and observed the ground floor where almost every family had a stand-pipe, a sink and a gas bottle.
Stand pipe, sink and gas bottle, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
Many families use their ground floor rooms to feed visitors and they have had a communal menu printed in Chinese and English. S introduced us to our cook for the day…
Posing with the chef, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
…and with his help we chose autumn bamboo with pork, preserved vegetables with fatty pork and tofu buns with mushrooms. That sounds like too much pork, but autumn bamboo and preserved vegetables are typical seasonal dishes and S thought we should try both along with the stuffed tofu, another Hakka speciality. S ate with relatives while we were served with a feast in solitary splendour.
Our excellent lunch, Tian Loukeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
Tulous may be round or square, but this cluster has only a single square one, and after our excellent lunch we went to see it. We were welcomed by one of S’s cousins who kindly gave us a passion fruit each from her stall.
S's smiley cousin in the square tulou, Tian Loukeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
The square tulou is not really any different, except for the angle in the roof!
Inside the square tulou, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
Outside we watched the sole worker in the carefully terraced, night-soil fertilized November fields.
The sole worker in the night-soil fertilized fields, Tian Luokeng Tulou centre
Before taking a brief look in the oval tulou where the rains came down and the brollies went up.
Inside the wet oval tulou, Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster, Fujian
We left the Tian Luokeng Cluster, pausing only to photograph the tulous from below....

The Tian Luokeng Tulou Cluster from below
...on our way to the Yuchang Lou Tulou, the biggest and oldest of them all and also the birthplace of S and his father.

Outside the Yuchang Lou Tulou, Fujian
Built in 1308, Yuchang Lou is five storeys high and is so big its shrine is a tulou within the tulou.
The shrine, Yuchang Lou Tulou, Fujian
It is famous for the zigzag struts in the top two storeys. S called it ‘China’s leaning tower of Pisa’, but unlike the oft referred to tower, it does not actually lean and the design was at least semi-intentional; after a measuring error it was cheaper and easier to put the struts at a slant than cut a whole set of new ones. It looks worrying, but has been that way for 700 years and not fallen down yet.
Zigzag struts, Yuchang Lou Tulou, Fujian
Uniquely each ground floor room has its own well.

Every ground floor room has its own well, Yuchang Lou Tulou
Unsurprisingly one of them served as a tea shop and, equally unsurprisingly, it belonged to another cousin. S brewed up local black tea and then a more flowery potion for us to try.

S demonstrates his expertise
Then he let the amateur have a go.
Any idiot can pour tea
S informed us proudly that in its long history the tulou had often been attacked, but never taken and outside he showed us the hole made by the Japanese in 1938 before they gave up and went away. Letting cold reality intrude for a moment, we had seen what Japanese artillery had done to Nanjing’s mighty medieval fortifications, and if they had really wanted to take the tulou they could have blown it to bits in an afternoon. I suspect they felt they could afford to leave it and move on.
War damage, Yuchang Lou tulou, Fujian
The Tulou does not exist in isolation and the village outside is inhabited by the same clan, the Liu.

The village outside the Yuchang Lou tulou, Fujian
Four ceremonial pillars stand outside the village temple. From the 9th century until 1905 entry to the civil service and its many lucrative positions was by competitive examination in Confucian principles (we visited a rebuilt examination centre in Nanjing). These examinations could be passed at County, Provincial or National Level and the pillars commemorate successful local candidates.

The examination successes of the Liu Clan
Following the river a couple of miles upstream brought us to Taxiacun (Taxia village), a large village where most of the building are 15th century tulous. All the façades on the left bank in the pictures below are the sides of rectangular tulous
On the bridge, Taxi, Fujian Province
It is picturesque place, a Chinese Bourton-on-the-Water, and I am sure it looks lovely in the sunshine, but we were just happy the rain held off (mostly).
It is a good thing the road is lined with cat's eyes - in the dark it would be easy to drive into the river 
The Zhang clan of Taxia once had a feud (S called it a ‘war’) with the Liu of Yuchang Lou. A marriage had been arranged between a Zhang boy and a Liu girl but sadly, the girl died in an accident before the ceremony took place. Despite there being no wedding, the Zhang family demanded her dowry, a piece of land beside the Yuchang Lou tulou. The Liu found this unacceptable and violence followed. That is S’s version, and he is a Liu; maybe there is a slightly different Zhang version. The feud (or ‘war’) happened long ago, no one knows exactly when, but that does not mean it has been forgotten.
The Zhang temple has a magnificently fussy doorway in a land of fussy doorways. It features flowers, dragons and other mythical creatures, and what may or may not be a boat.
Temple Doorway, Taxia
The Zhang are more numerous than the Liu so they have a small forest of examination success pillars outside the temple beside a semi-circular pond.
Examination success pillars, Taxia
The time had come to return to Xiamen. It was a long way and the last part of the journey involved heavy traffic so we were not back in our hotel until 8.30. We spent two nights in Xiamen, but hardly saw the city as the next morning we made our way to the airport and then to Hong Kong…. from where the next series of posts will come.
At one point on this journey, in Hangzhou possibly, we were wondering if we had been to China too often and it was beginning to lose its fascination, but this trip kept the best to last. The tulous are unique, a still thriving link to a way of life so different from our own - for us easily the highlight of south east China.

South East China

First of the Hong Kong Posts
Jan 18