02 November 2007

Travel: Hong Kong, Part 2

Victoria Peak is a popular destination for visitors to Hong Kong. From the top, one gets a beautiful view of the city and harbour across to Kowloon. Awakening to a hazy sky (which would keep temperatures in ranges reminding me of Autumn), however, I decided to follow advice to skip the peak in less than clear conditions and instead head into the heart of the city. I jumped on the MTR (an Octopus card, which gives you unlimited subway rides for three days, is a must) and headed to the termination of the Island Line at Sheung Wan for a walk back towards Central.

The MTR is clean and efficient, but it is a subway. Singapore's MRT has a monorail feel to it, with wide cars filled with natural light from each cars panel of windows. The MTR has more of a London Tube feel - tighter cars, darker stations with smaller platforms, the feel of a train rocking back and forth on the tracks, and standing room only crowds. The train passed through the very modern (and airy) Central Station and reached the termination of the line just one stop further west, where I was thrust into the grit, dirt, and energy of Hong Kong on a weekday. It is a mix of new and old, with advertisements for global brands juxtaposed against small shops selling traditional Chinese medicinal remedies. I just started walking back towards Central and absorbing it all, with the Mid-Levels Escalators in mind as a destination. I actually passed the entrance to these and walked several blocks by, mostly because I was enthralled by the surroundings. It has been a long time since I have visited New York, but this seemed to be just like it.

Once I got my bearings, I followed the signs to the escalators, actually walking across the street, going up one set of escalators, taking an elevated walkway back across the very same street I had just crossed, through a long, deserted hallway that used to be a busy arcade, to jump on the first of several moving walkways and escalators that would take me to the Mid-Levels.

The Mid-Levels is a residential and retail area that stretch about halfway up Victoria Peak. The big money lives high up on the peak, but many of Hong Kong's workers live in the high rise apartments of the Mid-Levels and would walk to and from work. This was a tough task, up and down the steep hills, especially in the steamy summer months. So, Hong Kong built the world's largest people mover system, composed of three (steep!) moving walkways and 22 escalators. Here in the middle of these great little neighborhoods, dotted with restaurants, bars, antique shops, retail stores, outdoor markets, and food stalls, are these escalators that keep taking you higher and higher up the hill. At the end of each one, you can walk down a short flight of stairs to access the street or keep heading up. In some instances, you are a couple of stories above the ground. In others, you are eye to eye with pedestrians. You pass by churches and apartment buildings, over streets and alleyways. It terminates on the winding Conduit Road high above the start, and you can either walk back down the way you came (the escalators run down from 6.00 to 10.00, then up from 10.20 to midnight) or take a meandering way through Soho and Lan Kwai Fong. I chose the latter, and ended up in the Botanical Garden and Zoo. It has a pretty impressive collection of primates, and I got a funny video of one monkey going vine to vine a la Tarzan, but in the end it is just sort of sad, because the animals don't do much more than lay around and look miserable.

I kept wandering back down the hill, taking a detour to view St. John's, an Anglican cathedral consecrated in 1849. It is an impressive sight, nestled in between skyscapers, but it is under renovation, so much of it is obscured. That didn't stop the hundreds of curious onlookers who were taking in the photo session of a wedding.

From there, I wound my way back down through Lan Kwai Fong and Soho, until I decided to quench my noonday thirst at McSorley's, a crisp little Irish pub. After a renewing pint (as the advertisement reads, "Guinness for Strength"), I was back out. (Full disclosure - this wasn't technically my first refreshment stop. Earlier in the journey, the escalator passed right over a brand new Krispy Kreme, so I backtracked the block down the stairs for a little quality control visit. I was disappointed to find that their special Halloween doughnuts were not filled with icing - they explained that the previous year, they had gotten complaints about the doughnuts being too sweet, which almost made my head explode - but I still was able to choke down a couple or three and a cup of coffee in what really was my first break for sustenance that day. Well, after the breakfast buffet at the hotel, but that didn't count, because it was before I was out and about.)

The streets of Soho are narrow and hilly, home to all kinds of businesses. There are lots of eateries and drinking establishments, but there are also small temples and traditional Chinese shops, in which you would see elderly owners/workers playing mahjong to pass the time. These shops gave way to antique dealers as I headed towards the Man Mo Temple, an 18th century Chinese temple dedicated to two deities, one civil and one martial (Man and Mo). The temple was under heavy construction, so it was difficult to really enjoy it, but it offered a glimpse of a traditional place of Chinese worship, with praise and offerings for ancestors, and large coils of incense burning continuously.

Heading back towards the escalators, I passed by an Argentine restaurant called La Pampa, which I thought was interesting. Here I was, halfway around the world, looking at the name of my hometown. I did not go in, as I had one more stop before heading for lunch. I wanted to have a drink in the Peak Bar, which used to be at the top of Victoria Peak but had relocated with its original accoutrements to the Mid-Levels. It was a nice place, surely serving up large doses of nostalgia for Hong Kong veterans.

I could not stay for long, however. I had lunch on my mind, and there was only one thing that I would settle for - traditional Hong Kong dim sum. And I knew just where to go - Maxim's at City Hall.

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