08 November 2007

Travel: Hong Kong, Part 3

Translated, dim sum literally means "to touch the heart." Dim sum are snacks that Chinese and other Asians eat for breakfast or lunch. It is served in small bamboo baskets, usually in three or four small pieces. Ideally, you eat this with a group, ordering several different baskets to share. But, you can eat it alone, too. Just bring an appetitite.

Dim sum is widely available in Hong Kong, but I was given a couple of recommendations that I wanted to try, one on Hong Kong Island and the other on Kowloon. Since I was on the island, and short of time, I headed to Maxim's at City Hall. This restaurant is actually housed in Hong Kong's City Hall building, and it is open for lunch until 3.00. I arrived at 2.50, just in time.

At Maxim's, as in other "authentic" dim sum eateries (I put "authentic" in quotes, because they all are authentic in Hong Kong), the dishes are served by women wheeling around trolleys. They speak mainly Cantonese, a dialect in the southern part of China (named after the southern city of Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton), and much of my ordering was done by pointing and nodding. I definitely wanted cha siu baau (buns stuffed with barbecue pork, or char siew as spelled in Singapore) and siu mai (pork dumplings), but I didn't know how much they had left, so I just started ordering. First was a shrimp cheong fun (a rice noodle roll), followed quickly by fun zao, poetically known as Phoenix talons. These are chicken feet, which are fried, marinated, and then steamed. These chickens must have been huge, because the feet were. Eating a chicken foot is a difficult proposition, because the meat to (shall we say) non-meat ratio is pretty low. Add on that it is covered in a glaze-like marinade and your only utensils are plastic chop sticks, and it makes for a labor-intensive meal. The taste was fine - tastes like chicken - but I just found myself more frustrated than anything trying to eat them. So, after devouring parts of two feet, I put the rest aside. By that time, I had found my pork buns and dumplings, and I was set. This was all washed down with copious amounts of hot chrysanthemum tea, which is a must when eating dim sum. All in all, it was delicious, although somewhat more expensive than your normal meal in Hong Kong. It was well worth it, however.

I dropped into the post office near City Hall (for my stamps and postcards fix), and then headed back to the hotel to get ready for a night in Kowloon. I was meeting some local friends at 7.00, and I wanted plenty of time to take the Star Ferry across the harbour.

The Star Ferry has been running passengers across the harbour for more than 100 years. It is billed as the cheapest ferry ride in the world, at HK$2.20 per trip, about 30 US cents. But, what is so great is that it leaves from its pier at Central on Hong Kong Island and takes you to Tsim Sha Tsui, a popular commercial district at the southern end of Kowloon, giving you beautiful views of both sides of the harbour. I set off right at dusk, and the sights were incredible. Hong Kong truly is built up right on the water, especially on the island side, and all the buildings light up at night. I have attached some pictures, although they really don't do justice to the scene.

I met up with my friends a couple of stops up on the MTR, and we headed for one of their favorite places, which happened to be a hot pot restaurant. I would give the name, but there were no English characters to be found (even on the name card). This was a true locals place - no fancy accommodations, cramped quarters, and a chaotic atmosphere. Our beers were delivered in litre bottles and sipped out of bowls, and our food arrived uncooked, along with a hot pot filled with pork-based broth (the pork ribs were already in the hot pot). From there, we had the controls and started cooking our meal. The ingredients consisted of a mixture of vegetables, beef, fish balls (come on, now - I am talking about fish paste formed into little spheres, like meatballs), clams, and oysters. You would either dump the ingredients into the broth (for vegetables or some of the seafood), or - in the case of the thinly-sliced beef - keep it on your ladle-like spoon and dip it into the broth for about 20 seconds, until it was cooked. Singapore has its own version of this cook-your-food-at-the-table experience called steamboat, but I had never tried it. I may have to now, as it was delicious. And it is fun to cook your own food. It is very reminiscent of fondue.

After that, I headed for the night market in Mongkok for a little browsing. Wouldn't you know it, there was a Krispy Kreme there, too. The shopping was fun, as the hawkers are very aggressive once they perceive any inkling of interest. Once they have your attention, the bargaining starts. I really wasn't in the market for anything, but you can't get out of there without engaging in a little back-and-forth with the stall patrons. There are all kinds of goods sold, mostly knock-offs. But even these fakes have degrees of quality, and you will pay more for higher grade fakes than for lower. It is a shopper's paradise, and I even almost bought a backpack, but in the end, I escaped without making a purchase. Much to the dismay of the ever hopeful hawkers.

That was it for my night, and I was off to the hotel.

I decided to skip the breakfast buffet the next morning to try what looked like the Hong Kong equivalent of a greasy spoon just next door. I knew it served breakfast, because there were pictures of fried eggs on the menu board, but again, no English. Nevertheless, in I went. I sat down at the first booth, and the hostess, after one look at me, went to get the "special" menu, with a bit of English to let you know what you were ordering. I chose the simple combo #1, with eggs, toast, and noodles with ham and fish. A cup of Hong Kong coffee (coffee with milk) washed it down. I was joined in my small booth by a young local couple halfway through my meal, as all other seats were taken. The language barrier allowed for only a quick "hi" and "bye", and it was like I wasn't even there to them.

Since it was still a little hazy, I decided to forego the Peak and head to the end of the MTR line on Lantau Island for a ride up the cable car and visit to Po Lin Monastery, with the Tian Tan Buddha, the largest seated outdoor bronze Buddha in the world. On the way to the MTR, I bought a local newspaper, and a couple of stops into my ride, I looked at the picture on the front page, which was of the cable car, noting that authorities hoped to have the cable car system up and running again by Christmas. Hmmm...I guess I wouldn't be riding the cable car. It had been closed in June when one of the cars plunged 50 metres to the ground (nobody was in it at the time). Since I was already on my way, I decided to see the monastery anyway. The trip to Lantau takes you to the Disneyland Hong Kong interchange, so I shared the ride with a number of families on their way to see Mickey. Once at the end of the line, I jumped on a bus for a 45 minute ride up and down steep hills to the monastery. And there was the Buddha, sitting on top of a hill more than 50 metres above the monastery. The climb up the very steep stairs brings you to the statue itself, which is quite impressive. There is a small exhibit and worship area inside, with artwork and a large bell, with a striker mounted by a beam on the wall and driven by a computer-operated piston. Apparently, the bell is quite loud, and it is no longer rung. The podium on which the Buddha sits, as well as the stairs leading up the hill, are filled with ornate statues of goddesses making offerings, stylized lamps, and replicas of towers. The chants of Buddhist monks drifted up the hill from the monastery below to complete the experience.

A bus ride took me back down to Mui Wo, where I caught a high-speed ferry back to Hong Kong. It was mid-afternoon, but I needed to get back to the hotel and get ready for Saturday night and a trip to Macau.

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