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Trip 2 -- Southeast Asia

Part 6: Hong Kong and Macau (23 Oct to 26 Oct 1998)

Exchange rate: US$1 = 7.75 Hong Kong dollars (HKD)
= 8 patacas (MOP)

23 Oct-25 Oct
Hong Kong

Tsim Sha Tsui; dim sum; Chungking Mansions; the Hong Kong Museum of Art; two concerts; Kowloon Park; the travelator; snake soup and abalone; Victoria Peaků

I exchanged some money at the airport at a dismal rate and hopped onto the fast, modern airport train, which takes 23 minutes to get to the city and has an interactive screen in each seat giving travel information about Hong Kong. The train stopped just outside the city center, so I took a free hotel bus to one of the hotels in Tsim Sha Tsui, the main tourist area.

Tsim Sha Tsui is a labyrinthine assortment of streets with buildings and people all jammed together, garbage everywhere, and neon signs jutting out into the street. All I wanted at first was dim sum, so after a bit of wandering I decided on the Jade Garden restaurant. It had just what I was hoping for - all those tasty little dumpling treats brought around on trays - , though it was a bit pricy at HKD 88.

Chungking Mansions gets such a colorful description in the Lonely Planet guide that I had to go inside, even though I didn't want to stay there. It's an ugly building with stores, restaurants, and currency-exchange counters on the first two floors, streams of cockroaches in the stairways, and tiny, precarious, overcrowded elevators that take you to the guest houses on the remaining 15 floors.

I stayed nearby, in an only slightly more attractive building called Mirador Arcade. My guest house, the Won Tat Guesthouse, was on the fifth floor, and my small room (HKD 250) had a wonderful view of a garbage chute. The guesthouse itself was clean, though, and the owner was friendly.

In the afternoon I went to the splendid Hong Kong Museum of Art, which traces the development of painting in Hong Kong extensively and has an enormous collection of jade and celadon Chinese wares. The museum is in the Hong Kong Cultural Center, at the end of the Promenade, the walkway that runs along Victoria Harbour. I walked along the Promenade for a while, gazing across the harbor at the tall, modern buildings that make up Hong Kong's industrial center.

A week-long series of concerts was just beginning at the Cultural Center, and that night I saw a piano concerto performed with the Hong Kong Symphony Orchestra. Then I looked at the program and read that the pianist was from Cherry Hill, New Jersey! After the concert, I walked through Tsim Sha Tsui to a large outdoor market area on Temple Street, where hawkers cook up seafood on the spot. The fish looked suspect, as it had been sitting outside in the heat, so I had some snails that I'd seen cooking for a while. They were tasty, but there were many of them and they got dull.

I walked through Kowloon Park the next morning. It was a peaceful respite from the bustle along the street, but the Museum of History, which was supposed to be there, had moved. So I took the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour to the industrial side of the city, aptly called Central. I wanted to take the tram up to Victoria Peak, but a large tour group had just gotten there and the wait would have been too long, so I found a dim sum place for lunch (at this one I ordered from a menu as there were no carts) and went to the Central Market. This indoor market featured rows of people cleaning fish and offering them for sale, but there were few customers. I got on the travelator (a wonderful device that moves people up and down a hill for almost a kilometer) and window-browsed a street lined with stores selling funeral accessories, and I stopped for chestnut dome cake at American Pie.

Then I got on the tram to Victoria Peak, an affluent neighborhood with amazing views of the harbor. There's a good observation deck, and it was cool and windy outside. Indeed, typhoon signal number 1 had been hoisted - sort of like a hurricane watch.

At night I saw a concert of Chinese folk song and dance in the Cultural Center. For my last dinner in Hong Kong (I didn't get to have many!), I went back to Jade Garden and had a terrific meal of snake soup, abalone, and roast pigeon.

25 Oct
Foilcat: Hong Kong to Macau
(HKD 267 round-trip)

I woke up early in the morning to catch the foilcat, a high-speed motorboat that looks a lot like an airplane from the inside, to Macau, an hour away.

25 Oct
Macau

Up and down the cobblestone streets; the Grand Prix Museum; Monte Fort; the Museum of Macau; gardens and a cemetery; a typhoon warning...

Macau, a Portuguese colony (at least it still was when I visited it), was hard to walk around because of the narrow, hilly cobblestone streets, and the sudden cramp I felt in my leg didn't help. It also took a long time to get my bearings - the map in the guidebook wasn't very detailed, and I walked the length of the same street a couple of times before I figured out where I was.

I started touring at the Grand Prix Museum, which has a good selection of racing cars and videos of races - Macau is known for its spectator sport. I lunched at Solmar (seafood soup, African chicken, and fruit punch with tonic) and then found the center of the city, Largo do Senado (Senate Square). It's where the main government buildings are, and it's a lively pedestrian area with narrow lanes that branch off in all directions. A journalist about my age started asking me questions about what I knew about Macau, and I had to confess that I didn't know much about the country - I rarely heard it mentioned.

Near the center of Macau are the ruins of the 17th-century St. Paul's Cathedral; all that remains are the stairs to the entrance, the facade, and parts of the floor. Next to the cathedral site is Monte Fort, a fort on a hill with panoramic views of Macau. On the hill, the Museum of Macau had recently opened. It tells the story of Portugal and China as they relate to Macau, and there are lots of interactive exhibits: One room has samples of spices that you can smell, and in one room you can listen to your choice of Macanese songs. It was quite windy on top of the hill, and by now typhoon signal number 3 had been hoisted - the typhoon was getting closer.

I continued north through the country - how many countries can you cover on foot in a day? I visited the Lou Lim Ioc Gardens (which contain a beautifully diverse assortment of shrubs, plants, and trees and pathways leading over small streams) and then St. Michael's cemetery (which contains some elaborate tombs - though nothing like the Chinese cemetery in Manila! - and is filled with angel statues. Then I walked all the way to the Chinese border post.

I took a bus back south, and I walked down to the A Lorcha restaurant on Barra Hill for dinner; I had a samosa-like appetizer, squid stuffed with sausage, and Portuguese wine. By the time I finished dinner, it was very windy out, it was raining, and typhoon signal number 8 had been hoisted - would my flight back to the United States leave the next day? Would I even be able to get back to Hong Kong? It was a lengthy, wet, dark walk back to the jetfoil terminal, and I was never really sure I was going the right way. But eventually I made it.

25 Oct
Foilcat: Macau to Hong Kong
(21:30)
Typhoon warning or not, we sailed on schedule, arriving in Hong Kong in moderately strong winds. I walked around a bit before heading back to the guest house.
25 Oct-26 Oct
Hong Kong

The muddy suburbs; a restored Hakka village; the last dim sum mealů

In the morning I called Cathay Pacific to check in (how wonderful to be able to do that!); then I checked out of my guest house and took the LRT to Tsuen Wan. I walked up a muddy, steep hill to the Yuen Yuen Institute, the Buddhist Western Monastery, and the colorful Chuk Lam Sim Yuen temples. I also visited a fascinating museum - a restored Hakka village. It's a small walled village that contains homes as they were arranged in the late 18th century.

Back in the city proper, I had one more dim sum meal (fish head, pork leg, etc. - HKD 101), and then it was time to set off for the airport.

26 Oct
Air: Cathay Pacific #888, Hong Kong to Vancouver
(13:55; 10h 38m)

26 Oct
Air: Cathay Pacific #888, Vancouver to New York JFK
(10:30; 4h 36m; dep 23m late; arr 12m late)

26 Oct
Subway: A line, Howard Beach-JFK Airport to 42 St-Times Square
($1.36)

On the first of the two flights home, I watched two well-balanced movies: Deep Impact (to remind me what New York looked like) and Love Letter (an Asian film about someone who receives mysterious letters intended for someone else with the same name).

On the second flight, we were delayed by a transit passenger who didn't bother getting on the plane on time. If you are that person and you're reading this, here's your chance to apologize.