Tuesday, December 31, 2013

To and on Hong Kong's most remote island (Photo-essay)

I realize it's New Year's Eve but rather post something to specially mark that occasion, I'm going to go ahead and do my usual Tuesday thang: i.e., put up a hiking photo-essay.  

One reason is that I'm so far behind in chronicling my hikes via photo-essays that it's bordering on the ridiculous.  (To give you an idea how long ago I went on this particular hike, click here.)  But the less mundane reason is that the excursion to Tung Ping Chau really was pretty special -- and one I had wanted to go on for a long time but hadn't until that particular day on account of Hong Kong's most remote island not being all that conveniently reached.

Located in Mirs Bay, this small (only 1.6 square kilometers) island is the most easterly and northern section of Hong Kong. The Big Lychee's only sizable island made up of sedimentary rock that's the youngest in the territory, it's known for having interesting geological formations and is a part of the Hong Kong Geopark.  So, yes, memories of the geology classes I took at Beloit and the cool professors who taught them did come back flooding back during my visit to Tung Ping Chau... ;b)   

It was early in the morning -- and the sky was scarily overcast, 
with dark clouds -- when I made my way to catch the only  

 After my party saw how long the queue for the ferry was, 
we felt pretty glad that we had gotten to the pier 
super early (and thus were able to make it to the island, 
unlike many of the folks in the above photo!)

Along the ride out to Tung Ping Chau, we got to view 
sights such as the east dam of Plover Cove Reservoir

Once home to a 3,000 strong fishing and farming community,
the island now is said to no longer have any permanent residents

 The island's Tin Hau Temple still looks well maintained
inside as well as outside though

Still, it's natural -- rather than cultural -- heritage
that is Tung Ping Chau's main draw

And in particular, it's the shale that's 
the prime, eye-catching attraction

Honestly, you ain't seen nuthin' yet -- and by the way,
that's mainland China in the not so far distance! ;b

To be continued -- and I promise that it won't be just geology (though it's true that there will be a lot of it too)! ;b

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Zoning in on the food and drinks at the 2013 Hong Kong Brands and Products Expo

It's that time of the year when the Victoria Park football pitches

 The colorful sweet basil seed drinks on sale there 
were hard to resist! 

If I hadn't gone to the expo straight after lunch, I'd have 
gone for one of these sticks of skewered meat too!!

A few weeks ago, The Fragrant Harbour blogged about chaotic scenes at the Hong Kong Brands and Products Expo.  Although I had been to it in previous years, that post had me wondering if I should give it a miss this year.  But when I passed Victoria Park yesterday afternoon and saw that the crowds for the expo didn't look so bad, I decided it'd be okay to do some bargain hunting there -- and so it proved as the place wasn't super packed, and definitely was less so than when the Chinese New Year Flower Market is held at the same venue.

Something else that has this expo comparing favorably to the Chinese New Year Flower Market is that I find more items that I want to buy there.  In particular, I find the food and beverage stalls to be attractive to me as a consumer as well as to photograph.  So after going and stocking up on the multivitamins that I take daily which were selling at a discount at the expo (like was the case last year and the year before that too), I made a beeline for the edibles sections.

This year, it was interesting to see a significant Malaysian food and drink contingent -- with Malaysian coffee looking to be pretty popular, to judge by the number of booths dedicated to that product and people milling around them.  In contrast, the one stall offering up Spanish ham that I saw at the expo didn't look to be attracting many people.  Perhaps people found its products overly expensive -- but, then, pricey Chinese edible products such as abalone, bird nest and aged Pu Erh tea looked to be popular buys for many shoppers.  

Rather than going for any of those items though, I opted instead for just a modest bag of preserved plums and a refreshing pink colored drink with sweet basil seeds in it. I had thought the latter was going to be a rose water drink but it actually tasted more like a fruit -- albeit one that I am not familiar with!  No matter though -- I'm just glad it was pleasant and helped take away the awful taste of a honey olive lozenge I had been given and foolishly popped into my mouth to try! 

Looking at the array of cooked food available at the expo, I rued having visited immediately after having had a pretty substantial lunch.  But since this event runs through to January 6 next year, I still have time to return for another visit -- and just might! :b

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Shimmer and Party Time (This week's Photo Hunt themes)

This was one of those weeks where I had tons of photos for one Photo Hunt theme (in this case, Sandi's) but found the other theme (Gattina's) so difficult -- for while I have taken many shots of light shimmering on the water, I have almost zero snaps taken at parties because, well, I just am not much of a party person at all!  (In fact, on New Year's Eve, I'll only be attending my second party of 2013... and when you consider that the only party I've attended this year was a work-related one which I felt obliged to go to rather than really wanted to...)

But while going through my photo archive, I came across pictures from an occasion where I had a great time in the company of a bunch of really nice folks -- and reckon it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to consider a party!  Technically, it was a barbecue get-together with some friends.  But especially considering I told another friend later that I hadn't laughed so much as I had there for some time, I think that fun occasion should qualify to be described as party time!

As you can see by the food pics, we had plenty of good stuff to eat at the barbecue.  And while we did have some great steaks (which we ate as part of steak fajitas together with an amazing avocado concoction), we also had some Boerewors (courtesy of one member of the party being South African) and -- even more unusually, I thought -- razor clams (something that few of us would think of putting on a grill but that idea makes so much sense after we tasted how the Hong Konger in the party prepared them!).

As for the drinks: well, when you have a sake samurai and certified sake sommelier in the party, there can't be anything but a plentiful supply of great sake to be had!  Even so, this was a group that -- ahem -- really could drink, so the majority Japanese contingent (all told, there were seven Japanese, one South African, one Hong Konger and one Malaysian at the party!) also had brought cans of beer and whisky cocktails!

With so much delicious food and delectable drinks on offer, and fun people to talk to, it was inevitable that it'd still be party time even after the sun went down and lights went on in the streets and various apartments in the area.  And while there wasn't as excellent a display of shimmering as I've seen courtesy of sunlight dancing on the water, it still wasn't a sight to scoff at -- and, to my mind, was worthy of at least one picture. :) 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Not your usual Christmas Day hike sights :)

Not your usual hike sight - lap yuk (preserved pork)
hanging out to dry in the open air! :O

Then there were the preserved fish hanging out
equally in the open by the roadside nearby!! :O

A more usual Hong Kong hike sight -- that of the

As has become my wont in recent years, I went hiking on Christmas Day with a friend.  With his recovering from knee problems and me from a cold, we went for a less demanding route today than usual. Actually, the Tsing Yi Nature Trail literally has ups that require one going up several flights of steps as well as downs and more level sections -- but since it's only 4 kilometers in length, we tacked on an extra couple of kilometers to the route by strolling along the promenade from the MTR station and then up the Fong Tin Mei Path as well as a section of Liu To Road to the official trail's North Entrance

If truth be told, it was hazier than I'd like today -- so I didn't get the great views along the hike that I was hoping to do.  Still, we ended up having some memorable sights this afternoon -- including of various edibles having been put out to dry in the open air, with no fear from those who had put them there of their being stolen by others!  

As strange as it may seem to those who don't live in this part of the world, it's actually not all that unusual to see citrus fruit peels being hung or laid out to dry in the sun in the urban sections of Hong Kong.  And I've also spotted octopus, cuttlefish and chicken hanging out in the open previously.  

But it truly was a first for me to see lap yuk hanging in a grassy area the way that I did this afternoon -- and things got even more surreal when shortly after coming across that unusual sight, I then spotted chunks of fish and citrus peels drying by the roadside nearby!  And to underscore how remarkable was this sight: a pair of local hikers walking just behind my friend and I also started exclaiming and laughing, and reached for their cameras when they got to this area!!

Now I grant that at least all these edible items weren't drying within a country park and there were homes within walking distance of the area in which they were drying.  Even so, I sincerely doubt that those folks who had hung those items out to dry could have been able to prevent, say, me from making off with them if I had wanted to!

Frankly, it's not just the sights those items presented that were amazing to me -- but also the degree of trust and plain assumption their owners had that these items would not be stolen.  All in all, I think this speaks to how little crime there is in Hong Kong -- something that, post living in way more crime-filled places like Philadelphia, I am so happy about and absolutely will not take for granted. :)   

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Lantau hike with plenty of critter encounters! (Photo-essay)

One beautiful summer's day, I hiked from Discovery Bay to Mui Wo with two friends along a route that I had gone on before with a different friend and enjoyed so much I figured it'd be nice to introduce to a couple of others.  

Having chronicled that route in quite a bit of depth previously (in photo-essays that can be found here, here and here), I'll be briefer -- and focus more on interesting critters than scenery! -- here.  Speaking of bugs though: probably the most memorable part of this particular hike was my discovering upon returning home that I had more than 18 insect bites on my legs... so yeah, the bugs really were out in force that day! :O

Just minutes after leaving "Disco Bay", one finds oneself
not only amidst greenery but walking past an organic farm!
Yes, there are scenic views to be had on this hike where 
you'll spend the majority of the time on higher ground :)

A Red Ring Skirt -- cool name, eh? -- poses for a picture :)

A small and delicate looking damselfly perches atop a leaf

I have to honestly say that I don't know what kind
of bug this one is! :O

My two hiking buddies wait for me to
get to as high a ground as them

At first glance, I thought it was a butterfly but 
the body's too proportionally large to be so!
 Finally, while walking down the many steps to Mui Wo from 
the top of the hill, we caught sight of -- and thus did not 
accidentally crush! -- this pretty colorful beetle :)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The "desolate trench(es)" of the Shing Mun Redoubt

I normally heed warnings but in this case, I didn't
-- and went in to check out the "desolate trench"

The tunnels of the Shing Mun Redoubt have names and signs
that speak to the London origins of the 1st Battalion of 
the Middlesex Regiment that manned it

The Japanese characters for "Captured by the Wakabayashi Unit"
chipped into the wall by men of the Japanese 228th Infantry 
Regiment that attacked the redoubt in December 1941
Earlier today, a friend and I hiked from Shing Mun Reservoir to Tai Wai. Before embarking on our hike proper, however, we also went and looked around a nearby portion of what used to be the Gin Drinker's Line designed to be Hong Kong's version of France's Maginot Line.

As the Maginot Line was by the German forces, the Gin Drinker's Line was easily overrun by the Japanese military -- with the Japanese forces breaching it the Shing Mun Redoubt section of the line in just five hours and the entire complex, which had been anticipated to hold for at least three months, falling after less than four days.

Perhaps because the Gin Drinker's Line proved to have been such an utter failure, there doesn't appear to have been any official efforts to conserve or even erect signs in the area to identify it.  As an example, the tunnels and other remnants of the Shing Mun Redoubt are referred to on nearby signs as "desolate trench(es)" -- and it's only thanks to the likes of Jason Wordie (in particular, his Streets: Exploring Hong Kong) and a local history enthusiast friend that I knew of their existence.
Another surprising thing about the Shing Mun Redoubt is how easily accessible they are -- at least for hikers, since they are located very close to the Shing Mun Reservoir end of Stage 6 of the Maclehose Trail.  This piece of information may be particularly unexpected for those Hong Kong movie fans who have viewed Tactical Unit: Comrades in Arms since in that film, the location seemed so remote -- and also quite a bit closer to the old Ma On Shan mine and mining village than is the reality! ;b

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Mellow and Special decorations (This week's Photo Hunt themes)

This is the time of the year when many people get to thinking of upcoming holidays.  For Christians, there's Christmas on December 25 (and for some parts of the world, the associated Boxing Day the day after).  And after that, there's the first day of the new year to celebrate -- or, rather, the new years since in places like Hong Kong, January 1 is a public holiday but so too is the lunar new year (commonly known here, understandably, as Chinese New Year even though it's also celebrated by such as the Vietnamese).  

Both during the Christmas and Chinese New Year period, Hong Kong sees much inbound and outbound activity.  To be honest, I find it strange that many tourists decide that these are the ideal times of the year to visit this part of the world because it's actually when I often find Hong Kong to be at its most quiet and, well, mellow since, from what I can see, many Hong Kongers tend to jet off somewhere over Christmas themselves while Chinese New Year is a much more family -- and private-- affair here than in, say, Malaysia, with its inclusive "Open House" tradition and celebrations.

For my part, my main celebratory activities at Christmas and Chinese New Year in Hong Kong involves going hiking with friends.  For example, on the first day of Chinese New Year this year, a friend and I hiked up Sunset Peak (Hong Kong's highest peak at 869 meters above sea level).  And while some of my fellow participants in Sandi's and Gattina's Photo Hunts may not consider this a mellow type of activity, I certainly do consider it a good deal more pleasant and definitely less noisy than, say, going out partying on the streets of Lan Kwai Fong!

Up on Sunset Peak that day, I spotted a clump of Chinese New Year flowers. Now considered rare in the wild, they used to be sold at flower markets as special decorations for Chinese New Year.  These days, however, those looking to decorate their homes during this festive time of the year have to go for brighter -- and frankly, often more garish -- items.  In some ways, this is a great pity -- but this way, it sure does make Chinese New Year flower spottings to feel special, and all the more so when they're spotted on the first day of Chinese New Year day itself! :b

Friday, December 20, 2013

The oasis of calm -- and Hong Kong filmmaker and movie fan's delight -- that is the China Cafe

Enter this Mongkok cha chaan teng 
and you'll feel like you've gone back in time...

Full of atmosphere, it's understandably a favorite
 What I had on my most recent visit there ;b

Last Saturday, I went shopping in Mongkok.  As those who know me will know full well, shopping is hardly one of my favorite activities.  But post Vietnam trip (where I discovered lines running through some of my shots, especially those that I took while visiting dark caves in Ha Long Bay), I felt obliged to look for a replacement for the wonderful Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ2 that's served me well for some five years now but fear will shortly give up the ghost (even while still being able to take photos such as the ones at the top of this blog entry).  
Early on in my search for a new camera, I got to realizing that I couldn't just replace my camera with the latest in Panasonic's TZ line since, as I was repeatedly told in different camera and electronics stores that I went to, that particular line is no longer popular with Hong Kong people.  This even though reviews I've read online and in the latest issue of a British camera magazine for it were highly positive.
Bewildered and exasperated, I decided I needed some time and a quiet space to mull over what options I had and what to do next.  So I headed over to a cha chaan teng I knew would be not busy or crowded on a Saturday afternoon -- and this despite it offering food and drinks that were tasty and cheap, and the place having been familiar to thousands, if not millions, of Hong Kong movie fans by virtue of it having appeared in films such as PTU, Tales from the Dark Part 1, and -- according to blogger A Hero Never Dies -- Beast Cops.

I think it speaks to my stress level that I initially mistakenly walked along the wrong stretch of Canton Road and, upon not spotting the China Cafe, freaked out and fretted that it had gone the way of the Tin Hau cha chaan teng that had featured in Sparrow.  Fortunately, after going up a different block, I found this comforting cafe to still be around -- and, as I figured, an uncommon oasis of calm amidst the bustle of one of Hong Kong's busiest and physically densest districts.
Even if you're not a Hong Kong film fan(atic), I'd recommend the China Cafe for its old time atmosphere, cool decor, calm feel and budget prices.  For the record, the bill for the bo lo yau  (pineapple bun with butter) and tong lai cha (Hong Kong-style iced milk tea) I had to both calm me down and revive me somewhat totaled just HK$21 (~US$2.71).  
And the icing on the cake over at this classic cha chaan teng on 1077A Canton Road was that at no point was there a sense that I could take all the time I want to consume my food and drink.  All while indulging in a fantasy that I was in a Hong Kong movie, of course... ;b

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Is a Vietnam return on the cards?

Au revoir Vietnam?

Like the modest-looking Thap Rua has done for 
the denizens of Hanoi, Vietnam can grow on you

Puppet Ponyo -- seen sitting atop a bronze tortoise at the 
Temple of Literature -- says she'd be game to visit Vietnam again!

While we were still in Vietnam, my mother -- whose second visit to the country it was -- and I discussed whether we'd be up to visit Vietnam again.  Over the course of our conversation, she talked about how she had enjoyed this trip so much more than her first one which she had gone on with her sister and family friends.  
For one thing, she said, the food she had on this second trip had been so much better than what her party had had in Hue, Danang and Hoi An.  For another, she had been spared this time around from such sad sights as what she had witnessed on the way to the royal tombs of Hue -- specifically, she recounts, a number of women seated by the road with deformed and disabled children and infants, begging for change from passing tourist vans and buses.

Accounts like my mother's re Hue are what put me off visiting Vietnam for a long time.  And obviously, many of them are rooted in fact.  Hence her surprise along with mine re how we had been spared seeing and experiencing much of what made being in the country unpleasant for a number of people on this recent trip. 
To be sure, there's no hiding the fact that Vietnam is still a low income country that's Third World, including in the way that many people use that description.  "You'll feel like a millionaire when you're in Vietnam," a Hong Kong-based friend of mine had told me -- and it isn't just because 1 million Vietnamese Dong is just HK$367 (or US$47) but because so much cost so very little there.  For example, a very large set meal at the incredible value for money New Day Restaurant cost just 120,000 Dong (less than US$5), and I bought a souvenir T-shirt for only 50,000 Dong while a cap cost just 20,000 Dong.  
With prices like that, I frankly had no heart to bargain with the people selling those goods.  And this especially since I know that what's just a few cents, never mind dollars, to me still means quite a bit to many of the Vietnamese people that I came into contact with.
And that's the rub -- because the truth of the matter is that I really would prefer to holiday in places where I don't have to daily confront the fact full on that the world is so very unequal and unfair, and this especially where and when I frequently don't feel like I can do all that much to change things.  Hence my opting to spend my vacation more in, frankly, more well off countries like Japan, South Korea and Germany rather than Vietnam.
At the same time, at no point during my Vietnam vacation did I feel like I was being truly cheated.  And let's face it: there's a big difference between being on holiday in a place where people want your money but aim to come by it fairly and those kinds of places where people want your money so badly they think nothing of ripping you off, or even outright stealing from you, never mind just plain begging for any amount of a handout.

On a lighter note: I have to admit to having hankered more than once for some bun cha in the past couple of weeks and after searching for it in vain on the menus of Vietnmese restaurants I've eaten at since my return to Hong Kong, I am thinking I may need to return to Vietnam just so I can eat that wonderful grilled pork noodle salad dish once again! Still, I don't know when that'll be so -- yes, this will be my final Vietnam blog entry for a while... ;(

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

In Hanoi's Old Quarter (Photo-essay)

I spent the bulk of my final day in Vietnam in Hanoi's Old Quarter.  On my previous days in the Vietnamese capital city, I always had spent some time there -- because that's where the Serenade Hotel where I had chosen to lodge is located.  But in the final hours of my Vietnam vacation, I made a point to check out a number of attractions and stroll along the streets within this bustling section of Hanoi as well as do some last minute shopping in the area.

Something else I made a point to do was to take photos of what had fascinated me from day one of my time in the country: the motorcycle and scooter laden streets, the sidewalks that are invariably filled with wares spilling out of shops located in narrow buildings, people seated on small stools minding their wares but also just watching life go by, and the interplay among them all.

A note on the traffic: it's not just foreigners who can find it intimidating.  On morning while my mother and I were waiting to cross a street, an elderly Vietnamese woman appeared from seemingly out of nowhere, grabbed my mother's hand and made clear that she wanted my mother to lead her across the street!  After that, I started noticing anxious-looking elderly women standing on the side of streets and made a point to guide them across the street -- and was always rewarded with flashing grateful smiles afterwards! :D

 A section of the cavernous Dong Xuan market where 
one can find foodstuffs, shoes... and plushies galore!

Motorcycles and scooters rule on Hanoi's streets

Believe it or not, this snap wasn't taken on a 
particularly busy or chaotic time of the day!

 The Old Quarter's photogenic buildings fascinated me
almost as much as its street traffic ;)

Hanoi's oldest temple, the Bach Ma Temple is modest in size 
and doesn't look that old but has its origins in the 11th century

The Vietnamese bach ma sounds like the Cantonese pak ma -- 
meaning white horse -- and sure enough, the temple honors a 
white horse thought to be the incarnation of a local river god!

 The Old Quarter is crowded but it's actually not
difficult to find a place to sit and chill for a bit :)

Monday, December 16, 2013

The best museum in Southeast Asia?

Displays in the Women in History section of the

Colorful political displays in the same section
of the museum

A long time ago, my mother knew that if she went traveling with me, at some point, we'd pay a visit to a museum.  Even when I was a kid that she and my father took to England every year for a number of years, I'd ask her to take me to museological institutions -- with the British Museum and Science Museum in London having been among my favorite parts of the British capital city. 

Realizing though that she's not as big a fan of museums as me, we only visited one of these establishments together in HanoiThe Military History (AKA Army) Museum I visited on my own before she flew into the Vietnamese capital, and the Vietnamese Women's Museum I visited on my final day in Hanoi, after my mother had departed from the city. 

Had I known how excellent the Vietnamese Women's Museum is though, I'd have chosen it as the one museum she visited while in Vietnam.  At the very least, it was definitely the best curated of the three museological establishments I visited in Hanoi -- and I also might go as far as to suggest that it's a strong candidate for being the best curated museum in the whole of Southeast Asia!  

The way things developed though, it was the final official visitor attraction that I checked out on my Vietnam vacation -- and it really did feel like a case of saving the best for last.  Put another way: whereas the Military History (AKA Army) Museum and Hoa Lo Prison (museum) feel distinctly dated in their presentation style, the Vietnamese Women's Museum comes across as very contemporary, cutting edge in many respects even.  

Reopened in 2010 after a four year upgrade and refurbishment, this museum's curators should be congratulated for making up for the institution not being object rich by making clever use of photographs, videos and other materials -- and generally presenting their information through words as well as other means in ways that were very informative, interesting and involving. 

Content wise, it was interesting to find exhibits and information in the museum that confirmed certain findings I already had made as well as answer some queries I had about other parts of Vietnamese life and history, and introduce me to phenomenon I hadn't previously known existed (such as the worship of mother goddesses in the country).

With regards to the first: the Women in History section of the museum drove home facts already served up at the Military History (AKA Army) Museum and Hao Lo Prison that women were heavily involved in Vietnam's struggle for national independence and unity.  With regards to the second: I found an exhibition of street vendors -- who are predominantly female in Vietnam -- to be particularly interesting.

Highly rated on sites such as Trip Advisor, the Vietnamese Women's Museum is highly recommended to museophiles, be they female or not, and those who curated and designed its exhibits are a great example and inspiration for the region's museum professionals. On a personal note, I feel like I learnt a lot about Vietnam's women and their place in Vietnamese society, culture and history there -- and I'm so very glad that I included a visit to this museum dedicated to them as part of my Vietnamese vacation.