Hong Kong: Day 6 – Ngong Ping

November 16, 2006


Here it is: my last day in Hong Kong.  After indulging in the lavish breakfast buffet at my hotel (everything from waffles to eggrolls),  I left Disney property and rode the metro out to the end of the line at Tung Chung.  From there, it’s a short walk to the terminal for the Ngong Ping 360 skyway.

The skyway is brand new, only about 5 months old and a real marvel of engineering.  Where the Ocean Park skyway was a rickety, rusting open-air nightmare, the NP360 is about as sleek and modern (not to mention enclosed and air-conditioned) as you can get.  I shared a compartment with four women, some local, some visiting friends.  Rising dramatically from the station, we pass by Hong Kong International Airport, then over a huge bay toward the mountains of Lantau Island

The amazing thing about this part of the journey is that there are no support structures anywhere over the water.  It feels a bit like a magic trick, like your levitating, floating along a cable that appears to be held up by nothing.  It’s also a bit disconcerting.  You count 10, 12, 14 cabins on the wire, and wonder just how many cabins can this stretch of cable hold before it snaps and sends us all plummeting into the water below?

Pretty soon, the cables begin climbing up the side of the mountian, and before you have a chance to think about it, your cabin is plunged into a dense white fog.  It’s a weird feeling.  There’s no motor noise and nothing to see except blank whiteness all around you.  It’s impossible to tell how high you are or if you’re even still moving.

About this time, my cabin-mates strike up a conversation.  “Pretty amazing, huh?”  “Yeah,” I replied.  “Of course, you must ride these all the time where you’re from.”  Huh?  This seemed to make no sense.  “You mean in America?” I ask.  “Oh, you’re American?  We thought you were from Europe.”  Upon learning I was American, they launched into a spiel about how most folks hate George W. Bush, but they love him because his foreign trade policies have been so good for China.  I confessed that I didn’t know much about international economics, but that Dubya wasn’t one of my favorite presidents.  They seemed surprised and a little embarrased, having assumed that I as an American would naturally be a big Bush-backer.  They also asked me if I’d had any trouble with the language barrier.  “Everyone speaks English,” I said.  One of the other women spoke up, “Yes.  My husband made me learn Cantonese, and since we moved here, I haven’t used it once!”  For what it’s worth, I tried to learn a few phrases but gave up after discovering that I had no ear for tones.

In an instant, we emerged from the clouds on the other side of the mountain, and in the distance, perched on a hilltop, sat the famous Big Buddha of Lantau Island.  “Isn’t he beautiful?” one of the ladies asked rhetorically.  “He’s so peaceful.”  I looked at the statue and realized she was right.  And, suddenly I gained a new appreciation for religious iconography.

After a lifetime spent looking at the crucuifed Jesus, painfully dying for my sins, the idea of looking at a religious icon and sensing nothing but peace and relaxation was kind of novel.  And, it struck me that this kind of “calm down, everything’s going to be okay” feeling was exactly what you should be getting from your religion.  Even as we crossed the last giant chasm, looking at the Big Buddha, I lost all apprehension about the cable snapping and plumetting to my death.

The skyway lets you off in the “village” of Ngong Ping.  I put that word in quotes because what lay between the station and the statue was a completely artificial, rather Disney-esque, fake “village” composed of trinket shops and (yes, indeed) a Starbucks, and a little further along, the 700th 7-Eleven store in Hong Kong.

Also in Ngong Ping are two attractions that were included in the price of my tram ticket. (I sprung for the package.)  These too are straight out of the Disney design guide.  The first was the Monkey’s Tale Theatre, which was an animated film shown in a theatre made up to resemble a jungle ruin.  The film (without any dialogue) tells the story of three wacky cartoon monkeys, one of whom tries to be greedy and take the fruit left on a Bhudda-as-monkey statue as an offering.  He keeps getting zapped with lightning as he tries ever more complex ways (think Wile E. Coyote) of getting the “forbidden” fruit.  Only when he agrees to stop being greedy and share the fruit with his friends is he allowed to eat it, and all the monkeys are rewarded with more fruit for having learned the lesson.

The second attraction, “Walking With Buddha” was more elaborate.  You get headphones so each person can hear the narration in his/her own language; mine had a British accent.  First stop was a lanai that looked suspiciously like the one at the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland, complete with artificial mist and an audio-animatronic tree-spirit.  Next was another animated movie that told the Cliff’s Notes version of the life of Siddhartha.  Then, there was a walk through an indoor forest which reminded me of the queue area for the old E.T. ride at Universal Studios.  Finally, there was another short film about how the lessons Siddhartha learned can be used in everyday life today.  After the film, you were lead into a long temple-like chamber with a giant “crystal” (probably clear plastic though) Buddha statue at the end.  Along the walls of the chamber were wooden bowls filled with “leaves” made from paper, printed with great Buddha quotes.  We were encouraged to take a leaf at random and insert it into an ATM-like slot at the base of the statue.  My leaf said something like, “The richest man is he who has nothing.”  I insterted into the slot, and watched in amusement as a light-projection image of my leaf swirled around the inside of the “crystal” statue before shooting heavenward in a beam of white light.

Visually impressive, yes, but ultimately leaving you with the same feeling you get by tossing a penny over your shoulder into a wishing well.  Amusingly, after being treated to two films, a mechanical tree and a video-projected leaf telling you that greed is bad and helping the needy is good, the tour lets out into… a tacky giftshop, where you can buy all manner of crass commercial knicknacks at vastly inflated tourist prices.  So much for lessons learned.

Leaving the “village”, it’s a short walk up the road to the Big Buddha itself.  There’s a small suggested donation to see it up close, but your ticket also entitles you to a free lunch at the nearby Po Lin Monastery.  Trudging up the stairs (I lost count of how many there were.) starts easily enough, but ends up knocking the wind out of you.  All along the ascent, I passed elderly tourists ready to give up on the challenge.  I persevered though, and I have to say that the view from the top is worth it.  Not only is there a magnificent view of the monastery and the village below, but seeing the statue close up (and even going inside, where there’s a sort of crypt) was breathtaking.  The bronze statue (supposedly the largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha in the world) is surprisingly modern, dating from only 1993.  It looks like it’s been there forever.

Working my way back down to earth, I headed over to the monastery for lunch.  The setting wasn’t as exotic as you might think; it pretty much felt like your typical hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant.  Lunch was a vegetarian set-menu, and I appeared to be the only white person eating there.  First up was a bowl of mushroom soup that was clear and disturbingly gelatinous.  It dripped from my spoon like thick, lumpy corn syrup.  Next, was some mushroom tempura.  Then, a mushroom-and-veggie stir-fry.  About this time, I was really, really getting sick of mushrooms.  The next course was sort of meaty, probably a giant slice of Portobello mushroom, but I couldn’t tell for sure.  All I remember was that my initial response to learning the meal was vegetarian was, “that’s too bad, I was hoping for something meaty”, and now it was, “thank God, at least I know that whatever this is I’m about to eat never had legs.”  Eventually, after five courses of Jello-y, rubbery, mushroomy mystery “meat”, I must confess I skipped out.  Hey, it was free anyway.  And, at least I can say I had lunch at a Buddhist monastery.

And, there you have it: my trip to Hong Kong.  After the monastery, I checked out of my Disney hotel and caught the plane home.  The only other weird thing that happened was that I was accosted by two seperate survey people in the airport while I was waiting for my flight.  The first asked me about the “dining service” in the airport, which, since my “dining” experience consisted entirely of a single cup of Starbucks coffee, wasn’t much of a survey.  “So, did the chef do a good job in preparing your [coffee]?”  “Was the presentation of your [coffee] too elaborate, not elaborate enough, or just right?”  Hey, it’s just a cup of coffee!  The second survey was for the Hong Kong tourist board, and checking off the list of all the things I’d seen and done on this trip made me realize for the first time how much I managed to pack into a week.  Seeing all the other un-checked boxes made me realize how much more there was to see, and how much I wanted to come back, before I’d even left.


Hong Kong: Day 5 – Disneyland

November 15, 2006


With giddy anticipation, I lept out of bed and packed up my suitcase, ready to leave Kowloon behind and head over to the newly-opened Hong Kong Disneyland.  Despite all my experiences thus far (temples, casinos, hotels, spas, aquariums), none of these captured my interest more than the idea of seeing a brand-new Disneyland.

I’m not sure why I have this Disney obsession.  Back when I lived in California, my family used to go to the original Disneyland once or twice a year.  When I was in high school, I visited Dave Smith at the Walt Disney Archives.  I’ve read all the books on the subject of Disney theme parks, ranging from paperback tourist guides and glossy coffee-table books to trashy tell-alls and hefty academic tomes.  I’d say my interest is academic.  I don’t collect animation cels or figurines; I don’t own a mountain of Disney t-shirts, and I absolutely won’t ever get involved in “pin trading“.  But, I do have reprints of original attraction blueprints.  I do read all the “insider” websites and listen to the podcasts.  I don’t care so much about Mickey and Donald and Goofy, but I can tell you all about Paul Pressler and Tony Baxter and Matt Ouimet.

It may seem paradoxical, given that Disney is typically all about “fantasy”, but I’m fascinated by the “practical” side of the parks: the logistics, the engineering, the design.  When I read John Hench’s book, for example, I found an entire chapter devoted to the logic behind the color choices for everything from the hotels to the cruise ships, and I was in heaven.

I’m lucky to have lived in a time when Disney parks (under the early direction of Michael Eisner) underwent a dramatic expansion.  In Florida, EPCOT Center was followed by Disney-MGM Studios, Pleasure Island, Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and a series of breathtakingly themed resorts with more hotel rooms than all of New York City.  In Anaheim, Disneyland’s massive parking lot was replaced by Disney’s California Adventure and the Grand Californian Hotel.  Abroad, Disney opened four more theme parks near Tokyo and Paris, together with their own themed shopping/entertainment/hotel districts.  And, all of this within a 20 year timespan; impressive by any measure.

To get to Hong Hong Disneyland, you have to take the metro to Sunny Bay (about half-way between Downtown Hong Kong and the airport), and change to special trains that take you directly to the park.  The Disneyland trains are unmistakable, with large Mickey Mouse shaped windows and golden Disney character statues in glass cases inside.  The journey only takes a few minutes and lets you off at a dedicated station a few hundred yards from the front gates.

For anyone who’s ever visited the original Disneyland in California, a visit to the Hong Kong version is intensely surreal.  Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Florida, Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland each feature their own unique central castle, Main Street area and train station.  But, Hong Kong Disneyland’s castle, Main Street and train station are all exact duplicates of the original California versions.  Meaning that a walk down Main Street in Hong Kong looks and feels identical to the same experience in California… except for all the Chinese people milling around.  I joked to a friend that you could be walking down the California Main Street, hit with a tranquilizer dart, shipped to Hong Kong, wake up and never realize you were on another continent.

At least, not until you noticed the mountain behind the castle.  In the original Disneyland, there’s a 100-foot tall, 1/100 scale cement and steel replica of the Matterhorn to the right of the castle.  But in Hong Kong there’s a real multi-hundred-foot tall actual mountain right behind the castle.  In fact, a whole range of mountains borders the western perimiter of the park, looming over everything within.  You look toward the castle and think, “Hey!  Who stuck this mountain range here?”, forgetting for a moment that it was here long before Disney came calling.  It is a weird sensation though.  And worse, the mountains throw off the scale of buildings in the park, making the already-small Disneyland castle look positively tiny.

So, how does the newest Disneyland compare with the others?  It’s hard to tell… yet.  The reason is that there’s not very much there at the moment.  There’s no It’s a Small World, no Haunted Mansion, no Pirates of the Caribbean, no Mr. Toads’s Wild Ride, no Peter Pan, no Snow White, no Pinocchio, no Frontierland, no New Orleans Square, no Critter Country, no Liberty Square, no Big Thunder Mountain, no Splash Mountain, no Indiana Jones, no Star Tours, no Peoplemover… the list goes on.  Right now, there are only about two attractions in each of the three lands.  So desperate are they to increse the “ride count”, that Tarzan’s Treehouse and the Rafts to Tarzan’s Treehouse are treated in the guidebook as two seperate attractions even though it’s impossible to do one without the other.  And, notice it’s Tarzan’s Treehouse, not Tarzan’s Island Featuring a Treehouse.  In the American parks, the same island area features miles of dirt paths, forts and caves to explore.  Here, it’s the treehouse, and you’re done. 

This is not to say that Hong Kong Disneyland is a “bad” park.  Quite the opposite.  I loved it!  But, it’s an infant park with a lot of room to grow.  One thing it has a lot of (too many of) are restaurants.  When you enter Tomorrowland, for example, the building on your right (where Star Tours is in Disneyland) houses a large fast-food place.  And on the left (where Buzz Lightyear is in Disneyland), there’s another huge fast-food place.  Space Mountain and Autopia seem almost like afterthoughts, crammed into the back.  And, if the Tomorrowland situation isn’t mall-y enough for you, there’s an honest-to-God food-court in Fantasyland (They claim it’s the largest restaurant in any Disney theme park.), with four “stations” for Chinese dim sum, Japanese sushi, Korean barbecue and various soups (oddly labled as “Kettle”).  By the way, if you’re a hapless American, there’s spaghetti on the kids’ menu.

My guess is that a lot of these eateries are merely placeholders for future rides.  Rather than open up lands with big empty buildings in them, they went ahead with food as a temporary space-filler.  Even during my visit though, there were some restaurants in Adventureland that were never open, including (ironically) the Tahitian Terrace, a restaurant that was permanently closed at the original Disneyland as well.  Outdoor carts offer up the usual popcorn and hot-dogs.  Unlike Japan, where the popcorn flavors run from cola to banana, all I could find at Hong Kong Disneyland was caramel.  There were a few local additions to the eat-and-run menus though, like chicken satay and cuttlefish balls on a stick.  I opted for a sit-down lunch of wonton soup and beef-with-broccoli.  It was about what you’d expect at Disney, which is to say on par with your standard mall food-court chinese food (at subsantially higher prices).

After spending the morning at the park, I went back and checked into my hotel.  There are two hotels on property, both owned and operated by Disney.  The first, more expensive on is the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel, which is a scaled-down version of the Grand Floridian at Walt Disney World (which is itself a copy of the famous Hotel del Coronado in San Diego).  The second, more moderate hotel is the Hollywood Hotel, which is basically a copy of the art-deco Ambassador Hotel at Tokyo Disneyland.  I stayed at the Hollywood Hotel, and let me tell you, in Florida it would be considered “deluxe”.  For less than the price of my room in Kowloon, I got a top-floor double-king (the room was huge!) with a sweeping view of the park.

After unpacking, I wen’t back to Hong Kong Disneyland and re-rode all the rides.  It was mid-week, and the park was pretty empty.  Of all the attractions, I think my favorite was the Jungle River Cruise.  It’s basically the same as the Jungle Cruise in Califiornia’s Disneyland, but with a few added surprises.  Frankly, I was surprised to see the ride here because it requires joke-filled narration by a live tour guide, and in an international city like Hong Kong (not to mention a country with hundreds of regional dialects), what language do you use?  The French faced this problem in Disneyland Paris (aka: EuroDisney).  Do we have it in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch?  Their solution?  No Jungle Cruise at all.  For the Hong Kong version, they settled on three: English, Cantonese and Mandarin (each with it’s own line).  Just for fun, I tried all three, and there wasn’t a lot of difference.  I rode the English version first, and the guide told the canned jokes in a broken English-is-not-my-first-language rhythm that quite effectively removed all the humor.  “Ah, you see man at bottom of pole with rhino underneath himself? Oh yes, he will get point at end, yes he will.”  In comedy, timing is everything.

But, apparently it’s not the only thing.  Thinking maybe the jokes were just getting lost in translation, I rode the Chinese versions too.  Nope.  Even in their native language, the boatfulls of passengers sat there stone-faced.  Even the snapping mechanical aligators, charging hippos and squirting elephants barely got a reaction.  The Chinese, I’ve found, are a tough room.  The only thing they really love is taking picures, especially if the one with the camera is about 25 and he’s there with his girlfriend.  Every five feet there’s some guy asking his girlfriend to pose in front of the castle, in front of the boat, the tree, the nearest garbage can, anything really.  And, the girls all smile a fairly plastic smile and make the same little two-handed peace-sign gesture with their fingers, which when I look at it, I can’t help but think of Richard Nixon on his last day, getting on that helicopter.

In any event, I headed back to the hotel for dinner, hoping for something a little better than the theme park food.  I stopped at the posh-er Disneyland Hotel first.  It was nice in a fake Victorian way.  The art-deco chrome and glass of my hotel gave way here to velvet and chintz.  By contrast, the hotel restaurant (which I wish I’d eaten at) looked extremely sleek and modern.  The front was a wall of deep-red glass, punctured by hundreds of large sparkling Swarovski crystal lotus blossoms.  Behind that was a clear-glass wine vault, stocked with some choice vinatages I’m sure.  To enter the restaurant, you crossed a “stream” of running water with koi fish swimming though it, except the whole thing was done through video projection.  And, what’s more, the computer-generated fish actually reacted and moved according to where you stepped.  The kids loved it, but the adults barely seemed to notice.

Back at my hotel, there was nothing so elaborate.  Basically just a standard family-style restaurant with a menu that seemed designed to please the Chinese and Westerners alike.  Like an Asian version of Denny’s.  Or, come to think of it, exactly the East-meets-West menu you’ll find these days at any 24-hour casino restaurant in Las Vegas.  I think I had a chicken-breast sandwich, and then went up to the room and fell asleep.  Sadly, tomorrow would be my last day.

(Continued in Day 6.)

Hong Kong: Day 4.5 – Night of Luxury

November 14, 2006


All the guide books will tell you that there are two transportation must-do’s in Hong Kong. First is the Peak Tram, and second is the Star Ferry. There’s nothing remarkable about the Star Ferry; if you’ve been on one passenger ferry, you’ve been on them all. But, it is from the deck of the ferry that you get the most spectacular, uninterrupted views of the city. You might even get a shot of that dragon-red Chinese junk you see on the cover of every tourist brochure. I say “that” Chinese junk, because there really is only one of them, and I’m pretty sure it only exists to add some old-world color to an otherwise hypermodern steel and glass city.

The ferry lets you off a few yards from The Peninsula, Kowloon (and Hong Kong’s) oldest and grandest hotel. Presidents, kings, emperors and probably even Brad Pitt have called it home for a few nights. It’s notably the only hotel in Hong Kong that passes both the CIA and MI5 security standards (which are secret in themselves, but probably mean that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, the Baccarat crystal decanters won’t fall off the shelves of the living room wet bar).

I wasn’t staying here overnight, but I was spending a few hours in the spa. I have to pause here and say that I love spas. I really love them. There is nothing more relaxing than a full body treatment that involves being exfoliated with salts from the Dead Sea, wrapped in seaweed from the Sargasso Sea, painted with mud from a Hawaiian Volcano, slathered with Shea Butter from Burkina Faso, and massaged by a tiny Asian woman with deceptively strong hands who can find and eliminate every kink in every muscle you’ve ever has since birth. That said, there’s a lot of goofiness that goes along with the spa experience as well. For some reason, they always feel compelled to dress things up with a lot of new-age mumbo-jumbo like healing crystals and aligned chakras and centering your chi. And, or course, there’s that annoying school-of-Enya, Peruvian flute-and-rainstick music that’s impossible to escape. But, I don’t care. It’s just such a blissful, calming experience that I’m more than happy to nod and smile through the explanation of whatever it is that’s going to expel all my “toxins”. Just as long as it leaves my skin feeling smoother than silk and my mind stress-free.

The Peninsula Spa was predictably beautiful. In the center, there was a sitting area surrounded not by walls, but by translucent curtains, that upon closer examination are actually composed of sheets of water cascading down illuminated floor-to-ceiling glass rods. The treatment rooms themselves feature floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the harbor with a view that easily rivals that of the Star Ferries. It’s too bad that half the time you’re laying face down, inhaling the sinus-clearing vapors from the warm bowl of eucalyptus-infused water beneath you. Then again, that’s not so bad either.

After a three hour experience called (seriously) the “Oriental Life Dance”, which featured a body scrub, massage, facial and a foot massage in water imbued with the petals from a half-dozen long-stemmed roses that I got to select… after all of that, I was ready to fall asleep in the cascading-water-curtain room and not wake up for about three days.

But, I had a dinner reservation to keep. And, where better to eat than in the Peninsula Hotel itself. There are about four restaurants in the hotel, but there are two that everybody talks about. The first is Gaddi’s, a palatial French restaurant that practically drips with silver, gold, crystal and apricot silk, with supposedly better French food than you’ll find in France, and a prix-fixe, 14-course, four-hour-long, (need I add?) jacket-required, chef’s tasting menu with prices longer than the names of some of the dishes. If you’re younger and hipper and merely a CEO rather than a Chairman of the Board, there’s Felix on the top floor.

Felix (where I ate) is an ultra-modern restaurant designed by Philippe Starck. Everything, from the surrealist furniture (the backs of all the chairs were silk-screened with life-sized mug-shots of, among others, Starck himself) to the minimalist silverware was specially designed for this restaurant. Perched atop the 28th floor of the tower that was added to the hotel in 1994, the restaurant is essentially one giant room, occupying the entire floor of the hotel. Again, dedicated express elevators rush you to the top (complete with a dramatic in-elevator lighting and music change to denote your arrival). At the far end of the room, there’s the show kitchen, which looks like something from the set of Iron Chef. Flanking either side of the restaurant’s entrance are two giant inverted-cone-shaped metallic walls with wrap-around stairs leading up to two seperate bars.

I’m shown to a table in the center of the room, and I feel a little conspicuous as I notice I’m the only person dining here alone. (I brought a book.) To my right, the floor-to-ceiling wall of glass (and the ceiling is easily 30 feet high) frames all of Kowloon’s twinkling lights stretching off for miles into the night. Looking over to my left, through the matching wall of glass on the other side of the room, I can see the shimering reflections of the Hong Kong’s illuminated skyscrapers in the inky blackness of the harbor. Again, the view takes my breath away. As I said before, Hong Kong is the kind of town where the “most magnificent view” is a relative term. Although, this one (both of them really) tops my list.

The food was fantastic, though certainly not as unique as the restaurant itself. Tuna sashimi to start, poached pear salad, and roasted duck breast. I can’t remember the desert, but I’m pretty sure it involved berries and chocolate. Every bite of every course melted in my mouth. The wavy designer knife went unused, as everything from the pear to the duck was perfectly tender without falling apart.

Before I left, I knew I had to use the restroom. Not because I had to use the restroom, but because I’d read that the men’s restroom was, well, not to be missed. The frosted-glass doors leading to the men’s and women’s restrooms are divided only by a sheet of frosted glass, but the “frostedness” of the glass fades away to clear glass about three feet from the floor. So, when you’re standing in the men’s room, you can see all the legs and feet of the women in the women’s room next-door (and vice versa). But, what makes the men’s room really special are the urinals, which are essentially tall carved-jade vases sitting on the floor… right in front of a floor-to-ceiling wall of clear glass. So, it’s pretty much impossible to pee without flashing your privates to the entire city of Kowloon. I don’t know if they can see in or not, but the idea of all these folks, the elite of the elite, the movers and shakers, the most powerful of the powerful exposing themselves to the whole city… well, as the Mastercard ads say: priceless.

After you’re done being an exhibitionist and feeling like you’ve just peed all over the city, you need to wash your hands. In the center of the room, there’s an enormous table-sized oval block of granite. The are no sinks, no bowls, no drains and no taps. There are instead four or five Philippe Starck wavy silver goose-neck-looking sculptures. Upon approaching the granite block, the attentive attendant presses an unseen button, and water pours out of the silver sculptures, splashing across the stone surface and spilling over the sides into a narrow slit near the floor. The attendant offers you squirts of liquid soap and then a stiff white towel when you’ve finished. Tipping is appreciated.

Another dramatically-lit elevator ride later and you’re back down at ground level. A few steps away from the hotel, and you’re back at the waterfront promenade, the very same waterfront promenade from the tourist video with the idiot-American businessman. And, as in the tourist video, it’s time for the light show. It’s called “A Symphony of Lights“, and it’s apparently in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “World’s Largest Permanent Light and Sound Show”. I’m sure the competition for that title must be fierce.

The lights everywhere around the harbor dim and what transpires is something akin to the original “Illuminations” show at Epcot. Music ranging from Chinese opera to pop-infused fanfare emanates from somewhat tinny speakers built into the lampposts along the waterfront. The narrator (who could be speaking Mandarin, Cantonese or English, depending on what night you go) explains that the show is a celebration of Hong Kong culture and history from past to present. Across the harbor, the soaring skyscrapers of downtown Hong Kong illuminate with millions of light-bulbs embedded in their facades. From the tops of the tallest buildings, lasers and searchlights shoot out in all directions. The lights and lasers are all computer-controlled to sync up with the music, and have the effect of turning the entire city into a giant programmable light board, with shimmering rainbows of color moving across the face of one building and then the next and so on. On certain nights, the whole thing culminates in a giant fireworks display set off from the tops of all the buildings (but sadly not on the night I was there). The Disney geek in me couldn’t help but wonder where Mickey Mouse and the giant fire-breathing dragon were.

A fitting final thought perhaps, as my day of luxury concluded, and I returned to my hotel room, packed my suit away, and spent my last night in Kowloon. Tomorrow morning, I’d be transfering to a new hotel… at Hong Kong Disneyland.

(Continued in Day 5.)

Hong Kong: Day 4 – Day of Luxury

November 14, 2006


If you go to Harrod’s in London, there’s a room devoted to designer accessories like handbags, luggage, pens, wallets, and cigarette lighters.  The plaque on the door to the room reads, for want of a better title, “Room of Luxury”.  Well, for want of a better description, Day 4 was my “day of luxury”.  After three days spent running around the city like a complete tourist, I decided to switch gears and have a different Hong Kong experience.

The luxury started with a long, lazy morning, sleeping in late, watching the plasma-screen in bed.  There are plenty of English-language channels.  There’s even a sort of “Welcome to Hong Kong” channel that basically runs an elaborate tourist-board ad for the city in a continuous loop.  It’s interesting because they try everything they can to make it not look like a tourist-board ad.  It’s more like a soap-opera with various subplots.  There’s a young Chinese couple who are breaking up, and the guy is trying to win back the girl’s heart.  There’s a family with little kids who want to learn about the history of the city.  There’s an American businessman (who looks strangely like Richard Branson) in town to meet his Chinese counterpart and work on a big project.  As with soap-opera characters, they’re all pretty cardboard and the acting is stilted.  The young couple’s segments are meant to be funny and romantic, but frankly the boyfriend is so inept, I would’ve dumped him too.

The American businessman seems so ridiculously dumb, it’s impossible to believe he would even be employed in the mailroom of a multi-national corporation.  There’s a scene at the end where the Chinese businessman takes the American to see the nightly light-show on the harbor (more on that later), and the American says “Hey, is this all just for me?”  And the Chinese guy smiles knowingly and says, “I told you I had friends in high places.”  They laugh.  I gag.  Who talks like this?  “Is this all just for me?”  “No, you moron, it’s a nightly event.  Read a flipping guide book!”  Or even better, “Yes, it cost a million dollars, and I’m billing it to your office.”  You’d think he’d notice the people camping out for a good viewing spot on the waterfront hours in advance.  And, for a tourist-board video, the Chinese businessman’s reply seems to imply that the Hong Kong economy still revolves around bribes and personal favors.  Is that really what they’re going for?

In any case, after getting out of bed, showering and shaving, I ditched my tourist shorts and polo shirts and put on a suit.  Hong Kong is a businessman’s town, and most of the men wear suits (always black or dark grey, single-breasted, usually with the jacket open).  It’s kind of an ordeal to lug a suit around with you in your luggage and not have it get completely wrinkled.  And, since I’d gone to all this trouble of hauling it across continents, I was going to find a reason to wear it, come hell or high water.

Actually, I did have a good reason to bring a suit; I was going my private club.  Yes, I belong to a private club.  It’s odd, when you tell people this, it always elicits an interesting response.  A guy I was very briefly dating (before I met Derek) told me he would never, ever date someone snooty enough to belong to a club.  It was reason #503 to break up with him.   When I told my mother I joined a private club, she hesitantly asked, “Is that a gay thing?”  I told her, “Mother, the governor [of Washington state] is a member.  Theodore Roosevelt was a member.”  In truth, private clubs are really just members-only hotel/restaurants that have the same general look and feel as your average first-class airline lounge.  And, as with the airlines, 50% of your premiums can be summed up in two words: “open bar”.

But, the best thing about belonging to a private club is that you get free access to all the other clubs worldwide.  In the case of Hong Kong, it was the all-too appropriately named “American Club“.  Of course, you can’t just show up at these places.  Your home club has to send a letter of introduction to the foreign club, and you have to tell them when you’re arriving and whether you’re dining there or staying overnight.  Unfortunately, for this trip I only had time for lunch, and by the time I rolled out of bed, it was already approaching noon.

Walking down Nathan Road in Kowloon is a bit like walking down the Strip in Las Vegas, where every 50 feet or so you’re confronted by street-hawkers passing out pamphlets for female escorts and stripper bars.  However, in the case of Kowloon, the salesmen are pushing bespoke suits and custom-tailoring.  It’s a classy town.  And, if you’re already wearing a suit, you get double the normal level of attention.  “Preese sir,” they implore you, “We have best suit in arr Hong Kong.  Hunded pecent wool.  You want buy new suit here!”  They’re persistent, but not pushy.  I speedwalk past them on my way to the subway.

Emerging in downtown Hong Kong, the streets are relatively quiet, but the air is filled with the roar of friendly chatter.  Sunday is the universal day-off for the thousands of Filipino women who work as maids in the city.  Nearly every square foot of covered space — walkways, skybridges, porticos — becomes part of a picnic ground for the maids who spread out their blankets on the concrete and laugh and gossip over hampers of potluck food.  It’s really something to see.  The city transforms from a busy business hub to the world’s largest, most densely-packed all-day alfresco lunch break.  Just getting to the American Club was a tricky journey, maneuvering around the crowds, the blankets, the food, and even a few portable stereos.

The club is located on the top (52nd) floor of one of the twin Exchange Square buildings.  A private express elevator whisks you up in a few seconds.  Unfortunately, the club was undergoing renovations while I was there, so I ate in the sports bar, where the Chinese waiters all wore complete American baseball uniforms, right down to the stirrup socks and cleats.  Lunch itself was nothing special, a club sandwich and a bowl of Boston clam chowder.   But, that really wasn’t the point.  It was private, exclusive, a privileged place (in all meanings).  My fellow diners in custom-tailored suits were talking business and scanning the salmon-colored pages of the London Financial Times.  Five plasma-screens delivered sports events from around the world, but no one was watching.  I was too busy looking out the window.  You get a pretty spectacular view from 52 storeys up.  From the outside terrace, you realize that you’re barely half-way up the height of the IFC2 building next door.  That’s the kind of town Hong Kong is: there’s always a taller building around the corner.  Before I left, I had one of the waitresses take my picture with the harbor in the background (see photo above).  Squinting through the haze toward Kowloon, I could almost make out the Peninsula Hotel, my next destination.

(Continued in Day 4.5)

Hong Kong: Day 3.5 – The Peak

November 13, 2006


After spending the morning at Ocean Park, I headed back to the center of Hong Kong.  I decided to take advantage of the clear skies with a trip up the famous Peak Tram to the top of the mountains which overlook the city.  As I trudged up the steep street towards the station, I saw a bald-headed man, swathed in flowing orange silk robes approaching me.  Obviously, a Buddhist monk, I politely bowed as he passed me on the sidewalk.  He returned the gesture, and handed me a shiny gold card with a picture of Buddha on one side, and presumably a Chinese prayer on the other.  I thanked him, and was about to continue on my way when he pulled out a tiny notebook with a pencil.  Maybe this is where I have to sign up for the mailing list?  Maybe he has to record each of these cards, to prove he isn’t just throwing them away, like the guys pestering you on every street corner in Soho with flyers for local bands and trendy second-hand clothiers.

But no, what he wanted was for me to write in a figure, in Hong Kong dollars, to pledge in return for his golden prayer card.  Figuring this worked on the honor system (I’d promise to visit a temple later and overpay for some Joss sticks, or something), I followed the other examples in the book and wrote in a sum of a few thousand dollars.  Yes, I must admit I’m one of those people who’s phoned up the Jerry Lewis Telethon and pledged some money for the momentary thrill of seeing my name scroll across the TV screen, forgetting about it until the bill comes in the mail a few days later, and then feeling only a little guilty about forgetting to pay it.  But in this case, here on the streets of downtown Hong Kong, the Buddhist monk was demanding payment on the spot.

If I was unsure of the etiquette for greeting a Chinese monk, I was doubly unsure of the etiquette for retracting a donation to a Chinese monk.  It crossed my mind that I might have just committed some crime.  I mean, I was pretty sure Jerry’s Kids would never come after me, but who knows what the Buddhist monk-mafia does?  At the very least, I expected to be the victim of some sort of  religious curse that would haunt me for years, which sounds cool in retrospect, but is a little more frightening when you’re face-to-face with a monk demanding money from you in downtown Hong Kong. 

Ultimately, I decided to play “dumb tourist”.  Up to now, I had been communicating mostly with mime: smiles, bows, praying hands, random written numbers.  Since I hadn’t actually spoken yet, I decided to do what I usually do in these situations (as often as they occur), and launch into a deeply apologetic speech in an entirely made-up language.  I was working on the assumption that he probably knew more English than I knew Chinese, but he would quickly give up trying to argue with me if it appeared that neither of us knew what we were saying to each other in any language.  You can blame Basil Fawlty for this.  But hey, it works.  In truth, all I had on me was about 50 bucks, and I needed that for the tram.  Eventually he gave up haggling, and crossed my “donation” off his book.  I offered to return the gold card, but he insisted I keep it.  I’m sure it was loaded with “bad karma” now anyway (or is that view too Jainist?).  Moving along.

The Peak Tram is a “must see” in Hong Kong the way the Space Needle is in Seattle, or the observation deck of the Empire State Building is in New York.  It’s one of those things you “must see” once, so you can cross it off your list and move on to something more interesting.  That’s pretty much true of anything that offers a “phenomenal view from the top”, and little else.

But in the case of the Peak Tram, it’s the tram itself that’s the source of most of the excitement.  It was constructed in 1888, and amazingly in the ensuing 119+ years, it’s never had a single accident or safety issue.  (This bit of trivia takes on more importance when you’re actually riding it.)  Physically, the tram looks a bit like the waterfront streetcar in Seattle, a beautiful turn-of-the-century wood-paneled trolley, lined with wooden benches (all of which face forward) and brass railings.

The journey begins as a slow, steady climb up a gentle hill, with a few stops along the way.  Then, the tram does something unexpected.  The track starts getting steeper, gradually at first, and then more and more.  Unstead of leaning back in your seat, the force of gravity is pushing you back hard.   Anything that anyone was foolish enough to leave on the floor start’s rolling back to the rear of the tram.  Then, when you figure it can’t go any steeper, it does.  It’s like The Poseidon Adventure.  The floor becomes another wall.  Loose change falls out of the pockets of the people in front of you and filters down to the back of the tram like a barrage of Pachinko balls.

Then, when you feel like you’re being pulled vertically up the face of a sheer cliff, when you are quite literally going steeper than you do on the final drop on Disneyland’s Splash Mountain, you can’t help but recall that you’re in a tram that’s 119+ years old, and suddenly that spotless safety record becomes a whole lot more important.  Eventually, the track levels out and you pull into a station at the base of one of the most famous buildings in town.

The Peak Tower (see photo above) is beloved by the Hong Kong residents, so much so that they put it on the back of the HK$20 bill.  Frankly, I think it’s a tad ugly, like a cross-section of a Chinese wok on stilts.  The base of the Terry Farrell-designed building has been added on to over the years, and now contains an entire mini-mall, complete with a Burger King, an EA Sports video game store, and (believe it or not) a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant.  At the EA Sports store, a smiling salesgirl tried to get me to play virtual golf.  Outside the Bubba Gump restaurant, I was greeted by an imported Caucasian actor dressed as Forrest Gump, saying in a Alabama drawl, “Hi.  I’m Forrest Gump.  People call me Forrest Gump.  My mama always said life is like a box of choc…”  I smiled and waved and took the escalator to the top floor.

The top floor is actually a roof deck that everyone visits, because it’s from here that you have those “spectacular views” over the city.  And indeed, on a clear day, you can see all the way to mainland China.  Unfortunately, clear days are rare in Hong Kong.  Even on a sunny day, the mountains are usually shrouded in that gauzy mist that looks great in celluloid costume dramas about geishas or emperors, but can be annoying from the point of view of the tourist who wants a clear view over downtown with mom, uncle Gus and the twins in the foreground.

Back down the hill (via the tram again), and time for dinner.  Keeping with my mall theme, I decided to visit the largest mall in Kowloon, Harbour City.  This is a strange mall, in that it was obviously added onto, remodelled and expanded over the years, so unlike Times Square with it’s soaring 11-storey central atrium, Harbor City is a collection of fairly claustrophobic maze-like corridors that lead in far to many directions across three levels.  For dinner, I decided on a local restaurant that started in Hong Kong (and later opened branches in Singapore and Taiwan), to get the authentic taste of the city.  And the name of this restaurant?  Dan Ryan’s Chicago Grill.  Yes, you read that correctly.

I know, I know.  I’m cheating.  This was obviously a restaurant started in Hong Kong by Americans who missed their Porterhouse steak and deep-dish pizza, and more importantly, realized there were a lot of other homesick Americans out there, too.  How was the food?  Great, as far as painfully American steakhouse fare goes.  I had a Caesar salad, top sirloin, baked potato with everything, and cheesecake.  I had that warm, artery-clogging feeling at the end of the meal. And yes, I promised myself I’d go jogging the next day to ward off a heart attack.

But, in truth, my next day would be quite different.

(Continued in Day 4)

Hong Kong: Day 3 – Ocean Park

November 13, 2006


I’ve already admitted that I came to Hong Kong partly to see the newly opened Hong Kong Disneyland — such is the extent of my Disney geekhood.  But, in a nod to Derek and his preference for the “authentic” local theme park experience (see Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Parque de Attractiones, etc.), I first paid a visit to the home-grown, succinctly-named Ocean Park.

Ocean Park has to be one of the strangest theme parks on the planet, not because of its theming or rides, but due to its topography.  Half of the park is an elaborate roller-coaster and aquarium collection (think Sea World) perched on the outermost tip of a mountainous peninsula.  The other half of the park is a paltry collection of kiddie carnival rides and zoological gardens, positioned on the other side of the mountains, at the base of the peninsula, a full mile away, connected only by a creaky aerial tramway.  Disneyland in California likes to talk about it’s “mountain range” of thrill-rides (Space Mountain, Matterhorn Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain), but Ocean Park boasts a real (albeit incredibly inconveniently placed) mountain range cutting right through the middle of the park.

From downtown Hong Kong, there’s a non-stop bus that takes you directly to the theme park (which is on the other side of the island).  It’s a nice journey, and you get to see lots of the city from the elevated freeways that snake through some of the outlying areas.  One thing that struck me was that every bit of “awkward” space created by the freeway (the inside of cloverleaf interchanges, underneath overpasses, etc.) — areas that American freeway planners just leave for dirt, weeds and the odd homeless person — were always stuffed with elaborate gardens: volcanic rock waterfalls, koi ponds, topiaries and banks of flowers.  Everywhere I went in Hong Kong I saw these little pocket gardens in the most unlikely of places, each one more elaborate than the last, and all lovingly clipped and pruned to perfection by elderly women in plastic galoshes and straw hats.

The bus eventually drops you off at the “back” entrance to the park, the roller-coaster and aquarium side.   This is a good thing because most of the locals show up at the other side (That’s where the parking lot is.), and there’s always a huge crush of people trying to get on the ariel tramway.  This way, you beat the crowds, and instead of having to take a skyway to get to the rides, you get to travel up Hong Kong’s second-longest system of outdoor escalators (745 feet) from the bus stop to the park itself.

Once you reach the top, the view is spectacular.  The entire South China Sea stretches out before you, faint mist-covered islands dotting the horizon.  Cypress trees and forests of bamboo creak slowly in the breeze.  And, right along the very edge of the cliff, rising above the greenery, is a lone roller-coaster track that seems to defy all logic (see photo above).  This is the oddly-named Wild West Mine Train ride.  It’s a bit of a misnomer, since “mine trains” usually go through “mines”, and this one stays completely above ground.  Nor does the theming resemble anything like the “wild west”, at least the American “wild west”; maybe they mean the Chinese “wild west”.  But never-mind; this is Ocean Park’s signature ride.  And, once again, it has nothing to do with the ride itself and everything to do with topography.

As a thrill ride, Wild West Mine Train is kind of weak.  There are no 100-foot drops, no loops, and the whole thing is over in about two minutes.  But the view is absolutely breathtaking.  This has to be the most spectacular view from a roller-coaster in the entire world.  As you skirt along the top of the cliffs, you honestly feel like you’re flying.  Yes, it’s a little scary at first, because you look over your shoulder and see nothing but a 300-foot drop-off to the crashing waves below, but then you look out to the sea, and it’s like something out of a Bob Ross painting… only real.  Every so often, the train lurches around a banked turn to remind you that you’re still on a roller-coaster, but it’s no use.  So captivating is the view that the twists and turns of the ride itself are forgotten the moment you get off, as you run around to queue up and ride it again.

Unfortunately, as spectacular as Wild West Mine Train is, it’s about the only ride worth repeating at Ocean Park.  There are other roller-coasters, and lots of other rides that spin you and drop you and turn you upside-down, but nothing worth writing home (or blogging) about.  I will mention however that Ocean Park was where I had my first “authentic” (as much as amusement park food can be authentic) Hong Kong lunch.  It was a noodle soup with cuttlefish balls, some steamed vegetables, and tiramisu.  (Okay, I might have cheated on that dessert.)  Overall, it was very tasty.

Across from the restaurant lies the unassuming concrete bunker-like entrance to the aquarium.  Actually, it’s a series of several exhibits.  There’s a shark tank with an underwater Lucite tunnel (a la Jaws 3-D), there’s an exhibit called Sea Jelly Spectacular (It wasn’t that spectacular.), and there’s one of the largest aquarium reef tanks I’ve ever seen, about the size of half a football field.  (It’s nearly four million gallons, or about four times the size of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.)  You enter at the surface level and follow a downward-sloping path, spiraling around the outside of the tank, eventually descending four storeys underwater.  Through the walls of Plexiglas, gigantic fishes and and stingrays zoom past.  And, when I say “gigantic”, I mean big enough to dwarf the scuba divers in there.  The fish were bigger than dolphins, and some of the stingrays looked larger than airplanes I’ve been on.  It was truly awe-inspiring.

Having had my fill of the attractions on the tip of the peninsula, I decided to climb aboard the ariel tramway to the other side of the park.  This relatively simple mode of transportation turned out to be the most harrowing white-knuckle thrill-ride of the entire trip.  The problem is that the equipment is old… really old.  You’re stuffed into what is essentially a human-sized metal birdcage, seemingly toed along by gravity, friction and the power of prayer.  The support towers you cross over are visibly rusting to within an inch of their structural integrity.  Things aren’t helped by the fact that the journey is precariously steep and incredibly windy.  The open-air cars are tossed around in the wind like a string of Chinese paper lanterns.  And, as if this isn’t fun enough, the cable grinds to a screeching halt every so often, leaving you stranded half-way up the mountain, twisting in the freezing wind for about 5 minutes at a time with nothing but the hollow tinny sound of the creaking support towers and the stretching of the brittle steel cable to amuse your senses.  Well, that and the “don’t look down” view.

If you survive to the end of the tramway, your reward is pretty meager.  This “other” side of Ocean Park looks and feels nothing like it’s more scenically placed sibling on the ocean-facing side of the mountain.  There are no rides, short of a few garish kiddie carnival things, no aquarium, no restaurants except for a few cheesy fast-food kiosks.  And, frankly, would you eat anything from temporary-looking hut, topped with a pink fiberglass, toque-wearing, tongue-wagging octopus called “Mr. Squid“?

The only thing of note on this side of the park is the giant panda exhibit.  Yes, I got to see real live pandas in China.  Two of them, actually.  And, they looked about like you’d expect: big black-and-white bears.  They have a very nice enclosure with beautiful naturalistic landscaping and a tremendous amount of space to run around, although the ones I saw were basically pacing back and forth most of the time.  Pandas are majestic animals, and I’m glad I got the chance to see some in as close as I’ll probably ever come to their natural habitat.  The only odd thing was the food kiosk as you exited the building: Panda Waffles.  ‘Cause, you know, nothing says “giant panda” like waffles.

(Continued in Day 3.5)

Hong Kong: Day 2.5 – Macau

November 12, 2006


After a morning spent exploring a temple and a nunnery, I decided to switch gears and spend the afternoon in China’s answer to Sin City.  Macau is an island about an hour west of Hong Kong by Jetfoil.  Just as Hong Kong was a former British colony, Macau was a former Portuguese colony.  Even though both are now officially part of China, you still have to go through passport control and customs to get from one to the other.  Macau even has it’s own currency, even though almost nobody uses it (favoring the Hong Kong dollar instead).

Since 1961, a guy named Dr. Stanley Ho has had a government-granted monopoly on the casinos in Macau.  In 2001, the government contract ended, and the Las Vegas of the east was invaded by, well… Las Vegas.  First, Sheldon Adelson came calling and plunked down an enormous black and gold megalith dubbed the Sands Macau, right next to the harbor terminal.  Then, Steve Wynn stopped by and built a half-scale replica of his swanky Wynn Las Vegas resort (on the right in the photo above), complete with a scaled-down version of the fountain show from the Bellagio.  Wynn even had the nerve to build his casino directly across the street from the Hotel Lisboa, the centerpiece of Stanley Ho’s former casino empire.

I had lunch at the Wynn Macau, where I was happy to encounter air conditioning (Even in November, it was sweltering outside.) and a giant menu full of American food that you just can’t get in London: club sandwiches, chicken Caesar salads, BBQ burgers, etc.  Oh yes, and iced tea, which is almost unheard of in London, but extremely popular in both Macau and Hong Kong.  I was wolfing it all down like it was my last meal. 

After lunch, I wandered through the casino, which was decorated nearly identically to the Wynn Las Vegas, down to the carpet patterns.  The most notable difference was the noise level.  In Vegas, casinos are loud, with gamblers shouting, slot machines bleeping, and coins clanging into metal trays.  In Macau, by contrast, the sound of chips being raked across the craps table was probably the loudest noise.  And, instead of cocktail waitresses in one-piece swimsuits and fishnet stockings offering you free (as long as you’re playing) watered-down alcohol, the Wynn Macau had women in long Chinese silk robes pushing around carts with giant silver samovars, dispensing complimentary tea.

In the few years since the Americans landed, gaming in Macau has surged.  Really surged.  Despite it’s small size, Macau actually now brings in more money per year than all of Las Vegas!  Already, Wynn is building a second tower.  MGM Grand has a casino under construction.  And, Adelson is breaking ground on a full-size replica of his Las Vegas Venetian resort.  Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a complete copy of the Las Vegas Strip here in a few more years.

But, Macau is not Las Vegas, no matter how hard it wants to be.  Visually, it looks more like Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, complete with a thick layer of choking brown smog.  It also doesn’t have the available real-estate to build anything as grand and sprawling as, say, Las Vegas’ Caesar’s Palace.  To rectify this problem, Macau has implemented a massive land reclamation program to dredge up sand from the ocean floor and create entire new sections of the island.  As you read this, both the Venetian and the MGM Grand are being constructed on plots of land that didn’t exist a few years ago.

Macau has a few other features that might seem odd to the casual visitor.  As soon as you get off the boat, you’re treated to the following sights in rapid succession: two floating casinos; a replica of a Tang Dynasty palace which contains a department store; a miniature model of the Potala Palace, built into the side of a giant concrete volcano that belches smoke and fire at night, and which contains a roller-coaster and a white-water rafting ride; a shopping center themed to the lost city of Atlantis; a collection of carnival rides set in a recreation of an Arabian village; a half-scale replica of the Roman Coliseum containing an outdoor theatre, and a half-scale replica of Trajan’s Column, complete with costumed Roman centurion guards.  (As a side note here, this marks the third Trajan’s Column I’ve seen, after the original in Rome and the full-scale replica (cut in two halves) in the V&A Museum in London.  I wonder just how many there are in the world.)

Futher in the distance, you can see the Macau Tower rising 1109 feet above the skyline.  This is another Stanley Ho creation, built only a few meters shorter and five years after Las Vegas’ Stratosphere Tower.  Instead of a riding a roller-coaster around the top, in Macau you can don a nylon safety harness and walk around the outside of the observation deck on a narrow catwalk with no railings.  Or, if that’s not thrilling enough, you can even bungee jump or parachute off the tower (which I guess is one way to avoid the line for the elevators).

Much as I would’ve loved to give myself an aneurysm in Macau, it was getting late, and I needed to head back to Hong Kong.  As we were puling away from the dock, I saw the concrete volcano “erupt”, hurling balls of fire high into the night sky, and seemingly drowning the onlookers in black smoke.  Upon re-entry into Hong Kong (Another two stamps in my passport!), I was tired and hungry for dinner.

I headed over to Times Square, which is probably the second-largest shopping mall in the city.  There were about 11 floors of stores, and then another 5 or so levels of restaurants on top of that.  When was the last time you were in a 16-storey shopping mall?  Mall of America, eat your heart out!  The restaurant levels were amazing, offering everything from traditional Chinese to Thai to French to Italian to American.  And, yes, I have to admit that faced with all this selection, I went with… California Pizza Kitchen.  I know, I’m feeling terrible writing about it now, but I was feeling homesick.  CPK is yet another American chain that doesn’t exist in the UK.  And, I really wanted to eat some BBQ chicken pizza again.  (It was great, by the way.)

After dinner, I explored the mall.  The anchor store is Lane Crawford, which is sort of the Hong Kong version of Harrod’s.  There were also tons of specialty electronics and clothing stores, several designer outlets, and not one but two Marks & Spencers (where I bought some socks).  There was no Disney Store, but I had high hopes for a place called “I.T. Loves Mickey”.  I was hoping that it was a Disney themed high-tech gadget store.  From the front, you couldn’t tell because the entire storefront window was filled with giant foam-rubber cutouts of Mickey Mouse “parts”: ears, shoes, gloves, all done in black-and-white.  The entrance is an automatic sliding frosted-glass door with a Mickey silhouette engraved on it.  And, because it’s frosted glass, you can’t see into the store until walk up to it and it slides away to reveal… a Disney-themed girls clothing store.  “I.T.” as it turns out, is sort of the Hong Kong version of The Gap; their main store (sans Mickey) was around the corner.

Well, after seeing a Buddhist temple, wandering around a nunnery, traveling to a different country, lunching in a casino, watching a fake volcano erupt and riding the endless escalators of a 16-storey mall (It was nearly 1am and the mall was still open.), I decided to call it a day and head back to my hotel for some well-earned sleep.

(Continued in Day 3)