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Double double-decker tram

Our first real day in Hong Kong and the Asian continent. We had both slept well but I still felt very thirsty from the long flight. Having paid for breakfast we were both determined to make the most of it. The breakfast room seemed a little dated and out of place compared to the glitz and comfort of the rest of the hotel but they put on a fine spread. We passed on the continental and full blown fry up opting instead for a Chinese style breakfast.

As I was sat eating my noodles, rice, dumplings and dim sum I mused on how strange it seemed to be to be eating this for breakfast as we would typically only have that type of food for dinner. But I suppose it is only the same as us having bacon and eggs and all the trimmings, the same type of food we would eat for dinner. It was probably one of the tastiest breakfasts I have had in a long time.

We headed out to explore and wandered down to the Star Ferry and the local tourist information office. Although our hotel room is very comfy, we needed to find somewhere cheaper to stay. Lonely Planet claims that at this time of year many hotels will have lots of availability so you should be able to get really good deals. That is a total load of tosh. Everywhere is really busy and they had trouble finding hotels with availability, let alone ones that would give good discounts. In the end we settled for the Wang Fat Hostel, a LP recommended guesthouse/hostel. We can stay there for three nights for the same cost as one night at our current hotel so god only knows what it will be like!

Hong Kong has a pre-pay travel card system like the Oyster system in London. Called Octopus, you charge up a plastic card with credit and then swipe it a card reader every time you make a journey. It works on pretty much all public transport and is the best way to get around cheaply.  We went up to the nearest MTR (underground system) station, got our cards then headed back down to get the Star Ferry across to Hong Kong Island.

In the days before the MTR this must have been the only way to get across the harbour. Now it seems to have mainly tourists on board. The boats are from a bygone age and the wooden interiors gleam with years of use. They no doubt will soon get consigned to the scrap heap for being inefficient and unsafe, the same as the Routemaster hop on hop off buses in London.

A Hong Kong classic it was a great ride and very cheap. It’s a double decker ferry, rounded at both ends and painted green and white, the same as the harbour it comes into. We were on the top deck for first class passengers. At the time of writing we have now been on the ferry about six times and I have still not seen where you go if you want to go second class on the lower deck. Either end of the ferry has windows but the middle section is open to the elements. The top deck has what looks like plastic curtains that can be pulled across if needed.

Seeing the north shore of Hong Kong for the first time was a real sight. We had thought that the part of Kowloon the bus took us through yesterday was heavily built up but it was nothing compared to the size and number of buildings on the north shore of the island. It looks as if every inch of land is either a building or a road connecting one building to another. The density of the population here must be horrific and most apartments probably get little or no direct sunshine throughout the day.

We opted to get our bearings by following Lonely Planet’s walking tour of the central district. From the ferry this took us up to Statue Square and right to the heart of Hong Kong’s Christmas activities. I do not think that either of us had expected Christmas to have much prominence here but it is everywhere you look. The lifts at the hotel were playing Christmas carols and shops and buildings are all decked out with lights and decorations, most of which I have to say are pretty gaudy. Even the subway tunnel from the ferry to the square has been renamed Mistletoe Alley for the occasion and has lots of lights hanging down from the ceiling representing said bud.

The action in Statue Square does not get going until night time but there is a Santa’s grotto and other bits and pieces. Around the edge of the square are small Christmas trees made of a simple coil of lighted wire. There is a charity here that makes wishes come true for local children with illnesses. People buy a paper Christmas tree (like a gift label) and write onto it their Christmas wish and then hang them onto the coiled Christmas trees. It is a really great idea and lots of people have taken part already.

From here we walked past the Cenotaph and then up to Chater Garden where more Christmas festivities take place. Here they have made a short alleyway, again decorated with people’s Christmas wishes, that leads you through to a display of different nativity scenes from around the world. They were closed when we walked through so we will need to go back at night to see them.

We followed the route up Cotton Tree Drive and into the Hong Kong Park. This is a real haven of peace and calm in the middle of the madness of the city. We entered the park near the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware. From here you look down over beautiful gardens down to a small pond. Benches line the paths and people were simply sitting and relaxing and enjoying the afternoon sun. We joined the dreamers and sat for a while enjoying for the first time in many weeks being somewhere warm enough for just a t-shirt and no fleece or coat.

As we were by the tea museum we stopped off to have a look. It is based in the oldest colonial building in Hong Kong which is still in its original spot, the home of the commander of the British Forces. The museum outlined the different methods of making tea that have been used over the years by successive generations of Chinese tea. The oldest method they showed was one were the tea came in cakes. These were ground to a powder and mixed with water that had been salted, and then drunk. One variation was to whisk the tea until it was frothy on the top. A competition then evolved to see who could make the tea where the froth lasted the longest.

In another era tea was made with milk and cheese, I suppose a sort of tea flavoured hot chocolate. It is only relatively recently that tea has been made by steeping the leaves in hot water. There are detailed rituals that surround the process of making tea involving washing the pot and cups, rinsing the leaves before finally pouring the tea. The cups are placed on a round tray and the teapot is continually moved in a circle over the cups until it is empty. In this way each cup has tea of the same strength and taste.

Happy Valley races

Upstairs they had the entries from a recent competition to make a pottery tea set for the current times. The winner was one where the teapots were caricatures of George Bush and Osama Bin Laden and the cups were halves of bullet and shell casings. The slogan that went with it was “Make tea not war”. The other designs were also fabulous but we were not allowed to take pictures to capture them.

There was a short video that again explained some of the ritual tea processes. It said how in today’s busy life the tea ceremonies were a good way to relax and unwind. I found myself getting tense watching it as each stage in the process was carried out painfully slowly. They also ran through the process of picking, drying and preparing the tea for market. I had not appreciated how much work was done before I could enjoy my daily cuppa.

As we watched the video a bride and groom walked by outside with their photographer in command of proceedings. At the other end of the park is the Central Registry Office and they must churn the weddings out at quite a pace as I think we saw six different weddings as we walked through the park. At the southern end was a small tranquil garden where people go to practice their tai chi. A small observation tower here gave great views down and over the city.

From here we walked through the parks aviary. They have constructed a hug wire dome over a section of the park and raised wooden walkways enable you to get close to the wildlife. A couple of very colourful birds (a type of parrot I think) put on a great display chasing each other in what looked like a mating ritual. Birds whooshed overhead as we watched and down below pelican swam gracefully round in a pool.

By this stage we were both feeling pretty sore footed and we decided to leave the rest of the walk. We headed back to our hotel stopping en route for a bowl of rice and beef as a late lunch. I had a brief power nap and felt much better for having done so. We then headed out again, this time to Happy Valley and to Hong Kong’s famous race track.

We took the MTR to Causeway Bay and from here got the tram up to the racetrack. The trams are quite comical. They are double decker and you have to go through a small turnstile at the back to get on. They lurch and swing along the streets but get you to where you want to go without a hitch, or at least they did for us.

Happy Valley race track is a phenomenal place. The tram passed along one side of it, the side without the grandstands, and you could see across the track from the top. It is a huge place and the people in the apartment blocks across the road who can see down onto the track must be quite popular on race nights. Betting on the horses is the only legal gambling in Hong Kong so it is pretty popular with the locals.

As we walked through the entrance gate though (charging the cost to our Oyster cards!) there were no Chinese people in sight. Artificial grass was laid out on the floor and there were beer stalls and western fast food outlets. All the people here were expats and travellers and I got the impression they were here for the beer and the people spotting opportunity more than the races.

The further down along the race track we got the more the atmosphere changed. Here were the locals and the local food outlets. Gone was the artificial turf, it was just bare concerete. Beyond here again was corporate hospitality land and the members enclosure. The stands reach up about five or six tiers high and again the differences at floor level were clearly seen in the stands too. We had a couple of bets but no luck on the gee gee’s. It was a Cathay Pacific International Jockey’s even and they had many jockeys from Europe, including Keiren Fallon who is partly responsible for our losses for coming a dismal third from last.

On the way back from the races we decided to check out the Wang Fat hostel just to make sure it was not totally horrific. It is based in an apartment block above “fashion street” which as its name suggests is full of high fashion labels. As we left the MTR station it was as if we had walked out into daylight. All the advertising hoardings, and there are loads of them, are lit up by big powerful halogen lamps and the result is bright light, stronger than the daylight that probably reaches down this far.

Inside the hostel it is very simple and basic but the room we saw was very clean, although small, and it had certainly seen better days. It will really be our first proper backpackers hostel since we started our trip. From here we made it back to the Marco Polo, both looking forward to our last night of luxury before we hit Asia proper.