Thursday, April 21, 2011

Amazing Asia * Hong Kong Off The Beaten Path (April 2011)

Having been to Hong Kong so many times over the last 40 years, I realized there's still so much more to explore in Hong Kong aside from the usual city visits, food and shopping.  On this trip to Hong Kong, I wanted to explore the path less traveled by tourists.  At one time or another, I've visited off the beaten path places like Repulse Bay, Shatin, Stanley and nearby Macau, but all of these have also become common places to visit.  So this time, I made it a point to plan a different itinerary, something that I've never visited or experience before and where few people have gone.

First of all, I made sure I stayed in a hotel in Lantau Island, away from the city, and a convenient take off point to the islands.  So weekend came, and I'm all set to explore a new path.

Saturday, I started on a slow and relaxing road trip around Lantau via bus.  I planned for a stop in Ngong Ping where the Giant Buddha is, then head further down to Tai O where the fishing village with stilt houses and pink dolphins are.  I decided to skip Mui Wo, which is just a landing point for folks coming from the city via ferry.

I've been to Ngong Ping once before, so I planned a slightly different itinerary for this place.  I took the bus, similar to the last time.  I was tempted to take the cable car, but given that the track record was not good (an accident happened before where a cable car fell), I wasn't keen on it.  Besides, I've ridden cable cars in the past and even if this offered a scenic view, I'm more comfortable on land anyway.  The bus trip from Tung Chung to Ngong Ping was about 50 minutes and the path up was a winding road.  A lot of people call this a hairy ride, and indeed it is.  So now, I ask myself, is this safer than the cable car ride? Hahaha.  Imagine the bus running along a highway, this is how fast it felt like, except that it was doing this in a winding road along the mountain.  At one point, the mountain was actually just inches from the bus' window.  But the views were marvelous.  You see endless mountains with dark green lush trees and bushes.  The road is built on the edge of the mountains and thus, you can see the views falling down on the side of the road.  That was part of the reason why the bus ride felt like a roller coaster ride.  But I salute the driver, excellent driving all the way.

On the bus ride, I was actually reflecting on the benefits of solo travel.  First of all, I had the quiet time.  I had full control of my itinerary.  If I wanted to stay longer in one place, I can, without worrying whether my other party will be ok with it or not.  I had two seats on the bus for me and my bag.  Well, that's of course because the bus was not full.  Disadvantages?  Well, I can only take photos of the place but I won't be in them, hahaha.  Well, not really a big deal.  I guess that fits just right, given that my interest is to take pictures and not pose for pictures, hehe.  And of course, you don't have someone to talk to and share your interest and excitement with.  But generally, I enjoyed the trip.  I used to be very conscious about being on my own, but I see a lot of people doing it.  And since I've tried to do it, I find that it's not so hard after all.  The trick is really to just focus on enjoying the trip rather than focusing on the fact that you're on your own.  Anyway, more on that later.

We finally arrived in Ngong Ping.  The bus drops everyone off the end of the line.  Immediately after I got off the bus, I can already see the Giant Buddha.  It was a great opportunity to take photographs with my zoom lens from this vantage so I brought up my camera and started to shoot.  I then headed to the middle area just below the steps leading up to the Buddha, and took more photos from there.  I did not go up to the Giant Buddha this time as I have already done that on my last trip.  Besides, it was nicer to see the Buddha from afar to appreciate its size and magnitude.  I headed immediately to the trail leading to the Wisdom Path, where some of the greatest views can be seen.  As you walk, you will find a small tea house in the midst of the trail.  It was nicely hidden and interesting, you can see scarecrows amongst the tables.  Interesting design against an old Chinese tea house.

I finally arrived at the main landing point to the Wisdom Path, but I decided to ditch the crowd and and headed towards another trail that hikers take to hike to Lantau Peak and back to Tung Chung.  I walked approx. 10 minutes into the trail, pass the viewpoint for the Wisdom Path and there you can see wonderful views of the mountain on one side, and Wisdom Path on the other plus a view of I believe a reservoir down below.  You can also see small parts of the trail too.  I took a few photographs from here and also some of myself by putting my point and shoot on rocks along the way, haha.  Except for a couple who I met up there, the path was practically empty.  I guess it was lunch time and the sun was shining down on us.  It would have been nice to sit and enjoy the views but it was too hot.  But I managed to grab a couple of moments simply enjoying the breath of the mountains.

I then headed back to the landing point to get up the Wisdom Path, this time the kids who seemed to be there on a school trip, were now gone for lunch.  The path was practically empty so it was a good time to go up and enjoy the wooden poles.  I actually do not understand what the inscription say, I just know that this is some sort of prayers for Buddha.  Anyway, even if I'm not Buddhist, I do understand the serenity of the place.  It's just peaceful up there.  I strayed up to the extended trail above the Wisdom Path, for better views of the mountains.  I would have gone further to see the other side of the hill but I was afraid my weak ankles won't take it.  I was happy to get some good exercise though to stretch and strengthen my ankle.  There is of course, a realization that I'm getting old and that my body isn't what it was like before.  I think the biggest fear I have is that I won't be able to travel and enjoy the adventures.  And maybe that's why I have over the last few years, pushed myself to enjoy myself now, and stop waiting for the unknown.  My perspective towards life have definitely changed as I gain these realizations.  Maybe the Wisdom Path is giving me wisdom after all, hahaha.

After I got back down, I found a bench shaded under a big tree and sat there to rest and people watch.  I brought out my ice tea and bowl of fruits and started to munch on them.  The breeze, partnered with the refreshing juice of the fruits, surely cooled me down.  After a while, I headed back down the trail and went to see the Po Lin Monastery which we didn't see the last time.  I went to the back to see what's up with the vegetarian meals.  This seems to be a popular attraction although I wasn't really keen on doing this since I was on my own and I didn't really feel like eating vegetarian food anyway.  I was just curious because my mom used to tell me that good vegetarian food really tastes delicious but only a few are able to do that.  Anyway, as read in many blogs, the food is served lauriat style, multiple courses served in a round table.  I decided to head to the snack bar to get myself some fried dimsum, which I read about.  I got three kinds: one was taro puff (ukok), the other was a vegetarian puff, and the third was a fried glutinous dumpling (ham sui kok).  Anyway, I've tried all of these before but with meat.  I liked the vegetable puff, it had mouse ears (that's what we call it anyway), and some crunchy vegetables, possibly radish.  It was light and the pastry layers were just excellently made.  Even when I ate the rest back at the hotel, it was still crispy. They actually had a note saying eat within 2 hours, but it was still fresh after.  I didn't like the taro puff that much, it was a bit dry and heavy.  The glutinous dumpling was also good but could use more fillings.

I then proceeded to take some close up photographs of the flowers around the monastery. They're very pretty and colorful.

After the Monastery, I passed by Ngong Ping Village where the cable car drops people off.  It was just a row of nice souvenir stores and some shows that introduce you to the Buddha and the Monkey story.  After walking around a bit, I then headed to the Bus Terminus to wait for the bus.  I saw this guy waiting and asked him if I was at the right line.  It was only him so far.  And he told me that the next bus is 20 minutes.  So I strike a conversation with him and found out he was just in Manila the last few days.  He's American.  As I suspected, he works for a call center.  Doesn't everybody do now? Haha.  Anyway, we talked a bit about Manila and what he did, what he saw, where he stayed, etc.  It was nice to chat with someone.  If you're on your own, you get to meet other people and strike up conversations with strangers.  Of course, some are ok, and some are not.  I was glad this guys was ok.  I later saw him again in Tai O, and he was able to guide me as I explored the island.  See? You're never alone, hahaha.

Speaking of being alone, I know that somehow God and my parents are looking after me from up above.  And they appear in people or things that you see around you.  I often equated the butterfly with people who have passed away.  Maybe it's because my parents used to see a black butterfly in our garden in our old home by the Sampaguita plant, and they believe that it was my grandfather and Sampaguita was his favorite flower.  So whenever I see butterflies, I often wonder if it is my dad or mom around.  Today as I was walking through the trail to the Wisdom Path, I saw this black and white butterfly following me.  Maybe it's mom :-)  I somehow remember her black and white blouse, hahaha.  In fact, I saw this same design twice, one here, and another one in Tai O that afternoon.  Go figure!

The bus from Ngong Ping to Tai O took 20 minutes.  As I arrived, I waited for the crowd to see where they were going.  I read up ahead and knew that I can take a boat to see the pink dolphins although they are not guaranteed to be seen.  I overheard two European guys buying tickets and somehow heard that it was HKD20 so I decided to buy a ticket there.  At least, I was with some guys who hopefully can save me in case there was an emergency.  These are the things you need to do if you're traveling alone, haha.  Then another group of 4 Asian folks were also asking and another Asian guy who seems to come from China.  So, I kinda felt safe.  Well as predicted, we didn't get to see any pink dolphins.  But no worries, I had set my expectations already, hahaha.  Anyway, we got a good view of the stilt houses and also some great views of the nearby mountain sceneries.  Oh, and a pelican too by the rocks, haha.  For HKD20, it was ok.  Btw, my friend from the bus terminus didn't want to go on it, he didn't trust the safety standards.  Actually, I should be scared as well, but hey, many people seem to go on it and survived, hahaha.

After the boat ride, I followed the crowd, found the bridge and walked across.  I then headed down a path which looked like the market.  This is where the stinky dried fishes are sold and practically all sort of dried seafood.  They also have puffer fish, similar to what we saw in Taiwan.  On my way back, I even saw dried starfish.  So sad :-(  They also have dried scallops, mussels, etc. - those things that my mom used to buy from HK.  I was expecting the place to be a bit more exotic, but it was not.  I mean you see the old Chinese folks selling these stuff, there's also fresh seafood, etc.  To me, it's more like a more rural place, but not really a place brought back in time.  Anyway, it was interesting nevertheless.

At the end of the street, there were two paths, I took the left and walked a good 30-40 minutes towards the pier.  I passed through some stilt houses and the local people's residents.  The path was less busy this way.  I saw a couple of residents coming out, I figured I should smile at them and say hi and see how they react.  Some of them were aloof, but there was this one old lady with her cane who just came out of her house as I passed, I smiled at her and she smiled back and she said in cantonese, that I'm on an excursion.  I'm glad I could understand a bit of Cantonese, it helps.  I was just trying to imagine what was going through their minds, but I think they're so used to tourists being there, poking their heads in their houses and stalls, and taking photographs of everything.  I suddenly remembered Burano Island in Italy which was quite similar.  Actually, there are a lot of local HK people too out to visit the countryside on a weekend.  I finally got to the pier and saw a couple of people sit by the edge of the strip leading to the ferry port.  So I decided to join them.  I took this down time to take a drink and eat the rest of my fruit bowl.  I then took photographs of the fishermen and women who were picking things on the rocks by the beach, I guess crabs or some other shellfish.

Having rested my feet, I then headed back via a slow walk back to the village center.  As I exited the bridge, I again saw the local folks, women playing mahjong in one of the stilt houses.  They say this is a common sight here.  And fishes hanged out to dry everywhere.  I decided to skip the other side of the island, as I was a bit tired by now.  Besides, I've seen enough of the major areas.  So I headed back to the bus terminus and luckily, a bus was just ready to leave.  Airconditioning!  Perfect!  The bus back to Tung Chung took about 50 minutes, with a lot more stops, but it offered an equally magnificent set of scenery.

As I headed back to Tung Chung, I surveyed whether I had to pass by the supermarket before heading back to the room, I felt that I would be lazy to come out again, but figured I had enough for the day and for breakfast tomorrow.  It was nice to be back in the room, and I felt the urge to update my blog immediately before I forget today's experience.  This is a different side of HK, and I wanted to experience this.  I'm glad I did.  And honestly, I was glad I did it, despite being on my own. Not everybody can appreciate this type of trip, which focuses on experiences rather than just seeing places.

So, to continue... Sunday, I went to meet my friend for lunch and an exciting day out to visit Lamma Island, again, an island outside of the city.  Anyway, I took the MTR to Tin Hau station where it was convenient to meet my friend.  She is an ex-colleague from my previous company and she was also the one who went with me on a Voluntour trip to Cambodia.  So, it was time for us to have a bit of catch up time.  She brought me to have lunch in a small Chinese noodle house in Tin Hau.  We had beef tendon noodle soup, which was my favorite.  We don't get good beef tendons back home.  The most you can get is a piece or two per bowl.  Here, you practically have a good half a bowl of the tendons.  We also ordered soy milk to complement.

After lunch, we were still a bit early and decided to catch the tram.  But after a few minutes, we realized there was no tram or at least they were all stuck somewhere.  Then we realized that it was Sunday, and all the domestic helpers were heading for their day off towards Central, which was where we were going.  So we decided to take the MTR instead.  Good move!  Then we had time to take a stroll to the ferry terminal instead of rushing there.

Then on to Lamma Island.  The ferry took just 30 minutes.  When we arrived, we were met with a line of parked bicycles.  Apparently, these belong to the residents who maybe for the day, have headed to the city.  The island does not allow cars and so people travel via bicycle.  Lamma Island has a bit of a fusion of cultures as you can see a bit of modern arts complementing the traditional Chinese culture.  Maybe it's because a lot of the foreigners have found this island as their home.  As you walk through the island, you are met by quaint little stores selling clothes, crafts, candles, etc, much like the little quaint shops in Sausalito in the San Francisco or Boston.  It's a refreshing view, less crowds, fresh air.  Lamma Island is also known for its seafood, being close to the waters, thus, the many seafood restaurants around.  A beach lies at the end of the island, and so does a windmill that generates power.

My friend and I spent the first hour poking our noses into the specialty shops we see around.  We also chanced upon a small craft store whose owner was proud to show her goods.  She sells her stuff in posh hotels like the Mandarin and I'm sure they sell for quite a high price.  She also offers workshops where you can learn to make these crafts.  Interesting, I feel like I'm in Martha Stewart land :-)  But I was in HK, so it feels a bit strange :-)

Anyway, as we finished our store hopping, we decided to walk down to the beach and the windmill.  A few minutes after, the sky grew really dark and it felt like it was already 7pm when it was just 4pm.  And so as we predicted, the rain suddenly poured without much warning.  We found ourselves under one single umbrella below a big tree, trying to see if we can survive the downpour without getting too wet.  People were running back for shelter, as everybody wasn't prepared.  We decided to head back to the BBQ stand we saw, they had a little place but they had a roof at the very least.  Good thing, they were helpful and offered us chairs.

We sat by the BBQ stand just below the outer roof, but suddenly, we saw water flowing into the ground we were at.  Oh oh!  There's a mini tsunami!  And soon we realize this wasn't going to stop.  My friend alerted the owner on a power socket on the ground.  And we transferred into the tiny kitchen inside.  A couple was already seeking shelter there so we weren't alone.  The rain continued to pour and we found ourselves laughing at our adventure.  Something interesting seems to happen when we're together, hahaha.  Well, I wanted an unforgettable adventure, here it is! God is listening! :-)  While waiting, we decided to buy some BBQ.  Anyway, it's the least we can do for seeking shelter there, and also because we intended to try the BBQ anyway.  My friend got a corn on the cob, while I had a grilled curried chicken wing.  It was delicious, just enough spice!  I wish I had a cold bottle of beer with it, hahaha.  And soon as the rain seemed to weaken, it started strong again.  So, we were there pretty much more than half an hour, I would reckon.  We saw a lot of people, kids and parents, couples, all soaking wet, returning to the main street from the beach.  I'm glad we were not as wet as they were.

Anyway, we did eventually find a small window of time and decided to head back.  It was suicide to go further at this time, hahaha.  We decided to go into Shelly's cake shop, which we passed earlier for some hot coffee and home made cake.  Wise decision!  She offered unique flavors for her cake: tofu cheesecake and papaya mousse cake, both of which we tried.  They were light and simply delicious.  I would want a second serving if I had the space for it.  The lady even reminded us to eat the tofu cheesecake first so that we can appreciate the taste and not let the papaya mousse overpower it.  And yes, we did not regret following her advice. We practically stayed here for an hour or more, catching up, and chatting away.  I enjoyed the afternoon, even if we didn't get the chance to see the beach and the windmill.  Maybe it's because I'm getting old, or maybe it's because I know better how to enjoy myself without tiring myself out too much, hahaha :-)

Realizing that it was already 6pm, we headed back out did some more shop hopping.  But since it was still raining, we couldn't do much.  So we went to have our dinner instead, hahaha.  Oh yes, we have been pigging out the whole day, mind you!  My friend brought me to the Waterfront Restaurant, where we had a view of the water.  It would have been nice to see the sunset but we had a night view instead, haha.  We had beer, some mussels and some greek salad.  Given that we were eating all day, this healthy menu was just right, haha.  As we sat, we had time to choose the photos to send our friends in Cambodia.  My friend created a few collages for which she'll print and send through our friend from Singapore who is planning to visit our host family in May this year.  It brought back a lot of good memories of Cambodia, I wish I can visit again some day.  I can't wait to see new photos again from our Singaporean friend.

We enjoyed making the collages and I was so impressed with the application on the IPAD, my friend started to sell me the features of the IPAD, hahaha.  How funny!  I also got a chance to see her photos which inspires me to take better photos.  Now, I want an IPAD too, hahaha.  Honestly, one way to inspire yourself is to view photos, whether your own or others'.  You either print it out on paper or use it as a screen saver, or in this case, put the pictures on your IPAD so that you can show it to your friends :-)  Well, I just might get one!

So, here ends my visit to the islands.  And because I haven't seen everything yet, this gives me a reason to return someday.  I enjoyed this trip and I will always remember the unique experiences I've had.  It is a different side of HK that I've seen, and I wish more people would do this.

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