Monday, June 17, 2013

HKTrip12: Day 6.1 - Walkabout in Sydney

This twelfth episode covers a daytrip walkabout in Sydney on a stopover between an overnight flight from Hong Kong early in the morning, to a flight home in the evening.

Why the stopover?
Ideally, there wouldn't have been a stopover, but as the flight schedules work out, apparently there are simply no flights from Sydney to Christchurch between 9am and 7pm - that is, either you leave Sydney really early (which is not really an option or very risky in case your earlier flight is delayed), or you'll have to arrive back home after midnight (i.e. the consequence of the 7pm Sydney-time flights). And apparently that holds for practically all the airlines. Argh!

Since we didn't have the boarding passes for the evening flight back home yet that morning, we initially passed through airport security again (yep, the exact same checkpoint with that 7m long crocodile again, the grouchy-as outsourced security dudes, and the placcards threatening "state violence" should you have more than 100ml of liquids or, heaven forbid, food on your person or luggage!), as the "transfers desk" is located inside that cordon (AND ONLY inside that cordon it seems from the various maps). When we arrived there, it became apparent that not only was it apparently far too early to even consider getting boarding passes (so, at 8am of the morning of the flight, they still have no clue where the plane is going to be, how full/booked it is, and so forth that they can't give anyone boarding passes?!), but that it would be impossible to find any alternative flights to avoid this delay (even for passengers willing at the point to fork out an extra transaction/transfer fee just to head home early to get some decent sleep and a hot shower - two things Sydney airport has no provisions for it seems).

After heading upstairs for a while to mope, rest, and think for a while, it was clear that although sleep would be a nice thing to get that day, staying cooped up in Sydney's departures hall for another 10 hours was definitely not an option (last time, on a 2-3 hour stopover, we'd already practically exhausted/walked through the entire thing, including checking out nearly all of the shops and so forth, with an hour to spare and the end of it, plus slightly sore feet and boredom of Duty-Free galleries selling wine/perfume/chocolates).

Leaving the Airport

Exiting the Departures/Transit Lounge
The first hurdle was to figure out how to get out of the Departures Lounge. Unfortunately, the way they've designed these things means that it is actually pretty difficult to do so - even if you're a law-abiding global citizen who is planning to legitimately pass through customs/immigration to get out of the building. After consulting several maps, it became clear that the only real way for passengers to exit this area was to somehow pass back through the security checkpoint, so that you could head off down the fork to the exit-ramp.

Fortunately, the manager of the screening checkpoint turned out to be quite a good natured and understanding chap, and having confirmed that our flight schedules did indeed leave us stranded for the better part of the day in Sydney, he let us out through the special "Staff Only"/Exit gate down the side of that space.

Passing Through Immigration/Customs
Next up, was the challenge of passing through immigration. Even though we'd only be stopping off for a day, you still need to go through all that paperwork (Damn! Should've taken the copies offered on the plane; But, then again, the various official documents I checked before the trip suggested that you'd effectively need to pay departure taxes if you left the terminal at all, if they were really taking a strict anal-retentive interpretation of their own guidelines, so this excursion was originally not on the cards. As it turns out, they don't generally enforce/check on this though - or this had been Tourism Australia's intention all along!)

When leaving NZ, we'd been pleasantly surprised to see the new "SmartGate" system in use. This is basically a two-step process where you firstly scan/slide your passport into a reader-terminal to get a little disposable ticket (like those you get when entering a parking lot), which you then feed into the second-stage gate/scanner thingy which takes a photo of you uses some type of Computer Vision facial matching system. Basically, they take a photo of you standing a fixed distance from the device, which includes various LED strobes or so which are used to obtain fairly uniform lighting. People behind you are a certain distance away (presumably so that their faces are too small to be detected as false positives, as there is no backdrop behind your head). "Naturally" when we tried it back home, it worked perfectly smoothly (apart from the part when I, in a hazy sleep-deprived early morning wakeup state, stuck the paper ticket in the wrong way ;)  to the disproving looks of the immigrations officer standing behind the machine watching everyone).

In Australia, they basically ran the same system. However, in practice, it seems it isn't quite the same. For the reader-terminals just kept spewing error messages when given passports that worked perfectly fine over on the what seemed to be the same machines in NZ. No wonder hardly anyone used them there (though I think one or two people succeeded; perhaps they were dyed in the wool Aussies...) It seems that although we may on the surface run the same "SmartGate" system, sharing similar tech and presumably databases with each other, the Aussie version just doesn't seem to work when faced with passports from the NZ version (the patriotic software engineer in me idealistically hopes that our version is actually superior, and works on both types, though knowing our government and the vendors they usually end up going with, somehow this version seems rather unlikely :(

Oh, and one other thing - apparently "chocolate bars" don't exactly count as "food items" from the Australian customs POV; then again, that's probably if you're not lugging a large sports bag of them through the border and staying "for a while". Hehe

Heading out to the CBD
Stepping out from the cocoon of the international terminal into "the rest" of the terminal, the first thing that strikes you is the heat. Even within a building, it was hot and humid in Sydney that day (predicted to reach 32 deg C, though it apparently only got to 23-25). Lugging several bags (including a laptop bag without a laptop, but still invariably heavy to the point of being torture to carry/lug for longer than a few minutes at a time), and starting to get hungry, the first priority was to find a way to get to the CBD to try and find something to eat (as well as to take in a bit of the place, now that we were there for the day).

The first objective though was to find a way to head out to the CBD (and preferably, a system that made it easy to get back to the terminal at the end of the day). It had been years since I'd been in Sydney, though if there's one thing I remember is that traffic around the airport (especially at the end of the day) is prone to traffic jams, where you get stuck for ages around the great honking roundabout just outside the airport (Why oh why must they build these things outside airports! They're a recipe for disaster when dealing with jet-lagged tourists renting cars and heading off, of people in a rush to catch some flights...). So taking a taxi in/out of the airport area was out of the question (except in an emergency I guess).

Instead, we ended up using the "Airport Link" train service (AUD $30 from the ticket apparently), and taking the round-loop shuttle service. Sydney-siders probably have some better suggestions, but these did the job (albeit perhaps not exactly presenting full story as it were) that day for a bit of a look around without getting too tired trekking around with heavy bags.

Trains and Central Train Station
After heading downstairs some 2-3 levels, we ended up at the train station. This was basically a cavernous dark hole in the ground where there were two opposing platforms serving two different lines. Unlike in HK, there were no barriers between the trains/tracks and passengers on the platforms. Waiting down there for a train to come was quite eerie, with hardly anyone around (and those that were looking like they were about to pounce at any moment). The dark lighting, slight grunge (though admittedly a lot better than in many of the other stations), and overall quietness of the place were quite stark.

After some 5-10 minutes, a train finally pulled into the station. These were rather old-looking tin cans, with a distinctive double-decker appearance for the seating compartments (though the entrance ways were still normal looking). Stepping inside a carriage, you're faced with either heading up or down to find a seat. Compared to trains in HK, the interiors of these trains were carpeted, dirty-white panelling, and those narrow and unpadded, rainbow-coloured short-fuzz-covered seats that you find in buses. The arrangement of those seats though was somewhat weird, as some were arranged into inward facing pods, others lined against the sides of the train, and other still all pointing in one direction. Trying to take a seat, it was initially a bit unclear which direction to sit in to not end up being dragged backwards by the train (a bad idea when sleep deprived in particular, as I found out on an earlier train ride once).

Central Train Station
After a few stops (IIRC somewhere between 3-5 stops), we arrived at the so called "Central" station.

The platform a Central station, and some of the "tin can" carriages on the right. This particular platform seemed to be in the middle of the station (sandwiched between several lines), so you have to go underground and come back up (after working your way through a bit of a labyrinth underground).

Perhaps the hardest part of navigating this station is to 1) figure out where you are in the whole complex, and 2) figure out where the bus/taxi stand exits are (they're not very well labelled at all, and there are no reassuring signs to guide you there if you start off in the wrong place). After walking back and forth within a few tunnels, and consulting a few maps, we finally managed to find an exit from the building, and straight under the furnace-like midday November sun. It wasn't quite as bad as the Brisbane noon sun I experienced over 10 years ago, but it was still quite intense, especially after a week of overcast and stormy weather.

Pretty soon, it was clear that we were in fact on what I'll refer to as the "south" side of the building, when we really wanted to be heading to the "north" side (where the main entrance is located). The difference between the two sides of the building were quite something: the south side was all dirty and broken old "white" tiles which have now faded and started going yellow, crusty and slightly rusting cast iron gates, depressing fluorescent tube lighting, and a number of cheap thrift-stall vendors. In contrast, there was still a bit of an air of "central train station grandness" when looking at the front of the building...

 This seems to be the real "main" exit - that looks a bit more like it....

A covered walkway down the side. The outside of the building was covered in this sort of rough stone

 That's more like it - a grand structure with arches and a proper clocktower!

Another view of the building (taken from later in the day) from further away

Architectural details - rough yellow-stone arches, and an old-style window complete with iron bars over the top to keep unsavory types out.

Random Observations about Sydney
From one of the tourist pamphlets, we found that apparently there was a free shuttle that did a loop around the CBD, including stops at several key locations. This is akin to the "Shuttle" service we used to have in Christchurch, with the yellow busses running off LPG (or something like that IIRC), except here the busses were green.

For anyone who does go this route, there are a few things you may want to note:
1) This is a very popular service. The first bus we got on was literally jam packed with people, with a rather large queue of people trying to get on. However, there were relatively few seats for people inside (it was a standard bus!).
2) DO NOT stand in the first third of the bus. That is, don't stand in the front doorway, don't stand beside the driver, and don't stand in between the first rows behind the driver. Although there are markings on the floor about this, they're practically impossible to see when there are heaps of people jammed up in there.
3) Depending on the driver you encounter, the experience you'll have will be slightly different (we saw 2-3 that day). The first guy - an older, stereotypical old Aussie bloke type driver - had quite a temper. Unlike the drivers here in NZ (especially the ones who do the 3pm Orbiter route and stop outside my former High School), apparently these bus drivers will actually get off their chair, stand at the front of the bus, yell and growl at people to keep moving backwards (and perhaps even force/prevent people getting on if there isn't enough space) until passengers comply, and will refuse to drive until that happens.

Here are some of the shots I took from the bus while on the road:
The caterpillar/accordian bus - they have these in Wellington too, but this is one of those Sydney things it seems...

Dedicated bus lanes - check. Tree-lined streets - check.

A downtown street and the monorail track. Apparently the monorail has now been decommissioned, though last time I was in Sydney I had a few trips on it (IIRC, mainly to get to the Powerhouse Museum).

Quirks of Australia
A postbox outside the Central Railway Station (and a few typical Aussies). After taking this shot, I kindof wished I'd made a note to snap some postboxes in Hong Kong. Then again, I hardly noticed any XD

A statue of a queen - Queen Victoria? In the background, another one of those yellow and red brick/stone buildings which are everywhere...

 These rather ugly birds, with a fluffy looking body (I'm sure they taste like chicken :P) and black heads which look like walking stick handles, are apparently fairly common in these parts. Here, they roam around what is apparently the botanic gardens.

Circular Quay
There were a few restaurants around here, and also a funky compound-like temporary venue in the middle of the square there.

The main harbour facing building at Circular Quay, with the temp venue outside. On the ground floor of this building there was a restaurant.

A McDonalds operating out of a little corner building. This shop had all its windows and doors open, no aircon inside, and the toilets were all out of order that day.

Darling Harbour
From Circular Quay, if you pass through a little terminal building (for the train services), you end up facing the harbour, which looks out towards the Sydney Harbour bridge (which we say earlier in the day from the air).

 The Sydney Harbour Bridge, and possibly the same cruise liner that we say earlier from the air...

Sydney Harbour bridge and two of the ferries docked along the wharf. IIRC, the one on the right is the ferry that takes you out to Manly Beach, and the ticketing booth is inside the terminal building.

While standing there absorbing the atmosphere after taking the second shot here, I was momentarily bothered by a buzzing noise and a feeling of a bundle of fluff or hair tickling my left ear. Although this quickly disappeared after I gave the area a good "swat", the sensation that something was still hanging on inside the hole carried on for a few more minutes. I can only guess that this was a fly of some description (perhaps what they call a blowfly?) - not surprising since I was probably starting to reek a bit, having not had a shower in over 36 hours at least by that stage.

Yellow brick road. The architecture of Sydney can best be described as lots and lots of old yellow/orange/clay-coloured brick and stone buildings. Everywhere.

One of some two churches along the route

This old building was under restoration (aka "stone cleaning") when we passed by, as evidenced by the scaffolding surrounding it. It's quite a nice idea showing the other half of the building projected onto the scaffolding like that.

 Some of the locals

 More yellow brick buildings - this one really reminds me of burnt loafs of bread for some reason...

 Another view of the central station

A better look at the first church. Quite a nice looking design. Pity it's another yellow brick number again.

Snapshots of city life
 More dreary looking brick buildings. They really love their bricks here...

A window display not far from the Apple shop along the route (which I was kindof surprised was in fact an Apple shop, since it was weirdly meshed-in with the old building it was housed in).

Trains Again - Return to Airport
After a few hours of walking around (and nodding off in the bus as it circled the CBD), it was time to head back to the airport. The weather was starting to change, becoming more overcast (though not really showing any signs of cooling down). Not exactly wanting to try navigating through Central station again, we found that the airport service also passed through that station (though we weren't sure until the train actually stopped back at the airport that it was in fact the right line).

The journey itself was relatively quick, passing through the central station at one point, and along what seemed to be a "railway corridor/backdoor" to the city:

Railway corridor - multiple tracks and lines pass through it like this, with individual trains often passing quite close together.

Silhoutette of central station tower against a backdrop of cables used to power the trains...

Central Station platforms, teeming with passengers waiting for trains to arrive - in a way, it looks a bit rundown

Overall Impressions
Sydney is hot and perhaps slightly humid at times (not quite as bad as in HK, but still very noticeable). It is also quite old, grungy, and dirty/rundown in many parts, but that's mainly based on the places I ended up seeing. Most of the architecture consists of yellow brick buildings, with a few modern-looking glass office towers grafted on top or dotted between these. The Aussies in general were all dressed in relatively loose-fitting, slightly-sloppy looking clothing.

Regarding the shops lining the streets, I got quite a strange feeling looking at them: by and large, these were pretty much the same shops that were operating back "across the Tasman" (i.e. back in NZ)! Sure, there may have been some differences there between those and the ones in Christchurch, though when compared to the ones in Wellington/Auckland, they were practically the same. Looking around at these, it was like: err... so what's the fuss/demand for all those people heading over to Oz?! Especially those just heading for a holiday, as there's practically no difference to just staying home, except the climate is ickier, slightly more expensive (with the exchange rate), and all the buildings are covered in a sheen of grunge.

As a stopover destination between Asia and home though, it was quite a nice stepping stone/bridge between the two worlds. Last time I was in Hong Kong for a week, upon landing, everything back home felt so surreal (i.e. during the taxi ride, all the houses on either side of the road looked so flat, stumpy, and spaced far apart from each other, while a weird golden glow seemed to permeate everything) and did so for a few days afterwards! This time though, there was none of that - though staring at my laptop screen after being away for a week was a bit of a strange experience I must admit (somehow the screen seemed larger, or the browser chrome at the top much smaller and almost non-existent). Other benefits of such a stopover include fitting in an additional destination into your travels, re acclimatising yourself to an environment where you can understand what all the signs mean (and/or where there are some familiar brands/products around), and especially for this trip, seeing the sun again for the first time in a week!

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