Monday, December 10, 2012

HKTrip12: Arrival in Hong Kong

This second installment covers the taxi-ride out from the airport and head-throbbing jetlag.

Taxi Ride from Airport
The distinctive architecture of Hong Kong International Airport. From the air, it can be seen that this has been built to resemble a plane.

Airport Terminal - Transport Depot
Inside - this covered walkway links the various transport options to the main terminal building. This little atrium has some really strong lines and ample vertical space. It feels quite impressive to walk through.

Taxi/Bus Stop - Red (Standard - On LHS) / Green (New Territories - On RHS) / Blue (Lantau Island - On RHS) taxis. Walking outside the building at last, you're struck by the heat at last (no aircon anymore). Attendants will direct you to the first available taxi.

Taxi Ride
The airport is actually located quite far away from the rest of the city. AFAIK, they specifically built a man-made island in a sheltered bay for the airport (in contrast with the old Kai Tak airport located in the middle of Kowloon, flanked either side by high rise buildings, and a busy shipping corridor in the middle). This time we were being picked up by a relative, and ended up taking a taxi back to the hotel (last time we took the Airport Express, since it was after midnight, and most other services had called it a day already by the time we got to the arrivals hall).

Be warned though that taking a taxi can cost in excess of 300 HKD, and can potentially be a lot worse during rush hour if there are any significant traffic jams (check the fees schedule on the taxi for exact details, but the meter jumps 1.5 HKD for every 200m travelled OR for every minute spent waiting in traffic for short journeys, reducing to something like 1 HKD after ~70 HKD or so. There's also a base charge of around 15-20 HKD < 2km journeys, but some drivers can be a bit grumpy about such trips. Also,  per item luggage charges, and a toll for passing over the bridge linking the airport with the rest of the city).

Before we continue any further, I must warn you that taxis leave transport depots such as this (and those found under hotels, shopping centres, and other public transport hubs) AT HIGH SPEED. This would not be so much of an issue if the road out of these stands was straight... however, it so happens that getting out from these depots usually involves no less than 3 sharp turns, (which will be taken at somewhere between 40-60 km/h) sometimes up to 5-8 before reaching the open road. And if you're sitting in the back seat, especially the left and center seats, then chances are that you're actually going to have some amount of difficulty getting the buckle to go into the right clip, while clinging onto one or more hand-carry bags (perhaps with fragile/sensitive equipment such as cameras and laptops inside). The first turn will be brutal. The second and third not much better (if not worse, as you now struggle with the buckle more frantically than before). Unless you're really speedy, you might have to wait until the driver pauses while waiting to merge. In any case, hold on tight and try not to fly out the window! You have been warned.

Now on with the journey out on the taxi.

As mentioned earlier, the airport is a long way from the city center, and involves driving down a highway over 2 bridges or so, through a tunnel, and around countless overbridges/passes/etc. From what I understand, driving anywhere in Asia is not a simple matter - although Hong Kong is a city with clearly defined roads and apparently with road rules too, there are times when it looks like these are only loosely followed "guidelines". You just need to spend some time on a taxi (especially those driven by younger drivers, such as the one on this trip - older drivers are a bit more settled and happy to wait in traffic for a smoother ride, but are also more likely to only be found in particular "home" districts) to feel and understand this. And you will.

A residential complex outside the airport and an Airport Express train whizzing past in the foreground. These apartment blocks are quite impressive and imposing at the same time - each one so identical, tall, and lined up in a row like a giant wall.

Last time I visited Hong Kong, I already started to understand this principle: traffic in Hong Kong moves at two speeds - manic swarming, and deadlocked crawl. On highways (or basically any roadway that doesn't have shops on either side), traffic moves freely and very very fast. Officially, the signposted speed limits are enough to put even some of our recidivist speeding drivers to shame (and the police department here likely in shock), at around 110 kmh. However, most of the taxis and private vehicles were likely travelling around 130 kmh, and frequently changing lanes too to boot. Heck, even a squad of police on motorbikes were travelling that fast. The only things that were slightly slower were the double-decker busses (e.g. KMB, Citybus), much like the heavy haulage vehicles in Australia, which everyone travelling up the hill ends up overtaking.

A view of some signage and part of the highway on the way out from the airport.
The highway winds around the bay, with a large shipping container port in the bay to the left. Once again, the scale of the infrastructure here was impressive. In particular, the series of streetlights curving off into the distance.

Toll booth - All traffic passing over the bridge to/from the airport has to pay the required toll to pass through. For taxi passengers, this is included in the fare (and is paid by the driver when passing through).

One of the bridges we passed over - it's quite impressive seeing these towers loom overhead, and to hear the swish-swish of the cables zipping past.

One of the longer tunnels that we passed through. All lanes are just travelling in the same direction. From looking at maps, I later guessed that we were actually passing beneath the hill separating Kowloon from the airport, though that's just my guess.

However, all the while, the taxi driver seemed to be busily engaged in conversation. At first, I thought he was chatting to the other passengers... that is until I saw the hands-free earpiece, and the 4 (! yes, 4!) Nokia cellphones mounted on the dashboard and so forth (NOTE: while walking about, I later saw another driver who have 5-6 of these phones instead). In addition to this, there was an Android tablet mounted near the instrument display area. While flying down the highway and in between changing lanes to dodge slower-moving traffic, I watched (in semi-horror) the driver user his spare fingers to stab at the screen anxiously, before finally giving up on it when the app suddenly crashes. As the trip unfolds and further telephone conversations take place, it unfolds that the driver had been trying to use the "HT-Taxi" app to secure a job for either himself or one of his mates later in the evening, but had apparently been milliseconds too slow to secure it and accidentally exiting the app while trying to back out to the full list again.

Approaching more densely populated areas - sometimes these signs can be quite hillarious.

As we travelled into more densely populated areas, we also began to run into the first of several traffic jams (the second aspect to driving in Asia). Nothing was moving anywhere fast, but traffic was coming in from several directions at once, and the traffic signals weren't very clear as to who exactly could move - basically, you moved if you could!

More apartment blocks - much like the ones seen earlier, they all seem to have the same coloured lights (either a green-bluish glow from energy savers, or a warmer golden-yellow glow). And all of 'em many stories tall.

Finally, we turned into Nathan Rd, one of the main thoroughfares of Kowloon stretching right from the waterfront in Tsim Tsa Tsui all the way down to Mong Kok. This is a four-laned road, with many flashy stores, shopping centres, and hotels located either side. It was clearly a busy Saturday night, and we had arrived right in the middle of dinner-time, the busiest time of all...
Cafe De Coral (Dai Ga Lok) - a franchised fast-food restaurant right in the middle of dinner service. It is one of three or so chains operating in the region.

Heavy traffic jam, with many taxis stuck in the muck (IIRC, this is on Nathan Rd somewhere near Jordan Rd). On the left, the Park Avenue shops (?) have set up some Christmas lights between the trees and their buildings.

Flashy shop designs for big famous brands can be found everywhere. Here, the stark facade of a "Coach" store.

Finally we arrived at the hotel.

Jetlag and Settling In
Upon checking in at the hotel, we went out to try and find some dinner. Even though it had been a long day, there's nothing quite like a good meal to put things straight.

Unfortunately, the particular place we stumbled into wasn't it. After taking a while reading and trying figure out what to order from the menu, while trying to shake off an increasingly heavy head and a constant "floating" feeling (as if still standing on a plane in the middle of light turbulence), we ended up being cold-shouldered by the wait staff who were obviously getting impatient that we had taken so long and ended up wasting one valuable table that they could've had turnover on already... Adding insult to injury, was that one of the first dishes - chicken - was essentially cold and very very oily, while the other dishes were only mildly appetizing. Not the best start to a trip, that's for sure.

The thought of heading back to a sub-par hotel/hotel-room also wasn't terribly appealing either. We had originally wanted to book the Kowloon Hotel, but they were fully booked (The Peninsula was out of the question). For a trip planned on such a short turnaround, we settled for a room in a nearby hotel (just across the road in fact - the location was primary deciding factor in this case) which cost about the same. From the website at least, things looked fine - just another plain hotel room, just like any other you'd see. However, in practice, the place was a hell hole once you left the decent-looking lobby. Walking down the hallways, it was like timewarp back to a drab 1950's era place, complete with ancient-looking carpet (not in a good way). The rooms themselves were even worse. Perhaps it was the horrid decor (a cross-hatch textured ochre wallpaper, dark imitation-floorboard vinyl floor, reddish-pink (!) basin and toilet, and copious use of first-gen tubular energy-saver bulbs), the patches of mould on the ceiling above one of the beds (the other had an air vent directly over it), the strong smell of insecticide wafting out the noisy air conditioning unit (set to "absolutely freezing" level on arrival), or the old-style CRT television with its flickering black and white display. Looking back at their website, it is possible (if you know what you're looking for) to see that they were genuinely showing real photos of their rooms - it's just that those were low-res, overexposed photos which somewhat masked the more hideous aspects of the decor, making them seem average when they were really in a class of their own. *ahem*

 Imperial - Decent on the outside, horrid on the inside.

Returning to this room with the "floating" feeling now escalating into a torrid head-mashing dizziness, there was little that I could do other than curl up in a ball on the bed, and hope that sleep would eventually make this feeling go away (it did... only slightly, but the floating ultimately continued one and off for a good two days afterwards still...)

Sleep though was only a fleeting figure in the first three nights, as I would wake at 2:30 am sharp, dazed, confused (but surprisingly alert), and convinced that it was instead 2:30 pm. As it turns out, I probably shouldn't have tried getting up at 7am to catch the silvereyes in the week leading up to this trip. My normal sleep schedule would have almost slotted into Hong Kong timezone perfectly :/

Fortunately, despite this rather nasty start, things did get better as the trip progressed. The sights, sounds, and tastes of Hong Kong I experienced in the days to come more than made up for these temporary discomforts. That said, at least I now know one place where I definitely WON'T be every staying again. EVER.

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