This ninth installment covers the last day spent in Hong Kong. It includes ramblings about the Airport Express Service, Times Square, Cyberport, and visiting ancestors at the cemetery.
Airport Express - Check In
Although the flight out of Hong Kong only left in the evening (7:30 pm), hotel checkout times are generally in the mornings (i.e. before noon).
As a result, you're usually left with one of several options:
1) haul your luggage off to the airport and camp out there for the day,
2) do the same, but head back out and return again in the evening at a premium (as airports are generally far removed from the rest of their host cities, you'd be paying/taking 3 trips to and from the airport within a day), or
3) leave luggage at hotel (trusting that they'll safely stow and store it for you until you come back - AFAIK, that's how it worked at reputable places of old), head out for a day before returning to hotel to haul everything off to the airport.
Airport Express Shuttles
In Hong Kong, there's an extra option available: the "Airport Express" service offered as part of the MTR/transport network. Your itinerary using this option looks something like this:
Take the free shuttles to check in early at one of two "central" stations, then head out to enjoy the rest of your day, before returning to one of these central stations to board the dedicated Airport Express train service (not free - this costs some 100-120 HKD per person; apparently there are group discounts though).
Airport Express Logo - Shown here on a sign on a side street just off Nathan Road beside the Sheraton
The shuttle service uses a mix of minibuses and coaches, with a different sized shuttle used for each route. Each route services a different hotel or cluster of hotels, with the size of vehicle relative to the popularity of the hotels in question. In many cases, the shuttles will stop right outside your hotel if it has a large enough foyer/covered entrance-way outside. Otherwise, there are bus stops marked with signs such as the one shown above where you wait for the shuttles to arrive.
Old-style apartment across the road from the bus stop. Those barbed sticks jutting out over the side of the balcony are to prevent criminals scaling the walls from easily sliding across...
On this day, we waited about 10 minutes for the shuttle to arrive. Depending on traffic conditions the wait may be longer, though the cycles should last just 30-60 minutes each.
For an example of the traffic jams that can occur, a 30 minute bus tour on Hong Kong island last time ended up taking 2 hours ; this is after we got stuck in two spots for half and hour each, slowly inching half a tire forward once every 5-10 minutes and watching as traffic would continually try to turn into already gridlocked streets even after the lights had changed, making things even worse than they already were, and traffic with right of way surging forward before those already stuck had finished turning.
(Bus Tours Tip: go to the loo before boarding, bring a water bottle, and consider heading downstairs from time to time if you're sensitive to being exposed to vehicle exhaust fumes for too long - the buses are open top and can get stuck in traffic even mid afternoon quite easily)This particular shuttle route we took went around the corner, down the road where the space museum is located, and hooked round through the Tsim Sha Tsui East area, passing down Chatham Road (a busy road with fast moving traffic, but not yet highway status). Last time, we stayed at the Regal Hotel around this area as suggested by the travel agent when booking plane tickets, and had to walk along and cross Chatham Road every day to get anywhere interesting.
At this point I should point out that this was not such a great area to be in especially at night, as this hotel sits on the corner of a rather dark and quiet/out-of-the-way square (I still vividly remember hearing some of the cleaning/street-sweeper ladies talking about a rat infestation on several mornings) with several large brothels or "adult entertainment" venues down one end (they had large multi-storey pink signs, adorned with the visages of seductively-posed scantily clad women in heavy makeup), and mainland Chinese businessmen occasionally being seen dragging a few rented "trophies" back to their hotel rooms. Having said that, during the day, this provides easy access to the Science and History museums (must see places - I thoroughly encourage you to spend time visiting these), as if you simply exit the square down one of the exits (beside the mall/arcade with restaurants on ground level), you're already on "Science Museum Road", with the museums located across the road on higher ground.
Winding back through Tsim Sha Tsui East, it quickly became apparent how far away it actually is from all the interesting stuff in Tsim Sha Tsui. Heck, it surprises me that we actually had to do that much walking everyday before we could reach Nathan Road, which is really only the starting point for heading anywhere (due to its central location and/or status as the main road running right through the area).
At one point, the shuttle paused at a street side stop to let what seemed to be a bear-sized Chinese guy and his girlfriend on the bus. Besides their backpacks, they had one very large, hard shelled, and army-green suitcase. It was a beast. This thing was so large could not fit in the lower rack for luggage (located directly in front of the doorway). Even if it could slot in beside all the other pieces of luggage already there (it couldn't), it was still probably too tall to fit vertically. As the shuttle began to move again, the guy had no choice but to lift it up to the upper rack with a bit of a grunt. *cue "iron man" joke and knowing chuckles from fellow travellers*. Finally the guy was able to take a seat at the back with his companion, while "it" would spend the rest of the journey cradled precariously just across the aisle from an old European tourist.
Eventually, the shuttle turned down Canton Road (where the Harbour City mall, and the various glossy big-brand retail outlets are located), travelling down the road right past the ferry terminal, winding under an overbridge, and weaving between several bustling construction sites where more daunting apartment tower-walls were sprouting out of the ground.
Set amidst all this construction work, the Kowloon Station, or more specifically, the towering apartment complex built on top of it stood out as a beacon for the new sights that would soon dominate the skyline in this area. Unfortunately, I don't really have any shots from here, though I increasingly wish I had snuck off a few in there. The images here are the best I've been able to dredge up around the internet to give you an impression about what this was like.
The Kowloon Station is quite a grand/impressive structure, with a very very high curving seashell-shaped roof, and sleek ultramodern interior. If you've probably gathered by now, I seriously love high domed ceilings, especially those covered recessed halogen lighting. The first time I passed through this terminal, it was getting quite late a night (as everything was already closed). Although at the time it was a bit eery walking around trying to find the taxi stands (since there was nobody around, everything was dead quiet, and apart from the main passageways, everything else was dark), what little of the terminal I saw was still very impressive and pretty. Then as now, I've been really impressed by the sense of space you get standing in a few of the atriums where escalators and entranceways feed into the building.
On the outside, it is a reddish (e.g. #C40404) building with some orange highlights (e.g. FF7300), and yellow (e.g. #FFDF29) and electric blue (e.g. #001DFC) panels thrown in as part of the commercial sponsorship agreements for "Elements" (which is apparently the name for the shopping complex located above the terminal). It was only while searching for images for this post that I realised that the apartments above this are shaped like an arch. Perhaps this was the development that was "affectionately" referred to as "the pants", which has some slightly negative connotations due to the culturally implications/humiliation of "being forced to crawl under someone's legs", especially by an arch nemesis.
remember to heed my advice from Epside 2) from the carparking/transport hub area, it turns left and whizzes right past this corner (i.e. moving screen left to right). At night, this window glows brightly with yellow and electric blue lighting. - Image Source: Wikipedia
The main purpose for visiting this station that morning of course was to drop off our bags (and have them magically ready and loaded onto the plane without any further effort on our part). Fortunately, with an Octopus card handy (I strongly recommend getting one - it just makes getting around like a local really easy, effortless, and fun!). Without one, you'll have to queue up and pay for a ticket at the ticket booth located to the side.
Now, inside the station, there is a dedicated area for "Airport Express" checkins, which is ring fenced with the familiar security gates again, though this time, they use the ones with the two red plasticy triangle-wedges which slide in and out from the sides instead of the 3-spike metal tube thingies so that you can get your luggage and trolley through easily. After scanning your card or ticket, you are let into this secure area.
Just a note about using Octopus to pay this way: ~100 HKD is deducted at that point as a one-off payment which is valid for 24 hours (i.e. you won't be double charged if you leave the secure area instead of heading down to board the train and then try and come back in to board later that day). Ensure you actually have enough cash to do so (it may pay - no pun intended - to top up the day before to ensure you have enough balance).Inside this area, there is a familiar setup which looks just like ye' old airport: a long row of counters with conveyor belts cut in beside each counter, a row of colourful screens above this with the logos of various carriers, and one of those massive black departure times boards with the flipping text mounted high up on the wall behind all this. For all intents and purposes, this may as well be the airport. You can get your bags checked in, your boarding passes printed, and passports checked (airline-boarding check only, that is).
Once you're done, you can just leave through a side gate (or proceed to take a lift down to the platform). Admittedly, at the time it seemed almost wrong to head out that gate (i.e. but what happens to that fare we just paid?!). Then again, it all worked out I guess :)
Heading Back Out
As it turns out, Kowloon Station is NOT connected to the rest of the MTR network. Hence, to get back out to Tsim Sha Tsui, you'll need to take another of the Airport Express shuttles (now loaded with people who've just gotten off flights, coming in the reverse direction), and figure out which shuttle gets you closest to where you'd like to end up.
In our case, we wanted to be near the Nathan Road subway stations, so took one of the lines which looked like it would get us there. However, as it turns out, this particular bus (yes, it was apparently one of the more popular lines, and was thus operated using a full coach/bus instead) ended up slowly stopping and winding around several of the hotels along Canton Road (i.e. just down the road from the Harbour City mall). Stopping first at the Prince Edward (? or was it another prince?) Hotel.
Since we did kindof have an appointment to make but still wanted to get some sightseeing done, we ended up getting off there, and trying to walk to the nearest station to save time instead. At this point, I should mention one of my lasting impressions from this trip: It's quite a feeling when, stranded in a slightly unfamiliar location within a place that you've only been spending time in for a few days, to then quickly being able to navigate back towards parts you're only recently become familiar with and then proceed to zip off towards your target while dodging flocks of people sometimes moving in the opposite direction, and perhaps moving even faster at times than the notoriously fast moving locals! Better than the locals at their own game... Yeehaaw! Perhaps I could live here someday as a second home, if only for a few months/years ;)
Times Square is located in the Causeway Bay district IIRC. It hosts the annual New Year's countdown party (much like the one in the Big Apple, i.e. New York, does). In recent months, the streets around it also gained the slightly dubious honour of having the world's most expensive land/rent. As such, it is now mostly home to large big-name shops, electronics brands, and Japanese restaurants. Sadly though, this also means that many of the traditional shops (including Michelin starred wonton restaurants) which make up the majority of the distinctive cultural/culinary aspects of Hong Kong are lost. "50 years without any changes"... what complete and utter BS. The cultural, economic, and political steamroller at work. Gah.
After leaving the MTR at the Causeway Bay station (according to Wikipedia; TBH, I was a bit confused at this point about which exit exactly I ended up at), you are directed by signs along a winding series of narrow stairs (with pinkish-red tiles). Unlike in other parts of the MTR network, there are no escalators in this part, so you have to trudge up these stairs along with a dense horde of other commuters, while sweating like a pig from the exercise but also the lack of cool air in these parts.
Eventually, you're directed into a long and broad tunnel/passageway, with a modernish decor including dark/black ceiling, beige flooring (IIRC, these were probably floor tiles, but may have also been just the plain vinyl/smooth stuff they use everywhere else). Finally, there is a bit of soothing air con wafting around - it's just barely noticeable (especially compared to the the air con inside various restaurants which can get positively bone-chilling) but is relaxing nevertheless - while on either side, you're bombarded by large glossy ads covering the walls. Each of these ads is 2m tall, and 5-8m wide. While some advertised beauty products, the vast majority were for the Canon EOS M. This tunnel just seemed to go on and on and on, with multiple bends (usually towards the right), a constant gentle slope upwards.
Finally, after walking, and walking, and more walking, you finally arrive right in the middle of an open air square (according to Wikipedia, the aforementioned tunnel is known as "A1"). Welcome to Times Square!
Overall, Times Square is quite a small, narrow space. On one side, there are these modern looking towers (as shown above) and a little courtyard. This is boarded by a narrow one-way street filled with taxis. On the other side, there are some older-style buildings, which admittedly look quite run down, but are home to many different stores on ground level, including a few jewellery stores and even a McDonalds.
A pitiful little "rooftop garden" (of bamboo, nonetheless) on one of the apartments nearby.
At the time, they had a Lego Christmas wonderland exhibition on display. Apparently, they routinely have different visiting displays on show there, at least over the Christmas period.
Another view of the nice snowman :)
Lego Man on the Clock Tower - Far end of Times Square
Some of the standalone displays:
The Three Wise Santas welcome you - These stood at the start of the exhibit
Little Red Riding Hood
Inside the huts:
The classic 4-quarter windows on one hut - carrots and rabbits...
Lego (TM) Door Knobs
We have mice!
Mmm... Cake... All made out of Lego too!
See... I told you so! This is so neat!
That afternoon, we had arranged to meet up with some long lost relatives we'd only recently serendipitously happened to come back into contact with. But first, we needed to head over to the Melbourne Plaza in Central District, where we'd agreed to meet up. Cue attempt to hail a taxi, and the long slow ride out (traffic was quite chocker, as it was lunchtime during a business day - i.e. the only hour most office dwelling types get to leave their cubicles in a rush).
Along the way, I spied several really interesting looking shiny office blocks (apparently these are right next door to the High Court), whose geometric complexity was really eye catching...
There were also some more traditional buildings (which I'd seen the previous days, but didn't quite manage to get a good shot of in the low light/fast traffic)
A bank and tram
Finally, we arrived in the heart of the Central District. There were people everywhere, but the traffic was probably worse...
From the central district, we caught a taxi up and around the hill to the Pok Fu Lum area, which houses a few notable institutions including Queen Mary Hospital (which sits right at the top of the hill), and Hong Kong University (which is scattered all over the hillside, with dorms in one cluster, a brain/psychology research centre in a newish cluster near the hospital, and so on).
There we had lunch with some relatives at one of Le Meridien's restaurants (IIRC, it was called Prompt). Le Meridien is a fancy new fancy new hotel which was developed as part of the Cyberport complex (more on this a bit later), and Prompt is one of the two or three restaurants operating there (as well as a gym). While the other restaurant apparently serves Chinese cuisine, Prompt offers western-styled offerings, including both A la carte and buffet options. I can't really speak of the quality of the set lunch offerings (though IIRC these involved some combination of soup/salad, and something or other main). However, there were some rather nice buffet offerings. In particular, their pan fried sole fillets with a white sauce were excellent, as were the sauteed vegetables, and all of this went quite well with some of the pieces of deep-fried bread roll that were dusted with a coating of icing sugar (Note: In retrospect, it occurs to me now that this was probably some kind of French Toast, as there was a bowl of custard/condensed milk sitting beside this, and it was all placed in the desert section. Nevertheless, it's quite an interesting and nice combination). Beside these bread rolls, they also had a chocolate fountain which I'd originally been interested in trying out... that is, until I watched in horror as a little munchkin proceeded to stick his grubby little finger into the stream of flowing chocolate and have an impromptu taste test. ;)
It was great meeting some relatives I hadn't seen before over lunch. In particular, I spent some time having a chat with a cousin, Jan, who works as an freelance illustrator. Check out some of his work over on tigerknight.com
Now, as I mentioned earlier, this hotel and restaurant were part of the Cyberport development. This modern development resulted in the creation of a complex featuring not only a luxury hotel, but also a connected shopping centre, residential units with stunning views out to sea, and the glass-box trappings of a high-tech office park which were located just outside Prompt (see below).
A little water feature...
If you follow this stream and take the escalators down, you'll end up in a little shopping centre. Compared to many of the other big-box centres in the central areas, this was a lot quieter and unique. The architecture here was quite interesting, with a central tower thing holding up the ceiling, and these sun-sails stretched across the ceiling.
Distinctive tower rising out of the top of the shopping centre
Around the corner, there was a darkened stairwell, with red trims and low atmospheric lighting on the edge of the steps, creating quite an interesting atmosphere. IIRC, there was a cinema located around this area.
As it turns out, my great grandparents are buried at the Pok Fu Lum cemetery (officially known as the Chinese Christian Cemetery) nearby. This is quite a sight to behold, as it stretches right down and across a sloping hillside, with headstones laid out in a terraced/amphitheater layout. It is located just across the road and in the shadow of the hospital (quite handy eh?)
Due to its size, you have to be careful to remember which entry point is nearest to your destination, or else it could turn out to be quite a walk (warning, some of the stone stairways tend to be a bit steep). In the case of the ancestors I was visiting that day, the entry point was on Victoria Road (i.e. the lower road bordering the cemetery - the other one is Pok Fu Lum Road up the top - which bisects the main cemetery from a little smaller patch of graves further down). In particular, on the lower part of the road, there is a green shop selling flowers and other things like that, while across the road, there's a little pavilion (high up on top of a raised stone wall).
Florist store on lower side of road, and the high wall on the right where the rest of the cemetery is
The high wall and pavillion
Stairway leading up to the cemetery - quite a steep walk at times...
Just as we crossed the road and started trying to walk up those stairs, it started to drizzle, so we took briefly took shelter under the pavillion. After a minute or so, the rain seemed to ease up, and it seemed safe to finally continue our visit over to the grave stones. Or so it seemed...
Within seconds of reaching the headstone, the heavens started bucketing down. Absolutely, drenching, soaking, pouring down. Considering that I wasn't wearing a waterproof jacket (unfortunately, I hadn't brought along any, since most of the time rain = cold in Christchurch, but here in Hong Kong, you could have rain + hot + sticky so none of my jackets wouldn't have worked; besides, it was supposed to be good weather in November, not a whole week of humid rain! So, lugging a heavy and bulky jacket in my luggage didn't seem like such a great idea at the time), and that I'd practically be stuck in whatever I was wearing at the time for another whole day and a half until I got home, this rain could not have come at a worse time.
Finally, after paying our respects in the pouring rain, huddled under a few small and flimsy foldable umbrellas (which turned out to be quite a challenge trying to keep several people dry while simultaneously trying to bow in unison without getting wet, dropping the umbrellas, or having them collide into each other), the rain started to abate just as we started to leave the cemetery. Hah! What luck! (or perhaps great grandma and grandpa were pleased to finally meet me)
BTW, I have to praise my camera's water sealing. Apart from a few prior run ins with a few little bits of snow falling on it, this would probably have to be the first time it really ended up having the elements thrown at it. There was water everywhere over the body (despite my best efforts to shelter it). Fortunately despite all this, it handled all this well, and was able to be easily mopped dry again once we got back inside to our relatives' home, where we dried off and spent more time having a good chat.
Airport Express - Train Trip to Airport
Hong Kong Station
Before long, it was already 5pm, with darkness setting in. With a flight to catch around 7pm, that meant it was time to head off to the airport. Fortunately, our relatives gave us a lift down the hill to the Hong Kong Island train station, as taxis were relatively few and far apart in that area, and especially around that time of day.
This train station, like many other pieces of civic transport architecture in Hong Kong built over the past two decades or so had a sleek and modern interior, with silverish panels, high ceilings, and tall and wide "glass wall" frontage. It also had an Apple store on the second floor, complete with the iconic glowing white logo, and legions of customers fawning over the latest iFondleSlabs (TM) ;)
From the ground floor lobby, you need to take a lift two levels down to reach the Airport Express platform. Either before entering the lift, or perhaps just before stepping onto the platform to board the train, you'll need to scan your ticket/Octopus card again to get on (I can't remember exactly which one of these it was now). Since we had originally checked in at the Kowloon station, IIRC, the machines may have deduced an additional amount for fare difference (since the Hong Kong Island stop is essentially the start of the line, and involves crossing under the harbour - see the route-map photo below...)
The Train Trip
Unlike the standard MTR trains, this line is operated using a sleek-looking, white-coloured train. Also, unlike the standard trains, the carriages are populated with rows of 2x2 seats (light purple and padded), thin blue-green carpet, and have soft white decor everywhere. After a week of stainless steel, standing-room only cabins, this was quite a culture shock at first (though not necessarily a surprise, since I'd travelled on this service before 2 years earlier, heavily jetlagged and groggy like a deer in headlights). There were a decent handful of passengers on the train who were mostly foreign tourists with massive backpacks.
Overall, it was quite quiet in the cabin, with only an occasional "plodding" noise when some of the bogeys hit the little discontinuities/bumps in the track that are ever present, or the high pitched whooshing sound you get when passing through tunnels. Notably though, every time the train slowed/sped up, there would be a few seconds where there would be this eerie silence, where the train/engine noises seemed to cut out completely, leaving a weird floating feeling. Inside the cabin, one or two Russian-sounding ladies could be heard quietly chatting in the back; but apart from that, everyone else practically kept to themselves, with some engrossed in books, others listening to music, and others yet just zoned out.
For much of the initial parts of the ride, there was nothing to see outside the windows, as we were practically whizzing around through underground tunnels at high speed. In fact, to get from the Hong Kong station to the Kowloon station, trains have to travel underneath Victoria Harbour - a journey which takes just over 5 minutes (Note: for comparison, the Hong Kong to Kowloon leg took just under 10 minutes, and the entire journey took about 30 minutes).
However, by the time the train neared the "Tsing Ye" (TBH, I've no idea where exactly this is, though the little flashing metro map suggests it is about halfway between everything), slight glimmers of darkened sky and sodium lamps started flashing past outside. Suddenly, there were a few squarish buildings with many glowing windows, grey and red walls, and the letters, NWS, boldly plastered across the side. These soon gave way to some of the giant shipping crane structures I'd seen on the ride out from the airport whizzing past...
Further along, some apartment buildings started flashing into view. Every time I arrive in Hong Kong, I'm always quite amazed and shocked by these towers, which, with near identical design, are often arranged such that they form these towering walls, with mesmerising yellow and cyan specs plastered randomly up and down their darkened forms.
Arrival at the Airport
Finally, the train eventually pulled into a structure with a covered platform, conjoined to another, much larger structure, with a very distinctive appearance: on the left, stood the Hong Kong International Airport Terminal 1 building, and on the right (where we were) was the transport hub. As in all modern terminal designs, departures are one the first floor (i.e. at the same height as the train tracks), while arrivals are on the ground floor (i.e. the atrium we walked through when leaving the terminal to catch a taxi was right below us).
Upon coming to a stop in front of the terminal, the loudspeakers broadcast a generic voice telling passengers to turn and leave the train on the LHS for T1, and to head to the RHS (and/or perhaps cross some or other overbridge) to get to T2 (IIRC). From here, you walk straight across the platform, and follow the sloping walkways to end up in the check in hall.
As this post is now getting quite long, the departure and flights home will be covered in the upcoming installments.