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Hong Kong…an ultra-modern oasis in Asia and more reunions

Sunday, May 28th, 2006

2 days before our arrival in Hong Kong, Rachel (our old friend from Prague and gracious hostess) warned of us an impending monsoon, Chanchu. We weren’t sure exactly what we were in for; the day of our flight we checked the news/schedules several times….. was going to pass Hong Kong and hit southern China. Our flight was to Shenzhen, a town just near the border with Hong Kong.  When we arrived around 8 in the evening, the weather was clear and cool.  First we had to catch a bus to the central train station. Then we had to pass through a maze of immigration and controls to enter the SAR or special administrative region of Hong Kong; one hour of administration to enter the same country.  Then, per Rachel’s instructions,
we caught a train and the metro to get to her apartment, conveniently located near “Central” on the island of Hong Kong.  When we emerged from the metro station a little after 11pm, we were greeted with a feast of colored lights, decorating the thousands of high-rise buildings that made up the city. We decided to make the 20 minute trip to Rachel’s place on foot, not realizing that part of what makes Hong Kong so attractive are the many hills giving shape to the city.  We finally found her place, on the 18th floor of a bright purple building. 

The monsoon hit southern China and left Hong Kong with cooler temperatures and two days of exquisitely beautiful weather. Thursday morning we did a small walking tour in the quarter where Rachel lives.  The contrast of modern and traditional life is at its fullest here.  We began the tour with a visit to the Western Market, an old fruit and vegetable market now a small shopping center with boutique shops. Just in front you can watch the double-decker trolleys pass carrying tourists and businessman alike.  Nearby in the Western District, we visited numerous shops selling traditional Chinese medicines, including ginseng and bird’s nest (I still don’t know what that is) as well as all types of dried seafood and mushrooms.  We continued down Hollywood Boulevard with its antique shops selling oriental treasures and the markets of the side streets selling everything from chopsticks and ceramic bowls to old Mao/ communist regalia.  We decided to catch the Star Ferry over to Kowloon, the part of Hong Kong on the mainland. From the ferry terminal we walked along the waterfront by the enormous, modern Cultural Center, the hotel Peninsula, the Space Museum, the Fine Arts Museum and the Avenue of Stars, a mini Hollywood Blvd, sporting the hand prints of Hong Kong film stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.  From there we walked down Nathan Road,  a enormous shopping Blvd sporting everything from Indian tailors to Gucci and Rolex.  Fabien and I stopped at every other electronics shops checking out the price of the latest iPod.  We ate dinner on the patio of a an upscale Chinese restaurant, delicious but probably the most expensive Chinese meal we ever ate.

Friday morning, we woke up to beautiful sunny weather. Rachel recommended we take the tram up to Victoria Peak. (It’s famous for being cloudy, but we might have a chance for some excellent views.) We started with a walk to Hong Kong Park, where we visited the Flagstaff house, a British colonial house now a museum on Chinese tea.  Then we caught the tram to make the 557m/1500ft climb up to the peak. From the top, we did have some spectacular views of Hong Kong Island and Lantau Island. Below us a sea of skyscrapers surrounded by blue ocean. We followed the path down the hill, a nature/ fitness walk with signposts describing the natural surroundings as well as giving fitness advice. We navigated our way back through the city to Rachel’s place where we took a short break. Then we met up with Rachel to watch the sound and light show from the Harbour front. Every night there is a show lights on selected skyscrapers on the opposite side of the river. From there we went back to Soho, the cozy little restaurant district, to eat at a Malaysian/Thai/Indian fusion restaurant. Friday night, and it was packed…Hong Kongers like to eat out.   

On Saturday, Rachel was sworn in as a Hong Kong lawyer. We went with her to the Supreme Court to see the ceremony. Each lawyer was presented by a colleague who gave a short speech and some of them were quite elaborate and funny. We were also amused by the wigs that some of them still sported. After the ceremony, we caught a bus across town to Stanley Village. Here we met up with a bunch of Rachel’s colleagues who were training for the Dragon Boat Races. The Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated every year in June or July in Southern China. (It’s also celebrated in Laos.) Each boat consists of about 20 rowers, a coxswain and a drummer. The bow is decorated with the head of a dragon. In addition to the local races, Hong Kong companies have their own competition, and Rachel’s company will compete.  We got to join in a practice, one hour of race scrimmaging in rough, windy conditions. By the end, we were soaking wet and exhausted. Luckily, her company also owns a 40ft powerboat; we spent the afternoon eating (BBQ) and relaxing on the boat. The only thing that was missing was the sun. Our beautiful weather had disappeared and the clouds and rain had returned.  Before heading home, we stopped at the Stanley Market, where Fab and I picked up a few last minute souvenirs, including kimonos and a beautiful little Chinese style dress for my niece.    

On Sunday, we decided to take the ferry over to Macau, the former Portugese territory which is now an SAR (special administrative region) of China like Hong Kong.  This entailed passing through customs and immigration again. Macau is famous for two things, one its Portugese architecture and village-like feel, and two, the casinos. Luck was not on our side, and we spent most of the day visiting the island in the pouring rain.  It reminded me a little bit of Goa, the Portugese area of India, with its pretty cathedrals.   

Our last day in Hong Kong, also the last day of our trip and the day before a long flight back to Europe. The weather was still pretty rainy, but we managed to get back to Kowloon where we visited the market area: the bird market, the flower market, the goldfish market, the ladies markets, etc. We ate a big bowl of hot noodle soup for lunch then we got haircuts (so we could return to France looking decent, not too mention it was ¼ the price.)  This kind of day is always difficult, the end to something so amazing that we worked a long time to be able to do. At the same time, so many good and exciting things await us at home and we will always of the memories (not to mention the 8,000 photos and the souvenirs.) In fact, it’s not the end of the grand adventure, it’s just the beginning.

Beijing…a visit to the Chinese capital and a reunion with old friends

Sunday, May 28th, 2006

When we arrived Beijing was in a thick fog, we couldn’t see the runway until the last minute, and it was a balmy 13 degrees. (Not exactly the Asian weather we were used to.) We took a taxi to Bruno’s apartment where we met up with Seunghee, his wife. After a bit of catching up, they took us to a popular expats bar where we had a couple of beers and played a game of darts. I discovered a bar sport that I’m actually good at.  I won the game and since then I’ve been addicted to darts.

Our first full day was sunny and beautiful.  Several days of heavy rain had washed the sky clean of the ever present smog and the temperature was perfect.  First stop the bike repairman and the market where Fabien and Bruno bought a 4th bike. It’s cheaper to buy one than to rent one, and it’s unquestionably the best way to visit the city. (That is, when the air is clean.) Navigating your way through the other bikes, the pedestrians, the buses, cars and motorbikes is madness, but Saturday morning was manageable, not too much traffic and breathable air. Bruno took us to the Lama temple, one of the largest and most beautiful Buddhist temples in Beijing.  The temple/monastery was built in 1732 for Tibetan lamas. Bruno and Seunghee wanted to know if it resembled the Tibetan monasteries we had visited in northern India. It was hard for us to say, we recognized numerous elements from other temples we had visited, but we couldn’t remember which ones. After 8 months of our self-guided tour of world religions, I’ve determined you need a phD to sort this stuff out.  From the temple we biked around the Tartare town, a quarter in the center of Beijing of one-storey, square residences, known as siheyuan. As we navigated the narrow alleyways, glimpsing a bit of daily life, I had the feeling we had gone back in time.  We climbed up the Tambour Tower (on the edge of the Tartare town) where we had views of the sprawling city, a real contrast of modern and ancient, from the traditional siheyuans below to the enormous skyscrapers that made up the outlying areas. Then we biked to the Beihai Lake where we took a break and had a drink at one of the many cafes along the lake. We finished the afternoon with a visit to the Beihai Park. Unfortunately, the majority of the park, including the impressive white pagoda was under renovation. In fact, many of the sites in Beijing are covered in scaffolding, as the city prepares for the 2008 Olympics. The evening…Korean BBQ and bowling. A fun, full day.

Sunday morning, we rolled out of bed a bit later, the legs a bit sore from the marathon biking the day before. We started the day with an all-you-can eat Japanese/sushi buffet (about 7 euros/person including beer-hard to find that in France!) Then we biked across town to Tiananmen Square, the site of Mao Zedong’s tomb and the unforgettable student protests of 1989.  Fab and I posed for a photo in front of the gates of the Forbidden City with Mao’s portrait ever-present in the background. Next stop Parc Tiantan and the Temple of Heaven. A small green oasis in the middle of the capital (Beijing actually has a lot of pretty green spaces), the Temple of Heaven was the site of the celebration of the winter solstice. Arriving too late in the afternoon, we could only admire the temple from the outside, an imposing structure of 3 tiers.  After another day of sightseeing, we made the last call for happy hour and played a few rounds of darts.  (Women against men this time.)  It was supposed to be an early evening so that we could wake up early to go the Great Wall, but fate was against us…

Monday morning, we were in no state to go the Great Wall, so instead we opted to visit the Forbidden City.  The tour began with the grand entrance facing Tiananmen Square. The ancient city is surrounded on all sides by walls (7m/21ft high.) In total the walls are 960m /2880ft long and 750m/2250ft wide.  The city was occupied by the emperor and his companions from 1420 (when original construction was finished) until 1924, when the last emperor, Puyi, was expelled.  We spent 4 hours exploring the interior, which consists of numerous palaces and gardens. Particularly interesting were the palaces for the emperor’s concubines who were assigned to rungs of a hierarchy in accordance with the emperor’s preferences.  After an intense day of sightseeing, we met up with Bruno, Seunghee and a friend of Bruno’s from work. We went to a Chinese restaurant known for its delicious dumplings.  Another evening of recreation, we went bowling and I finally reached 100. Bowling is definitely not my forte.

Determined to visit the Great Wall of China, we woke up at 6:30 AM, and caught a packed local bus to the bus station. We were on our way out of Beijing by 8:15. Unfortunately, we did not have the direct bus to Simatai, the section of the wall we had chosen to visit. About 2 hours later, we were dropped in Miyun, a city about 30km away from the wall. We tried to find a local bus, but without luck, and our only option was a taxi.  Finally, we agreed on a price and a 3rd passenger, a young British guy who had shared the first bus with us joined us. About 15 minutes into the ride, he realized that he had left his wallet (with all of his money and credit cards on the first bus.) The attempt to explain the problem to the taxi driver was quite funny, as he mimed losing the wallet and his money. The taxi driver tried to help by calling someone (we think the driver of the bus) but with no luck.  We decided to loan him the money to visit the wall and to get back to Beijing.  We finally arrived in Simatai around 12.

The Great Wall of China extends covers 6,700 kilometers (4,163 miles) from east to west of China.  Construction began over 2,000 years ago. It was built as a protective fortress. We chose to visit Simatai because it is one of the least “touristy” sections and most rugged sections of the wall. We climbed a steep section, divided by towers with views on the reservoir and green hills below. It was quite foggy, so the visibility was quite bad, but at the same time it added a sense of isolation.  Probably the same feeling, the watch tower guards had 1,000 years ago.  The return to Beijing was a bit faster, and we finally got back to Bruno and Seunghee’s around 7. Our last evening in Beijing, we went for hamburgers, beer, and our favourite, sport, darts. 

The day we left for Hong Kong, Bruno flew to France and Seunghee to Korea. We were exhausted as we got on the plane, but quite happy with our visit to the Chinese capital. 

More of Yunnan

Sunday, May 28th, 2006
From Lijang we made our way back to Kunming via Dali. The guidebook described Dali as a good place to chill out for a couple of days. We were a bit disappointed when ... [Continue reading this entry]

Fin du voyage

Saturday, May 27th, 2006
Comme vous avez sans doute remarqué, nous n'avons pas été très productifs ces derniers temps. Il faut dire que nous avons été très occupé à Beijing et à Hong Kong. Notre retour en France s'est bien passé mais depuis notre ... [Continue reading this entry]

End of the trip

Saturday, May 27th, 2006

As you probably noticed, we have not been very productive these last days. Actually we were very busy both in Beijing and in Hong Kong. Our trip back to France was good. Now that we are in France, we are even ... [Continue reading this entry]

Lijiang-bis et la poursuite de l’exploration du Yunnan

Saturday, May 27th, 2006
De retour dans notre ville fétiche, nous prenions le temps de récupérer. La journée fût donc relativement calme avec uniquement un peu de shopping et la visite d’un parc au nord de la vieille ville. En cette fin d’après midi, ... [Continue reading this entry]

Tiger Leaping Gorge : nature indomptable (ou presque) et magnifique

Wednesday, May 10th, 2006
Notre depart pour la gorge et le debut de notre trek fut retarde par une affluence plus importante que d'habitude. En effet, arrivee a la gare routiere a 7h, le bus de 7h30 etait deja plein. Heureusement, la Chine n'est ... [Continue reading this entry]

Lijang and the Tiger Leaping Gorge…a Yunnan Paradise

Wednesday, May 10th, 2006

Our second day in China turned out much better that the first. We continued our mad bus trip north. After taking an overnight to Kunming, we caught a bus straight to Lijang (another 9 hours away.) The ride was easy, ... [Continue reading this entry]

Chine : une vraie bonne idee !!!

Wednesday, May 10th, 2006
Notre premier jour en Chine avait ete eprouvant. Encore dans notre bus qui venait de traverser le sud Yunnan a destination de Kunming, nous profitions du soleil et de la vue. Bientot nous arrivions a Kunming, une grande ville a ... [Continue reading this entry]


Wednesday, May 10th, 2006
Hello everyone, China has been an adventure so far. One of the problems we keep encountering is getting access to our Hotmail accounts. Sometimes, I can get in and read the mail, but then I can't write back. Sometimes I ... [Continue reading this entry]