Posts Tagged ‘hong kong’

Trish and I are celebrating our one year anniversary in Dallas….but this is just the latest stop in a long line of stopovers. As Canadians, we are considered an anomaly. Most people in my country tend to hunker down, build a nest and stay in that one place for life, in the same job, short term vacation, paint the house every five years, have 1.2 children, put a different car in the driveway, buy a house they can’t afford, spend thirty five years trying to pay it off, divorce at least twice…. and never leave their comfort zone until  taken out in a box. Canadians in general are sedentary unimaginative and predictable people. The banks and government love them for acting like sitting ducks.

Many people emigrate,  we are nor immigrants…. we wander by choice. We have zero intention to stay in one place, instead we float in a dish of cream. When the milk runs dry we will  be on our way. In the past ten years in particular, we have been ‘on the road’ so to speak, living in hotel rooms and long stay executive apartments. I particularily like countries that rent furnished apartments by the week, like Australia. It’s liberating to move from one great view to another. I do not want plants or animals tying me down. I have a beautiful wife …why would I need a little furry buddy to assuage my inner emptiness? Aside from Dallas we have lived/ worked in  Paris , Amsterdam, London, Bristol, Beijing, Singapore, San Francisco, Bangkok, Hong Kong, New York, Maui, Helsinki,Denpassar,  and visited many places in between…..prior to that..  long stints in  Fiji and Brisbane homeschooling our son on the beaches. For university prep we gave the boy a top boarding school education and he went on to spend six years living on the campus of a great university. He is very independent and we’re quite proud of that.

The travelers lifestyle got under my skin when very young. I suppose you develop a mindset after a while where ‘home’ becomes a concept rather than a place. Our circle of friends are living around the world rather than the house-frau and her balding husband across the cul de sac. I’m permanently tanned from too much time in the sun, whereas in Canada they’re sounding alarms against the idea of even 15 minutes exposure. My travel flesh is deep and dark. My rotator cuffs  joints in arms and hips are grinding like an old transmission from too much time spent in swimming pools and surf lines…my travel bones are worn. And still I have no want to return ‘home’ and begin collecting china or automobiles….or even worse….take up golf.  This a hell of a lifestyle…. but someone has to live creatively.

Canadians in particular are jealous to the extreme, they covet  and become angry when anyone has something they cannot. It’s a peculiarity of the culture. You’ll find  conversations with Canadians  begin with  identifiers ‘what do you do….where do you live, how much do you make.. where have you been on holiday’? It is a Canadian caste system that defines who you are financially compared to every one else. They’ll want to know if they’re ahead or behind so that they can either envy you or despise you. Vancouver , for example has been polled as being the loneliest, least friendly, and difficult to make new friends in as a city…. there is a large population of people reporting some form of depression and mental illness due to the social isolation. People there are so covetous of anything another might have that they can’t decide to ‘just be normal’.A visitor to Vancouver will notice a desperation to own real estate and a huge number of newly leased cars…. but no theater scene, no music scene, art scene, no cool neighborhoods…..just a lot of miserable people sitting around telling you how great their city is as justification for what they’re paying every month. In fact…it has to be the most miserable , covetous place I have ever been.

But I remind people that what you do in life is a choice. ‘Change your mind.. change your life’… is a phrase that popped into my head when I began my career as a traveler hitchhiking around North America and then branching off to spend decades wandering the world. It works for me…..and if you don’t like where you are…pack a suitcase and go somewhere you do. Hey…it works for us. I guess I’ll have to keep my crown as ….THE KING OF PAIN.

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Trisha and I are a Harlequin set. We match perfectly, in spite of our many obvious differences. I am tall, she is short, she is Asian, I am Caucasoid, she is very smart, me not so much…. we’re both golden blond and that shocks people who first encounter us.  What our hearts hold in common is too numerous to list. Despite our disparities we have managed to stay together for 24 years to accomplish all the things that people are supposed to do until they realize that  most of these things  have essentially been an unnecessary drag.

If I could turn back the clock to pick and choose what I would do over I would start by doing more of the happy things and far fewer of the other instances of nameless drudgery that people do when they think they are  ‘trying to do the right thing’. However, it hasn’t all been for nothing. We managed to retrieve our lives out of the fire-pits of ‘normalcy’ and  create an interesting and fulfilling lifestyle for ourselves and those we love dearly. The learning curve between our practical heaven and the past potentiality for sinking into the earth and sleepwalking until death has been steep.

Before meeting Trisha I had been an unrepentant traveler. I have written in the past that travel had saved my life. In time I had turned my love of travel into a very small business using Adam Smith’s model as expressed in his 1726 book ‘The Wealth of Nations’. I read this work when I was a young boy hiding in the city library  to stay warm during office hours as a respite to my life on the cold streets.I read prodigiously and survived the years that preceded my ability to obtain a passport.

Smith wrote “Take what is abundant and cheap and transport it to where it is considered rare and dear’. I took this sentence to heart and began to import the things I was discovering as I traveled, first to South America and then around the world back to Canada. By the time I met Trisha I was known as a guy who traveled the world full time to supply my boutique customers with exotic merchandise and was in fact a minor local celebrity among those who envied my lifestyle. Don’t forget that these were the days before guide books and backpacker travel hostels, international travel was still considered as ‘out there’.

Mixed race couples at the time were almost unheard of, but we fell hard for each other anyway. What she expected of me at first  I didn’t exactly know. I was wild and free and she was and is incredibly beautiful. We only knew that from the first moment we met that we had been together for thousands of years in previous lives past and worlds apart. We have been inseparable ever since. She had never left the country since her parents had brought her to Canada from Hong Kong as a child and I had a great deep seated fear of ever living on the streets again and couldn’t settle down.

A Hawaiian spirit that I had met as a teenager convinced me to take my bride  to Hawaii and get married on a cliff above the crashing waves on the Maui shore of the Ka’a na pali highland. In a Polynesian ceremony sung above the pounding surf, and with fragrant flowers strung through her hair, Trisha agreed to take another journey with me.

 

 

Many  travelers overlook the benefits of stop over options while enroute to their final destination. Quite often stop over privileges are either free or granted at very low cost by the carrier. I have no such hesitation and make it a point to take advantage of every opportunity to discover a new city or to revisit one I have already fallen in love with and wish to rekindle a quickie romance. Recently I had the opportunity to take a 24 hour stop over in Hong Kong and jumped at the chance. I have been visiting Hong Kong for thirty plus years. I have an endless love affair with this city.

Rapid change has always been the hallmark of Hong Kongs famous harbour skyline. It makes the city seem fresh every time I visit. New buildings stand where old haunts used to be forcing me to take new directions and discover entirely new markets and streets that had eluded me on previous trips. Hong Kong and I are on a constant voyage of discovery. It’s like a marriage, the more we change, the more we love one another.

From the purely selfish perspective of an ‘Old Asia Hand’ I would have preferred they kept Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong as the port of arrival, now that was an airport entrance like no other. The runway was pulled from the water and the flightpath ran straight through the high towers of Tsim Tsa Tsui. On approach the aircraft would literally fly so close to the buildings that you could see people at their kitchen tables reading a paper from out the window of the plane as you descended. Once clear of the buildings the pilot would bank the plane fiercely as if to roll the craft over onto it’s side. From that position of what seemed like a 30% angle all you could see was either sky or water depending on what side of the plane you were seated.

The Kai Tak runway was a skinny strip of asphalt out into the water and short. When the pilot touched down he jammed on the brakes to skid to a stop..welcome to Hong Kong, it was a thrilling way to arrive at this exotic destination. Leaving the airports front entrance was to step directly into downtown Kowloon, you could walk to your hotel in those days. Some did, to make peace after the fear of flying they had just experienced. For many newbie arrivals into HK at the time, Kai Tak was also their first ‘near death’ experience. I count myself as one of those. Old hands rarely spilled a drink knowing what was coming when the plane cleared the last two towers.

Modern Chep Lap Kok airport is boring by comparison. It is much more modern, much larger, but situated on Lantau Island removed from the city by fourty minutes of ultra modern freeway and bridge connection by taxi. The current fare, which is negotiable depending on the number of bags you carry at around $240 Hong Kong Dollars for any number of people. I stay downtown Kowloon at an old favorite, The Nathan Hotel, appropriately named as it is situated on Nathan Road, the main street of Kowloon running from Yau Mei Tai to Tsim Tsa Tsui.

This street is on the subway line, the closest station o the hotel being Jordan Station, a connection to every part of either Kowloon, New Territories and Hong Kong Island can be made from here. The Nathan Hotel and I are old friends. They have undergone a modern renovation and in my opinion is one of the most comfortable hotels in Kowloon. I was very fortunate this time to be granted an upgrade to the Nathans ‘Grand Room’ suite for being a loyal repeat customer. The Bali Room restaurant on the 15th floor was a welcome inclusion to my holiday. I was able to have bacon for breakfast along with many other western delights, included in the room price. If you wonder why I mention this it is because I hadn’t had a western style breakfast for exactly 6 months and this was a real treat.

My wife Patricia and I were on a mission to see as much of Hong Kong in the 24 hours we had allotted ourselves. A requested late check out privilege at the hotel was a big help in our quest. The evening of our arrival began at the airport where we were whisked through immigration by some travel miracle. In about 45 minutes we had taken a cab, driven into the city, checked in to the hotel with an amazing level of efficiency, dropped our bags, donned comfortable shoes and hit the street for our nights itinerary, all within an hour and a half. First stop, Mong Kok, the Ladies Market, so called for it’s traditional collection of women’s clothing stores. But, it is so much more today. Mong Kok is a microcosm of everything Hong Kong. Time Square has nothing on the neon lights of Mong Kok.

The streets are packed with people. There are street hawkers and buskers playing music. New Mong Kok is a great market for electronics and photo equipment. The famous lanes are still excitingly filled with a tremendous variety of clothing, accessories and tourist must haves. Young people by the thousands come to Mong Kok to revel at night, the atmosphere is very lively. I love the snack carts and kiosks that line the streets here in Asia, Hong Kong does this as well as anyone. The food is clean and delicious. This time we found the seafood on a stick to be most to our liking and ate while we ambled along the streets to enjoy the general ambiance.

The evening was greatly enhanced by the Hong Kong transit system. For less that $1 Canadian Dollar , $4 Hong Kong Dollars, we jumped on the train and headed to our next destination after we were sure that we’d had as good a time in Mong Kok as anyone could. Next stop, Yau Mei Tai, the Jade Market street which at night, becomes a open air market of an older Hong Kong style that represents the commerce of an era long past. People come out of their high rise homes and eat in the streets below when it’s too hot to cook.

The subway stop let us come up into the Temple Street North market aka The Jade Market ,and walk straight into this delightful neighborhood. This is an area where at night restaurants place tables out into the pedestrian only street. It’s very gay and bright. Several beer bars and entertainment complexes are pouring music out in the open air. People by the hundreds are dining Al fresco under the warm night sky. This is as romantic a destination as any I have found on my travels around the world. Patricia and I always come here whenever in Hong Kong.

However our destination was several blocks away, past the Taoist temple park where fortune tellers have tents all along the sidewalks for those who seek an insight to their destiny from the gods. We would walk through the gauntlet of hawker stands along the way. These vendors can be selling anything from hardware and appliances to sex toys and antique watches or communist party memorabilia. It’s quite pleasant to be able to walk at night through this uber urban setting and meet with such amicable surroundings. I have never felt anything but safe while walking in Hong Kong and do so without restraint. We were headed to the other Temple Street Market, the really big one, on Temple Street South in the Jordan District. This street is a unique market in Hong Kong in that it not only offers a walk through an amazing assortment of goods for sale, good and bad. But at every cross street corner there are restaurants set up for you to sit down and indulge yourself in a variety of favorites.

My tastes are fairly simple and I had a hankering for a really good bowl of ‘melt in your mouth’ beef brisket in noodle soup with a side dish of steamed vegetables in oyster sauce. The atmosphere is electric, there are people from around the world enjoying themselves. The locals are dominant by the way and this is an authentic Hong Kong experience like no other if are like me and collect such experiences like others collect stamps. You’ll likely find yourself in conversation with complete strangers interested in your travel story. Hong Kong people like visitors. Learn a few words of Cantonese and you’re going to find new friends are easily made.

A little after midnight Pat and I agreed to have an early evening so that we could get up for breakfast at 7AM and do the rest of the town as we saw fit. I had two things on my agenda, the first being the early morning bakery offerings. Hong Kong bakers make the best Dan Tat , Chinese egg custard, in the world. When it’s hot and fresh from the oven there are few food experiences  that can surpass the flavour of a Dan Tat  fresh and being eaten on the streets of the busy city that invented gourmet street food.

I’m also a creature of habit and like to revisit old memories when in Hong Kong. I have to take a ride across the harbour on the ancient Star Ferry. The ferry terminal on Kowloon’s water front hasn’t changed since built in  an earlier century when HK was still an outpost of the British Empire, it’s a veritable time capsule of old Hong Kong. There is no better way to get the full ‘Hong Kong experience’ than from the wooden deck of the Star Ferry. The views of the imposing cityscape is one of the best in the world. This time I rode ‘The Twinkling Star’, she’s a venerable original in the fleet.

My editor has requested that I try to keep my columns  to 2000 words or less. This is not normally an issue, but this week is different. I have recently completed a circumnavigation of the planet in the space of 30 days. I waited a lifetime to do this, 2000 words is hardly enough.

I had always dreamed about circumnavigating the planet. I had coveted those ‘around the world’ tickets advertised in the newspaper travel section since I was a little kid. Some people read the sports page, others the comics, for me it was always the travel section. The idea appealed to me as being the keystone of the travelers Shangri-lah . I could be Cook or Magellan for a paltry $2500.00.It was the dream of a child, $2500 dollars was kings ransom and still is, an impossible dream.

 

It would remain my ultimate fantasy into adulthood. In spite of later traveling to 70 plus countries for business and pleasure over a thirty year period, I had never accomplished to circle the globe in one continuous flight-line. When the opportunity arose I leapt at the chance like a hungry tiger.

Fellow time traveler and captain of my heart Patricia and I spent several weeks plotting out our trip like two blue water sailors pouring over a chart table.We decided to visit as many favorite old favorites as  discover new destinations. We like to kick back in an old haunt and revisit a precious memory or two as much as making new ones. Travel is about relaxing, time on the road carving out new directions can be exhausting, a little ‘hammock time’ is good for your soul.

Admittedly, there are those special moments that make ‘hard travel’   worthwhile when something amazing appears out of nowhere after a long day beating the streets of a far flung capital or a trip through  bus travel hell to some jungle hideaway . One perfect photograph in the can or an idyllic sunset emblazoned on your conscious  is worth a million miles of trekking, bone cracking hours of riding a chicken bus, and the costs and effort of finally ‘being there’. If die hard travelers were a Medieval religious order we’d  be referred to as ‘fanatics’.

Our route would take us west across the Pacific, first to Hong Kong, then Beijing, down to Singapore, Shanghai via Bangkok, across the Russia’s to Helsinki, London, New York and finally to the back of beyond…Vancouver. We decided that we would accomplish all of this in 30 days. The confluence of time and budget were perfect but proposed certain limitations. We would be traveling on Air Miles , most accumulated from previous trips. The flights we booked and the hotels we stayed in had to be carefully picked as part of the ‘One World Alliance’ so that we could take full advantage of the discounts offered.

Day one was a flurry of activity, I was as giddy as a school girl skipping along on a summers day. This was the culmination of a lifetime of desire. My logistics coordinator and chief strategist had booked us on a flight leaving Vancouver at 10:00 PM Pacific Coast Time. This was designed to get us into Hong Kong with plenty of time to drop our bags at our favorite hotel, the Nathan, suitably named, on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon and be in time for a great seafood meal under the stars at the restaurant nexus in the middle of the Temple Street market.

The plan worked out perfectly. The following morning, after a Melatonin induced sleep for jet-lag we hit the early morning dim sum tables in Wan Chai on  Hong Kong island and then sped out to Mong Kok for some quick shopping. We knew HK well enough to have decided to spend an extra day in Beijing instead of hanging around. Chep Lap Kok  airport is only a short cab ride away. Off to Beijing.

Patricia had got a fantastic offer from The Wangfujing Hilton in Beijing on a three night stay. I was impressed by the luxury our budget had been able to buy us. Wangfujing District is central to most of the walking tours that fill central Beijing with options. We decided against the expensive tourist trap called the Great Wall and decided to spend our time with the people of Beijing. We found the famous Silk Road markets to be extensive, the food far too laden with MSG to be healthy and the Forbidden City so fantastic that we spent two full days wandering around like two dazed aliens pumped up on some kind of happy serum.

Singapore is an old favorite. It is a layer cake city, one above ground and one below, each equally as packed with things to do and see as the other. The super humid ground level Singapore is of course incredibly beautiful. The sea wall allows people to enjoy the entire city scape while dining al fresco under the stars while listening to free concerts or watching international street performers entertain the crowds. It is of course , very hot and humid.

But there is nothing like the Singapore experience of taking a tin plate of steaming fresh food from Smugglers Cove or Clark Quay and eating under the view of the famous Merlion water sculpture, the city line and now the new Marina Bay casino with it’s roof designed to resemble an ancient Arab Dhow plying the trade routes which made Singapore what it is. I stayed across the street from the Esplanade at the Mandarin Oriental to luxuriate in their infinity pool and to relive the famous breakfast spread.

 

The underground level of Singapore takes many first time visitors by surprise. In air conditioned comfort it is possible to commute from one side of the city to the other through and underground shopping concourse the likes of no Canadian city has envisioned. Singapore is also a city of neighborhoods. The Indian district centered on Serangoon Road host some of the finest Indian cuisine in Asia. Try the Masala Dosa.

Bangkok is a second home to Pat and I. We would never fly to Asia without staying for a few nights. For this very short visit we stayed in Bang Rak at the Best Western affiliate. The area gives you excellent access to the Chao Phraya river transportation and other transport options, like the Skytrain, to whisk you all over the city in air conditioned style. One train will take you north to Chat a Chak , or JJ market as its called locally.

This fantastic open air retail carnival offers one stop shopping for everything made in Thailand. Bangkok is an international design center and an array of clothing seldom seen in the west can be had for very reasonable prices…quickly. I love BKK for the food and Pat buys eyeglasses  because they are six times cheaper than in Vancouver for styles ten years in advance…’nuff said. Bangkok is a shoppers paradise.

A pollution warning over Shanghai caused us to change our plans at the last minute. We saw why when we landed in Shanghai , the entire city had become enveloped in ‘Brown Cloud’, a recent phenomenon in China where smog is so thick that the levels of toxic particulate in the air become ‘officially’ dangerous to your health. This is a good lesson about traveling anywhere, be flexible and ready for change. We didn’t mind missing Shanghai, it had been one of those ‘new ground’ choices and now we got to reschedule our time in places that meant much more to us.

I was fixated for 15 hours the entire time we flew over Russia. The geography is stunning. I became ‘the leaning man’ on the emergency door beside the rear washrooms, an unmoving sculpture with my face pressed against the double pane of plexiglass looking out at the scenery. Every once in a while the topography would change and I would rush back top my seat and click on the flight map to see which country and mountain range we were passing over. I felt childish, as if I were Marco Polo retracing the Silk Road east to west.

Our destination was Helsinki, Finland, a country we had visited previously and had fallen in love with. Pat and I had sworn to return and travel into the interior to discover the rue face of the Finnish people. The capital Helsinki had been built by an occupation force of Russians and Swedes. The Finnish soul was represented inland we had been told. Finland is an entirely under rated and under visited country.

By nature it has it’s solitudes and it is up to the visitor to discover Finland on it’s own terms.From the tropical heat of South East Asia we landed in Helsinki and it was snowing. We’d packed for this. Like the Boy Scouts, a good traveler is prepared. Our immediate destination in Finland after a jet lag rest in Helsinki was the northern resort town of Levi where were treated to reindeer tethered outside out window and Patricia getting her first case of frostbite. My camera batteries had to be specially adapted to the the polar freeze…what fun! Next we would train to Tempere, the second city of Finland.

London greeted us in the form of our friend ‘Ginger’, a cabbie we always call when we visit. He has ‘the knowledge’ and always knows the most interesting ways to Camden Town where we call home when here. There is no place more characteristically British than Camden Town, or should I say that Camden is more like a caricature than a true representation.  Either way, we love this microcosm of English life. Camden is ‘in the moment’ as they say. Wildly fashionable and derelict in the same moment. The High Street is lined with eccentricities that the average Canadian can’t imagine.

The restaurants and museums of London are truly spectacular. Most grand entertainment is free if you are a gallery, park and museum bug as I am. This trip I trod along the foot path beside the Camden Canal that leads to the London Zoo. I had always wanted to see this first in the world Victorian marvel.

 

I was getting settled in and headed out to Marks and Spencer for more Cornish Cruncher cheese and Hot Chocolate sticks when Patricia reminded me that we would be leaving for New York in the morning. “Anything you buy,” she said, “Is going to have to be eaten between here and there”. I love Cornish Cruncher more than I need sleep so we dined on this delightful specialty into the wee hours of the morning. I’m glad the Americans won’t let me bring any cheese into the country. All the more for me.

Flying into New York is a process, not an event. The security has become onerous. I am an extreme bug-a- phobe and ‘The Big Apple’ is suffering an infestation of bedbugs in every star of accommodation. I chose to stay a half hour away in the AKA White Plains suites which had not had a single reported instance. The quaint town is on the rail line direct to grand Central Station, an easy ride from our hotel.

Manhattan is timeless, we walked the chilly streets downtown towards Washington Square and Greenwich Village for coffee and the street life. Just for fun we visited the Guggenheim in the afternoon. A friend invited us for dinner in Chinatown and we finished with desert at the McDonald’s Time Square to catch the neon displays still there in an area that has transformed itself.

As we looked out at the garish lights Pat and I admitted to one another at how exhausted we were after an entire month on a high speed gambit around the world. Would we do it again, you bet. And that my friends, is how you write an article about traveling around the world in 2000 words or less. 1989 words.I just made it. Whew, I’m exhausted.