China for westerners

Hong Kong, metropolis in special administrative area. It is neither completely Chinese nor British any more. For me it is well known gateway between China and the rest of the world, a place where you can get export goods for nearly half of its retail price, like my Rigol DSO or DDS wave generator. I took an opportunity to be assigned for a short work there in June, curious to see a tip of an iceberg of Chinese culture.

While many documentary TV programs praise Hong Kong docks for high throughput I have to admit it was the same with the airport capabilities: massive infrastructure and virtually no lines to passport control comparing for instance to Chicago/US or Riyadh/KSA where you are queued for 2 hours on average. Another surprise was express train from airport to the center for fair price of 90HKD, departing every 10 minutes and taking only 30 minutes to get to most distant location.

Even though Hong Kong in no longer British colony, you can find a lot of heritage like traffic rules: yellow number plates and intersection horizontal markings not allowed to stop, as well as for humans: keep left on staircases; also coins struck before 1997 with queen of Britain on front side. Finally English signs and names everywhere, a westerners’ heritage that helps a lot if you are not fluent in Cantonese.


Subtropical climate was noticeable to maximum. Early June, temperature around 30*C, thunderstorms and rainfalls day by day and humidity over 70%. Reminiscence of Dubai become true last day of my stay when humidity reached 90% and I was trying to have a sightseeing. Trying and failed because in an hour my clothes were completely wet of my perspiration and I got to the dangerous point of overheating.  Weather forecast I checked before travel ensured my decision not to take skate boots with me this time.

On the other hand getting wet by rain late evening was quite pleasant. Unusual experience comparing to showers even in summer in Europe which are still quite cool. Rain with temperature close to warmth of body would not brush me out of streets if clothes would not become sticky feeling uncomfortable. I also had to protect my DSLR that is not waterproof.

Indoor and outdoor air conditions was so drastically different that I could see it on my camera. DSLR taken from dry and moderate cool room to street with much higher temperature and humidity reaching saturation point immediately triggered condensation covering body and lens with a mist. Cleaning cool front glass was ineffective, it momentarily fogged up. DSLR is quite massive and was warming up quite slow, from a quarter to nearly half an hour to make camera operational. On most extreme day even internal parts of my all-round Sigma lens get mist on internal glasses. Thinking too fast I wanted to warm up lens and body detaching glass; all I got in turn was a mist on mirror, prism and sensor. To recover from this damaging environment I immediately stepped back to one of air-conditioned buildings and waited until everything dried up again.


My food experience has not started well. I reached hotel thirsty and I was glad to see complimentary bottles of mineral water in my hotel room. Glad until I tried it: strong chlorine taste and echoes of iron made it closer to tap water than spring source. Fortunately bottled water from market nearby was much better.

Also randomly chosen cheap restaurants were misunderstanding: first night after long flight I was tired and hungry yet decided to try out something new. I picked up one of places crowded by locals, browsed menu and picked up beef stew. It would be OK if not marked as ‘spicy‘. I did not do my homework to check that what is spicy for westerners is just tickling for Chinese. Waiter asked my how spicy I want and I said delicate (should say not spicy at all). The dish looked and smelled good: noodles, green herbs with slices of beef meat inside. I was unaware that red shreds grouped around bead of fat on surface: chili pepper or something even more damaging to taste receptors. I have not noticed how spicy it is taking pieces of meat first, they were hot and good.

Then I wanted sip a bit of soup. First spoon made my eyes round, second spoon (taken after first one before chili played with receptors) was enough: I started crying, closed eyes and felt like my lips are cut by sharp razors. Next 30 minutes was longest time I have ever taken a small plate of soup. Every one or two spoons I had to take breath, sip a water and breath deeply. I tried not to capitulate but I finished large glass of water too fast, I had runny nose and round red burned lips; I left half of it and went away :]
The other day I picked another place and ordered classic pork&rise with some vegetable fried in the oven. The dish was completely different than picture of it in menu, I should know: big heap of rise perfectly covered with thin layer of tomatoes, pineapples, sauce and shreds of pork meat. I took 1/4 and left white pile of rise.

Hopefully locals told me where to go and I could taste more typical dishes during lunch time next to the office. Most of them were really tasty, like duck in different styles. I had to accustom however to a way they prepare meat: in western countries meat is cleaned from veins, tendons, mostly from skin and bones too. Chinese take it all, chopped into pieces and fried as it goes. Hotel breakfast also offered choice of local taste, I could try “dim sum” that is quite expensive in restaurants. I tried also “snacks” served from small kiosks on the streets: sea food on sticks like octopus arms, crab claws, fish balls , or more unusual tastes like pork skin deeply fried, beef lungs cut into pieces and other things I would not even think about.

Most exotic food I wanted to try was what I recalled from my college time; once my teacher told us a story of trip to China when he was trying egg buried in ground for weeks until it gets rotten and turn black. With help of Qi, colleague from Beijing visiting Hong Kong to join my class, he could find a place using purely Cantonese (no English) where they serve dishes with century egg as it is called. We took rise and chicken thick soup with pieces of black egg inside. It took me a minute to lift up a spoon with egg to smell it and then taste it. Smell was hidden by soup and I decided just to take it (I had Chinese tee on side, just in case of flushing taste receptors). To my surprise it was good, white part that was brown and jelly, tasted like… gelatine, while yolk that had different tints of black tasted like yolk mixed with sulfur and some other strange but not unpleasant flavors. I was happy I could busted a myth of rotten egg I have heard years ago.

Big Buddha

Having weekend day free I decided to go to Lantau island where the biggest Buddha monument has been built. Due to perfect public transportation, from Tsim Sha Tsui district I was living it was only 30 minutes by metro to get to the borders of Lantau island, and then another 20 minutes by cable-way straight to the temple in Ngong Ping. Cable car is nice experience: for 160HKD round trip you can relax nearly 6km journey in the air. First crossing a shallow bay to climb up the green mountains to go up and down between tops right to the village surrounded by green steamy forest and blue sky. Crossing the bay in crystal cab (a gondola with glass floor) allowed me to observe hundreds of people at work picking up mussels from shallow muddy sea bed and later on those who choose a walk couple hours in subtropical forest to Lantau center a pathway along the cable line.

I knew that Tian Tan was a commercial project, place of cult surrounded by small souvenir and devotional items’ shops. Starbucks and Subway on a way between tram station and the temple is speaking for itself. I have similar observations for places or catholic cult in Europe, so I did not feel surprised. I could not feel atmosphere of ancient authenticity of Big Buddha but the temple nearby was less attractive but more neutral in perception. Despite the colorful facade looking a bit cheap and tacky, I was not irritated if I needed to pay for incense instead of Big Buddha internal rooms entrance fee.

Tiananmen anniversary

Monday, 4th June, was 23rd anniversary of bloody events during turmoils on Tiananmen square in Beijing. Locals told me it is long tradition of hongkongers to commemorize and fall into reverie, to unite with people of China midlands, who cannot freely express their thoughts and wishes. The gathering was going to happen in Victoria Park and thousands of people were expected. I could not resist to join the movement and get into reporter’s shoes, especially that communism was my real experience too: in 1981 we had martial law in Poland, tanks and army was also on streets. Together with Qi we took a metro to get to Victoria around. Metro is usually crowded, but the Victoria station was jammed to the level people could not get out of wagon because a way out was not capable to pump masses up to the surface. Streets nearby where jammed too; political activists and leaders standing on podiums were shouting asking to join the movements, names of fractions like like “people power” with logo of clenched fist were speaking for themselves.
  Slower and slower we got to one of park alleys and stuck. Crowds were standing all over around. I could not see much and we pushed through the crowd to more distant part of part, far away from metro station. Intuition did not let me down, we found more place and better view on fields of cadles fired as a sign of memory and bond. Police were saying about 60 thousands people, while unofficial sources rated it much higher, nearly 180 thousands of people. Newspapers highlighted also regime way to stop cherishing commemoration – censored internet, blocked blogs with a word “tomorrow” in entries made 3rd June etc. In Europe we do not see that much of how China is really ruled.

Public transportation

Octopus card is a RF-ID prepaid card for public transportation. I did not want to pay additional 50HKD of pledge only for metro ticket but I did not know it can be used not only for metro, buses, taxis or parkings, but also for lunch bars and restaurants. Traveling every day from Tsim Sha Tsui to the office in Honk Kong island was around 11HKD (2USD) each way; with octopus card 20% less, if you travel intense or plan stay longer, do not hesitate, go after octopus.

Metro is clean, fast and air-conditioned, crowdy though. In rush hours you have to wait in line to get to the wagon, usually skipping one or two every-minute cars. I like industrial areas (especially for urban skating) however after couple days I felt overwhelmed by thousands black-hair short slant-eyed people walking towards any possible direction. What caught my eye were people wearing air-masks. I hardly believe it can really prevent from getting illness. It can help other way round – I have seen displays in metro saying “are you sick? do not spread, put a mask on“. I liked that idea of taking responsibility for others in high-density areas.

Air conditioning of hotel and metro was not enough to get dry to the office. Ten minute walk in the morning outside was making me wet enough I wanted to change my shirt. Third day I gave up and decided to take taxis in the morning. Costs was obviously incomparable – 120HKD plus tunnel entrance fee 20-40HKD. Despite moderate traffic, taxi was not faster even including walking distance to metro, mainly because taxi had to drive around either east or west to underwater tunnel. The only benefit was comfort. Fair enough, company was paying anyway.

Mong Kok

Hong Kong was always mecca for electronics shoppers. I was looking for smart phone replacement and canon lenses but prices in Tsim Sha Tsui were not encouraging. Local people advised me to go to Mong Kok district, full of dedicated shops with electronics, clothes and plenty of restaurants. Prices were lower indeed, to my surprise however they were still higher than prices in central Europe. On some items it was even 20% higher. I think this is due to stronger HKD comparing to Euro and to even weaker PLN in Poland. Failed on hunting I got back to hotel upset.

Victoria Peak

Lastly I wanted to take night shots of Hong Kong from highest viewpoint in area – Victoria Peak – getting something similar to this. When I got to the “peak tram” station I had to make my mind if I am really desperate – the line of people waiting in line was marked “40 minutes from here”. Worse thing was that corridor to tram was neither air conditioned nor had any fan; the air was still and after 3 minutes at the end of line streams of sweat were crossing my back, face and other body parts (just to recall, over 80% humidity and 28*C at 7pm). This time I gave up. As always it is one of reasons to get back. Some day, when the exchange rate is better.


High resolution panoramas stitched with Hugin:

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