Thursday, 28 June 2012

Hong Kong to Shanghai on the T100 overnight train

This was my introduction to Chinese trains, and the hard-sleeper berth was much more comfortable than I had thought it might be. In retrospect, that's because the trains from Hong Kong attract a different sort of clientele, because the rolling stock on that route is much more luxurious than most Chinese trains, and because getting tickets was simple and orderly.

Dim sum from Tim Ho Wan. These signature pork buns are different than your traditional steamed buns: they are baked to a crisp finish, with delicious crispy caramelization on the bottom. So far as signature pork buns go, they blow away David Chang's Momofuku pork buns.

Customs on the train was simple, as you stay in your car and the officials come to you. The train doesn't leave Guangzhou station until after 6:00, which means there isn't a lot of Chinese scenery to see before it gets dark.

Paddies, mountains, and water dominate.

The setting sun.

The scenery whips by in the twilight.

The train arrives in Shanghai around 10:00 am. The last hour or so (i.e., everything since I woke up) is very urban. I arrived in Shanghai well rested.

Hong Kong's Ping Shan Heritage Trail

The Ping Shan Heritage Trail was the first Heritage Trail created in Hong Kong, in 1993. Although it's easily accessible by MTR, it is worlds away from the city, and feels positively rural in comparison. These aren't just empty words, either, as some people you see and meet along the trail treat you with as much curiosity as you treat their neighbourhood. Some of the older residents look like they go to the city maybe once per year, and are attired not too differently than you might see in rural Vietnam.

The route of the Ping Shan Heritage Trail, from Discover Hong Kong.

The trail is an easy walk, and good for an hour or so of exploring. I visited the morning of my train to Shanghai, and it was a nice and relaxing way to wind up my stay in Hong Kong.

Lilly through the ruin window

A lily grows in the ruins of a derelict house inside the old Sheung Cheung Wai walled village.

Stepping into the walled village was a bit like stepping into an antiquated slum, the sort of thing one might have expected from one of the slum buildings in Hong Kong proper, like the Kowloon Walled City. In Hong Kong those sorts of buildings made some sense, given the expense of the city and the willingness of people to live in those conditions in order to take advantage of the city's opportunities. To see them persisting in such rural settings made little sense, and would have made even less sense if not for the comparative decrepitude of the entire village in comparison to the city.

Yeung Hau Temple.

Both of the ancestral halls on the Ping Shan trail were created by members of the Tang clan. Ancestral halls are essentially temples that venerate a specific line of ancestors, consistent with Confucian beliefs on filial piety.

Temple altar
Altar at an ancestral hall.

Temple roof
Rooftop ornamentation on ancestral hall.

Fish monster on roof
Decorations on the roof spine.

Louvered doors at an ancestral hall.

Circular doorway
Circular doorway at ancestral hall.

Temple interior
Courtyard of ancestral hall.

Potted plant
Who doesn't like a good succulent?

Refurbishing an old home.

Bike and doorways
An old passageway.

Old police station
The old colonial police station. It has been restored to a gorgeous gallery devoted to the Tang Clan.

Tombs around the Ping Shan police station, with the elevated MTR line running in the background and Shenzhen in the distance.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

A day in Hong Kong: Stanley, Aberdeen, Victoria Peak, and some great dim sum

Stanley and Aberdeen

Everyone says you should visit Stanley and Stanley Market. On day four, my final full day in Hong Kong, I decided to. From Central Hong Kong, the best way to get there is via Bus 6, 6A, or 6X.

As a village, Stanley is interesting and pleasant enough. There are some nice beaches, a temple or two, and some interesting buildings including a beautiful Wellcome supermarket in the old Stanley police station across from the bus depot. Stanley Market, however, is a major disappointment, and can be described as nothing more than a tourist market, selling mainly souvenirs and silly tchocthkes primarily to old, white tourists.

Relaxing at Stanley
Relaxing near Stanley Market.

Altar at Stanley
Small covered altar near Stanley Market.

Bus 52 runs from Stanley to Aberdeen.

Aberdeen is well-known for its seafood and fish market. There are floating restaurants in the bay that are also quite popular.

Aberdeen altar
Altar at Tin Hau temple in Aberdeen, near where the bus drops you off.

Through the temple doorway
Looking out from Tin Hau temple.

There's a fish market on the Hong-Kong side of the bay, a short walk from Tin Hau temple. It's a bunch of warehouse-style buildings willed with huge tanks of fish. I don't know when the selling goes on, but there were very few people or workers there when I was, and you could just wander around from building to building.

From just east of the market you can catch a ferry across the channel to Ap Lei Chau island for a couple of HKD. The ferry will dock at an interesting park.

Fishermen displaying their catch
Next to the ferry pier on Ap Lei Chau island. Lower some money in a basket to these fishermen, and they raise some fish for you.

To get back to the city from Aberdeen, take Bus 70 or 4C. From Ap Lei Chau, take bus 90 from the main road in front of the park, Ap Lei Chau Bridge Road.

Victoria Peak

You can't visit Hong Kong without visiting Victoria Peak. The typical way to visit is by taking the Peak Tram funicular, but you can also take the bus. Tickets for the Tram are 28 HKD one way, and 40 HKD return. You can take Bus 1 (minibus) or 15 (double-decker) for about 9 HKD, and you can catch Bus 15 from the Star Ferry pier. I prefer to walk down to HK via the Old Peak Road (there are stairs that lead to it just behind the Peak Tower).

After returning from Aberdeen, I stopped by Hong Kong MTR station for some dim sum at the much-heralded Tim Ho Wan, then took the bus to Victoria Peak. The tram really is much more scenic.

Michelin-starred dim sum
There's a branch of the Michelin-starred dim sum place, Tim Ho Wan, located in Hong Kong MTR Station. No lines or waiting at this location, and even if the food is a bit better at the main location I was extremely impressed by the food and prices. I came back later and bought some for my train ride to Shanghai.

The peak is dominated by two large buildings that are essentially shopping malls. They don't hold much interest for me, as I prefer to walk around outside. Unfortunately I've never been up there by day, as I believe there is decent hiking available. The city is very scenic by night, when smog and haziness is less of a problem.
There's a pedestrian pathway, Lugard Road, just outside the peak observatory that leads northwest along the side of the mountain, offering great views over Central Hong Kong and Kowloon across the bay.

Victoria panorama
The view from Lugard Road.
Panorama with bushes
The farther you go along Lugard Road, the farther west you see.

View through the trees, just behind the peak tower.

After walking down from the peak, I took one of the old-fashioned, double-decker trams back to my hostel in Causeway Bay.

Causeway Bay streets from tram
Traffic in Causeway Bay.

Causeway bay pedestrian crossing
View from the tram at a pedestrian crossing in Causeway Bay. My hostel was just off to the left.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Hiking Hong Kong: High Junk Peak to Po Toi O village

After my successful hikes in Busan and Seoul, I thought I would indulge in some of the trails I had read were available in Hong Kong. The NY Times had extolled the options available in the New Territories, and High Junk Peak in particular was highly recommended.

Getting to the start point is pretty easy: take the MTR to Hang Hau station, and then catch minibus 103 from nearby, getting off at Ng Fai Tin. Alternatively, you can also take minibus 103M from a slightly different spot. Minibus 16 also runs the route, but less frequently. Your options should be shown on the map below.

Hang Hau Man Kuk Lane Park. Hang Hau station is underneath those apartment buildings.

Temple near Hang Hau station
There are some temples and tombs in the hills east of Hung Hua station.

Incense in front of Tin Hau temple.

I walked to the trailhead instead of taking a bus. Be sure to buy some water at one of the shops around Hang Hau station or at a supermarket on the way to the trail.

Map of the trail, from

The trail begins
The path plunges immediately into nature, and it would be easy to forget you're mere minutes from skyscraping apartment buildings.

Looking back
Looking back towards the trailhead.

Tall grass
You go in and out of groves of trees and tall grasses the completely obscure all traces of the city.

360° on plateau before High Junk
360° panorama after the first hill.

The city reminds you of its presence as you go higher and enter open space. It's possible to see all the way to Central Hong Kong and Kowloon.

High Junk Peak
High Junk Peak shows itself.

Tall grass and High Junk
Back into the tall grass.

Starting the ascent
The ascent begins. 

Hiker coming down
Hikers on their way down.

Up the peak
Mid climb.

Beginning to descend.

There's a plateau after the initial descent.

Above Po Toi O village
Po Toi O village from the trail.

Tai Miu temple
Tai Miu temple lies at the end of the trail. It took me just under three hours to get here from the start of the trail, and it could be done in much less time if you don't take 150 pictures along the way.

Tai Miu temple is on the right-hand side of the trail, towards Hong Kong. Po Toi O village is on the opposite, left-hand side. It's a small village absolutely filled with seafood restaurants built on stilts over the water, many of which will seat more customers than there are residents in the village: obviously a popular dining destination (but not when I was there, at 5:30 on a Tuesday afternoon). Each restaurant has a display of live seafood out front, and this was the first time I had ever seen mantis shrimp. They look pretty vicious, and they're transported in individual plastic tubes to prevent them from thrashing about. Compared to Jagalchi, the restaurants here seem more hygenic, although the selection is more limited.
Mantis shrimp
Mantis shrimp in Po Toi O.

Getting back from Po Toi O, you can take minibus 16 back to Hang Hau. It only runs once or twice per hour, though.

Peter Lam has some nice pictures of the trail on his blog.

Train tickets for the T100 to Shanghai

After picking up my Chinese visa in the morning and hiking High Junk in the afternoon, I bought my train ticket to Shanghai. Trains to Shanghai and Beijing depart for one of the cities each day, alternating between the two on each day. I was slightly conflicted about which one I should take. The train to Beijing was abetter deal and would save a fairly long and somewhat costly trip between the two cities, as well as save me some travel time for later, especially since I could leave the next day (Shanghai was in two days). On the other hand, I've never been to Shanghai and it seemed like a bit of a shame to bypass it on my way north. Even though I've heard some fairly poor things about Shanghai, I decided I couldn't miss it. (This kind of fear/regret-based decision making doesn't always lead to the best decisions.)

Although the trains from Hong Kong all leave from Hung Hom station in Kowloon, you can also buy your tickets at a secondary MTR tourist office in Admiralty Station, on HK island.

Fares are quite cheap, given that it takes 19 hours to Shanghai and 24 hours to Beijing, with the upper bunk in a hard sleeper compartment being 508 HKD to Shanghai, and 574 HKD to Beijing (actually, I think the hard sleepers on these trains only have 4 bunks per compartment, so they are really priced for lower and middle bunks only). And unlike most Chinese trains, it's not that difficult to actually get tickets. I booked two days in advance without any problems (and my cabin wasn't full), whereas in China you need to basically book as far in advance as possible and hope to get lucky.
Hard sleeper on the T100, courtesy wikipedia.

Hard sleeper on these trains (or at least the train I took) are nicer than on any Chinese train I've seen. They are actually enclosed at both ends, with only an open doorway (most hard sleepers have the end of the beds facing the hallway exposed to the hallway), and storage in the space over the hallway. I prefer the upper bunk, since it gives me the option of sleeping in, laying down and reading during the day, instead of simply sitting on the bottom bunk (with the middle bunk folded) with the other passengers during the day. Since this is also the cheapest option, it works for me.

Tourist Junk moored off of avenue of stars
Tourist Junk moored by Avenue of Stars, Kowloon.

Another ferry shot. I've got dozens more.

Street level in Causeway Bay, as I walk home after buying my ticket.

My ticket. There's often a discount outside of the high season, so I paid only 467 HKD and not the listed 519.