Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Hong Kong: Ocean Park

Ocean Park, located in Aberdeen on the south of Hong Kong island, is a strange theme park / aquarium that's been around since the late 1970's. While it's no Six Flags or Disneyland, it does have a strange charm, and stunning views of the China sea. It's aquarium "atole" tank is one of (if not the) largest in the world, filled with GIANT rays, groupers, sharks, eels, tuna, and assorted sea life. The park even has mascots, though the character designs are a bit odd -- a sea lion and a... fairy?

Getting up to the park from the bus drop off consists of 5 slow-moving covered outdoor escalators with cool air and audio greetings in different languages. On the sides are news clips showing the park's historical milestones. Some of the rides are available at the earlier mountain levels, but most are all the way at the top, and others are reachable by the harrowing gondola Sky Ride that connects the two park sections. The only ride I tried (other than the Sky Ride) was the typical log-splash ride, very refreshing in the 100F heat.

Just when you think you might be in some less popular American park, you go to one of the refreshment stands -- reminding you immediately that you are in Asia -- duck legs, octopus balls, soba noodles, dried squid and unfamiliar tea drinks are on the menu along with Coke. Few American foods.

This is not a flat park, and it does require a lot of walking, which feels more difficult due to the heat (in June particularly). I saw a pair of plus-size women (American or British perhaps) who appeared to be having difficulty. Fortunately, my personal training sessions the month before really came in handy here and the rest of the trip. All the insides of the buildings (like most in Hong Kong I visited) have magnficent air conditioners.

Main entrance, before you go around to ascend the escalators:

The Sky Ride: Two cars going in two directions moving peacefully along the mountain, with views of the bay and China Sea.

It's a bit like riding a Christmas ornament, no?

The dolphin & sea lion show (more photos pending) was amusing. Wasn't certain if the marine mammals understood English, Chinese or both, given that England owned Hong Kong for so long and now it was back under Chinese rule. I was surprised to see the opening act, a Caribbean band consisting of one American and two guys who might have been South American (but definitely not Asian).

Sunset over Aberdeen:

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posted by Brian at 10:40 PM 0 comments links to this post

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Hong Kong: The Peak

Victoria Peak (or "The Peak") is this amazingly high mountain reachable by tram that has an air-conditioned mall/observation deck shaped like an Imperial Star Wars vehicle on top, surrounded by beautiful hiking paths, giant man-eating rubber trees, and views of the China Sea. It was clear within minutes of arival that I should spend the entire day and evening there.

Inside the observation deck is a multi-floor mall of souvenir shops, coffee shops (including one that has snagged the best corner glass window looking out onto the skyscrapers below), restaurants, an Internet café, and most importantly, the BEST AIR CONDITIONER IN THE WORLD!

(Ok, I have no idea if it really is, but when you've just traversed blocks worth of 100+ F humid sweaty Communist heat, the shear intensity of commercial coldness enveloping you like an ice pack of Capitalism feels oh so good.)

Nearby, there are hiking trails leading around the top and down to the bottom of the other side (which view Aberdeen and the China Sea). Even though it was hot, the beauty of it all and overpriced caffeine kept me trudging sweatily forward. And I knew that once around again, there'd be that oh-so-nice blast of freezing air. Along the path in parts, mysterious driveways to presumably hidden mansions or resort hotels, some with "for lease" signs. (If I remember correctly, it was $28,000 Hong Kong dollars a month for one of them -- a mere $3,500? Wow! It was $8000 a month for a small place on Telegraph Hill, San Francisco during the height of the Dot.com boom. Maybe one of the man-eating rubber trees has diminished its value.)

Not knowing really where else to see in Hong Kong, I waited until the sun set, as more and more locals and tourists arrived by tram to take snapshots of the city. I heard more English spoken around me than in I had in weeks. Hong Kong at night is gorgeous -- not quite as sci-fi as Shanghai (the buildings being older) but still having animated lighting.

Up next: Forget Hong Kong Disneyland. Ocean Park is the place to be!

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posted by Brian at 12:18 PM 0 comments links to this post

Hong Kong Overview

Hong Kong was an unplanned stop. Had intended to go there, but with my girlfriend and some planning. Unfortunately, my her project got extended and we decided it best I go off by myself. No matter, I had my Lonely PLanet book along with me and Hong Kong should be (so I thought) filled with English speaking people.

After securing a hotel via the train station agency, I got some dim sum and walked around:

Hong Kong is like the San Francisco Bay with a much larger Chinatown. Now, add way more skyscrapers. No, more! Keep adding them. Then, make one of the mountain peaks WAY higher than the others, even taller than those skyscrapers. Make Angel Island and Alcatraz a lot bigger. Cover them with skyscrapers too. Go on, do it. Get rid of the Golden Gate Bridge, and crank the temperature and humidity WAY up. Put an amusement park high up on one of the mountains. No wait, spread it out over two and put a gondola between them.

Good, there you go:

Up next, views from "The Peak!"

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posted by Brian at 11:54 AM 0 comments links to this post

Back to China

After Osaka, I flew to Guangzhou to visit my ex-girlfriend, and then took the train from there to Hong Kong. Sadly, I did not get any photos of Guangzhou, but if you want some idea of what it's like, go see the documentary "Manufactured Landscapes". (It also shows great footage of the old Shanghai, the areas my friends there didn't show me much of, now being paved over with buildings like the ones in the photos I've posted.)

Guangzhou is more what I imagined Communist China to be like. Functional, but not pleasant. By this time in the summer, the temperatures were up to 36 Celsius and 80% humidity. Lots of cement structures, some covered with Microsoft Windows background-like patterns, some with brass birdcage balconies. The Mega Center island is vast, covered with imposing university block fortresses. From the view we had, there's a gargantuan cement freeway that arches up off into the foggy distance and back behind to some unseeable entrance. A symbol of hope, or a reminder that getting off the island is a steep climb? (Actually, there is a subway line but it was closed due to the floods a month earlier while I was there)

We went to a grocery store. There, along with the usual aisles of cereal, coffee and sauces, was the live food section with tanks of big fish, crabs, frogs, turtles... Much like you'd find in an outdoor Chinatown. But for me the big surprise was the frozen crocodile -- its distinctive tail lying there in the ice next to a large fish. We stuck to the small fishes for our dinner, which were delicious.

Downtown, we saw the old art institute (I thought it looked much cozier with its green vines and sculpture garden, but apparently it was too noisy). We visited a shopping district, where one can buy all kinds of insanely cheap gadgets, handbags, toys, and whatnot. We also saw abandoned, unfinished hulls of buildings which failed commercially, or were never completed because the owner jumped off the top to his death, scaring away occupants. Never destroyed either, so they sit there as a perpetual reminder that not all growth is positive.

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posted by Brian at 11:01 AM 0 comments links to this post

Friday, June 29, 2007

Shanghai: The Zoo

The Shanghai Zoo is no San Diego Zoo, but it does have a lovely park feel:

No Asian park I've been to gets by without a swan or two:

Here's a comfy peacock. What I found interesting was that at this zoo, you could also see the female, completely white-colored peacocks, but sadly for you, I didn't take any photos of them. Your imagination will have to suffice.

There are a lot of monkeys of different types. Most them are very good catches. Nobody seemed to mind the signs saying "Please don't feed the animals". So everyone enjoyed tossing random food to them.

This assertive young leopard cheetah came over to introduce himself:

These are the non-Giant pandas, that look very racoon-like. Note the loner in the back.

A solitary zebra:

An elephantian mother and daughter moment:

There were other interesting exhibits. The reptile house had a lovely, lively king cobra that spread its hood (something I've never seen up close in a zoo). Giant sturgeon fish. Giraffes. Hippoes. Seagulls. (Hmm??) Yep, bizarre for me since they are too common here in California, but not native to China. It's like when I went to the London Zoo as a child, hoping to see a hedgehog. They're like pigeons over there. Had to go to the Philadelphia Zoo to see one.

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posted by Brian at 2:22 PM 0 comments links to this post

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Interesting Chinese & Japanese Signage Examples

I was strolling along in Kyoto, looking for temples and a ramen place when I encountered this ominous sign:

Poor kiddies! Look out! There's a giant hand demon with long black fingernails right above you! The sign seems to suggest threats like this can be prevented.

(UPDATE: Actually, this is a sign with a serious message. According to my friend Sam, it's a campaign alerting parents to "Protect your children from strangers." Sad that this is a problem in Kyoto, which felt very safe to me.)

Given this sign found in its pricey but good subway system, Kyoto is home to many Ewoks:

Did not see any riding the train, however. To be honest, I don't know if this is Japanese for "love" or "hate" or "honk for". So it could be this is signage from bitter Stormtroopers now living in Japan.

Then there was this sign in Hong Kong:

How can I do that? My half drunk bottle of Watson's Water is considered a terrorist weapon on local and domestic flights these days. Although I can (and have) certainly brought quite a bit of junk home. Wrinkled subway maps. Museum & zoo tickets.

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posted by Brian at 6:38 AM 0 comments links to this post

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Food in Shanghai: Donbeiren & Late Night Hot Pot

Next it was time to try Chinese food completely unlike any I've seen in America. For lunch, we tried a Manchurian Donbeiren-style restaurant.

Red curtains wishing us all good luck! (I may need it...)

Fried ... something? I can't quite remember what these were. Tasty though:

Translucent noodles made out of bean curd, covered with colorful thinly-sliced vegetables:

Pork joints. Note the straws meant for sucking out the juice:

Manchurian-style dumplings, with various vegetable fillings:

Then on some night we explored a street where locals go to cure their late-night hunger pangs. Here you can get pretty much any kind of Asian food you want:

We opted for a hot pot place, with a most unique Honey, I Shrunk The Kids-like interior:

It was noisy and crowded. There was a recess in our table with boiling spicy oil. Various plates of uncooked ingredients like green leafy veggies, onions, mushrooms, beef, and live (still hopping!) shrimp arrived for us to slide on into the murky depths.

Technically, we do have some so-called Hot Pot places in Los Angeles, but to my knowledge they are Korean, or the Japanese Shabu Shabu variety. In any case, I'm quite certain they don't have giant illuminated mushrooms sprouting up out of the floor like this place.

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posted by Brian at 10:14 PM 0 comments links to this post

Food in Shanghai: Peking Duck

I had the good fortune of having locals show me around Shanghai, without which I could not have experienced the array of colorful culinary concoctions from northern China. Manchurian "donbeiren", Tawainese, Beijing-style, and Shanghai were all on the menu.

One night, we ate what is notably a Beijing specialty, Peking Duck. We took a taxi to a famous place that presidents have visited:

Our hostess, who leads us upstairs to the pending feast:

Duck I am used to, certainly. But unfamiliar to me were the appetizers my friends ordered for us. Duck feet cooked enough to be soft, but still a bit rubbery:

A plate of tiny, still-living shrimp swimming in a sauce. On the right, fried tofu (okay, that I know). In the middle, much more familiar sautéd shrimp:

Ahh. Here we go. The man with the knife rolls in the main course:

After he's done his magic, voila! Peking duck:

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posted by Brian at 10:35 AM 0 comments links to this post

Asian, European, Russian & UFO Architecture in Shanghai

Shanghai is the most architecturally diverse city I've ever been to. While Hong Kong's skyscraper-riddled hills and density make it striking, it's the shear whimsy, cosmopolitan feel, and futurism that excited me about Shanghai. That most sections I went to were filled with people even at night made it seem more alive to me than modern-looking American cities like Los Angeles or Dallas.

We start with the view from my hotel:

Nearby, outside the window of a breakfast place, parked bicycles & motor-scooters.

In another section of town, a very clean street (where I ate Peking Duck) reminiscent of streets in California:

But of course, there are still Pagoda-style buildings, especially on Nanking Rd where the tourists gather to shop and eat delicious Shanghai-style dumplings (which unlike Cantonese versions contain hot tasty liquid).

It's Shanghai at night time that blew me away:

The majestic glowing crown-topped building, behind a Russian-built bank along Pudong:

The upscale shopping streets come alive at night, bustling even during the week:

I found this long, skinny restaurant along the street that is one table wide. The waiters have to venture onto the sidewalk to get around:

There's a Minority Report feel to some of the shopping centers:

No skyscraper in Shanghai seems to have a conventional top. I think most have been built in the last 10-15 years and the Shanghaiese seem to like their color, form, and line to be distinctive:

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posted by Brian at 9:00 AM 0 comments links to this post