We get a cab to the Station to cross the border into Hong Kong. We are in a huge herd of people queuing (well not actually a queue) to leave China. Most are on temporary visas. Many are Hong Kong citizens who go back and forth and they get privileged and quick access. We are with the great unwashed. It takes time. We get to the front eventually and customs tell us we need to complete a form so we go back and find and complete the forms. It is all a bit hard to follow even for my Lilly. Fortunately we have no pressing business appointments.
We get on a bus. The bus goes about 200 metres and stops. We don’t know why. We get off and take our luggage and join the second huge queue. I am puzzled. We get to the front eventually and customs tell us we need to complete a form so we go back and find and complete the forms. This procedure is becoming familiar. Will we eventually get it? The penny drops. The first customs stop was to depart China, the second to enter Hong Kong. We are leaving one country and entering a second. All a bit silly really considering that Hong Kong is now for all intents and purposes, part of China. Even if they have to go through the rigmarole, why not handle it as one function at one location? (Got to remember we come from a developed country to a developing one.) China is streets ahead of where Africa was thirty years ago but it still has a way to go. The Chinese are bright but the bureaucracy, system and the mentality is mired in ages past.
Anyway we travel by bus (about an hour from memory) into the city and get close enough to walk to our hotel, The Mira.
Now the hotel is something to write home about. We are to be here for four nights. It is different. The ceilings are quite low and dark glass. It is all quite dark and mysterious and cool and funky. Leading edge design prevails everywhere, down to the smallest details in the room. Lights and taps and TV and everything you touch is a bit different. Well done Lilly to find this place. Good location too as it transpires.
We get going on broadband quickly and J arrives shortly. He looks fit and well and no longer the skinny lad of 12 months ago; still tall, but now heavier and more confident. He brings a business bag for me, tea and shopping vouchers for Lilly. I am watching, live on my computer, the All Blacks playing South Africa by this time. He and Lilly go down to the garden for a chat. I join them later. We decide to go to the Peak – it is now late afternoon. J organizes a cab. The twelve months on his own give me the impression he has had to do stuff for himself. He knows how to get around the city. He is the authority. He reckons Hong Kong (population about 7m from memory) must be one of the best places to live in the world, if you have money; perhaps not so good, if you don’t. Later we come around to agreeing with him.
Our hotel is in Kowloon which is the mainland part of Hong Kong. We go by cab (via one of three tunnels) to Hong Kong island where J lives and works. It is quite a cab ride up to the Peak on the island. I was here in 1976 and thought it was the most unbelievable sight I had ever seen. I took the cable car and could hardly believe the magical view of the harbour and city and distant airport. It is still the same, except now the skyscrapers are higher and denser. There are less junks plying their trade on the harbour and more container vessels. The air is close and the view a bit hazy. We can’t see the planes coming and going any longer.
We find various locations for viewing and take many photos. At one point an old Indian gentleman who is knee height to a grasshopper asks J how tall he is. J tells him 6ft 3. The old bloke surrounded by sons and family then tells us he fought against the Chinese in a border war in 1963. I ask him should he be telling us that, even though it was 50 years ago? He says yes. I remind him it’s a long way down over the side and we all have a good giggle.
We find a place to eat and I have my first reasonable meal for more than a week. I have lost about 7kgs but reckon I am on the mend. J takes us back to his rented place. It is about 20 floors up, small and untidy and expensive. Two small bedrooms, a small living area and kitchen. He shares with N who is from Shanghai, is a futures trader and apparently makes big money. Sounds like they both party a bit. We don’t stay long. Lilly looks like she wants to tidy up. J takes us to the ferry for the crossing back to Kowloon and we meander back to our hotel. This has been a big day for us both, especially so for Lilly, having not seen her boy for more than 12 months.
Today the two of us catch a train then a bus to the island and head for Stanley. It is a winding road, up a fair way then back down, the scenery and outlook through the trees to the little bays is beautiful.
We get off the bus at Repulse Bay. It apparently gets its name from pirates who used to be stationed there and who were using it as a base in the 1840s. They were repulsed by the British. It is also thought it might have been named after the HMS Repulse which was stationed here at one point. It is a beautiful bay with golden sands and a large area (perhaps a kilometre long and 200 metres out to sea) with a shark net. Many people are swimming in the sea. The bay is surrounded by apartment blocks. It is very civilized. You have to be rich to live here. There are many foreigners and it reminds me of the time I was with the American multi-nationals with their expatriate-dominated Asia Pacific headquarters here. Many of British background will also have stayed on, as the Hong Kong lifestyle is close to idyllic if you have the resources and don’t mind the politics.
We walk around a bit taking photos. It is quite hot but we did not bring swimming gear so we just stroll. We hop on the bus for the next stop which is Stanley. This is an equally enchanting and smaller bay but with a market, more shopping and probably a lot more residents. The Brits had their administrative centre here during the 1840s temporarily and at the Stanley fort, the English and Canadians mounted a last-ditch stand against the Japanese in 1941. The survivors surrendered. The Chinese Peoples Liberation Army now uses the fort. (A changing of the guard of course.)
We wander around the market. It is hot outside but cooler under cover. The town has shops along the waterfront and we go McDonalds for lunch as we have been tending to do a bit lately. The whole area is dominated by nice homes and huge apartment blocks. Here too, living is easy and very nice thank-you, if you can afford it. We can’t.
On the way back from Stanley we stop off at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, one of the most famous horse racing venues in Asia, if not the world. There are no races here this afternoon but the place is packed with gamblers who are watching races at two other venues on a huge screen. We eventually work out how to place bets and we collect OK on one race and lose on another. That’s us. We are not gamblers and we move on.
Back at the hotel we swim and spa and collapse. J is off to Europe on a business trip and Lilly texts him with a full account of our day. He usually replies “OK” or if Lilly is lucky she gets a “Good”.
Today we make our way down to the ferry to go to Macau for the day. Should be simple but once again it is like leaving one country and entering another and then at the end of the day reversing the procedure. Each time a form has to be completed but Customs don’t seem to bother with it. To get on the right ferry in the right class without over-paying is a monumental job. Even Lilly struggles with it I think. It all seems opaque to me but Lilly maintains she knows what she is doing. We board in comfortable seats (but without much of an outlook through salted-up windows) for the one-hour journey in a sea-cat ferry. It is smooth sailing.
Macau (population about 600,000) was effectively administered by the Portuguese from about 1550 to 1999. It was a colony of Portugal from 1887 until 1999.
At the terminal ferry after going through Customs we are greeted by a huge fleet of buses. These are freebie buses that are run by the casinos to take you there for free so that the casinos can then, as painlessly as possible, help themselves to the contents of your wallet. We subconsciously tuck our precious little money into the deepest recesses of our purses and pockets and board the bus for the Venetian Macau casino. And after a 30 minute drive we arrive at this massive and splendidly appointed casino that only huge money could have built and decorated: Asian money because the Chinese in particular are gamblers. (It is a strange ambivalence given that so many of them are savers, despite low incomes.)
Along huge corridors masses of people are making their way into the hall that is the casino. And what a hall it is. It seems to stretch in every direction as far as the eye can see. Tables and pokies are everywhere. We wander about watching some of the games. Lilly and I understand blackjack a bit and of course the roulette table but these days those games are in a minority. The bosses have devised quicker ways of taking your cash. We try the pokies but even that we find strange. Lilly loses a little slowly as I watch. We have quite a nice lunch at a reasonable price in one of the casino restaurants. We head off by bus for James Packers Galaxy casino; more modern, as big, also grand but fewer people. I can’t remember if it is making money or not, neither do I care much. Not our scene.
We take a freebie bus back to the centre of the city and wander about a bit. There are some sights we had earmarked but we can’t be all that bothered. It is busy and a very pleasant atmosphere prevails. People are courteous and helpful. We are getting tired and it is late afternoon so we get a bus back to the ferry terminal and arrive back at the hotel about 7pm. I think we had a McDonalds and Lilly went off shopping (with J’s vouchers) and I watched a saved game on my laptop.
Today we take off to one of the big Hong Kong sights, the Space Museum, only to find it closed today. Pity. Instead we go to the nearby Cultural Museum and spend a couple of hours viewing an exhibition of art and the life of Qianlong a long-serving (1735-99) and well respected Qing emperor. He ruled during a reasonably prosperous time in China’s history but presided over a corrupt and extravagant imperial court. He developed a garden in one corner of the Forbidden City, which features in today’s exhibition. It is being restored, a project that involves many foreign and Chinese experts and which is expected to take 20 years. We will go to the Forbidden City again and make a point of visiting it. The whole of the Forbidden City is the subject of a huge restoration program that may never be completed.
In the afternoon we travel by train and an hour long bus ride to visit the Big Buddha, built in 1993 on Lantau Island which also hosts the airport. It is quite a bus ride and quite a heavy climb up stairs to view Big Buddha. The sheer size and scale of the structure is breathtaking but all the commercialism that goes with Buddhism, leaves me cold.
Opposite the statue, the Po Lin Monastery is one of Hong Kong’s most important Buddhist sanctums and has been dubbed ‘the Buddhist World in the South’. Home to many a devout monk, this monastery is rich with colourful manifestations of Buddhist iconography and its pleasant garden is alive with birdsong and flowery scents. (this paragraph bludged from a website – the monastery was being renovated and was not in focus for us)
We boarded the bus for the long trip back and then eventually found another bus because we wanted to view the huge bridge from the mainland to Lantau Island. Then we got off the bus at the wrong place and wandered about in deserted constructions sites before we eventually found a road and a cab.
In the morning at a civilized hour we get a cab back over the huge bridge to the airport. We arrive in good time and I start my diary (only 12 days behind) while I have a McDonalds breakfast. Lilly goes off for a plate of noodles. On the plane back she is crook and on the runway taxing back to the Beijing terminal has to get up and get special permission to go to the toilet in a hurry. Was it the noodles? In the terminal she has an equally long time in an airport toilet and then rushes like crazy to the baggage claim to pick up our one suitcase. We cab back home, sweet home at last free of all S’s junk which he removed while we were away. Boy is it good to be home.