Thursday, February 27, 2014

February 26th – Exploring Lantau

People tell me that a failing memory is great thing for a world cruiser – you might have been to these ports before, but you can't remember anything about your last visit, so every experience is a new one. In a sure sign that old age is dimming our memories, we really can't remember if we'd visited the Big Buddha in Lantau when we first came to Hong Kong 15 years ago. I was fairly sure we'd been, but our visit today didn't spark any memories, so we probably haven't been there before (or my brain is finally going!).

We walked round to the Kowloon MTR station in the shadow of Hong Kong's tallest skyscraper, the enormous, 118-storey ICC building. This whole section of Kowloon has been built on reclaimed land and is still full of hammering pile-drivers and construction cranes, so it's a bit soulless, but I'm sure it will look great when it's finished.

From here, we caught the MTR to Tung Chung, where we had a choice of catching the cable car or the bus to the Big Buddha. In a decision not wholly unrelated to price, we decided that it was too misty to get the full value from the cable car, and so we opted for the much cheaper bus.

We bounced around the steep, winding streets of Lantau, and the bus finally came to a halt. We asked the driver if it was far to the Big Buddha –his reply was "Bus, ten minutes here". Did that mean, the bus was stopping for 10 minutes, or was it a 10 minute walk from here? He kept repeating "Bus, ten minutes here", until we finally worked out he was saying "Bus terminates here". We got off and caught our first glimpse of a fairly obviously huge Big Buddha looming over proceedings – he must have thought we were idiots.

So, the Big Buddha lived up to its name (being Big and being a Buddha), but you had to climb a long line of steps to get up to it – easier said than done with my hips both aching after yesterday's trek up and down the Peak. From this vantage point, under the peaceful gaze of the contented Buddha, there were some great views over the island below us.

From here, we caught the bus to the fishing village at Tai O – we didn't really know what to expect from a place that billed itself as the fish-drying capital of Hong Kong, but the quiet rural atmosphere felt like a world away from the bustling streets of Hong Kong. As you'd expect, the smell was pretty whiffy at times, while some of the dried seafood looked fairly inedible, but it was an interesting place to explore. Was all Hong Kong like this before big business took over after the war?

Just to confirm how much the territory has moved on from its rural past, before we headed back to Kowloon, we visited a huge outlet mall at Tung Chung – we didn't buy much because even the discounted prices in Hong Kong aren't that cheap.

That evening, our stay in Hong Kong ended the perfect way, gliding past the amazing skyline at night, its buildings lit up like Christmas trees. Hong Kong is looking as good as ever.

February 25th – Peak Fitness in Hong Kong

The last time we'd tried to walk up the Peak on Hong Kong Island was 15 years ago – my overwhelming memory of the attempt was being absolutely exhausted, so today was an attempt to see how far our bodies have deteriorated in the intervening years.

Last time, we'd caught the mid-levels escalators (incidentally, the world's longest escalator system) up some of the way to give us a bit of a head start; but this time we'd left too early for them to be running in the right direction (they ferry commuters down to Central until 10am, and only after that do they run uphill). So, we were already at a disadvantage as we trudged from sea level up the steep streets to the top of Mid-Levels. This is where it got difficult, but the views steadily more impressive.

The steepness of the path up was incredible, and I was soon reduced to a panting, sweaty mess, while Tracy stormed her way up like it was a walk in the park. Every now and then we'd get a glimpse of Hong Kong's unbelievable skyline through the trees to give us a bit of a boost; and finally we made it up to the 450 metre top.

By this stage, my shirt was soaked through, so it was actually a little cold in the air-conditioned coffee shop that we took refuge in to re-gain our breath. Sadly, it was a bit misty outside (pollution blowing down from China is becoming an increasing problem here), so we couldn't see the skyline in its full glory, but the views were still fairly invigorating.

After about an hour, the lactic acid in our thigh muscles had finally dispersed, so it was time to get our systems pumping again by trekking back down– we were too tired to do this downhill trek 15 years ago, so maybe we haven't deteriorated that much. It was certainly quicker coming down, but the jarring on our old joints as we stomped down was pretty tough. Thankfully, we broke up our descent by popping into the Zoological Gardens to have a look at the sleepy lemurs and the whooping gibbons who were leaping around manically; before exploring some of the few remaining old colonial relics in Central.

I suppose that doing one of the toughest treks in Hong Kong, is hardly great preparation for an afternoon of retail therapy, but we decided to ignore the pain and explore Kowloon's enormous Ocean Terminal Shopping Mall, to confirm that Hong Kong is no longer a place for clothing bargains any more. If you want to browse all the luxury western brands, then this is the place to come – an unbelievable amount of money must be spent here every day of life.

We thought that maybe Hong Kong's famous Night Markets would be more fertile territory for bargains, and so, after dinner, we headed up to the packed streets of the Ladies Market, where copies of all the expensive luxury goods were on sale at knock-down prices. To be honest, most of them were fairly low-quality copies, but it was fun to soak up the vibrant atmosphere and haggle with the vendors.

With its jostling crowds, flashing neon signs, tinny music being played from every stall, and various food stalls pumping out all kinds of aromas (good and bad), the market provided the typical Hong Kong sensory overload. With our tired legs getting increasingly heavy, finally we could haggle no more, and headed back to the ship to recover.

February 24th – Arriving and Eating in Hong Kong

Fortunately it wasn't too early a start for our sail-into Hong Kong's spectacular harbour – so, I was on the bridge to give a narration about the sights we were sailing past on our way into Ocean Terminal. On both sides of us, the harbour was so packed with buildings and steepling skyscrapers that it was difficult to point out too many of them in this claustrophobic skyline, but seeing as size is clearly important here in Hong Kong, I talked about the tallest ones – with 4 out of the world's top 30 buildings, Hong Kong has one of the most awe-inspiring skylines on the planet.

Our mission today was to taste some of the amazing food on offer in Hong Kong – in a place with some of the most expensive restaurants in the world, and some wonderful street food eateries, the choice is endless, which is why it was great to have the Silver Whisper's resident Chinese food expert with us.

We went for Dim Sum at the Island Tang Restaurant in Central – full of local businessmen in suits (we were the only non-Asians in there). Our expert rated the restaurant as the best Dim Sum restaurant in Hong Kong (which means that it had a good chance of being the best Dim Sum restaurant in the world) – and the dishes we were served were truly fantastic. Even the delicacy of preserved duck eggs was delicious – that was in spite of us learning that the eggs are preserved by being pickled in horse urine for 100 days!

Just when we thought we couldn't eat any more, our master insisted that we sample the other end of the Hong Kong food scale, at a traditional beef noodle shop near Hollywood Road. You could tell the place was good, because there was a long queue of locals outside, and after waiting for 20 minutes, we were squeezed in to share a table with a group of 5 other people. The service was fairly rudimentary and the ambience was a long way from the refined atmosphere of Island Tang, but the bowls of steaming noodles and tender beef brisket were delicious – and much, much cheaper!

After that, we hauled our bloated stomachs round the busy street markets of Central. As ever in Hong Kong, it's the contrasts that make this vibrant city so fantastic to explore – down and dirty markets just a stone throw away from the manicured offices of the multi-national banks; ordinary people crammed into grubby streets, overlooked by some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

With such an unrelenting pace of life, Hong Kong is an exhausting place to visit – thankfully we have two more days to explore.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

February 21st – Enthusiastic Welcome to Manila

This time last year when we visited Manila, it was raining torrentially and the traffic was terrible. This year, on a warm and sunny Saturday, it looked like a different city.

As this is the home port for the majority of the crew onboard the Silver Whisper, our welcome was as warm as ever, as dance troupes and marching bands played to greet us, while the families of the crew waited to greet their loved ones. The sense of anticipation and emotion onboard was palpable.

Rather than get in the way of the family reunions, we walked into Manila's old town to see the few remaining colonial relics that survived the terrible damage of the Second World War, a horrific period when the city was pretty much flattened. The walk into town from the port isn't a long one, although you do have to brave the belching traffic and the groups of homeless people sleeping in the bushes alongside the road. Having said that, there wasn't a threatening atmosphere as you walked around – probably helped by the fact that there were security guards and police with big machine guns (who were happy to pose for photos) at regular intervals.

We walked through the massive city walls built by the Spanish to protect their city, crossing the golf course that has been constructed in the moat, and entered Manila's historic "Intramuros" District (literally, "between the walls"). There were still plenty of gaps in the cityscape where old monasteries and Spanish mansions had been destroyed that there weren't funds to rebuild.

We proceeded to Manila's oldest and most impressive colonial relic – the San Agustin Church, which had been built back in 1587. The architecture, iconography and atmosphere were all typically Spanish – an element that contrives to give Manila a feel that's as much Latin American as it is Asian. We then headed to Casa Manila - one of the few surviving old mansions that once would have been all around Intramuros. The building and its decorations were an interesting blend of European and Asian styles, and their grandeur were a sign that the wealthy few lived very good lives here in colonial Manila (while the majority locals were excluded from that wealth).

We discovered more about the Philippines' path to independence at the symbol of Spanish colonial rule, Fort Santiago, which again had to be reconstructed after the Second World War. This is where the Filipino national hero, Jose Rizal was imprisoned before his execution, and it became the US headquarters after they took over in 1898, and finally it was the centre of the Japanese occupying forces during the war, in which some brutal war crimes were carried out against the long-suffering Filipinos.

From the ramparts, we looked across the Passig River to our next destination, Binondo, Manila's bustling Chinatown. The route there didn't look very inviting, with shanty towns lining the river, so we decided to catch one of Manila's iconic jeepneys to get over there. These distinctive jeepneys are converted trucks that have become an informal bus system that seem to make up half of the traffic on the city's congested streets. They're hardly 5 Star luxury, given that they're incredibly cramped and not really made for anyone over 5 feet 8, but they're incredibly cheap – 8 pesos (18 cents or 11 pence) – and our fellow passengers kindly gave us help with directions.

If Intramuros felt Spanish and relatively ordered, then the hectic Chinatown definitely confirmed that we were in Asia. People everywhere, stalls selling all kinds of things, clogging hooting traffic and plenty of people living on the street. After a bit of exploring, we stopped in a dodgy restaurant for a drink while a man outside picked lice out of his little daughter's hair, until the smell of melting plastic (coming from somewhere unseen) became too much, and we hopped into a taxi to take us back downtown.

We were travelling down to visit another essential element of Filipino society – the Shopping Mall. This one, the Robinson Mall, was small by Manila's standards, but it was still fairly huge. The fashions and atmosphere show just how westernised Filipino society has become, as the latest consumer fashions have taken over.

After a nice Chinese meal at the mall, we made our way back to the ship, stopping in at Rizal Park to visit its various monuments and to savour its relaxed atmosphere, before briefly popping into the iconic Manila Hotel, built by the Americans, and home to the controversial US General, Douglas MacArthur. Back at the port, as the final emotional goodbyes were being said, we were treated to a tremendous show by the energetic dance troupes that gave us a wonderful send off after a hugely enjoyable day.

One local saying of the country's colonial experience, is that the Philippines spent 400 years in a convent, and 50 years in Hollywood (with all the good and bad connotations that implies) – and today certainly confirmed this intriguing and sometimes conflicting mixture of influences on the country.