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Lai Chi Wo

There are some parts of Hong Kong which are very inaccessible. The north east corner is particularly remote. There is a group of islands which most Hong Kongers will never see and which can only be accessed by ferries from Sha Tau Kok which, although part of Hong Kong is actually out of bounds and only accessible with the appropriate permit.

Lai Chi Wo is a village in the north east which is only accessible by a long trip to the north east countryside and then a walk of up to two hours or a once-a-week ferry ride which only runs at 9am on Sunday or by bus to one of the remotest parts of Hong Kong and then a 2 hour hike.

I got up early and took the train to University Station. I was a bit concerned when I found thousands of people at the station marching off on the same route as myself to Ma Liu Shui pier. Fortunately, they were all heading off on a walk while I got on the ferry, although that too was packed. The journey to Lai Chi Wo takes 90 minutes and travels the full length of Tolo Harbour. This starts opposite Ma On Shan new town...

ma on shan

...and quickly moves into very remote, inaccessible parts of the territory.

ma on shan

At the end of Tolo Harbour the ferry takes a sharp left and then slows down dramatically to pass through the narrow channel between Double Island and the mainland.

ma on shan

Past a water sports centre on Double Island onto a view of a small community on Crooked Island and then to the pier at Lai Chi Wo.

ma on shan

Lai Chi Wo is another remote village from which almost all the occupants have left in search of a better life elsewhere. But in a moment of inspiration someone in the government decided that the village should not be allowed to die. The village has been preserved and a geoheritage centre and nature trail have been added so that it is now a popular tourist attraction on Sundays. The village itself is backed by a large fung shui wood and is surrounded by a fung shui wall which has brought the village its share of good luck over the years.

fung shui wall

Outside the walled village is a large open area in front of a temple where the villagers set up stalls selling food to the visitors.

open space

While the villagers must enjoy the money that the visitors bring I am sure they aren't so impressed by the crassness of some of the visitors. While I was there a large party from a Hong Kong school arrived, marshalled by a teacher with loud hailer who organised the group photo with the huge banner advertising the school. Personally, I would have thought that with displays of such insensitivity it would be better not to advertise.

Having gorged myself on snacks and the inevitable tofu fa, a soy bean blancmange with ginger syrup I started the walk back, deciding not to make use of the return ferry. Foolishly, I thought the path would be a gentle walk around the coast but there were a number of uphill slogs, usually involving a flight of steps. Along the way I passed through a number of deserted villages.

yung shue au

In Yung Shue Au, there were a number of men with chain stores, cutting down and burning off vegetation. A man, with a very English accent, told me that he had grown up in the village, gone away to UK and now worked in Hong Kong. He hoped to renovate enough of the village to be able to spend some time there each year. But the problem was that everything was overgrown, a tree grew out of one house, and there were no services, no water, no electricity, no sewerage, no telephone, no road so not a great prospect.

Over the hill and back down to the coast with views across to Sha Tau Kok which, although part of Hong Kong, is out of bounds unless you have an appropriate permit. I have yet to work out why this is the case.

sha tau kok

This eventually leads back to Luk Keng, a village which most people know for a collection of restaurants and a minibus back to civilisation.

luk keng

I don't care where you live but I think it would be hard to have a comparable day out anywhere in the world. Hong Kong offers so much variety, culture and friendly, interesting people in such a small area. Despite its small size, the vistas offered in some of the more remote parts are extensive and spectacular and, for a government that only seems interested in the annual surplus, it is fantastic that, at least some parts of the territory are deemed worth preserving.




Yim Tin Tsai

Last Saturday was one of those perfect Hong Kong days. Not a cloud in the sky, temperature in the low twenties, humidity relatively low and pollution low enough to make the sky look blue. I have been working hard recently and needed a break and Sai Kung is one of my favourite places to escape to. Sai Kung is a seaside town on the shore of a fabulous, island studded bay. Along the water front are numerous stalls selling tickets for ferries to various islands and beaches. I bought a ticket to Yim Tin Tsai.

harbour

The ferry ride to the island turned out to be more of an eco-cruise as, at one point, the boat slowed down to a crawl and the captain pointed out the shoal of small jellyfish floating past like a party of jolly condoms.

Yim Tin Tsai is a small island not too far from Sai Kung. In the 90s most of the inhabitants left the island for the work in the city or overseas, in search of a better lifestyle. In recent years, a Roman Catholic community has returned to the island in search of a better lifestyle. One of the main projects was to refurbish St Joseph's Chapel.

chapel

Most of the houses are derelict...

deserted

...but some of the houses have been renovated and money is raised by manufacturing salt from salt ponds.

salt

But I was particularly taken by the water front cafe. Outside was a small garden and some smart garden furniture while inside felt very country cottage like. Drinking coffee, looking out across the bay towards Sai Kung was so relaxing and idyllic with the sun shining down I could have stayed there for hours - and did.

coffee

I was ready to go home and various boats arrived but not from the right company, hence my extended stay at the cafe. Eventually my ferry arrived and, instead of going straight back to Sai Kung it went off on a trip south round the tip of Sharp Island, again with the captain stopping the boat to explain the rock formations.

rocks

Eventually, I arrived back at Sai Kung having enjoyed a cruise and a few hours escape on one of Hong Kong's many islands.




Disabled encounters

A couple of disabled encounters this weekend. On Saturday I was sitting on the waterfront at Sai Kung. Sai Kung is probably the jewel in Hong Kong's crown when it comes to urban settings with the most glorious harbour filled with tree covered islands or, in one case, tee covered islands, as one has been filled with holes to provide a publically accessible golf course which, each weekend, attracts thousands looking for an escape from their cage homes in Sham Shui Po.

For those not engaged in putting balls in holes, on a sunny day, the waterfront is a great place to spend some time at the weekend. Apart from the wonderful views of the sea and the islands, there are numerous other attractions. The boat hire companies offering tours of the harbour, ferries to beaches and, for those who can't be bothered with the walk to Tai Long Wan, there are boats out to the remoter beaches. Pulled into the harbour wall are small boats selling seafood to those on the promenade above, hauling the catch up in small buckets. Cool guys in shades and speedboats cruise up to the harbour steps to pick up expensive looking couples looking for faster and more private routes to the beaches.

When I arrived at the waterfront I noticed a lot of paddles leaning against a wall. Some hours later, after a hair cut and a walk around the inner harbour, I saw the paddles were still there but, shortly afterwards, watched a group of 16-20 young, fit looking people picking up the paddles, descending the steps and paddling off in a dragon boat. I use this as an example of what a safe and trusting society this is that you can safely leave a pile of paddles leaning against a wall without the risk of some idiots walking off with them 'for a laugh'. Later, I thought I may have just witnessed twenty boat thieves running off with a dragon boat but I prefer to retain my positive view of human nature. As an aside, I was hiking today when I passed a small digger on Lamma Island that had been left on a building site for the weekend. Hanging off the cab were a yellow hard hat, a straw sun hat and a number of other miscellaneous items that the workmen had left and knew they would still be there when they returned to work.

Back on dry land, a guitarist was playing a very passable rhythm track, which went on for some time until his mates joined in with vocals. This was clearly a mistake and it was noticeable that they did not attract a crowd but still seemed to be enjoying themselves. I could hear a variety of hallelujahs, which were either from a very poor cover of Leonard Cohen's famous song, or evidence that they were an imitation gospel band.

Every weekend a man takes his place on the waterfront and sets up a variety of percussion instruments that he encourages young children to come along and hit, rhythmically or otherwise. I assume he must make some money by doing this and he is almost as popular as the Mister Softee van.

In addition to the gospel band, I could hear the strains of Canto-pop, not my favourite brand of music but acceptable, although the singing wasn't a huge improvement on the hallelujahs. On further investigation, I came across a session run by a group called Stewards (http://www.stewards.org.hk/) who want to encourage a simpler lifestyle. The singers encouraged people to come up and join them, as did the dancers. Around the stage were a number of games: a giant Jenga set, metre long pick-up-sticks and a section with coloured buckets that children had to arrange in specified orders as fast as possible. By the number of people queuing to have a go at the games it looked as though the organisers were in for a late night. Great fun.

Back on the waterfront, I watched the numerous doggy people parading their dogs, the occasional, bare-chested, sweaty athlete, beautiful people stopping to take photos of themselves, some really ugly people stopping to take photos of themselves and then a couple came towards me. The man in a wheelchair with an uncertain number of limbs accompanied by a young woman struggling along on a pair of crutches. Progress was clearly a great effort and I couldn't help notice her T-shirt which bore the inscription "What doesn't kill you...." and nothing else. A wonderful piece of irony.

And then, today, I was hiking on Lamma Island. Being a sunny public holiday the crowds were out, but all were heading south towards Lamma's beaches so I headed north to Pak Kok Tsuen, where few tourists seem to venture. A nice walk with a lot of steps at the start and a number of short climbs up a well-kept concrete path leads the way to Pak Kok Tsuen (village) which is very well kept and very pretty, with a store where you can purchase food and drinks. Further along the path, on the way back towards Yung Shue Wan, I encountered a public toilet which, considering this was a fairly remote spot, was well-appointed with railings around the urinal so that the disabled, and those the worse for drink, could gain support while relieving themselves. Very commendable, but then I considered the various routes by which one could arrive at this public toilet. The village has a ferry pier with a steep walk up from the pier through the village. The route back to Yung Shue Wan involved further hills and steps and so there seemed little possibility that toilet's clientelle were likely to consist of a large number of disabled people requiring support railings at the urinal. Therefore, I could only conclude that the railings were for the benefit of the village inebbriates.

Hong Kong West

For those of you familiar with Hong Kong, Tuen Mun would not be among your top-ten places to hang out and look cool. For many years it was a remote new town with a big power station in the north-west New Territories. In recent years it has been linked to civilisation by the West Rail MTR extension. Half an hour on the train and I was at Tuen Mun station. At Tuen Mun station you can transfer to the LRT (Light Rail Transit) which is north-west Hong Kong's answer to Hong Kong island's trams. Considering full sized trains, granted only one or two carriages, travel through the streets there are surprisingly few fatalities. The LRT is an extensive rail system providing a convenient network linking a lot of places that most people would not think of going to. I travelled one stop on the LRT and got off at the Town Hall, not that I wanted to go to the Town Hall but the station is adjacent to Tuen Mun Park.

Tuen Mun park reptile house

At 9am on a Saturday morning, the park was a very pleasant escape. Quiet paths wandering through gardens, past lakes and water features. Groups of, mainly old, people performing morning exercise. A group of men crowded around a table to watch a game of chess. At another two men were playing a serious game of Go with chess style stop clocks to time their moves. A modern building set tastefully within the gardens turned out to be a reptile house. Open at 9am and free admission to a well-presented set of snakes and lizards. For those with a fear of such creatures, it was reassuring to see that none of them was venomous.

But I had not come to Tuen Mun to look at the park, I was after a ferry that I had never used so it was back on the LRT to go down to Tuen Mun pier. I bought a ticket for the Tai O ferry but had almost an hour to kill so went for a stroll along Tuen Mun promenade. The promenade is very pleasant; a wide path with the sea on one side, with views across to the mountains of Lantau island, and shops on the other. At the far end you come to Butterfly Beach which, when I first came to Hong Kong, was almost always closed due to pollution.

Tuen Mun promenade

Walking back to the ferry pier I noticed a very small beach which could have been an attractive feature had it not been covered in plastic bottles and other rubbish washed up by the sea. Meanwhile, a council worker was sweeping up leaves from the promenade. Some 50 metres further on was another worker sweeping up leaves and a further 50 metres I came across another worker hosing down the path. I couldn't help thinking that these workers could have spared half an hour to clean up the beach as, to me, plastic bottles are far more offensive than fallen leaves.

At last it was time to board the ferry. First stop was Tung Chung on Lantau Island, which is another new town that grew up as a result of Hong Kong airport moving out of the city centre. New towns take time to mature and blend into their surroundings. The design of Tung Chung suggests it will be a long time before it blends into its surroundings. Armies of high rise dominate the landscape and stare out across the sea to Tuen Mun. Opposite Tung Chung is the island that was built to house the airport and the ferry proceeded down the channel between the two to Sha Lo Wan and then on to Tai O.

Tung Chung

Tai O provides a wonderful contrast to other parts of Hong Kong with most of its houses being built above the water, largely from aluminium sheeting. It was not too long ago that visitors to Tai O had to cross the river into the main village on a small boat powered by old ladies who pulled on ropes to move it. They have been replaced by a bridge, which is just as well as Tai O attracts a lot more visitors these days.

Tai O

From Tai O I set out on the main event of the day, which was to walk back up the coast to Tung Chung. It is not a particularly difficult walk as the hills are not excessive but it was 34 degrees that day and when walking on exposed sections across rocks that had already been baked in the sun I would think the temperatures were more like 38. However, unlike walks in previous weeks, the humidity was mercifully low so that it was possible to sit still and not sweat. The narrow path out of Tai O offers great views along the coast and across to Tuen Mun.

Tai O - Sham Wat path

But the coast is now dominated by the new bridge to Zhuhai which is under construction.

Bridge to Zhuhai

This section of the path keeps to the coast but does not keep to the contours so that every time you go round a headland you have to climb a bit. It seemed like a bad decision on the part of the path makers but I think the need to go over rather than round is dicated by the electricity poles that prefer to take the shortest rather than easiest route. After an hour I reached Sham Wat, a sleepy little village with a few restaurants catering for those hiking along the path. It is also a point of no return for those heading towards Tung Chung as it provides the last place with road access that would allow the weary to escape. I must admit to being weary and struggling a bit in the heat and was considering calling for a taxi. Not surprisingly there were no Ubers in the vicinity and I sat down at one of the open air restaurants looking out across the bay. Relaxing with a hot coffee and a bowl of daofu fa, which is a sort of blancmange made from tofu and served with ginger sugar, I felt revived and ready to proceed towards Tung Chung.

Sham Wat

The next place of note was Sha Lo Wan. The last time I was there it was a quiet village cut off from the modern world with no road access and views across the Pearl River Estuary. How things have changed. The village seems to have fewer residents and it still has no road access but the runway for new airport ends opposite the village. While I was there the constant noise of planes taking off wrecked any possibility of peace and tranqulity despite its tranquil setting which was not improved by the construction work being carried out on the Zhuhai bridge. The only consolation the villagers have is that they now have ferry access to the facilities of Tung Chung but other than that is hard to see that they have gained any benefits from the new airport.

The next village, San Tau, had numerous banners up expressing opposition to the building of a third runway which is likely to inflict more noise pollution both during its construction and on completion. Unfortunately for the villagers, it is unlikely that their few voices are likely to bother those with power and big ideas. Not far from San Tau, the merry sight of tower blocks announced that I was closing in on Tung Chung.

Tung Chung

The gondolas heading up to the giant Buddha on Lantau Peak passed overhead and I headed for Tung Chung fort. Despite all the development the fort has survived and provides a quiet spot to sit and consider Hong Kong's history well before the Brits arrived and planted their flag.

Tung Chung fort

But progress can't be stopped so the historic fort is now a mere speck amongst the high rise.

Tung Chung fort

And so into Tung Chung, a somewhat soulless place but it did have a very welcome MTR station. Before getting on the train I thought I would have a wash and change my clothes but, like most MTR stations, it didn't provide toilets where such acts could be performed in private so I was reduced to sitting on the floor and wiping myself down with wet wipes before slipping on a new shirt. Signs in country parks often say 'take your litter home' and the MTR seem to have a similar way of thinking. At least more recent stations now offer toilet facilities.

Religion

I have always tried hard to understand religion. My parents were traditional British Christians in that they adhered to the traditions of Christianity but made little pretence at being practising Christians, so we were spared church on Sundays but were able to enjoy other traditions of Christianity such as Easter Eggs and Christmas presents. The crunch came when I came of age to be confirmed as my brother and sister had been before me, but I put my foot down on the basis of not believing in god. There were some tense discussions but eventually my argument that it would be hypocrisy to go through the ceremony was accepted and the matter was not discussed again. People don't seem to have a problem with going along with hypocrisy, still choosing to get married in church and having religious funeral services. But then the churches go along with it too as it keeps them in business.

I can accept that matter is made up of atoms even though I can't see them but I can't believe in a deity. But you can believe in a deity without needing a religion. Religions appear to be more about providing a set of rules to live by than they are about deities, heaven, hell and eternal damnation help motivate the masses to adhere to the rules.

Wong Tai Sin temple

I visited the bedlam that is Wong Tai Sin temple. It is a great experience and one I would thoroughly recommend. Huge quantities of joss sticks being purchased and lit to the point that the smoke stings the eyes; photographs do not convey the atmosphere. There are large numbers of people praying in front of the temple and putting joss sticks into the sand boxes provided but what are they praying for and who are they praying to? Do people believe in these gods or is it like my 'Christian' upbringing and has more to do with tradition or superstition?

As a committed atheist, it is a joy to live in a truly secular country. Countries like NZ and UK are ostensibly secular but still have many references to Christianity btu there is none of that living in Hong Kong or China, so it is quite surprising to see just how many people involve themselves in religious practices. One of my friends is a church goer but will pop into varieties of temples to pray to some god or other, no doubt on the principle that if you pray to enough gods one of them may make you rich.

Tung Lung Chau

One of the factors that makes Hong Kong such a great place to live is the accessibility of wild countryside, islands, beaches and a way of life that takes you back to a much simpler world free of Pokemons.

Yesterday I took the ferry from Sai Wan Ho on Hong Kong island to Sam Ka Tsuen on Kowloon side and then immediately got on the 9am ferry to Tung Lung Chau. Contrary to the transport department's website which indicates there is a return ferry at 2pm the earliest return was at 3.40pm, which was to be a problem later in the day.

The 30 minute ferry ride through the eastern part of HK harbour is interesting as most of the ferry routes head west. Starting from Lei Yue Mun, past Tsueng Kwan O and onto the Clearwater Bay peninsula. I had not realised how big Tung Lung island was, basically a mountain with a path round the coast.

Although the major paths are well kept Tung Lung does not provide the facilities to be found on other islands in Hong Kong, such as toilets but there are a few places to eat. Not having had breakfast I thought a nourishing bowl of noodles would set me up for the day as there was a lot of time to fill. Climbing the steps from the pier I came across a restaurant that was just opening up, went inside and took a seat. A little old lady of indeterminate age but bent double was in charge of getting the place ready for business and shuffled painfully from table to table putting out chopsticks, menus, etc. I felt obliged to help and so found myself setting the tables myself. The view through the trees to HK island and the sound of birds made for a pleasant environment to catch up with the day's Sudoku problem.

Nice though the environment the old lady didn't seem to be terribly interested in taking my order but eventually things began to happen and it was worth waiting for. I then headed north to the site of Tung Lung fort. Similar to Roman remains it consisted of a series of low walls.

Tung Lung fort

Nearby is an information centre in a nicely renovated cottage but without an aircon 2 mnutes was about as much as I could take before having to outside to cool off. I mentioned that public toilets are not a major feature of the island but there is a toliet at the fort to service the campsite. While it may be one of the cleaner toilets in HK it requires a strong stomach consisting of a hole and a short drop. Nearby is the island's north pier with a pretty beach looking across to the Clearwater Bay peninsula.

beach

I retraced my steps, wondering whether I should try climbing to the top of the hill but didn't see a clear path and being a very hot day thought better of it and went in search of Tung Lung's rock carvings. I've been to rock carvings before but clearly hadn't learnt my lesson. A flight of steps led down to the carvings, which always seem to be just above sea level but my starting point was well above that. I counted 478 steps but may well have been a few out. The rock carvings were much the same as others I have seen. Great that HK wants to preserve a bit of history having knocked down so much of it but rock carvings don't figure high on my list of things I must see before I die. Each of the 478 steps climbing back up reinforced my view that, in future, signposts to rock carvings should be ignored.

Now I consider myself to be reasonably fit but time spent in the gym and thrashing out the metres on the treadmill is no preparation for climbing in temperatures around 33+ when the sun was out and unbearably humid when it isn't. Progress back up the steps was slow and by the time I reached the top I was exhausted and staggered back to the restaurant by the pier and settled down to rest and replenish a few liquids. The time was around 12.30 and I had had enough and would happily have gone home to sleep off the morning's excesses. Unfortunately, I still had more than 3 hours to wait for the ferry. Having exhausted myself on the rock carving steps further exploration of the island was out of the question for fear of dying so I idled my time away around the restaurant and the beach.

Sitting on a rock on the beach I was suddenly aware of movement to my left and looked down to see a brief but brutal struggle between a large solitary wasp and a small crab. It was over very quickly with the little crab standing no chance and soon it lay paralysed. I wondered what would happen next as this would not be a good place for the wasp to hatch out its eggs as we were below the hide tide mark. After resting for a few minutes the wasp burst into action. Bear in mind that the wasp was considerably smaller than the crab I was amazed to see it take a firm grasp on the crab and then drag it at high speed back up the beach, over rocks and across the sand until it eventually disappeared into some large dark rocks having traversed four or five metres. Hard to imagine the amount of energy required to drag the crab that distance but clearly the wasp worked out. While the incident only lasted a few minutes it was a good reminder of how much life goes on around us without us realising and that most of it survives without the use of technology.

As the time neared for the arrival of the ferry a large crowd built up, one gentleman carrying a huge fish which had all the cameras snapping away but I never saw what happened to it. No idea where all the people appeared from as I saw very few where I walked so maybe I missed the most interesting bits. Maybe another visit is required but not for a while.

Karaoke

On Sunday I had my first experience of Hong Kong karaoke. Held at the evocatively named !Bridal House Tea Room Hotel in Yai Ma Tei. After hunting around for awhile I was guided up a small flight of stairs and entered a narrow room. On my right was a long table displaying an extensive assortment of raw meats and on my left an open BBQ fire on which to cook it. Another first, I found a lethal looking BBQ fork and spent the next five minutes trying to skewer a hunk of chicken on the end. I only dropped it on the floor once and considered that, as I was about to stick it in an open fire, any bugs it may have collected would soon be dealt with.

Next to the fire to turn the ugly lump of flesh on the end of my fork into something edible. But I am in a small room with about 50 other people, each brandishing a sharp, 80cm weapon. South American Indians coat the tips of their weapons with curare to ensure their wounded prey do not escape, these weapons were tipped with raw flesh harbouring untold numbers of bacteria. I managed to find a spot, or at least my sympathetic fellow guests offered me a seat close the BBQ from where I could start cooking my hunk of meat. People came and went but I sat there with my fork in the fire still clutching a piece of apparently raw meat. I was given helpful advice; your meat is too close to the fire, you need to hold it higher; your meat is too far from the fire, you need to hold it closer; and there was the polite derision at my incompetence in skewering the beast which was considered a major factor in it failing to cook.

As i continued to sit there a woman who was clearly used to feeding the poor donated a piece of lamb that she cooked earlier and assured me that she had enough. If a Hong Kong Chinese person says they have had enough they are lying. The capacity for continually eating yet not putting on an ounce of weight is uncanny. I had had enough by now and I withdrew my chicken announcing that I was off to eat it. "Not a good idea," said one, "that bit's still raw." Hmmmm, eventually I had held it in the fire long enough to cook a bison and I headed for a table with my chicken, the donated lamb and another piece of donated pork which gave me at least half a dozen mouthfuls of relatively tasty food but having a virtually vegetarian diet the rest of the time this glut of meat was not particularly attractive. My cooking failure was made all the more apparent as plate after plate of well cooked meat landed on the table I shared with at least another ten people, each plateful greeted by cheers and applause although, thankfully, not with the usual flurry of photographs one comes to expect when eating out in HK.

Having eaten my fill of dead animals I headed upstairs to see what was happening in the karaoke room. Many westerners think of karaoke is being a bizarre oriental ritual and there is some truth in this. There were about ten people in the room, which had a few tables, chairs, a big TV screen and speakers. Songs came up on the screen, all Cantonese and with the lyrics coming up on the screen in Chinese characters. My ability to read Chinese characters is limited to spotting one or two characters on each screen which I think I know but by the time I have worked out what they are we are onto the next line of the song. This, of course, is a blessing as it meant that no one was going to be able get me to sing that night. Without electronic gadgetry my singing is best confined to a vacuum chamber and even with electronic gadgetry I am no Justin Bieber but, as it turned out, no one could sing. No one could sing in tune, nor in time. What could be worse than one person singing out of tune than two people trying to sing a duet, each in their own out of tune. At times the noise was painful to listen to, not in terms of decibels but in terms of finger nails on blackboards. How can this be entertainment?

But then a song I actually recognised started, so it would be safe to assume this song was much older than the others, in Mandarin rather than Cantonese. A striking looking young woman picked up a microphone. She was tall, slim and elegant and then she started to sing. And could she sing! Pitch perfect, timing impeccable, vocal range impressive, breath control, volume, tone, emotion, this woman had it all. Everyone stopped chatting and listened. This was not what they were used to hearing. And then a message came upstairs that another calf had been slaughtered or there was a group photo or something, I didn't quite catch what was said but the room emptied. So there was wonderful singer left alone in the room. Fortunately, whatever had caused the flock to scatter was soon sorted and the room began to fill up again. As the young woman finished she put down the microphone and sat down to some warm applause.

She sang a couple more before putting down the microphone and returning to her table to a polite round of applause and some encouraging words. At this point I would have assumed that others would have felt a little shy about stepping up to the microphone again but not a bit of it. The duets continued with moments when I thought that a cat impaled on my BBQ fork and toasted on the fire downstairs might have made a similar noise. I am sure none of these people had any illusions that they could sing and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves but can people really enjoy listening to this?

So why has karaoke managed to remain a popular pastime for so long? It was not until this evening I realised that people do not go to karaoke to listen to other people sing. When you sing you are not trying to entertain other people you are trying to enjoy yourself, you are there to have fun and everyone did. If you can't sing it doesn't matter as no one is really listening so no one is embarrassed. Now it makes sense.

Even the strange BBQ practices started to make sense. In NZ a BBQ consists of a large man wearing an apron and a lot of tattoos slaving over the BBQ which could range from a simple griddle to something the size of Jamie Oliver's kitchen who would grill half a yak while drinking copious quantities of Speights, Tui or some other NZ beer, while the guests sit around drinking copious quantities of Speights, Tui or bottles of NZ wine and chatting with friends. In HK the process of cooking on the BBQ is a social event, it's part of the entertainment. And therein lies another difference at the HK BBQ. I was there for about 3 and a half hours and in all that time not one drop of alcohol was consumed and yet everyone clearly had a great time. Many westerners might wonder how this is possible but I can assure you it is.

Nice try, shame about the mess

As I will point out repeatedly, Hong Kong is blessed with a spectacular setting among sea, sand and mountains. Unfortunately far too many people don't seem to care too much about it. Yesterday I took a trip to Ap Lei Chau, an island just off the south coast of Hong Kong island linked by a short road bridge to Aberdeen and shortly to be linked to the amazing MTR rail system. Ap Lei Chau was a fishing village then became a centre for boat building but more recently has, like many other areas of Hong Kong, become a densely populated high-rise development. The old part of the town has become run down but recently the waterfront has been developed into something that the district council can be proud of.

Exploration of the promenade began at the Hung Shing temple with origins dating back hundreds of years. These temples as they have a great atmosphere laden with the scent from hundreds of joss sticks and huge incense coils that constantly fill the air with aromatic smoke. It always seems a bit odd to see the sign on the wall asking visitors not to smoke.

hung shing temple

Aberdeen harbour must be one of the busiest in the world with sampans rushing around ferrying people across the narrow but crowded stretch of water. These small, wide-berthed boats may not look like the jet-setter's dream but they are remarkably manoeuvrable and there is no sign of them being replaced by more modern designs.

sampans

At the end of the promenade is the 'Wind Tower'. It is a strange, metal-framed construction that has rows of LEDs that glow in different colours according to the strength of the wind. It also gives great views across to Aberdeen and Hong Kong island.

ap lei chau

Along the promenade is an exhibition centre showing the history of boat building in Ap Lei Chau. Not the most exciting exhibition but interesting enough and the building is attractive. The washroom next door shows that a real effort has gone into making this a world class facility with the wash basins set amongst pot plants. Very attractive, until you see the discarded paper towels that no one has bothered to clean up. But then, as far as I could see, there were no paper towels, nor other hand drying facilities available and the only bin for disposing of rubbish I could see was outside. So a good effort but could be better.

wash room

Back outside I finished my stroll leaning against the wall, taking in the view and reflecting on life. But then I looked down. The water was a mix of rubbish, plastic bags, bottles, dead fish, jellyfish, polystyrene boxes and countless other items that should not be in the sea anywhere and certainly not in an area that has clearly been developed with tourists and locals in mind. How can you develop such an attractive waterfront and yet allow the water it is fronting to be so disgusting? How much effort would it take to clean it up?

rubbish

Po Toi

Hong Kong is made up of more than 200 islands although few are inhabited. Po Toi is an island of just over 3.69 sq km, south of Hong Kong island with a very small population of permanent residents. While the larger, more popular islands can be accessed by ferries from the central ferry pier to get to Po Toi you need to take a ferry from Aberdeen or Stanley. Aberdeen is an entertainment in itself with its busy harbour full of fishing boats, luxury yachts, kaidos, junks and sampans shuffling people across to Ap Lei Chau, a densely populated island a few hundred metres from Aberdeen. The local authority has done a lot to make Aberdeen more attractive to visit and the waterfront area is a lively place to visit.

Abderdeen harbour

Apart from Sundays there is one ferry a day from Aberdeen to Po Toi, which also helps to make it less well known than the bigger islands but any thoughts that my day would be a quiet getaway were dashed as the queue for the ferry grew longer and a sizeable ferry boat appeared and I boarded along with around 300 other people.

The ferry heads south east, taking it along the south coast of Hong Kong island before leaving the Stanley peninsula, passing Beaufort island and arriving at Tai Wan, an attractive bay where the ferry disgorged its passengers.

Po Toi map

Hong Kong people enjoy going to the many country parks at the weekend to escape from the city. But they do not come to enjoy the peace and quiet of the country while communing with nature. On a quiet path it is not uncommon to come across a large and noisy group scaring off the wildlife and picking the few remaining wild flowers.

So a small island, few footpaths, a lot of people and the prospect of following everyone round for a few hours was not inviting. When you disembark you have the choice of turning left to the village of Tai Wan, going straight ahead up the hill or turning right. I turned left towards the village which has a few houses, an attractive beach and a large restaurant, the Ming Kee. Beyond that is a Tin Hau temple. By the time I reached the temple I had left the crowds behind and had a few minutes of silence looking back towards Hong Kong island before my fellow travellers started to arrive.

rocks

Back in the village I enjoyed a quiet lunch of noodles, at a small establishment behind the Ming Kee restaurant. Noodles, what a great invention, quick, versatile and nourishing. Some instant noodles, boiling water, fried egg, luncheon meat and, in this case, a generous helping of seaweed. That set me up for the day, or so I thought. While I had plenty of fuel on board I didn't realise at this point that I had failed to take on enough fluids.

This was the first really hot day of the year with blue skies and temperatures into the low thirties. I walked back through the village back to the ferry pier and then started a gentle climb up a hill through the trees past one of the many small establishments selling drinks and snacks. Back down towards the shore the trees disappeared and views of the bay and the Ngong Ching peninsula opened up. Po Toi is famous for its rock carvings and a short walk down from the main path takes you to the view points to look at them. With no shelter it is amazing they have not eroded more than they have.

The path continued to the peninsula and up a hill to a viewing point. I found it surprisingly hard to climb the steps and considering I am in reasonably good shape I realised I hadn't drunk enough water and the heat was getting to me. I still climbed to the top of the hill where the views are great and, if only we could have some really clear days, would have been spectacular with mountainous islands, calm seas and views south to China's Lema islands. Unfortunately these days it is very rare to have the clarity to see all this other than in hazy outline.

hill

Then came the descent and return to the ferry pier. But no shade. What to do. With energy levels low do you walk slowly to conserve energy but spend longer in the sun or walk quickly to reach shade as soon as possible but risk burning yourself out. Eventually I got back to some partial shade in the trees and sat down at a wayside stall under the cover of some large trees and enjoyed a long cold drink, and another one, and another one.

drinks

At this point large numbers of wetern people appears from the ferry pier. Until this point it had not occurred to me why the Ming Kee retaurant was so large. The bay was now home to a collection of smart cruisers and junks, hiring a junk is a popular activity, particularly amongst expats, and a succession f boatloads with each person clutching a bottle of wine ensured that a merry time would be had by all at the restaurant.

Boat show

Today I went to the boat show at Hong Kong's Gold Coast. With the weather as it has been recently with impending downpours never far away it would have been more aptly termed the Grey Coast but no matter. The boat show was excellent. Most of the exhibitors knew that most of the visitors were tyre kickers, or whatever the equivalent term is for people looking at multimillion dollar yachts with an income less than the monthly mooring fee, but everyone was very friendly and welcoming.

Boat show

Some of these boats are works of art and masterpieces of internal design. Having got used to living in a small flat in the city rather than a spacious farm house in the country I was still impressed with how they managed to have three bedrooms, two quite spacious, bathrooms, including en-suites, slaves' quarters and lots of storage space. Compared to the average HK flat pretty spacious but for those of you who like to play a bit of indoor cricket with the kids you could find the space a bit restrictive and having to charge downstairs to retrieve the ball could result in serious injuries.

So, amazing boats and a well-organised, laid back show. Very enjoyable.

Having had my fill of boats, and without a tinge of envy in my heart, I headed down the road towards the Gold Coast Hotel and walked along the beach. I will give it its due, the sands were golden and the beach was well used, mainly by maids enjoying the Maid Day holiday. HK beaches can sometimes get a bit crowded but the atmosphere is always relaxed and no one is going to kick sand in your face. You can watch a great variety of activities with Philippinas working on a dance routine or singing songs, the Indian guys playing football, the Chinese 20 somethings playing volleyball and some fit young men trying their hands at an energetic 2-a-side beach volleyball. Lots of children digging holes, what else are you supposed to do with sand apart from use it to dam up streams that wander too close to the beach? I particularly liked the group at Cafeteria beach where the children played in the sand by the edge of the water and every now and then dad would arrive with a skewer from the BBQ and torture the children by stuffing hot sausages in their mouths.

After that it was into Tuen Mun, a fairly unattractive town, fairly perhaps being a tad generous, but the large MTR station was quite impressive, and before too long I was back home where I ventured into Park n Shop, or Fusion as it is called in Happy Valley. Heading for the fruit section in search of New Zealand apples I found Royal Galas at 5 for $10, not bad; or I could buy a big bag for $17 but when I counted the big bag contained 8, so you are being charged an extra dollar for the bag. I bought 5 loose ones.

I noticed that they have gone back to showing the price of an item alongside a price that has been crossed out, implying that it has been reduced. The one I noticed in particular was Nescafe Alta Rica coffee at $69 reduced from $84. At some stage in the past it has been $84 but it has been $69 for some months now, so how far back into history are they allowed to go in order to give the impression that prices have been cut?

The final annoyance was seeing so many items showing the price of two items so you have to peer at the small print to find the price for one. I live on my own, most of the time I don't want two. No harm in advertising the price of two but at least make the price for one more, or equally prominent. What made this more irritating today was at the boat show the signs outside those lovely big boats displaying the prices didn't say $65 million for 2 and then in small print say $35 million for 1, no, they just gave the price for one so that people aren't encouraged to buy more than they need. If it's good enough for a luxury yacht it's good enough for Park n Shop.

Tai Long Wan

Tai Long Wan



Tai Long Wan must be the jewel in Hong Kong's crown when it comes to scenery. The fact that it takes a bit of effort to get to it only adds to the fun.

Under construction

Ma Wan

I've lived in Hong Kong for many years but until now have never been to Ma Wan. For those of you not familiar with HK Ma Wan is 1 sq km of island between Hong Kong and the island of Lantau. For most its history it remained completely undisturbed and probably changed little after the British arrived to plant their flag. It was Saturday of the May Day holiday weekend and I needed to get out so I headed to the central ferry piers. Being a holiday weekend everyone else was clearly of a similar mind and the queues for all the popular destinations were too long to make the destinations attractive and so I moved along the ferries looking for one that was not so popular. And this is why I ended up on Ma Wan.

Lantau also remained a relatively undisturbed diamond in Hong Kong's back yard until, firstly the Discovery Bay Company arrived to turn one corner of it into a green yet sterile housing estate overlooking a fine beach; an area popular with expats. While the housing estate may be sterile the inhabitants clearly are not as defined by the number of baby buggies, babies, toddlers and expectant mothers that seem to appear from every leafy apartment block.

The next blow to strike the countryside and wildlife of Lantau island was the building of Hong Kong airport. This led to the demolition of a few islands, the building of another attractive new town and all the other signs of impending doom. Being an island was a bit of a handicap for an airport site so infrastructure had to be built in order to get from the airport back into Hong Kong. A bridge tends to be one of the first solutions that people look towards in such circumstances but there is quite a bit of water between Hong Kong and Lantau. And this is where Ma Wan comes into its own being strategically placed between the two. So the planners decided that Ma Wan should no longer be a little visited back water but should actually become the base for the Lantau bridge to rest on on its way to the airport.

ma wan

At the same time as making the island a bridge support Ma Wan became a shiny new housing development called Park Island. On arriving my overall impression of Ma Wan was that it was much the same as Discovery Bay but with Chinese people.

ma wan

The developers have clearly tried very hard to turn Ma Wan into a pleasant environment for the many thousands of inhabitants. Apart from attractions such as Noah's Ark, which I did not visit, there are plenty of areas of greenery with an extensive nature garden. Typically for Hong Kong the nature garden has been planted with plenty of lush green plants but in order to do this it must have been necessary to tear out quite a lot of natural lush green vegetation. But worse is the fact that no matter how attractive the walk through the garden may appear you cannot escape the noise of traffic rushing over the island on the airport bridge.

ma wan

And if we go back to the first photo try zooming in with your browser and you will see a far too common sight, rubbish. It is staggering that we can live in a potentially spectacular landscape with superb beaches and yet for every visitor to Ma Wan one of the first sights to greet them is this litter strewn beach. And it certainly isn't the only beach like that in Hong Kong. Granted when there is heavy rain or the wind is in the wrong direction it is hard to keep some rubbish from being washed ashore but you would expect people to take sufficient pride in their home to get the place cleaned up on a regular basis. But unless there is money to be made who cares?