Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Fire Dog in the South - Hong Kong

Our last, and most fun stop in our quick tour around this corner of China, was the former British colony of Hong Kong! 

We adore Hong Kong. It's incredibly alive. It's Chinese. And British. And something else completely. And you can go from the extremely traditional temples to super glitzy glass towers. And the crowd is as mixed as anywhere in the world. It's so energizing! 

Let me just point out a few of the things I enjoyed most this time:


Victoria Peak (太平山)

You can safely say that no visit to Hong Kong would be complete without a visit to the Peak, the highest mountain in Hong Kong. From here you get superb views of the city below and, with plenty of vegetation and paths, it is a beautiful (and cooler, thanks to the altitude) area to explore on foot. We spent quite some time there, enjoying the breeze, the unbelievable views, the greenery...



Architecture!

Frankly, half the time we spend it just looking at the city itself. It's an incredibly wealthy place. And since it became a British colony from around the mid 19th century until 1997, there's also a fair share of more traditional English architecture. I so love the combination of high-rises, vegetation and traditional British architecture!





Kowloon Bay at night

Another big pleasure we couldn't deny ourselves was enjoying what is, for me, the most astonishing side of Hong Kong - Kowloon Bay, at night. I mean, just look at the photos. What more can I say? And since plenty of times the weather is foggy, the lights of the buildings just make it that much more incredible! And romantic. So we went for a glass ("a" as in "one, single", because prices were through the roof!) at one of the nicer bars with a view: at the Felix, in the Peninsula Hotel. Though I can't remember what I had, my partner had one of the most wonderful glasses of Spanish wine ever! Yay! Plus, being at this sort of places (mega-fancy) always carries interesting surprises, like the men's washrooms - you peed facing a glass wall! No, correction. You pee AGAINST a glass wall facing the city! Crazy! 




Disneyland!

My partner had never ever been to Disneyland. So this trip to Hong Kong was the perfect excuse! Moreover, Hong Kong's Disneyland was made according to the plans of the original and very first one. I guess they had to figure how to deal with limited space, right? But we had a blast! Especially since I found a way to trick my partner into getting on some of the more adventurous rides he'd never have consented to otherwise! Specifically, I said I'd ride Space Mountain by myself, but asked him to keep me company while in the line-up. Of course, at some point he was so deep inside that social pressure to get in the car and some gentle and reassuring prodding from me did the trick. But I swear in the end he enjoyed it, honest! 



Streets

Just walking around the narrow streets of Hong Kong is great. Coming across all this incredibly rich variety of spices, food and items is enough to keep you entertained for hours! And then a a street with antiquities? Of course, antiquities are usually interesting, but seeing them in Hong Kong, with the cultural mix they presented, was particularly curious. 



Temples and Spring Festival

Of course, this being Chinese New Year, rituals and praying were at their peak. We came across a small temple or something like that where a man behind a plastic curtain was offering advice on the future to people, or writing down wishes or names? We couldn't quite get what he was doing. Anyhow, at other smaller chapels here and there people were making offerings of incense and chanting and praying. At yet another temple the throngs of people were so big they had to line up t get in. 

This was one very strange experience. Yes, we had seen some rituals and Chinese New Year ceremonies in Beijing. But somehow these felt more authentic, or deeper, or widespread... Maybe it's just that Hong Kong suffered no Cultural Revolution. Or maybe it was just my imagination. Whichever way, this felt very, very different.







Partying

I almost forgot about this part because I have no photos of it! Another brilliant reason to visit Hong Kong is to party! No, that glass at the Felix doesn't count, that was romance. I mean getting sweaty dancing and drinking with the cosmopolitan and queer crowds of this crazy city, including at the city's most famous gay club: Propaganda. Maybe it's not such a bad thing I have no photos of our partying around the city, right? And talking about "around the city", having lived in a number of big crowded ones, Hong Kong's subway system is amazing! We're in love with it! It takes you everywhere! If I ever get to have a say on a megalopolis's transport system, I'm putting all my eggs in a Hong Kong mass transit system basket! 


And this was the end of a trip to four extremely close, yet incredibly different, places - Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Macau and Hong Kong. A trip through southern Chinese culture, through Portuguese culture, through British culture, and through locally developed and unique Macanese and Hong Kong cultures. It was rich. It was so fun! A great way to start a (Chinese New) year. 

Friday, February 17, 2006

Fire Dog in the South - Macau

Our next, and very exotic stop, was the former colony of Macau! How long was this place a Portuguese colony? Long. From around the 16th century until rather recently - 1999! Of course, this is now firmly part of China, as a Special Administrative Region.

Our arrival there was very interesting. When we got there, we were very hungry, and one of the first things we did was hit a Macanese restaurant. The presence of wine (wine!?) and a number of dishes with Portuguese sounding names (like galinha à portuguesa, which originated in Macau, despite the name) made it a most intriguing experience. Also, to my chagrin, my camera started malfunctioning there, so during this part of the trip I only took pictures when and if my camera was in the mood...


Colour, Portuguese, and streets

For me, wandering the streets of Macau, especially on the Macau Peninsula, was fascinating! I loved seeing bilingual Portuguese-Traditional Chinese street signs. I adored the European feeling - a very different one from Shanghai's! And the use of colour - pastels everywhere! And plazas and squares, like the Company of Jesus Square (Largo da Companhia de Jesus, 耶穌會紀念廣場; 3rd photo below) and St. Augustine's Square (Largo de Santo Agostinho, 崗頂前地; 4th photo). So unlike Beijing and so much of Mainland China! 

And, additionally, the sight of churches and Christian religious symbols was also striking, like the 16th century yellow St. Dominic's Church (Igreja de São Domingos, 玫瑰堂) and the - also from the 16th century - Holy House of Mercy (Santa Casa da Misericórdia, 仁慈堂大樓).  Those are the last two photos in the series below.

My dad used to dream of someday visiting Macau. No wonder!








Largo do Senado

Of course, the centre of it all is Senate Square (Largo do Senado, 議事亭前地). By the way, this area, the historic centre of Macau is - how unsurprising - a UNESCO World Heritage site. Honestly, this place is so unique! And thanks to the Chinese New Year, we could enjoy a huge and very Chinese dog (remember, year of the dog!) right in the middle of the square, surrounded by all these buildings that were the seat of Portuguese power in this remote part of Asia! Also, please note the undulating pattern on the pavement - so Portuguese! Über-cool.





Taipa (氹仔)

But Macau is more than the Macau Peninsula. We also visited two quiet, charming, quaint islands. The bigger one, Taipa, was an absolute pleasure to walk. Yeah, I know, was there a part that wasn't? But really. Like, for example, on this island we came across the Pak Tai Temple (北帝廟), dedicated to the Taoist God of the North, and the Taipa Houses-Museum (Casas-Museu da Taipa, 龍環葡韻住宅式博物館), with traditional houses of 19th century well-off Portuguese families, facing the water. The old, the traditional, the water, the vegetation... Ah...





Coloane (路環島)

Not very populated, not a very important part of Macau, and for that reason rather undeveloped, it has a very peaceful, quiet, rural character. And is the place where you'll find Espaço Lisboa, a restaurant which, though we had not even an inkling of what Portuguese food was supposed to be like, seemed to us like some of the most delicious food - of any kind - we'd ever had! The ingredients, the quality, the taste, the service... 

Though my camera didn't work there, it did work when we decided to go for a nice night stroll to relax and absorb all these amazing experiences...



And talking about interesting experiences, see what we found at the 1907 St. Francis Xavier's Church (Igreja de São Francisco Xavier, 望廈聖方濟各堂): a thoroughly Chinese Madonna and Child! Amazing!



Fortresses

The Portuguese had to have a military centre, right? If you want great views of the city, climbing up to the 17th century Mount Fortress (Fortaleza do Monte, 大炮台), built as a defence against the Dutch (yep, the Dutch, who attempted an invasion in 1622), will give you that and more. Because you'll not just be seeing Macau's fantastic mix of Portuguese, Chinese and modern architecture, but you'll also see what should strike anybody as one of the most peculiar sites of Macau: the Ruins of St. Paul's (Ruínas de São Paulo, 大三巴牌坊). In the 17th century, this was one of the largest Catholic churches in Asia, but was destroyed by a fire during a typhoon in 1835, leaving just the façade. And it stands as one fantastic, beautiful, imposing landmark.






A-Ma Temple

Last, but definitely not least, the A-Ma Temple (媽閣廟), at the tip of the peninsula. This is one old temple, from 1488, and is dedicated to - very appropriately, given its location - the goddess of seafarers, Matsu.  Apparently, this temple may have given Macau it's name, as the theory goes that, when the Portuguese arrived and asked what place this was, the locals replied A-Ma-Gau (bay of the A-Ma goddess). Anyhow, both the location, the age and the atmosphere of the place are quite special. 




So glad I got to check Macau off my bucket list! And after Macau, the celebration went on at one of our favourite places in all of Asia - Hong Kong!

Friday, February 10, 2006

Fire Dog in the South - Shenzhen

Our next stop after Guanzhou was a city that went from being a small village in 1979 to a 15 million city after successfully developing as the first Special Economic Zone of China. We stayed a single night, but that gave us time to do the one thing we wanted - going up Shun Hing Square (信兴广场, aka Diwang Building, 地王大厦) for views (at 300m high or so) of this place that became so huge, so crowded, and so filled with scryscrapers in so little time!

We weren't really aiming for sunset, but we happened to be there for it, which made it even more impressive. To think that in the early 80's there was practically nothing here! We also sent some postcards to our families from here. We were pretty excited, imagining them receiving a postcard from Shenzhen's tallest building! Though we also sort of knew chances were they'd never actually receive them, LOL.





After this very tiny but interesting taste of Guangdong Province, we headed to a place even my dad day-dreamed of visiting someday - the former portuguese colony of Macau!

Friday, February 03, 2006

Fire Dog in the South - Guangzhou

Most of the time, we'd avoid travelling during Chinese New Year. First of all, getting tickets anywhere is almost impossible, when not outrageously expensive. And then there's the unmanageable crowds - at train stations, at airports, on the roads... Plus, Beijing gets so quiet and empty during this time of year it's a real pleasure. So why did we end up travelling exactly during this new year? Because we're not fully rational beings, I guess? And because we couldn't fight the temptation of seeing other parts of the country during such a special time? Whatever it was, this was one fantastic trip around a small corner of China's South, so many contrasts!

Anyhow, after that long and probably unnecessary introduction... Our first stop in our trip to welcome the year of the Fire Dog (丙戌) was the capital of Guangdong (广东), one of the most active and culturally independent (within the Chinese cultural sphere, that is) provinces of China.


Guangzhou (广州)

Now, since this was a tour around this southeastern corner of the country, we didn't spend that much "quality time" here. And anyhow, due to the holiday, it was pretty quiet and most everything was closed. But we did see two very interesting things.

First, Shamian Island (沙面岛). One of those European jewels in China. It's a small island inside Guangzhou that was given to the French and the British during the 19th century. Packed with European architecture, churches and former consulates, and with quiet tree-lined avenues, I'd say staying in this historical section of Guangzhou is a must and a pretty unique experience.  



Our other stop was the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees (六榕寺). The temple is from 537, and the Flower Pagoda (花塔) is from 1097. Of course, earthquakes, fires and whatnot have meant that both have been rebuilt and renovated at a number of points in their history.

Fortunately, this was one of the few places that was showing any activity, and we got there just in time for some ceremony by the Buddhist monks in the temple, sounding drums and some strange instrument in the shape of an enormous conch.





We spent barely a day and a night in Guangzhou, so we didn't get to see much more. Now looking back, I wish we had had the chance to explore more and get a real feel for the city and it's culture... But this was just a stepping stone to get to our main destinations - Macao and Hong Kong. Well, the first stepping stone, because there was a second one - Shenzhen!