Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Hong Kong: February 21, 2011

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On today's agenda was an exploration of Hong Kong's subway system and tram lines (trollies).

Normally, I'm up early and out the door for the morning light, but it really didn't matter here. The skies seemed to be painted a permanent gray, so sleeping in a little seemed perfectly reasonable. It was 9:30 when I hit the stairs that lead down into Tsim Sha Tsul subway station. The station is laid out something like a hamster's habitat. There is the main station, then a series of underground pedestrian arteries that act as feeder arms to the main concourse. The closest entrance was on Mody Street, just to the north of my hotel. I took the stairs down to the start of one of the pedestrian walkways. I consulted a diagram of the station layout and located the main concourse, and found it was a ways away. Following the example of my fellow commuters, I stepped on the moving walkway and was carried in segments to the main concourse. The "walkways" are pretty cool; they change direction depending on the time of day, and have large overhead changeable signs that tell you if you're going in the right direction (green light) or against the flow of traffic (red light).

I got to the main station and used my Octopus card to get past the turnstiles. Then I had to ponder a bit; but after watching the flow of riders, it became obvious that I should take the escalator down to a lower level. The train level was graced with a series of electronic signage that instilled a certain amount of confidence and made it easy to select the correct train.

Tsim Sha Tsul station is only two stops north of "Central," so by the time the south-bound train gets there it's packed to the gills. It wasn't easy, but I squeezed my bulk on-board and was off to the island of Hong Kong. Central is Hong Kong's transportation hub, very similar to New York's Grand Central Station, so it's a very active place. Once we arrived and the train doors opened, it was a mad scramble as the masses split up and headed for their appropriate exits, while the visitors scratched their heads and looked for an egress up to street level.

I just guessed at which exit to use and headed out. INFO: After you use your ticket at the entrance turnstile, be sure to hold on to it. There are exiting turnstiles at your destination where you need to re-insert your ticket or Octopus card to trip the device before you can exit the station.

From the station I walked up Man Yiu Street till I got to Connaught Road. This area is like trolley central — all the different trolleys use this section of Connaught Road as part of their route. After a bit of hesitation, I threw caution to the wind and got on the east-bound "Causeway Bay" trolley.

You enter the trolley at the rear and have the choice of either sitting on the bottom deck or taking the spiral stairs to the upper deck, which is what I selected to do. Upstairs, your view isn't hemmed in by the surrounding cars and buses and you get a much better feel for the cityscape.

I sat in the rear of the car, across from a young man who was holding a camera. His horn-rimmed glasses and server hairstyle gave him a definite style that was hard to place. We spoke a bit, and I learned that he was a photography student on his way to class. We exchanged pleasantries and then took turns taking photographs of each other.

INFO: If you're new to Hong Kong, just riding the trollies "end-to-end" is a very cheap and entertaining way to get to know the city.

I stayed on the trolley to the "Times Square" area and got off. To exit the tram, you leave through the front, paying your fare on your way out by dropping a $2 (HKD) coin into the tram's collection box.

I began to walk east hoping to find some interesting visual details to document, but things look much more enticing as you are zooming by. Once you're stationary and staring at them, they lose a lot of their luster.

I walked east for a good half-hour but saw nothing really special, so I decided to get back on a trolley and head back west towards Kennedy Town. I was guessing that as long as I was moving east or west on Connaught Road, I couldn't get lost.

I rode a few blocks past Central and got off. I wondered around for a while just looking for something to inspire a bout of picture-taking, but alas.

Yesterday I had spotted an intriguing statue that I'd love to have, but the store had been closed. Since the scenery was dull, both from a composition and light stand-point, I thought I'd return to the shop and see if I could make an inquiry as to the item's cost.

After climbing several flights of steep stairs, I was back in the area of shops I'd seen yesterday. I spent a few minutes looking through shop windows before I located the object of my desire. I took a deep breath and opened the door, tripping the buzzer.

The owner was a few years older than myself and walked with a bit of a hesitation. He spoke very little English, and since I don't speak Chinese, I pantomimed my request to know more about the statue. He moved it from the window and placed it on his desk. Using a chart, he pointed out that it was made in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and that it was very cheaply priced at $2,500 USD.

If it had been three or four hundred dollars, I would have snapped it up right there and then, but at twenty-five hundred dollars (US) it was well above my comfort level. And, I really couldn't tell if it was from the Tang Dynasty or made last month; regardless, it was a thing of beauty but beyond my means. After lengthy pantomimed conversation, I cajoled him into letting me shoot a couple of pictures, and he even furnished a wrinkled yellow cloth to use as backdrop. I left, thanking him for his hospitality and wishing that the dollar's exchange rate hadn't fallen so far.

It was a weekday, and the crowds at Man Mo Temple were of a more manageable size, so I was able to get inside and shoot. This place is visually famous for the giant spirals of incense that hang from the ceiling. Also, it's famous for the settlement of disputes that couldn't be solved using British Law in the past century. The solution involved a series of rituals: first the swearing of oaths, then the formalization of penalties if the oaths were broken, then the sealing of the compact with the spilling of blood from a sacrificial animal. The written compact was then bloodied and set on fire so that the smoke would carry the binding agreement up to the heavens.

From here, I walked east looking for something interesting to shoot and to find the Central–Mid-levels escalator. The escalator is the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world. The series of escalators are 2,625 feet long and elevate the passenger up 443 feet. The escalator moves in a downhill direction between 6 and 10 a.m., and uphill from 10:30 a.m. to midnight. The escalators might have been a great boon for local commerce, but after riding them to the top and walking down, I was unimpressed. It might be a god-send for the imbibers who make their way from establishment to establishment, but for me it was just so-so.

Near the bottom of the escalator, I photographed a beautiful banana seller plying her trade using her makeshift scales. The moment was so fragile that I didn't ask permission. I was afraid it would change the plane of reality.

I made my way the rest of the way downhill and walked back to Central. Without much trouble, I got the north-bound train to Tism Sha Tsui. It took about 10 minutes to pass under Victoria Harbor and emerge back in Kowloon. It was 2 p.m., and I grabbed a fast lunch and went back to my room. I changed my clothes and left for my fitting at the Raja Fashions at 3 p.m.

When I got there, the place was semi-deserted (see my advice on fittings, February 19 episode) and the salesperson said he'd take care of the fitting. Luckily, the real tailor showed up and redid all that the salesman had done. I kept telling them that I wanted the American cut and that I had giant shoulders and big arms. The jacket was just too tight. They wanted me to come in the next day, but I told them I'd be in Macau then, so we settled on Wednesday the 23rd. All in all, it was a very unsatisfying exchange.

The fittings are a little more stressful than you'd imagine, so I headed back to my room to watch a little TV and veg out till it was time to walk up to the "Temple Street" night market.

I should have taken a taxi, but I was being frugal and decided to hoof it. I headed north on Nathan Road. Nathan Road runs the gamut of human activity, from religious institutions, to every conceivable branch of consumer capitalism, to ladies out to represent the pleasures of self-employment. Because I was in a sauntering mode, it took more than half an hour to reach Jordan Road.

I consulted my map, took a left, and walked down a couple of blocks to Temple. According to the guide books, somewhere in the night market there was supposed to be a group of soothsayers that would forecast my path into the future. I walked the market several times but didn't see hide nor hair of the fortune tellers. Either I was too early or this wasn't one of the nights they frequented the market.

To me, the night market was little more than an American swap meet. The vendors didn't want any photographs taken and were rude in their vehemence. In my opinion, the market is one attraction that can be skipped.

I headed back. I wanted to be in bed by 10 so I could be on my way to Macau early tomorrow.