Friday, December 10, 2004

True North

I finished my week in Hong Kong by doing something that someone wise in the ways of the city had recommended: taking the tram. The old Hong Kong trams celebrate their centenary this year, their tall, stately vehicles plodding steadily through the throngs of traffic on the streets. They are the oldest wooden-sided trams in the world and, while the tram network has not been expanded (the Metro has essentially replaced the tram), the current network of a handful of routes has been protected, lovingly, by the city. So I started from one end of the tram network on the longest route through the city to the other end, sitting at all times at the top of the tram, in the front cluster of seats just above the driver.

It was a wonderful thing to do, a bird’s eye view of the spinal cord of the city on Hong Kong Island, and especially in the buzzy, busy Central. The tram gives you a different perspective from another viewpoint, which is that it originally followed the shoreline in most areas, so you can measure the amount of land reclaimed since it was built from its distance from the shore today – a bit like Wellington and its Lambton Quay.

I had a picture overflow last week, in case you didn’t notice, so some pictures of Hong Kong and Macau appear in this week’s gallery, along with those from Vancouver; you can see the lot if you click here.

I finished off my visit in the city with a drink with a former work colleague (they’re all now former, of course) in SoHo (here meaning South of Hollywood Street) and dinner in Causeway Bay. I went to Times Square, an enormous complex of shops and restaurants. While it seemed a mad idea to have a Food Court high up from the 12th to the 15th floors of a retail complex, in Hong Kong, it somehow fitted perfectly…

I’m keenly aware that I am now back in the Northern Hemisphere. I got off the flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver to a steady downpour of rain. Although this may seem to be a theme for me, it does seem to have coincidentally been rainy everywhere I’ve gone, except in India during the monsoon, where it was supposed to be and never really was.

Of course, on the West Coast of both New Zealand and Canada, it is supposed to be rainy, the year round. Still, the constancy of the rain is a little wearing. It reminds me of my last big trip around Europe in 1980. I set off with a cold which took me nearly 2 months to get shot of. I read a copy of Time Magazine near the end of my trip, in August, which called what I had just travelled through, “the rainiest summer in living memory.” So maybe it’s all down to me. Perhaps I am a rainmaker, with talismanic powers to conjure forth moisture from the sky…I could come in useful in those drought-punished parts of Australia where the water crisis grips and the forest fires burn the trees off the land…

So when I land, it’s raining. I take the taxi to the hotel in the rain, check-in, have lunch at the hotel to wait for the rain to stop, finally give up, then go out to orient myself and get some tourist information. I was last in Vancouver 7 years ago, en route to the Rockies on the tourist train that travels through Jasper and Banff. I remember little of it at the time as I was only here for a mere 3 days, so this is a return journey, to get acquainted with the city a bit more. I stay in the same hotel, the Sylvia, which is renowned as a former whorehouse. Rooms once rented by the minute or quarter-hour now fetch a mere $70 a night, and they’re very big, with high ceilings, and neatly done – but if you’re looking for sleek and modern and anonymous, forget it. It’s very friendly, which goes a long way, and bigger than the telephone kiosk at the Wong Fat, so a big improvement.

Go out later on to a jazz gig. Still raining. I go to visit the Gallery Lounge at the Hyatt Regency in Vancouver, where someone I know from my Jazz West Coast e-mail group, Kenny Colman, is singing. We’ve been in touch and I’ve told him I will visit this evening. He’s backed by the Tony Foster Jazz Trio, who sound absolutely wonderful. Kenny himself sings some wonderful songs in the excellent, intimate club setting. I stay for the beginning of the second set, but start to fade at that point, now jet-lagged by a whole 16 hours from Hong Kong, so bid farewell and promise to try to return later in the week.

I have two friends in the area, one an old friend and former schoolmate, the other a new friend and former colleague (they’re all…), and see both of them over the next few days. I go to visit my former schoolmate on Sunday in Victoria. Victoria is the provincial capital on Vancouver Island, and a small, quiet city compared to its bigger sibling across the water. Previously, I have taken public transport to the ferry landing at Tsawwassen, which is a long drawn-out affair involving multiple bus routes and the Skytrain – this time, it was recommended that I took the seaplane and, since I’d never been in one, I decided to try it. Great idea, as the views were spectacular of the distant hills on Vancouver Island and the islands in the straits, and the mountains of Vancouver and North Vancouver.

My friend and I spent most of Sunday together talking and reminiscing, and when she went to work on Monday I spent the morning and early afternoon looking around downtown Victoria, which is very pleasant and filled with twee shops and boutiques and cafes. It’s most celebrated for its government buildings and harbour, and for the Butchart Gardens, which I had visited before. I went to an exhibition of French drawings and pictures from the National Gallery of Canada, which nicely filled the afternoon, before I went back to my friend’s place, we had dinner, then talked some more before I left on the ferry for Vancouver. It left at 21:00, and arrived in Tsawwassen an hour and half later, after which it’s another 45 minutes into downtown Vancouver…

I then had another trip out, this one unplanned, as a former work colleague from Bermuda returned to live in North Vancouver a couple of years ago, and kindly offered to show me some North Shore sights. I went over on Tuesday afternoon and he took me to Grouse Mountain. Grouse Mountain is only 15 minutes from Downtown Vancouver, and is called in the local tourist literature, “The Peak of Vancouver”. It’s actually an 8 minute ride to the peak, aboard the largest aerial tramway in North America, to the alpine station about 1,100m above sea level. On the way up, the rain turned to fine snow, and we alighted to find ourselves in the midst of a blizzard!!! I thus have no pictures of the ride up, the spectacular views, or the alpine chalet. My warm weather wardrobe cannot run to protection against blizzard conditions, so we repaired to the bar, of course, to have a beer and chat, and await the start of a film in the summit cinema, with spectacular views of mountain scenery.

The place is crowded with skiers on winter weekends and even this late in the afternoon on a weekday, there were quite a few people around, enjoying the snowy conditions or relaxing in the chalet. Our return journey to earth was just as snowy or rainy as the ascent.

Next, we went to the Capilano Suspension Bridge. There is in fact more to see than simply the bridge, although the bridge is spectacular enough. The beautiful forest spot was discovered 110 years ago, and after clearing the land and building a cabin a cedar plank and hemp rope bridge was built 450 feet across and 230 feet above Capilano River.

It then became a popular tourist attraction, and the present bridge was built a couple of bridges later in 1956. To make more of the Bridge as a tourist attraction, trails have been laid in the surrounding forest, a number of interpretative displays installed on the flora and fauna of the area, and a number of other attractions added – including a Treetop Trail, which spans the huge, tall redwoods that tower above ground in the forest.

Finally, we went to Prospect Point in Stanley Park, where we met some very tame raccoons, and found some spectacular views of North Vancouver. The north shore has
some of the most expensive properties in Canada at CAN$2m - $20m a shot, mainly because the views are so spectacular from the hill. I decided as I hadn’t yet visited Stanley Park, a stunning urban park that is a jewel in Vancouver’s tourist attractions, I would continue from there on a pathway laid along the perimeter of the park, enveloping its irregular contours that jut out into the ocean waters.

The core of Downtown Vancouver is pleasant but unremarkable. It has few older buildings of note, and the small clusters that still remain are in Gastown, the site of the original settlement in the late 19th century. Gastown is great to walk around but, as with most things, is more enjoyable in warmer, sunnier weather. It has art galleries, shops, cafes, and other attractions, including a pretty vibrant club scene. But, I suggest coming in better weather.

However, Stanley Park was a revelation. Luckily, the sun decided to put in an appearance in the afternoon sky, brightening the landscape and one’s mood. It was as if we had suddenly moved from the chill of winter to the warmth of autumn. The sun was beaming and resolute, low in the late afternoon sky, fixed and seemingly immutable on its descent. I took advantage of it by taking some spectacular photos of the landscape as I walked.

As I walked along I met an old man sitting on an old log on the beach, staring at driftwood. He proffered me a piece, “see this? Doesn’t it look like an animal? I’m trying to figure out which one.”

“Looks like a duck to me – see, there’s the head, the bill, the tailfeathers,” I replied.

“Yeah, but I’m thinking seal – it looks to me more like a seal. Y’see? There’s the head, and a flipper…”

The cloud was edging in on the setting sun, hemming it in and blurring its edges, so I decided to walk on. There were a lot of ducks, gulls and terns around, and I saw 5 birds sitting in a line floating on a piece of driftwood in the water. Someone started playing a trumpet on the beach. I walked on again for another 20 minutes, and the sun had set further, beams still blazing forth out of one of the hills of clouds, until all that you could see of it was the proverbial silver lining, the rays illuminating the summit of a billowing smoke of cumulus.

The path around the edge of Stanley Park is a tease – it continually looks as if it’s about to reveal a grand vista, a great scenic view, but keeps holding its secrets back as long as possible. I finally managed to see the dying light illuminate the North Shore, where lights were gradually appearing and winking in the dusk. I edged off the path eventually, when the light had almost died, and walked back by Stanley Park Causeway to the city. As I walked, I reflected on the places where I had been and where the old colonial names – Victoria in Australia, Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, Stanley in Hong Kong – were echoed by their Canadian counterparts, old names in new lands. I would find few of them, of course, next week in New York, my final stop on my trip before returning home…


Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

As usual magnificent as your talespinnin
comes to an end. Of course there is always
the next one.

December 12, 2004 11:16 PM  

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