Friday, December 17, 2004

Gig City

My next-to-last day in Vancouver was, as usual, rain-sodden and grey, but I realised that I had yet to visit one of the most famous attractions, Granville Island. so after some last minute errands, I climbed in my friend’s 4X4 and off we went.

Granville Island is off Downtown Vancouver and contains an arts community, with workshops, and a market, and lots of trendy cafes and bistros on the water. In the summer, it is thronged with people taking advantage of the (partly cloudy, partly) sunny weather, living the outdoor life, and is well worth going to. It was the location of the first microbrewery in Canada and so it seemed right to have some lunch and Granville Island ale at a bistro by a roaring fire and watch the boats bob up and down on the docks outside.

When you’ve been travelling, you do begin to notice lots of parallels and correspondences between similar places. Such as Granville Island in Vancouver and Darling Harbour in Sydney. Blink and you could (except for the weather, the currency, and the accent) be in either one, I feel…and it’s not just in the area of trendified waterfronts that one notices similarities

Afterward, I went to the University of British Columbia (UBC) Museum of Anthropology, which has a spectacular location overlooking the sea. It’s principally known for its collection of the art of West Coast Canadian Natives. And what a collection. The building is several stories high, I guess to accommodate the towering totem poles, magnificent structures festooned with multiple faces and figures. These appear to me to be very similar to some of the artifacts of the Maori art that I looked at in Auckland and elsewhere in New Zealand, especially the decorative poles erected at the entrance to Maori settlements. They do not, however, look at all like the aboriginal art that I’ve seen in Australia.

I stay there for the afternoon, then take a long bus ride back into town to get ready to go out in the evening. I’ve decided to go to The Cellar, a jazz place in West Broadway, run by jazz saxophonist Cory Weeds, who tonight is featuring Bill Weeds, who I guess is a relation, on guitar with a quartet. It’s a group of players that I haven’t heard before, and they’re excellent. The whole night winds up about 11-ish, perfect for me to catch one of the last buses down West Broadway and back to my hotel, the Sylvia, to pack and get ready to leave the next morning.

Which dawns blueskied and beautiful and clear, the best day of the week so far, and the day of my departure. Figures. My flight doesn’t leave until 14:15 that afternoon, so I do some last minute shoppng and checking e-mails in the morning, then leave plenty early for the flight to New York, which requires a 2 hour check-in.

Without realising it, this is a good decision, because when I get to the desk to check in at Vancouver, I’m not on the flight!!! I have been on this flight since the end of June, when I booked my ticket, and my name incredibly appears nowhere on the flight manifest. This despite reconfirming the flight 3 days before (which, of course, all the airlines say that you don’t have to do) with United…but this is a code-share with Air Canada, so it appears that the United and Air Canada computers are not connected in any way whatsoever. Still, I should be listed on the flight, reconfirmation or not…none of this fazes the check-in clerk, who says that while it’s unusual, it’s hardly completely unknown. In this age of the War on Terrorism, is it really allowable to have a ticket for a flight on which you are not listed??? I guess so. In addition, her machine refuses to read my new Canadian machine-readable passport, and I begin to worry…

Bizarrely, in Canada, flying to the U.S. involves immediately going through U.S. Customs, who operate from Canadian soil, and even have a massive “Welcome to the United States” sign above their heads. You haul your bags through from check-in and are then cross-questioned by a strange Customs officer. This breed seem to aim for a combination of the breezy, friendly, menacing, and unpredictable, which sounds as if it might be deliberate. He is interested in what I am doing and where I have been, and asks what I do for a living. “I’m unemployed,” I say, which then seems to cause all sorts of problems. “So, whaddya gonna do, panhandle on the streets of New York???” I explain, patiently, about being losing my job, and being given a redundancy payment in compensation. He puzzles over the word ‘redundant’, then breaks out into a broad grin. Damn, I think, what the hell is he going to do next??? Instead, he shakes my hand, “wow, I really admire you, you’re doing exactly what I wanna do. I have 17 months to go, and I just wanna finish this job, then do some travelling. Y’know what? You wanna do it before you get older. You don’t wanna leave it too late – you never know what might happen. That’s fantastic!”

He’s quite mad. I then chat for a few minutes with My New Friend about where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing. He seems immensely impressed, and keeps saying about how much he admires me and envies me. It seems that I’ve passed some kind of test, as he says bon voyage and wishes me good luck and godspeed!!!

Unfortunately, I don’t have him with me for protection when I get to the bag drop. I am selected for a 10 minute random check, which entails a rigorous search through my bags by two firm but friendly ladies who swab my bag for drugs, semtex, etc. On to the conveyor belt with the bags – with no small amount of relief – and go to the lounge to relax before the flight.

The only good thing about all of this is that with the formalities tackled before you leave Canada, the flight is essentially now treated as a domestic flight, so my arrival at JFK is completely free of any bureaucracy. After a 40 minute cab ride, I’m at my friends’ place in Manhattan.

I am staying with an old friend of mine from the UK who has worked in New York City for a long time now, and whose latest home I have yet to visit. I think it’s on reclaimed land around Battery Park, land excavated from Manhattan when the World Trade Center was built, but it turns out to be a later development north of there, on River Terrace at the end of Chambers Street, still part of Battery Park City. He has magnificent panoramic views of midtown Manhattan and the Hudson River to the north and west, and downtown Manhattan to the east, only missing out on the southwest and South (which is New Jersey, Staten Island, and the World Trade Center building site, so not a great loss at this time). You can see some of the pictures from this view by clicking here.

This stopover is something different for me on this trip, a destination that I know fairly well. All others on this trip I have never visited before, with the brief exceptions of Hong Kong and Vancouver; whereas I have probably been to New York about 14 or 15 times – first in 1969, last in April 2001, just before the dreadful terrorist attacks in September. It never loses its capacity to amaze, fascinate, and enthrall. Partly this is down to an endless ability to reinvent and reinvigorate itself.

The result is that unlike elsewhere, where travellers commonly recommend places to eat or drink to those who follow in their footsteps, in the case of New York this will likely be ineffective, as things will have completely changed by the time someone else visits. In 3 years, I have noticed a lot of changes, but perhaps I am noticing changes this time by comparison with earlier visits – a bar here, a tea shop there, and wasn’t there a nice restaurant where we ate a couple of times in the, er, mid-90s, I guess??? Of course, the terrorist incident at the World Trade Center site was the biggest change of all – and, while it’s left a mark on the city and those in and around it, it’s also been absorbed by the city. I don’t visit the site myself, which is now a building site with very little to see.

Instead, I spend Sunday and Monday mooching around the Upper West Side, Chelsea, 5th Avenue, midtown, Greenwich Village, with no fixed agenda, and then decide to focus my activity by purchasing a new guide and finding out about what’s new to see and do. I manage to squeeze in my first shopping visit of the week, for some secondhand jazz CDs in the Village, and in the evening my mate and I hit some strange place next to CBGBs in the Bowery to listen to George Colligan’s Mad Science. It turns out to be his organ trio which, given his increasing reputation as a jazz pianist, is very ordinary.

On Monday, I visit one of the iconic Christmas places in New York City at Christmas, Rockefeller Center, nicknamed Rock Center by the locals, where every year a tall, imposing Christmas tree is erected above the skating rink in the centre of the complex, in Rockefeller Plaza. I go back on Tuesday and have a Rock Center tour, which I have never done before, and look at the 1930s artwork that was inspired by the theme “the progress of mankind”, much of it art deco in style. It’s a great tour and highly recommended if you want to get a flavour for the city after the Wall Street crash, when Rock Center and the even more famous Empire State Building expressed the unflagging optimism that was the antidote to the Depression years.

The rest of the week so far has mainly consisted of visiting things I’ve not visited before, meeting people, and going to jazz gigs. The one exception has been the New York Public Library, one of my favourite buildings in New York for its magnificence, the breadth of its activities, and the frequent and excellent exhibitions that it features. I also visited the Museum of Modern Art, which only re-opened last month after a much-needed facelift. The main difference that I noticed is that the architects have let more light from the city into the homes of all those wonderful artworks, and have with their large plates of glass made the city as much a part of the Modern Art as the many Picassos and Matisses on the walls. Given that my Rock Center tour guide had pointed out the juxtaposition of so many different architectures in a small space of 5th Avenue – Art Deco to Gothic to International styles – this seemed highly appropriate.

I manage to meet a former flatmate of mine and his friend for Sunday brunch at the Empire Diner on 10th Avenue – they happen to be in the city from Florida for the weekend – and also hook up with a couple that I met when in Delhi to hear about their trip, which brings a nice symmetry to my own to be thinking about India again. And, of course, I indulge in jazz, for which New York City is probably the world capital. If I wanted to, I could easily be out every night at two or three different gigs a night, such is the amount and quality of music on offer. It’s gig city!!! However, this way lies madness and an exceedingly sore head, and I’m already having enough trouble coping with the 12 time zones that I’ve just flown through in 3 weeks, so I restrict myself (!) to being at gigs 5 nights, 3 big bands (Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Mingus Big Band, Jason Lindner Big Band), and two small groups (Colligan and Peter Bernstein’s Quartet, with Brad Mehldau on piano and Bill Stewart on drums). I take some hard decisions – and after the Lindner gig, which was just excellent, I wander outside other clubs such as Sweet Rhythm and the Village Vanguard and muse about whether I should indulge in another set.

The other jazz-related thing that I do is visit the Louis Armstrong House and Archives, newly opened last year. I take the 7 out to Corona Park/103rd Street in Queens and emerge from the subway. It looks as if I have been transported to a new planet where people speak only Spanish!!! There is hardly an English word in sight. I stop at a lunch counter for a Western sandwich and a coffee, not really sure if my Spanish is up to the Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican cuisines on offer.

The house is a modest brick one in a street of modest clapboard homes about 15 minutes from the subway along some icy pavements – and my warm weather wardrobe will not survive another few degrees drop in temperature. Apparently when Louis bricked up the house, he offered to do it for his neighbours at the same time!!! The house is just as Louis and Lucille left it, and as the sole visitor I am taken around on a personal tour by Shirley and Monique, who are very informative and friendly, and we talk about Satchmo and his significance and importance. It’s a wonderful tour and delightfully off the beaten track of Manhattan.

My return looms on the weekend horizon. I return on Saturday at 19:00, meaning leaving Manhattan probably about 15:00 for the airport, and as the date and time approach I have mixed feelings about the end of my trip. However, there is no time to convey these feelings this week – nor to reflect back on the last 5 months – so if you have read this far, please check back next Friday for my final despatch where I will reflect back on things – a kind of coda to the music of my travels…

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…

Friday, December 03, 2004

City that Never Sleeps

I reached my jumping-off point for Hong Kong in Auckland on Thursday, two days before leaving New Zealand, the previous day having taken a diversion to Napier to meet a jazz contact of mine to talk what I call ‘boring old guys jazz talk’ (“No, take 13 was made on 21st January, not 22 January!”) and pick up some CD-Rs. While we had a great afternoon together, it didn’t really do justice to Napier, famous in New Zealand as the major casualty of their worst natural disaster, an earthquake followed by a fire which razed the town. And even more famous for the aftermath – the rebuilding of most of the town in Art Deco style, which makes it look nearly a perfectly preserved, but slightly odd period piece, a slice of architectural and social history in a South Pacific country thousands of miles away from the movement’s origins.

My friend met me at the airport and took me to the Mission winery for lunch – best gewürztraminer on the trip, and a lovely pinot gris – then on a brief tour of the town, which you can see some pictures from if you click here. We went into the amazing National Tobacco Company headquarters and we took a spin around some of the other buildings in the town. There is no doubt that Napier’s quite amazing and very well-preserved heritage was worth a guided tour, but with only enough time for a short stopover, it was something else that would have to wait until next time…

I left Napier the next morning for Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand and, with 1.3m people, about a third of its population. And what a third – it’s probably got the greatest diversity of ethnic groups of any city in New Zealand, a mecca for other Asians migrating to the country. When I first arrived in New Zealand, in Christchurch, in the South Island, I could believe that I had been mysteriously displaced through time and space to a provincial cathedral city in England; however, when you arrive in Auckland, there is no doubt that you are in Asia, in the South Pacific. Another thing that makes it different is that, as they colonised it first, the North Island has a greater Maori presence.

Auckland is built on an isthmus centred between the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific, from which it sprawls into suburbs and envelops other hamlets and towns. It’s been built on over 40 dormant volcanoes in the area, some of them now islands in the picturesque harbour, which is well populated with boats and ships, trendy cafes and restaurants. Houses and apartments huddle next to the waterfront, towering over each other to compete for their glimpse of the harbour setting. In so many ways, it resembles Sydney, so much so that you can walk down a street in Auckland and swear that you’ve somehow stumbled into a part of Sydney…

I booked a tour for the next morning, which began with gales and rain, initially piffling drizzle, then a real shower that settled in for most of the day. Our guide correctly identified me as the problem – “must be you, we had three weeks of summery weather that ended last week!” – which has dogged both me, and everywhere I visit, since my 4 wet days in Sydney!!! So I didn’t see Auckland at its best, but from Mount Eden (another dormant volcano) it was easy to appreciate the spectacular natural setting of the city, and we explored its bays and seashores and waterfront. It hasn’t got a lot of older, preserved buildings, or older quarters, that I could see.

The guide confined most of his comments to two topics on the city: its property values and its sailing obsession, both connected to the extensive harbour and waterfront. It does have other attractions: the Auckland Museum, one of the best museums in the country, one where I spent the afternoon enjoying their extensive Maori exhibits, and attended a Maori performance. And, as with most cities in this part of the world, an extensive botanical garden.

I rounded off my visit to Auckland by visiting another, newer jazz friend for more B.O.G.J.T., and listening to the Tanner-Barwick Quintet at the London Bar in the Civic Tavern on Friday night. They were excellent, a rare trumpet/ fluegelhorn frontline, but fighting the raucous noise of a Friday night crowd who, for the most part, were talking over the music.

It’s now been nearly three weeks since arriving in New Zealand, six since coming from Delhi. My Delhi experience, so vivid at the time, now seems as if it was a long time ago. I am disappointed to be unable to spend more time in Australia and New Zealand, for I enjoyed visiting both of them. I also missed seeing a lot of places and sights, but got to visit the people that I wanted to see, and saw most of what I had planned to see, which was great.

As I went to the airport in New Zealand on Saturday for the flight to Hong Kong, I resolved to return, with greater knowledge of the country and its people, for a longer period of time, some time, some day…

On the other hand, Hong Kong is for me a return visit. Flicking through my passport, I realised that it was 5 years almost to the day that I had been in the city for the first time. That trip was one of my first since joining my former employer, a whirlwind week of interviews of my new colleagues and clients for my Marketing M.A. dissertation, meetings to progress our marketing in Asia, and socialising. I stayed at the Mandarin Oriental, one of the top hotels in Hong Kong, if not the globe. I flew business class there and back from the UK. And I got to see very little of the city, in reality, other than when the business finished on Friday before I returned on Saturday. However, it would be very different this time…

For one thing, the jet lag: the time difference with New Zealand was 4 hours, so we left Auckland at 10:30 and the 11 hour flight got us into Hong Kong at about 17:30. I took a cab in for the long drive to my nice hostel in Causeway Bay. Despite booking ahead, my room wasn’t ready, and I was decanted to a shabbier, grimier alternative a couple of streets and 4 floors away. Not the Mandarin Oriental, no doubt!!! I was so tired from the long flight that it didn’t matter.

I went for a walk around my surroundings – I had only been to Causeway Bay once on my previous trip and, although I knew that it was a shopping mecca, it was still amazing to see the streets flooded with people at 20:00 on Saturday evening in ‘Fashion Street’, shopping, eating, walking, chatting…consuming. I walked around a bit, marvelling at the energy and excitement, buzz and verve that even the most marketing-jaded Western consumer would be able to feel!!!

And, while you may think that I could escape Christmas while here, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it dogged me all during the week – whether it was Santa’s Grotto and the Christmas displays in Central in Statue Square, or the nasally carols blaring from loudspeakers in Kowloon, there was no doubt that Hong Kong was going to be celebrating Christmas, after a fashion. After all, no holiday goes better with shopping than Christmas, and no city is more attuned to shopping and brands and marketing than Hong Kong!

I then headed to Central and tried to find some jazz to listen to, as this was the only Saturday I would be in the city. I found one place closed, a second one with a Thursday night gig night, and a third started at 10:30, or 2:30 a.m. Auckland time. When investigating the third, I got trapped in a lift with 5 gorgeous women cackling with laughter!!! I thought that a stuck lift was a bad omen, so I had some dinner, then went back to the fleabag (the fleas had moved out!), buying my breakfast on the way.

The next morning, hump bags back to hostel # 1, book into room for the week (cramped, cosy, tiny, small – but the price is right, and this is Hong Kong, where space is at a premium), and set off to explore the city. The rapid transit system in Hong Kong is highly efficient and whisked me to Central, where I visited the Tourist Office, picked up brochures and booked a tour of the New Territories. Then, as it was sunny and warm, I thought that the best thing to do was a very Hong Kong thing, both for natives and tourists: taking a tram to the Peak. There’s a long Sunday queue which moves quickly, and soon we’re at the front.

It’s not actually a tram (Hong Kong has a few of those as well), but a funicular, to the same end. It makes it way slowly and patiently to the top, seeming almost vertical at certain points (it gets to 1:2!), and yielding spectacular views en route – but don’t take any pictures, as the views are great at the top, and just as good a ways below the top. It’s a great way to orient yourself in the city, as you can see most of it laid out before you, and it’s a jolly nice view. The ramble that spirals below the summit, starting with Lugard Road, is pretty wonderful as well, and obviously a favourite Hong Kong Sunday activity, judging from the numbers of people coming up and down the path. Lugard Road was laid out early in the century, and isn’t a road as such, but a very wide path, paved and protected everywhere by dense forest, with a few odd lookouts. There were a number of sponsored workgroup walkers as well, all togged up in their branded t-shirts. The views of the harbour are superlative, but a tad smoggy – never mind, they are still wonderful, so I’ve included them in this week’s pictures.

The peak complex itself is forgettable, with a number of irrelevant attractions such as Madame Tussaud’s and Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, and the inevitably endless shops. Great swarms of people everywhere going from shops to attractions to peak views. However, the walk from the peak is the way to descend, a much nicer way to enjoy the views, covered by lush forest, tamed by man and concrete. Signboards give information on the unique species of plant and bird in the forest – and encourage birdwatching! In Hong Kong!!! Families are out in force, boy and girlfriends hand in hand, work colleagues on runs and walks. It’s a nice, relaxed scene. There are lots of other walks that spin off from Lugard Road as well, lots to see. Even a 55km. Hong Kong Trail!

Midway down the Peak you arrive at Conduit Road, in what is called Mid-Levels, which consists of high rises with great views, and realtors. The buildings soar 30/40/50 storeys into the air from narrow bases, clinging to the side of the mountain. Along a piece you discover the Mid-Levels Escalator, longest escalator complex in the world, going all the way back down to Central. I walked down the stairs alongside as it only goes down in the morning, up the rest of the time. Alongside the stairs at one point were a mosque, a catholic cathedral, and a synagogue – talk about a Hong Kong cultural stew, east-meets-west!

Encouraged by the walking, I got a Hong Kong Walks guide from the tourist office which I used the next day to walk around Central and see some of the old harbour areas, including the place where the British landed when they took control of the colony in perpetuity. There are lots of picturesque streets devoted to various vital necessities, such as Ginseng and Bird’s Nest Street, Herbal Medicine Street, and Dried Seafood Street, most of them lined with shops with the named goods on display. One definite sign that you are in Asia: bamboo scaffold everywhere. Apparently it’s just as rigid, but much more flexible (so better able to withstand the elements), than steel!

Tuesday, I went to the New Territories, on a tour called The Land Between as it’s the buffer between Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and Mainland China. It’s rural and treed and I’ve never been there before. We started our tour at a temple complex dedicated to three major religions, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, the Yuen Yuen Institute. Spiral insense shaped like beehives hung from the ceiling and gave off wafts of perfume. Worshippers would come in and get their fortunes read by the fortune teller, who sat to one side, reading the Hong Kong equivalent of the Racing Times in his downtime.

The insense presumably had nothing to do with our somewhat smoggy view from the lookout at Tai Mo Shan Country Park – one of many parks in the New Territories that are very popular places for weekend visits. We then visited a couple of villages, Luk Keng, from where there had been a lot of emigration to the UK and Canada in the 1970s, and Sam Mun Tsai. Luk Keng is very near Sha Tau Kok, the boundary town with Mainland China. The border runs straight through the town, so that you can walk from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to Mainland China across a street!!! We finally ended our tour at Sam Mun Tsai, which has a big fishing population, most of whom breed fish in submerged cages underneath their boats.

Macau was on the agenda for Wednesday – it’s easy to get to (take your passport!), an hour’s ride from Hong Kong – and I had only the day there. I think that my picture gallery next week will have the Macau pictures as I had too many for this week – it seems quite different from Hong Kong because the Portuguese were there for much longer. It has some skyscrapers, but not so many and not with as much architectural interest. It does have a lot of building going on – they’ve been almost as greedy as Hong Kong about reclaiming land from the sea, and have even created an Outer Harbour complex with artificial lakes. There are, like Hong Kong, a number of islands that make up Macau, and there are bridges between them all. I didn’t get to the outlying islands, which are meant to have nice beaches and seafood restaurants with Macanese cuisine, but I did get to do a lot of walking around the main city. It has a lot of colonial architecture still around, and a lot of Portuguese touches, such as the blue and white tiles for street signs.

Yesterday, I ventured forth to Kowloon, and did another couple of walking tours, which included street markets (birds, flowers), temples, the waterfront on Victoria Harbour, and great views of Hong Kong Island opposite. I also went to the staggering Museum of Hong Kong History, which tells the story of Hong Kong on two floors, and was far too much for the afternoon. Exhausted by all this knowledge, I went to the Peninsula Hotel, a local landmark, to do a touristy thing and have afternoon tea, which was highly recommended by an experienced Hong Kong friend.

Refreshed and renewed, I took the Star Ferry back to Central, an experience in itself considering the amount of traffic in the harbour, and met a friend at The Landmark. Hong Kong has been the only place that I’ve gone so far where my former employer had a large office, so I’ve been able to meet with a few people over the week for lunch and dinner and coffee, which has made the time go very quickly. My friend suggests that we take the ferry to Lamma, one of the outlying islands in Hong Kong, for seafood that evening, a 45 minute jaunt which we while away by chatting and drinking San Miguel, and we then find a table for two on the waterfront, choose some grouper and lobster and prawns from the tanks for cooking, and watch dusk turn into night…