Thursday, 11 September 2008

Hong Kong ... from Edinburgh

After excessive procrastination... here's my Hong Kong report! I spent the night before my 5.50am flight at Auckland airport. I got the last bus to the airport at 9.50pm but wasn't able to check in until about 3am so I found some seats upstairs where one or two other backpackers were already sleeping and settled down with my inflatable pillow and my hood pulled over my face. I didn't want to use earplugs in case someone made off with my luggage while I dozed obliviously, so it was pretty noisy from the cafe adjacent to the seats, but I got a bit of rest. When I got up at 3am our little backpacker creche had been extended and there were people sleeping in sleeping bags on the floor around the seats. I don't remember anything about the flight to Sydney apart from breakfast :-) Got into Sydney at 8ish and hung around for a bit, spent my last Australian dollar on a Boost bar out of nostalgia and got on the delayed flight to Hong Kong along with lots of Chinese but a fair number of other travellers too. As we flew into Hong Kong I got a gorgeous view of the sunset across the islands, which made me want to whip out my camera - but real life is better. The airport was a bit weird in that it smelt musty and they were playing accordion music which would have been more appropriate in a naff Italian restaurant. I spotted a Hello Kitty aeroplane outside, which I found very amusing and so Asian. Then I had a bit of trouble getting in touch with Jane and Patrick as I didn't have change for the phones and didn't know the HK country code to call them from my mobile! This is what happens when you don't have a Lonely Planet... I asked at the information desk and they thought it would be 01, which as far as I understand is for making international calls, but eventually I got the right code and Patrick came to meet me at Central station. We had a yummy supper at their fantastic flat and I got some excellent advice on what to see, and then had a good night's sleep! I spent the morning of my first day in HK wandering around the Cat Street and Hollywood Road antique shops. Going from 15 to 30 degrees in such a short time was strange, but quite pleasant - even though it was humid heat, I will accept any heat :-) I explored SoHo as well, and thought it was a really vibrant, quirky area. Good fun for window shopping and the cafes looked nice but my funds were too low for that sort of indulgence. I also took the electric tram (sat at the top at the front - great view of people and traffic and buildings) to Wan Chai and explored there. I didn't get stared at as much as in other Asian cities I'd been to, which was good, and generally I found people pretty helpful in Hong Kong. They walk really slowly though so I did a lot of overtaking, but I also stopped a lot to take pictures and indulged my inner tourist :-) My day ended in Lan Kwai Fong, where I discovered Hong Kong happy hour when I was given another G&T as soon as I'd finished my first! I avoided the bars full of Westerners (mostly guys in shirts) and went for a very narrow arty place full of Chinese playing cards and smoking and nibbling peanuts. Great for people-watching both inside and outside the bar! They played the same pop song over and over again; clearly one of the barmaids was a fan and no one seemed to care.
On day two I took the Victoria tram up to the Peak. Unfortunately it was quite hazy so I didn't get the best view, but it did give me an idea of how sprawling Hong Kong Central alone is. There were loads of dragon flies bobbing around up there too, which were fun to watch. I walked round the Botanics and Zoo afterwards, and saw two hornbills wrestle with their beaks. There was some blood, so I don't think it was play-fighting! I also walked through the park / gardens, where I though I might go to the tea museum, but unfortunately it's closed on Tuesdays. There were a lot of Olympic themed flags and mascot and horse sculptures around. I wandered down to Wan Chai, where I managed to trip over a bit of renegade pavement, which resulted in a very sore toe. As I lifted it to inspect it a couple of dollops of blood started dripping onto the pavement, so I made my way to the nearest pharmacy (Boots-style) and got myself some plasters. I was trying to affix one of them in the MTR station when a helpful cross-eyed attendant came up with a plaster in his hand. I should have gone to them in the first place! I thanked him and then carried on, hoping I wasn't offending people with my foot display.. After that I got a bus to Stanley, which is a great area. The bus went through Refuse Bay as well, which was beautiful. I wandered through the market and admired the waterfront and views out to islands, then headed back to Wan Chai to meet Patrick and Jane at The New American for dinner. Great fun trying all the local and not-so-local food, such as Peking duck, garlic deep-fried prawns, and sesame buns eaten with a tasty fried beef ( or pork?) mixture. We'd just been talking about my aunt's other friends from HK when they showed up at the restaurant by chance! So I met Rob and Johee as well... After that we went to the Feather Boa for margaritas. A very hip little place, very crowded but brilliant fun!
On day three I was catching a very late evening flight to London so had the full day to explore, and decided to take the boat over to Lantau. It was lovely and sunny there and I even got a little sunburned. I took the bus all the way to Tai O, which is a fishing village with houses on stilts. I took lots of pictures there, then took another bus to Po Lin Monastery. Very touristy, but I thought I might as well go. The Tian Tau Buddha was worth a peek! It would be very photogenic in swirling mists too, I imagine. I took the fast cat back (I think I preferred the slow old boat!) and then went on a China-plate-buying mission in the escalator area in SoHo, for my parents (to replace all the ones my siblings and I have destroyed over the years)... mission successful! Lugged the China plates back down to the harbour and onto the Star Ferry to Kowloon, where I watched the Symphony of Lights, which was cheesy but fun! Got some nice pics of the illuminated skyline (and a lot of blurry awful ones too, with the backs of other tourists' heads in them). One last yummy supper at Jane and Patrick's and it was off to the airport again. Sad to leave such a cool place, but happy to be going home too! I wasn't sure if I was going to make it when the plane flew straight into a storm cloud and we dropped like a stone. Everyone screamed, but we steadied again and flew (somewhat turbulently) through lightning for a bit. The plane was absolutely packed with Chinese, who all looked like students heading to London for the new academic year or something. It felt strange going back to a culture (and airport!) I knew - no visa required, no arrival form to fill out... Nice and easy! Until we got to Terminal 5, and I had to lug six heavy China plates plus regular hand luggage around the (not tiny) terminal to get to T1 for my flight to Edinburgh! I worked up a nice sweat. People probably thought I was a nervous smuggler. But everything went smoothly and I got to Edinburgh airport on time. I was greeted by a party of tall Scottish people holding a makeshift sign with what was supposed to be my name ('Filleypah')...!

It took me more than a week to get my body clock back to normal. Going to sleep at 8pm and waking at 5am seemed appropriate for a long time! It's nice not to have to live out of a backpack (though I still don't have my own room/a wardrobe, it's a work in progress...) and jet about all the time. My job searching has been quite unsuccessful until now, but maybe next week.....! (is what I say every week). I'm not quite ready to plan (or finance!) my next trip but I hear South America is nice in May.......!

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Auckland, New Zealand

In Kaikoura I made the most of the sunshine and walked the Cliff Walk to the seal colonies. Some of it was a bit of a scramble as the path had been washed away but I joined a Scottish girl (from Aberdeen uni!) in tackling it so one of us could fetch help if the other fell off the cliff! I had fish and chips as a reward afterwards, as recommended by Mari. My only non-self-catered meal in New Zealand! It was blue cod and mild, flaky and buttery - really good. Of course the owners of the fish & chip shop were Scottish immigrants, but never mind! I really liked Kaikoura, and I heard on the news today that the roads to and from it are flooded, so I'm glad that didn't happen on my way up. The farmers are saying their lambs aren't likely to survive the weather, which is sad.
In Picton I did another scenic walk, to so-called Bob's Bay, and ate yummy baked goods from the Dutch "bakerij"! Bit of a flying stopover. Then I got the ferry to Wellington, which wasn't straightforward! On the Picton side I ended up having to walk with my heavy luggage to the Bluebridge ferry terminal because I didn't know there was a shuttle bus! I guess they forgot to mention that... Then I felt really sea sick on the boat, but the films they put on were quite distracting (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!?). Three hours later in Wellington (Welly) I spent ages trailing around looking for bus platform 'J' (having looked up buses on the internet beforehand and reading that they went from that platform). After asking I was informed it didn't exist so I just hopped on another bus in that direction, but I overshot my stop as it was dark by this time and had to walk pretty far back (and it started raining just as I got off the bus!) so it wasn't a great journey at all. I had a good time in Wellington though. I took in a Hogarth and children's book illustrators exhibition at the National Library, went to the Botanics, City Gallery ( a good modern art show! for once!), and various little boutiques. I was greeted in one by a scruffy shop-assistant going, "How's it goin' man?"! I wanted to say "Yo dawg" to be sarcastic but I think he might have missed the sarcasm and started a discussion about gang wars in Welly. I also went to the national museum, Te Papa, which was really good. I learned that a Kiwi scientist called Bob took the time in 1984 to count all the roadkill he came across while driving up the north Island, and counted 281 possums and 188 hedgehogs (plus a few others). People take possum killing very seriously here! I also learned that there'd been four 3.8-4.5 earthquakes in New Zealand since I'd arrived, plus a hundred smaller ones... everyday stuff!
On the way from Welly to Napier we stopped at Mount Bruce wildlife centre and I saw a kiwi in an enclosure inside, where they used infra-red light to simulate night, as kiwis are nocturnal. He was just having his midnight snack, which he found by prodding everything with his long pointy beak (they have external nostrils on the end of their beaks!) and bobbing about. Then he slurped it all up, which was really funny to watch. New Zealand wildlife is so entertaining!
Napier was good fun too. I stayed in an 180-bed hostel with just 5 people staying in it, it being low season! We (Nao from Japan, Thorsten and Fabian from Germany) had a couple of beers (the Germans agreed that New Zealand beer is not as good as German beer) and taught Nao how to play Monopoly! I think we just confused her terribly but she survived a couple of rounds... Napier had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1931 or so and rebuilt in Art Deco style, making it an attractive (if slightly Miami-beach looking) town to walk about. After Napier I stopped in Rotorua, where I met a young Australian guy who had totally overspent and stayed in NZ far too long so had nowhere to sleep and was hanging about in our hostel in the hope that no one would notice him sleeping in the TV room... Boys! Apparently his parents had bought him a flight home but he wasn't sure if he could be bothered taking it! Luckily he didn't have a credit card to overspend on. Or he'd be in debt like me...!
Rotorua was pretty smelly from all the sulphury hot springs and geothermal activity in the area (the earth's crust is very thin there) and I got a massive headache after a while! I left for Waitomo in the rain, stopping in Cambridge to change buses, and arrived in the late afternoon to check into the YHA. The bed hadn't been made in the dorm they assigned me to so they put me in a twin instead, which was nice but kind of strange not to be lulled to sleep by collective snoring and wade through other people's piles of stuff on the floor. Soon after arriving it was time to get ready for my night abseil! Waitomo is famous for its glow-worm caves and they've been a tourist attraction since the 1800's. It really kicked off in the 1980's though when people started black-water rafting and abseiling there. My guide Ross discovered the cave we went to around that time, and had built most of the walkways and ladders out of it himself. It was just me (low season...) so luckily we had the same sense of humour and there wasn't a boring moment. I got kitted out in sexy blue overalls, white wellies and a helmet with a headtorch. My camera's flash chose not to work so sadly I only have one blurry picture of me before we went down. When we were putting on our harnesses Ross said, "Don't worry, I've done this before. I went down once last week.", which was reassuring. It was an 150feet drop and once I was attached to the rope and to Ross I got to sit on an iron bar and get my hands on the right places on the ropes. Then Ross kicked away the bar I was sitting on (aah!), and I expected to dangle about like a spider and possibly spin and crash into something. Ross thought so too so he warned me I was about to look stupid, but luckily I just sat in the ropes and didn't move much. To stop from moving I had to straighten out the rope and wrap it round my leg - that stopped it from slipping through the bobbin (or descender), and if I wanted to descend I'd bend my leg and slacken the rope with my right hand. I got praised for my smooth style which Ross said took most guides in training a week to master. Then he offered me a job to be trained as an abseil and blackwater-rafting guide in the summer season (November), which I jokingly accepted. On the first descent we left our headtorches on for me to get used to the abseiling, so we didn't see any glowworms. Once on the ground we walked through the cave with water dripping down on us and clambered up four or five big ladders to get back out. Pretty hard work! Ross didn't even get out of breath. We had to stop every so often to clip ourselves onto safety ropes in case we slipped and fell. On the next descent we switched our torches off and got to see the fairy lights. Absolutely beautiful - I'd seen glow-worms in a field in Austria but that was nothing like Waitomo. The glow-worms are actually gnat larvae and spend about 8 months as larvae, during which they devour as many of their siblings around them as possible. When they hatch they only live for about three days as gnats, as they have no mouths. They mate and then either starve to death or are eaten by their charming brood. Such gratitude. Seeing them in a cave was great because there are tons as they like the moisture and all the insects they can feed on there, and as it's so dark you can see them really well. It looks like a 3-dimensional night sky down there when you're looking at the clusters of lights on the cave-walls. Ross said one guy proposed to his girlfriend there once as he thought it was so romantic. She said no! Cannibalistic gnat larvae just didn't impress her enough. I was quite impressed though, and stood and looked at them for quite a while, with Ross telling me glow-worm facts and entertaining tourist stories.
Back in Rotorua I went to Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park (or 'wonderland' as they called it), which was pretty cool, with lots of differently coloured lakes and pools, depending on the minerals in the water. It was a gorgeous day too (but after that it rained again). I also went to the Agrodome, where I watched people bungy, swoop, zorb, and shweeb in the adrenalin area! Swooping is the funniest thing I've ever seen (apart from the wildlife here). Up to three people get strapped into 'hang-gliding harnesses' which look like sleeping bags and then get hauled up high. One of them then pulls the release (what a responsibility) and they drop and swing like a huge pendulum. The more people, the faster (they're attached to each other in a row). When they drop they start screaming but only for a second before the wind hits them. Once they've swung as far as they'll go they start screaming again, and then they drop back again for a couple of swings. It looked fun... but too expensive! I went and saw the considerably cheaper but also very entertaining sheep show, where we spectators were mocked by the presenter in the subtle Kiwi way. The Americans and the Chinese got the worst of it... One Chinese girl went on stage to milk a brown-and-white cow, and was asked whether she wanted chocolate or vanilla, and after choosing chocolate was directed towards its bum... She actually got some milk out of it though (not at the bum). There were also lambs, which the kids got to bottle-feed, and sheepdogs who were trained to leap over the sheep on stage (they had loads of different ones to show the different breeds) and then sit down on one. I bet that skill comes in handy.
On the way up to Auckland I stopped overnight in Mount Maunganui (obligatory Magic stop) which is famous for its beach scene so pretty uninteresting in winter. My plans for Auckland pretty much only involve taking the ferry to Devonport, one of the pretty seaside towns, tomorrow, and then probably sleeping at the airport on Saturday night as my stupid flight is at 5.50am and there's no cheap transport there at that kind of hour! It's going to be a long tiring, really really fun journey, stopping in Sydney from 7.20 - 10.45am and arriving in Hong Kong at 17.45 local time! I may get round to blogging in Hong Kong, but if not you'll get a Hong Kong-related entry when I'm back in Scotland... :-)