Sunday, June 15, 2008


Back home.

No money or property was stolen.

No identity was stolen.

No passports were lost.

No flights or buses were missed or canceled.

No bones were broken; no blood was shed.

Only one broken umbrella... that's what I call a great trip!

Thank you so much to Lynsie for taking us to DIA in the beginning and thank you to Jennifer for picking us up. Love you two! I have such awesome colleagues and friends.

Thank you to JJ for helping to get my order for School Specialty put through while I was overseas. You're awesome.

Thank you to Scott and Chris for putting us up in Sunnyvale, CA. Miss you guys already!

Thank you to Brandon for house sitting and making sure our three fluffy children (dogs and rabbit) were well fed, healthy, and safe.

Thank you to Claire for taking care of our photography business and answering calls while we were away.

Thank you to Shane for helping us continue to fix up the studio today in our mad rush to get it done by Wednesday in time for our first official senior portrait session of the season!

Thank you to Dad, Jane, and Chris for coming to help tomorrow.

Thank you to everyone else for reading along and caring! Hopefully we'll get to catch up on pictures soon, so keep checking back!

Trip Monetary Totals, for the curious:
Two Osprey Stratos 40 Backpacks: $300
Flights, International for two: $2,000
Flights, Domestic for two: $600
Hotel expenses for 13 nights: $650
Bus and misc. travel: $100-150ish (lost track of cabs/MTR)
Food, tours, admissions, and other misc. expenditures: $1,000ish
Food for the blog: Priceless ;)

Grand Total: somewhere around $4700
(two people, three countries, 19 days total)

We won't be able to go anywhere on another continent again for probably three years or so :) Next stop... Yosemite or Yellowstone or Rushmore or somewhere you can drive to!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

In California

We landed safely in San Francisco yesterday, over an hour behind schedule and having not slept a wink on the flight. Turns out those new fancy planes that are supposed to be more comfortable really are less comfortable... at least in my opinion.

Oh well, it's been great to spend some time with Scott and Chris. Last night we had our first home-cooked meal in weeks; it was glorious to have a fresh salad.

Today Jim and I visited Chris' classroom in San Jose (She teaches 2nd grade for Teach for America) to experience her last day of school. The school is definitely different! Let me tell you I'm super thankful for air conditioning. It was HOT. I'm surprised students can concentrate in that climate. There are no hallways... well, it does, but they are outside. So is most of the cafeteria seating. I guess that's something that can happen in California, but not Colorado! We helped Chris clean up the classroom and check things off her EOY checklist. I should be an expert at this by now :) Hopefully there isn't too much left for her to do on Monday, just clean/organize her desk and closets.

We visited what Chris and Scott say is the "best bookstore ever"... it was a pretty neat used bookstore. Of course I ended up in the Children's section after not too long and got some more easy readers as I feel that my classroom library is lacking in a variety of those. I also got a few more Arthur books because you know I love Marc Brown :)

Tomorrow we are theoretically heading to the beach and to dinner before boarding our flight bound for Denver. Then, it's four CRAZY days of hard work getting our photography studio ready to open!! Our first "real" (not ambassador) senior session of the season is scheduled for Wednesday. Yes, we are crazy.

In reflection... I miss Hong Kong already. That's one place where, humidity aside, I could live. I still would rather live in Colorado though... there's no place like home!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Sorry I'm a little late Carrie and Momma,

Happy birthday on June 2nd Carrie! 24 years young!

Happy birthday on June 9th Momma! 44 years young!

(If only I can look as good as my momma does in 20 years...)

Love and hugs to you both. I've been thinking of you!

Vegas meets Portugal meets China

Dear Macau,

I still don't quite know what to think about you. Thank you for a very interesting mesh of... culture.


We have officially been to Asian lands that were once territories of Spain, Britain, and now Portugal. (Philippines, Hong Kong and Macau respectively.) I have been to Vietnam, so add one under French rule as well. Those rascally Europeans, racing to take over the world hundreds of years ago...

Today (Tuesday the 10th) we decided to spend our last full day in Hong Kong not in Hong Kong.

Macau is an island (plus a tid bit of mainland) that was Portugese until 1999 when it was returned to China (two years after Hong Kong did the same). It is known not only for its Portugese influence but also because it is basically the Las Vegas of Asia... complete with the Wynn, MGM Grand, and Venetian.

We were confused when we got to the ferry terminal to buy tickets and there were signs for "Turbo Jet" everywhere. A jet is an airplane, right?

Wrong. So very wrong. Apparently, ferries are high tech now complete with jet engines. It was seriously like being on a waterplane. These things are incredible. We tried to take a picture for you but the lens fogged (they air condition them a little TOO well) so you'll have to try this link instead... . The ride was very fast for the distance and only took about an hour.

I'll admit that I was very unimpressed when we got there. The first thing you see when you get off is "Fisherman's Wharf", which really has nothing to do with fishing but is some sort of amusement park... only it was practically deserted. I was expecting hordes of people... but nada. It seemed like a lot of waste for not a lot of use. It ws like that scene from Shrek when Shrek and Donkey arrive at Duloc.

It didn't take us long to find the Wynn and MGM Grand. While there isn't a concentration of casinos like in Vegas (they're a little scattered), once inside the casinos you would never know the difference aside from signs being in Portugese and Chinese instead of English.

Fun to note: I have spotted several other caucasians in Hong Kong, but I counted five in Macau that I saw. Could just be chance. I'm definitely the minority here! That's always a fun feeling. Same in the mainland of course. Same same ;)

The waterfront seemed so rundown compared to what we'd just seen the night before on Kowloon... and everything was eerily empty.

Finally as we wandered up the hills toward the center of the island we found the ruins of the famous church on the island and night came seemingly suddenly. We wandered around the old walled fortress (similar to the Spanish one in Manila, go figure) and generally took in the stunning views. Then I was impressed.

On the way back down we enjoyed a boba tea and finally found the life of the town in the wandering nameless (and not on the map) alleyways filled with shops. It was teeming with teens, a much younger population than we'd expected.

Back at the Wynn we enjoyed the very amusing and overly dramatic "Golden Tree" show as well as a Bellagio-esque light and water fountain show set to music. All free to the public of course.

Dress code: It seems that everyone in Hong Kong wears sandals and shorts (aside from business people going to and from work of course who wear suits), so that's what we wore to Macau. Suddenly, especially in the nice casinos, everyone was wearing slacks and close-toed shoes. It took us a while to find a place to have dinner (back at Fisherman's Wharf) where there wasn't a dress code.

In the beginning I had spotted a sign on a quickly moving taxi for Cirque du Soleil so I was trying to figure out if we could see the show as it was one I'd (of course) never heard of before... but alas, we figured it out as we were leaving instead. It was at the Venetian on the other island we never went to. Oh well, probably better this way anyway.

We ended up on the 11:30pm ferry back to Hong Kong, putting us on the last MTR train back home. Yes, home... or as close to it as we can get right now :) (Ferries run 24/7 every 30 minutes between Hong Kong and Macau... we could have caught a cab back if needed.)

You have to go through immigration and customs between the two territories, so my passport is now adorned with more entries and exits out of Hong Kong than you can imagine as well as a new Macau stamp! How about that?

It's either very late or very early right now, depending how you look at it, but I felt it important to stay up and blog. We get back on the plane for San Fran tomorrow afternoon, and by the time all is said and done if I don't write about it now I never will. This blog is as much for me (us) as it is to keep our mothers updated as it is to amuse the rest of you :) Multipurpose... my kind of style.

I'm sorry that we've been running ourselves so ragged that we haven't had a chance to upload more pictures. There's a really funny one from today that deserves its own post. Hopefully We'll get a chance in California. And by the way Chris, thanks again to you and Scott for having us and we're looking forward to seeing you too! And I'll gladly take you up on using that washing machine if you're offering it!

P.S. Attn Sam Shepherd: There are tons of Body Shops both on Hong Kong and Macau! I took a picture just for you. I have no idea if you're reading, but there you have it.

P.P.S. Sorry children, I am entirely too tired to proof read right now. I realize some of my grammatical structures are odd and I have some run-on sentences. Please forgive me!

"The Big Buddha" a no go...

I had noticed on the news Sunday night that Lantau Island had experienced incredile rains while we were in the mainland resulting in landslides that had knocked out road travel (though ferry is still possible).

I didn't make the connection that it would affect seeing Ngong Ping and the Tian Tan Buddha until we went to transfer to that line in the MRT Monday morning and discovered that the Ngong Ping Skyrail (360) was out of service. Come to find out one of the fiber optic cables was damaged in the landslides. I should have made the connection before that.

I knew that several SASers had gone to see the Tian Tan Buddha (either the largest or one of the largest in the world... I can't remember) back in '05, so I've wanted to go just for grins since. It's not actually that old and is in what equates to a Chinese Disney Land (Ngong Ping Village), but I thought it would be fun to see anyway. The views from the skyrail (like gondolas on the side of the hills) are supposed to be beautiful, and there's supposedly rainforest on Lantau Island.

Lantau will have to wait. Nature didn't want us to go there I guess. I just hope the residents of the Tai O village on the island get running water back soon.

We decided to turn back around and head to Central for some more time in the skyscraper cluster.

The day amounted to a lot of walking and hiking up hills and staircases. Along the way we might have given in and had Starbucks, visited the conservatory that was closed last time in Hong Kong Park, and checked out the Hong Kong Zoo. By the way, the parks, conservatory and zoo are all free admission and very well kept. I can't get over this phenomenon. A trip to the zoo at home is what, $20? I can't remember. It's pretty ridiculous.

We headed to the Star Ferry Pier and took in the 1 hour Victoria Harbour Tour. It was quite beautiful.

Back on Kowloon in Tsim Sha Tsui (I'm beginning to think of this area, particularly Nathan Road, as home base) we walked along the Avenue of the Stars. It's basically the asian Hollywood Boulevard, right by the Hong Kong Museum of Art. It is a beautiful, free, clean walkway all along the harbor offering spectacular views of the Central Hong Kong skyline. We spotted the stars and handprints of Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Jet Li, and even a statue of Bruce Lee.

Dinner offered an unreal view of the twinkling lights of the skyline at dusk.

Off to the night market after sunset. I can't believe how things can change in only three years. Last time I went to the night market, there was a lot of hassling. Vendors touching and grabbing my arms, saying "Missy, missy...", and generally doing their best to be annoying in order to get me to buy stuff.

This time, it was almost eerie how much they left me alone. Except for the endless offers for "copywatches" and "copyhandbags", it felt like I was back in the U.S. in that people generally allowed you to browse their booths without much hassle. I wonder if it's anything to do with the economy? At least they still bartered... some of them.

The walk home offered much of the same as we've experienced on Nathan Road this whole time... always the offers for the copywatches and copyhandbags, endless jewelry stores, offers for tailored suits and shirts, and restaurant owners beckoning you inside.

I can't explain to you how much we had been on our feet. I was practically falling asleep as we walked up the steps back to our room. I had BETTER be in better shape by the time we get home!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Round 2 in Hong Kong

Note: The roads in mainland China leave nearly as much to be desired as the toilet facilities. Ouch.

The bus ride back from Yangshuo was better than the one there (mostly due to having a much better designed sleeper bus), but was still a jarring experience. Don't take an overnight bus for that length in the mainland and expect your brain not to be a bit tenderized at the end. I think we topped the bathroom fun this trip with our first in-the-middle-of-nowhere-at-night-without-lights fun. As can be expected, the guys were spoiled and opted to stay out of the building to utilize the moonlight while the women ventured into the unknown abyss. Poor ladies - I mean it. Those things are frightening when you can see where you're stepping.

The net benefit of the bus ride back was very positive, though, as we met up with another pack of friendly Israelis. This time it was three girls who were traveling to Kowloon Hong Kong like us, so we formed a posse and navigated the bus terminal and Lo Wu (though, it was confusing since on the China side, they apparently spell in LoHou) together.

Sarah had discovered mention of a nice sounding place to stay in the SouthEast Asia Lonely Planet (whereas before we used the Hong Kong one) so we made our way to it and were pleasantly surprised to discover that their comment of “immaculate” was dead on. The room is tiny, but it seems very recently updated and is incredibly clean. As an enormous bonus, it has a mini fridge! (Yay for cold water.)

The Hong Kong return agenda was to check-in, clean up (badly needed), have a lunch and head off to the Stanly Dragon Boat races. Like the trip into the mainland, the trip back took about 40% longer than predicted and we ended up getting to the dragon boat races with only 2 hours left. It ended up working out well, though, since honestly they're quite cool, but not necessarily something you want to watch hour after hour of. After the races, we bummed around the market and surrounding area before heading back.

Since we keep seeing signs for “The Spaghetti House” around Hong Kong, we decided to give it a go for dinner before heading back to the room. It was very yummy, but Sarah was sad to find that the Crab Meat and Spinach Cannelloni apparently had mustard in them (strange...) After the yummy dinner, we stopped off for some water/snack/etc. supplies and passed out.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Heading out of Yangshuo

Note: I love watermelon juice! Why don't we have this in the states? Or have I been missing it?

The today and yesterday weren't quite as eventful as our first day here.

Yesterday we took Alan up on his offer to take us down the big Li river... it wasn't half as spectacular. Beautiful, don't get me wrong... but not quite as majestic, even though it is bigger. To Alan's credit, he did warn us of that.

It was a bumpy bus ride up to the bamboo raft (yes another bamboo raft... only this one was fancy with a propeller attached to a lawn mower motor). We rafted down the river with Alan pointing out all the peaks. It's funny because they're very into naming things after animals and what they're shaped like. Lion Riding Carp hill, Yellow Cloth in Water, Apple, Grandfather Watching Apple, etc.

Then it started to rain. A lot. Again. :) My umbrella broke so that was fun.

We had a yummy lunch of the most delicious fried vegetables I've ever had. They had a cousin to the bamboo shoot in there, so yum. We also had the local specialty which is called beer fish.

We were in the oldes village around, with many of the buildings nearly 2,000 years old. The only problem was we felt a bit rushed and didn't get to explore and take as many pictures as we'd have liked to; Alan had picked up a couple of Chinese tourists that spoke Cantonese and they were tagging along. I'm not sure how I felt about that.

Then it rained some more and another bus ride later we were back in town. Alan asked for even more money to take us to his house the next day... we declined.

The good news is, we had the hotel staff wash and dry our laundry instead of handwashing it ourselves... how lovely to have fresh clothes again! We only packed enough for 4-5 days (one small backpack and messenger bag each) because we wanted to pack super light. We haven't had to check a single bag! It's been nice.

Alan found us this morning anyway and we had to tell him again that we didn't have any more money to spend. We said our goodbyes and mainly wandered around the couple of parks here and around the town and market. It was good to see the town, but now we're hot, tired and sweaty! Yum yum. We're having a cold drink right now, then we'll wander some more until it's time to catch our bus back to Shenzhen (and subsequently Hong Kong).

Apparently, there's an ongoing commentary by the staff about how fast I'm typing. They look at me wide eyed (according to Jim), point, and talk to each other. Apparently I'm quite the spectacle!

I'm starting to hit the point where I'm just about ready to come home again. Of course I love exploring, I just really miss the dry climate and being able to not feel like a sweaty pig some times, you know? I'm also missing... how shall we say... nice standards for restroom facilities.

Love and miss you all!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

An Even Better Kind of Pain

After the grueling overnight bus ride and subsuquent Lonely Planet proven journey to fend off hotel planted assistance, we landed our incredibly nice and ridiculously cheap off-season room and freshened up with a much needed shower and the intent of snagging a nap. The plan backfired and we felt so refreshed after that we decided to be ambitious and seek food and the day's activities.

We wanderd down West Street and found a neat looking “multi-cultural” cafe for breakfast. Before our food arrived, several agents of tourist hawking wandered by and tried to push their products. Luckily for them, the first was a lady selling a gorgeous book of area photography and she hit Sarah's weakness, along with a well bartered price, and both parties won. The second was a very patient and polite gentleman named Alan who's timing was excellent as he was pushing the exact services we had intended to purchase – bike rentals and bamboo boat trips. He, of course, ultimately wanted to sell his tour guide services as well, but we fended him off in the light of taking care of the sorely needed bodily function of nourishment.

Alan actually waited through our entire breakfast, without a single interruption, so we entertained his offerings. Though we did not want to spend the money on a tour guide, we heard him out and his initial offer for a package price was so reasonable that we haggled him down to $20 USD each for 5 hours of guidance in addition to the bike rentals and boat ride (wow.)

The day's agenda was to ride bicycles about 4km via “local routes” out to the small Lu Wi River, have a leisurely bamboo rafting experience followed by the option for a tour of the Moon Cave and a “The Real China” return trip. After our progressive education in the Philipines about “offers” that had pressure and guilt-based prices attached at the end, we ensured that everything was clear and were imediately impressed with Alan's integrity.

Although the Lonely Planet recommends that tour guides aren't necessary and our experience in getting to the hotel supported this argument, in hind-sight we're monumentally glad we hired Alan. The initial ride out to the river was stunning and probably not something we would have found on our own. When we arrived at the river, Alan introduced us to his uncle (who did not speak a lick of English) and esured us that he'd be at the end with our bikes. After a series of relatively efficient grunting and hand gestures, we wrapped our day bags up in plastic, securely attached them to the backs of our seats on the bamboo rafts and set off down the river for an admittedly leisurely 2 hour scenic experience.

Other than being blasted with endless offers for cold drinks, pictures of us going over the repeated “falls” and wonderful scenery, the float was great. Something of interest: they actually have little bamboo rafts in the middle of the river offering full food and drink services, as well as little wi-fi fed stations complete with power and die-sub printing for on-the-spot pictures! Hey, we may not have bought anything (interesting enough per Alan's suggestion stating that we'd get ripped off), but we were admittedly as impressed as we were annoyed with the non-stop barage.

At about the 80% point in our float, we went over a fall as usual to be suddenly broadsided by another bamboo raft. Alan's uncle jumped in pain and started splashing river water over a good gash as the sloppily guided raft moved on with hardly an apparent apoligy by it's local raftman. Though his wound was not incredibly severe, he was definitely leaking some blood cells and Sarah whipped ou the first aid kit and helped to disinfect and bandage his leg. He thanked us in Mandarine and the tour continued, with Alan at the end as promised with our bikes.

Next, Alan offered to take us by Moon Cave as promised (and without strings attached), in case we wanted to procure a tour. He negotiated 20% off the price of the tour for us and the cave seemed pretty neat, so once again he set off to patiently wait as we took the little “bus” out to the cave. Surprisingly, it was located much further out than we had anticipated in the middle of a really gorgeous, but incredibly remote farming area (complete with rice fields – yay!)

Our tour through the cave was, once again, worth the paltry sum we had paid for it. As the somewhat crude other American group we ran into in the caves put it, “this would never have happened in the states – someone would have bumped his head and although the helmets they made us wear would have protected them, they would have been sued and shutdown.” Wow-the cave was a great adventure, ending with a view that can not be beat.

Our guide during the cave tour, Cassie, was absolutely fantastic and we enjoyed a tremendous amount of creative interpretation of the cave's structures, as well as even better conversation that turned to various fascets of cultural sharing. The cave's end offered precisely the delicious view of rice patties and agriculture that we had been seeking for photographic opportunities and the pro body came out introducing a note of converstation surrounding our jobs as photographers. We offered to show Cassie an example of our work via taking a portrait of her (oh my gosh was it easy against THAT backdrop!), and she took us up. We showed her the (always) mediocres in-camera results and we could tell she was excited, so we offered to send the portraits to her via email and are very much looking forward to doing so after we return to the states and can process them appropriately.

After a 500% increased wait of “10 minutes” for the bus back to civilization, we finally arrived to find Alan waiting patiently for us with our bikes. We tried to argue him over his promise to take us back via a route that would show us “the real China”, stating that a quick route would do just fine, but he insisted. Once again, he did not disappoint, giving us yet another taste of mind-blowing scenery, as well as a great tour of the farming land and one of the “minority villages” in the area.

By this later-than-expected point in the evening we were not only feeling the strain of 8km of biking along with tons of squat crawling through caves for over an hour, but we also had the unique experience of heading back into town as the sun set. Don't worry moms, not only was the ride not terribly scarey, but Alan really earned every cent of inflated tip we gave him – the man not only delivered an incredible product and saw every bit of his word through, but we felt amazingly safe and comfortable under his care.

After yet another sorely needed refreshing shower, we begrunginly left our room to seek dinner (and yes, we mean that-wow we're sore and tired.) The only net bad result of the day was Jim's painful oversight to apply sunscreen to his legs requiring a trip to the market to seek out some moisturizing “post-sunburn” crème. D'oh! :)

And now... BED.

Getting to Yangshuo

Getting into China was such an adventure it deserves its own post. We made it safe and sound!

Let me explain: Guilin is the big famous city around here, but all the books and other backpackers (and even locals) will tell you that the nearby smaller town of Yangshuo is the place to be. So that's where we headed off to.

Of course taking the Hong Kong metro system to Shenzhen (Lo Wu station) was very easy; we just used our Octopus passes. Shenzhen is one of the cities that marks the gateway between Hong Kong and mainland China. You do not need a visa to stay in Hong Kong, but you do to get into China... we had ours issued in April so this was not a problem. (It's a very expensive pretty sticker for your passport... $350US!)

After passing through Hong Kong and China immigration stations, Jim and I managed to find a place to have dinner (we were getting worried for a bit that we wouldn't) with some wonderful dumplings. After a teeny adventure involving lots of pointing Jim and I found the bus terminal and were happy to find that our bus was a "sleeper bus" with the seats lying down.

The ride was:
-over 12 hours long (7:45pm-8:00am)
-very bumpy... no, VERY bumpy
-very bright (many cities)
-full of twists and turns

I'm never going to try driving in China. The traffic wasn't bad, but the roads weren't great and I'd have no idea where I was going. We must have gone through a toll station every 20 minutes (maybe more frequently). I was expecting some sort of highway, which it was at times, but we ended up going through so many small towns on tiny roads that I have no idea how they figured this route out.

Imagine a place that is filthy beyond belief, super smelly, and involves a hole in the ground. That would be what the bus stop restrooms were like! (Though that's just expected around here...)

We didn't sleep much, maybe 3 hours total each, but the views were cool. We also met some other backpackers. One was also from the US (Washington), a guy about my age who was really friendly and basically doesn't know what he wants to be when he grows up. He was on his way to Yangshuo to teach English for a while (he didn't know how long) because the living is cheap and he wanted to go rock climbing here. He had no idea if he really liked teaching or not... a much braver soul than myself! The other backpackers were a pair of Israeli girls. Come to find out that there are many young Israelis backpacking around here. I guess everyone who is not disabled has to serve their military, girls for two years and boys for three years, when they turn 18. They all seemed to have enjoyed it at least and weren't upset. They all go backpacking when their service is up, which they enjoy! They were very friendly and their English was very good... I feel lame to only speak English and a little French!

As an aside, I read a very interesting tidbit: If you are bilingual in English and Mandarin Chinese, you can converse with 50% of the world! That's a pretty powerful stat... a great reason to learn Mandarin!

Around 5am we started to see the famous Karst hills... and we arrived at 8am. Let the adventures begin!

The Hong Kong Museum of History

We learned all about the "Hong Kong Story" Wednesday afternoon. It was quite the treat. Wednesday is free admission day for all of the museums. The Hong Kong Museum of History focuses on Hong Kong's history beginning with the creation of the earth and continents all the way to modern times. We only allowed ourselves about 2-3 hours and we were definitely wishing for more, there is so much to learn!

The museum itself is very nicely done. It is modern, clean, well laid-out and high tech. I think I counted at least 8 different rooms screening videos in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English (the languages take turns). My favorite sections of course were the archaelogical ones with early human activity in the area as well as the cultural exhibit that explained the history behind many Chinese customs. I also learned a lot about how Hong Kong really suffered (as did the rest of the world) during the Japanese Occupation of World War II.

Our time came to a frantic close as we realized we had to get moving to the metro station to find our bus to Guilin (Yangshuo)!

I highly recommend visiting the museum if you ever get the chance. I hope to check out the science museum that is just across the way next Wednesday right before our flight to San Francisco!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Getting Caught in the Rain

Yesterday was a very good day.

As a bit of background for those that don't know, I visited Hong Kong three years ago when I was on Semester at Sea (Spring 2005), but I didn't really see it. Our ship was damaged 10 days into the voyage by violent waves in the middle of the Pacific (first and last time this will happen on SAS) and instead of heading on to Korea and Japan, we limped back to Honolulu Harbor. Missed Korea and Japan, flew on to China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam where the ship met back up with us. BUT, I didn't really see Hong Kong while I was here... I was too busy taking MIDTERMS! They had us locked in the hotel during the day, so I really only could go out at night. All I saw of Hong Kong were the night markets really. I never even got to have dim sum. Half of this trip is making up for all that I didn't get to do last time!

Upon waking we made our mission to find the best Dim Sum in town (according to Lonely Planet), so after a quick and easy ride on Hong Kong's clean and efficient MTR subway, we found ourselves in Hong Kong Central. We made our way to the Luk Yu Tea House for some very tasty dim sum dishes and tea. I would believe it if it really was the best in town. My favorites are always the bbq pork buns.

Not far off from the tea house we found a China Travel Services branch (yay!) so we purchased our bus tickets to Guilin. We're set to head out on the overnight bus tonight from the Shenzhen (Lo Wu) bus station at the border between Hong Kong and mainland China. $250 Hong Kong dollars per ticket and $7 Hong Kong dollars to the US dollar, so not too shabby. We have to buy our return tickets when we get there.

After wandering on Hong Kong's elaborate covered walkways and ending up in the wrong direction, we finally made our way to the Bank of China tower. This building is known for its spectacular (free) view from the 43rd floor... and it was very pretty. In the bottom of the tower is an official 2008 Beijing Olympics merchandise store. Of course we had to get some official gear!

We then made our way to the Peak Tram station. The Peak Tram has been operating since 1888, and we are here 5 days after the 120th anniversary. There are plaques commemorating the different cars and ticket methods everywhere. Of course the ticketing system is very modern and similar to the metro now. You can even use your Octopus pass, which is a card you simply scan to use on any public transport. It works much in the same way my work badge that lets me into the building does. You can add funds to it at any “add funds” kiosk in any MTR station. I love it.

The tram itself is made to look like it is an older style even though the cars themselves were probably built in the 90s. It is a very quick and efficient ride up a VERY steep hill to Victoria Peak! The tram is led up the hill by a very beefy metal cable. The tram has only ceased operation twice since its opening; once in World War II, and once in 1966 when they had horrific rains which washed half of the track away.

At the top to go with all of Hong Kong's artificial glory is the “Sky Terrace”, a very elaborate building with 5 floors of escalators taking you to an observation deck where you can see the city skyline and the harbor. It IS a breathtaking view (though very misty). We hung out up there for a long time just taking it in and enjoying the quiet and fresh air. (As an aside, Hong Kong is MUCH less polluted than Manila! MUCH!) As we went back down, we saw all of the (of course) overpriced restaurants, gaming facility, and Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum.

Outside of the terrace building we found a much cheaper lunch at a little cafe, and followed our panini sandwiches with some amazing gelatto (I got coconut of course) which we took with us for a little walk. We meandered around the hillside (Being a Coloradoan, I call Victoria Peak a hill) for probably over an hour, taking pictures of all of the greenery and the path in the mist. It all looked very mysterious. We were surrounded by clouds. We also stumbled upon some mansions overlooking Hong Kong... I don't even want to know how many millions of dollars these elaborate homes are worth.

Back at the bottom it was nearing dusk as we made our way to Hong Kong Park, the equivalent of Central Park. Let me tell you, after Kowloon park the first night then this one, I can officially say that Hong Kong's parks put ours to shame. Not even central park in New York is this cool. There is an aviary, a conservatory (botanical garden), a tai chi garden, a children's play park... and there are waterfalls, ponds, caves, meandering paths, and more. GORGEOUS. We climbed to the top of the lookout tower to see it all. And then it started to rain.

Now I see what this monsoon season thing is all about. I've never seen this much rain in my life! (Well, that's easy being from dry Colorado...) It started off light as we explored the tai chi garden under umbrellas. (A side note... the tai chi garden was built in summer 2005 to commemorate health care workers who died combating the SARS outbreak of 2003... so it wasn't even in existance when I was here on SAS.) Then, as we made our way toward the conservatory, someone opened the floodgates and the lightning started up. We sought cover along with a couple of European girls who had the same idea.

We watched as the lightning got closer and struck the Murray building just across the street. I've never seen sparks fly like that, but I guess it's a good thing all the towers are equipped with lightning rods. We waited it out until we decided the lightning was far enough away and that the rain wasn't going to quit for a long time. We played around a bit (the rain was probably an inch deep or more) in the “Olympic Square”, just taking it all in and subsequently getting soaked. The Olympic Square is actually a circular stadium, I can only imagine that the torch may be passed at this place in August before the games begin.

You can tell that China is very proud to be hosting the Olympics this year. There are giant timers, signs, etc. EVERYWHERE. It's very neat, but I wonder what they'll do with all of these permanent structures dedicated to the olympics when they're over!

Once we were thoroughly soaked through, we found ourselves back at the MTR station and were whisked away back “home” in Tsim Sha Tsui on Kowloon. We had some excellent sushi for dinner at a conveyor-belt style sushi bar at Sushi One (my new favorite) for pretty cheap compared to US sushi prices. We'll proably be coming back here after we get back from Guilin.

Sipping on some starfruit juice from a stand, we returned to our petri dish of a room to find that, just as the night before, none of the outlets were working. This time instead of flipping the right breaker back on they couldn't figure it out and switched our room. We got an upgrade!!! Yaaaaay! This room has a view and is NOT a petri dish. Well, except for some patches of carpet, but I'll let that slide as I'm coming to find that Hong Kong is a very wet place. All in all, an excellent day.

Today we are off to the museums as Wednesday is free admission day and they are close to our hotel. Then we'll go grocery shopping (if we ever find a grocery store) as overnight buses don't feed you dinner or breakfast, then figure out how to get to Shenzhen. I have no idea if we'll find internet in Guilin. We're hoping to return on the overnight bus the night of the 7th so we can be back for all of the dragon boat races that happen on the 8th. Wish us luck!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Full Tummies in Hong Kong

Quick note: Please forgive any horrendous typos in any previous posts, the keyboards in these internet cafes are... lacking. And sticky.

After quite the interesting airport experience in Manila and some unwelcomed motion sickness, we landed safely in Hong Kong this afternoon.

The public transport here is as clean, easy, and efficient as I remembered. Getting to our hotel was almost toooo easy.

Our hotel room is... 'ow you say... musty? :) That's what we get for being cheap. The Imperial Hotel is undergoing rennovations, and I can definitely see why. I'm worried that my mold allergies might act up, we'll see!

After checking in, we only had to wander across the street to discover gorgeous Kowloon Park complete with aviary, waterfalls, and flamingo pond. We walked out to the bay at sunset and could see the Hong Kong waterfront as it started to light up. We'll post a picture later I hope- even in severe overcast it was quite beautiful.

We then headed to the Southern Indian restaurant that our Lonely Planet guide suggested. It was nearly impossible to find, but I've wanted southern Indian food since I was in southern India three years ago!! I like it so much better than northern Indian food, which is what we see a lot of in Colorado. We walked by the place three times at least before seeing the sign out in the road. Turns out you have to walk up this really shady staircase that seems to be residential. After two floors, we were facing the door with the sign above it, afraid to open it and expecting nobody else to have braved coming up.

We couldn't have been more wrong. It was packed! I've been chasing a dish called Behl Puri since I was in Chennai; you can't imagine my excitement when I saw it on the menu! Then, imagine my disappointment when the waitress told me they were out. OUT. ::pout::

Regardless, the food was DELICIOUS... thinking of you Amisha my darling! We ordered all of your favorites.

This posting brought to you by one torrential downpour and a really shady tailor shop slash internet cafe complete with virus infested computers that was nearly impossible to find. $2USD for 30 minutes as opposed to $1US for two hours in the Philippines... which is why there aren't any pictures yet. :) Maybe later!

We're tired (go figure)... so back to the moldy petri dish we go. :)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Diesel dust, fun and fish!

Well maybe not in that eact order, but our excursion back from the volcano had all three! After having a relatively uncomfortable and light sleep from the sparsely sheeted and fairly uncomfortable bed at the resort, we woke up with the intent of heading back into Manila via Taygaytay (a slightly larger town surrounding Taal volcano). Our goal was to have a nice lunch, check out the supposed view and find the bus station/stop.

The lady that owned the Green Lake Resort had mentioned that we should easily be able to snag another tricycle from the driveway up to one of the Jeepny locations and get to Taygaytay with ease and for realatively low cost, so we strapped our packs on and started out. We waited for a few minutes and were shocked to find out that unlike the night before, it was rather hard to find a tricycle during the day (they were all full.) We remembered her pointing in the direction (so we thought) of the Jeepney junction, so we decided to huff it and see if we could at least be productive while waiting for a tricycle. Turns out we had remembered incorrectly, but luckily after only about 20-30 minutes of some very hot and incorrectly bound scenic walking, a tricycle stopped and we barted a fairly good deal directly to Taygaytay (we're still a bit shy of Jeepneys.)

Note to USA travelors in the Philipines: for the good of the locals, don't ever let them talk you into driving you + 2 20lb packs up a mountain in a tricycle - it's not good for their bikes!

The poor guy... we tipped him 100Php (really huge tip) after he learned the lesson I just noted. These poor little 150cc two strokes just can't haul us larger Americans with baggage up really steep mountainous inclines. After the first incline where the carriage started pulling extensively to the side, he had me hop out and ride with him on the seat (local style - actually, it was totally fun.) That worked for the most part until we hit a really crazily steep incline that started to slip his clutch and caused us to lose so much speed that the carriage started to pull the bike around and backwards. I hoppped off and helped to stop the bike from sliding down the road while Sarah bailed and we, once again, learned that the locals are incredibly kind and trustworthy as we huffed the next couple hundred feet on foot while he slowly drove ahead with the bags and waited.

Once to the top (about a 45 minute ride or so), we observed even more of the already gorgeous scenery we had seen on the way up and took off on foot towards the town center. As always, we had a million offers for tricycle rides, offers to take boats out to Taal island, and plenty of boarding offers as we walked along. We ran into an incredibly friendly gentleman that recommended a very good place to eat (the Kaye Ryan Grill) and indicated that it had one of the best views as well as excellent food. He was right on both accounts. We had an order of Pork Adobo and a grilled locally caught Palo Palo fish that was absolutely fantastic (the fish was incredibly tender and moist.) By the way, if you ever go, have a glass of the Mango juice - it's like drinking liquid heaven.

After lunch, we set out by foot again to find the station. After about 20 or so minutes of walking, an older and very kind tricycle driver stopped in front of us and hopped out to offer us a ride. Since the sky was looking a little ominous and he had taken more trouble than normal, we asked about the station and he barted us a deal we couldn't turn down (we're pretty sure he gave us the local rate.) Good thing we took him up since the station was not as obvious to find as we had thought. After some help from one of the bus driver assistants we hopped onto the right bus. (All busses here have an assistant that helps to fuel the bus, announce where it is bound as it drives up to stops and issues tickets.)

And this is where the diesel comes in. While our first bus out of Manila was closed and had AirCon, this one was cheaper and did not. While we were leaving Taygaytay, this was fine - the air felt nice and the rather humerously loud subwoofer asisted stereo kept us entertained. However, once we left the mountainous area and hit the congestion, wow!!! Sarah rapidly developed a headache and eventually associated it to the horrible smog. She pulled out the previously unused tourist trap face mask sold to us at Taal and used it on the bus. I later used mine once we got really close to Manila for the same reason. The ride was incredibly interesting and proved once again that the Philipines is a really interesting mix of living. When we go back into Manila, we wiped our faces with tissue and were horrified to see what came off of them.

Pardon a quick rant: we're so so tired of being given help that we don't want and then being forced into tipping! Guh... I know that people are trying to earn a buck and that they think we want help, but at this point we absolutely did not need help hailing a cab. The second we got off the bus, a guy outside of it went running off and started working on hailing a cab for us (totally unprompted.) When we hopped in, he stood there waiting for his tip, so we fished out 5 pesos and apparetly offended him. He continued to wait and we were virtually lectured by the driver that we should tip him. We explained that we did not want his help, had not asked for it and felt that his request of 1/4th of what the ride itself was going to cost was totally unreasonable. The driver proceeded to hand him the top he had requested and told us we could pay him back. Grrr... seriously... I know, it shouldn't both er us, but it does.

To boot, he told the driver the wrong place... luckily our driver was nice, had followed my request to turn on the meter and kept going. He claimed that he knew of a better place than the Malate Pensionne (where we had stayed before), and we let him take us there. Turns out that it was the same price, and while having a slightly better bathroom and cleaner floors, it was a mix of better and worse. The beds weren't quite as good and the windows didn't seal half as well, so it was a loud evening with slightly less quality sleep.

We spent the rest of the evening going about the business of washing our clothes, acquring dinner and a few other necessities after having a sorely needed shower after the bus ride home.