Thursday, November 24, 2011

#16: Star Ferry to Kowloon!

The final stop on my 15 day tour of China:  Hong Kong!  Like Macau, Hong Kong used to be under European control.  After over 150 years of British rule, the queen handed back control of the area to China in 1997.  But, just like Macau, the European influence remains.  Most people speak at least some English and a ton of westerners still live in the city.  If it weren’t for all of the signs being in English and Cantonese, you’d hardly think you were in China.  Take this for example:

People actually let you exit the subway before getting on.  We can’t possibly still be in China!

Hong Kong proper sits on a large island off the coast, though the whole Hong Kong area includes a chunk of peninsular mainland and various other islands.  Hong Kong’s hilly terrain mixed with the mass of tall buildings makes for some stunning views, like this one from atop Victoria Peak:

Or this one, taken from across the harbor that separates Hong Kong Island from Kowloon on the peninsula:

During the day, it looks like this:

And there’s no better way to take in the view than from the Star Ferry between Hong Kong and Kowloon!

And another item checked off the list!  10 down.  93 to go.  I’ll get there…

Aside from taking in all the scenery, Hong Kong is notorious for shopping.  Clothes weren’t as affordable as I was hoping for.  Levi’s were still twice the price of the US and Calvin Klein was not offering any discounts.  The shopping scene seems to be dominated by the high end stores:

Coach, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Hermes, Gucci, Chanel, Fendi, Louis Vuitton, and more dotted the main shopping area in Kowloon.  I obviously don’t go for any of those, but luckily there was something for me just a few doors down:

Yay!  H&M!  Fun socks here I come!

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I didn’t just shop at H&M, because, you know, when in Rome… I managed to find a Coach store just for men.  I didn’t even know that Coach made men’s bags.  I was stoked that they had a whole store!  And since I’ve always said that I’d love a Coach bag if only they made men’s bags, I decided that I absolutely needed to buy a goddamn bag or I’d never forgive myself.  So, out I walked with a fancy schmancy Coach messenger bag.  Woohoo!  And I’ve earned my gay card.  If you see me wearing it around Sydney, please complement it so I feel like the money spent was worth it.  I also bumped into a Bose store and accidentally purchased some fancy schmancy noise cancelling headphones for a few hundred dollars.  Ooops.

It wasn’t all western brands in western stores as I quickly found out when turning a corner.

I guess I was still in China.  Luckily I had already eaten.  Imagine this just around the corner from Fendi.  What is this strange city???

For a little local shopping, I dipped into the touristy Ladies Markets.

But after my other purchases, nothing here looked as good.  Also, it’s a misnomer as there were no ladies for sale.  Not that I wanted to buy any, but it would have been cool to tap on the glass… like in Amsterdam…

Finally, I spent my last day in Hong Kong on nearby Lantau Island – home to the Giant Buddha!

The Giant Buddha was built less than 20 years ago and is pretty much a massive tourist attraction.  It is the world’s largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha.  That’s a pretty particular title, but I’ll give it to them.  Just know that somewhere else on Earth there’s a larger seated bronze Buddha indoors and a larger outdoor standing bronze Buddha.  Or maybe a bigger outdoor seated Buddha made of something else like stone or pewter or lollipops.  Oh a lollipop Buddha would be incredible!

Ok, enough of my crazy ideas.  There was a small tourist village atop the hill where the Buddha sits and they had one of those signs that points to every famous landmark around the world and tells you how far away it is.  Of course, I had to get a photo with this one:

There are a few ways to get up the hill to see the Buddha and the tourist village.  You can trek – but that was obviously out of the question for me – or you can rent a car or take a bus.  Alternatively, you can take the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car up to the top.

This cable car – the very last thing I did in China (seriously, I went straight from here to the airport) – ended up being probably the coolest thing I did the entire trip.  Seriously.  This cable car is up there in the rankings with the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors.  Why?  Because it’s fucking awesome.  That’s why.

The first reason why it’s awesome:  you get a fantastic view of the Giant Buddha as you arrive.

The second reason why it’s awesome:  the landscape is stunning.  You go over valleys and hills:

And over water:

The third reason why it’s awesome:  the floor of the cable car is glass, so you can see below as well.  Look, there are waders crabbing or fishing or getting pearls out of the water or something below!

The fourth reason why it’s awesome:  it’s not a short ride so the bang for your buck is fantastic.  Based on the timestamp on my photos, the ride is approximately 25 minutes each direction.  Sweet.

The fifth and most important reason for me:  the cable car goes right by the airport.  You can see the entire airport from the air.  Planes landing, planes taking off, planes taxiing, and all.

You may not think that’s totally crazy amazing, but it is.  And here is my nerd moment:  I used to love airports when I was a kid and my grandparents would often take me to the airport to watch the planes land and takeoff, so this was just right up my alley.  This cable car takes you so close that you can see which airlines all the planes are.  Look, there’s a Qantas plane right in the middle!

That could have been my flight!  (But it wasn’t, because I was on a 747… but still, they could have switched the plane for some reason.)  Either way, it was a sign.  Off to Hong Kong International Airport I went and back to the land of Oz.  I do believe that was a very successful first trip to Asia.

And now, back to the Aussie blogs…

Monday, November 21, 2011

#23: Casino Lisboa!

Exit China.  Enter Macau.  Though now technically a part of China, Macau is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) just like Hong Kong.  With the exception of defense and foreign affairs, Macau is autonomous and will remain that way until at least 2049.  At first glance, Macau is… drastically different than mainland China.  First, they drive on left side of the road like Australia does.  China drives on the right like the US.  Second, they actually obey traffic rules AND wear helmets when on bicycles and motorcycles.  It’s a whole new world!

Ok, so there are other, more drastic differences too.  Macau has its own currency, economy, and immigration laws.  It is the world’s most densely populated place with around 550,000 people crammed into roughly 11 square miles.  Within that small space, three distinct Macaus exist.  The first Macau is the Chinese Macau.  Look around:  nearly everybody is Chinese and speaking Chinese, albeit Cantonese instead of Mandarin and the writing is traditional Chinese and far more complicated than the simplified Chinese writing that they use in mainland China, but still.  Chinese.  It is part of China after all.  As I had just spent a bunch of time in China, I decided to largely ignore the Chinese Macau and check out the other two, more unique Macaus.

Portuguese Macau!  Now this is what I’ve been waiting for.  The Portuguese settled Macau in the 1500’s and maintained their presence until 1999.  While the people don’t look Portuguese, there remains a ton of Portuguese influence in Macau.  Street signs are a good start:

They are always in both Cantonese and Portuguese, and usually in English as well.  With the Portuguese came Christianity – something you won’t readily find in mainland China.  All that remains of the Church of St Paul is this facade, but it was the largest church ever built in Asia:

European architecture abounds in Macau, especially in certain parts of the old city:

And of course, how could I forget my favourite remnant of the Portuguese era:  food!  Macau is famous for its Portuguese egg tarts, sold all over the city:

Delicioso!  (Ok, that’s Spanish, but that’s as close as I’m going to get!)  And after the tart appetizer, I headed down to Praia de Hac Sa (Hac Sa Beach) to check out the famous Restaurante Fernando!

Yummy Portuguese chicken and chips…  ::drool::

The Museu de Macau (Macau Museum) sits atop an old Portuguese fortress.

The museum was interesting, but a bit oversold by Lonely Planet.  The view from the top of the fortress, however, was pretty sweet.

Ummm… it looks like that canon is aimed and ready to destroy the third Macau… the Vegas Macau!

Macau is a gambling mecca.  Such a mecca it is that Macau now exceeds Las Vegas as the place with the highest gambling revenue in the world.  It all started in 1962 with one casino, and that casino – the Casino Lisboa – was on my list of 103 Things!

And another one crossed off the list!  The inside of the Casino Lisboa wasn’t all that impressive, but remember it was built in the 1960’s.

In 2002, the Lisboa’s monopoly on gambling in Macau ended and all of the big Las Vegas players moved in.  Venetian, Wynn, MGM, Hard Rock, and more!  The neon lights abound at night:

Patronage of the Macau casinos is dominated by mainland Chinese.  They bring their new found wealth to the casinos to either squander it away or win big.  And for the big winners, every big casino is equipped with a wide array of fancy stores which will assist the newly rich with showing off to their friends and neighbors.  Seriously.  Macau – with a population of around 550,000 – supports 2 Fendi, 2 Prada, 2 Versace, 3 Chanel, 3 Dior, 4 Gucci, 4 Louis Vuitton, 5 Coach, and 6 Cartier boutiques.  Nuts!

For me, my casino of choice was the Venetian Macau – the world’s largest casino.  Only the biggest and best for me, right?

Modeled after its counterpart in Las Vegas, the Venetian Macau comes complete with all of the things you’d expect a tacky, over-the-top, absolutely incredible hotel casino would have.  Like gondolas!

And a Sistine Chapel-type ceiling!

My suite wasn’t all that expensive but it was massive and luxurious!

I even had my own living room!  And don’t even get me started on the bathroom:

Can I stay longer?  Please?

Of course, no Vegas experience is complete without a show, and nobody does a show quite like Cirque du Soleil.  Since Macau is the new Vegas, it’s only proper they get their very own Cirque du Soleil show too!

Overall, Macau was an absolutely fabulous vacation destination and I’m already itching to get back.  Beaches, history, shows, casinos, fancy hotels, and Portuguese food – all while you can say you’ve been to exotic Asia.  This is my kind of place.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The China Facade

China is growing rapidly and the Chinese want to find the best ways to showcase their new found wealth.  China’s goal:  to be the best at everything.  Faster is one way to achieve that.  Take the Maglev for example:

The Maglev is Shanghai’s ultra-fast train.  It runs one line from a train station near the city out to Pudong International Airport…. in 7 minutes.  How does it do it so quickly?  By going super fast.

And that’s not even as fast as it can go.

And think taller.  The Shanghai World Financial Centre is the world’s third tallest building – though they really wish it was the first.  To get to the observation deck, you enter the building and head down some escalators to a small exhibition telling you how amazing the building is.  This includes highlighting several times how the SWFC was certified by the Guinness Book of Records as having the world’s tallest occupied floor and world’s tallest observation deck when it opened – take that (taller) Taipei 101!  The Burj Khalifa opened shortly after the SWFC did and stripped it of a few titles that it held over Taipei 101… most titles actually… but they didn’t mention that.   

The building itself is a pretty big feat though – I’ll give them that.  You start down in the exhibition at an elevation of -5 meters:

And about a minute later you’re at the top:

Pretty insane.  The observation deck is on level 100:

The view down is pretty spectacular.  One thing you can see is the Jin Mao Tower.  From the ground, the building looks like this:

From the SWFC, it looks like that:

That buidling right behind/below me.  Yes, that's the Jin Mao Tower.  It’s awesome that you can look DOWN on the ninth tallest building in the world.

It’s not just building above ground that’s pretty neat.  It’s underground too.  Take this space here:

I swore I was in an airport, but this is actually a subway station in Shanghai.  Clean.  New.  Big.

But then, after the oooo-ing and aaah-ing, you begin to scratch away at the surface and you realize that all of the glitz and glam and new and shiny is really just one big fa├žade.  Take the train, for example.  Yes, the Maglev is super fast, but they no longer let it go at max speed due to safety concerns.  In July, a non-Maglev high speed train crashed and killed a bunch of people.  The cause:  they think it was just operator error – but there wasn’t any backup safety mechanism in place either.  The SWFC – as tall and impressive as it is – has a ton of vacancies.  They opened the building right as the GFC hit.  And the subway stations are another story all together.  Every subway station in Beijing and Shanghai has an x-ray machine that you have to put your bag through.  Safety first, right?

Wrong.  They aren’t even watching the damn screen.  The attendants who are supposed to be looking at the TV monitor to see if you have any weapons or bombs or anything in your bag are too busy talking to one another, talking on the phone, texting, picking their nose, or just staring at the ceiling.  Not even kidding.

Along the same lines of safety:  I didn’t see one person wearing a helmet on a bicycle, scooter, or motorcycle while in mainland China.  Do they even sell them?  I suppose if they are dumb enough to ride their bicycles on a busy six-lane highway, then they aren’t smart enough to wear a helmet while doing it.  No wonder the traffic related death rate is so high.  Also, seatbelts can’t be found in taxis.  Why do they insist on cutting them out or covering them up?

Did you know that you need to register with the police within 24 hours whenever you go to a new city?  Hotels and guesthouses will register for you, but since I was staying with Ross & Jonathon for a few days, I had to go check in with the popos.  There was no indication that the registration system was in any way, shape, or form linked with the immigration/passport system.  So… ?  Again, all for show?

But it doesn’t stop there.  Signs like this are seen in some parts of Beijing and Shanghai:

People still spit anyway.  Also, they need to amend the sign to read “No Spitting or Shitting”.  It’s quite incredible how a mom can be standing at a busy intersection in the middle of Shanghai and decide that it’s totally ok to tell her young son to just shit right there on the corner – and then wipe his ass for all passersby to see.  Seriously?  I’d take people spitting over shitting any day of the week.

Accounting standards?  They don’t have them.  “Sure – those numbers look good!  They will really make the competition worry!”  And then there’s something about China’s exchange rate not fluctuating like it should and that documentary I saw about how the Chinese just keep building and building and building and half the time there’s just no demand so massive apartment complexes, shopping malls, and commercial towers sit idle – whole cities of them – just waiting for them to be needed one day.

And don’t forget pollution!  How could you forget pollution when there’s so much of it.  So, apparently, they banned or are going to ban outdoor heaters on patios at restaurants and bars.  The reason:  the outdoor heaters are gas heaters and therefore they pollute.  Forget the millions of cars.  Forget the massive factories.  All of China’s pollution woes stem from the small handful of western restaurants that have enough money to purchase outdoor heating lamps.  That makes complete sense to me.  Once again, they’re doing it to make it look like they’re doing something.

From all of my posts on China, you would probably think I hated it, but I actually didn’t.  Just the opposite really.

Ok, maybe I didn’t love it, but I really enjoyed China.  Now, I’m not signing up to move there ever, but it was something so different and so interesting to see.  There were some really friendly people there, and once I learned how to push people and completely ignore signs telling me to queue up, I sort of fit in ok.  My main concern was food, but I ate well thanks to Deona, Ross, and Jonathon.  There were some incredible things in China – including the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta Warriors – and there are so many more things like that across the country.  The history is long, the culture is rich, and the landscapes are beautiful… when you can see them through the smog.  I actually do want to go back and see more – just as soon as my lungs recover from this last trip.  It’s a shame that people are cut off from so much information and that the whole country seems to be just putting on a show for the rest of the world.  Underneath, I don’t think it would take all too much for the country to stumble and crumble some.  Maybe ignorance is bliss?  Maybe not.  I guess we’ll see what happens in the next few decades…

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Other Shanghai

First there was Shanghai.  Then there was the other Shanghai.

I spent a few days with my Aussie friends – Ross & Jonathon – and got to sample the expat lifestyle.  It was… anything but Chinese really.  It started off in their penthouse apartment with a view like no other:

On a side note, the blue sky in this picture was taken early the morning I left.  It was the only blue sky I saw the entire time I was in China.  Notice the dark gray/brown pollution in the background.

Expats can live quite well in Shanghai, as foreign companies often pay top dollar to move employees and executives out there, and rent often isn’t as expensive as it is in western countries.  You have enough money left over to import some of the finer things in life:

Yeah, we’re not really in China, are we?

As expected, the weekend revolved around food and drink.  Our first stop was a pretentious bar full of expats.  There was a fat dude dancing in a bathtub in the middle of the bar (you read that right) and people were smoking cigarettes (they apparently still allow that there).  Also, some French Canadian dude starting talking to me in line at the bar and told me all about how he cheated on his girlfriend but felt really bad and was going to make it better.  Can I go back to the real China now?

But things got better after that.  We wandered over to the French Concession the next morning.  The French Concession is a part of Shanghai that was under French control for nearly a hundred years until right after World War II.  Note that tense of the verb:  was.  It is no longer under French control and therefore it really ought to be called the Former French Concession.  I refuse to concede anything to the French.

Anyway, point of the story:  the Former French Concession is quite trendy and full of expats and there were lots of little cafes and such so Ross and I went for brunch and I found a Chinese bagel and cream cheese!

Yay!  Except it was pretty much just a bread roll shaped like a bagel.  But that’s ok.  I still had a bagel in China.

And you know what else I had in China?

FUCK YES!!!!  All day Mexican brunch BUFFET!!!  This combines three of my favourite things in the world:  Mexican food, brunch, and buffets.  Love it!  Now, I was a bit skeptical at first.  After all, I was in China.  Not Mexico or Texas.  But it actually turned out good.  They had a full buffet of tasty food for us:

And don’t forget dessert!  Rice pudding and churros!

And of course, no Mexican meal is complete without margaritas.  They were free flow as well, so I sucked down about eight of them I think.

And that was on top of the few glasses of horchata I had!  How is it that a random Mexican restaurant in China has horchata but none of the Mexican restaurants I’ve been to in Australia do?  Shameful.

Anyway, the owner came around took a photo of us and spoke a little Spanish and proved her Mexicanness.  That explains it.  The key difference:  all of the Mexican restaurants in Australia are owned by Americans (except for the one that’s owned by some dude from Alberta – wtf?) but this random one in China was owned by a real Mexican!  That’s probably why the price was so good:  roughly $50 for all you can eat food and all you can drink margaritas and horchata!  Though they may consider raising that price after seeing the amount we consumed…

Now, it wasn’t all western food all weekend.  We had fancy Thai food one night and fancy drinks on a fancy rooftop that overlooked the river and the Pudong New Area and fancy drinks at a fancy hotel with fancy toilets that had tons of fancy buttons that would spray water from all angles at your fancy parts (hehe!) and there was the Sherpa – a fancy delivery service that delivers food from all sorts of restaurants to fancy expats in their fancy apartments (I had falafel) and of course we had to throw in one actual fancy Chinese meal so we went to a fancy westernized Yunnan restaurant in The Bund:

I say “westernized” Yunnan (a region in southern China) cuisine because the Shanghai Boys considered it westernized but it was way more authentic than P.F. Chang’s and not nearly as scary as dim sum (or yum cha as the Aussies call it) so to me it was the perfect blend.

Now, in the few spare minutes we had when we weren’t eating and drinking, we wandered around the city a bit and had the chance to snap some good daytime photos down by the river:

And we went back at night as well:

And our last bit of spare time was spent at Shanghai’s Aussie pub where they were showing the Rugby World Cup.  Look around.  Hundreds of Aussies and Kiwis watching rugby on the big screens.

Seriously – are we still in China?