Hong Kong :From the Central Midlevels to the Peak

21/3/2014

Hello Misadventurists. Part II of the Hong Kong highlights. 

HONG KONG – FROM THE CENTRAL MIDLEVELS TO THE PEAK

It’s basically one giant, mile long outdoor escalator.

That’s what we discover when we set foot on the Central Mid-Levels,  which carries vertical commuters straight up (and down) one of the steepest hills in Central Hong Kong. The altitude gain is nearly 500 feet, starting on Queens Road Central and ending on Conduit Drive just below the Peak Road, and it takes around 20 minutes to ride.

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The Central Mid-Levels from Elgin Road. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All along the route are some of the best coffee shops and restaurants Hong Kong has on offer, as it passes directly through the touristy hillside SoHo District, cut through with narrow alleys and punctuated by green, peaceful public atriums.

In SoHo, one can find a Mexican cantina serving up fresh tacos right next to a Lithuanian or Turkish joint and a five story, unbelievably blinged-out Abercrombie and Fitch store with massive crystal chandeliers next to a street market full of eel. Hong Kong beats even Manhattan for gaudy excess – and that’s saying something.

Of course with our limited funds we can’t possibly avail ourselves of all the dining options, so we settle for the cheapest – which happens to be a Subway (!). The joys of budget travel.

After our fine dining experience, we exit the Subway and climb back on the escalator, which carries us the rest of the way up to Conduit Drive, one of the coolest streets either of us have ever seen.

Hornsey Drive, from the top of the Central Mid-Levels. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Hornsey Drive, from the top of the Central Mid-Levels. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

 

Tree growing out of the sidewall, Conduit Drive
Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

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To the Peak. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

 

From here, we climb. And climb, and climb some more. The Central Midlevels have only brought us about halfway up to the summit of Victoria peak. We’ll have to hike about 2.5 kilometers more up the Old Peak Road, an unbelievably steep, windy lane that is unrelenting on our legs.

It is so steep, in fact, that we resort to alternating between hiking backward and forward up the hill just to save our muscles and tendons But the views of Central Hong Kong and the waterfront along the way can’t be beat.

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Stax on the Old Peak Road. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Almost to the Peak. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Almost to the Peak. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

Finally we are atop Victoria Peak. The views are tremendous – and so are the crowds, and the giant shopping mall (complete with huge McCafe!)

Happy Color Pants at the Peak Mall. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto
Happy Color Pants at the Peak Mall. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

There’s also a  bus station, and a three story silver and steel tram depot that welcomes the lazy-bones who have decided to ride the Peak tram up rather than walk.

But this is Hong Kong and you cannot avoid these spectacles. We decide to focus on the incredible view of the city on the south side

Mid and Central Hong Kong from The Peak. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Mid and Central Hong Kong from The Peak. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

and the unspoiled jungle-covered peaks down to the ocean on the north side.

Other peaks of Hong Kong Island. From Victoria Peak. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Other peaks of Hong Kong Island. From Victoria Peak. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

 

Then – should we admit this? – we eat ice cream sundaes at (where else?) McCafe. Not out of some fidelity to the corporate behemoth, of course, but because it’s by far the most affordable option for ice cream (and it’s not half bad, either). Plus, the outdoor seating area overlooking the peaks and valleys of the island makes this perhaps the most scenic McDonald’s in existence (I don’t count Times Square!).

Finally it’s about dark and time to head back down. Rather than walk, we board a minibus that rockets down the zigzagging road pell-mell, barely missing oncoming traffic and pedestrians.

After exiting the minibus and checking all our vital organs for damage, we end our day by taking the stairway up to the vast Hong Kong Botanical Park – which is kind of like Hong Kong’s version of Central Park – and sit on a bench in front of a fountain ogling a stunning 180 degree view of the high rise residential towers of the Midlevels above us.

It’s too bad we don’t have more time – and more importantly, money – to spend in Hong Kong. It is a beguiling city packed with great food, transportation and tons of energy. Surprisingly,  given it’s repuation as a paradise of no-holds-barred capitalist materialism, it also seems like a great place for families, with some of the nicest parks and picnic areas we’ve seen in a city.

Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto
Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto
HK  residents are very into selfies. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto
HK residents are very into selfies. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto
...And photography in general. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto
…And photography in general. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

Pretty sure we’ll be back.

Hong Kong – Saved By Ronald McDonald

March 20-21, 2014

Fellow Misadventurists,

As we busy ourselves editing the hours and hours of footage we captured during our first project in Phnom Penh, we will be posting a series of updates from the first several weeks of our trip throughout Southeast Asia.

The two weeks after our arrival in Lantau involved one flight, three long bus rides, tons of hiking, and a whirlwind of Asian hotspots – Hong Kong, of course, then Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), then Da Lat, Vietnam, then back to Saigon again…

But finally it was time to tear ourselves away from Vietnam, take the sleeper bus overland across the Cambodian border to Phnom Penh, and begin the first leg of our project.

First, though, here is the next highlights of the first two weeks:

1. HONG KONG: SAVED BY RONALD MCDONALD 

SAVED BY RONALD MCDONALD

McDonalds: The Misadventurists are "lovin' it". Image courtesy mail.mcdonalds.com.hk
The Misadventurists are “lovin’ it”. Image courtesy mail.mcdonalds.com.hk

The slow ferry from Lantau to Hong Kong Island isn’t so slow; in little over a half hour our boat has picked its way through a dense bank of fog and chugged into Victoria Harbour.

Banks of slender skyscrapers materialize suddenly 500 feet high on either side of us, clinging to a crescent of massive green jungle-clad hills whose peaks are lost in the early afternoon mist.

Pulling into Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong. Photo (c) Stacy Libokmeto
Pulling into Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong. Photo (c) Stacy Libokmeto

Before we know it we’re stepping off the boat on a pier three stories high. We lug our bags through some glass skybridges and exit an elevator at street level, plunging into the manic energy of the waterfront.

Just a fraction of Central Hong Kong. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Just a fraction of Central Hong Kong. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

Hong Kong starts at the water level and never looks down from there. The nerve center of the city is Central which surrounds the waterfront and then abruptly ascends the hills, followed by the mainly residential skyscrapers of Midlevels hafway up, with Victoria Peak (“The Peak”, to locals) looming over it all at the top.

The hills are numerous and are among the steepest I’ve ever seen a city situated upon, scattered with clusters of steel and glass skyscrapers and crisscrossed with switchbacking freeways that twist bizarrely upward like masses of vines up a tree.

Stax wandering through Central. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Stax wandering through Central. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
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The highways are insane here. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

As modern as Central Hong Kong feels in places, there is a strong architectural nod to the city’s prior heydays as well, especially the 1960s and 1970s, when the city was blowing up globally as a center of finance, industry and entertainment. We run across this mostly Filipino Catholic Church that looks like something straight out of a classic James Bond flick.

A Filipino Catholic church strongly reminiscent of the 1960s, Pan-Am era of Hong Kong. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto
A Filipino Catholic church strongly reminiscent of the 1960s, Pan-Am era of Hong Kong. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

 

Unfortunately there’s no time to explore right now. We have to get on the metro train and meet our AirBnB hosts by 3 pm in the Kowloon district across the harbour, and it doesn’t look like we’ll make it in time.

Worse, we can’t find any wi-fi network that will allow us to log on without a paid subscription – there’s a monopoly by one company, it seems, and this also extends to wifi calls and texting, which won’t work on our T-Mobile phones without a Chinese SIM card – all which leaves us with no way to warn them we’ll be late to the rendezvous point.

The superfast metro trains get us there in no time, but still we exit the Prince Edward station in Kowloon over half an hour late and circle the block several times, trying to spot a person or couple who looks like they’re waiting for someone.

After 45 minutes of fruitless wandering, we resort to simply approaching the address our hosts listed, lurking as as unobtrusively at the entrance as it is possible for two foreigners with giant bags festooning their bodies, and occasionally accosting random old ladies who are going into the building to ask if they know the couple. No luck. Nobody seems to know who they are.

Another half an hour inches by this way, and I am about to just give up and find a guesthouse, thereby giving up the deposit and three days paid in advance on the apartment.

Then Stax has a revelation. She remembers we had passed a McCafe, Hong Kong’s substitute for full McDonalds restaurants, on the street across from the station.

The bags, which have begun to feel like just another part of my body, fly behind us as we run to the McCafe and run down the stairs of the underground restaurant.

A surprisingly delicious McCappuccino (hint hint Mickey-D's throw a little grant money our way? JK) Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
A surprisingly delicious McCappuccino (hint hint Mickey-D’s throw a little grant money our way? JK) Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

And then there it is. Faint, feeble, so slow it’s practically non-existent, but undeniably there – a wi-fi signal! I stand by the bathroom door, the only way to avoid getting in the way of the afternoon crowds who fill every available table, and quickly fire out a text to Eve, who is the host we had been scheduled to meet.

She must have been in the area, because less then three minutes later, as I’m heading to the stairs to wait outside, I run into a tiny girl who looks at me curiously. “Are you Ben??” she inquires.

“Eve?” I respond, and just like that our AirBnB reservation is saved. And to abandon it would have been a shame. The apartment is a block from the station in a quiet building, it’s close to great food and markets, it’s a sixth floor walkup with tremendous views of the street and buildings of Kowloon, and it’s dirt cheap.

God Bless You, McCafe.

Watch for the next exciting Misadventure soon: “The Central Midlevels”!

Hong Kong: Lantau Island

A Note about this post: This isn’t a proper post about the project, but just something to let you know what we’ve been up to for the past few weeks. Greetings from Southeast Asia!

It’s been awhile since you last heard from yours truly – but there’s a good reason for that.

During that time, we sold off, stored with obliging relatives, or mailed all of the possessions save those that fit into two giant backpacks; gave two weeks notice at our cushy jobs in Manhattan; handed the keys to our Bushwick sublease reluctantly back to the owner (herself just back from Ghana); arranged to film a couple of traditional Khmer wedding ceremonies for our documentary project; and spent two weeks driving a Ford hybrid rental into the ground all around Oregon, mostly visiting friends and relatives (the highlight of which was watching our friends Brian and Heidi kill the room at Suki’s in downtown PDX with their dead on karaoke cover of the B52s’ “Love Shack”).

Then at the dawn of St. Patrick’s Day, we boarded the Bolt Bus from downtown Portland to Seattle, cruised to Sea-Tac on the airport tram, and flew 16 hours from Seattle – via Tokyo – to Hong Kong.
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March 17-20, 2014

The cabin explodes in applause upon our final approach at Tokyo-Narita, because amid 20 mph crosswinds our Airbus 330 drops, twists, and fishes wildly as if in a seizure until right about when we touch the tarmac.  Nice bit of flying.

Partly because of the winds tossing about everything with wings all over the Pacific Rim, we land very late (after 1 am) in Hong Kong International. The only option is to cab it to our hotel and hope  they left the light on.

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The cab driver barrels around 20km curves at a dead 60 km and strains up steep mountainsides in an old 1980s Chinese junker sedan. He almost leaves the engine block dropped through the chassis behind us on a few of his climbs.

A highlight of the ride: a giant black water buffalo with massive horns looms out of the darkness with his rear end to our cab, tail twitching,  lounging and chewing his cud on a sidewalk in front of a darkened shop.
Tourists-meet-Mui-Wos-water-buffalos.-Photo-by-Steven-Knipp-INLINE

Then SCREEEEEEEEEECH we’re there. Luckily the hotel has anticipated our lateness and left the light on. We gingerly navigate a narrow alley strewn with boxes behind a restaurant, catching whiffs of fish and old vegetables and the unmistakeable tang of the salt sea.
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So you may have noticed by now that we like to do things in opposite order. Call us contrary, but because of how the timing worked out with the first Khmer wedding ceremony (and the joys of nonrefundable plane tickets), we’re starting our trip with a vacation first – and not starting proper work until about two weeks in. I know, rough life, right?

Our first two days in Hong Kong are not actually in the towering, buzzing city everyone pictures, but in Mui Wo on southeastern Lantau Island. A town that not even many Hong Kong residents go (most of them head to Disneyland Hong Kong just north at Discovery Bay), Mui Wo doesn’t rate on most tourists’ to-do lists. But we end up digging the quirky village and its super-friendly locals, and of course its uncrowded and laid-back beach, Silvermine Bay.

Silvermine Bay Beach
Silvermine Bay Beach. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
More Silvermine Bay. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
More Silvermine Bay. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

It’s a perfect place to shake off the jet lag.

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For two days we laze by the tidal canals:

Regatta de Lantau. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Regatta de Lantau. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

, eat on the cheap in seafood restaurants overlooking the bay, enjoy sunny mountain views from atop Nam Shan

The view from the Old Village Path down Nam Shan to Mui Wo. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
The view from the Old Village Path down Nam Shan to Mui Wo. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

, and climb steep, ancient forest trails to a funky hillside village – where the architecture resembles shades of Dr. Seuss:

Mui Wo Village has some interesting condo association rules. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Mui Wo Village has some interesting condo association rules. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

beat-up bicycles are the main form of transport, and amateur bird enthusiasts place cloth-covered cages up under trees so their budgies’ cries can attract flocks from all over the island.

But of the island’s famous resident water buffaloes, which reportedly cause traffic jams, are employed in various festivals and races, and otherwise wander anywhere they wish unimpeded by locals, we see nary a sign. The expat British owner of Caffe Paradiso – the best cafe in town, where gut-busting English style breakfasts and strong cappuccinos are the order of the day – disgustedly indicates a familiar culprit.

Eager real estate developers, Hong Kong dollar signs cha-chinging in their collective eyes, consider the buffaloes an obstacle and have won Lantau’s blessing to herd them out of the way to the marshy lowlands over Nam Shan, the southern mountain. And now even the marshlands are in their crosshairs.

The cafe owner sponsors a Lantau Buffalos youth rugby team:

Image courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/SLBrugB
The vicious, hardened South Lantau Buffaloes rugby squad practices. Courtesy of South Lantau Buffalo FB pg.

He also sells T-shirts (Keep South Lantau Horny!) with proceeds directly toward preserving the buffalos’ habitat (for more info on this great organization check out http://lantaubuffalo.wordpress.com/). But sadly the prospects don’t seem good for the beasts.

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Our final morning in Mui Wo we hang out on the ferry quay and wait for the boat to Hong Kong Island. We depart the lazy shores of Lantau knowing that we’ll see them again someday, whether in official capacity as filmmakers or as grateful return visitors.

But now it’s time to board the so-called “Ordinary Ferry” (read: slow boat) toward the craziness of Hong Kong Central. But that’s for the next post, which I swear will be more timely than the last….

The slow boat to China. Heh heh. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
The slow boat to China. Heh heh. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

 

 

So Much to Do – So Little Time

Hello fellow Misadventurists,

We’re in the midst of a melee of preparation for our documentary.

If you were to come up a metaphor for our status, our company would be like a hot air balloon struggling to get aloft with a giant rhino charging toward us; but the basket is weighed down with ballast, and we’re furiously cutting loose ropes and throwing chests overboard to lighten the load.
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Image courtesy of 9wows.com

The ballast, of course, is all the stuff we’ve accumulated over our four-plus years here in New York City. Shifting operations overseas and becoming virtual expats, even temporarily, means reducing our overstock to nil. And you would not believe the amount of stuff that two people can hoard over four and a half years.

The charging rhino is our February 28 deadline, after which we’ll be flying to Oregon for a couple of weeks and then departing from Seattle/Tacoma International airport, ready or not.

By “ready”, I’m referring to externalities like immunizations, flight details, supplies, gear, visas (very important for China and Vietnam especially – luckily we can hop on a subway and apply personally at the Manhattan consulates for both countries, which speeds things up considerably). We have a likely fixer in Cambodia, a couple who is interested in being in the doc, and we even have some AirBnb bookings already (can’t wait to meet our hosts in Hong Kong, Kam and Eve.)

But that all said, are you ever truly ready for an adventure into the unknown like this? There are only so many contingencies you can plan for. Even with only a month to go before our departure from New York, – trading our view from this:
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Image courtesy of Bushwick Collective

to this:

Image  By © Timothy Allen/BBC
Image By © Timothy Allen/BBC

– there are still infinitely more crucial details unknown than are known. But perhaps that capacity for surprise and serendipity – yes, even for catastrophe – is what draws us again and again to this field and these kinds of projects.

In all the current melee it’s important to remember that this kind of career is a great privilege, a privilege that so few around the globe can hope for. The possibility of complications and failure is balanced with this knowledge, and with the immense gratitude we hold for our opportunities and toward the people that have supported us.

So on toward the unknown….

Southeast Asia here we come

My fellow Misadventurists,

We have our plane tickets. We have some tentative subjects. We have most of our gear. We have some great contacts in Cambodia and Vietnam and possibly beyond.

So it’s now official.

We’ll be landing in Hong Kong for the first leg of our documentary shoot/backpacking adventure in only eight, heart-quickeningly short weeks!
Hong_Kong_Skyline-1 (1)
(C) Van Gulik courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

We can’t pretend this departure won’t break our hearts more than a little, as we’ve both fallen in love with our adopted home of Bushwick, Brooklyn, and we can’t say with any certainty when we’ll be able to return. But opportunity, and a chance to strike out on our own – and finally see if this crazy idea will work – awaits us on the Pacific Rim.

Of course all of you will be along for the journey all the way. We promise many more updates to come, whether sick or well, whether on a roll or But for now, on to planning! We have belongings to sell and give away, people to hang with and beloved spots to hang out in before we take off.

Later!