Thursday, August 16, 2018

A Taste of Hong Kong

Hong Kong (HK) is a city that needs no introduction.  It reminds everyone of a vibrant island city with bustling traffic and people.  When you see pictures of HK you see businesses with their neon lights protruding into the middle of the street.  You sense excitement and anticipation when you land at the airport.  Its economy is a model of what a laissez-faire system should be.

The last time I was in HK was in May 2014:  Hong Kong - a local neighborhood

I was on my way to an exciting trip in China that included a cruise on the Yangtze River, holding a panda in Chengdu, riding a camel on the Silk Road, seeing the Terra Cotta soldiers in Xian and cruising the Li river and seeing karst formations in Guilin.  You can see these postings in the May and June 2014 section of this blog.

But this trip is different.  A couple of high-school friends and I decided to come to HK just to enjoy the local delicacies.  Among Chinese cuisine, probably the most creative are those from the Pearl River delta in southern China.  In HK the predominant Chinese cuisine is Cantonese.  Americans may be familiar with Cantonese-style restaurants that were started by early Chinese immigrants.  These were popular until the 90s' when more immigrants came from other parts of China and opened Sichuan, Mongolian, and other northern Chinese-type restaurants.

Jimmy and Eric flew in from Singapore and I flew in from Taiwan.  We met at the new Hong Kong International Airport on Chek Lap Kok Island.  This new airport replaced the old terrifying Kai Tak Airport in 1998, a year after the British returned HK to Communist China.  We took a taxi to the Stanford Hillview Hotel in Kowloon.  It costs about HK$300 or about US$38.  It's easy to get from the airport to either HK Island or Kowloon.  You can take a taxi or an Airport Express train to key stops, then take buses or taxies to the hotels.  It's wise to buy an Octopus card, which is used mainly for taking public transportation, but can be used at restaurants and other establishments as well.

Our taxi-driver was generous in sharing information about HK, especially where to shop and eat.  Since all three of us are conversant in Cantonese, it was an easy conversation.  Our hotel is in the Tsim Sha Tsui area in Kowloon.  This is a very popular area, especially the very touristy Nathan Road.  Fortunately, we are a couple of blocks away from Nathan Road, in a relatively quiet hillside neighborhood.

Based on tips from the taxi-driver our first stop was at a local market to buy Chinese sausage and salted fish.  You may wonder, what's the big deal with these two food items?  For those unfamiliar, Chinese have been preserving food for generations when there was no refrigeration.  One of the ways to preserve food is to salt and then dry them.  To some the flavor is heavenly when you cook them.  To others it stinks like rotten food.

Stall selling dry preserved food

Among the preserved food is scallops (in the middle) and sausage on the top-right
Our first tourist stop was Victoria Peak, the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island.  From here you can see HK Central (downtown), Victoria Harbor and Lamma Island.  It has the most expensive real estate in all of HK and sometimes the world as well.  Tourists flock to the Peak because of its views.  The most popular way to get to the top is taking the funicular.  However, the line is often very long, with the wait sometimes over 2 hours.  To get around that, we booked a "tour" through a company called Klook (klook.com), which gave us fast access to the tram.  It is worth a small service charge so that we don't have to wait in line for too long.

View of Central HK and Kowloon from Victoria Peak at dusk
Then it was a late night supper at a restaurant in Kowloon that specializes in clay pot rice.  Cooking rice and other ingredients in a clay pot is a specialty in Chinese cooking.  The pot retains the flavor of the rice and the ingredients, typically some kind of meat or sausage or salted fish.  The food is not meant for those who are not used to the pungent flavor of some of these ingredients.

Menu for Clay Pot Rice restaurant

Clay Pot Rice with Chinese sausage
A restaurant selling dessert made solely from soy beans
Our intended destination the second morning was Lantau Island.  Unfortunately, the cable car to the island was not working.  We switched plans and went to Cheung Chau Island, where the main occupation is fishing.  We took an hour ferry from the ferry terminal in Central Hong Kong.  It was a nice pleasant ride through Hong Kong's busy waterways.

Ferry Terminal in Central HK

Idle fishing boats

Then it's back to the central district, commonly called just Central.  It's the central business district with all the office skyscrapers on the northern shore of the island.  You can see the buildings in the picture above taken from Victoria Peak.  Behind all these skyscrapers are old businesses that have been around since the beginning of HK.  You find narrow streets and alleys, some needing escalators to get up from point A to B.  In the area called Sheung Wan are old shops that have been around for as long as a hundred years.  In this bustling area you also find young professionals from all corners of the world working in this exciting city.

One of the narrow streets

A food stall in the Central district

Our dinner plan that night is a popular upscale restaurant known for its roast goose.

Roast goose on display
Dim Sum is arguably the most popular Cantonese comfort food.  The bite-size food come in small plates, served by waiters and waitresses pushing carts around the restaurant.  If you see a dish that you like, you stop the cart and pick whatever you want.  The waiter/waitress will mark down on an order sheet the size of the dish that you took.  Each size corresponds to a certain price.  The food is mostly steamed but some dishes are fried or stir-fried.  Dim sum follows the tradition of "yum-cha," which literally means drink tea but is an occasion for friends or family to have tea together.  It is a wonderful way to socialize with everyone at the table (usually round) and enjoying some delicious food at the same time.  We went to Lin Heung Tea House on Wellington Street.  It was started in 1889 in Guangzhou, China and opened its HK branches in the 1920s'.  As expected it was very popular and crowded.  We arrived there around 9 am and most of the popular dishes were already sold out.

Dim sum dishes, including steam buns, stick rice, sponge cake, etc


Customers fighting over the food

A couple of waitresses pushing their carts

Li Heung Tea House on Wellington Street
That afternoon we went to a restaurant in the Wan Chai area that specializes in snake soup.


Snake soup

In the evening it was a feast of a different kind:  chili crab in the touristy Temple Street.  This is an area where a lot of of tourists come to for the night market.  Besides selling souvenirs and knick-knacks in an open-air market there are many well-known restaurants in the area.  This chili crab restaurant is so popular that it has 3 separate dining rooms across the street from each other.  However, our unbiased opinion is that the Singapore chili crab is even better.



On the morning of our departure (4th day) we made a last run for a traditional Cantonese breakfast dish:  congee.  It comes with choices of many ingredients:  pork, preserved eggs, fish, etc.  It also has other side dishes like fried noodles, taro cake, soft rice cakes, fried crullers, etc.

Congee and other side dishes

Congee choices
Fried crullers or Yau Char Kwai (in Cantonese)
Needless to say we were stuffed when we left HK.  But we were joyous to have tried all these popular HK dishes.  Thanks to our friend Eric who spent 6 months planning this gourmet itinerary.  I am still trying to lose the 4 to 5 pounds that I gained on this trip to Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Hualien and Taroko Gorge

I booked this Taiwan trip without much planning.  I was torn between doing a comprehensive round-the-island tour or just visit a few places.  I had different feedbacks from different people.  I finally decided that I will allocate 8 days then figure out where I was going to go.  The major places to visit in Taiwan are Taipei, Kaohsiung, Tainan and Hualien.  While in Taipei I found out that I have enough places to visit to keep me busy for at least 7 days.  Finally, I decided that I was going to use 2 days to visit Hualien and save Kaohsiung and Tainan for a later visit.

The High-Speed Railroad (HSR) in Taiwan runs north-south from Taipei to Kaohsiung.  It does not run east along the coast to Hualien.  The journey from Taipei to Hualien takes about 2 hours and a ticket costs 440 New Taiwan Dollar (TWD) or about US$14.50.  It was a very nice pleasant ride through the countryside.  The trains were clean and the passengers were all well-behaved.

Why Hualien?  The main attraction here is the Taroko Gorge.  I booked a 1-night stay at an apartment about 15 minutes away from the train station.  When I arrived at the Hualien train station I found out that there was a shuttle bus leaving in about 30 minutes on a route through the area.  This Hualien Shuttle Route takes you to the outskirts of Hualien, through farms, recreation areas, old sugar factory, etc.  My plan was to take a similar shuttle route through the Taroko Gorge the next day but I want to see what's around Hualien.

Taipei Train Station

Danongdafu Forest Park

This is where the bus turns around on the shuttle
It took me some time to find my AirBnB apartment.  A young couple runs the apartment remotely.  You have to call them ahead of time and they meet you at the apartment.  Early the next morning i walked 15 minutes to the train station.  Next to it is the shuttle bus that takes you through the Taroko Gorge.  It is a hop-on hop-off bus, costing 240 TWD or about US$8.  There are about 10 stops.  You stop wherever you want and you wait for the next bus that comes along.  I stopped at 3 or 4 stops because the bus runs about every hour and if you miss one, you have to wait for almost another hour. Everything was going smooth until about half-way through the gorge, there was construction and traffic was backed up.  That threw the bus schedule out of whack and at the last stop, I had to wait for almost 2 hours before getting back to the train station.

Crossing the bridge to the temple

A nun asking for donations

Shuttle bus

Shakadang Trail

Temple on top of the hill

Pagoda at Tianxiang

A different perspective of the pagoda

View from the top of the temple

Eternal Spring Shrine
I finally arrived back in Hualien at about 6:30pm.  I quickly walked to the train station and buy a ticket for the next train to Taipei.  Later that evening I took a train to the Taipei airport, went to the Plaza Premium Lounge to take a shower, rested and took an early morning flight to Hong Kong, where I will meet my friends Jimmy and Eric.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Outside Taipei


Most tourists to Taiwan spend most of their time in Taipei, the capital and biggest city.  However, there are many interesting places to go outside Taipei city itself.  I have the luxury of having no fixed schedule and plenty of time to explore.  When I did my research on Taiwan I found out about the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle.  This is a very creative way for tourists to see different parts of the country on their own and using mostly public transportation.  It is extremely affordable, since it uses mostly public transportation.

For example, on the Crown Northern Coast Line that I was on, I bought a 1-day Taipei City Pass for 180NT (New Taiwan Dollar), which is about US$6.  It allowed me to take the MRT (Taipei Subway) and the shuttle buses all day.  It took me to the northern part of Taipei, called New Taipei City.  Starting from anywhere in Taipei, I took the Red line to the end, Tamsui Station.  At the bus station about 50 meters away I found my tourist shuttle van.  The driver was going on lunch break but he told me that I could take the 862 bus which follows the same route.  It goes along the northern coast of Taiwan. There are many interesting places to stop on the way.  My first stop was the Fugui Cape Lighthouse, the Jingshan Old Street, and finally, the Yehliu Geopark, a place with some interesting rock formations.

The northern coast of Taiwan

Cape Fugui Lighthouse

A beautiful and isolated part of northern Taiwan

Jinshan Old Street

A shrine next to the fishing village

Yehliu Geopark

A popular spot for tourists

A Fishing Boat near Yehliu Park

 Another interesting route is the Muizha-Pingxi route.  It takes you through some hilly terrains and towns where you can hike, walk around some old towns, make some wishes on sky lanterns, etc.  I did not take this bus route but my friend Bang and I took the MRT to Taipei Zoo where we took a ride on the Maokong Gondola.  Getting off at the top we visited some local restaurants, saw some tea plantations and even get to do some tea tasting.  We ended up in the town of Pingxi where many tourists were releasing sky lanterns with their favorite wishes.

Maokong Gondola


Street food vendors

Tea tasting House

Tea Plantation


Lanterns hanging in front of souvenir shop
Families releasing sky lanterns

Fortunes hanging from bridI encouraged
If you are visiting Taipei I encourage you to visit areas outside Taipei.  There is much to offer.  The residents are super-nice and the infrastructure is superb.  Food is always delicious.  Find the right Tourist Information Center and get as much information as you and start exploring on your own.  You will love it.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Taiwan Night Markets

Night markets are the social fabric of Taiwan.  It's a way of life there.  Local residents love going to night markets to shop, eat and meet their friends and families.  Every night market offers different things.  Some have more food; others sell clothes, household stuff, etc.  On the map of Taipei, you see night markets all over.  I visited several of them while in Taipei.  The variety of food is astounding.  Below are some pictures of them.

Shilin Night Market

Selling clothes and knick-knacks at Shilin

BBQ Octopus


Roast pork is popular here

Keelung Night Market

In Ximen area

Ninxhia Night Market

BBQ Squid

Very popular oyster omelette restaurant
Drinks made from winter melon

Shaved ice dessert

A bun with meat inside, like a hamburger

near National Taiwan University
Saxophonist at the Hualian Night Market