Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Monday, August 27, 2007

China's SARs

We couldn't leave China without checking out the country's SARs. Not the disease SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) that hit the headlines back in 2004, but the two Special Administrative Regions of Macau and Hong Kong. Both islands off the south coast of China technically fall under Chinese rule, but exercise a high degree of autonomy. We were curious to see how life in Macau and Hong Kong compared with what we'd experienced in mainland China.

The Portuguese landed in Macau in the 16th century, quickly establishing a lucrative trading relationship with China and making Macau their home, with the consent of the Chinese. During China's Cultural Revolution, Portuguese presence in Macau came under scrutiny and finally in 1999 Macau was returned to China as a Special Administrative Region, or SAR. We headed to Macau in search of balmy tropical weather and a unique fusion of cultures.

A Macau street sign in Cantonese and Portuguese, near Monte Fort.

We arrived by ferry from Shenzhen on the mainland, and sensed that Macau had its own distinctive character as soon as we stepped off the boat. We'd landed in an altogether more cosmopolitan place where signs were in English, as well as Cantonese and Portuguese, tourists were welcomed and people formed an orderly queue for taxis. We enjoyed the novelty of waiting our turn instead of competing with multiple pairs of elbows to secure a vehicle, and were soon on our way to the Institute of Tourism Studies, where we'd booked a room in their training hotel. We weren't quite sure what to expect but were pleasantly surprised to be shown to a lovely suite by extremely professional student staff. In fact, the facilities were of a five star standard at one star prices, which suited us perfectly.

Enjoying a glass of wine (Portuguese, of course) in the comfort of our hotel room.

We were equally impressed by the Institute's restaurant, a classy establishment offering a tantalizing selection of Portuguese and Macanese specialties. We dined on delicious fresh clam soup, salmon carpaccio, bacalao with pork belly and roast octopus with nicoise salad. The meal was complimented perfectly with a Portuguese Chardonnay and concluded with pineapple gazpacho and fruit crumble with creme brulee ice cream. We wholeheartedly agreed that the students could practice their cooking and service skills on us any time!

Macau's real attraction is its uniquely blended culture. Chinese & Portuguese, Buddhist & Christian and old & new influences can be found everywhere.

A bustling Macau street, with all sorts of merchandise on sale from warm pork jerky to dried shark fins and birds nests.

Irresistible egg tarts can be found in every Macau bakery, a lasting legacy of Portugal's presence here.

The scent of burning incense cones fills the air around Macau's many Buddhist temples and shrines.

St Paul's Church has been a Macau landmark since the early 17th century. Designed by an Italian Jesuit architect and built by Japanese refugees, the church's facade features carved skeletons, angels, dragons and pagodas - an interesting mix of Eastern & Western imagery. Most of the church was destroyed by fire in 1835, leaving only this spectacular facade, which remains one of Asia's most important monuments to Christianity.

Attractive colonial buildings can be found around Macau, most of them beautifully preserved and providing a classy, resilient alternative to the enormous, modern casino complexes. Since gambling is illegal in mainland China, Macau has found a lucrative niche, catering to Chinese tourists in search of pleasure and fortune. The half built gold monstrosity in the background of this photo is the Grand Lisboa Casino. We tried our luck at the Wynn casino but lost 100 Macanese Patacas ($14) in about 100 seconds. Just like Las Vegas!

Many Macau buildings look like this. The black mildew is caused by the humid climate and makes these apartment blocks look more grim than they really are.

Three days gave us ample time to check out a few museums, digest several Macanese meals and sample some good Portuguese wine, before hopping aboard a ferry to our next SAR: Hong Kong.

Our accommodation in Hong Kong was a shoebox compared to the fancier-than-we-can-usually-afford place at the Institute of Tourism in Macau. It didn't matter though, as the bright neon lights and bustling streets of Hong Kong enticed us out from our 'den' at all hours.

The neon lights of Causeway Bay disguise the distinction between day and night.

Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 as a SAR, after 99 years of British Crown rule. Like Macau, Hong Kong's history has resulted in a fusion of Eastern and Western cultures, leaving this cluster of islands with a unique and extremely cosmopolitan character. We immediately found ourselves caught up in Hong Kong's frenetic rhythm, and within just three days there, we'd decided it's a great place to visit, and perhaps to live. Here are a few reasons why.

Cosmopolitan with a capital C
Hong Kong is one of the most international places in the world, up there with New York, London and Paris. Walking the streets you hear some Cantonese, but more English, which is often the common language between Asians of different nationalities. International businesses and products are everywhere, including Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, Vivienne Westwood, Chanel and even Marks & Spencer. The whole of the city is truly a shopping mecca. In fact there are so many interconnected malls, you could feasibly walk from one end of the city to the other without leaving the air conditioned world of retail. You could also purchase a Rolex watch approximately every 100 meters, if you so desired (and could afford it). We restricted our shopping urges to a bucket of popcorn and two tickets to see "The Bourne Ultimatum" in one of the city's many cinemas.

The Lippo Center is one of Hong Kong's most distinctive buildings. Nicknamed 'The Koala Bear' because its design supposedly resembles koalas climbing a tree, Hong Kongers live, work and, of course, shop here.

Feeling Hot Hot Hot
If heat and humidity are your thing, Hong Kong could be the place for you. The tropical climate makes for beautiful greenery on the rolling hills outside the city, which is actually a hiker's paradise. The warmth also lends itself to public Tai Chi sessions in the city parks. You might feel silly bending, stretching and balancing in the park at home, but everybody's doing it in Hong Kong.

Dreaming of Dim Sum
Hong Kong boasts a restaurant scene that might rival Chicago. That's a big claim, but we had plenty of great dining experiences to support it. Dim Sum is something of a local speciality, which we tried at the famous Maxim's Palace restaurant at City Hall. A team of women in smart gold uniforms patrolled the aisles with trolleys of dim sum, ready to serve diners whatever they fancied from an array of steaming treats. This can be dangerous after a 50 minute wait for a table, especially when a new and exciting trolley is wheeled by every few minutes.

Here I am, about to seize a roll of glutinous rice with my chopsticks, as the trolley approaches behind me, loaded with baskets of steamed goodies.

Jason pauses between dumplings & jasmine tea for a photo.

We also struck gold with sushi, Indian curry, a French bistro lunch and even a night at an Aussie pub. We certainly ate our way around Hong Kong. As regular Donkey Crossing observers will notice, that's not exactly out of character for us.

Kowloon to Causeway Bay and back
Getting around in Hong Kong is blissfully easy. There's an efficient, clean subway, as well as classic trams and reliable buses, which makes exploring a breeze. There's no need to drive a big fancy car around the city, but we saw plenty of those too.

Jason takes in the urban view from the front seat of an antique tram.

Dizzying heights
Perhaps our most memorable Hong Kong transport experience was riding the Peak Tram funicular up to Victoria Peak. The ultra steep gradient made it more of a white knuckle ride than expected, but the views from the top richly rewarded the stress of getting up there. Hong Kong Island viewed from Victoria Peak is surely one of the world's most impressive urban landscapes. The tropical trees flanking the concrete jungle make Hong Kong even more attractive. Property is suitably pricey here though, which explains why our hotel room was a bit on the small side.

The stunning view of Hong Kong island with Victoria Harbour and Kowloon in the background. Instead of riding the funicular back to the city, we strolled down the lush, forested hillside.

The obligatory tourist shot at Victoria Peak.

We savored every minute of our three days in exciting, exuberant Hong Kong. But with Thailand calling our name, and our bank balance diminishing faster than you can say "more shrimp & pork dumplings, please", it was time to move on.

Saying farewell to Hong Kong with a bang at the Saturday night fireworks display. We had a fantastic view of Hong Kong Island and Victoria Harbour from the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade.

Stay tuned for tales of temples, Thai massages and lemongrass soup in steamy Bangkok.


Blogger Chris said...

Holy cow dung!! You're in India already? That'll turn your world upside-down. Are you two taking all this in? Maybe you could do some ascetic yogi training for a few months to extend your trip finances....give our best to Lozang. Chris

2:04 PM  
Anonymous Emily said...

heard of Macau before (oops). What an intriguing little land. The photos from Hong Kong are gorgeous!

5:16 PM  
Blogger MidWestCowboy said...

birds nests??? yummy, like eating and cleaning your teeth at the same; pure actione...Hong Kong...simply guys look ya's!!! (pass the chicken feet, will ya's!!!)

1:31 AM  

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