Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Tsin Shui Wan Temple Trek

Recently, the twins and I volunteered to go along on a walking field trip with Tori’s class. I am actually not sure why I signed up for this trip as walking anywhere with the twins can be difficult. I think it was the promise of only 15 minutes walking that made me think we could do it. And we could, at least the downhill part! We all walked from Tori’s school, perched on a hill, down to the beach at Repulse Bay ( a neighborhood on the south side of Hong Kong Island). We have been to Repulse Bay beach a couple times, quickly finding the Pizza Hut and 7-Eleven. But much to my embarrassment, that is where we stopped. With Tori’s class, we wandered maybe 100 yards further down the beach and came about the wonderful Tsin Shui Wan Temple.

Tsin Shui Wan is a big beautiful Buddhist temple, with lots of large outdoor statutes decorating the entrance to the temple. I have no idea how old this temple is but guess it is relatively modern. Tori’s teacher, Mrs. Tan, gave Tori (and the twins) worksheets with more than enough other information to fill a sunny morning. Everyone took their worksheets very seriously. Tori wrote in the answers where she could and Adam and Royce drew pictures of what they thought were the answers. We all did crayon rubbings of Chinese characters and various tile mosaics. Tori pondered which religion was right (her class also visited a Hindi temple) but the twins just screamed with joy at all the animal statues and joss sticks.

We entered the temple through the "Thousand Year Old Door", which is really a huge gate. We saw all sorts of animal statues, like the longevity horse, the ocean blessing horse and the goats of prosperity, not to mention a couple sea dragons. There are huge (20 feet tall) statues of the Goddess of Life Savings, the Goddess of Mercy and the God of Longevity. We walked over (twice) the Bridge of Longevity, which is to increase your life by 3 days with every crossing. As we were leaving one statue, the Old Man from the Moon, some Chinese tourists told the kids they should sit on the statue’s bench to ensure they find good spouses. The Old Man from the Moon is a matchmaker. The kids did this and then Tori jumped up and pulled her friend Connor over to the statue. While I was thinking that maybe she wanted to marry him or some such thing, she very sweetly told me that she just wanted to make sure that Connor was happy when he was an adult.

Now we are six!

As Winnie the Pooh says, Tori is now six and clever as clever (and her parents want her to stay six forever and ever.) She celebrated her birthday in grand style a week ago, with a some festivities on her actual birthday and then a larger Ancient Egypt theme party a few days later. There was a little confusion all around, trying to figure out the times, dates, and ages across continents, ie. would I still be five in Maryland? But all in all, Tori has accepted the mantle of six with grace and panache.

For Tori’s birthday, we planned to buy her a piano and start lessons. We mainly did this, renting her a "Baldwin" piano for now. The Chinese piano that many people recommend, the Green River brand I think, was sold out after the holidays and thus we concocted the rent to own scheme. The whole transaction, when compared to our purchase of piano in Ukraine, is a little interesting. In Ukraine, the actual purchase was the main event. We bought the piano (what currency? cash?) and it was delivered. Actually, one huge man carried our piano up to the seventh floor, unloaded it, drank a beer, tuned it, and played and chatted for awhile. Here in Hong Kong, we paid for it and then slipped into the endless waiting for the item to be delivered phase. Many frantic cell phone calls later and a couple hours late, some men dropped off the piano, deferred all questions and promptly left. Just when I was starting to miss those quirky Ukraine moments, Tori’s new piano teacher arrived with lots of personality. She greeted us with "Hello big and tall Americans!"

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Big Wave Breakfast

Being beach dwellers now, we dine at the beach from time to time. Usually picnic or pizza but today we hit our breakfast venue. Our breakfast place is called The Blue Room, run by a Canadian I think, at Big Wave Bay Beach. Though quality is slightly in flux, one can get pancakes and fruit artfully arranged on stylish plates. But food comes secondary to the fact that the place is really right on the beach. Just us, one tourist couple and a bunch of local surfers.

To get there, we drove about 15 minutes out on a peninsula of sorts, the southern most part of Hong Kong Island. All driving (on what is the opposite side of the road for us) is nerve wrecking but this drive really was. To get to Big Wave Bay, we had to pass over Quarry Bay Road, a section of Tai Tam road which is really the retaining wall of the huge Tai Tam Tuk reservoir. This section of the road is all water on one side and sheer drop-off on the other and very very narrow to boot. While half way across the reservoir road, we came upon a large municipal bus. Phil slowly inched past it and we learned why our new minivan has a motorized function to retract its rearview mirrors!

After, or actually during, breakfast, we hit the beach along side the surfers. The kids wanted to swim but luckily for me, there was a sign up stating that the shark net at the beach was down for repair. Tori’s ability to read the danger signs is coming in handy! We played and tried to assess the level of cleanliness compared to our last visit when we did swim. Last time, the water was full of floating garbage and the beach was not much better. This time it looked clean from afar and we just opted to stay afar.

Instead of swimming, we walked up hill to view some ancient rock carvings. The walk was steep but all kids made it. The rock carvings, just a small section on an outcropping of rock, were discovered in 1970 and made into a national monument in 1978. The geometric shapes and lines have not been definitely dated but are generally thought to be Bronze Age Era, about 3, 500 years ago. As all kids did drawings during breakfast, and brought those drawings with them on our hike, it was pretty easy to see that, despite thousands of years, some human continuity remains.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Island hopping: Lamma style

It has taken us awhile to actually leave Hong Kong Island and see what else is out there. But we are slowly getting the hang of ferry travel and every trip really proves the effort is worthwhile. We recently tackled Lamma Island, the island closest to our home and consequently, the one we most often gaze at during the day.

Despite our proximity to Lamma Island, we did not exactly know where the ferry to Lamma departed but we knew the general neighborhood. Our taxi driver did not know either (or just could not understand us). We were dropped off on one side of a large fish market, which we walked through to get to the ferry. While the long walk was hard for the kids, it was even harder for them to look at all the dead fish! Nonetheless, this proved a good introduction to Lamma Island, where we saw lots and lots of dead fish, not to mention plenty of live ones too!

A little ferry boat took us right through a major shipping channel to Lamma, a ride of about 25 minutes. We got off in little Sok Kwu Wan, a village of primarily seafood restaurants (lots and lots of live fish to view and explain). Sok Kwu Wan has a population of about 300, most employed in the fishing industry. Though we didn’t think the kids could make it, the main thing to do on Lamma Island is to walk from Sok Kwu Wan to the only other village on the island, Yung Shue Wan (home of Mr. Chow Fat, the movie star). The walk (about one hour and a half, or so we are told) takes visitors past a Tin Hau Temple and other historical sites going back to the Stone Age and more recently, Lamma’s history (circa the 6th century) as a supply base for merchant ships.

The other thing happening on Lamma Island is the Lamma Fisherfolks’s Village, a museum of sorts on the fishing industry and lifestyle. We shuttled out to the floating museum in a little fast boat and boarded the fisherfolk’s village (sort of floating interconnected piers). A tour guide hustled us through a number of exhibits, including one where he scooped up fish and then let us hold them. We were all a bit hesitant, except Tori, who held every last creature he pulled out of the sea. Later, our guide even netted out a nurse shark for us to look at but cautioned us not to pet this one. There was all sorts of information at the village as to the types of ships used, the types of nets, what the living quarters were like on boats etc., but what really looped us in was "funny fishing."

During the event of "funny fishing", all the kids were given long bamboo poles with bait. They then dunked the bait into a contained part of the sea and had the pleasure/horror of a live fish pulling on their line. At first, Tori immediately dropped her pole when it was tugged by a fish, albeit a huge one. However a few minutes into "funny fishing," all kids were gamely hanging on as the fish fought over their bait. The day had everything ocean related; big boats, little boats, fish, weather. Everything except pirates, accordingly to Adam.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Big Buddha

Today we went on a "journey of enlightenment" (as advertised profusely in the MTR/subway and beyond). We visited the huge bronze Buddha on Lantau Island. We learned a little about Buddhism and a lot about patience. We did not reach any state of enlightenment but it definitely was a journey of epic proportions for a family of five!

Most guide books rank the trip to the Buddha as a top five type of activity. Consequently, it has long been our list of things to do. And while it was a good interesting trip, I think the books might be a bit dated. Until recently the giant Buddha sat serenely on a hill with the South China sea behind and the Lo Pin Monastery in front and North Lantau country park lands all around. Within the last few months, a new series of interlinking cable cars has been added, greatly increasing the number of visitors to the hilltop. It was a bit much for us to stand in a line for over an hour on a week day, just to get a ticket and then to stand in another line to board the ride but we did it. The Ngong Ping 360 cable car takes people up on a 25 minute ride, overlooking the South China Sea, Hong Kong’s major airport and then the country park lands to near the base of the Buddha statue. It is all stunning; water and greenery. Amidst the greenery, you can make out ancient and not so ancient grave sites of village leaders and get just a slight sense of what it must of been like out here before it was connected to the tourism traffic.

While I think the Buddha could perhaps do with a little less foot traffic, I know it could definitely do without the new little strip mall at the top of the cable car ride. We popped out into cafes, ice cream shops, all sorts of stores and even a Starbucks. We went through the Monkey’s Tale Theatre, which showed a cartoon rendition of some of Buddha’s teachings, and through the accompanying gift shop. Finally, we left the new village and hit the old. Old side of the road stands selling corn on the cob and the like. We came to the Lo Pin monastery (which due to rain we did not enter) and proceeded directly to the Tian Tan Buddha.

Built in 1993, the Tian Tan Buddha is the largest seated outdoor Buddha in the world at 23 meters high. Legend has it that to receive good luck one must walk up the many flights of stairs to the Buddha without stopping. Tori and Adam jumped at this challenge but Royce was skeptical and demanded to be carried for most of the hike. At the base of the statue is a small museum with some briefing descriptions of Buddha’s life and teachings. Apparently, two holy relics from Buddha’s death some 2,500 years ago are housed in the museum but despite signs declaring their existence and Tori’s extreme curiosity we could not find them.

Our trip home started once again with a huge line of folks waiting to make the return cable car trip. But somehow this time we stumbled upon a loophole in the line system. We were able to bypass hundreds of people if we agree to only stand and not sit on our cable car ride home. With everyone packed into a cable car (each car holds 17 people) hours ahead of where we thought we would be (and Adam asleep in Phil’s arms), perhaps we did reach some level of true contentment after all.