November 27, 2008

Local Tourist

I've been on vacation all week, in my "own" backyard.

My friend Mary, from Paris, was here in Hong Kong for a conference and extended her stay for a few days. I took the opportunity to take some time off as well because even though I can do plenty of stuff in the day and work at night, well, who wants to?

In a few short days we managed to go to the Kansu Jade Market, Stanley Market and visit a dozen high-end shops in fancy malls. We bought jade and pearls and silk and designer duds.
We ate Nepalese, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Dim Sum and Sichuan and took the tram up to Victoria Peak at dusk to see all of Hong Kong Island. Not bad for what was, essentially, a long weekend. (photos at flickr, eventually)

And we went to Nobu, and sat at one of the "good" tables along the waterfront of Victoria Harbour, with a magnificent panaromic view. It was awesome -- the food and the view. I won't say Nobu was the high point, but it was one heck of a highlight.

It was interesting to be a knowing tourist. While we had guidebooks and cameras in hand, we also had an inkling of how to get about town. We used all the modes of transportation: MTR, taxi, mini bus and double decker bus.

The jade market was neat -- about 100 stalls under a makeshift tent in a district in Kowloon. The guidebook said to get there early for good deals, which seemed counterintuitive. Seems to me you get the good deals at the end of the day, when everyone is closing shop. Not so here ... apparently it's a matter of making a first sale. The vendors will, supposedly, offer a better price earlier because they need the sale. This is not the case in Stanley, which I'll get to in a minute.

Upon arrival we were accosted by a woman selling pearls. Her wares were lovely, her tactics very aggressive. But I've already been through the whole "never buy from the first stall" thing. Mary moved on fairly quickly, but the woman grabbed my arm and held on, like a grandmother would. She wasn't letting me out of her sight. I did not, ultimately, buy anything from her, although I did promise to come back. I did come back, in fact, and after seeing all the others' wares, I found that hers were at a good price for a reason. The quality just wasn't there.

Mary and I returned home laden with semi-precious stones. Our only regret was not making it to the opal market.

The next day we took the bus to Stanley Market. Stanley is on the south side of the island, and isn't accessible by MTR. From where we are, in Mid-Levels, you have to take a minibus to the bus depot in Central, then take one of six buses out to Stanley, about a 20-minute ride. Although it takes 20 minutes only if the road isn't closed for construction. Then it takes about an hour.

I'd been to Stanley on my only other trip to Hong Kong in, I think, 2000. Stanley itself is considered a nice place to live, especially if you don't mind the commute. It's right on the sea and has fairly low-slung buildings on the coast. It's very pretty, and fairly rustic, compared to the rest of the island. You absolutely feel as if you're far from Hong Kong on the way out there. The bus travels from Central south through Happy Valley, past the racetrack and the hillside British cemeteries. Once you get through the tunnel you end up on the other side of the island, which has some very nice coastline.

Stanley Market is a maze of shops and stalls selling all sorts of stuff, from toys and baby clothes to linens and silks to jewelry and leather. Mary had a particular interest in finding something for her two boys, and she did. We also were keen to pick out some silk scarves. We'd been to the Shanghai Tang boutique the day before and they had gorgeous silk clothes and scarves. We knew this was knock-off stuff (not to be confused with counterfeit) but do you need a $100 scarf when you can get it for $11? I know I'm willing to overlook a few lapses in quality to save $90. That's U.S. dollars, mind you.

I was tempted by many more things, but didn't take the leap. If we're going home, I don't want to have to move around a lot of trinkets etc. and if we're not going home then I'm not sure I need new cushion covers for the couch in Long Beach, no matter how well they match.

We had read in the guidebook that prices in the Stanley Market weren't as good as they used to be. I think this is probably true. There is no need there, as at the Jade Market, to heavily discount things because there are far more tourists. Shopkeepers let us walk away many times. We were lucky to get 20 Hong Kong discounted from a big purchase, and that's about $3. I guess they figured there were another dozen marks behind us. That said, some things were indeed a very good value.

In between shopping we managed to see some non-commercial sights, in particular Victoria Peak. We met Paul at the tram (actually, a funicular) up the hill and rode to the top, 1,810 feet above the city. It is the highest mountain on the island proper, according to Wikipedia. We paid the extra fee to go to the lookout tower and it was pretty spectacular. We decided against Madame Toussaud's. Going up the hill, and then again backward down it, is not a pleasant sensation. Passengers are on wooden-slat seats and the angle is so steep that there's a sort of gravitational pull that is not quite pleasant. On the other hand, people used to get up there by sedan chair. But yeah, absolutely, the view made up for it. You can see both sides of the island. It's very cool.

So that, along with lots of food and a few drinks, was my vacation.

Not half bad.

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