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Weeks 21,22,23+24 - Xmas Hols

Weeks 21-24 of my year in Hong Kong. Four weeks off from school to celebrate Christmas and (Western) New Year.

rain 15 °C

Posted on 12th January 2021

Huge thanks to Dr and Mrs Holliday for awarding me the Nick Holliday Travel Scholarship, in memory of their son Nick who was a geography teacher at KES. He was an avid traveller, explorer and climber, and died tragically in a climbing accident doing what he loved. The Scholarship helps fund the travels of KES students who aspire to travel, which I am sure Nick would be very proud of.

Writing about the Christmas holidays in this entry; four weeks off certainly isn't bad. Currently, HK is still in its fourth wave, though we're past the peak and on our way down in terms of cases. Have to bear in mind that waves in HK are very different to waves in the UK, in terms of how many cases it takes to trigger a government response and be called a 'wave'.

Whilst the number of daily new cases in the UK has been over 10,000 since the beginning of October, HK has been able to keep that number in the single digits more or less from the start of September till mid November. Whilst the peak of the UK's third wave is just under 70,000 new cases, the peak of our fourth wave is just 115 cases. HK's government takes any sort of increase very seriously, which seems to allow the waves to peak and settle quite quickly, though this fourth wave is taking longer to settle than the third.
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Currently, we can only sit in groups of 2 at restaurants and they have to close at 6pm; whilst restricting their business, at least they're able to stay open and generate some form of revenue. We can only gather in groups of 2 in public as well, whilst lots of non-essential businesses/activities are suspended until further notice (e.g.) beauty salons, clubs, theme parks, cinemas, sports fixtures, gyms and pools.

We're fortunate that the situation is fairly under control and that full lockdown isn't required; we can still go into town, meet up with people and hike, which has allowed us to do a fair bit over the Christmas holidays.

Week 21 - Camping

Campsites are closed due to the fourth wave restrictions, so now people just camp in parks or on grass patches instead. The people here are extremely obedient of government rules, though this doesn't mean they aren't creative in looking for loopholes. Another example of this is at restaurants, where people are only allowed to sit in 2s. Whilst there should be 1.5m between each table of 2, the more rebellious (by Hong Kong standards) restaurant owners simply put a transparent plastic divider down the middle of a table of 4.

We planned to camp on Lantau Island from Monday to Wednesday in the first week of the holidays, intending to hike up to the Big Buddha - situated on top of a mountain - on the first day. We'd climb Lantau and Sunset Peak - the 2nd and 3rd highest peaks in HK - on the second day, before descending on the third and finishing in the local seaside town of Mui Wo.

We thought it sounded like a solid plan on paper. In reality, it could've gone better; we headed back on the morning of the second day due a combination of poor planning, naïvety and crap product design. Our tent was non-waterproof, something I'd never heard of before; I thought the whole point of tents was to keep the elements out. We knew this going into the trip, which was why we checked the forecast on three or four different weather apps. "No rain". "Clear". "10% chance of precipitation". None of them even hinted that there was a chance of rain, so we didn't see any flaw in our plan. We set off on the Monday morning to hike up the mountain to the Big Buddha.

The hike was the opposite of those family friendly ones with nice steps and a gently sloping path all the way up. It was a fairly secluded narrow concrete road that took us through dense jungle vegetation, abandoned temples and a rural village of real monks. Seeing the monks was really cool; they had allotments that meant they were self-sufficient in food, whilst a nearby waterfall could meet their water needs. Their houses looked very raw, with old-looking concrete walls and bamboo scaffolding on some. This wasn't a tourist exhibition or anything; the path literally took us through their village and we could see them, dressed in grey robes with shaved heads, go about their normal routine: tilling the land, collecting water in buckets and praying. Very tranquil and spiritual. As we were leaving, we could hear a gong sound from further inside the village.
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The monk settlement and a monk at work on the land

It had been grey that whole day, and rain started to patter down lightly when we reached the top. We started setting up our tent on a patch of grass around 50m away from the official 'campsite' (3 other people had the same idea). It was still drizzling when we finished setting up, but we checked the forecast again and it still said it should be clear. We walked about 10 minutes to get dinner from a mountain restaurant close to the Big Buddha, thinking the rain would stop after our meal. It didn't. Instead it seemed to get worse, and when we got back our non-waterproof tent wasn't in the best condition. Water had started to drip through the walls and onto our stuff. The more we hoped for the rain to stop, the heavier it seemed to rain. The tent acted like a sponge; it absorbed the rainwater into its fabric, so if we made any contact with the walls it would dislodge the water and cause it to come raining in. We basically couldn't roll over or fidget because if we disturbed the tent in any way, we'd create a mini shower.
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Our tent setup on the mountain (there was a hole in the top which we tried to cover up with swimming trunks) around a 10 minute walk away from the Big Buddha

But the rain continued to pour, and after about an hour the fabric seemed to reach its saturation point where it couldn't absorb any more water. Regardless of whether we moved or not, water began to drip inside (like when you turn off a tap but it continues to drip slowly). It dripped onto our feet (the tent was on a slant and we had our heads on the higher side) so that our sleeping bags were soaking wet at the bottom. Yet if we fidgeted due to being uncomfortable, it would simply cause more water to fall in. It was cold, too; our winter temperatures get as low as 9 °C, compared with 30 °C in the summer, plus we were highly exposed on the mountain. So we basically had to just deal with our feet being freezing cold (a small puddle had now formed at the bottom of the tent too) in order to preserve the rest of our bodies. Probably got about 3 hours sleep each that night.
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The inside of our tent at night with water dripping through

We called it quits the next morning. Our tent and sleeping bags were drenched, plus we felt ill. Additionally, the next peak we were planning on climbing (Lantau) was even more exposed than this one. We decided to just get a footlong Subway before heading down. Luckily, a bus service ran from the Big Buddha to the bottom of the mountain, so we were spared from a miserable hike. We spent the next two days recovering, and funnily enough the weather was completely fine.

On the Thursday we went back to the Hyatt Centric hotel in North Point. Loads of hotels were doing discounts over the Christmas break, as they were missing the business they usually received from tourists during this period. The cost of a night at this hotel was halved, plus they included all-you-can-eat breakfast and lunch in the deal. A nice experience after the trauma of our failed camping attempt.
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The buffet at the Hyatt

Week 22 - Xmas

Spent Monday to Wednesday of this week on Lamma, the island with the huge power station built off it. Enjoyed their amazing street food; a restaurant served food to passersby from huge metal trays displayed on the kerbside in front of their shop. The trays were full of sweet and sour chicken, stir-fried noodles, and my favourite were their huge fist-sized pork steamed buns. It was a very successful business strategy, with many people cutting their search for a good-looking restaurant short after seeing the kerbside display.
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Kerbside streetfood on Lamma

Did a cool hike the next day. Again, it was unconventional and took us through areas of wild jungle; there is a trail that runs around the base of the Ling Kok Shan mountain in circular fashion. We did the first half of this circle, before cutting back through the middle and returning to our start point by going up and down the peak. It was more difficult but gave us better views.
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Map of the hike; the dark circle is the standard trail, but we only did half of it before cutting through the middle and going on the middle line over Ling Kok Shan

The trail took us past a row of abandoned stone houses. They were occupied in the 1800s by the Chow clan, the first people to arrive on Lamma, and have almost Mayan-looking engravings etched into the stone.
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Houses of the first inhabitants on Lamma

We then arrived at Shek Pai Wan beach. The cliff walls and rock pools were formed out of volcanic rock and were very different to typical cliffs/rocks; they were sandy coloured and smooth, and had lots of air pores. Because of the beach's remote location - only accessible by hiking and no restaurants, only one small store to buy drinks from - it was completely free of litter and very peaceful.
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Shek Pai Wan beach and its distinctive volcanic cliffs

The final part of the half-trail took us past Sham Wan beach, a very unique beach because it's closed for 5 months every year (1st June to 31st October). By closed, I mean there is a watch hut by the beach and a large sign that says anybody who enters the restricted area can be fined up to $50,000HKD (around £5000) and jailed for up to 6 months. This is because during those months, endangered green turtles use the beach as a breeding site, laying their eggs in the sand. Southeast Asia's illegal trade of live turtles is widespread - many people want to keep them as pets for some reason - so from the start of June to the end of October each year, the watch hut is manned 24/7 to deter poachers. The sand is known as the softest in HK (nobody sets foot on it for 5 months a year) and it is enclosed by stunning mountains that make it feel like something out of a fantasy book.
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Sham Wan/Turtle beach, and the sign warning people of the $50,000HKD fine for entering when it's closed

The second part of the hike - going over the peak - was really cool: it took us past huge volcanic rocks that were the size of small cars. Some were balanced on top of each other precariously, and genuinely looked so unstable. There was a viewpoint at the very top of the mountain, and from it we could see Hong Kong Island (where the main city area is located), as well as the north and south sides of Lamma Island, as if we had a bird's eye view.
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The volcanic rocks, view from the top and me stretching my calves

A little note about Lamma. The paths are too narrow for cars, so the main mode of transportation is some form of buggy that looks like a mini pickup truck. The driver steers the buggy like it's a go-kart, whilst in the back is a big metal tray used for storage. They go pretty fast, and people deliver food and pick up bin-bags in them. They're so loud though; their engine sounds like an extremely loud lawnmower. When we were walking on the more busy paths, we'd hear one drive up behind us every five minutes, and have to tuck ourselves against the bushes either side of the path to give way. If the buggy crashed it would send the driver flying; they don't look very safe, but the locals seem to know what they're doing.
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The iconic buggy, used as the main mode of transportation on Lamma

Got back to school on the 23rd. Went to the Conrad on the 25th for Christmas Lunch. Fanciest buffet I've ever been to, with lobster, prawns, caviar, truffle pasta and free-flow champagne on offer. Golden ornaments were everywhere and the decor was designed to be elegant, whilst the tree was huge like those in American Christmas films. The teachers here all seem to come from the same bubble, and often discuss which 5* hotel they think is the best and how many times they've stayed in each.
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Inside the Conrad

Week 23 - New Year

Chinese New Year is much bigger than western New Year in HK; the locals here don't really celebrate the 1st of January. Everything was still closed past 6pm so we just ended up having a few drinks and playing games like Cards Against Humanity.

Went to Hung Hom on New Year's Day. Visited an artisan burger restaurant called Nomad Burger; you build your own burger from a choice of pulled pork, Angus patties and grilled chicken, and add on truffle mayo, wasabi mayo or burger relish. It was incredible, and I'm planning on going back to try their seasonal special: the soft-shell crab and shrimp burger. Never seen a place with as much food as HK, in terms of both quantity and choice; you can't walk down a street anywhere without passing one or two bakeries and a fast-food restaurant.
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Nomad Burger, Hung Hom

Hung Hom seems quite culturally rich. There's a modern church (quite rare in HK) with multicoloured glass panels and European-style arched windows, whilst a little further down the road is a temple that is used purely for worship purposes; there's nothing there to accommodate for or attract tourists. It was quite small and yet there were hundreds of incense candles burning vividly, completely smoking out the inside. On the back wall was a golden Buddha and a monk sounding a mini gong repeatedly, chanting some sort of hymn as people approached the Buddha and prayed. It was loud and smoky inside; it was quite overwhelming and a complete contrast to the other temples we've visited, which were completely silent.
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Hung Hom's church and temple

Week 24 - Stanley

Didn't do too much in the last week of the holidays. Played on the new pool table in house, went to a game night which was great fun and got invited out to lunch by my housemaster which was really nice.

Went to Stanley on the Wednesday, a seaside town known for its street market; managed to get an authentic looking Fred Perry polo shirt for £15. Another landmark is Murray House, part of an old British military barracks built in 1850. It was originally located in Central, and was moved 15km south to Stanley in the 1980s to make way for the Bank of China building. Its 3000 building blocks were individually labelled and transported to Stanley for it to be rebuilt. It now sits along the waterfront by the pier (which was also moved), and is much happier now that it is away from the congestion of Central.
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Murray House and Blake Pier, Stanley

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Schools were originally meant to open on Monday 11th January, though due to the fourth wave they are shut until further notice. Only senior boarders are allowed to return to school, but they still have to access their lessons on Zoom; they sit in their teacher's classroom and participate in the Zoom lesson from across the room. Because no other pupils are in school, there are no sport lessons to help out with. I'm now supervising the staff kids like I was back in August during the third wave, who are in Years 1-5 and need help using their laptops. They still learn on Zoom, but I have to help them access their lessons and provide support if they need it.

I seem to have visited most of the main attractions in Hong Kong, so things will be a bit quieter for a while. I'll probably end up writing once a month, otherwise it would just be about going to different restaurants or revisiting places I've already written about. The next big thing to look forward to is Chinese New Year which is massive over here; they have a bank holiday Monday for it and there are usually massive street parades. HK's population is extremely well behaved and non-disruptive, but apparently everybody lets loose at CNY. Fireworks and parades have already been cancelled, but hopefully there will still be celebrations for us to partake in.

Thanks for reading
Dave

Posted by David Zhao 10:49 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged rain

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