Sunday, 2 September 2012

Hong Kong: Day 3 - New Territories

We had such an interesting time today. We joined a Splendid Tours & Travels  tour into the New Territories.
The whole situation of Hong Kong and the New Territories was really interesting. We all know that Hong Kong was "handed back" to the Chinese in 1997, but the stories behind it are worth knowing, and these are the sort of insight you get when you undertake organised tours. Apparently Hong Kong was ceded to Britain after the first Opium War. So, do you get that? Britain did not "lease" Hong Kong from China; Hong Kong was ceded to Britain as part of the spoils of war.  In other words,  Britain owned Hong Kong, and virtually build the place from the ground up. Hong Kong, though, is a little island just off the coast of China, and so Britain needed some of that very nearby land, land on which to grow crops, land from which to source materials and workers, and so - following yet more Opium Wars - China agreed to lease Kowloon and the New Territories to Britain for 100 years.
Time travel to the latter part of the 20th century. The lease on the New Territories is getting towards its expiry, and China has no desire to renew it; China wants its land back. How, then, is Hong Kong going to manage without the New Territories, without all those workers who commute each day to work in the commercial/business insanity that is Hong Kong? All too difficult. There is only one answer: accept the inevitable and give Hong Kong back to its original owners. And so there you have it.Those of us - me included - who thought that the whole shabang had been leased and was being handed back when the lease expired were wrong; it was simply a tactical impossibility to keep hold of that tiny little part of the Empire.

So, today, as I said, we set off on a tour which would take us into the New Territories for a glimpse of life outside the high-rise clutter of Hong Kong and Kowloon. 
The tour started with a visit to - yes, you guessed it - a temple. In Europe, everywhere you go it's cathedrals, cathedrals, cathedrals. Asia's answer to that, of course, is temples, temples, temples. You will overdose on red, gold, incense, and crave a bit of starkness, the refreshment of neutrals.  So, here we are, first stop, and that red, gold, incense is overwhelming. Gongs are gonged, chants are chanted, monks are everywhere, the sweet smells of fruit piled high as offerings is almost overwhelming.

Where too much bling is never enough.

After the temple, we headed into the New Territories and had the great pleasure to visit a traditional walled village, Kam Tin. It's an old, old village, and seems to be mainly peopled by old, old ladies. We were told that there is no pension system here, and so these elderly widows exist on the kindness of others. They live here in this village - and no doubt myriad other similar villages dotted around the country - adhering to some of their ancient customs, still wearing some items of their traditional dress, and frequently providing free childcare for the offspring of their busy 21st century professional sons and daughters. 

We entered the village through a large gateway and proceeded down a long central alleyway. Small lanes turn off to the left and the right, and as you walk forward, taking care not to trip over the cobbles and broken paving, you catch the odd glimpse of an ancient, wrinkled face peering at you from a doorway. At the end of this central alleyway is a small temple containing a very ornate shrine, or altar. There are rich fabrics draping the altar, and the smell of incense and fruit again emanates. To our delight, as we leave the temple a few of the local ladies assemble, happy to pose and smile for photographs - in return, of course, for a few dollars. It is money well spent, as I'm sure you will agree.

We felt so privileged to have visited this village and met these delightful elderly ladies, we then drive to a lovely wooded area where we can enjoy views "over the border" to the People's Republic of China. It was so strange, somehow, to stand there and look down at the Shenzen River and some houses on stilts. It seemed instead of being there looking across to China we were visitors to the set of a movie about the Vietnam War, so much did it seem to resemble a million scenes that have flashed across our eyeballs in Platoon, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter. It was hazy, it looked other-worldly, there were no border guards with red stars on their caps aiming automatic weapons to us but somehow the moment still had a fantastic edgy feel to it. Going in to China on a shopping spree would be so ordinary, but this felt like western voyeurism, almost a John le Carre moment.

With apologies for the quality of the photo - new camera due, methinks - but can't you almost hear the woop-woop of the Hueys approaching?
After this little glimpse into the land of the little red book, we were ushed back to the coach for a visit to a small township and the Wishing Tree. Here, people all jot down their wishes on cards provided and then tie to them to the tree, sending their wishes to the gods. Young girls, young men, the sick, the lonely, everywhere you look there are people standing around jotting down the desires of their hearts onto those little cards ready to attach to the tree.

Our tour guide hands out cards for us to complete, and some on the tour do just that.  I simply pocket mine as a souvenir. I am here on holiday, in this exciting, colourful and so "other" place, with my lovely man, I have my health, my happiness, family who love me, and two beautiful cats. What more could I wish for?
Other than the tree, I am fascinated by the houses here. They bear no relationship to what I had expected homes to look like, and to me are almost Spanish looking. Lots of tiles, lots of ceramic, lots of stainless steel and chrome, but - perhaps because it is the time of the Mid-Autumn Lantern Festival - always with those wonderful Chinese lanterns on display.

Certainly not what we were expecting.
There were a couple of aspects of the tour which really made a lasting impression on me. One is the crazy, crazy traffic. Oh, it's insane, I assure you. Our tour guide, Shirley, also pointed out that, while in Hong Kong and the New Territories you drive on the left, in the British style, when you cross the border into the People's Republic you have to change over to the right hand side of the road. Having said that, she did say that the side of the road you drive on in China is almost a personal choice - right, left, straight down the middle - and driving there, even being a passenger, is not for the feint hearted. The other lasting memory, and it's a lovely one, is the stunning scenery we had the privilege of driving through. The greens are so rich, so deep, of such variety, and everywhere there are these lush, green hills. Particularly for people from the flat, brown land of Australia, such richness of landscape is especially beautiful.

Our coach then returns us to Tsim Sha Tsui, and I think we all agree that Shirley was a great tour guide and it was money well spent. As we walk around the corner from the coach stand, though, we see a sight that really was one of the best of the day. What do you think?

There are always little gems to be found when travelling, aren't there, and this certainly was one. I still laugh every time I see this photograph, and I know that every westerner who walks down that street would do the same. 
Wandering, shopping, eating great food in a little eatery, all those finished off the day for us. It really was another great day in Hong Kong. 
Tomorrow we're off to Ocean Park, so I hope you'll join us there. 

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