A Travellerspoint blog

Manila

rain 27 °C

The Philippines have never aroused any interest in me to visit them, but when I found that the cheapest way to move on (by far - like 50%) was via Manila, I thought it would be interesting to stop over for a couple of days. Cebu Pacific had me in Manila before I knew it - almost literally, as I had become convinced it was a four hour flight but it is around half that. The arrival terminal was huge, quite new, and seriously under-used.

Then the fun began, as I had to get myself into the city - I'd read awkward arrangaments can be made involving unmarked buses which drop you whoknowswehere, and was very wary of the taxis. My theory is that the more insistent they are to get you to take their taxi, the more likely it is you are being ripped off. I knew the official metered rate into town - of all the taxi drivers who pestered me to use their services, the only one who gave any idea of price was charging well over four times the metered rate.

So, I walked, not the whole way - just about 3 km over poorly formed footpaths, dragging my bag behind me. At least it was much cooler than in Hong Kong. I had maybe 100 taxis (not joking) want to give me a lift, some were extremely persistent in their attentions. My first contact with normal locals was when I popped into the good old 7-11 for a cold drink - the guy behind the counter (as he did with everyome who came in) boomed out a "Good day, welcome, come in". I stood around with my drink - there were a couple of young kids begging, but mostly it was just people going about their business. There was a fellow who could not speak sitting at the seats - he gestured for me to take a load off. After the 7-11, the road went up through a sort of street market - there was still traffic, including lots of the famed jeepneys,

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but it was moving more slowly than me. Eventually, I saw what I was looking for - the jutting end of an elevated railroad, part of a project to link the airport with the centre by rail which has been caught up in political intrigue and corruption, so no-one can say if and when it will get finished. Rather than get on immediately,I celebrated my arrival with some fried chicken at Jolibees. On the train, there were three girls, teenagers, standing beside me, presumably speaking Tagalog, but I did get the gist of part of their conversation: one of them is coming to New Zealand to study and that revelation operated as a comedic thunderbolt - her two friend almost hit their heads on the ground, they were laughing so much, and then the intending student joined in.

At the other end, I had about another km to walk, but this was easy, as I walked straight through a rather nice park and into my fabulous hotel:

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I had a voucher to redeem for a night in a hotel, worth $US130, which was almost exactly what the grand Manila Hotel cost. William Taft decreed that it was to be built, and it was, in 1912. MacArthur moved in for six years during the war as special military advisor to President Quezon and then used it as his command post when America joined the war. Being the best place in town for a long long time, many famous people have passed through its doors, from Nixon to Clinton to Bhutto, from the Beatles to the 2011 American idol finalists and, of course, me. The place was so incredibly nice, the staff so gracious, that it seemed a shame to even go outside (if I had known it was the middle of rainy season, I might not have). In fact the first night, I stayed in for dinner, had some adobo (marinated meat) and a tasty dark version of San Miguel and marvelled at the lobby, which was a bit beyond my normal range of experiences.

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I was super impressed when I complained at about 11:30 at night that the internet was not working - they sent up a tech immediately who installed a router right in my room: problem sorted. In the morning I wandered out the back of the hotel, behind its pool, and had a small mystery solved - I knew I could not be far from the coast, but had seen no sign of it. This is what is immediately behind the hotel

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I spent the day wandering the Old Quarter, Intramuros: it is on a rivermouth, so people have lived here for centuries, but it was the Spaniards who decided upon a walled city, which was built in the 16th century, damaged heavily during the War (not all the marks made have been repaired or healed). Fort Santiago was built in the river mouth - there is not a whole lot of it left - the reconstructed moat, the walls and associated features like guardhouses and a couple of subordinate buildings.

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Here I learned about one José Rizal, who was incarcerated by the Spaniards in the chapel, tried for treason and put to death by firing squad. There are suggestions he was falsely found guilty, but that seems to undermine him: he worked strenuously to get rid of Spanish rule, fomenting discord, causing difficulties for the Spaniards - I can see why they might convict him, and it made him a martyr. Apart from his cell and the courtroom, his final walk out to his death has been re-created, with various groups of mourners.

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Lunchtime - beside the Fort, there was a line of restaurants, all selling very similar products, but this sign was the winner

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The business started during the war: apparently Max was doing a roaring trade selling fried chicken out of his home, and the business he was convinced to start is still going strong. The food was terrible, but the staff was entertaining - there were several young guys and mainly just the one girl on the floor with them: they were constantly teasing and flirting with her (and she gave as good as she got) and play fighting with each other. There was also the cashier, an older woman: the guys would try to tease her, and she'd have none of it, remaining all stern and businesslike, until the strain of being serious got too much, and she'd crack up as well. It looked like they were having a lot of fun with each other, and managed to keep serving the customers.

This shop was near the former residence of the Governor, the soon to be Treasury and a couple of other cool buildings.

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I wanted to see the rest of Intramuros, but the rain got the better of me - I spent at least 30 minutes huddled under a small pice of canvas which was a sort of verandah for a tiny shop - by the time the rain cleared, the water had pooled so deeply I could not carry on, and had to make some lateral moves. I got about two blocks, when the rain started again - at least I had a proper shelter. A couple of uni students wanted me to take refuge in the church - when they couldn't get me to move, they had me do a pretty long survey about the tourist infrastructure and environmental protection measures of Manila - like I knew much about either topic! But they were sweet and thought my input would be valuable. The rain still hadn't gone off so I was eventually persuaded by a young girl to join her family in the museum across the road - I must have sat there at least an hour, waiting for the rain to stop, looking at this.

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When it did, the sensible thing would have been to hurry back to the hotel, but I saw cake and a coffee machine, and that was the end of me being sensible, which resulted in yet another wait for the rain to stop. I had to find out what a chocolate cappucino was - it was important research (hot chocolate, but with milk frothed as with a cappucino, as it happens).

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On my last morning, I maintained an anxious weather watch and decided I'd leave early and walk from the end of the train line - the departure terminal was not the same one I had arrived at and careful scrutiny of satellite images revaled good wide footpaths, so I thought I'd be fine. And I was, right up to the point that I could see the entrance to the airport when the rain came tumbling down - luckily I had another shop with a wee canvas verandah. Only real problem was that I'd walked to the wrong bloody terminal. A policeman (or maybe security guard) got me into a taxi, telling me it would be 200 pesos - the driver laughed and told me he'd never forget me when I showed him I only had 86. He took the lot, and of course the metered fare was more like 60.

This terminal had the worst food facilities I have ever come across - three stalls selling near identical products, two cigar stalls and a pathetic duty free counter. I really wanted a beer after allmy exertions and it wasn't until I'd walked the lentgh of the terminal twice that I discovered they had put the bar inside the smoking area - oh well, the beer was cheap.

Philippine Air, despite being very cheap, was not a bad airline to fly with. There was an incident on the runway, in which a Saudi plane couldn't handle the wet and skidded off. That delayed our flight - the airline kept us informed of develpments and after about 90 minutes did a snack service. They said they'd even do dinner service if the problem persisted, but that didn't seem a good idea to me, as we'd not be able to take off with iour tray tables down and dinner half eaten. As it happens, we were stuck in the plane on the tarmac for SIX HOURS before we could finally take off. Then we had dinner.

These are a few of the photos I took as I wandered around Intramuros and then from my hotel room, which overlooked it.

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Posted by NZBarry 21.08.2014 01:10 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Last Week in Hong Kong

sunny 30 °C

A while ago, I read a Magnuss Mills satire, which was an odd one given that I never quite got the point of what he was satirising, called The Maintenance of Headway. Headway is the idea that instead of public transport running to a timetable which always gets screwed up, they simply maintain a fixed period between each bus, tram, whatever - this is headway, and Mills's book was really about maintaining it. I had never actually seen any place use this notion of headway, not until I went to Hong Kong, and the plaque at the bus stop would say "Headway - 7 minutes". Oddly enough, I have another connection between my reading habits and Hong Kong: another fairly obscure book I read was called How To Sharpen Pencils (really). The essential answer was to get a particular model of pencil sharpener - one I could not find in New Zealand, except for a very expensive antique version on trademe which has been unsold for more than a year now. In my wanderings around Hong Kong stationery shops, I found lots of these wee beasts, so that (together with about 3 dozen pencils, lots of cool notebooks (made from card, paper and spiral binding not silicon and plastic) and a few pens) is my souvenir of Hong Kong.

I actually did quite a lot of blog read research before I came to Hong Kong and so had quite a long list of places I wanted to see: most I didn't see. Instead, I took a more accidental approach - stay in one part for a while, see what was local, and move on to the next place, one which was largely chosen by the fact it was relatively cheap, provided free internet and didn't look like I'd get broken into. This process led to my last week being spent in North Point, in the same hotel my mum spent on the last night of the great trip she did shortly before she passed away, the Ibis. Although I was way up on the 27th floor, unfortunately I was facing away from the harbour - my only chance to view it was when the cleaners let me into the room opposite to admire the view - I'm sure it would be fantastic at night.

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It turned out to be a really good location - several decent eating places nearby, a short tram journey down to the central library and a pleasant walk back in the evening. I don't think I'll be getting the Florence Nightingale award from the library any time soon - one afternoon, I was up in the very quiet 9th floor study space, but was constantly interrupted by this incessant sniffing and coughing - I actually thought it was an elderly gent, perhaps down on his luck, coming in out of the heat. I'm not sure what I would have said if it had been, but when I discovered it was a smirking teen, I suggested he might like to either die or get out of the library. [Poetic justice payback: I've had a sniff and cough for a week now that I can't shake.]

Just the other side of the library is central Causeway Bay and here I think I found my favourite cafe of all those I have liked in Hong Kong. I'd visited and liked the Coffee Academics cafe, but then discovered there was another, the original. It had a more lived in vibe, great food and bev, great staff and just a really nice atmosphere.

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By about Friday night, I really thought it was incumbent on me to do some of the touristy things - Tsim Sha Tsui is one of the major tourist destinations - as Wikipedia says, many shops and eating establishments to cater for tourists. I had a quick walk though and accidentally found myself on a ferry to Hong Kong Island, where I found myself in Central. I've already had a quick walk through here - lots of places for tourists, yes, but also for locals, and very hilly - the streets zigzag in all directions. It was nice to wander though at a relaxed pace,

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at least until the thunder storm! I went into an HMV high concept store - not even sure it was open, as the staff were stocking empty shelves, but it looked like an interesting venture, with a modernised version of the HMV dog featuring strongly.

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Finally, on the Saturday, I found my way to the famed mid-level escalators - they run for nearly a kilometre, downhill from 6 - 10 and then uphill for the rest of the day (various attempts have been made to double-track the line, but it is unlikely to happen)

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After a final roast duck on rice, I popped into the Maritime Museum for a look around - lots of history about Hong Kong maritime life, as to be expected, with models of various ships used in the past and then a few more modern items

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Of course, I spent a bit of time on the Star Ferry boats, whichcross between Central and Tsim Sha Tsui, among other places - they're pretty utilitarian but such a landmark of the Hong Kong water scene.

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Years ago, I had a client making catamarans for use as ferries in Hong Kong - but I was not able to recall or find out which particular company is using them or even if they are still in service.

My last night in Hong Kong was actually back in Tsuen Wan, which proved to be a brilliant move. The bus to the airport, after touring several housing estates to collect passengers, soars over the western tip of Victoria Harbour and then has a straight run down the coast of Lantau Island - green bush to the left, ocean to the right. After sacrificing my umbrella to the check in guy and my waiter's friend to the X-Ray guy, I was good to go.

Posted by NZBarry 16.08.2014 23:52 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (2)

Sham Shui Po - Stanley

sunny 31 °C

After finding myself yet again staying on Castle Peak Road, this time at its very beginning, I thought it was high time I did some research about this road. It turns out it is the longest in Hong Kong, starting in Kowloon and running all the way up the West coast(ish) through the New Territories - it sort of knocks on the door to Shenzhen and then curls around and comes back down the East a bit. I was staying in the main HK-YHA hostel, Mei Ho House. Back in the 1950's, there was a huge fire which destroyed a large area of squatter huts or shanties - the British Administration built a number of blocks (29, actually) of public housing, a first for Hong Kong, in which to settle those who had become homeless (58,000!). All but one of those blocks has gone, to be replaced with higher density housing. The last has been retained to commemorate the past events here but has been completely refurbished in order to be Mei Ho House. I spent three nights in it and walking around it, I could not believe it was not a completely new building but looking at pictures of it prior to its restoration, I can see that it really is not. Apparently there is still a room or two kept the way it was for people to see, and they run tours every so often through the building but I missed out, although I did visit the museum set up on the ground floor.

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The hostel is in the Sham Shui Po area of Kowloon: it seemed a good idea at the time to walk to it from my previous hotel, because it was only 2 kilometres. But the combination of the heat and carrying my bags meant that by the time I arrived, I looked like I'd spent the time fully clothed in a sauna turned to high. My room mate looked a wee bit dismayed when I turned up, but I eventually felt human again. The hostel itself is well set up - a very popular onsite restaurant, a wee kitchen (which hardly anyone used) a big outdoor sitting area and a room full of security guards - I looked in this small window as I walked into the hostel, and had two of the guards peering back at me.

Sham Shui Po itself is a bit off the beaten path for tourists, but locals flock here for two reasons - the fashion market and the flea market,

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although it is a very specialised flea market as it focusses on electronic bits and bobs, so there were stalls selling just remote controls for air conditioners, or power boxes for laptops. One was selling old cameras - made me feel quite sad that such fine equipment is no longer needed. This market goes with the fact that Apliu Street is quite specialised - lots of shops selling lighting, others selling surveillance equipment and several selling quite decent hifi stuff - if I was here on my way home, I'd be tempted, although not by the stereos just piled high and looking sad. There are also a couple of malls selling computer gear.

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Apart from the massive fire, this area has another sad history - it was used by the Japanese as a POW camp during the war.

On the Saturday, I decided it was time to just completely take the day off and go out to a seaside town on the south coast called Stanley. I'd actually tried to find a hotel there, but it isn't that kind of place. As it happens, a day trip was fine. I took the MRT down to Admiralty and then a bus, another of the great urban bus trips, as it wound its way up the side of Happy Valley and then twisted down the other side past Repulse Bay - I finally got to see some greenery and plenty of glimpses of the coast.

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Stanley had a wee mall, the Stanley Plaza, a pier, a Victorian barracks moved across the island about a decade ago to house posh restaurants, a tiny main street, a rather larger market selling tat and a line of terrace houses.

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I was entertained by a wee dog for quite a while as he frolicked and made friends with every other dog which came past - still don't know why he had a McDonalds bag tied to him. It was then time for lunch, which I enjoyed in a restaurant in the mall, called Chungs Quisine - which not only made great dimsum but provided me with a menu I could understand.

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After lingering for a while, enjoying the relaxed atmosphere, I caught the bus back up to the top of the hill and walked down the other side, about a 6 k walk. I'd seen several things on the way up I wanted a better look at - unfortunately, being on foot, I didn't have quite as good a view as from the top of a double decker bus, so didn't get the cemetary quite as I wanted it (it was packed incredibly tightly) or the racecourse. The green roofed octagonal building is the Happey Valley Club.

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Finally, I was back on the flat, in the Wan Chai district, which has a long-standing and apparently famous market, and has a nice transition from the old to the new in its buildings. Then I went to a market of a different sort, a very flash supermarket where I finally found the particular tea I'd been looking for and a reminder of home.

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Posted by NZBarry 08.08.2014 23:19 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Hong Kong - I Went to the Library and They Cooked My Goose

sunny 30 °C

Nathan Road is probably Hong Kong's most famous - famous for big brand shopping; infamous for traders selling fakes as real and for the travellers' institution, Chungking Mansions. That is a group of 17 storey apartment blocks, but decades ago, people started converting their apartments to mini-guesthouses (a kind word for a flophouse) and hotels. According to Wikipedia, there are around 2000 rooms for rent - in amongs the restaurants ("African Bistros"!), money-changers, import-export businesses, clothing stores and many less savoury endeavours. I have been reading about this place for at least twenty years, and it has been in my imagination as a mystical place where you can live for virtually nothing and anything goes, but when it came to it, I didn't stay there - the rooms are cramped, and I really don't want to be anywhere that my stuff is unnecessarily at risk.

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My bus from the airport did actually run up Nathan Road and I was back there that night for a late dinner, but I thought that I should spend a period at least nearby, so picked a hotel in Mongkok, which is centred on Nathan Road but runs out as far as the coast. The name refers to the preponderance of ferns that used to grow in the area, which had been agricultural: now it is in the Guiness Book of Records as the most densely populated area in the world. Something of old Hong Kong has remained - it has kept up the tradition of having streets devoted to single trades or industries, but has moved with the times so there is now a photocopy street. Ladies market is not what you might think - it caters to ladies. Apparently it is also the centre of triad activity - back in the days, the British authorities would not venture in here.

The hotel I picked, the Dorsett Mongkok, was the nicest of those I stayed in - the staff opened the door for me, the room was very modern although still not very big but wonderfully set up as a workspace,

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except for the flaky email. It wasn't exactly in the centre of things, about two blocks from the coast,

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I had to go look - it was a pretty low key freight hauling area, where containers were loaded individually by derricks

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a few blocks from Nathan Road, in its own town centre, malls, and a pretty good burger shop, Burgerman.

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I spent the first couple of days trundling down to HKU in the bus so I could use their library, but then I found the public library in Mong Kok which had a dedicated study space and solid internet. Better still, it encouraged me to explore the area a bit better as I walked to and fro.

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We could all use some of the latter! I found my favourite coffee place so far, where the people were incredibly fastidious, and used a variety of techniques to make coffee - although I stuck to the tried and tested.

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I also found an incredible mall, Langham Place, which is 13 storeys high. I went all the way to the top in its intricate network of escalators, and found that it then spiralled down. They had lots of brand names that sounded appealing - like Chocolate, Cream, Paper - but when I got there, I found that they were all selling clothing for fashion forward young women (dare I say it, hot chicks). So when I found a shop called Hot Chicks, I was more than a little surprised to find it sold fried chicken. A couple of places I did like - there was a shop called 80MBus, which was largely based on selling models of Hong Kong public buses, and a ramen shop called Ippudo I have eaten at before, and would have again had the queues not deterred me.

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One odd thing about Hong Kong is that they have their libraries in Municipal Service Buildings - where you can find a council office and so on, but also a couple of markets - the normal fruit and veg, fish and meat and then the cooked food market. It was here that I finally tried goose - the flavour was not much different to duck, but the meat was quite a bit chewier.

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By the way, if you tweet and want to be told when a post goes up, feel free to follow me (@NZBarry) on twitter.

Posted by NZBarry 03.08.2014 10:58 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (1)

Hong Kong - Measuring My Life With Coffee Spoons

sunny 31 °C

Sitting enjoying a nice mound of green beans, pork nuggets and rice

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it struck me how happy I am with this way of living in Hong Kong (and lucky to have it). Yes, I spend most of my days in libraries (a combination of the HKU Law library and the HK Central and Mongkok Public libraries) and work quite hard but I actually enjoy the ability to work at my writing without distractions. Walking around Hong Kong is constantly interesting, and my most enjoyable aspect is probably the people watching. I come from a place where it is cold and there are only ever about six people in town at any one time, so the combination of the heat and the thousands of people per square foot, all of whom seem to move in the most unexpected ways or simply stop moving at all to hold a family conference in a doorway can be a little confronting. That's pretty minor in the overall scale of things. I look at all of the enormous and in many cases rather shabby apartment blocks, and know the apartments are tiny, and start to wonder what it would be like to live in one with all those people.

Or, as I did in a Kennedy Town cafe, I wonder what its like to be a waitress - this one in particular caught my eye because when she was needed to serve food or take orders or clear tables, she was alacrity personified, and very helpful - she helped me sort out the menu - but when there was nothing for her to do, she'd stand, transfixed by the soap opera on TV, and start to bounce up and down and squeal if something (I presume) juicy was going on. In another cafe, I found myself having a race with another customer - she was very trim, well under half my size, but I noticed that we'd both received our orders for the same dish at the same time. I was not even handicapped by having to use chopsticks and thought I was motoring through my food while she was eating quite sedately, and yet I was only three quarters done and she was getting up to pay the bill. The food places are are a revelation - so many good, cheap places to eat, and many of them full of people at all hours: eating, obviously, but also just hanging out, reading the paper, doing whatever. Even McDonalds is a very social space, where people seem to sit for hours, not always ordering anything. I guess this is a consequence of the tiny apartments.

Mentioning Kennedy Town reminded me of a cafe I popped into after the conference one day. We've all seen cafes combined with other sorts of business, like books and music and garden centres, but this one had an odd juxtoposition: I was chowing down on a big piece of chocolate cake and drinking my cappucino amongst a fairly good range of outdoor sportswear.

When the conference finished, I made another hop - this time to a hostel in one of the most densely populated places in the world and the most expensive rent for retail premises in the world (this is apparently where the vertical mall was invented): Causeway Bay.

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[Stole that last one from wikipedia.] I was still on Hong Kong Island, about half way along its north shore. The hostel is almost on the coast so that while I could see nothing from where I slept, the common area had a great view of Victoria Harbour, really fantastic at night. I had an interesting encounter there with a violin student from the Shanghai Conservatory - she came in a bit tipsy from some club, and was very sweet and friendly.

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It seems that the main reason people go to Causeway Bay is to shop, which I couldn't do as there's no way I want to lug even more stuff around the world (I've already bought more than I ought). One thing that did interest me was that there was a sort of march - I'm not sure if it was a protest or celebration, as it had elements of both: someone bellowing catchphrases into a megaphone, a police presence and banners suggested the former, but the marching girls, the music and the dancers suggested the latter. One thing I do know is that one woman was not happy - she stood on the sidelines shouting at them and waving her umbrella angrily (it didn't have much of an effect, as t was one of those wee fold up ones and it kept flapping open).

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After spending the Saturday morning wandering around, I had not much more I wanted to do there (I am trying out a policy of staying local) so when I found the utterly wonderful Hong Kong central library, that's where I went by way of refuge/natural habitat. It has nine floors, all filled up with books and computers and people, and a near absolute silence prevails throughout. I tried to get good photos of the interior, but a security guard came racing over and was all "no photo, no photo". He didn't follow me into the lift, however.

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I found two really good coffee places - one, a tiny almost hole in the all place with just four constantly pacled tables (18grams) was just outside the hostel, and the other, Coffee Academics, I just found by randomly walking around - it was very swish, but its apple strudel was rather smaller and more civilised than the huge chunks I normally have on X-Files night.

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Posted by NZBarry 29.07.2014 09:35 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

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