Sunday, May 28, 2006

Another Side of Hong Kong

When everyone thinks of Hong Kong, skyscrapers and high finance come to mind. We've noted the fast paced city and the densely populated downtown area where 7 million people live in close proximity. The vast quantity of people, high rises, ethnic restaurants and shops is unbelievable.

Yet there is another side of Hong Kong which we've had the pleasure of exploring. Hong Kong encompasses about 230 islands, most of them uninhabited. And it's all so close!

Repulse Bay Beach on the South of Hong Kong Island

Geography such as this offers countless places to sail and anchor and even more places to hike in a natural setting. Wild cows, pigs, and monkeys wander freely in the large uninhabited areas, and occasionally wander into the populated areas. While none make it as far as the skyscrapers downtown, they have frequently been spotted straded in the center of a traffic circle (called a "roundabout") outside the city core. There are barking deer, a dog sized animal that barks when frightened but is actually a deer, which we have heard about but haven't yet spotted. While we've seen the wild cattle, including one getting ready to give birth, we have yet to see the wild pigs and monkeys. Friends of ours have seen all of these wild animals from their home in the city's outskirts.

View of Islands from Sai Kung Town

Where our boat is moored, we are very close to some great hiking and not far from a huge park where there are even more trails. The hilly topography creates interesting gorges, peaks and waterfalls. Hiking along the peaks in the park offers impressive vistas of nearby islands as well as a large crystal clear blue resevoir created by joining a large island to the mainland with two dams, and replacing the seawater with fresh.

High Island Resevoir created by joining island to mainland

Only photos can communicate effectively how gorgeous some of the scenery in Hong Kong can be. On one hike, we walked along a beach, then picked our way through rocks along a creekbed up a gorge to a couple of fantastic waterfalls where we could cool down and picnic.

Swimming in a waterfall

Waterfall in Luk Wu Gorge

I (Wendy) and a friend climbed vertically up the rocks to the top of a steep drop off where we could jump into the pool below. Very exciting! Well worth many revisits.

Another Gorgeous Waterfall

Our anchorage offers a quiet spot away from the bustle of downtown, yet very convenient transportation into the city center. Just outside our bay lie numerous anchorages and beaches. Whenever we go racing, we see all these islands in the distance beckoning to us to come and explore. We can see caves and beaches along their shores that look inviting. We rigged up our sailing dinghy and sailed through the anchorage and then to a nearby beach for a respite. Hiking trails wind upwards from the beach that we are keen to pursue more thoroughly.

Beach hike

We are looking forward to cruising to nearby islands on our boat for a change of pace when the weather looks good. The last time we planned a cruise, though, a typhoon was predicted to be heading straight for Hong Kong. So we scratched our plans and prepared for the typhoon in case there was a direct hit. Typhoon Chanchu passed east of Hong Kong, leaving us with heavy rains and windy gusts, but no major damage in Hong Kong despite the havoc it wreaked in other areas where it passed. More details on our typhoon preparations are featured on our blog.

View overlooking resevoir

We are enjoying the yacht club where we are moored. A popular yacht club event is a casual sail or race to a nearby island for a large communal Chinese seafood feast. We have had several occasions to join in. When dining Chinese style, the more people that participate the better. We have been impressed by the abundance and quality of seafood and the incredibly cheap cost. Last weekend after racing, we and 6 other people from the boat Garth was racing on went to a nearby seafood restaurant. For about $65 US, 8 people feasted on as much seafood as they could desire along with a generous supply of beer and Oolong tea. We've had lobster fixed several ways, squid, cuttle fish, regular fish, broiled scallops in the shell, crab, clams and even snails in a spicy red pepper sauce. We can hardly wait for the next sail to nearby restaurant, yet twice recently our foray out has been cancelled due to heavy rain. It is that time of year during which rain is more common. We are looking forward to lots more racing and seafood feast cruises with yacht club friends we've made. Check out more details about the yacht club where we are moored on our blog.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Surf's up!

I noticed a suspicious swirl on the weather chart late last week and hoped that it wasn't the sign of a typhoon so early in the season. The following day, the marina manager confirmed that a typhoon was heading towards Hong Kong and was packing very strong winds, the strongest since a typhoon back in 1984. He suggested we prepare for the worst.

As we watched the weather charts on various Internet sites, we saw the system build in strength and the projected path confirmed by over 7 weather models to be heading directly for Hong Kong. By Monday the term Super Typhoon (category 5) was used in forecasts and we were hearing reports of "phenomenal wave heights" and sunk/missing vessels, as well as deaths, flooding and the destruction of thousands of homes in the Philippines. We were nervous but had little choice but to prepare as best we could to withstand the winds. We were on a new mooring in a bay that is well protected from all wind directions. We heard about a tiny cove that was even more tucked away, and briefly considered moving to a mooring there, but found the fee to be outrageously expensive during the typhoon for a required minimum stay of 3 days.

We bought enough groceries to last us for a while and filled the water tanks in case water supplies and facilities were compromised in the typhoon. Then we began stripping the boat to prepare for winds projected to reach 90-110 knots, which took us the better part of 2 days.

We removed our sails and stowed them below decks. For the main, this involved removing the sail cover, dismantling the reefing, outhaul, downhaul and preventer systems, rolling it up and disengaging it and then sliding it off the mast and boom tracks, as well as stowing all the lines and blocks that were now no longer attached. Below, the main, with the full battens took up a noticeable area inside our normal living space. For the jib, since we had removed the battens already, this involved taking the sail cover off and folding the jib as small as we could to stow in the v-berth, along with the many other items that needed to share that small area. We removed the awning and the life sling and stuffed them into the V-berth too. We moved all the halyards aft to reduce windage and put the removeable inner forestay into position to provide additional support to the rig. It took us hours alone to remove the wind generator, which we concluded was a major risk in high winds if it began to spin and/or came down. Since its bolts were frozen, we had to drill them out to dismantle it. As we had been already debating whether or not to keep it, since it is unsightly, loud, heavy and required some work to get running again after disuse, we decided that its heyday was over, the solar panels were generating adequate power, and it was time to retire the beast. We found a Scotsman to give us cash for it on the spot as we were on our way to the dumpster. The poor Chinese trash lady was out of luck on this one.

We tried to remove our dodger, but found the zippers to be frozen, and concluded we might wreck it just trying to remove it so we tied it down to pad eyes on the deck and planned to remove the windows if it continued to look like a direct hit and became absolutely necessary. Ultimately the dodger provided shelter from the weather when we wanted to survey the situation outside. We did get out our diving masks, just in case we'd need them to see in the driving wind and rain if we needed to go outside during the blow. We removed all blocks from the deck that might create extra wind resistence and stowed all related lines. We tied the tiller tightly to immobilize it completely.

Then we shored up our mooring lines. Our mooring was brand new and in excellent condition so we were willing to place our faith in it. First, we added line to extend the length of the original mooring lines so we could dampen the motion, add stretch capability and reduce the stress on our bow cleats. Then we removed our anchor from the anchor roller and attached our anchor chain directly to the mooring chain, keeping it loose with a very long snubber line and rubber snubbers, just in case the original mooring lines chafed through. And we added a second mooring line as an interim back up. Then we covered the bow by tying down a canvas mat to protect the paint, varnish and baby hatch. And we added fire hose to the mooring lines for additional protection against chafe.

After a dinghy tour of the bay to assess the preparation of other boats and a walk to get some exercise before being stuck aboard for what might be days, we returned to the boat. We took all our cushions below then tied the dinghy down extremely well to the foredeck after stowing the oars and seat, also in the V-berth. Then we braced ourselves for a stong blow, loose boats and flying debris. We'd had offers from near strangers for a couch, but as long as there was something we might be able to do, we couldn't help but stay aboard. We could check for chafe or other potential problems and fend off at least. We were in a pretty protected location for this wind direction behind a well secured marina pontoon that we figured would block the waves and we were close enough to swim ashore if necessary. We had only a couple of boats in front of us and most boats were pretty well stowed and the moorings seemed pretty secure. We have been lucky to have Wireless Internet access from the boat, and appreciated being able to dissipate the nervous energy while the wind came up. As we tracked the Typhoon's progress, we were relieved to see the track for Chanchu shift eastwards towards Taiwan and see that it was losing its strength.

What we couldn't believe is how long it took the radio to announce to the general public that this super typhoon that was headed straight for HK. I guess they were worried about mass panic. We'd been tracking it nearly 6 days before they said anything more than "showers and squally weather expected mid week". But since the typhoon ultimately shifted eastwards and lost some of its strength, maybe it was better to wait and see first. Not that other boat owners weren't worried and preparing as carefully as we were.

Typhoon Chanchu, which means "pearl" in Chinese, came within 120 miles of Hong Kong for several hours as it tracked north to northeast. The number 3 strong wind warning signal was in force for about 24 hours. Winds were reported up to gale force at times, but didn't pack the punch we so feared. During some gusts, we healed over, heard howling in the rigging, saw whitecaps and horizontal rain, but saw nowhere near the dramatic conditions we were expecting. The dock nearby groaned like wookies being tortured while halyards and sailcovers flapped and boats sailed around their moorings. In our bay, we saw several roller furling headsails shredded as they came unfurled, but could detect little other damage from afar. Typhoon Chanchu did disrupt air, land and sea traffic in Hong Kong, though. We heard reports of tree collapes and falling items that injured people and one boat overturned in the next bay, but much of the damage we might have suffered was averted. A surfer was reported to have been stranded on rocks after ignoring the warning.

First we need to get off the boat for a little while, then reassemble the boat so we can go explore some outer anchorages once the waves die down.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Bright Lights, Big City

Wendy and Garth at Victoria Peak

And now for something completely different . . . Bright Lights, Big City!
After being in such remote places for so long, we’re pretty keen to see a place that everyone has heard of, that has all the modern conveniences, and offers all the excitement anyone could ever hope for. We’ve found all that and more. Hong Kong is a place focused on the present and is obsessed with making progress. The city presents quite a contrast to the sleepy historical backwaters and primitive cultures where we’ve been, in which the past is revered and change is approached with reservation.

I came here on business years ago and was so impressed that I always wanted to return. Little did I suspect then that I’d be sailing my own sailboat to such an amazing metropolis. Downtown Hong Kong is perched on an island of the same name but also includes Kowloon on the opposite (mainland) side of Victoria Harbor, one of the busiest waterways in the world. In addition to container ships, ferries, tugs/barges, tour boats and pleasure vessels ply the harbor, making it a very exciting yet stressful place to sail.

Traffic on Victoria Harbor

Hong Kong proper is a city of high population density, with tall cell block style apartment complexes perched on the hills, housing millions of people in a tiny area.

High Rise Apartments

Every scrap of the city has a function and tiny vender stalls are crammed into the tiniest spots in most parts of the city.

Street Market

Steep narrow streets and alleys make a rabbit warren of places to explore.

Steep Narrow Streets

Yet the concrete jungle of downtown quickly turns to nature, as much of the surrounding area is reserved for park land. The area is surrounded by over 230 islands, most of which remain uninhabited and natural. We’re keen to sail to some of the outlying islands for an occasional rest from the bustle of the city. Numerous nature hikes are only a short distance from the bustle of the city even on Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon.

Victoria Harbor

The hilly topography makes the city so intriguing and scenic. Glass skyscrapers line the downtown waterfront and reach up the hills, making for a stunning view. Building designs celebrate unusual architecture making for an interesting skyline. Countless buildings offer gorgeous views of the city.

Creative Architecture

At night, the city lights up with neon signs. Each evening at 8pm, the largest symphonic light show in the world brings the colorful neon and lasers of more than 30 buildings into harmony with music played over the radio. Buildings are changing color; lights are moving around in patterns, flashing on and off; and search lights and lasers are shooting around, making for a fascinating and spectacular display of electricity and waste of fossil fuels.

Neon City

We experience sensory overload frequently. The pace of the city can be mind boggling. Signs compete for our attention. Shop windows advertise bargains. The Chinese writing everywhere adds to the visual noise. Vendors try to entice us to buy. Construction is perpetual somewhere in the city yet projects are quickly completed. Some areas where bamboo scaffolding reaches up the side of a building look like major projects yet we return the next day to find the area transformed in a mere 24 hours. Reclamation of land has changed the face of the city many times over. We’ve heard of countless waterfront views blocked by a new building that has risen up on landfill that formerly was part of the harbor. The distance between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon is shrinking all the time as once submerged areas are turned into high rises. Strong odors, many unpleasant, assault us: exhaust fumes, rotting seafood, meat or produce, dried medicines and snacks offered in bulk. And mostly we have been overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of people at the peek travel times of the day. Hordes of people push past us in a rush to get where they are going. Rarely does a minute pass by without seeing someone talking on a cell phone.

Spot the American
Public transportation is extremely efficient and sophisticated and everyone uses it. A magnetic debit card of sorts works for all types of non-pedestrian transportation and more. What we call a subway, called the MTR here, moves thousands of people per minute to stops dotting the city. The word subway here is used to describe under road tunnels/passageways and should not be confused with the MTR transportation network. We almost got off a bus, thinking we had reached an MTR station, when in fact what we saw was merely a sign for an under road passageway. Huge transfer stations bring various MTR lines together that run in multiple directions encompassing the entire city.

MTR Station

A pleasant voice announces the next station in 3 languages. The upcoming station is also highlighted by a light on a map of the MTR network above the doorway of each train. A proper English accent reminds us to “Mind the Gap” as we exit the train. Double decker buses and trams wind the narrow steep streets. The buses are very nice and clean, with handicapped facilities and flat screens displaying ads or public service announcements. (The buses don’t rattle like they do in Seattle.) Taxis are everywhere. Ferries offer transport to outlying islands as well as offer an incredibly cheap and scenic ride across Victoria Harbor.

Star Ferry

The longest escalator in the world connects overpasses and walkways to move large numbers of people up the hill to the apartment complexes perched above the downtown area. Cross signals are made audible and enable diagonal crossing so that large numbers of people can cross at once. With the incredible volume of people that are traveling, this efficiency is essential. Police quickly hassle double parkers to prevent traffic jams.

In keeping with the British style, vehicles drive on the left. During the course of our travels, we have gotten used to this after spending so much time in areas influenced by Australia and New Zealand in the South Pacific. When we returned to US areas, it took us a while to readjust to the American way. Just as we have made the adjustment back, it’s time to reverse again to the opposite system.

Double Decker Tram

We have to make sure we look both ways before crossing. We have found ourselves accidentally standing at a bus stop on the wrong side of the road for the direction we want to go. While people drive on the left, as a pedestrian it seems like anything goes on stairwells and passageways, which could be a result of Hong Kong being a gathering of people from all over the world with various systems.

The upside of a large metropolis is the variety of people and cultures it attracts. The people watching is compelling.We hear a wide variety of languages spoken as we explore the city. And, being such an international city, the variety of fine food available is astounding. We sampled Nepalese food, and the day after we enjoyed a Spanish meal. Italian delis and French bakeries tempt us constantly. Italian, Indian, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are everywhere. Grocery stores offer countless delicacies we haven’t seen in years and countless things to try, if only we could figure out what they were! The intersection of the staid British style and the mildly chaotic Chinese is part of what makes Hong Kong such an interesting place. And that stark cultural contrast, makes New York City seem dull in comparison to Hong Kong.

Soho Fine Dining

We are relieved to return to the quiet of our boat after a day in the fast paced city. After a day of wandering the city, we can feel the grime on our skin and are keen for a shower. The fumes from passing motorists on the streets or even in the bay from passing boats are particularly noticeable after experiencing the clear air of the ocean. Despite hills and skyscrapers offering stunning views of the city, frequently the skyline is muted in haze. After our arrival, it was at least a week before we saw the tops of the hills around the bay where we are moored. We initially thought this haze in the air was fog, but started to realize that the haze was the result of pollution. When the wind blows from the north, the pollution from the factories on the Chinese mainland blows down onto Hong Kong. Of these factories, more than 70,000 of them are owned by Hong Kong people! We have noticed a distinct difference in air quality based on the wind direction. A southerly wind clears the skies, while a northerly brings on the haze. We have had days when visibility is reduced to ¼ mile and the skyscrapers were not even visible from across Victoria Harbor! Kind of brings to mind the coal dust of the industrial revolution in London.

A Day of Poor Visibility Across Victoria Harbor
The pollution in the air means that when it rains soot coats all surfaces and the boat needs to be washed frequently. We were shocked to discover one morning after a heavy rain that we had a distinct black scum line inside our clean dinghy! Not sure how our white dodger and awning will survive the onslaught!