Hong Kong Exchange, Travel

Wong Tai Sin Temple, Hong Kong Island and My First Vehicle Crash

Yeah, you read that right: this week, I was in my first vehicle crash. No worries, it could’ve been much worse. We all walked away uninjured, but chances are if you saw the headline, it grabbed your attention, right? Details on what happened later, but it’s time to jump into what I did over the past couple days.

Thursday was nothing too exciting. During the day, we wrapped up student orientation. We did find out some neat tidbits of information, though. For example, drug offenses are taken very seriously here; it seems like even first-time offenders can get years in prison for being found with drugs, even marijuana. Given that we have some students here from places where pot is legal (California, Amsterdam, etc.), the upper brass made it very clear that marijuana is still quite illegal in Hong Kong. I don’t smoke or partake in any such activities, but I found the university’s adamancy amusing nonetheless.

That afternoon, some of the local students helping at orientation took us to a dim sum restaurant in Lok Fu for lunch. The meal, once again, was delicious. There were 14 of us at one table, so we ordered well over a dozen different dishes. Passing them around and trying as many as possible was a lot of fun. There was so much food going around at once that I honestly don’t know what most of the items were called. I do know one of them was cooked goose, which I had never tried before. The flavor was good, but it was too oily for me. One of the dessert items was a sort of sponge cake cooked with brown sugar, and it was awesome. I didn’t get to try everything, since there weren’t enough of some items to go around, but I did my best. The only dish I was firmly against trying was chicken feet, which are a delicacy here. Maybe I’ll be up for it later, but not quite yet.

We learned of another dim sum custom: when the tea is brought the the table, it is customary to pour some into your bowl and place your spoon and teacup into it to rinse them off. I suppose “back in the day,” the heat of the tea would have helped clean the dishes, but now it’s just routine more than anything.

I didn’t go explore anything that evening, as I had some paperwork to fill out, but on Friday, we hit the ground running for a sightseeing tour around Hong Kong. Before leaving, however, I of course had to have breakfast. As many of you know, I love a good cup of coffee, but I’m not a huge fan of Starbucks. I tried another large chain, Pacific Coffee, on Wednesday, but they either forgot to give me the cream I asked for or simply didn’t have any. So, I turned to some iced Nescafe from a vending machine. It only cost 83 cents USD, compared to $3-4 for a standard cup of coffee, and it honestly wasn’t as bad as its reputation suggests. As long as I can feed my need for caffeine for under a buck a day, I’ll be happy.

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Anyhow, the first stop on the tour was Wong Tai Sin Temple, which is a Taoist temple about a kilometer east of campus. Taoism is a traditional Chinese religion that focuses on living in harmony with the world and people in it. My friend, Sam, told me that the temple is named after a Taoist god of the same name. Our tour guide told us the temple has been standing for over 70 years. Being open to the public, the temple was an interesting mixture of devout worshipers and tourists unaware of local customs. Throughout the temple, Taoists were burning incense and offering prayers to their gods. The scene was one of juxtaposition: locals and foreigners, believers and nonbelievers, a holy temple dropped in the middle of a hustling and bustling city. At home in Meigs County, the churches and cathedrals are some of the area’s tallest buildings, but the temple here is the shortest that the eye can see.

But it’s also the most colorful, intricate and beautiful. In the pictures above, you can see some of the handiwork that went into crafting the sculptures, lanterns, designs, painting and so on. I would have loved to spend longer at the temple, but our tour guide ushered us along to the next stop: Stanley Market.

Think of Stanley Market like the French Quarter of New Orleans: a tourist-trap waterfront market filled with goods of varying levels of authenticity. I only bought a couple of items from the market, but I found the nearby beachfront to be much more interesting. I’ve been to beaches across the southeast coast of the U.S., but none compare to the beauty of this one. Looking out into Stanley Bay, you can see (what I assume are) large fishing boats far in the distance. To the left is a lush, green peak, and to the right is a town of beautiful buildings built into another lush hillside. The water was a gorgeous, rich blue, and there were fairly few people on the beach, which made it a peaceful, enjoyable experience for us.

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Four of us climbed some rocks toward the left of some of the above frames, and got some amazing shots of the landscape. I could’ve spent all day on that rock; the sunlight was a pleasant 70 degrees (Fahrenheit) or so, the waves lapping on the shore were peaceful, and we were just far enough away to escape the noise of the metropolis. The scenery was simply to die for. I’m not typically one for beaches, but this one changed my mind.

Finally, we took the bus up to Victoria Peak, which is the tallest mountain on Hong Kong Island. Hong Kong is made up of hundreds of islands of varying sizes, and Hong Kong Island is one of the larger ones. Sam says many of the area’s wealthy citizens live on the island, and Victoria Peak gave an incredible view of the whole region.

Let me put the size of Hong Kong into perspective for you. A building is considered a skyscraper if it is at least 490 feet tall, and Hong Kong has the most in the world at 317. For reference, the top three cities in the U.S. are New York City at 257, Chicago at 119, and Miami at 45. A high rise is a building of at least 115 feet tall, and Hong Kong is second in the world with over 7,800 (only Moscow, Russia is higher, with over 11,700). It is the fourth densest country or dependent territory in the world, only behind Macau, Monaco and Singapore, despite the fact that most of Hong Kong is made of sparsely-populated green space like national parks and mountains, while the others mentioned are essentially standalone cities with little green space. So while the area of Hong Kong is a little over twice that of New York City, most Hong Kongers live in an extremely concentrated ~30% of that land area, which is exactly what you can see from the observatory at Victoria Peak.

The view was simply one you can’t get anywhere else in the world. Literally. The numbers show that the view from Victoria Peak is unparalleled in terms of the sheer number and size of buildings you can see in such a small land area. I couldn’t even fit the whole skyline into a single photo. Like nearly everything else I’ve seen here, the view was breathtaking. Words simply do not describe the what a city of such scale looks like. Michael, who has been to New York City, even admits that there’s no comparison. Maybe I’m crazy, but I yearn to live in a place like this. Who knows; maybe my career path will bring me back to this side of the world one day.

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Then, we departed on what I assumed would be a peaceful, hour-long trip back down the mountain, but the world had other ideas. I was in the back of our tour bus and couldn’t quite see what caused our crash, but we rear-ended the bus in front of us at probably 30 MPH. The road to and from the mountain is one lane each way with a steep cliff on one side and the mountainside on the other; it’s rather steep, narrow, and winds back and forth along the mountain’s face. From what I understand, a bus was broken down in our lane around a blind curve. The bus in front of us hit its brakes and managed not to crash into that bus when it rounded the bend, but our driver didn’t have as much time to do the same. He was in second or third gear and just didn’t have time to downshift or brake, and he couldn’t veer into oncoming traffic. So, we slammed into the bus in front of us. Our windshield shattered, the bumper flew off, the bus came to a sudden stop, and some people were thrown from their seats.

Thankfully, nobody was hurt in either vehicle. The bus in front of us drove away, and the broken down one in front of it remained unscathed. But there were so many variables that could’ve easily made the crash a disaster. Had the vehicle in front of us been anything smaller, like one of the area’s many red taxis, the passengers would have been seriously injured or killed. If our brakes had failed or the impact didn’t instantly halt our bus, we would’ve likely careened a thousand feet down the mountain or would’ve needed to try to stop against the mountainside in the other lane. The windshield shattered but never broke from its frame, which would’ve likely injured the driver. All in all, we were blessed to have everyone walk away safely.

The police arrived within 15 minutes to direct traffic, and another bus came to pick us up after about two hours. (Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pictures of the excitement; they wouldn’t let us see the front of the bus. Standing along the side of the road as the sun went down was a bit chilly, but the view of the city as the many bright lights came on made the experience worthwhile. We made it back to campus about 45 minutes later, I grabbed a quick, sub-par dinner at the school cafeteria and retired for the night. I’d had enough excitement for one day.

Today’s Cantonese phrase came from our dim sum lunch on Wednesday. When the server tried to take something away from the table, one of the local students kept saying “need” in much the way we might frantically say “whoa, whoa, whoa” or “stop, stop, stop” in certain situations. The Cantonese equivalent is “yiu, yiu, yiu,” which is essentially a repetition of the word “need,” to indicate that the server shouldn’t take the dish away yet. It sounds more similar to the English word “ewe” rather than “you,” as the “i/e” sound is more prevalent in “yiu.”

That’s it for now! Over the weekend, some friends and I visited Lantau Island, which is the largest island in Hong Kong. I’ll try to write about that trip later this week. Thanks for reading!

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