China (Shenzhen / Hong Kong), November 2013

While I do a reasonable amount of travel, I have only been to Asia once, when I visited Tokyo in 2005. So, obviously, this was my first visit to China.

Or, at least a tiny corner of it - Shenzhen and Hong Kong. So I didn't see any of the big 'must see' attractions. No Forbidden City, no Great Wall of China, no sacred mountains, no Yangtze river, no Buddhist temples.

And I didn't see much of mainland China at all, since I only had one evening of spare time in Shenzhen for sightseeing and all I managed to do was walk around a bit and take a couple of pictures. (Hong Kong, though part of China, is a "Special Administrative Region" and as such a special case and, for me doesn't really count as 'mainland' - it even has a different currency..)

I had assumed that the view from the hotel was kind of misleading. The hotel was located right next to a golf course in the center of town, so the view from the window was a lot of green, open space, surrounded by tall buildings in the distance.

View from hotel

But, presumably the rest of the city would just be a big heap of concrete buildings.

Shenzhen is booming and building. There were about a million people in Shenzhen two decades ago and now there are about ten million of them. So they, basically, had to build a city the size of Berlin or Chicago three times within 20 years. Or one New York. (By comparison, New York grew by less than a million people in the same 20 years.)

Shenzhen is a boomtown and there is a lot of building going on. So I was expecting fairly uncontrolled growth and a city that is mostly just a chaotic collection of skyscrapers, with any attempt of city planning just overwhelmed with growth.

Shenzhen buildings Shenzhen buildings

But it seems that there is some overall planning and a bit of thinking about the future and there were a lot of open spaces around the concert hall and the civic center, giving a surprising feeling of spaciousness.

Shenzhen Concert Hall Shenzhen Concert Hall Shenzhen evening

The next picture can be a bit misleading - it's not a picture of lights being directed at a white wall, but these are lights shining from the roof of the expo center (about a kilometer away) towards the civic center and illuminating the night sky, framed by the roof and side walls of the civic center.

Shenzhen night sky

There is a fairly wide park and passage connecting the expo center and the civic center (and leading on to the Lianhuashan Park and hill beyond), but at some points it's hard to notice from the street that it even exists.

The park leads up a hill and then continues on higher ground. And only after a while it becomes apparent that the park is now continuing on the roof of a shopping mall.

Shenzhen central walk, Civic Center Shenzhen central walk, looking at Civic Center Shenzhen central walk, looking towards Expo Center

That's what it looks like from the roof park:

Roof top park

And that is what's below it:

Shenzhen central walk, park on top of shopping mall

But that was already all that I had spare time for in Shenzhen and I returned to the hotel.

Shenzhen Hotel

I didn't have any strange or original food while ein China, but one of the offers at the hotel buffet looked a bit odd.

Interesting food

Though, presumably, this was just an odd translation of the Chinese word for 'herbs', rather than meaning that they dumped surplus pharmaceuticals into the food.

Next morning I headed down to Hong Kong.

That took me a while - when I went to Shenzhen, I took the direct ferry from the Hong Kong airport. That ferry leaves from within the airport area, so formally you are still in the 'transit area'. So you skip border control in Hong Kong and go through border control in Shenzhen harbour.

It's a bit of a gamble. All the people from the ferry arrive at customs en bloc, so it's fairly busy when the ferry comes in (and it's only two people checking passports and visa), but people with Chinese passports go through quickly, so waiting time pretty much depends on how many non-Chinese people are on the ferry. And I got reasonably lucky and was through border control in less than ten minutes.

But I went from Shenzhen to Hong Kong on land, so I went through the Futian / Lok Ma Chau checkpoint.

And a lot of other people did the same.

Given the size of the waiting hall, I'd guess that there were about 5000 people queuing there. Even with about 20 booths open, the math was simple. Assuming even just 30 seconds per person, which meant 40 people per minute, 2400 people per hour, so more than two hours standing in line. (The rough estimate seemed about right - I waited about 2:30 hours until I was finally in Hong Kong.

And arriving in Hong Kong at that border station the border sides feel somewhat reversed.

As the Hong Kong part of the station is in the New Territories, there are wetlands, a few ponds, rice fields and some cranes (the animal kind) on that side of the border river.

On the other side, in Shenzhen, the river shore has a busy city with a skyline of high-rise buildings all along the border and cranes (the construction kind) everywhere.

So, with Hong Kong being among the 'five most important cities in the world', 'the world's most vertical city', 'one of the world's leading international financial centres', future oriented place, beseeched by a 'lack of space' and mainland China still often being seen as a slightly trailing 'catch-up' agricultural and 'cheap factory' communist country, standing there at the train station, waiting for the train towards urban Hong Kong, it just seems odd.

Of course, once the train passes the New Territory mountain range Hong Kong starts to look more as I expected it to look.

View from Hong Kong hotel room View from Hong Kong hotel room

In fact, it pretty much is exactly like expected.

It only happened to me once before that I went to a city and it just felt familiar and I already knew more or less where places were in relation to each other (I think it was San Francisco, but I am not sure). Hong Kong is similar. The (tourist relevant) area is sufficiently small and has been covered often enough in TV shows, films and documentaries, that a lot of it just seems 'known', whether it's the look of the ferries, trams, streets or taxies.

My first stop while sightseeing was the science museum.

Not due to any particular fondness for science museums (although science museum are often fun), but mostly because it was just 300 meters from the hotel I was staying in.

Also, it wasn't hard to notice - they had a new dinosaur exhibit and a big animated dinosaur was standing in the square in front of the museum.

Hong Kong square animated dinosaur Hong Kong square animated dinosaur Hong Kong square animated dinosaur Hong Kong square animated dinosaur

There were also two animated stegosaurs and pterodactyls outside. (And, at night, a neat 'evolutions of dinosaurs' laser show projected onto the museum wall.

Hong Kong square animated stegosaurs Hong Kong square animated pterodactyl

Even the fences feature dinosaur motifs.

Dinosaur on museum fences

Note to city planners: Live size dinosaurs are a great addition to any city scape!

The Hong Kong Space Museum tried to go into the 'big extinct animals' act as well, but wasn't quite able to achieve the same quality presentation...

Not a convincing mammut

The dinosaur exhibition itself was extremely well made.

With animated dinosaurs, its always a bit of an issue on how much of it is science and how much is spectacle.

And this exhibition did balance both really well. (So well that I feel a bit embarrassed that I only took images of the showy stuff and didn't photograph much of the scientific bits.)

There were some good animated dinosaur heads that had half of the 'skin' removed, so they showed the interior working of a dinosaur mouth when chewing (kind of tricky, since the animation actuators probably work nothing like real muscles, so there was the need to expose the (dinosaur) interior under the skin without exposing the real (animatronics) interior) and some good explanations on how we have a reasonably good idea about dinosaur food just form their head and teeth shape.

Slightly more 'spectacle', but very well done, was the "Let's play with Velociraptor" exhibit.

Let's play with Velociraptor. I'll bet it is just a nice cuddly pet...

This could have been a bit silly and overly cute, but they decided to do this similar to crocodile 'training' by providing some rods that allowed touching and rubbing the raptor in various spots to elicit a reaction. (And, conveniently, keeps people from damaging or being damaged by the animatronic dinosaur.) So it is (except for the enclosure, which would be a bit inappropriate for a real raptor) fairly close to the way you would attempt to interact with a real raptor. Nicely done...

Playing with velociraptor - turn your head for the camera...

The only downside to the exhibit is the attempt to keep it scientifically 'current'. As there is an increasing tendency to assume that dinosaurs might have had fur, they tried to modify an obviously reptilian looking raptor into a furry one - and that looked a bit unconvincing. A bit like throwing an old rug on top of the model.

The Tyrannosaurus Rex was spared this indignity.

Tyrannosaurus Rex - not furry, not funny

The animatronics Tyrannosaurus Rex was clever in a different (and unsuspected) way.

When I did see it move, it seemed surprisingly reactive to visitors.

It didn't just move its head back and forth, up and down and growl and snort a bit, it seemed to follow individual visitor's and react to them.

Which was either incredible coincidental or they must have been using some fairly sophisticated computer vision system and reactive model.

Which they did. Sort of.

Their clever control system were other visitors.

Around the corner, in the classic tradition of "pay no attention to the kid behind the curtain", was the "Tyrannosaurus Control Center" where visitors could control the Tyrannosaurus.

Tyrannosaurus Control Center

And using this, they not only had an animatronic dinosaur that behaved more 'lifelike' than a purely computer-controlled one would have done, but also added a second attraction. Very neat, again...

More animatronics dinosaurs

Another good use of technology was the "digging for dinosaurs" exhibit.

They had a plastic tabletop with a rocky, uneven texture and projected a digging site on top of it. Visitors could then select tools from a pouch and use them to 'unearth dinosaur bones'.

Digging for dinosaurs.

While this is something that could also been done as a tablet application, in this case the non-flat surface helped a lot in selling the illusion that you were working on a rockface instead of some projection screen.

After the 'interactive bits' the exhibition led into a hall with a number of dinosaur skeletons.

Hong Kong museum dinosaur skeleton Hong Kong museum dinosaur skeleton Hong Kong museum dinosaur skeleton

One last interactive element reminded visitors that you don't just find dinosaur bones on digs - you sometimes also find dinosaur footprints.

There was also one more 'interactive' exhibit reminding visitors that there are even more dinosaur related things to find. That exhibit was a coprolite mounted so that visitors could touch it, carrying the label "Do you dare to touch real dinosaur excrement?"

But back to the footprints...

The exhibit allowed you to 'walk like a dinosaur'.

It was a piece of rock with three dinosaur tracks crossing it and there were three pairs of little markers on the floor, next to the description of a dinosaur. And if you walked in place on one pair of markers, appropriate stepping sounds were played and a projector lit the footprints corresponding to that dinosaur on the rockface.

Walk like a dinosaur

I didn't want to spend all day indoors, so I walked to the coast and had a look at the Hong Kong skyline.

Hong Kong skyline Hong Kong skyline with junk Hong Kong skyline with ferry Hong Kong skyline with backlit ferry

Along the shore, there's the 'Avenue of Stars', essentially a copy of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with names and handprints of Asian actors.

Bruce Lee -  Avenue of Stars Jet Li - Avenue of Stars Jackie Chan - Avenue of Stars

There are quite a few copycat 'Walk of Fame' places in different cities. One of the nicer features of the Hong Kong version is the addition of a couple of 'movie making' sculptures along the way, so there are not just marks on the pavement, but also photo opportunities.

 Avenue of Stars bronze sculptures  Avenue of Stars bronze sculptures

Another popular photo opportunity was the Hong Kong Film Awards sculpture at the westen end of the Avenue of Stars.

Hong Kong Film Awards sculpture

But by far the most popular part of the 'Avenue of Stars' was the Bruce Lee statue, which constantly had a crowd of people surrounding it, most of them trying to imitate the stance.

Bruce Lee statue Bruce Lee statue

Hong Kong also has another, less crowded, 'Avenue of Stars' - the 'Avenue of Comic Stars' in Kowloon Park, including a slightly different looking (and, as far as passers-by are concerned), less photogenic statue of Bruce Lee.

Avenue of Comic Stars - Bruce Lee

Here are some more characters from the 'Avenue of Comic Stars':

Avenue of Comic Stars - Cloud and On On and Guy Guy Avenue of Comic Stars - Miss 13 Dots Avenue of Comic Stars - Dragon Lord Avenue of Comic Stars - K
Cloud and On On and Guy Guy Miss 13 Dots Dragon Lord K
Avenue of Comic Stars - Old Master Q Avenue of Comic Stars - Tiger Shark and Din-Dong Avenue of Comic Stars - Doggie and Andy Chan Avenue of Comic Stars - Liaoyuan Huo
Old Master Q Tiger Shark and Din-Dong Doggie and Andy Chan Liaoyuan Huo
Avenue of Comic Stars - Q Boy and Old Girl Avenue of Comic Stars - Little Horse Avenue of Comic Stars - Nan Gong Wen Tian and McDull Avenue of Comic Stars - Sau Nga Chun
Q Boy and Old Girl Little Horse Nan Gong Wen Tian and McDull Sau Nga Chun

The 'Avenue of Comic Stars' is just a small part of the Kowloon Park.

Avenue of Comic Stars

The rest of the park looks more tranquil.

Kowloon Park lake

I did some more walking around the harbour/pier area before heading off to find something to eat.

Arch Moon Tower and ICC seen from Kowloon Harbour Arch Moon Tower seen from Kowloon Harbour

Next day I went to Hong Kong Disneyland.

I have been to the other four locations (Anaheim, Orlando, Paris and Tokyo), so I wanted to "complete the set".

(At least until they open another one in Shanghai.)

The park is only 'sort of' connected to the public transport system. It is on none of the 'real' metro lines, but there's a dedicated line connecting the park with Sunny Bay, which is on the Tung Chung Line.

While that means that there's an additional change of trains needed, it also means that they can have a special 'theme train' on that line, including not only Mickey Mouse shaped windows and hand grips, but also small statues of Disney characters.

Mouse train windows Mouse train windows Mouse ear hand grips
Donald sculpture Snow White sculpture

Of course, the train station itself is also themed. Note the columns patterned after the sorcerer's hat from Fantasia.

For some reason, it also seems to be a place for wedding photography, even though the stairs themselves seem quite generic.

Disneyland Resort Station Plaque Sorcerer's Hat columns

The park itself was remarkably uncrowded.

Hong Kong Disneyland

Although not quite that uncrowded.

The archway in the image above is close to the Disneyland ferry pier. In addition to the access via the train line, there is also a ferry terminal for possible ferry connection to Hong Kong Island. But no ferries where running (and, as far as I can determine, never have been), so that area is nicely landscaped, but a bit deserted.

But even around the actual entrance, it was busy, but not really crowded.

Surfing Mickey Surfing Mickey Hong Kong Disneyland Hong Kong Disneyland Castle

The park itself is a bit smaller than the other ones and much more aimed at families with smaller kids than the other ones.

Park overview

For example, there are only three rollercoasters in the park (Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars and Space Mountain and Slinky Dog Spin), all of them being reasonably kid-friendly (i.e. all of them just have a lap bar for safety; none of them requires an over-the-shoulder restraint.

Space Mountain entrance

Similarly, instead of having the (mildly) scary Haunted Mansion, Hong Kong goes for Mystic Manor with a more fantasy based 'magical box' theme.

But, all in all, it's a nice 'modern' take on the rides.

I was especially impressed by the 'Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars' ride. As far as I recall, the original 'Big Thunder Mountain Railroad' ride was just a straightforward rollercoaster.

In Hong Kong, the train goes up a lift hill, the track in front is seen to verge to the right, but an animatronic bears rubs his back against some control rod and the train turns into some 'danger' track to the left.

So far just an obvious misdirection.

After a couple of twists and turns, the train reaches a second lift hill, but just as it is about to reach the top, the train 'breaks loose' and rolls down the hill backwards (running along a different track of bends and twists).

And then it stops on some flat bit of track.

I was wondering how they would get the train moving again. My assumption was that they would lift part of the track to get it rolling. But then a bear 'accidentally started an explosion' and the train was accelerated with a catapult start, which took me completely by surprise.

So while it still is a very tame ride, it was neatly scripted and had (for me) two real surprises.

And it was similar with the Mystic Manor, which made a lot of use of high definition projections and LED lightning. While it is nice to know that they still use "Pepper's Ghost" effect and mirrored sets in the Haunted Mansion, it's not the technology that you would use to achieve the same effect nowadays, so it seems proper to use current technology instead.

So, all in all, I was enjoying myself.

Also fun was 'Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters', quite literally a rail shooter, where you sit in a small vehicle that you can swivel left and right to shoot at various targets along the ride.

This one actually has a score at the end, which surprised me a bit, as Disney Parks are usually fairly non-competitive.

Fun though.

Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters

The 'classical' stuff like the Jungle Cruise was decently done, but big surprises added.

Nice 'angry fire god' part, though.

Jungle Cruise Jungle Cruise Jungle Cruise Jungle Cruise

And some steaming idols.

Jungle idols Jungle idols Jungle idols

As far as I could tell, there were more character appearances then in other parks. Although I am not sure whether this really is the case and they are trying to make up for a smaller number of rides or whether it just seems that way as the park is smaller and has more visibility.

Tinker Bell

Another attraction I visited was a 3D animated movie (starting a bit like Fantasia, but then moving quickly to popular (?) Disney songs) with additional gimmicks, like air blasts and water sprays.

PhilharMagic doorway PhilharMagic Poster Wearing PhilharMagic 3D glasses

Then a short walk through Toy Story Land and that was pretty much it.

Toy Storysaurus Not the claw...

Maybe one of the reasons why the park feels so small is the low number of visitors.

None of the rides had waiting times of more than ten minutes that day, so it was easy to do all the attractions in a fairly short time. If you got 90+ minutes waiting time (as it's often the case in Anaheim), there are more attractions than you can visit in a day, making it feel like there is more on offer.

I prefer the Hong Kong park...

On nice feature that I hadn't seen before is the 'single rider' queue for the rollercoaster. Most people travel a in groups and often there is just one space left on the ride and the next group does not want to split up. So people traveling alone can go to a separate queue and if there's just a single spot left, people are picked from that queue. It's a gamble, of course - if you're unlucky, the next dozen of rides just happens to have the right number of people - but seems to be worth it. For me the Big Grizzly rollercoaster was a walk-on without any wait. (To be fair - the normal queue had just five minutes waiting time as well. But the basic idea is good.)

An idea that I didn't like was this:

Energy saving

I hope that doesn't get copied by other public transport companies.

I do assume that this is well meant (and not just an excuse for not repairing a broken escalator), at least the little info sheet to the left seems to give escalator non-operating times, so presumably it will be running the rest of the day, but still... Escalators do provide a service and not providing that service for some oh-so-noble reason is ugly.

Why not save some energy and turn off the ticket vending and control machines?

Or just the air condition/heating in the company's headquarters?

Anyway, enough grumpiness.

Something that was noticeable, even without knowing how things normally are in Hong Kong, was an increased amount of picture taking.

Presumably it just had been graduation day or some local equivalent, as there were a lot of people walking around in ropes and posing in all kinds of places.

Graduates at Disneyland Graduates at shopping mall

Originally, I wanted to take the train to 'The Peak' in the afternoon, but there was a long queue (with a sign saying '2 hours wait') and the weather had gotten a bit overcast as well, so I just spent some time at Hong Kong Island, rode the double decker tram and just walked around.

Souble decker trams

At some point I noticed someone taking pictures of some non-descript spot on a building wall. It turned out that there was a praying mantis sitting there. (Probably soon to experience the negative side of evolution - camouflage look that works well in a tree is somewhat inefficient on a house wall.)

Praying Mantis

Next day I tried to get to the he Peak Tram funicular early to avoid the queues.

I took a ferry over to Hong Kong Island (and, as it should be obvious from the picture, the weather was better than on the day before). The price was still amazingly low - the crossing costs about 20 Euro cents, a price where it seems almost silly to have a detailed price structure. But still, the upper deck ticket is 8 Euro cents more expensive than the lower deck and there's a 5 (or 6 for upper deck) Euro cent surcharge for weekends. (For comparison, a metro ticket from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island station costs 90 Euro cents.)

Kowloon to Hong Kong Island Ferry

This time the queue was short and I got on the next departing train to Victoria Peak.

Peak Tram funicular Peak Tram funicular

'Victoria Peak' is a bit of a confusing concept as far as naming is concerned. There's "The Peak", but that's just an oddly shaped building with a viewing platform and a number of tourist shops.

'The Peak Tower' 'The Peak Tower' 'The Peak Tower'

The actual top of the mountain is a fair distance away from that and about 150 meters higher up. but it's not accessible (not due to the terrain, but because there are radio towers up there and the area is off-limits).

Anyway, the views of the skyline from the sightseeing platform are impressive as well.

Hong Kong skyline Hong Kong skyline Hong Kong skyline Hong Kong skyline and me

(Ok, I don't look impressed. But I'm looking the other way...)

Something that was a bit unexpected (though I should have suspected it when I entered Hong Kong via the New Territories) was the extreme contrast between the north and the south side of the view.

To the north it's all "no room left" skyscraper building mentality and on the other side it's just hillsides and forest.

Hong Kong Island south side Hong Kong Island south side

While I was a bit too lazy to head for the top of the mountain, especially since you can't go to the real peak anyway, I went on the circle walk, which, unsurprisingly, goes around the mountain and has some nice views and was, while not completely deserted, low on other visitors.

Victoria Peak Circle Walk Hong Kong skyline and me

And it had better views of the Hong Kong skyscrapers below than there were from the viewing platform.

Hong Kong skyscrapers Hong Kong skyscrapers Hong Kong harbour Hong Kong ships
Hong Kong skyscrapers Hong Kong skyscrapers Hong Kong skyscrapers Hong Kong skyscrapers

In addition to the great views, it was also a nicely landscaped area to walk around in.

Victoria Peak Circle Walk tree Victoria Peak Circle Walk path Victoria Peak Circle Walk waterfall

It was a nice day and I considered walking down to the ferry building, but as I had already paid for the return tram ticket (and that is in a slightly different range than the ferry tickets), I took the funicular again.

This also yielded me some additional time for shopping, though ultimately I didn't buy anything on Hong Kong Island. I'm not quite sure how Hong Kong became known as a shopper's paradise - probably a relic of pre-Internet days.

In the evening, I took a ferry 'harbour tour' to see the 'Symphony of Lights'.

The 'Symphony' itself isn't really worth seeing. It's mostly just changing the colours of some lights and switching some lasers and floodlights on and off, more or less in sync with some music. And most of the coloured lights are active most of the night anyway, so except for the 'sync with music' part, there's not much that wouldn't be there anyway.

But in any case, it's a nice panorama at night, so taking that boat tour is really worth doing. Though bringing some headphones and listening to some other music might help.

The only real downside of the boat trip is that it's not really that great for photography. For that, it might be better to get a tripod and stay on the shore.

But as an experience, the boat trip is better.

Hong Kong skyline at night Hong Kong skyline at night Hong Kong skyline at night Hong Kong skyline at night

Hong Kong skyline at night Hong Kong skyline at night Hong Kong skyline at night Hong Kong skyline at night

The skyline at night is quite recognizable.

A colleague of mine was standing in Kowloon a couple of years ago and wanted to take a picture of that skyline. He recalled that his camera had some 'city at night' setting, which seemed perfect for that. He selected that setting and then wondered whether he already had taken a picture without realizing it. Only then did he notice that the camera had 'example pictures' for all of the modes, so users could get an idea for what kinds of situations the mode was intended for, and the example picture for 'city at night' was the Hong Kong skyline, more or less taken from the same spot.

So it's not just a nice night skyline - in some contexts, it's almost the reference night cityscape.

But even with an impressive skyline, this was just a short trip to Hong Kong, so I had to fly home the next day.

Back to other travels