China Chronicles – First Installment

Day 1: Sheung Wan, the Mid-levels and Central, Hong Kong Island and Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon.

After 15 hours of travel, including an 11 hour flight, I thought I would need a rest before touring Hong Kong, but I was wrong.I got off the plane and hit the ground running, so inspired by the skyscrapers, the hordes of people and the hot humid air (that reminded me of Panama) that my fatigue evaporated.I checked my pack and went out to explore.

As expected the first thing I did was get lost. But not in winding alleys with Chinese only signs. Nope, I got lost in the concourse section of a huge skyscraper called the IFC (International Finance Center). After consulting my map and fuelling up with caffeine, I walked west into the Sheung Wan district – and I entered a different world. Sheung Wan is a traditionally Chinese neighborhood with narrow alleys, Chinese only signs and hundreds of tiny shops selling the raw ingredients for Chinese medicines – dried fish, seahorses, huge mushrooms, dried geckos on a stick, shark fins and a huge number of things I couldn’t identify. The sights and smells reminded me a bit of Toronto’s Chinatown, until I found my first temple. The Man Mo temple in Sheung Wan was built in 1847 and was like nothing I’ve ever seen in Toronto. The interior was beautifully decorated in red and gold, and the air was thick with sandalwood smoke from huge incense coils that hung from the ceiling.

From the temple I wandered east and encountered the central-mid-levels escalator. One of Hong Kong’s long-standing transport problems has been that many middle class residents of the mid-levels, a residential district on the lower slope of Victoria Peak, work down in Central. The roads are narrow and the distance is more vertical than horizontal creating a traffic nightmare. The solution is ingenious, a huge escalator system consisting of 3 moving walkways and 20 elevated escalators. It is 800 meters long, takes 20 minutes to ride and is the world’s longest.

Later, in Central (the central business district) I craned my neck at the architecturally famous Bank of China building, the Lippo towers, and the robotic HSBC tower, all juxtaposed against older colonial buildings like the Government House and St. John’s Cathedral.

In the evening a friend who is teaching in Hong Kong and I took the typical tourist trip on the Star Ferry across Victoria harbor for a stunning view of the skyline. Then we used the ridiculously posh ladies room at the Peninsula Hotel for an elevated look (yes, the toilets have a view). Later we wandered the tourist shopping Mecca of Tsim Sha Tsui where I enjoyed a “1000 year old egg”. In fact, the duck egg was really only about a month or two old and preserved in lime solution which turns the egg white green and the yolk greenish black – yummy.

Day 2: Po Lin Monastery, Lantau Island

I woke to bird song and tropical sunshine. Inspired, I took Hong Kong’s wonderfully efficient subway (MTR) out to Lantau Island. Lantau is almost twice the size of Hong Kong Island and its mountains rise to nearly 1000m and are covered with lush green scrub forest. From the subway station I took a bus into the mountains with destination the Po Lin (Precious Lotus) monastery and the Tian Tan Buddha (Big Buddha). Before visiting the monastery I lunched on traditional Chinese fish ball soup and feeling daring decided to try the local condiments and added what I thought was seasoned salt to my meal. It was sugar. Luckily I didn’t add much, and roaring with laughter the locals set me straight.

The Big Buddha was in the clouds by the time I finished eating so I wandered the temple where the air was thick with sandalwood. From the temple I walked a short distance to the path of wisdom, a large wooden sculpture that consists of many halved logs arranged in a figure eight. On the flat face of each log are Chinese characters that teach the Heart Sutra (Wisdom of Emptiness). Fittingly, the flat face on the highest log, representing true enlightenment, is empty.

I’ve copied the English translation of the Heart Sutra verbatim for reference:

Everything is dependently arisen: an event occurs only if the adequacy of conditions obtains. Since everything is dependently arisen, there is no such thing as an eternally abiding entity. When one acquires this wisdom of emptiness one will realize that all physical and mental events are in a constant process of change, and accordingly everything can be changed by modifying conditions. Understanding the relativity of all standpoints will also prevent one from becoming irrationally attached to things. In this way, one will come to be free of all mental obstructions, and to attain perfect harmony and bliss.

After the path of wisdom I was ready to visit Big Buddha. He was still covered in mist when I got to him, but for me the symbolism was perfect. I could see the outline of something huge before me, but it wasn’t quite clear – kind of like “enlightenment”, I can see it vaguely and I know it’s big, but I know I am not there yet.

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