Today is my last free day in Hong Kong. One of the reasons I came to Hong Kong was to meet my pen-pal Iris. I met Iris through a friend online a few years back, and after exchanging gifts and talking for years, I figured it was time I flew down to meet her. That's one of the reasons.
The other reason is the 1,000 year old fishing village of Tai O. Tai O was formed around a fresh water river that feeds into the ocean. As a result, it was a great spot for fishing and for salt gathering. That was, of course, 1,000 years ago. Now salt production is too expensive to do here, and fishing has become more of a way of survival than to make money thanks to globalization. As a result, Tai O's population has fallen, it's infrastructure has decayed and it is now known as Hong Kong's saddest, yet most popular, tourist destination. It is so famous that the village has a nickname: "The Venice of the Orient".
I left my hotel again and headed back towards Olympic Stadium. Instead of riding it South like I have been the past few days, I headed North, back to the airport. I got off at Tung Chung station, and had to cross a plaza on my way to the cable car. Hong Kong has been full of surprises, but I was not expecting what I in the plaza: elephants!
They weren't real elephants, sadly, but they were still pretty cool! There were about two dozen, beautifully painted stone elephants in the plaza. This was the Elephant Parade that was doing a circuit through the area and just happened to stop in Hong Kong while I was there! I took a few pictures and got to the line-up for the cable car.
Although it was only around 9 in the morning, the lineup was already very long. I was surprised because I thought Lantau Island (the island where Tai O and my other destinations were) was more of a hidden gem of the city, but apparently not!
I stood in line for about an hour, and then got to the ticket center. The cable car would be taking me to a village called Ngong Ping. Ngong Ping is a monastery town up in the mountains, which houses the world famous Tian Tan Buddha.
I took the cable car over Tung Chung bay and into the clouded mountains above us. The ride was nice, but after going on countless rail cars in Japan, I was just to enjoy the view. The glass around me had smudges on them, so I was worried just how many people were going to be waiting for me in Ngong Ping. I hoped it wasn't going to be like the Peak all over again!
We arrived in Ngong Ping and were given maps of the area. Ngong Ping was a convincing "authentic" Chinese village. The giveaways that it wasn't authentic were things like the Starbucks, the "Walking with the Buddha" show and the faux "Oscar Awards" they were hosting. It was a still a very neat village, but I felt a bit let down that it wasn't an authentic temple town like Koyasan was.
I toured the streets, and found the "Walking With Buddha" theater. A show would be starting in about a half hour, so I bought my tickets and looked around the local shops. There were several stores, all jam-packed with jewelry, Buddhist statues, books, jade sculptures, board games and souvenirs. While I was inside browsing a small storm passed by, crowding the stores with wet tourists.
Finally, "Walking With Buddha" opened and I got to walk in the footsteps of Siddhārtha Gautama, who later became Buddha. The show talked about his life, his isolation inside his father's castle, his escape and freedom into the world, and the lessons he learned living among the people. It talked about his near death experience from fasting, and his his final step to enlightenment under Bodhi tree, as well as the Noble Eightfold Path that he created. It ended with him defeating the darkness within his heart, and becoming enlightened, going on to inspire millions of people all around the world. It ended in the gift shop I had just left! It was a very good show, but I felt it missed some key elements of his life.
I left the store and headed South towards the Tian Tan Buddha, a 34 meter high bronze and steel Buddha, sitting on top of a mountain. The only way to get up to him is to climb 268 very steep stairs. I climbed them, sweating profusely in the heat, and was greeted to a fantastic view of the island. There's several stone women surrounding Buddha, each giving him gifts. I don't know the reasoning for them because the only women Buddha had in his life was his mother and wife, but the Internet says the gifts they are offering to him are the necessary ingredients to enter Nirvana (flowers, incense, lamps, ointment, fruits, and music).
Photography is not allowed inside of the Buddha, but entrance is free, except for the inner sanctum of the structure. I passed going in there because I thought the price was pretty expensive (and so far, with the cable car ride up here, and the show I went to, I am beginning to think of this place as a tourist trap more than anything else). If only I had known the actual remains of Buddha were inside!!
I headed back down the stairs and picked up a free prayer book at a little kiosk. I don't know what language it's written in. I asked a few people and they all said they didn't know. I think it may be Japanese, but I never did figure it out.
I then headed across the piazza and went to the Po Lin Monastery. The monastery was under construction, which was really interesting to see modern electrical equipment all around an ancient stone building. This part of Ngong Ping I really enjoyed. It was quiet and was very peaceful. I purchased an onyx statue of Buddha here, which was payable with a recommended donation and not a fixed price, with all of the profits going towards the reconstruction of the monastery. I entered the buildings, saw the Golden Buddha within, and partook in the incense burning. I was told that near the Monastery and the Buddha there was a "Wisdom Path" where one could walk and achieve enlightenment. I wanted to do it, but I also really wanted to go and spend more time in Tai O, so I literally flipped a coin and chose Tai O.
After a half hour wait for the bus, I hopped on, and was surprised to see it was actually a tour bus and not a rickety city bus. I got comfortable and took the long, winding path to Tai O.
When I got off the bus, I found a sign that taught me all about the village and why it's in the state that it currently is. As I began to explore it, I realized Tai O isn't just old and worn down, it's a slum! The buildings should be condemned, the streets are full of cats and dogs, and the people look to be either greatly intoxicated, near starvation, or perhaps both. There were many food markets in the village, and it was obvious they were set out only for tourists because no locals stopped at them. I'm not even sure what the food was, but I decided not to buy any.
I walked along the creaky stilt walkways of the village and ran into a little tour group. I tagged along and listened about the city. Currently, much like in Miyajima, the tide was out and below us was nothing but mud and rotting wood. I imagine when the tide is in it looks much nicer, but it was unnerving to walk the wooden planks knowing some of them had rotted and no longer touched the ground below.
We stumbled across a man covering fish with a net, and the woman guiding the tour asked him what he was doing. He told her that he had caught these fish this morning and had cut off their heads and removed their eggs. He had tied cloth around where their heads had been to keep flies out, and was drying them in the sun. To the left of the fish were the eggs. I had never seen somebody actually cut fish heads off before. It was really gross!
I followed the group a bit more and we got to a clearing. Between the houses were stilts for more houses, but no floor. Somebody asked what happened here and the guide said a few years back there was a fire, and to save the very flammable village, they just knocked out the legs of the house and let it fall into the water below.
I parted the group then and began my own tour. I bumped into a guy from Paris, and we talked about Tai O. He was stunned just as much as I was by the condition of the village. It's not only unhealthy to live in these conditions, it's also not safe. These people should not be here.
I carried on my way down the river and walked across a bridge to the other side. I was on the outskirts of the village, and from out here I could see a massive hotel. I couldn't believe my eyes! Why would anybody want to stay so close to Tai O??
I got back into the village from the other side of the river, and noticed the same deplorable conditions. I had a temple on my map circled that I was looking for, but all I kept finding was small, lean to Buddhist temples. I slowly began to hear the sound of water running, so I began investigating and found several buckets overflowing with water from up in the mountains. The water overflowed them, flowed down the street and down into the river below. To see water wasted like this stunned me. Everybody here lived in ruin, yet they waste water so carelessly!
I finally found the temple I was looking for, but it was also not in very good condition. I wouldn't have even known it was the temple had I not found the giant black gate covered in swastikas. To us Westerners, a swastika is something evil. It's the sign of the German Nazi party and the systemic extermination of the Jewish people. But to the Easterners, especially the Buddhists, this is a sign of enlightenment and knowledge. I found it funny in Germany you can't display this symbol in public, but here it was plastered everywhere.
I walked up into the gate, and found the door to the building. It looked like a house so I was hesitant to enter. But then an old woman walked around the corner and waved me in. She spoke absolutely no English, and although being near 80 years old, she was the youngest person I saw there. It seemed as if I had walked into a Buddhist retirement home. They gave me a pitcher of hot water to drink (maybe to sterilize it?) and I relaxed with several senior citizens watching baseball. Although I know everybody there was friendly, I felt a bit uncomfortable being the only person born after the Great Depression, so I thanked them, prayed at the Buddha statue, donated to their monastery and left.
I was leaving the area when I ran into a group of teenagers. I stopped them and asked if they could tell me what my prayer book said. They had no idea, but asked me about myself and where I'm from. I probably stood and talked to them for about half an hour, and of course they asked to take my picture too. They were volunteers that come to Tai O and help fix up houses, take care of people and do whatever they can to make this place a better place to live. They're probably doing a very good job, so I'd hate to see this place if they weren't around to help. I got some directions from them, and carried on my way. There was one more monastery I wanted to see.
I carried down the river and around the bend, and found the monastery I was looking for. By now it was after 5, and it was closed. There were two playful cats in front of it though, so I pestered them a bit and went back the way I came.
The walk back was shorter, but still very depressing. I got back onto the correct side of the river and attempted to find my way back to the docks, failing, several times. One time in particular I was sure I was on the right track but the walkway between the two buildings started getting narrower and narrower and eventually got so tight I couldn't go any further. This place is so weird!
I found my way to the markets, and found a small cage near the markets. Inside was a very sad looking dog. I'm not used to seeing animals in cage, so it broke my heart... and then the realization of what I was seeing came to me. There's a very good possibility they were going to eat this dog for supper tonight!
I had had enough of this village, so I got into the markets and got a bit lost. Looking at my map I heard somebody say my name. I've had this feeling of confusion come over me before, so I looked around wondering who could have known my name, 11,000 kilometers away from home. It was one of the girls from the volunteer group! I asked her for directions, thanked her and left. She didn't think I could get to the dock in time to take the boat back to Kowloon, but I did!
So did about 100 other people though, and the boat could only take 80. It was of course the last fairy of the day, so we all had to turn back and take the bus instead. The bus arrived in an hour, and it drove back to Tung Chung. It seemed as if it took hours, and I fell asleep during it. I woke up and asked the person beside me if we had gotten to Tung Chung yet, and we had just arrived here. By now it was dark out, so I have no idea how long the drive was. Everybody got off the bus, and I took the train back to Kowloon, past Tsing Yi and to Olympic.
I then walked back to my hotel, went upstairs and had another wonderful $50 supper. I was tired, sweaty, dirty and full. My night was over, and all I wanted to do was sleep. I got back into my hotel, stripped off my clothes, washed up and picked up my tablet. My light on it was flashing to say I had a message. I opened it, and was shocked.
I had messed up. I wasn't supposed to go to Tai O today. Today I was suppose to meet with Iris, who had been waiting for me, sending messages to me, for the past 4 hours! She was at Tsing Yi station, the very one I was at just an hour before! How could I be so stupid! I was so sure we were meeting up on Saturday. I looked back in my messages and there, a week before when I was in Hiroshima, falling asleep on the bathroom floor, I agreed to switch the days and meet on Friday instead.
Iris and I rescheduled. Tomorrow, 5 PM, Tsuen Wan Station. She had to work and had to go home right after, so she couldn't spend much time with me. That made me sad, but I was just happy that I would get a chance to meet her!
I'm off to bed now. I feel bad for what happened with Iris, and I feel bad sleeping in a nice, air conditioned hotel, knowing the citizens of Tai O are probably sleeping on wood or stone tonight. It's such a unique feeling to feel bad that you have a roof over your head at night, but that's what I'm feeling right now.
Tomorrow I have one plan in mind: to meet my friend Iris; the whole purpose of this trip. And I better not screw up again!
And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.