History, Norway, travel

Fredrikstad, Norway. Alive and well in the Past

IMG_0931

A journey to Norway is a step back in time.

I have studied history in books for years, listened to countless lectures, spent last summer in one of the most venerable archives in the U.S., visited a lot of “historic sites,” and worked at a few, too.

But in Norway, the past is experienced differently — as something still present.

————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Norwegians move at a slower pace than New Yorkers. There is a definite bustle in Oslo, and even the cobblestone streets don’t seem to slow anyone down, but the city felt quite relaxed. Also true in Copenhagen — both cities felt industrious but relaxed, not like New York’s hectic, hysterical tenseness. Perhaps it was this relaxed pace which began to make the past seem more alive in Norway.

Certainly, as far as European capitals go, Oslo isn’t that old. The country, until the mid-1800’s, and not again until the modern oil boom, was poor and “undeveloped.”
The Hanseatic League did their trading in Bergen, and Oslo was a backwater for centuries after southern Europe was full of sophisticated cities, or for millennia after the Middle East or Asia. In 1850, when there were over two million Londoners, Oslo was still a town of 30,000 — and every third Norwegian was leaving for America. And like London, the city had its “Great Fire” in the 1600’s to clear out the medieval things.

DSC07235

Oslo

DSC07233So the city you visit now, is mainly from the late Victorian age.  The main drag, Karl Johans Gate, runs directly from the central train station, past the little cathedral, past the national theater and the parliament, to the royal palace.  All the handsome buildings you pass seem to be neo-classical or Second Empire style, like promenading through a small-scale Paris.

The Storting (government) building is kind of an exception, being some sort of awful yellow-brick mishmash of Italian Renaissance, beaux arts, 2nd Empire, and Victorian public lavatory.  Not sure what they were trying for.  My guess:  an architect with catholic tastes and a fondness for aquavit.  Although the parliament’s half-moon meeting chamber, which we just glimpsed through the window, when it was lit up at night, is wood-paneled, handsome, and impressive.  The area around it is full of nice old buildings, restaurants, hotels, and a charming park.

Oslo, of course, has grown tremendously — bigger than Boston, Denver, or Washington, D.C.  High-rises are going up near the harbor, near their modern, stunningly-beautiful opera house.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————

DSC07487

transplanted farm buildings at Oslo’s Folkemuseum

So, Oslo is building, and in any case, most of the neighborhoods are no older than our cities in the Midwestern United States — the Norwegians moving to Milwaukee and Minneapolis wouldn’t have felt entirely out of place. Despite the historical places we visited in Oslo, like Akershus Castle or the huge Norsk Folkemuseum’s historical village, I never once felt that Oslo was old. Even when I was staring at actual Viking longships, ancient, famous, and beautiful, over a thousand years old, the most well-preserved in history — I recognized them as incredible and old, but that didn’t make me feel the age of the country I was in, one that had been the land of the Vikings. So, why then do I say that Norway is a land lost in time?

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

IMG_0926

Fredrikstad

It was only after leaving Oslo that I felt like I had been transported to another world. Despite traveling by a modern, fast-moving train to Fredrikstad, as Oslo got farther and farther away, I felt like I was going back in time, past fields of hay and potatoes, and then gorgeous coastal scenery and mountains passed by. The landscape was reminiscent of simpler times (though it still didn’t seem old, as I kept seeing Norway’s seemingly endless stream of Tesla’s humming down their pristine highways).

IMG_0912

But upon arrival in Fredrikstad, I felt like we had been shot back to the ancient days. Initially, it felt English. The town was larger than I had expected, and the shops, restaurants, and movie theaters reminded me of those in Hull. But soon, we seemed to drift out of this current era. We took a slow-moving ferry to one of the many outlying islands that comprise this city, and arrived at the old walled city.

IMG_0919

Since the late 1500s, this island-city has been fortified —  its walls lined with iron cannons, a deep moat, drawbridge, and redoubts on raised hillocks to keep out landing parties. In its day it must have seemed an impenetrable fortress.  It immediately struck me as existing in an antique time. This town, with its stone streets, shops, wharves, and armories was busily humming when “modern” America was still just a small malarial outpost on the James River, and a few dozen freezing Pilgrims in Massachusetts.

Having worked and lived in Williamsburg, Virginia, I figured this place would be like all the other “historic” villages I’d been to. I was wrong.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

DSC07831

IMG_0953Not only was it European, it seemed vastly different than Oslo’s historical village (which was fascinating in its own way). For starters, this place is “lived in.” The city of Oslo surrounds its folk-museum village, but it is a static museum-piece;  the old log houses were taken from their hill-farms and forests to a city park, and fascinating as they are, they’re not an organic part of the land anymore.  Fredrikstad felt way more alive, nothing artificial about it. The little hilltop villages in Italy, Spain, Italy, etc. are often abandoned, but none of the houses here are derelict.  Norwegians want to live in Fredrikstad.  In Colonial Williamsburg, actors live in the houses, but it feels fake, overrun by tourists and costumed people with cellphones. Here, the harbor and canal are full of boats, cars rumbled along five hundred year-old streets (there is a bridge in the modern day to get here) and the city’s military buildings now house restaurants and galleries, in vaulted bomb-proofs within the thick walls. Unlike other recreated villages, this one felt more alive and more ancient for one other reason: the water. On the edge of a modern, bustling city, with a busy little harbor, this town felt like, and was, still very much alive.

I’ve visited port cities on the Atlantic and Pacific that were older, but somehow the contrast of the old garrison town with the modern city facing it across the harbor, made this place feel far older than almost anywhere I’ve ever been.  In Oslo, I stood inches from the thousand-year-old Gokstad and Osenburg Viking ships, but they’re now exhibits in a museum — this island-city felt more ancient. There was a storybook air to the place, like you’d walked into an old folk tale.  I could picture a fleet of Swedish ships firing cannon balls at this island, with residents from the outskirts fleeing into the protective core of their fortress. It felt very alive and immediately possible.

DSC07936

It was this place that helped make an off-season visit to Norway one of the most incredible trips I’ve been on. I’ve seen plenty of historic villages, and enjoyed them, but none of them captured my imagination or the spirit of the time. Even the best one I’d visited, in Upper Canada, felt more artificial to me, though more believable than Colonial Williamsburg with its Ye Olde Tyme parking lots and gift shops. For the first time, I felt like I wasn’t even in Europe. Oslo, while less impressive in some regards than the likes of Cologne, Manchester, Hamburg, or certainly London, is still mainland European in its character. Fredrikstad’s fortress (despite being state-of-the-art Euro-design in its day), felt like a distinctly Nordic place.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

IMG_0917

Norway, even now, modern and affluent as it is, still strikes chords for outsiders as being a somehow medieval landscape of snow and ice. When we visited their national art gallery, it was crowded with locals admiring an exhibit of story-tale art, with mysterious footprints in the snow, bluish hills, dark woods.  And this island-town, despite the sunshine and warm weather (warmer in March than England or even Maryland), seemed to belong to this alien world of wooden, mushroom-shaped homes, wooden… everything, tall blonde singsong-speaking people, and a land of trolls, of myths that feel alive and truths that feel mythical and the home of the Vikings. Here, I felt, for the first time on any of my travels, like I was somewhere truly different.

A final thought on this difference: Norway is the most English-speaking country in Europe (including England, since what they speak in Yorkshire may not be gibberish, but it is not English) and yet to an American, it remains the most alien. In the UK, while not ever feeling “at home,” I felt like it was similar enough to New York, just grayer and less pleasant. Spain was gorgeous and way relaxed and, while distinctly different from my world, it still was exactly how I’d imagined it. Germany and Copenhagen, while seeming “old” in some ways, still didn’t match the pervasive antique feel of Norway.

What I realized was this: In Hong Kong and Taiwan, I may have glimpsed the future, one of soaring glass and steel skyscrapers, crowds, humidity, and the constant sense of a centralized state overlaying “organized chaos.” But in Norway, I saw and felt the past. Norway, with its modern economy and lifestyles, is a land that cannot escape its past, and because of that, it feels different. Germany has history, but it feels like history, something entirely pushed into the past — you can feel the roots, but you know and are always aware that the nation is moving forward, and the old is being incorporated and dissolved into the new.
DSC07899In Norway, the old is pervasive, on display in subtle but constant ways, and it is not going anywhere. It felt different there.

I think the reason is, that Norway has remained off the radar and apart.  In Copenhagen, you walk into a six hundred-year-old building, and there is a McDonalds sign in the window. In Hong Kong, an alien world in many regards, there are constantly thousands of Americans roaming the streets. Norway, it seems, remains almost undiscovered, and perhaps because of this, far more mysterious, even if aspects of it seem familiar. The familiarity, but the slight differences, is what makes Norway so alien. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

DSC07843

Standard
History, Norway, travel

Halden, Norway. The Frontier.

DSC07994 Border

With a craggy coastline stretching for a huge distance (in the far north, it reaches around the top of Sweden to touch Finland, a bit of Russia, and the Arctic Ocean), Norway is a land that is never too far from water.  There are always boats and ships in sight along the coast.  In an Oslo museum, you can visit beautiful Viking longships,  over a thousand years old.  And a century ago, this small country had the fourth-largest merchant fleet in the world.  Even today, while its ships are not as numerous as, say,  Greece or China/Hong Kong, it is still a major player.

A couple of years ago, I traveled to Oslo while I was on break from Washington College, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a few blocks from the Chester River, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland is also lots and lots of coastline — nearly sliced in half by the Chesapeake, and basically a fifth of the state is water.

But there were many times in Maryland that I felt far from the ocean or the bay, blocked by the masses of suburban housing and traffic congestion that seem to define life in the “Mid-Atlantic” states.

In Norway, whose entire population is about the same as Colorado, there is often no one between you and the ocean. Even when you are away from the coast, the sea feels accessible. All rivers run down to it, and even in the mountains you still feel close to the ocean somehow — there is nothing between you and the coastline but pastures, unblemished forests full of wildlife, and cold fresh water on its way to the sea.

DSC08044

DSC08015On a day trip out of Oslo, we followed the coast of the Oslofjord southward, to the town of Halden.

While not as beautiful or awe-inspiring as the Fjords further North, the region is still gorgeous, mountains and sea, especially to someone who grew up in a pretty flat stretch of Upstate New York, among ponds and lakes, and tiny sand hills dumped by retreating glaciers .

Halden is on the Swedish border, and to me, it felt like a land on the edge of a frontier.

I’ve visited the western United States, and gone through some pretty flea-bitten border towns in New Mexico and Arizona. While at one point those old mining spots were “frontier towns,” I never felt like I was on the edge of anything, save for insanity, as you could only stare at a seemingly endless expanse of desert, between you and the Mexican border.

DSC08045

In Halden, I felt like I was on the edge of the world, which is an odd feeling, since it isn’t actually on the ocean. In fact, Hong Kong, where I’d just spent six months, was more geographically “on the edge” than Halden, existing on the edge of the sea, and on the edge of the Chinese mainland, literally and figuratively.

But even in the “wilderness”areas around HK’s New Territories, the woods were always crowded with people. Halden, initially, felt a bit like a Old West town in the Rocky Mountains — a small city huddled between some impressive mountains.

Walking up the steep hill towards the massive Fredriksten Festning (Fortress), close to sunset, I knew I was in a place quite unlike any I’d ever been before.

DSC07969

DSC08113

This fortress is old. It saw combat, sieges, and watched over the city for ages from its hilltop. Looking out from its walls, there was so much to see, in every direction, especially the beautiful fjord and canal glistening at sundown, while the city’s lights slowly turned on.

I’ve only seen the Mediterranean during three days in Malaga, but I felt like I might almost have arrived in Greece, with little houses all around the watery and rocky cityscape, lights coming on, ships tying up in the harbor, small cars quietly driving around. Looking down, the train station was quite small, but the railroad yard looked really impressive from atop the hill.

 

 

DSC08083

On top of the fortress ramparts (literally, on top, since unlike the US, they had no safety rails, and few warning signs) it felt like we were on the edge of a strange, different land. Indeed, Norway doesn’t quite seem to belong to this planet.

DSC08017

Even Hong Kong, with its alien ways and unearthly smells and sounds, seemed more American and familiar than did Norway, once we’d left Oslo. Norway really seemed like a country from a bygone era, or perhaps an alternative “Middle Earth”. Had Peter Jackson not filmed the Lord of the Rings in New Zealand (perhaps the only place on earth more extraordinary than Norway) the land of the Norsemen could easily have filled the role, with its fortress towns fitting the mood perfectly.

DSC08063

I loved that the Norwegians, unlike the American bureaucrats running parks and sites, believe people are intelligent enough to look out for themselves, and decide where they can walk or climb. Wandering around the old walls, after sundown, after the last sunset-viewers and dog-walkers had gone, we had the entire place to ourselves. There were few lights, no ugly chain-link fences, no trespass signs, no assumption that you’re incapable of looking out for yourself, that you’re sure to stumble and immediately blame and sue someone.

DSC08095

IMG_1056

We walked by the spot where a king of Sweden had died trying to storm this place — and here we were, a couple of flatlander peasants, with free run of the fortress – incredible — cobbled streets, arched gateways, crumbling barracks, powder magazines and walls, and old rusty cannons.

If we could just pry the old gates shut, we’d be like little boys playing “king of the hill.”  My father sighted along the barrels of old cannons and reported:  “Gun #1 – we could hit the train station.  No, we’ll need that to get back to Oslo.  Gun#2 – take out a kebab shop?  No, it’s late, we’re hungry, it may be the only thing open when we go down.  (Good decision, it was).   He remembered an old Steely Dan song “Got a case of dynamite, I could hold out here all night…”  We used the little lights on our cellphones to peer into dank stone rooms within the fortress walls.

DSC08046-002

It is a commonplace observation, to talk of the lasting impression made by violence upon a blood-soaked battlefield – – but this place seems to have made its peace a long time ago.  It felt nothing but peaceful and great.

This world felt like the true frontier and it fascinated me like no other place I’ve been.

DSC08112-001

Looking down at the little city, as more of the slope below us disappeared into the dark, I felt as if I could run down the fort’s high and rocky precipice, straight into the vast waters of the fjords, and out into the sea.

DSC08037

Standard

 

IMG_5832

 

DSC05302

 

 

One of my favorite moments in England was a visit to Grantham, a small town in Lincolnshire, halfway between Hull and London.

 

I arrived at an old-fashioned train station and immediately fell for the charm of the place. Staying at a little inn, painted bright red for some reason, I felt like I’d been dropped into the stereotypical English holiday depicted in the old movies — a quaint old town set in a picturesque countryside.

 

 

IMG_5824-001

x

 

 

IMG_5831

x

 

 

 

Roaming the winding alleys and cobblestone streets, past little parks with statues and flower beds, past buildings standing since medieval times, I felt most definitely in England.

 

 

 

IMG_5833-001

statue in front of City Hall, dedicated to the English Civil Servant, and every bit as animated, brandishing a sheaf of useless paperwork.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We ventured into the High Victorian-styled City Hall, where the staff were perfectly cast, like a waxwork museum, fulfilling their stereotypical roles as British Civil Servants.  Polite, pleasant manners, combined with total indifference to their jobs or visitors, and apparently lacking the slightest interest in, or knowledge of, the town they where they worked.

 

 

DSC05471

x

 

 

Sections of the church not only pre-dated the United States, it even pre-dated the Normans. As I studied the Saxon-Norman-Gothic church, housing its chained library and perhaps a bone or two from old St. Wulfram, I really felt like I was in England for the first time, and not just in a continuation of the Rust Belt where I’d grown up — it might be in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but Hull seemed like it could just as easily be Cleveland or Detroit in some regards — it even had a Chrysler plant.  Hull somehow didn’t feel entirely British, though it was distinctly un-American.

 

 

IMG_5822-001

 

Grantham felt how England should feel: damp, but not cold, grey, and ancient. Under the massive steeple of a thousand year-old church, I knew I was not in Kansas anymore. Roaming by Sir Issac Newtown’s school and home, I felt that it really is true, there isn’t a spot in England that isn’t touched by history, I don’t think any other nation in the world can make that claim, especially in the third world, with cities rising out of jungle, desert, or seemingly from thin air.

The Grantham cabbies, the gingerbread biscuits, fish-and-chip shops, a medieval inn, the pubs lining the street – these were exactly the elements of the England I had hoped to discover in Hull, but never found there.

 

Belton House 4

x

 

 

The next day was spent at Belton House, an estate and manor. Roaming the grounds with its own forest, deer herd, and even a small railroad for children, it reinforced the sense of a movie-set England. The house was massive — 72 rooms and over a thousand acres of land (and a lake, a boathouse, gardens including a maze, carriage houses, etc). I loved the greenhouse, the immense library, even the servants’ quarters.

 

 

Belton House 5

x

 

Everything about this trip was wonderful. For the first time in England, I felt like I had finally arrived on the right Island, and not in some historical Disneyland like York, or an American-style Rust Belt burg like Hull, or a modern cityscape like Leeds, which felt like a Canadian city minus the joviality and hockey.

 

 

Travel and “study abroad” involve learning something new, challenging your preconceptions, and encounters with the unexpected.

 

But — Grantham is England for me — I finally found the England of my expectations.

 

Belton House 3-001

England, Study Abroad, travel, UK

Grantham. The Quintessential English Town

Image
Hong Kong, travel

The Chicken Head

DSC00715-001

Hong Kong is a city of the highest caliber. And, despite its scale and complexity, many of the things that give it distinctive character traits are found in individual neighborhoods. Most are things that you’d only know if you were a local, or lived like one.

My most distinctive HK memory is of a place with a name I never knew, but the name doesn’t matter. While everyone in my extended multi-tiered Lingnan University Family went to Mr Wong’s at least once, often several other times, and some went to Fred’s (also in Kowloon, I think) very few had the privilege of going to the place I dined. Even most locals didn’t know of it, and the ones who did had a hard time finding it. It was truly a hidden gem.

This nameless place was intense. Before I get into it, for a non-Chinese speaker like me, HK’s vendors can be intimidating, fighting for your attention in a language you don’t even remotely understand. Not only this, but the sheer number of them, the density of them, the intensity of them, can be overwhelming. Usually, locals know how to handle this behavior. This place, on the other hand, offered a challenge for even the hardiest of the Hong Kong kids.

We arrive:  three Chinese, an American, A German, and a Dutchman at a “late night” and are instantly swarmed by fast- talking, shouting really, Asian men and women who own the various restaurants that filled the entire block. A sea of tents and flood lights, full of tightly-packed tables with only Asians eating there. I should note, this place is located in Tuen Mun, an almost exclusively Chinese area of Hong Kong, and three white people (their term), two of whom are in the six-foot range, offered quite a spectacle, enough that people at tables were shouting for us to come over as well, in the hopes we’d sit next to their table. In China, white people are accessories, often asked to stand with someone to make them look cooler;  in the mainland, they are sometimes paid handsomely to show up in a suit and just stand there. We weren’t exceptions to this practice. While dozens of Chinese are shouting at us simultaneously, the only thoughts on our minds were,

#1, We’re starving, just choose a place” (and giving anxious stares that said: HURRY UP to our Chinese friends, who’re struggling to deal with five offers from all directions at once). The other thought we had was:  “What have we gotten ourselves into, this is freaking insane.”

Finally the two girls and Champy, one of the Chinese guys in our group, accept an offer from someone who seemed slightly more sane than the others, and we sit down for what turned out to be a delicious, reasonably priced multi course meal. They kept offering us alcohol which I found funny, because when we accepted their offers they told us we had to go buy the beers elsewhere as they had lost their liquor license.

We enjoyed various meat dishes, but more importantly, dabbling in conversation with the whole gang, about everything and anything, and our mixed group gave the table a real Hong Kong vibe, it was cosmopolitan chaos

.

This sort of insane atmosphere, of having literally dozens of stalls full of people all wildly talking and taking photos and eating and shouting is quintessentially Hong Kong, or I suppose Chinese in general. But it’s not something to experience in the states.

The highlight for me, was being immersed in the whole crazed atmosphere, which one can simply not experience in America or the West.

 

IMG_1963The highlight for my friends was different.  They got to watch me kiss the chicken head.

Now to explain, we ordered a chicken, which arrived dead but just recently from the looks of it and it looked as if he had a rough time during his untimely execution and boiling. The bird arrived without feathers but with everything else, including a very unhappy-looking head, which was removed by an expert chop and left on the table. We were told not to eat the meat of the head as the chicken was killed by injecting poisons into it’s brain, and I thought it’d be foolish or rude to bring up the fact that the rest of the bird probably wasn’t any safer to eat. So, before we left I had the job of kissing the chicken head for the amusement of my friends. So I did. Again, another distinctive Hong Kong experience.

Footnote: We went back here 1 month later, as a final meal before leaving HK.  It wasn’t as overwhelming, but I wanted to experience it again, and share the experience with a few others, so this time another German and his mainland Chinese girlfriend accompanied us to the street with no name and we dined across from where we had last time. The reason being, it was raining enough that it was flooding slightly and the other was closed, so we went to a shabbier- looking place where the waiter was watching TV while serving us, the cook was smoking two cigarettes at once, one in each hand, while cooking, and a random dog kept walking around the tables and barking at people. Only the Westerners, and by that I mean myself and my German friend, seemed alarmed by this.

The chicken head. Before being kissed.

The chicken head. Before being kissed.

1378220_10151737306040098_127249105_n

Standard
Hong Kong, travel

Macau Photos

1238962_721864427839124_1133705919_n

Macau. Here you see the Colonial Portuguese influence melded with modern Chinese casinos. A truly unique place.

970463_722091331149767_1168061571_n

Some handsome American tourist photobombed me.

970073_721841674508066_1032853902_n

Typical Street Scene. Crowded, it makes Mong Kok (the most densely packed neighborhood on earth) seem tame.

1238862_722241127801454_2105310265_n

A large loaf of bread in a local bakery. Everything in excess is Macau's unofficial motto. Shows the Portuguese influence.

A large loaf of bread in a local bakery. Everything in excess is Macau’s unofficial motto. Shows the Portuguese influence.

1175308_722241914468042_1191288990_n

Ruined temple…

Standard
hiking, Hong Kong, travel

Hiking in Hong Kong

1452020_321359154672621_78306175_nHong Kong defines the word “anomaly.” I say this because it constantly deviates from the expected.  The city may be one of the most densely populated in the world (although not as jam-packed as Macau), but even HK Island and Kowloon still have surprising swathes of green space.  One of the biggest surprises of this city, is that it’s one of the best places on earth to hike, with several hundred miles of trails traversing it’s rocky edges and mountainous spines.

Many tourists will only visit Victoria Peak (“The Peak”).  Although it’s a pretty modest height (1800 feet), about a third of Mt. Marcy in the Adirondacks, Victoria basically rises up right from sea-level, and gives a pretty spectacular view.  There is a funicular railroad, appropriately enough a gift from Queen Victoria, still running, so there is no hiking required.   But there are much higher mountains within city limits.

DSC02714

view from a trail above the city

I started with a hike on Lantau, which is the largest island by far, almost a mountainous world of its own.  It’s mostly a wooded mass of dormant volcanoes.  There is one major developed area, Tung Chung, perched along the rocky coast, and HK’s new airport is on a manmade island just offshore.

DSC02198

You can travel to Tung Chung’s super modern train stop, and then by cable car to see  the world’s biggest Buddha. I visited the Buddha several times, and although I am not a religious person, each time I felt an indescribable sense of spirituality.  And in tropical Hong Kong, where rain and storms are a constant occurrence, it seemed like more than coincidence that the Buddha was the only part of the island that was always in sunshine.Lantau 2013

Apart from the colossal Buddha, Lantau is home to some serious hikes, including “Sunset Peak” which is the optimal place for a romantic evening, and “Lantau Peak” the baddest of the bad boy mountains. I climbed this peak with a team of Filipino hikers during the nicest weather I experienced Hong Kong. We climbed up the trail to the peak, and could stare directly down on both the airport and the Buddha. But, perhaps trying to impress their American guest, my Filipino guides decided we weren’t taking the trail back down, so we just descended straight down the beast. I’ve always loved hiking and rock climbing, and this day combined both on a hair-raising, elbow-bruising descent,   going through dense jungle vegetation, sparsely vegetated rocky crags, and plains of grasses in unbelievable hues.

We ended up in the valley of the Giant Buddha. It was truly an amazing experience. There is much writing out there about the magic and beauty of nature, and I won’t try to outdo the words of Wordsworth or Thoreau, but on this day, their writings felt absolutely right.  The day was a respite from the constant buzz of the city, and yet conveyed an equal amount of vitality and life in an environment just as extreme as the urban one.

This is part of why I love Hong Kong. When you imagine a super city, you think of public squares and park, but they don’t contain miles of pristine wilderness. Hong Kong does

DSC02717

Diamond BackPerhaps even more amazing than the spectacular hike on Lantau, was the “Dragon’s Back Trail,” voted the best hiking in all of Asia, seven years running.

This trail is on Hong Kong Island.  To get there, you take a bus from one of the most crowded districts of Hong Kong, Wan Chai, and wade through a sea of people with climbing gear. Then you drive up over a ridge and immediately the city fades away as if it was never there. You cannot hear it, and you see only fleeting glimpses of it. There you are, in the mountains, walking along the sleeping volcanic dragon’s back. You look in one direction and for a minute, there is Hong Kong in all its manmade might. You look the other way and you feel like you’re on the edge of the world, as the spiny mountain fades off into the azure sea below.

dragGOn

Shek O, the village at the end of the Dragon Back Trail

You end the hike at Shek O, a beach community forgotten by time, with seasonal houses that hasn’t changed much since 1950. It struck me that you might almost mistake it for a slice of Cuba, minus the vintage cars.

 

Teton advertisement

Standard
Hong Kong, travel

Karaoke in Hong Kong

I believe this was a Bob Marley song....

I believe this was a Bob Marley song….

One of the defining memories of Hong Kong was one of the first experiences I ever had in that city, a trip to Neway Karaoke.

Karaoke originated in Japan and has become a Korean pastime – and now has found a niche in Hong Kong as well.

I don’t sing. I’ve never taken singing classes, and with the exception of shower anthems, I tend to not sing, as I’m self-conscious about my voice. So when I jokingly suggested   that this large group of people I just met, representing nine nations, go to a Karaoke place, and they said “Yes!”, I felt my heart sink.

I was jet-lagged and had no desire to get to a drunken-enough-to-sing point, which was the plan for the Europeans in the group, so I went sober like most of the Asians.

I don’t regret it. What started out with people all awkwardly finding excuses not to sing

(I have a sore throat, I don’t know the words, etc) turned into me and another  American starting the night off by singing a duet of Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock”. After that, perhaps after seeing me doing this willingly, the whole group became lively, and the entire evening was spent belting out songs, dancing, and eventually people enjoying themselves, but having no idea what they were singing, and then finally just making noises into the microphones. I impressed everyone, myself included, with my rapping skills.

While most bars in the US have a karaoke night, the atmosphere is different. In the US, or the UK where I’ve also lived, people go to karaoke with two things planned.

First, they’re going to get hammered.

Second, they’re going to laugh at everyone else but not sing themselves.

In Hong Kong, and I think the rest of East Asia, the focus is on going out with friends late at night and singing, there is none of the not-always-friendly mocking of the singers.  Nor is there a focus on getting so drunk that the people you came with, the ones who are considerably more sober, want to leave you on the floor of a bathroom and never talk to you again. The atmosphere in Hong Kong was supportive and welcoming, and once the initial shyness passed, everyone bonded, perhaps deciding that if they could sing in front of a group of random people, they can definitely be friends with them.

Standard