Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ma Lau Shan (馬騮山)

When most people thing of Hong Kong, they think of this:

Which is, of course, Hong Kong. Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world. Thousands of skyscrapers stacked 10 feet apart and half the streets are filled with street vendors. It sometimes seems that every single inch of the city is taken up by people or buildings. But Hong Kong is also extremely mountainous, so only about 25% of Hong Kong is actually developed, and nearly 50% is protected reserve or park. It was to this undeveloped wilderness that we ventured to the (in)famous Ma Lau Shan (monkey mountain).

That sign basically says "Don't feed the monkeys or they will kill you", or something like that (my chinese is a little rusty). There is a $10,000 fine for even thinking about feeding them. All of the people hiking here were traveling in big groups and carrying sticks or golf clubs or something to defend themselves from the horrible monkeys. Everyone was warning me against bringing food, anything that smells like food, anything that looks like it might contain food, and generally any shopping sacks or plastic bags of any kind, or the monkeys will murder me and take it. Some people were quite frightened, and George was scared the entire time we were there.

I'm sure this monkey murdered someone for that bottle of tea.

In reality the monkeys didn't seem all that dangerous. They mostly just did monkey things like swinging in the trees or lounging on the pathway eating bugs off each other. One of them stalked us for a bit, and made George nervous, but most of them just ignored us and went about their monkey ways. Maybe they recognized my beastly manliness and figured they better just leave us alone, but whatever their reasons, they didn't seem the brutal killing machines they had been hyped up to be.

Monkeys doing their monkey thing

Surprisingly the monkeys seem to stay on their monkey mountain and don't venture into the city to terrorize people. As mentioned above, Hong Kong is full of street stalls selling all kinds of yummy things, and it seems like all the outdoor markets would be easy pickings for these little agile killer monkeys. In fact they rarely even cross the road. There are no fences to keep them in and there is a large pedestrian overpass to protect them from getting squashed on Kong Kong's dangerous roads. I don't know, maybe they know that people in Hong Kong will eat just about anything, and if they start stealing food from the locals, the locals might turn them into food.

Monkeys are native to Hong Kong, by the way, but they are a smaller, less aggressive species, and they have mostly been displaced by habitat destruction and the introduction of the killer macaques mentioned above. Turns out that after the locals built a reservoir here back in 1913 they noticed that the area was home to a toxic species of plant that was contaminating the waters (probably something you should figure out before you build a reservoir). Macaques like to eat this toxic plant, so a few families were introduced to clean out the bad plants and keep the water clean. As monkeys tend to do, these guys were very successful at reproducing, and now there are thousands of them swinging in the trees near the water supply.

Humans have a consistently bad habit of releasing foreign species of plants or animals into an ecosystem to try and clear out undesirable species. This almost always results in the new species proliferating beyond control since there generally isn't a local predator for a totally foreign species. So far most of Hong Kong is okay with the monkeys, but the stories of monkey attacks and food stealing I mentioned above are not made up (just slightly exaggerated).

Monkey guarding the sign that tells you how to defend yourself against them. They do not want you to know their weaknesses.

Anyway, on your next trip to Hong Kong get out of the urban craziness for a bit. Take a trip out to the wilderness and see some monkeys. Take a hike up to the giant buddha on lantau island. Hop a short bus ride out to one of the sleepy fishing villages like Tai O, or even catch a boat out to one of the less populated smaller islands and escape the rat-race. There is more than just shopping, eating, and skyscraper browsing.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Long time no blog

I don't like to travel with my computer. I travel light, and don't like the additional weight (physical and mental) of dragging a computer around with me, so it's been a couple weeks since I have had a chance to update my blog.

One of the best things about living in France is that you are so close to the rest of Europe, so many exotic (to an American) and famous world cities are just a train or short plane ride away. So for my first real vacation since moving here I went to Hong Kong!

Yeah, that Hong Kong. The one just about on the other side of the planet from me. The one that is about a 13 hour flight from Paris. My sister-in-law got married last week, so I dusted off my old suit (which I bought in Hong Kong for a previous wedding, and haven't worn since) and George put on her brand new fake converse (see picture below) and we took off for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is a great city. George grew up there, and most of her family is there, so we go there quite a bit. I always eat too much, buy too much junk, and take thousands of crappy pictures of all the cool buildings. This trip was very family focused though so I mostly just ate too much, only bought a little bit of junk, and really didn't take that many pictures, although most are still crappy.

Hong Kong seems much greener than the last time I went. But maybe it is just because I was coming from one of the greenest cities on the planet, Seattle, and now I am coming from Lyon which prefers brown gravel and concrete to grass? Every road seems to have a nice green median with palm trees and tropical plants, every street is newly lined with trees. And there seems to be more parks.

Hong Kong seemed much cleaner too. The air and water quality still needs a lot of attention, but the streets were a lot cleaner, and there was less graffiti than I remember. There are also recycle bins all over the city now!

Hong Kong is cheap! An extra value meal at McDs in Lyon is about 6.5 Euros, an extra value meal in Hong Kong is about 2.5 Euros (too bad I don't like McDonalds :-(). The first night George and I stayed in Hong Kong we ate dinner at a small street vendor for less than 3 Euros--for two people! Basic electronics are really cheap too. I got a VGA cable to connect my notebook to my TV for 1.5 euros. They cost about 15 euros at the local FNAC. Rent will cost you about 3 times more than in Lyon, but as a tourist not worrying about things like rent, your money goes a long way.

Hong Kong is hot. It is still technically winter in Hong Kong, but it was about 25 degrees (nearly 80 degrees fahrenheit) on average every day we were there. It was 0 when my return flight landed in Lyon (32 degrees fahrenheit).

Not quite so crowded? Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities on the planet. Seattle, not so much so, but Lyon is quite dense too. On previous trips I always felt a bit cramped because of the crazy amount of people everywhere in Hong Kong, but now that I am used to the number of people in Lyon it doesn't seem quite so bad. It is still crazy crowded though.

Hong Kong is open late. In Lyon most stores close at 8. Bars and restaurants stay open later, and shops in the tourist area, but most things close early. In Hong Kong everything is open late, and many things are open 24 hours. I don't really need 24 hour shops anymore, but if the Carrefour or Casino by my house could stay open until 10 I would be ecstatic.

People in Hong Kong work a lot. The economic crisis has hit Hong Kong pretty hard too, and many people have been laid off and the ones that managed to keep their jobs are working extra to make up for it. Many of my relatives were working late nights and Saturdays, and most were not getting paid extra for it. "Just be happy you have a job" seems to be motivation enough, because unlike France Hong Kong has no unemployment benefits and no universal health care, so you are pretty much on your own when bad economic times make life a little tough.

All in all in was a great trip. It was really interesting to get a different prespective now that I am living in France.