I always find markets an interesting place to visit and the Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei areas in Hong Kong have more than their fair share of unusual markets. We found a walking tour which took us through the highlights.
First up was the Yuen Po bird garden, a seating area where locals (mostly men) bring their caged songbirds for an outing. A market has sprung up around the garden offering birds, cages, accessories and bird food, including live crickets!
Locals admiring their birds
Selecting a cage, songbird on display, live bird food for sale
The two streets to the west of the bird garden are full of flower shops which spill out onto the pavement.
The Flower Market stocks everything from bonsai trees to busy lizzies
An orchid specialist in the Flower Market
Next we headed down Tung Choi Street to see the fascinating Goldfish Market. Actually it’s not just goldfish that are for sale but pretty much everything you might need to stock an aquarium from tanks and lights to pebbles and plants. The fish are in every colour of the rainbow and mostly displayed in plastic bags, just like the ones you might win at a fair!
A typical shop in the Goldfish Market
Bags of fish hung up for sale
Not just fish, but plants and crabs too
It wasn’t on the tour itinerary, but after spotting an indoor food market on Fa Yuen street we couldn’t resist popping in for a look. Chinese people place great importance on the freshness of their food and this was evident not just at the fish counters which were full of live produce, but in the displays of fruit and vegetables in top notch condition.
Despite its name the Ladies’ Market doesn’t just sells items for women (nor is it a place where you go to buy ladies for anyone choosing to ignore the apostrophe). The stalls here stock a huge variety of clothes, accessories, souvenirs and beauty products.
Lots of choice and bright colours at the Ladies’ Market, and a lady grooming her wigs!
Hong Kong is a major international trading centre for jade products and some of the items in the shops on Canton Road (or Jade Street as it is also known) are absolutely stunning, however, our walking guide warned that the stalls in the Jade Markets are…
a fun place to browse and to buy an inexpensive memento of your visit, but think twice about buying anything costly unless you are a jade expert.
We didn’t spend as much time as we wanted to exploring here because as soon as we paused to look at anything the stallholders started trying to put necklaces and bracelets on me and offering us ‘a very good price’ so we beat a hasty retreat.
The “Shining Star” Star Ferry c.2013 – photo taken and a Retro filter applied by Julie :o)
The description of the tour on their website reads:
A crossing of Victoria Harbour on a Star Ferry has been named by the National Geographic of Traveler as one of the “fifty places of a lifetime”. Now, for the first time, you have the opportunity to step back to the days of old and experience an era when third generation Star ferries were the major passenger connection between Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula.
Step aboard the fabulous double-decker “Shining Star” ferry, a beautiful re-creation of the ferries that plied Victoria Harbour in the 1920s. Relax and enjoy the magnificent view while sipping a cup of fine coffee in an air-conditioned, on-vessel cafe or soak up the sun on the open decks while enjoying the cooling sea breezes.
With the launch of the “Shining Star”, the classic experience of Hong Kong is always a harbour tour on the ferry. Don’t miss this unique tour; it is more memorable and better than ever!
We opted for the cooling sea breezes on the open decks, which does indeed afford magnificent views, even on a sunny-but-hazy Saturday afternoon.
We started from the Hong Kong Island side, and the route is essentially in two parts, stopping once at Hong Kong and the other on the Kowloon Peninsula. The boat’s loudspeaker plays an upbeat recorded monologue that explains the significant buildings along the shoreline and the greater Hong Kong skyline. Most of the time it was easy to identify the building from the audible description, but it was a little tricky when the boat got a bit ahead of the recording just before we berthed at Tsim Sha Tsui!
This year, my birthday slap-up meal was a picnic of bread, a cheese and olive platter, sushi, and chocolate pudding, washed down with a slightly chilled Reisling, from the public roof-top gardens between the International Finance Centre towers, one of which is the tallest skyscraper on Hong Kong Island.
It has to be the Great Wall. It’s such an iconic sight but seeing it snaking off over the hilltops in both directions really was breathtaking. It was also the first day of Mum and Dad’s holiday with us and it was great to see China with them.
Summarise China in three words.
Food – without doubt one of the highlights of our stay was the incredible food, from Peking Duck to noodles in a backstreet cafe and pork rolls from a street stand, pretty much everything we tried was delicious!
All told, we’ve spent about a fortnight in the capital of China and we love it. It’s one of those places that we immediately felt both at home in, and very safe in. The locals feel safe too – after yet another delicious Peking Duck and a few beers, this time with our friends Maxime and Armelle, Julie and I were walking back to our hostel at about midnight and a 20-something girl in front of us was nonchalantly spinning her purse in one hand.
Beijing is our kind of town; there is plenty to see and do, and getting around is almost effortless and very cheap. I say almost because finding a destination bus stop is a bit tricky as they’re only in English on the bus company’s route planning website but they’re only in Chinese on all the maps!
Here are our highlights of what may well be our favourite city of the trip so far..
Us at the Olympic Park! Outside the Bird’s Nest Stadium! (and yes, the exclamation marks are warranted!!)
A gloomy day in Beijing couldn’t stifle my excitement at visiting the site of the 2008 Olympics – surely you remember the amazing fireworks display..
Clockwise from top-left: Inside the Bird’s Nest stadium; Julie in front of the medals wall – Olympic results engraved to the left, Paralympic to the right; Nice attention to detail – the floor lights are in the style of the stadium; Andrew going for gold; The 2008 Olympic torch
Not only did we get to go inside the Olympic stadium, but for a small extra fee (which I was able to talk Julie into!), we got to go onto the roof. Bizarrely named the “Air Corridor”, it’s a small walkway that takes you to where the massive Olympic torch was unveiled – with spectacular views over the rest of the park and down into the stadium itself.
Clockwise from top-right: Us in the Air Corridor, looking down into the Bird’s Nest stadium; the Air Corridor – it’s a corridor in the open air. I think I get it; The massive Olympic torch that is now sited next to the stadium instead of on top of it.
We visited the park a second time with Julie’s parents Norman & Moira, but this time we waited until it was dark so we could see it all lit up..
The Beijing Olympic Park at night – National Aquatics Centre (“The Water Cube”) in the foreground
Temple of Heaven
One of Moira’s favourite places that we visited, the Temple of Heaven is a series of temples previously used by Emperors to pray for good harvests, set in a lovely spacious park.
The Temple of Heaven is characterised by beautiful circular temples, like the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests
The Imperial Vault of Heaven; Roof detail and ceiling dragon
Beautiful glazed roof tiles and imperial dragon roof charms
The Summer Palace isn’t so much a palace as a giant park, and its name in Chinese literally translates into “Gardens of Nurtured Harmony”. Our friends Isaac & Rebecca say they try to visit once a week, but I secretly wondered how a park could hold that much interest. Don’t get me wrong, I like parks and the outdoors – I was raised walking on hills – but every week?
The walk from the East Gate to The Garden of Harmonious Pleasures takes in a nice up-and-down meandering tree-lined pathway. So far, so good..
Julie, Moira and Norman at a gate on the path to The Garden of Harmonious Pleasures
The Garden of Harmonious Pleasures. I could sit here all day
I mentioned earlier that I like parks, but I sat here and just looked out over the pond with the moving shoals of golden Koi and the pattern of rain on the waters surface and realised that I actually love parks. I decided that there would be more parks in my life from now on. And now I understand why Isaac & Rebecca visit every week.
As we’d bought the “access all areas” ticket, we made our way to the Court of Virtuous Harmony, and we’d timed it perfectly for the Chinese variety performance and the onset of the rain. Fortunately the rain was light and the performance of dance and music all but outlasted it.
Martial Arts performer before he takes the stage
The centrepiece of the Summer Palace is the Temple of Buddhist Virtue, which takes quite a climb to reach.
Moira & Norman with the Temple of Buddhist Virtue behind them. That’s where we’re going next!
View from the Temple of Buddhist Virtue over Kunming Lake
We left the Summer Palace from the North Palace gate that turned out to be closer to the Metro station than the East entrance we walked to. On the way, we dropped below a footbridge into Suzhou Street which looked intriguingly like Venice from above..
You’ve probably heard of Tian’anmen Square already, and seen part of it in the most famous photograph of Beijing outside China..
The “Tank Man” halting advancing tanks north of Tian’anmen Square on the 5th of June, 1989. Tian’anmen Square is to the left of the rows of parked tanks in the background. Photo credit: Stuart Franklin
Nowadays Beijing’s central public space is ring-fenced and encircled by busy roads, CCTV cameras, and almost as many police as there are visiting tourists. Access is by underpass and through X-ray bag searches like you’re about to board an aeroplane (incidentally, the Metro has the same security checks).
Tian’anmen Square today. The column is The Monument to the People’s Heroes, and the top of Mao Zedong’s mausoleum is in the background to the left
The square is flanked by two imposing government buildings that were designed and built in a Soviet Russian style in 1959; The National Museum of China to the east, and The Great Hall of the People on the west. To the south are two beautiful and imposing gate houses that are almost all that remains of the old Beijing city walls.
Us in front of Qianmen, the inner of the two city gates
To the north, beyond the smiling portrait of Mao facing the square is the Forbidden City. Built in the Ming Dynasty by the Yongle Emperor Zhu Di, and home to his consorts, concubines, visiting officials and successive Emperors, it was forbidden for ordinary folk to enter under penalty of immediate execution. The rules have been relaxed considerably since it became a museum in 1925, and now it seems only feather dusters are forbidden.
The Gate of Supreme Harmony, the first of the many palaces, courtyards and temple-like gatehouses inside the Forbidden City
The Forbidden City is aptly named for its sheer scale, it is immense. We visited twice, firstly with our new friends Maxime and Armelle whom we met in Mongolia, and their new friends Julia & Jõan and A.C. whom they met on the train into China, and again with Julie’s parents, and we still didn’t see it all.
From left to right: Me & Julie, Maxime & Armelle, Julia, A.C. and Jõan on Tian’anmen Square in front of the Meridian Gate, the main entrance to the Forbidden City
Norman, Moira, Julie & I in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony
The buildings are beautiful with their curved-edge roofs adorned with glazed figurines, and each one has a delightful name, such as The Gate of Divine Might, The Hall of Mental Cultivation or The Palace of Tranquil Longevity.
Right smack in the centre of the city is The Hall of Supreme Harmony which marks the border between the outer (southern) and inner courts and where the space and scale immediately shrinks. The buildings beyond are just as intricate but are more varied in their design. Vast open spaces give way to walled corridors leading to intimate courtyards where we found trees, rocks and metal animal statues. This makes sense as the inner court was the home of the Emperor & Empress, and where the administrative functions of the empire took place, while the outer court was used for ceremonies.
The inner court, much more intimate (and just as busy!) but still as splendid
The Forbidden City is officially known as the Palace Museum, and its collection is huge. Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:
Today, there are over a million rare and valuable works of art in the permanent collection of the Palace Museum, including paintings, ceramics, seals, steles, sculptures, inscribed wares, bronze wares, enamel objects, etc. According to an inventory of the Museum’s collection conducted between 2004 and 2010, the Palace Museum holds a total of 1,807,558 artifacts and includes 1,684,490 items designated as nationally protected “valuable cultural relics.”
Clock Exhibition Hall
Easily worth the additional ¥10 entrance fee (which works out at about £1 each), the hall of clocks was one of our favourite exhibits in the Forbidden City, not least because the majority of the ingenious clocks on display were made in England!
It’s hard to pick just a few from the vast and varied collection. Clockwise from top-left: gilt copper clock decorated with revolving waterfalls and figures striking bells; Astronomy clock; one of the 5 England clocks display cabinets in the main hall; Gilt copper clock with figure writing Chinese characters with a brush (Williamson of London, c.1790)
Twice a day, at 11.00 and 14.00, 3 of the clocks on display are wound up and demonstrated
Our favourite clocks of the exhibition: Gilt copper sunflower (French c. 19th century); Copper steamer (French c. 20th century); Giant Copper clepsydra (water clock) from the workshops of the Qing court (c. 1799)
The other additional cost exhibition, also ¥10, is the Treasure Gallery, and we certainly got our money’s worth.
The courtyard of the Treasure Gallery contains a vibrant 9 dragon screen. It’s not as big as the one we saw in Datong, but that made it easier to photograph!
The 9 dragon screen in the Forbidden City. Smaller and busier than Datong
The Treasure Gallery itself displays some of the rarest and most valuable items in the Palace Museum collection. Some of the more popular pieces are a little difficult to see if the halls are busy, and we found Indian-style queuing to be in effect. Patience was definitely needed.
One of the Treasure Gallery Halls. Clockwise from top-left: One of the two busy trinket halls; Small jade figurines sitting around a box; Lion; 3 stamps joined by a chain made from a single piece of jade (!!); Sachet of gold filigree (Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911); Martin court hat with pearl inlay worn by empress (Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911)
Opposite the jewellery and precious stones exhibits, are the impressive sounding Stone Drum halls (sounds impressive to me anyway, as I used to play the drums). And while the exhibit is nicely laid out and the drums themselves are very important given that their inscriptions recount social events from almost two centuries ago, they weren’t actually that impressive.
The Stone Drums – no queuing in this exhibit. The inscriptions invariably recount a visiting official, a hunting trip and a feast. Kind of like the Facebook status updates of the day
Continuing up the eastern side of the inner court, the Treasure Gallery also includes the inner court’s theatre, and halls containing beautiful court seals, bells, and huge carved stones – sadly all covered with a layer of Qing Dynasty-era dust (hence my earlier quip about forbidden feather dusters).
The Forbidden City’s theatre stage
Gold Imperial Seal from the Qing Dynasty
The Bell Hall
Clockwise from top left: Centrepiece of the carved rocks exhibit “Jade Terrace”; the exhibit hall; close-up of “Lapis lazuli hill carved with landscape” (Qing Dynasty); “Da Yu curbing the flood, a Jade Mountain”, close up; and the whole thing to give you a sense of scale
The western side of the Forbidden City consists of lots of smaller buildings and quaint courtyards, culminating in the central gardens before the northern exit.
Rock garden, Qing Dynasty style – here you can walk through the rocks!
Immediately north of the Forbidden City is Jingshan Park, and we just about had the energy left in our legs after a full-day of sightseeing to walk up the steps of the highest of the five peaks in this man-made park. Feng Shui says its favourable to site a residence to the south of a hill, but Marco Polo had the same thought I did when I got to the top and looked down on the centre of (what was) the imperial capital – it’d be a good place to attack it from.
Nevertheless, the views back over the Forbidden City are astounding:
View south over the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park
And then we looked down at our feet to find we were in the very centre of Beijing! Us in the the centre of Beijing!