05.06.2010 30 °C
I don't think anyone should complain about the UK's un-envoronmentally-friendliness until they have seen China. Even Hong Kong, which largely does without the smog, is an incredibly consumptive city - sewage still goes into the harbour, as do the fumes from the diesel-powered ferries and boats. There is absolutely no recycling and every air con vent pumps put enough nasty chemicals to choke an average adult to death, not to mention the power all of those units, street signs and lights must consume. And it's all coal-powered too, so I think we are doing rather well, relatively-speaking.
As our ferry to Cheung Chau leaves the vicinty of Hong Kong Island a wall of hay smog seems to spring up behind us. The air out on the sea is remarkably clear and there are sampans and fishing boats everywhere. Within 20minutes we have reached Cheung Chau and disembark onto to the splashing of fish in buckets and the calls of sea birds.
Walking along the seafront gives a vivid picture of maritime life on the South China coast. Seafood restaurants and wetmarkets abound, men and women in wellies tossing live shrimps from polystyrene vats into display boxes and cutting up live, squirming eels. We stop for lunch and sit on the edge of the promenade watching the little fishing boats go back and forth, debating what the pot of boiling water and bowl on our table are there for. As a Chinese family sit down beside us we discover it is for washing your bowls and cutlery, and begin to wonder what sort of place we have walked in to.
When lunch arrives it is huge, and we have ordered seasonal vegetables, scallops, fried fish and noodles. Despite the size of the order (which almost fills our table) we polish it all off, much to the amazement of the Chinese family-of-four behind us who have ordered half as much. It all comes under $200, $30 of which is Freds coke.
As we leave the restaurant we hear the wail of a siren and duly move to the side, only to see what looks like a Peugeot city van, far smaller than a transit, with "Cheung Chau Fire Station" in white letters on the side of it. Fred dissolves into mirth and has only just recovered a few minutes later when there is another siren and we turn to see what can only be described as a large golf buggy whistling towards us with a big red cross on the side. Fred nearly faints and I decide it is time to get back on the ferry to go to Peng Chau.
The journey takes 50 minutes and stops first at Mui Wo port on Lantau. More fishing boats, a Boeing jet ferry and jumping fish are just some of the sights to keep us occupied on the way and before we know it we have pulled into Peng Chau Ferry Port. The pier is fairly quiet and the sun is now out in full force and it is blisteringly hot, not a hint of the pleasant sea breeze we had on Cheung Chau.
As we cross the marina there is a canopy being put up but as yet nothing appears to be going on so we wander up towards the Tin Hau Temple. Inside is what looks like a gigantic black wishbone below coils of incense - speaking to the temple curator we find out it is a whale bone, now blackened from the dropping ash and has been there for over a century. Beside the temple is Wing On St, a winding alley full of little shops selling porcelain and bric-a-brac - everyone is very friendly and keen to test their English on us.
The town itself is very tiny and very run down - crumbling houses and rusty bicycles line every street, looking as of they had been there since the dawn of time. There are even some spray-painted warnings on some houses of the plague that hit these islands over 70 years ago, telling visitors not to come in. The roads are concreted and there are signposts for tourists but the local people appear to have got nothing out of this arrangement.
The island's highest point is Finger Hill, 95m up. The climb up to it was described to us as "light exercise", probably by an iron man as we climb over 400 steps in the roaring heat and still no sign of the top. But soon we reach a pavilion and some truly spectacular views of Hong Kong Island and Lantau (Kowloon is hidden in smog) and it is all worth it.
On our way back down we are bombarded by hundred of huge and colourful insects and butterflies. We pass a remote water pumping station, a tiny secluded beach and numerous farms, people and dogs, all rusting and crumbling still. Peng Chau must have been what Hong Kong was like before the British stuck a flag in it - just a little fishing outpost, hilly and green, sparsely-populated with people living simple lives. We can hear Cantonese opera drifting tinnily from open doorways hung with lace and elderly men sit outside playing Chinese checkers and mahjong and it's all very rural, in stark contrast to the glittering maze of skyscrapers and shopping malls just across the gap of South China Sea.
As we near the ferry port again there is a great noise of crashing gongs and cymbals - a funeral procession. A coffin wrapped in silk is carried through incense smoke from bowls placed along the streets followed by mourners in white. They each have more incense and two carry a large framed picture of the deceased. They come to a halt among rows of flower arrangements under the canopy by the pier and the whole scene becomes a scuffle of activity - the mourners stand quiet while shouting Chinese run back and forth with candles and mats. A few minutes later and the space under the canopy has been transformed - red and gold brocade drapes hang at the sides, statues of Tin Hua and Buddha stand either side of the coffin which has been placed in the centre among more flower arangements and candles. Bronze bowls with Fu Dog handles waft clouds of incense overthe whole scene and one by one the people in white add theirs to the bowls, bowing three times to each statue and the coffin.
By now it is about four o'clock and the last ferry back to Central is due. This time it's a high speed one, with proper inside seats and a streamlined silhouette. We can just about see the funeral procession walking back along the seafront as we back out of the harbour. Fred quickly falls asleep as we speed along and I contemplate what to do tomorrow, our last day. Maybe it will come to me after a soak in the jacuzzi, a sauna and a swim.