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Archive for November, 2009

Dai Pai Dongs

dai pai dongA few weekends ago we had dinner at a local dai pai dong, situated in an open market above the North Point Wet (fish) market. The place is like a factory floor, with locals drinking, smoking, playing cards, eating noodles. The section we went to serves amazing food, and the owner, Robby, is a hilarious local guy with a mohawk and custom made, white wellington boots. It’s loud and crowded, everyone sits on tiny plastic stools. It’s got some grit to it too (I don’t recommend visiting the bathroom), and the waitresses pour more beer into your bowls after every sip. The owner dances to Michael Jackson and does the moon walk. This was our experience at Tung Po Seafood Restaurant in North Point – yes the one Anthony Bourdain went to.

Dai pai dongs were once very popular in Hong Kong. It basically means open-air food stalls, but some now operate indoors. With the Hong Kong government crack down on food safety standards many dai pai dongs have closed but there are still some areas in Central, TST, Causeway Bay, Sham Shui Po, Temple Street night markets, and Tai Hang where you can find the tell-tale plastic stools, folding tables, and cheap, good food.

tungporobbyOur other favorite dai pai dong is Sister Wah in Tin Hau. The Beef Brisket soup is unbelievable – the meat melts in your mouth. We always opt for the thick rice noodles but the thinner ones are good too. The owner, who spent time in Toronto, and the other staff, including his mother, are friendly and very accommodating to me and the kids. When we go with another family he sets up a folding table and plastic stools for us in the alley because we won’t fit inside the tiny,crowded interior. The owner knows our children likes both the soup and veggie rice, and at this point, he basically takes our order before we even say anything. “Beef soup and veggie rice?” We just nod.

We’ve also had some luck with some of the outdoor street dai pai dong’s in Tai Hang as well – I have no idea what their names are but most we’ve tried with success. Next time you want some cheap, good food give a dai pai dong a chance – it’s likely you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

(Photo credit: Robby (below) pasted from ChubbyHubby)

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25102009(003)“I’m tired, Dad,” T said to me, mid-yawn, at the end of our hiking/camping trip.

And so it went at the end of our journey, when the kids were tired and delirious, and the adults were hungry. We’d just hiked into Tai Long Wan, camped out on the beach, and hiked back out. Our friend and neighbor, his two children, joined E, myself, F, and T on the journey. Tai Long Wan beach is famous in Hong Kong, known as the region’s most picturesque stretch of sand. And it’s true. It’s hard to think of a more dramatic seaside landscape that any of us had ever seen before.

There are multiple ways to get there, all of them originating from Sai Kung. One route takes you along the MacLehose Trail. This is a three hour plus journey from Pak Tam Au, about 10 minutes outside of Sai Kung centre. The three hour hike sounds great if you’re an adult traveling without children. Another option is to skip past Pak Tam Au and head straight to Wong Shek Pier. From there you take a five-minute speed boat trip to Chek Keng Pier and pick up the MacLehose Trail. It’s “45 minutes” up and over a mountain and down into Tai Long Wan, according to all our guidebooks. Forty-five minutes minus children of course. This was the option we chose. One can also take a slightly larger boat all the way to Tai Long Wan or, if you’re capable, take a helicopter. We saw about two or three helicopter landings from our camp site – not sure if people were aboard or just supplies.

The actual hike for us started at the damned MTR station. I still haven’t quite figured out the best way to Sai Kung on the MTR. It takes at least one or two switches to get to Diamond Hill or Choi Hung.

When we got off at Diamond Hill, we made the mistake of taking the double-decker, 96R bus, which we thought would be faster because it goes directly to Wong Shek Pier. The problem is that the bus makes multiple stops along the way, and has one hell of a time making it up the hills that roll up and down into Sai Kung. It felt like we were on the bus for an hour. I’m pretty sure we were, come to think of it.

And to add insult to injury, when the 96R arrived in Sai Kung Centre, it stayed there. A lady passenger said something in Cantonese to the top deck. Everybody except us stood up to leave. “What did she say” Our friend is taking Cantonese lessons and is fresh off a trip to Guangdong Province where he practiced the language. He wasn’t sure. Anyway, the whole point of taking the 96R was to go directly to the pier. The 94 bus in front of us serves the pier as well. But at this point, we grabbed our bags and hopped a taxi to Wong Shek Pier.

A man greeted us the minute we arrived. “How many people?” We counted. Total trip from Wong Shek to Chek Keng would be HK$120, or less than $3USD per head. The boat trip was the part I was most nervous about. Turns out, the boat trip you’re supposed to get nervous about is the one that takes you direct from Wong Shek to Tai Long Wan. On rough days, boats won’t risk the journey, and the ones that do have capsized.

The Chek Keng boat ride really is five minutes, and it doesn’t even touch the ocean. You skip over an inlet, jumping a bit when you do breeze past a bit of the South China Sea. The kids loved the speed boat. “We goin’ fast, Mom,” T yelled. The “speed boat” is not a Don Johnson, Miami Vice Cigarette, rather a Sam Pan with a high powered motor. Thankfully, two dads and their kids were onboard, going to the same place we were. One of the dad’s told me how to link up with the trail. We’d have figured it out, but it was reassuring nonetheless.

When you get off at the pier, you walk to the right around the inlet. The trail will bend off to the right and then bear left, into the woods rather than continuing around the inlet. From here is a set of 20-30 steps. The key is to turn left at the top – this is the MacLehose trail. We did.

Within 7 minutes, we heard from our oldest: “When are going to get there. My legs are tired.” Pretty soon it was no longer “tired” and instead, “my leg hurts.” F started to fake limp. It was hot and getting steep. T was silent most of the way, perched on E’s shoulders. She knew she had it good.

So we stopped and had lunch, eating quickly before the ants ganged up on our bags. Lunch energized us, particularly F, who walked behind or next to her older friend the rest of the way. When the kids started to get tired, we played games. “I spy” covered nearly 45 minutes of hiking. “Twenty questions” helped too. At the top it really does get steep. And then the descent is quick and sharp, into Tai Long village where there are more dogs than people. We ordered water and Gatorade and Pocari Sweat. Twenty more minutes and we were at Ham Tin village, an area with tiny stone cottages that apparently has housed the same family descendents for numerous generations.

26102009(015)We passed an outdoor restaurant and stepped onto the beach. Loungers sat in plastic chairs, drinking beer, eating fried food, and soaking in the hot sun. We set up the tents. T took off all her clothes and sprinted toward the water. The ocean was a perfect temperature, not too hot or cold. It felt great to cool off after 2 plus hours on the paved trail. A note to parents reading this who want to try this hike: a stroller can be brought, but I think the downhill would be too dangerous.

Our friend was in charge of building the fire. A few of us from various sites started picking apart a pile of branches and wood, only to find out that they’d be collected by a group interested in making a fire of their own.

“You knicked our wood,” a tall, blonde woman in a bikini said to me as she walked past. She was smiling, clearly giving off that it wasn’t a big deal. I was embarrassed. Of course that pile of wood was collected for another group. I apologized profusely.

“No worries. We have to collect more wood anyway.” She and her boyfriend couldn’t have been nicer about it. So we stole wood for our fire.

The fire would serve us well. The flames kept the pan hot for our macaroni, chicken, lentils and sausages.  The kids gathered bark for the fire. It was a perfect night.

Graham Crackers are not easy to come by out here. I’ve only seen one box, several months ago. Zero since. So we bought chocolate biscuits, and smooshed the marshmellows in between. None of the children liked marshmellows that were even slightly burned, so we did away with those. We even ate the ones that fell into the sand. Food tastes better when you’re camping.

26102009(004)It was a clear night, though we had some light pollution from the outdoor restaurant. The outline of Sharp Peak stood above us in the distance. The kids went to sleep relatively well. We sat by the fire that we barely managed to keep going, telling travel stories and sipping some whiskey.

The sunrise woke T and F. It was the first time that they had seen the sun so early in the morning, and they were utterly fascinated. The perfectly shaped orange ball was shaded by some morning haze, allowing us to look at it without hurting our eyes (I told the girls that we can’t look too long). The four of us went on an adventure up past the restaurant. It was at this point when I realized how little people respected the cleanliness of the beach. They left their beer bottles and trash on the sand. Cups and forks were strewn about, thrown there on the beach as if someone were meant to pick it up. Broken glass was ample. Yes the scenery was nice, but it did depress E and I that the people using the beach, ex-pats and locals alike, treated it poorly. E actually suggested the kids do a beach clean-up and collected a bunch of debris in some big garbage bags. Our friends daughter felt that the people on the beach should thank them for their efforts and we all agreed with her sentiments.

At our friend’s request, I’d hauled a five-gallon metal pot for boiling water, knowing full well that nearby villages would have plenty of bottled water. But he was insistent, and I relented. The pot was perfect for the scrambling, actually, and for sand castle building. But for us, the point of lugging the pot ultimately came down to one thing. Boiling water for coffee. We set up the pot so that it sat on the fire’s remaining flames, jammed in place by jagged rocks.

I’d bought French press friendly coffee the day before, knowing our friend was bringing the plunger. Seated with our backs on the log, facing the beach, we ate our greasy sausages, grisly bacon, and sandy eggs, drinking, smooth, hot black coffee. It was a “fucking conquest” in his words. And it was. We savored every bite, even the last few that were particularly sandy (at least one sausage fell into the sand and was summarily thrown back on the pan).

26102009(021)The kids ran around the beach for an hour, building sand castles, tunnels and swimming. We were on the trail by 1pm. It was a steep climb back up the ridge. (This picture is on the way out – with the beach we camped on in the background).

The bus from Wong Shek pier to Sai Kung was jammed. Some of the kids were falling asleep standing up. It took more than 15 minutes for an “astute”, adult passenger to realize that it’d be a good idea to offer the kid a seat (people do give up seats for women and children, but not often). From the bus terminal in Sai Kung center, I walked straight to Jaspa’s restaurant without looking back. We drank two ice cold Victoria Bitter beers and chowed, along with everyone else, our lunch at the cozy, family friendly restaurant. A taxi and two MTR trains got us home by around 5 pm. It was a hell of a trip, made possible by four adventurous, daring young souls.

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