Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Farewell Hong Kong

I'm writing from the Airport in Hong Kong, waiting at my gate.  My Dahon has been checked uneventfully.  I have done everything I wanted to do regarding bicycling in Hong Kong.  Everyone that I had contacted before arriving here on February 27th has not only been willing to meet with me, but they hosted me during my stay.  They watched after me, ate with me, drank with me, and in general treated me like a lifelong friend.  I appreciate all of you: Lim Soo, Chu Kin Sam, Martin, Jonny, Brian, and Eric.  

Another new friend who I met on the bike, but not necessarily because of the bike, is John.  He was another gweilo on the cycle track when I took my first ride, and still being very unfamiliar I needed reassurance I was going the right direction.  He reassured me, then caught up with me later and struck up a conversation.  We ended up having lunch, and then he joined me and Sam and all the other Hong Kong Vintage Cycling people for our epic journey through the New Territories.  Not only that, he has helped make my stay in Hong Kong feel more like a home away from home, meeting me for dinner and good conversation.  He reminded me of my own friends and family and there is a brother quality there.  

To all of you, thanks for your willingness to talk to a complete stranger, and to open up so much that I am now leaving having had an extremely satisfying stay.  This is what life is about.  We are all connected.  I could easily have left my bike at home due to uncertainty of what it is really like to ride in Hong Kong.  I could easily have decided not to try and contact any of you thinking that you wouldn't respond anyway to a weirdo from halfway across the world.  I had those thoughts, but that is not what I wanted.  I wanted to bring my bike because it is now just a way of life for me, and I wanted to hold onto my way of life as much as possible for the month away from home and family.  But I needed help to do that.  I couldn't have done it on my own, and I didn't have to.  So again, I can't thank you all enough.  You have all given me memories and experiences that I will never forget, and who knows, maybe we'll still get opportunities to create more together someday.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Police Escorted Protest Ride?

Sunday was kind of a Grand Finale of bicycle riding in Hong Kong for me.  After my long morning road ride, I went with Brian and Eric, in the afternoon, to attend a protest ride.  It was not a mash it up problematic event.  I say that because to me, the word 'protest' conjures up those kinds of visions.  It was organized by a local rider by way of facebook, and as you can see, many people joined in on it.  The main objective was to meet a few km away from their destination, which was a government building in Mong Kok, Kowloon, where they would deliver a letter requesting more concern for cyclists on the roads in Hong Kong.  A few speeches were made, and then we all dispersed in a very well-mannered way.  There were many different types of riders there, but one group consisted of young people who are into the growing fixie scene here.  Brian, who invited me along to this earlier last week, in fact is the one who brought that scene here to Hong Kong a few years ago.  He is yet another person I contacted before coming here, and I found him through his website, flwrdr.  Flwrdr (or Flowrider), is basically his philosophy on life and bicycling summed up into one word.  On a bike you have to 'flow' with traffic and what is around you, "not going too fast or too slow."  In life you have to do the same thing he says.  

And we had to find our own way to flow to the event!  We had some difficulty finding the actual meeting spot where the ride was to begin.  When we did find it, everyone was already gone.  So, we made our own way, part of which included riding on one of the major highways here.  It was accidental that we had to do that, but it was the only way.  There are many ways in which Hong Kong is not bicycle friendly, and there are some major infrastructure issues.  I suppose all of the police were too busy escorting the group, that it helped to keep us from being spotted out there!  

But, we did make it to the end gathering to see the hand-off of the letter, and to hear some of the speeches.  After that was finished it was time to go.  There was no time to dilly dally.  We had to clear the area immediately.  Which is not a problem, but I was left with a feeling that Hong Kong officials were willing to go to the effort of providing the escort and accept the letter to keep the peace, but maybe aren't really taking the whole thing seriously.  I'm not sure that the letter was tacked to the cork board and marked high priority when they went back into the building.  Hong Kong does give consideration to many aspects of cycling, for sport, leisure, and they are building more cycle tracks.  However, using a bicycle for real transport, not just short distance deliveries from one shop to the next, is not considered.  The prevailing mindset is that bikes do not belong on the road.  Nor do they belong on the sidewalks.  If you need to get somewhere, use the train or buses or taxi or your own car.  If you want to ride a bike, go to the cycle track or the park or the track.  

Due to the efforts of events like this though, and Brian, and Martin of the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance, and all of those who participate, bicycling as a way to get from point A to point B in Hong Kong is becoming more recognized as a viable option.  And just as it is anywhere else, it is the people who will make the change.  Some of us are out there getting to where we need to go on our bikes in  Hong Kong, braving the taxis and buses, enjoying the little bit of fresh air that wafts our way every now and then, getting some good exercise and benefitting from the rejuvenation that comes from that.  

Real Road Ride in Hong Kong

I did not think I was going to get to take a real road ride in Hong Kong, but thanks to Jonny (pictured above, with the awesome custom titanium beauty) I did!  He went above and beyond as my cycling host by inviting me for lunch and a tour of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club so we could meet in person.  Then he made special arrangements with Jobar, owner of Victory Cycles in North Point, to rent me a quality road bike for the 53km ride we took early last Sunday morning to Shek O from Wan Chai and back.  

Before coming to Hong Kong I had joined the SIR (South Island Road) Cycling club yahoo groups list to begin getting an idea about the scene here.  At some point after I arrived, I emailed the group to ask if anyone would meet with me to talk about road cycling here, and Jonny didn't hesitate to respond to me, even though I was a complete stranger.  I almost didn't bother to try and contact anyone there because I could see from the emails of the group that I received that they are pretty serious riders.  I hadn't been able to get on a good long ride in months, and was worried I wouldn't be up to the task.  This is another way in which Jonny went above and beyond, in that he understood that and was willing to take me at my pace whatever it was.  He made sure I got what I needed for a successful ride first by finding a safe bike for me to use, then by lending me some warmer clothing for the early morning air.  

We left my hotel at 6:30am, headed down to Shek O on the Southeast side of the island, had a bite to eat among many other local roadies, then headed back the way we came.  The ride consisted of constant rolling hills, and beautiful views of the seascape and infinite horizon would appear every now and then.  We were back in Wan Chai by 10:30am.  I am grateful I had the chance to get out on a wonderful long road ride, and will leave Hong Kong much more satisfied with my cycling experience because of it.  Thanks again Jonny!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

North on Nathan Rd: Kowloon, Hong Kong

Do you like my new license plate?  In Hong Kong, you can buy your vehicle license plates from stores on the street, and personalize it however you like.  This is the size for motorcycles, but you can get thinner sized ones as well.  They are highly reflective and perfect for night riding on a bike.  I noticed many people noticing it while I was out the other night.  I think more cyclists in Hong Kong who commute (or want to commute) should buy their own bicycle license plate to demonstrate the true viability of using a bike as transport.  Maybe seeing the same plate on a bike that they see on cars, the general view towards bicycles in Hong Kong will change and begin putting them on more equal footing with motor vehicles.
Last Friday night, despite the dark and light rain, I decided to take my bike with me when I went to watch the unicycling team practice.  My other options were to take a taxi or the MTR (subway).  I don't even live here, and I'm already tired of taking the MTR.  Hong Kong prides itself on the efficiency of the transportation infrastructure here.  It is true that you can access many areas by the trains, but if you have to make one or more transfers to different trains to get to where you need to go, that can get quite tiresome.  There is much walking and many stairs involved to get to the trains and between them.  Sometimes the distance to be walked is far as well.  This adds time and energy.  Not only that, you are often walking against and among a very large crowd of people, that makes it feel at times like 'swimming upstream.'  I prefer not to take the taxi just because it is usually not cost effective, and doesn't always save that much time anyway.  

So I took my bike, and I'm glad I did.  I decided I would rather feel the freedom of being on my bike riding down the middle of a busy street in the open air where I could have more space on all sides of me and not have to contend with the crowded masses on the trains and sidewalks.  It felt good to be comfortably pedaling instead of driving my heels into the pavement.  The drizzling rain was actually refreshing, and helped to clear the highly polluted air a little bit.  

You can see in the video above that traffic really did not pose that much of a problem.  Going up Nathan was a fairly smooth ride, and again I rode like a vehicle, meaning when I needed to make a right turn, I prepared for it by moving to the right lane to do so.  It was a bit of a tight spot in the median area while waiting to make the turn though.  Again, I communicated as much as possible with drivers by trying to make eye contact and use hand signals.  

Instead of being an extra problem, and adding more stress, using my bicycle to get to where I was going actually rejuvenated me.  The buses, trains, and taxis here are fairly efficient and definitely get you where you need to go, but the trade off is bad air, large crowds and an uncomfortable static traveling environment.  I'd rather be on the bike.

Unicycling Hockey in Hong Kong

Last Friday night I finally met Martin Turner after weeks of email communication.  He invited me to watch his Unicycling Hockey Team during one of their regular Friday night practices at the King's Park YMCA in Kowloon.  They compete bi-annually with three other countries for the Eastern Hemisphere's Unicycling Hockey Championship.  If I remember correctly, those other countries are Korea, Singapore, and Australia.  Hopefully he'll read this and correct me if I'm wrong.  2011 happens to be the year for the next competition, which happens this late July in Singapore I think.  I did try to ride the unicycle a little bit while I was hanging out, but I didn't get any further on it than holding onto the wall while simply balancing on the pedals.  I couldn't bring myself to try even at least one full revolution of the cranks.  It's going to take a while for me to learn.  I did enjoy watching and learning about the sport though, and as you can see there is quite a lot of skill necessary to compete.  When they were done the team invited me along for their regular after practice meal at an outdoor restaurant on Temple Street.  We shared some good food and Tsing Tao beer (Chinese Budweiser) along with good conversation before heading home for bed.  

Martin also  helps head up the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance, which has been advocating for better bicycling facilities and more recognition of cycling as a viable means of transport.  Due in part to his work and leading example as a commuter over the years, cycling in Hong Kong is gaining respect and consideration.  It is because of this organization that I was able to take my bike on the ferry without any problems.

Good luck to the team in this year's competition, and here's a toast of Tsing Tao to the future of cycling in Hong Kong!

Monday, March 14, 2011

More Hong Kong Biking

I had my second commute here last Saturday morning.  I rode from the hotel to City Hall.  It only took about 10 minutes or so to get there.  I walked the bike up Luard Road to Johnston, and then followed the tram route all the way to Central.  Then I walked the bike through the plaza and under the road to City Hall, which was my adjudicating venue for that morning session.  It was pretty low traffic going west toward City Hall.  Later though, riding back to the hotel following the tram line again, there was a bit heavier traffic, more buses and taxis zooming by.  I was a bit more anxious because I found myself in the far right lane of 3 or 4 lanes going the same direction.  I wasn't completely confident it was where I was supposed to be, however, it wasn't long and it became a right turn only lane.  It was in fact the perfect position for me to have stayed in because I needed to make that turn to continue following the tram line.  After the turn I was back in Wan Chai and the hotel.  In the picture above you can see 3 different modes of transportation; bus, tram, and bicycle.  Which one gives you more freedom?

But that was around 6 or 7pm.  Before that, I had spent the day on Cheng Chau Island with my new friend Lim Soo.  We met through our blogging activities, and if you haven't checked his out yet you should... i-brompton.  Cheng Chau does not have any cars, and in fact you will see alot of bikes in the video above.  It was a beautiful day, and we had a good time.  The island is best known for its annual bun festival.  There are more places to go on the island, and there are some great views from the top, but we'll have to get much lower gears to get up there!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Commuting by Bicycle in Hong Kong

On the way to work.

On the way back to the hotel.

Yesterday I had to adjudicate in Kowloon, which is the area of Hong Kong on the north side of Victoria Harbor.  Instead of taking the subway system, I decided to take my bike.  They allow bicycles on the ferry, and send cyclists to the lower level.  This is not because cyclists are thought of as 'lowly' (at least I don't think) but because the top is usually pretty crowded, and there is more space for the bikes down below.  I was the only person on deck going and coming back.  Getting to the ferry on the Wan Chai side is not a simple matter of just taking a leisurely ride.  In fact, it really involves very little riding, and more just walking the bike across the cement footpaths that go over the streets.  My hotel, the Luk Kwok, is on a major roadway, Gloucester.  There are no crossing streets nearby, but the walkway above is just outside the front doors.  The best way to get to the ferry terminal is to simply take the bike up the steps, and walk it across.  I could ride a little bit on the other side. 

 Once I got to Kowloon, there was not an easy way to cross Salisbury, another very busy roadway.  I walked the bike again in the underground walkway to get across.  I should have just ridden Salisbury though up to Nathan Road.  Nathan is what I took most of the way up to my venue.  I was unfamiliar with the roads though, and the street signs were not always immediately visible.  Awareness has to be over 100% to ride in areas like this in Hong Kong.  You have to watch out for taxis, buses, cars, and pedstrians.  Also, for an American, it takes more energy to keep thinking opposite in your mind so that you look in the correct places for traffic movement.  I rode up to Waterloo, which was my destination street.  On the way home I was a little more comfortable, and could take my time more since I didn't have a set time to be back.  Instead of riding all the way down Nathan, I rode down Shanghai, which is a one way going back.  That cuts down a little bit on the traffic activity.  Shanghai ends at Austin, where I turned left to get to Nathan.  However, I was going to have to quickly turn right onto Nathan.  So, I stayed in the right most lane (remember they drive on the left here) to position myself better for the right turn I was going to have to make.  This meant I was right in the middle of traffic.  But I rode at the pace of the cars, and there were stop lights within fairly short distances, so this helped keep speed of other vehicles lower.  I successfully made the turn, and completed my trip back to the ferry by making another right turn onto Salisbury.  That was a very large intersection with alot going on, but it was very controlled with the stop lights, so no problem there. 

 Drivers in Hong Kong definitely are not looking out for people on bikes.  However, I tried to ride like I do back home, more in the middle of lanes, trying to be visible, and I communicated with drivers by hand signals and eye contact.  Those communications did help, and I did get some positive response from that.  With all of the busy cars and buses driving anxiously and kind of erratically, it does seem a bit crazy to get out there on a bike.  But I did it successfully, and probably will do it again.  Kowloon really is an excellent place for bikes.  There are lots of stoplights which actually helps to control traffic, and it is flat.  In fact, there already are alot of people riding bikes there, but they don't go very far, or ride very well.  If more people will ride them as vehicles, get out there in the lanes to be visible, and assert their place in the road, I think bicycling for transport will be more respected here.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Second Hong Kong Ride

Sam, Science, Chris, Me, Felix, Clemence, and John

Yesterday was an amazing cycling day here in Hong Kong.  I only had one session of adjudicating, which ended around noon.  I took my bike with me in the car from the hotel.  The venue that I was judging in was in Fo Tan, and the cycling track was walking distance away.  In the video above is only the very first part of the ride.  Total mileage by the end of the day was about 25 miles.  It ended in the northern part of the New Territories, not far from China.  My first destination was Tai Po to meet Sam and the Hong Kong Vintage Cycling crew.  On my way along the Tolo Harbour, I met an Australian, John, who was out for a leisurely ride.  We ended up talking, stopping for a drink, then having lunch in Tai Po's train station while waiting for Sam and his friends to arrive.  After we all met in the train station, all 7 of us (me, John, Sam, Clemence, Science, Chris, and Felix) continued on our bicycles.  But Sam and crew led us off of the beaten path, on roads, sidewalks, through the lost village, ultimately back on cycle track in Fanling ending in Sheung Shui.  For much of the ride, Sam and I switched bikes.  His is a gorgeous vintage Hercules that rides like a cadillac.  It was truly a special day of cycling and making new friends, kindred spirits.  

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

First Ride in Hong Kong

I have been in Hong Kong now since last Saturday night.  I've been hard at work adjudicating for the schools music festival, but I did get out on the bike last Sunday before sessions began on Monday.  I had to buy a helmet and gloves, so I rode from my hotel, the Luk Kwok in Wan Chai, to Bicycle World, a shop nearby.  The ride was about 4.5 minutes each way.  I actually walked the route first to get a sense of the traffic, and to practice thinking 'opposite' than what I'm used to.  They drive on the left side of the road here like in England.  A cyclist is more likely to get doored from the left instead of the right.  You need to stay in the left most lane leading to your destination, and you need to look over your right shoulder more often than your left.  I had to manuever a major intersection that brought together 5 different roads leading at different angles, and had two trolley tracks going in both directions through the center of it.  As you see in the video, I made it through successfully.  I did see other cyclists out, but I didn't see anyone wearing a helmet.  My next planned ride is on the cycle tracks of Sha Tin, and next week I plan on commuting to my sessions in North Point from Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island.  The cycle tracks will be fairly leisurely, but the commuting on Hong Kong Island will be similar to what you see in the video.  (The video in fact was taken on Hong Kong Island.)  It can get a bit hairy out there.