Meandering Through Hong Kong

Old and new are in full display along the magestic Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong.
Old and new are in full display along the magestic Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong.
One of the many hidden gems in the Central region of Hong Kong is a small sitting park just a few blocks from Queen's Road Central.
One of the many hidden gems in the Central region of Hong Kong is a small sitting park just a few blocks from Queen’s Road Central.
A few blocks from the Star Ferry Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui sits one of the greatest tributes to Shakespeare you'll find anywhere in the world.
A few blocks from the Star Ferry Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui sits one of the greatest tributes to Shakespeare you’ll find anywhere in the world.
The view from inside the Star Ferry Terminal in Hong Kong Island.
The view from inside the Star Ferry Terminal in Hong Kong Island.
Restaurants in Hong Kong are everywhere, but if you dig a little, you will be rewarded with some great, off-the-beaten-path finds.
Restaurants in Hong Kong are everywhere, but if you dig a little, you will be rewarded with some great, off-the-beaten-path finds.
Old fish markets sit side-by-side with modern Hong Kong in the Central area near Hollywood Road.
Old fish markets sit side-by-side with modern Hong Kong in the Central area near Hollywood Road.
Shiny new buildings provide an imposing backdrop to a myriad of small, traditional markets in Hong Kong.
Shiny new buildings provide an imposing backdrop to a myriad of small, traditional markets in Hong Kong.
The relentless fast pace of life in Hong Kong does take its toll on the locals.
The relentless fast pace of life in Hong Kong does take its toll on the locals.
The intricate lift machinery at Victoria Peak makes sure the historical tram makes it up the steep mountain without a glitch.
The intricate lift machinery at Victoria Peak makes sure the historical tram makes it up the steep mountain without a glitch.
One of the many quaint establishments along the hillside Hollywood Street in Central.
One of the many quaint establishments along the hillside Hollywood Street in Central.
A visitor takes in the view of Victoria Harbor, undoubtedly one of the most scenic places on earth.
A visitor takes in the view of Victoria Harbor, undoubtedly one of the most scenic places on earth.

As the pilot announced our descent to the Hong Kong airport, images of an exotic, long-lost world kept creeping into my mind.  I kept thinking of 1841 and the first Opium Wars that led to the British acquisition of Hong Kong under the 1842 Treaty of Nanking as if it were yesterday.  I guess some part of me wanted to walk back into that world to witness the chaotic, yet exciting period of discovery and adventure in history.  It is as if Hong Kong (at least for me) made more sense by looking backwards than looking forward.  Unjustly as it may sound, it was the city’s past that fascinated me more than its future.  This feeling didn’t last long, for as soon as I debarked the aircraft and came face-to-face with Hong Kong’s slick, shiny airport and its modern airport express train, a new, futuristic concept of the city entered my consciousness.  Maybe it was the city’s crowded streets full of hastily moving people, or maybe the incredible heaven-reaching architecture surrounding Victoria Harbor that refocused my attention to the future.  Not sure.  But one thing is undeniable the moment you set foot in Hong Kong: that this is a vibrant, energetic city being driven into the 21st Century by an eager, youth-centered population bent on making its mark on the world stage.  The city’s energy could be felt everywhere, and it was quite contagious.

But to say that Hong Kong has moved on from its past would be overstating the fact.  Along with its shinny new high-rise buildings, a myriad of traditional, old-world markets line its narrow streets and alleyways.  This is specially the case on Hong Kong Island and the Central sector of the city, where you will walk past a majestic, modern building just to come face-to-face with a street restaurant that does all its cooking right there on a street kitchen.  Venture to either side of the longest electric escalator in the world, the Central Mid-Levels staircase, and you will soon find yourself a century back in time amidst butcher shops and street vendors selling everything from Mao’s little red book to elaborate jade jewelry.  And when crossing the imposing Victoria Harbor to visit the famous Tsim Sha Tsui district (and Bruce Lee’s famous statute along the Avenue of Stars), you will have your choice of either riding the ultra-modern city metro system or the historic Star Ferry across the bay.  Old and new, side-by-side, against a backdrop that you will not find anywhere else in the world.  As I boarded the plane for my return trip to America, I realized that Hong Kong had showed me that the future only makes sense in relation to the past.  As the city wrestles with its place in the world in a new century, it seems to find its safe footing in that long-gone colonial past.  Like an alchemist, it continues to blend its many potions in the hope that something new and exciting results from its many efforts.  If you ask me, I think that this old alchemist is up to something great.

Witnessing Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

The simple umbrella became the great symbol of the youth-driven democracy protests downtown Hong Kong.
The simple umbrella became the great symbol of the youth-driven democracy protests downtown Hong Kong.

 

The Central Hong Kong Admiralty section and the Administrator's compound became the epicenter for the Hong Kong protesters.
The Central Hong Kong Admiralty section and the Administrator’s compound became the epicenter for the Hong Kong protesters.
The 24-hour vigil in Admiralty led the protesting youth to sleep wherever they found a flat surface, but mostly in the middle of the blocked highway.
The 24-hour vigil in Admiralty led the protesting youth to sleep wherever they found a flat surface, but mostly in the middle of the blocked highway.
It was easy to see why this protest against China's decision to vent local candidates before elections was dubbed the Umbrella Revolution.
It was easy to see why this protest against China’s decision to vent local candidates before elections was dubbed the Umbrella Revolution.
Even during the slow periods, protestors appeared to be quite prepared for any eventuality.
Even during the slow periods, protestors appeared to be quite prepared for any eventuality.
The wall leading to the Hong Kong Administrator's office buildings became a focal point for the expression of protestors' sentiments.
The wall leading to the Hong Kong Administrator’s office buildings became a focal point for the expression of protestors’ sentiments.
Everywhere you looked, you could see signs that would never be tolerated in any other part of country outside Hong Kong.
Everywhere you looked, you could see signs that would never be tolerated in any other part of country outside Hong Kong.

Like so many other visitors to Hong Kong, I was fascinated by this complex metropolis.  With one of the highest population densities in the world, Hong Kong is a sea of constant activity and a dynamic vibe that would make lots of major cities in America look like they are on life support.  And while I do intend to post a little more about this former British territory soon, I couldn’t help but start my Hong Kong posts with the most famous event taking place there during my recent visit.  Of course, this was not all that was happening in Hong Kong during this past week, but rather that if you read anything about the place recently, most likely it had something to do with the pro-Democracy demonstrations taking place at various places in the city.

It didn’t take long for the press to dub these youth-driven demonstrations “The Umbrella Revolution.”  The simple umbrella, which initially served to shield the protestors from the barrage of pepper spray that descended on them on 28 September, rapidly became the symbol of resistance against mainland China’s decision to require any candidate for the top post in the city during the upcoming 2016 elections to receive pre-approval from Beijing before qualifying to run for office.  To say that the young people in Hong Kong disagreed with this mandate would be a gross understatement.  To the streets they went, specially to the part of Central Hong Kong known as Admiralty, where the main government offices are located right along Victoria Harbor.  Having booked a hotel nearby, I couldn’t resist the temptation to check the demonstration out, praying all along that my visit would not coincide with the next pepper spray festival downtown.  What did I find when I got there?  For starters, some of the best behaved and friendly demonstrators I’ve seen anywhere.  There were teams organized to pick up garbage around the clock, for water and food distribution, and for communication.  People constantly approached me to see if I understood why they were out there and to make sure I fully grasped the seriousness of their concerns.  A generation that was mostly born after the British ended their authority over the islands wanted the world to listen to their defense of freedom and democracy–two words that are growingly taken for granted by so many, but which still fuel the dreams and aspirations of countless others around the world today.  And did they mind being photographed while protesting?  Not at all.  Their only concern appeared to be that the world would ignore their plight, but judging by what I have seen in the press over the last week or so, their story has received quite a lot of attention all over the world.  Whether their demands will ever amount to anything is perhaps a more challenging question.  I guess we will have to wait and see.

H Street Festival Rocks The City Again

Along the entire H Street corridor in DC, multiple stages keep the place rocking throughout the day.
Along the entire H Street corridor in DC, multiple stages keep the place rocking throughout the day.
As improvable as it may sound, DC residents can let their hair down and can bogey with the best of them.
As improvable as it may sound, DC residents can let their hair down and party with the best of them.
Playing non-stop rock & roll oldies, the energetic middle-aged band brought the house down along H Street.
Playing non-stop rock & roll oldies, the energetic middle-aged band brought the house down along H Street.
As if the many bands at both ends of H Street were not enough, area DJ's kept the crowd dancing on the street.
As if the many bands at both ends of H Street were not enough, area DJ’s kept the crowd dancing on the street.
The festival is undeniably the best multicultural event in DC, where ladies with parasols and people grilling from inside the hood of their cars mingle for a day.
Undeniably the best multicultural event in DC, the festival brings together people from all walks of life for a day.
Absent the manicured galleries at other DC neighborhoods, H Street artists display their creations right where everyone can see them.
Absent the manicured galleries at other DC neighborhoods, H Street artists display their creations right where everyone can see them.

What can you say about the yearly H Street Festival downtown Washington, DC.  Have I mentioned before that this is by far my favorite street festival in the area?  Well, it is, and every year I go back to take some pictures and to enjoy the music, the incredible restaurants, and above all, the laid-back party atmosphere at the place.  Apparently I’m not alone in thinking that way, as judging by the wall-to-wall crowds, this must be one of the best attended festival in DC.  Not served by a metro station and somewhat out-of-the-way from the tourist areas in the city, H Street is one of those places that you reach by either intentionally walking there for a reason (and there are many reasons to visit) or simply by getting lost.  But no one has problems finding the place in September, when masses of revelers and artists descend on the neighborhood for a cultural festival like no other in this town of buttoned-up politicians.  Boasting some of the best ethnic restaurants in town, H Street more than makes up for its otherwise glamorous-challenged existence by becoming party central for a day.  That the festival happens to coincide with the start of the famous Oktoberfest in Munich is even better, because just like in that great German festival, the folks at H Street never run out of beer either.  :-)

Philly Streets Are Anything But Boring

The JFK Park in central Philly has to be one of the most electing and busy spots anywhere in the world.
The JFK Park in central Philly has to be one of the most electing and busy urban spots anywhere in the world.
Worn out travelers patiently wait for their afternoon trains at the Philadelphia 30th Street Train Station.
Worn out travelers patiently wait for their afternoon trains at the Philadelphia 30th Street Train Station.
Tourists react to the human-like statutes adorning downtown theaters.
Tourists react to the human-like statutes adorning downtown theaters.
The downtown Rittenhouse Square is one of the best places in Philly for people watching.
The downtown Rittenhouse Square is one of the best places in Philly for people watching.
Sometimes what is of photographic interest lies below street level instead of above.
Sometimes what is of photographic interest lies below street level instead of above.
An early morning walk around the nearly desolate city streets is the perfect time to discover unique city characters.
An early morning walk around the nearly desolate city streets is the perfect time to discover unique city characters.
One thing that will strike any visitor to Philly is the number of people who appear to just be hanging out at city landmarks.
One thing that will strike any visitor to Philly is the number of people who appear to just be hanging out at city landmarks.

Don’t know about you, but for me, Philadelphia has to be one of the most incredible cities in America.  And while the city has a somewhat “working class” reputation with outsiders, once you get to discover it in some detail, you’ll come to realize that the city is better described as eclectic and culturally complex.  Sort of like where the rough seas meet the quiet shore kind of place.  World class museums and cultural sites sit only a few blocks away from down-to-earth wonders like the Reading Terminal Market.  Hang around the popular JFK Square for a few hours and you’ll get to see people from just about every level of society.  Wedding parties having their picture taken under the famous “LOVE” structure at JFK Square muscle endless amounts of tourists for their ten-minute spot in front of the cameras.  Walk farther afield down Walnut St. to Rittenhouse Square and Washington Square Park and you will be rewarded with some of the neatest urban spots of any city anywhere.  Add to this the fact that people actually live and interact all over the urban landscape, and you will get one of the best places for people watching and street photography on the East Coast.  Philly is definitely not your sleepy, little town where watching grass grow has been elevated to an art form.  The city is definitely alive with activity, and no matter your disposition when you get there, you won’t be able to resist becoming alive along with it.

Enchanting Stockholm In July

View of the city of Stockholm, Sweden from the  Fjällgatan hills in Södermalm.
View of the city of Stockholm, Sweden from the Fjällgatan hills in Södermalm.
A beautiful day in Stockholm to enjoy incredible harbor views from outside the Fotografiska Museum in Södermalm.
A beautiful day in Stockholm to enjoy incredible harbor views from outside the Fotografiska Museum in Södermalm.
While Stockholm is a very modern city, historical sections in town have been beautifully preserved with all their charm and character.
While Stockholm is a very modern city, historical sections in town have been beautifully preserved with all their charm and character.
Musicians are generally found along the hard-to-find, 231 meter Brunkebergstunneln in Norrmalm.
Musicians are generally found along the hard-to-find, 231 meter Brunkebergstunneln in Norrmalm.
Cobblestone streets are everywhere in Stockholm along side streets away from the city center.
Cobblestone streets are everywhere in Stockholm along side streets away from the city center.
Stockholm cafes are among the best in the world and premium people-watching spots must be secured early.
Stockholm cafes are among the best in the world and premium people-watching spots must be secured early.
Just like in Germany, the wonderful bakeries in Stockholm elevate bread baking to an art form.
Just like in Germany, the wonderful bakeries in Stockholm elevate bread baking to an art form.
If there is ever a need to study how societies achieve the proper work-life balance, Stockholm would be the place to conduct such study.
If there is ever a need to study how societies achieve the proper work-life balance, Stockholm would be the place to conduct such study.
It is hard to decide on a favorite spot in Gamla Stan, the Old Town, but this particular corner of the world did it for me.
It is hard to decide on a favorite spot in Gamla Stan, the Old Town, but this particular corner of the world did it for me.
Watching a Stockholm sunset from the top of the Observatorienlunden is one of the most romantic experiences in this incredible city.
Watching a Stockholm sunset from the top of the Observatorienlunden is one of the most romantic experiences in this incredible city.

It has definitely taken me a long time to visit this jewel of the north, but the long wait has only made me enjoy this glorious city that much more.  Stockholm, Sweden is one of those places that is much more than a city.   Yes, it is absolutely gorgeous, with beautiful architecture and incredible views that seem to pop right out of a postcard.  But more than that, Stockholm seems to be a state of mind, a place that for those of us coming out of the über busy, constant stress western part of the world, seems to have almost a zen quality to it.  Don’t get me wrong, the place is quite busy on its own, but you can’t spend more than a few days in the city without feeling that there is a certain rhythm to life here that is somehow lacking in our personal worlds.  When visiting the residential area of Hornstull in the southern island of Södermalm, I actually met couples of professionals around 10:00 AM at a café who were actually enjoying a cup of coffee and a croissant together before going off to work.  That’s right, 10:00 AM, couples, moving as in concert with the slow, yellow light of a morning sun.  Who are these people?

No doubt the city itself has a lot to do with people’s attitudes towards everything from work to family life.  A conglomeration of islands, Stockholm is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty that is best appreciated during the warmer summer months.  The busy city center of Norrmalm rapidly gives way to the incredible middle island of Gamla Stan, or Old Town, anchored around the imposing Royal Palace and Parliament building.  And then, there’s easy-going Södermalm, with views of the city of Stockholm that will take your breath away.  Perhaps more than any other area in the city, Södermalm personifies the quintessential Scandinavian lifestyle, at least as the rest of the world imagines it.  Beautifully old architecture around the cobblestone streets of Bastugatan and Pryssgränd, eclectic and trendy in the SoFo (south of  Folkungagatan street) district, and idyllically laid back around its western Hornstull waterside neighborhood, Södermalm appeared to me to be the perfect place to live and raise a family.  The incredible city views along the Monteliusvägen trail and the hilltop hangout at Mosebacke Terassen only add to the area’s incredible charm.

But there’s a lot more to Stockholm than Södermalm that I will be addressing over the coming days, even when fully aware that nothing I say here can truly capture the full scope and wonders of this great city.  Even now when my feet are firmly planted back home where the skies are not as blue in a 24/7 world of take-out coffee and fast food restaurants, I’m finding it hard to release my mental grip from around that Stockholm state of mind.  Don’t know how long I’ll be able to hang on to that feeling, but I’m going to try as hard as I can not to loose it.

Virginia Whiskey Distillery Hits The Right Spot

Hand-crafted whiskeys and gin are being produced by the dedicated craftsmen of Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia.
Hand-crafted whiskeys and gin are being produced by the dedicated craftsmen of Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia.
While producing some award-winning whiskeys, the distillery remains a small business at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
While producing some award-winning whiskeys, the distillery remains a small business at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Behind the busy production facility lies a delicate and well-choreographed fermentation process.
Behind the busy production facility lies a delicate and well-choreographed fermentation process under the careful eye of master distillers.
Regular tours at the distillery give visitors a detailed understanding of the distilling process and the variety of products at Copper Fox.
Regular tours at the distillery give visitors a detailed understanding of the distilling process and the variety of products at Copper Fox.
Aside from the distilling process, product preparation for market at the distillery remains largely a methodical, hands-on process.
Aside from the distilling process, product preparation for market at the distillery remains largely a methodical, hands-on process.
Walk past the simple entrance at the end of River Lane Road and you will be transported to a wonderful world of malted barley and cherry wood aromas.
Enter the distillery at River Lane Road and you will be transported to a wonderful world of malted barley and cherry wood aromas.

Think that you have to travel to Scotland to find great whiskey?  Then think again, because some great spirits are being concocted right here in your Virginia backyard.  That’s right, just where the mighty Blue Ridge Mountains give way to the undulating plateau of Rappahannock County, the Copper Fox Distillery is quietly producing award-winning whiskeys and spirits that you have will not easily find at your local liquor stores (at least not yet, but check out the press they have received).  These are not your average high-volume, mass-produced products for a global market, though.  On the contrary, the whiskeys and spirits coming out of Copper Fox are handled by hand in relatively small batches that reflect the artisan’s approach to producing low-yield, high-quality products.  During one of their scheduled tours, it was quite surprising to see how bottles were being handled one at a time with the painstaking care characteristic of a Swiss watchmaker.  And while the distillery has been around since the year 2000, modernity appears to live well hand-in-hand with traditional methods of craftsmanship that are so rare in today’s world.  One barrel at a time, Copper Fox seems to be putting Virginia whiskey on the connoisseur’s map.  So what did I end up bringing home after my short trip down River Lane Road?  I went for their signature Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky (Batch No. 107).  I am definitely no connoisseur, but I already have plans to enjoy this elixir as if I were one.  Cheers.