Tak­ing a Gam­ble

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Kath­leen Na­day

Ido like a nice bridge, so when I re­al­ized I'd be visit­ing Hong Kong for the week­end just af­ter the lat­est of China's new mega in­fras­truc­ture projects was slated to open, I de­cided the time was ripe to visit Ma­cao, the for­mer Por­tuguese colony that re­turned to the Chi­nese main­land in De­cem­ber 1999. De­spite hav­ing vis­ited Hong Kong dozens of times in the last two decades, I'd never man­aged to make the short one-hour ferry cross­ing to Ma­cao, per­haps put off by the fact that all I knew was that it was a Mecca for gam­bling in the Far East. But now the new Hong Kong-zhuhai-ma­cao Bridge (HKZM), of­fi­cially opened to traf­fic by Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping on Oc­to­ber 23, was promis­ing a cross­ing time of around half an hour for the 55-kilome­ter trip across three bridges, a tun­nel and four ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands. It would be ex­cit­ing, I thought.

Ar­riv­ing in Hong Kong, I asked in my ho­tel about how to make the cross­ing, and they laughed. Take the ferry, they said – the bridge takes three times as long. Other tour guide friends agreed. Get up early, one ad­vised. Be­cause di­rect bus ser­vices have yet to start from down­town Hong Kong, if you don't have per­mis­sion to drive your own ve­hi­cle, you have to travel by pub­lic trans­porta­tion to the HKZM Pas­sen­ger Clear­ance Build­ing – at least an hour – then wait to clear cus­toms. Such is the in­ter­est in the bridge, lines are so long to clear im­mi­gra­tion and get on one of the shut­tle buses, that it could take a cou­ple of hours. The ease of walk­ing 10 min­utes to the ferry port got the bet­ter of me, and I set off on the trip to Ma­cao, hav­ing taken only 15 min­utes to buy a ticket, clear im­mi­gra­tion and board the boat.

You do get a nice view of the Ma­cao end of the bridge as you ar­rive at the Outer Ferry Port (one of two ports in Ma­cao). Once again clear­ing im­mi­gra­tion, you are greeted by staff who hand out maps and in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing where to get the pub­lic bus to see the main sights. The cur­rency is the pat­aca, which has al­most, but not quite, 1:1 par­ity with the Hong Kong dol­lar, and is widely ac­cepted. For just a day trip, it's re­ally not worth chang­ing money.

The Ma­cao tourist au­thor­i­ties have de­vel­oped a very use­ful smart­phone app, more user-friendly than their web­site, which has a num­ber of walk­ing tours around the main his­tor­i­cal sights. There are eight dif­fer­ent routes on the main is­land of Ma­cao and on the is­land of Taipa. They are also marked with shop­ping stops, restau­rants, pub­lic fa­cil­i­ties and bus stops – it could not be more con­ve­nient to nav­i­gate.

I was not pre­pared for just how densely packed Ma­cao is. It is the sec­ond-most densely in­hab­ited place in the world (af­ter Monaco), with an av­er­age of 21,150 peo­ple per square kilome­ter, and some 632,000 squeezed into its two is­lands. The new jos­tles against the old and it has to be said some of the most gar­ish and ugly mod­ern build­ings I've ever seen – step up the Grand Lis­boa casino – a quick search on­line shows it's made it onto a num­ber of the ugli­est build­ings lists in the world. Built in the shape of a lo­tus, and cov­ered in yel­low glass, at 261 me­ters tall it is Ma­cao's tallest build­ing, dom­i­nat­ing the sky­line. On the plus side, should you get lost in the war­ren of small streets and al­leys, you can al­ways use it to find your way.

But don't let the sight of this build­ing

put you off. Although I fol­lowed some of the walk­ing routes to hit the main sights, I found I was ut­terly charmed by the hig­gledyp­ig­gledy na­ture of Ma­cao's lanes and streets – you never knew what you were go­ing to find around a cor­ner in this his­toric cen­ter which is listed as a UNESCO World Her­itage Site.

Start­ing at Se­nado Square, which has been the heart of the city for cen­turies, you'll see it sur­rounded by pas­tel-col­ored Mediter­ranean-style build­ings – many of which have been turned into chain stores and tourist shops. It is very at­trac­tive, but it's pos­si­bly the busiest place on the is­land, so I hur­ried away from it up to one of the is­land's nat­u­ral high points – Mount Fortress, or For­taleza do Monte. It was built with the help of Je­suits in the 1620s, and was once the ter­ri­tory's main mil­i­tary de­fense struc­ture – said to have con­tained enough sup­plies to with­stand a two-year siege. It's quite a steep walk up, and I al­most re­gret­ted it af­ter hav­ing stopped on the way for a Por­tuguese lunch of wet rice and monk­fish, with a glass (or two) of san­gria. Later, I dis­cov­ered there was an es­ca­la­tor on the other side.

At the top, you'll find the mod­ern Mu­seum of Ma­cau, and you can walk around the walls where there are can­nons that pleas­ingly point in the di­rec­tion of the Grand Lis­boa. From there, you can look down on the ru­ins of what is prob­a­bly Ma­cao's most fa­mous site – the façade of the church of St. Paul. Al­ready af­flicted by sev­eral fires, the church was re­built in 1644, but then burned down again in 1835. The im­pos­ing five-story façade is all that re­mains, apart from the crypt, which con­tains a small re­li­gious mu­seum.

From there, I de­cided to just plunge into the maze of old Ma­cao's streets – apart from the use­ful app, there are street signs every­where point­ing to dif­fer­ent sites, with of­ten no in­di­ca­tion what they may be. It could be a his­toric build­ing, a neigh­bor­hood tem­ple, a small square or a church. It re­ally is best to just wan­der and see what you can see. The nar­row Rua da Tercena is a big con­trast to some of the main streets like the Avenida de Ale­meida Ribeiro, lined with swanky jewel­ers and high end stores. Some of the small streets like this do have an air of ne­glect, but in­creas­ingly there are signs of de­vel­op­ment and more mod­ern stores and fa­cil­i­ties. It is much more pleas­ant walk­ing along these older streets, how­ever.

There are hip­ster cof­fee roas­t­er­ies sit­ting next to a tra­di­tional medicine seller, groups of re­tirees play­ing mah jong in small wooden rooms that dou­ble as lit­tle con­ve­nience stores, trendy cafes sell­ing piri piri chicken next to dumpling shops sell­ing pork buns. Then there are the ubiq­ui­tous bak­eries sell­ing what is per­haps Ma­cao's sig­na­ture food – the egg cus­tard tart. Although you can find them every­where now, un­til you've tasted the real deal in Ma­cao, you haven't re­ally had a proper egg tart.

I didn't stay on to visit one of the flashy casi­nos with their light shows and buf­fets, but many peo­ple cer­tainly were. But I am look­ing for­ward to my next visit to Ma­cao, and hope­fully that time, I can take the bridge.

A street scene in Ma­cao

The Grand Lis­boa dom­i­nates old Ma­cao. The ugli­est build­ing in the world? You de­cide

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