I had 4 days in Hong Kong, I felt that would be plenty to see the sites, after all – it’s just a big city – and I’ve been to big cities before. Cyndi has a large web of expat friends strewn across Asia – so we were able to call upon one of them, Lynn and Lee, in Hong Kong and luckily stay with a ‘local’. Any time I have an opportunity to stay with someone that lives in a country I’m visiting, I snap it up. It has the obvious advantage of saving money – but more importantly than that, it helps you cut through all of the guidebooks and to the chase of what to do and how to get there. We arrived in Hong Kong under the cover of darkness; we hopped on a train to Hong Kong Island and were busy trying to figure out our new currency conversions for the 30 minute ride through tunnels and darkness. Lynn met us at the train terminal and welcomed us to Hong Kong Island. Once we got in a cab, I looked out the window and what greeted me was an utter surprise. Out my cab window, I saw a huge city, one that dwarfed NYC. I was floored by the number of skyscrapers – farther than the eye could see, densely packed into a hilly area. The lights and the bustle of the city reminded me of home.
Photo: Hong Kong skyline – view from the Peak (most of these buildings are over 50 stories)
The taxi started to climb up steep inclines and around tight hairpin turns to Lynn’s apartment located in Midlevels. I was shocked once again about the terrain – it was steeper than San Francisco in many parts, and there were sky scrapers built everywhere onto the hills. I thought to myself…they must not have to worry about earthquakes here…at least I hope they don’t! My first impression of Hong Kong was that it was some strange mixture of my two favorite American cities, NY and San Francisco – it had my interest, I was ready to explore!
The alarm went off early the next morning, I had to be up and out the door by 7:15AM (this is difficult for a non-working slacker). I had places to be, and people to meet. Specifically – it was the morning of February 5th, which really equates to a US date of the early evening of Sunday February 4th….Super Bowl Sunday. I had contacted my friend Marcus (Hong Kong resident/expat), to see if he knew of any places to watch the game on Monday morning. He told me to meet him in Lan Kwai Fong in Central at the Hong Kong Brew Company – they were showing it on the big screen. I hopped in a taxi early and met him down the hill in the bar district. There were a few bars open and you could hear the familiar sounds of football wafting out of the windows…John Madden…I felt like I was home! I love football…I miss football. This was probably one of 3 games I’ve seen all year – I was excited! Marcus and his friend, Rebecca, had saved me a seat at the bar in front of the big screen….perfect. My first bloody mary was at 7:45AM – but I wasn’t the only one drinking…the bar was filled with Americans drinking beer and smoking – it’s noon somewhere…so it must be ok to guzzle alcohol at this hour! We watched the sloppy, wet game and caught up on each other’s lives over a big English breakfast and drinks – a great morning. The only thing missing was the commercials. We were watching a live ESPN feed – but apparently they didn’t have the rights to show the commercials…oh well – that’s what the internet is for. My sister and Lynn came to meet me in the 4th quarter and drag me out of the bar a bit tipsy! I honestly felt like I could have used a nap at that point, but there was no time to waste, we had to see Hong Kong!
We went to many of the tourist sites that day. Hong Kong Island is basically a big hill (about 1100 ft.). Most of the building development has been done at the base of the hill (by filling it in with landfill) and the high-rise development continues about halfway up the hill. There are a few buildings at the top, but they aren’t the huge 50 story skyscrapers that dot the rest of the hill. We took a tram up to the top of the peak to enjoy the view and grab some lunch. I was surprised to find that the cable car that transported us to the top was running at about a 30degree angle at most times – somewhat reminiscent of the San Francisco cable cars rides I’ve taken. We had a nice clear day to enjoy some photo ops at the top – there was a slight haze – but in Hong Kong standards – that’s a really great day! In fact, I feel that the buildings don’t even look real in some of the pictures – it looks as if I am standing in front of a screen with the image of Hong Kong on it.
We next rode the longest elevator in the world – it basically worked its way up the hill moving people down in the morning and changing directions midday and moving people up in the evening. This was one of the many forms of commuting that people here did. There were also ferries, buses, cable cars, taxis, subways, trains, and a few brave people had cars.
Photo: A small section of the worlds longest escalator…a great commute!
The subway proved to be a piece of cake. For the size of Hong Kong, I was stunned to walk into the subway and find that it was spotless and marked fantastically with maps and information. Each entrance had a high speed escalator that moved people efficiently through the entrances and exits, and they had elevators at every entrance. In fact, if you didn’t pay attention, you could about get swept away by a fast moving escalator – they certainly waist no time so you have to watch your step! I guess I am just used to the NY subway where there are rats, poor signs, speakers that sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher is talking to you, poor handicap/elderly accessibility, and garbage everywhere. The Hong Kong subway was a 10 on the scale of subways that I’ve seen, and in comparison – it left the NY subway in the dust at about a 3. The rest of the day Cyndi and I familiarized ourselves with the Hong Kong subway and took a trip out to the flower market and bird market to check it out. Photo: Bird Market
I was fascinated with the bird market – it was everything you ever needed for a bird, and thousands of birds for sale. We saw tons of cages, live worms, bird seed, grasshoppers, and every kind of bird imaginable. There were a number of bird cages hanging in the nearby trees with older Chinese men playing cards, and chatting. We learned that many of these men come to the bird market to ‘take their bird for a walk’ and just hang out and socialize. Now think about that a bit…taking a bird for a walk…there’s something that just seems wrong about that! Regardless – the birds seems happy…and healthy.
That evening we enjoyed the Hong Kong light show across the river in KowlLoon. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, as we sat on the harbor promenade and waited. Every night at 8PM there is a light show set to music. The light show is the sky scrapers themselves equipped with spot lights and lasers. I honestly felt like I was sitting in Las Vegas outside the Bellagio waiting for the fountains to start…it was a weird déjà vu feeling. The show was fun albeit a bit cheesy – but a good thing to witness.
The next day we awoke to another clear day in Hong Kong. We decided have some dim sum and then hop on a train to see the big Buddha on Lantau Island. There are many ways to get there, however the best way is to ride a cable car to the top of the mountain to see the giant, seated Buddha.
The cable car is apparently the largest cable car structure ever constructed – that fact is of course interesting – however my favorite thing about it is that the brochure referred to it as “Taking the Journey of Enlightenment”. I’m not really sure that I was enlightened, however, the views from the cable car were stunning. It took you right over a bay of water and you could see the whole airport in the distance – it was pretty impressive. The steep ride over the water was not for the faint of heart though – there were a few times during the 25 minute ride that I did start to wonder how well this cable car structure was constructed! I thought that if it broke and we fell into the sea below to our death – that could be considered the “Journey of Enlightenment” – let’s hope not! At the top, they had a little touristy village that we quickly buzzed through and went straight to the Buddha. We wandered around the Buddha and the monastery at the top, grabbed some gelato (which was very enlightening) and soaked up the warm winter day…it was about 75 degrees – it couldn’t get much better than that! We spent our evening out at a nice restaurant (Hong Kong certainly has no shortage of them) meeting other Hong Kong expats.
Photo: Fishing boats in Cheung Chau
On our final day in Hong Kong, we decided to get away and see the vast islands and nature that Hong Kong had to offer. We took a 14k hike around Cheung Chau and Whi Ma Wan including Pui O beach. I felt like I was in the Marin Headlands in California. In fact, at one point on the hike, I was watching the trail and I had this strange feeling overcome me “Where am I again?” I racked my brain trying to remember what country I was in. I guess that’s the downside to traveling all over the world – things starts to meld together, you honestly forget where you are. Or it just could have been my pending old age creeping in…but I like to blame it on the traveling. Photo: The far island in the background is China!
It was so easy to get out of the city quickly – ferries run to all of the surrounding islands and to mainland China. As I would have loved to get on the wrong ferry and go to mainland China, the closest I got that day was to see it off in the distance wrapped in a yellow, pollution haze. That would have to be good enough for now – no time for China on this trip – after all – I have to save something for next time.
As we were hiking, we came across a row of large pots with burnt incense in front of them. Each pot had a ceramic lid on it, a weathered piece of paper on the lid and a rock holding down the piece of paper. Our guide explained to us that it was actually the remains of deceased people – it was a Chinese grave-site. Thank goodness we didn’t lift the lids to look inside!
We finished our hike on the beach, took off our shoes and walked in the cool water for the last 1/4 mile – a good ending to a warm day. The beach area was completely deserted in the late afternoon weekday. It was hard to believe that this beach – so close to a large metropolis – was empty – and it was beautiful. Cyndi and I walked along it and soaked up the sun. It was then that she turned to me and said to me completely serious “Sherry, I have no idea how you are going to go back to working every day again. One day next year you will be sitting at your desk at 3 in the afternoon and you’ll be miserable thinking about being on a secluded beach in Hong Kong. I don’t know how you will ever sit still.” I hate it when she voices my fears aloud…it’s hard to ignore when they are put out there in the open. I choose to be in denial for the next 6 months.
I’ve been many different places in 5 months of travel and I’ve loved experiencing all of the different cultures. I like to think that I’m pretty accepting of all cultures and religions and that’s one of my favorite things about travel – the differences that I observe. However – after being in Hong Kong for 3 days, I realized there was one thing that was driving me crazy – a big cultural difference that made my blood boil, it made me want to hit someone. If any of you have ridden the #30 bus through China Town in San Franciso on a Saturday morning – you know what I’m talking about…the Asian personal space issue. As Americans, we like our space – we generally like to have a few feet of cushion between us and the next person. If we see a line forming, we go to the back of the line and wait our turn – we may not like it – but that’s how it’s done. If we are waiting for a subway door to open or bus door to open, we generally let people off before we rush on. Things just work more efficiently that way. All of these ‘rules’ are shit in Asia…well – they may have the rules, but no-one follows them. I witnessed people cut in front of others in line, cut people off while walking, rush into a subway the moment the doors opened as people were trying to get out (this was even at the end of the line…everyone had to get out – but the person couldn’t step aside and let them out, they instead had their nose pressed to the door and pushed their way in against the exiting crowd). I was really sickened by this…it just didn’t make sense to me As an American, I see it as rude, and I have a real hard time being understanding about it. Sure – I can deal with the people cutting you off and bumping into you and not giving you personal space, but the subway incident about threw me over the edge. In New York – this person would have been pummeled. There is this intense race to be first in Asia…at least that’s my view of it. I tried to be sensitive to it – but I can honestly say – that I didn’t succeed at that. Given more time there – I’m sure I would adjust – but 3 days isn’t enough to shed me of my cultural norms.
That night I wanted to walk around the city before dinner a bit and get more of a feel for it. I had this good feeling about Hong Kong. It was a great mix of things I loved – big city, but close to nature. It had a hip feeling, tons of people, an infusion of a different culture (than mine), a beautiful landscape, great shopping, great restaurants, young professionals, a good airport, and they even had an area called Soho (South of Hollywood St.). Photo: Market in Soho admist hip bars
It was the first place in my travels to date that I actually thought…I could live here – at least for a few years! We walked around the Soho area and peaked in at all of the cute little bars and cafes nestled between Asian wet markets and butchers. We settled down for a great glass of wine and dinner. By the time we were finished – the whole restaurant was filled with people from various nationalities, you could tell this city had a great vibe and night life.
Our stay in Hong Kong was short, and it left me wanting more – always a good sign. One could say that it was my journey to enlightenment – Hong Kong surprised me, it wasn’t what I expected. I know I will get back there someday…I’m not done with Hong Kong yet.
Photo: Cyndi and I on the cable car – heading to our Journey of Enlightenment!