We had decided to make our way to Indonesia via a multi-day stop in Hong Kong. It’s always sounded like an interesting place, and so many flights pass through that it wasn’t really out of the way from nearby Hanoi. After a short flight we were greeted by a bumpy descent and a deluge of rain. The weather – refreshingly cool compared to Vietnam but oh so very wet – was the first of many substantial differences this unique location has provided from our trip so far. Hong Kong is a novelty – to us at least – in pretty much every category one can think of and we’ll do our best to describe it from our limited 4-day stay.
I’ll finish getting the weather out of the way, that being one of the more significant and limiting circumstances of our visit. As we learned later when speaking to somewhat apologetic locals, Hong Kong had been experiencing a solid ten days of heavy rain by the time we arrived and it did not let up while we were there. The city is wholly set up to handle such conditions of course and between extensive public transit, under- and above-ground walkways, and ubiquitous shopping malls one can get around here without really stepping outdoors; but for folks like us excited to get out and see more than just concrete, the rain was a bit of a damper. We did our best!
As newcomers we found Hong Kong to be easy to get around but at times difficult to navigate. Buses and MTR (subway) are well run, frequent, and go pretty much anywhere in this relatively compact urban area. Reasonable scooter-free traffic makes walking a breeze (except for umbrella congestion!). The difficulty came in actually finding specific things within a known target area (say, a city block). Bus stops at bigger stations are distributed around on various streets which works well for traffic flow but isn’t obvious to the uninitiated. Hong Kong is also distinctly 3-dimensional with many of your objectives being somewhere above or below you. This isn’t unusual for a dense city but seemed to be taken to the next level (hah!) here by innumerable 15-story towers packed with a bar or restaurant on each floor and little or no street-level indication of their presence. After traveling in countries where everything domestic and commercial takes place on the sidewalks, this is quite a shift.
Kowloon, the mainland area directly across Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island, is one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world. This is also where we stayed for 4 nights, so our accommodation was accordingly cramped. The guesthouse we stayed in occupied a corner of the 10th floor of a multi use tower, and all told its 5 rooms plus entryway took up about the same area as a large living room. Our room was 7 square meters (75 sqft) so a bit tight for the two of us and our stuff! Actually it would have been fine if it weren’t for the rain, but having lots of wet clothes and shoes with nowhere to put them added some hassle. Well, that and the fact that the bed was definitely too short, even for Elaine. It was clean though!
Beyond simply walking around and getting a feel for the city we had a couple objectives for our visit: eating some exciting food and doing some hiking on the surprisingly extensive range of trails. We did reasonably well with both though between our fairly short stay and the weather we barely scratched the surface. Dining costs also were a bit of a challenge – Hong Kong prices approach those of San Francisco so again quite a shift from our travels to date. We mostly avoided high end places (which are innumerable) and sought out popular local spots which all share a similar approach of few tables but quick turnaround: an orderly queue forms, you place your order before sitting down, and then get up and pay at the door on your way out.
We pretty much hit all of our cravings: ramen, sushi, dim sum, seafood, Indian, pastries and pizza. We also tried some simple local fare for breakfast like rice congee with chicken, mushrooms, and green cured eggs, or a bowl of black soy noodles with fried cuttlefish balls. Dim sum was delicious at Tim Ho Wan with crunchy baked pork buns, fresh shrimp dumplings, and really tasty turnip cake. We were a bit baffled when our order of “sauteed seasonal vegetable” turned out to be iceberg lettuce though! Meat, fish, and carbs are easy finds here, green things less so.
Fred, a friend from college who makes his home here in Hong Kong, took us out for dinner at a traditional “typhoon shelter” spicy crab place. Excellent seafood – scallops, clams, and the centerpiece crustacean buried under a mountain of fried garlic and shallots. We got the inside scoop of a lot of the workings of Hong Kong from Fred as well. For one we had been puzzled the other day walking around and seeing large gatherings of women in public areas engaged in all forms of relaxation from sleeping on cardboard and blankets to having a birthday party or singing karaoke. He explained that these were the hired help on their day off (Sunday) – most families here have at least one employee, given that it’s so cheap as long as room and board are provided. These women are mostly Filipino and the day off is a chance to congregate and socialize. We also learned that all of the public transit is privatized and the MTR (subway) is operated by a real estate company – they will extend a line and then erect a new apartment complex at the end to rake in high rents. It all works well here though, given how compact the city is. The buses are also privately owned by the jewelry company! There is some speculation that the big jewelry company is a money-laundering operation.
Another strange part of the transportation here is that all of the taxis are the same make/model of Toyotas (I think from the 80’s!). The reason for this, I read on Wikipedia, is that Japan is the closest left-hand drive nation and has stricter standards for emissions so once Japan upgraded, their outcasts were shipped south to Hong Kong. Combined with some old Hong Kong bureaucracy dictating that very few makes/models of cars can be registered as taxis, this has left the entire city with a pretty unique and outdated fleet. Side note, the rest of China is right-hand drive.
Hong Kong Island as well as several of the surrounding areas are rocky and mountainous. With obvious pressure for real estate, buildings have climbed up the slopes to the point where some tall towers look absurdly precarious on their perches. The integrity of the hillsides is therefore paramount and the city takes this quite seriously, with a department devoted to the task and important slopes placarded. This defiance of gravity combined with the fact that much underground is hollowed out for infrastructure makes Hong Kong pretty interesting from a civil engineering perspective.
We took advantage of the least-rainy day to get a hike in on Hong Kong Island. Though engineers have covered what seems like every buildable surface there actually remains a great deal of forested hills to explore – just don’t expect it to be flat going! It was exceptionally easy to get to and from the trail given how thorough the bus coverage is. We started at a mid-island reservoir and headed south on the Wilson Trail, over Violet Hill and down to Repulse Bay. Though the rain held off there were still plenty of low clouds and it was a bit challenging to catch views from the hillside. Elaine caught a bus from Repulse and I continued on to Stanley over the Twin Peaks which turned out to involve a pretty steep and damp climb through heavy cloud, followed by some good views of the south end of the island on the descent. The trail was very well built, which I suppose is necessary or it would soon wash away.
On our tours around the city we took the popular Peak Tram (to a very cloudy and rainy Peak), and the equally iconic White Star ferry across the harbor. Both of these were very easy and cheap especially with the Octopus Card which is Hong Kong’s all-encompassing transit card that we used quite a lot. We also wandered through both Kowloon and Hong Kong Parks – beautifully manicured quiet havens from the busy streets – and into a couple free museums including one on teaware and another on local nautical history.
Overall Hong Kong was a fun, tasty, expensive, and massively different diversion from our Southeast Asia tour. Judging by the few moments of joy we experienced when the rain actually let off, we would have enjoyed it more had it been sunny, but so it goes! As an opportunity for an easy taste of China in a unique setting it seems pretty hard to beat.