Hong Kong Wow

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
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Trip End Jun 15, 2012


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Friday, February 24, 2012

We arrived in this most spectacular city late in the evening after a long day of travel that took us through five modes of travel, a lot of waiting around and the complexities and frustrations of international customs and immigration routines. It was a typical day of excessive travel that we have begun to accept as a necessary part of our trip, one that would have been intolerable to the kids six months ago. Our hotel, in the North Point area of Hong Kong Island, was a dazzling one-hour taxi ride from the HK Airport.

The first thing we noticed about Hong Kong is how professional the people are and how clean and well organized the city seems to be. The airport has free internet Wi-fi throughout and little kiosks to use if you don't happen to have a computer. They have comfy lounge chairs that you can sleep on, complete with little pillows built in. They have even resurrected the novel item called the drinking fountain with little signs telling you that the water is sterilized. The taxi driver to our hotel was courteous to a fault and pointed out travel tips for us to better enjoy the city he obviously loves so much.

Unlike all other places we have traveled to on this trip, Hong Kong is the first place we have encountered where the taxi drivers automatically turn on their meters without being prompted or bribed. This relieves us from the burden of trying to negotiate a fare beforehand and getting stiffed if we don’t know the going rate, the distance, or the traffic conditions. In big, bright LED numbers you can see your price displayed before you, entirely non-negotiable.

Our hotel was listed as a four star, much to our astonishment, and was among the most luxurious places on our trip. We had booked it online and got a great rate, but it was still way more expensive than most of the ‘budget’ hotels listed on the hotel booking sites. However, the hotel did not have any ofthe problems that the reviewers had with all those at the bottom of the heap, the place where we usually dwell. Hong Kong hotels are notoriously cramped and dirty and placed in bad neighborhoods, which wasn’t our experience here at all. By spending an extra fifty bucks per night we had a much more tolerable stay. However, we had only booked four nights and asked the hotel staff if we could extend by one night to meet our travel demands. When I went to rebook I got a rate that was $100 higher than the previous four nights. That told me that I got a steal on the online booking.

This week in Hong Kong would be a budget buster, thanks to the hotel prices alone, but being there only five days would mean it would be easy to make it up with a week on the cheap. In the southern Philippines where I will be lying on my back on a tropical beach, gazing at the stars with a beer clasped in my hand, I know I will be working hard to fix our suffering budget.

We ate our first meal in the hotel lobby, a Michelin star restaurant that set us back quite a bit. But the food was incredible and they gave us a 20% discount for being guests of the hotel. They served a lemon chicken that was some of the best Chinese food I have ever tasted. Mason still tries to get us to go back there, but we have found much cheaper options just around the corner, good food for a quarter of the price. One place we stopped in for breakfast on our first morning became our regular breakfast and sometimes lunch stop, with a low priced menu of tasty food and quick service. We get out of there for about fifteen bucks for the family, which is my kind of price. We have tried many different places around the North Point area with mixed results. Estela at one point declared that she is DONE with Asian food. But then we found a great Vietnamese place and she changed her mind right back. A couple of times in the evenings we have gone into bakeries and filled up a bag with pork buns and other Asian pastries, and with a quart of milk from 7-11, we had dinner.

There are many ‘must see’ things in HK, most of which we will probably never get to. One we did get to, which is listed by National Geographic as a ‘top 50 things to do in the world’, is to ride the Star Ferry to Kowloon. On our first day we rode the subway to the ferry dock and boarded one of the antique boats across the harbor, and disembarked on the Kowloon side. The ride itself was not what I expected as one of the great sights of the world, perhaps because the skyline was gray and drizzly and washed out by 'English' weather. When we got to the Kowloon side we found ourselves trapped in the streets among the same retail outlets that pollute the pricey areas of every other major city in the world. Cartier Jewelers, Polo, Tiffany, Bulova Watches, Bvlgari, etc. just go on and on, leaving the place lacking character. Nothing screams Hong Kong at you, which is what you want Hong Kong to do. I was thinking that if you dropped a giant cookie cutter down over southern Kowloon you would lift a piece of New York City up into the air. To me, it was appalling. Who has all that money to spend on this overpriced crap? Not us, says I.

We sought out a new place to spend our money, far away from the western icons I have grown to hate. We found a back street that took us to a Chinese restaurant with reasonable prices. We crowded into a booth filled with Asian businessmen who excitedly jabbered on cell phones and pawed through financial newspapers while noisily slurping their lunches. Nobody can inhale food like the Chinese, I can now say with complete certainty. We figured out the complicated ordering system but had difficulty with the menus that were written entirely in Chinese characters, only punctuated occasionally with pictures of the food and the occasional prices in Arabic numerals. They might as well have been written in Klingon for all the use they did us. We pointed at pictures on the menu or the plates of our neighbors while ordering at the counter and waited for our numbers to be called in Chinese. Our neighbors listened for our numbers and assisted us to get our lunch, which helped a lot. I wound up with a curry plate that was mixed with cheese that I kept thrusting at my family saying “you’ve gotta try this!” But theirs was just as good.

Back on Hong Kong Island we started using the surface streets more than the underground because there is just so much to see here than in most cities. Across the northern end of the island lies a streetcar track that has been around for more than a hundred years. On this track runs an endless series of colorful electric two-storied streetcars that are of the same vintage as the track. The trick is to jump on board, climb the spiral stairway to the top deck and then move toward the front and try to get a seat looking down the track at what’s coming up. After a few minutes of climbing on board we usually found ourselves out front, no matter how crowded the tram was. We took many trips across the island in this manner, for about a dollar and a half for the family. If a place looked interesting we would get off and walk around for a while. It was fun.

The only problem with Hong Kong is that it was bloody cold, at least for our thin, tropically seasoned blood. Mason looked up the latitude of Hong Kong and told me that it’s indeed tropical, which is very surprising because we had to wear a jacket or a sweater every time we left the hotel. We haven’t seen a piece of blue sky since we arrived and yesterday it rained in a Seattle sort of way. Last night we tried to go see the famous Hong Kong laser show that blasts colorful beams across the channel and down the streets of the city. By evening when the show was to take place, a black fog had crawled in like fire smoke and condensed around the skyscrapers. 

 Today we took a ride up to the top of Victoria Peak, a mountain in the center of Hong Kong Island that is famous for its incredible 360 degree view of one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The entire mountain was socked in with a dense, depthless fog that made the trip sort of a joke. We sat down at a Burger King, right at the upper tram stop and were soon joined by an Amish family, which we marveled at. They won't drive motorcars but still get on airplanes? For me, it became just another puzzle of humankind. Meanwhile, back in the fog, people would float in and out of the gloom like ghosts slipping in and out of dreams. Japanese tourists took pictures of the dimensionless white nothingness to show their friends back home. Perhaps they were creating a Facebook profile pic entitled, 'a picture of my personality'. Who knows?

Later, I took my family back to the bottom of the mountain where they sat in a coffee shop while I hiked back up to the top of Victoria Peak for some much needed exercise. The trail that went up the side of the mountain was very steep and wide and ran through a dense rain forest. It is easy to forget that Hong Kong sits in the middle of a tropical jungle, but on close inspection you will see that a lively green growth will sprout from any piece of unpaved dirt. It was a great climb, but I rode the tram back down because it was getting pretty dark and a light rain was beginning to fall. It would have been a good day to sit in the living room by a large fire, holding a good book and a glass of brandy, feet burrowed into the fur of a snoozing golden retriever. You think about these things from time to time when you're on an a big journey. Oh, for the comforts of home.

We wouldn't have a bed to sleep in for another 24 hours, so we were prepared for another night of miserable travel. Stay tuned 
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