Lasagna at 5am anyone?

Trip Start Jul 03, 2009
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25
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Trip End Aug 16, 2009


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Where I stayed
Rennaisance Harbour View

Flag of Hong Kong  ,
Sunday, July 26, 2009

I battle jet lag during our first night in HK—and force MB to battle it with me. That is to say, I woke her up at 1:30am (because, in my dream, we're driving a car through HK and she’s stopped on a track in the road, and in reality I’m yelling in bed) and at 3:30 (this time she’s stopped the car in a Jurassic Park-T-Rex type clearing…and I’m talking loudly about it). At 4:30 I wake up—completely wide awake--craving lasagna. Finally, at 7:30, MB wakes me up and I’m exhausted. Ah, the joys of jet lag.

Morning brings our first daylight views from our window. We are in a gigantic complex consisting of 2 40-story buildings (one of which is ours and the other is the Grand Hyatt). Straddling the middle is an 11-floor convention center, the roof of which holds our hotel’s fitness center, 5 tennis courts, a large pool, a few decorative ponds, and other areas for relaxing. Our view also includes a sliver of the harbor (which, since we didn’t pay the extra $70 per night for, the city is rapidly filling in to build yet another skyscraper). Finally, we can see a sliver of the hills that form the backbone of the island, over which are pouring thick bands of clouds (it almost looks like liquid as these storms move in over the sea, hit the island, and appear to slide down the hills).

For anyone unfamiliar with the layout of HK, here’s your primer. This Special Autonomous Region consists of 260+ mountainous islands (most of which are small and uninhabited) and a peninsula jutting out from the border with China. The two most important areas are Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula, which face each other across Causeway Bay. Most of HK’s 6 million residents are sandwiched into this small area, and the effect is dramatic. An impressive collection of skyscrapers and high-rise apartments cover every imaginable flat surface, and for over 100 years, when more space is needed, the Bay becomes a bit smaller through infill projects. As far as we’ve seen, there are no stand-alone houses. There are few structures under 10 stories. There are no suburbs, as the mountains on all sides prevent any kind of sprawl. All manner of boats—large and small, old and new—ply the harbor 24/7. As one of the largest ports in the world, HK is one of the premier departure point for the vast river of goods that we Americans have made for us in China and HK has grown rich on that trade. Hong Kong’s skyline is bright and bold, with buildings twisting into all manner of shapes. During the day, the worlds most prominent brands boast themselves in huge block letters: Panasonic, Haier, Sony, Citigroup, Wynn. At night, whole buildings transform themselves into message boards—advertisements 10 stories high.

In short, HK is a fascinating place, and any description we attempt will ultimately give it short shrift for a number of reasons (we don’t know the culture and history, we are only here for 48 hours, and my fingers get tired of typing), but what you see today and tomorrow is a good-faith attempt.

We discovered that to navigate HK, you must think in three dimensions, which makes it quite unlike any city I’ve ever visited in America. Even in NYC, if you have a good sense of your cardinal directions you’re good to go. The most you’ll need to go up and down is in the subway. Not in HK. Subterranean levels house bright, clean, air conditioned subway stations, in addition to massive shopping arcades. Two and three stories above the ground, ribbons of walkways connect dozens or more skyscrapers. Restaurants and convenience stores open onto these "sidewalks in the sky." In fact, most skyscrapers—whether banks, hotels, or even government offices—dedicate the first few floors of their buildings to malls and restaurants. Walking through the city can feel like traversing one gigantic, spotlessly clean, high-end mall. The sloping landscape (as the highrises meet and climb up the hills) only contributes to the importance of the cities y-axis (there have now been a number of times when we’re 6 floors about the ground staring down at traffic one minute, and then in the subbasement of a mall the next).

We started our day with a decent breakfast (quiche and coffee) at the Pacific Coffee Company and then crossed the bay in one of Hong Kong’s famous and historic Star Ferry boats. We were grateful for the air conditioning, as the temperature was already 85 and muggy (heat index of nearly 100 all day). Across the bay, in Kowloon, our destination was the Hong Kong history museum, a fascinating place with exhibits covering the story of the land and people going back 400 million years (yep, starting with plate tectonics, through early settlements, Chinese dynasties, the Opium Wars and British concession and reunification with the PRC).  Back in the heat, we wandered through a mix of wide thoroughfares with international brands and smaller side streets with an eclectic mix of clothing and goods shops (many with great names…see the pictures).  Omnipresent were hawkers for cheap watches and custom tailoring…often the hawkers were for both, leading us to wonder about the quality of either set of goods.

We lunched at Hutong, a beautiful Chinese restaurant on the 28th floor of a skyscraper on the edge of Kowloon, which offered stunning views of Hong Kong Island’s skyline across the bay. The food was adventurous and mostly amazing. We loved the sesame-crusted asparagus and soupy dumplings, liked the deboned crispy-fried lamb with pancakes (though we were redolent of garlic the rest of the day), and MB thought the drunken crab (raw crab marinated in wine for 3 days) was just a bit too adventurous.

We spent the afternoon exploring Wong Tai Sin, Hong Kong’s most popular Daoist temple. While it was fascinating to watch the rituals performed, we both agreed that from a purely aesthetic perspective, we’ve seen much more beautiful sites. More interesting was the juxtaposition that such a scarcity of land creates, as our temple abutted several worn-looking and identical massive housing developments (looming above) and a high-end shopping mall (below, attached to the subway).

Dinner was in the SoHo district, which is in Hong Kong’s mid-levels area. This section of town is built into the hills “behind” Hong Kong’s central district, and is reached by taking a succession of outdoor covered escalators (the longest assortment in the world). The neighborhood felt expat-centric but it provided development on a more human scale. People filled the at-times-vanishing sidewalks and restaurants and bars lined the streets. We settled (and I use this word deliberately) on Jaspas, an “international cuisine” restaurant that violated the “if this place is full it must be decent” rule.

Tomorrow: tramways and funny shirts
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