Hong Kong 1: Emerging from a Burning Building
Trip Start Jul 01, 2011
91Trip End Dec 25, 2011
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Where I stayed
Yesinn Hostel Hong Kong
Read my review - 3/5 stars
Read my review - 3/5 stars
Backpackers on the road have this sliding scale of rating toilets in the various places they've been, with the idea that this is proportional to the living standard and practices of the country they've been traveling in. In Japan, it was mostly western style, sometimes squats in private inns or random public facilities. But it was always immaculate, so it says Japan may be a country that has deep ties to tradition but is otherwise fully in the hermetic modern age. In Korea, it was all Western toilets as far as I saw, but cleanliness ran the gamut from spotless to a bit iffy, telling us that Korea is looking in a westward direction culturally, but still needs a bit of public infrastructure
Now China was basically a hodgepodge. In the hostels I stayed in, it was all western toilets, and mostly quite clean. However, outside in the public domain, it was virtually all squats, no toilet paper and pretty filthy. The fact that two different airports had signs on the urinals saying, "A step closer avoids a mess" (Guilin airport) and "Please aim carefully" (Kunming airport), says that the Chinese just don't prioritize sanitation the same way the west does, unless being paid to do so.
Which meant when arriving in Hong Kong airport to gleaming porcelain, sinks with full soap dispensers and no ominous puddles all over the floor, nor the stench of defecation saturating every corner, I suddenly felt as if this weight lifted off my shoulders. Slowly the mentality went from 'survive this' to 'enjoy this.' From the airport it was easy to catch an airport bus into Hong Kong Island--no waiting until the bus was full to maximize profits, no woman with a huge drug-money-like wad of bills to hand charge to the customers, no plastic bag with a still live goose inside wobbling along the aisles. Sure, it was less colorful, but it was also less insane, which is always a plus in my books. I'll never quite understand the Western fascination with 'experiencing' Asia, which basically means to condescendingly observe the hustle and bustle and incomprehensible mania of the natives of various developing Asian countries. Frankly, I can do without all the street theater if it means just feeling like I could just breathe a minute and really understand what the Hell is going on around me.
So for the ride into Hong Kong island, on the quiet bus (no honking, no loud cell phone exchanges, no spitting) with excellent uncensored wifi (I actually uploaded 1 GB of photos in the hour we were on the road) and passing over bridges showing off the many, surprisingly untouched islands that make up Hong Kong, I had my moment of zen
I was expecting Hong Kong to be something of Singapore, the classic city state where space is limited and all you can see of the place is a maze of tall buildings and apartment blocks. And this very true in certain parts of Hong Kong, but nearly 80% of the land mass of Hong Kong is uninhabited, which makes it an incredibly green place.
Geographically, there are 4 major regions of Hong Kong: Hong Kong Island; Kowloon and New Territories are on the mainland peninsula and Lantau Island where Disneyland and the airport are. Of these, Hong Kong North island is like Manhattan, with skycrapers and all the crowd that comes with a metropolis, while south island is much greener, rockier and sparser. Kowloon and New Territories are likewise, with areas near Hong Kong Island seeing huge apartment and shopping districts but the mountains proximal to China being utterly undeveloped. Finally, Lantau, despite having a theme park and the Tian Tan Buddha is pretty undeveloped with beaches and fishing villages scattered about
I was still feeling relatively poorly the first night I arrived, so it was mostly a get in and rest night, whereas the occupants of my dorm room (2 Koreans, 2 Japanese) were out till early morning partying hard. I suspect Hong Kong is like Las Vegas to many in the East, with cheaper (relatively) food, clubs and all the modern amenities you're used to in Tokyo or Seoul or Singapore. I'm leaning towards taking it easier, but spending that first night on the dorm floor with maps and brochures spread out, it quickly hit me that there's a lot to do in this city. But I genuinely feel like I need to take it slow here to prepare for Southeast Asia, so I think I'll cut a swathe through Hong Kong for 2 days and then spend a half day in Macau to see what's up with China's other self governing city state.
The next day began the Hong Kong swing in earnest, as I've limited time here and there's just too much to see and do (though most of that seems to be of the shopping variety)
The peak tram ascends up Victoria peak, a place that was first opened up by intrepid farmers who began hacking at the dense underbrush. Eventually a sort of road system was created up to the top, and the upper class (i.e British) would try to escape the HK summer heat by hiring Chinese to walk them up in sedan chairs. Sometime in the late 1800s, however, it was proposed that HK construct a more modern transport system including tram lines. One of those proposed would be the highly inclined one up Victoria peak. Aside from sparing you the pain of a hard climb up the mountain in hot, humid conditions, the Peak Tram has a few displays about its history and maybe more importatnly to SLR driven tourists, it operates at viewing terrace at the terminal station, which has 360 degree views of the island (or so it's claimed)
The ride is very vertical and a bit unconfortable as the wooden slats press right into your lower back and you can't sit forward to escape, as gravity keeps pulling you down. But the views are nice, especially the buildings going by on 45 degree angles. At the top, the whole area has been transformed into a shopping mecca, with malls and both a McDonald's and Burger King. Ironically enough, the views from the balcony of the McDonald's is really quite nice, of the south part of the island and outer isles.
But I was hoofing it up the summit, so it was walking up the Mt. Austin road to Victoria peak park. Basically you just follow the car road until there's no more road and it takes you to the park, but also an observation platform. I have to admit when you first get there, it's a bit of a disappointment. The views are nice--the same as from McDonald's but from higher up--but they face out to the sea and the summit blocks views of Hong Kong city. And the random trails around the platform don't get you any closer. A bit frustrated I decided to just head back down to the tram station, but as I headed down, I decided to just take a random detour
After the hike, I took the tram back down and began a walk towards Sheung Wan, on the western edge of Hong Kong city. On the way, I stopped to visit Graham street, which is this very narrow, steep corridor filled with umbrella-ed stalls selling all sorts of fruits, vegetables, fish, clothes, etc. Lonely Planet made it sound like this unique oasis within the metropolitan jungle, but in Hong Kong these street ventures and markets exist almost everywhere you look, and cover many very different products. In fact, there was one street devoted entirely to stone stamps, to produce the characteristic Chinese seal for documents.
On the way to Graham street you’ll pass under an elevated walkway, which when you look harder, you realize is actually an escalator. This is the Mid-level escalator, which is the longest in the world and takes you up the slope of the neighborhood for free. If you get off at Stanley Street or Hollywood Street you’re in the vicinity of the hip evolving neighborhoods, conveniently named SoHo and NoHo (North and South of Hollywood Rd). Not only do the names match those in New York or London, but in HK, SoHo and NoHo are filled with western cafes and non-Chinese restaurants for the ever increasingly hip customers
But coming off food poisoning meant I had to hold off rich foods in favor of more bland alternatives. This morning it was into one of the many ubiquitous Asian bakeries for some sweet rolls and water for me. I was so frustrated that I was in Hong Kong and reduced to eating like this, but that’s how the cookie crumbles. To make up for the gastronomic loss, I thought I’d just keep packing in sights and satisfy my camera’s appetite. Turned out I’d end up having my Hong Kong eating experience on Soho anyway, just by randomly bumping into this guy I had met in my dorm room in Yangshuo (the second guy from this dorm I’ve met in Hong Kong). He was going around Hong Kong with his friend, a foodie from Singapore, who comes to Hong Kong every couple of months or so. As such, she was showing him one of the most famous beef noodle shops in the city. It was just pure luck running into them and they generously invited me to have lunch with them, which despite my stomach’s protestations, how do you pass up eating a Hong Kong institution?
The place was a split level shop on Gough street, packed to the gills during lunch
After lunch, I decided to follow the walking path in Lonely Planet which takes you through 'old Hong Kong', which is as dubious as it sounds. It basically means getting a taste of those Chinese accents that make the city something unique rather than an international conglomerate. In the Soho area is Man Mos temple, which would otherwise be an interesting addition to the many antique and bric a brac shops in the area, but right now is under layers of scaffolding
From the temple it's a wander through the random streets, window shopping stores with more 'Chinese' flavor--herbal medicine shops (or pharmacies), dried fish and seafood shops, markets and restaurants. I think from a Western perspective this is all exciting and new and a little weird, but I guess going to Flushing every weekend as a kid, this is all very normal and mundane. Walking around these parts makes me feel like I'm in Flushing or Chinatown back in the states, but I suppose it's gratifying to know I had a more or less authentic Chinese market life while growing up.
We finished the walking tour in about an hour and headed our separate ways after that
The museum is located in Kowloon, the developed city on the mainland just across from Hong Kong Island. Translated to '9 Dragons', the area used to basically serve as a support area for Hong Kong Island, but expansion is shaping the city into a real cultural zone, with museums, universities, shopping, markets and clubbing.
I spent a couple of hours at the History Museum and still ended up missing out on one of the exhibitions. But the main one, which details Hong Kong's history up until the handover was both well done and also really informative. For example, Hong Kong used to be a large flood plain, then a shallow sea, then a river delta and then a shallow sea again. However many volcanic eruptions created over half of the land now see as Hong Kong. Melting of the glaviers after the ice age formed these volcanic mountains into Kowloon and the islands we now know as Hong Kong.
From an archaeological view, human settlement seemed to begin in the paleolithic age with the Yue people who began as hunter gatherers and then developed into a more agrarian society
The museum has a bit of information just to give you a taste of how these groups lived the years, which was actually quite interesting. It doesn't hurt that it's been set up in all 3D, multimedia glory so you get to wander, touch, listen, the works. The end of the exhibit are reconstructions of various traditional and stereotypical Hong Kong storefronts--herbal medicine and tea shops, etc.
Everything really changed for Hong Kong at the end of the Qin dynasty, when China's profit margins were eroded by opium and corrupt government. Basically during the long time of trade with Britain, China had a vast imbalance in its favor. While Britain obsessed over Chinese silks, tea and porcelain, there was little the Chinese wanted in return, except silver
Thus, the Qin dynasty was forced to sign several humiliating treaties to the effect of allowing opium to continue being imported while both giving away land to various countries, and also accepting poor trading terms (i.e. it used to be that foreign trading could only be handled by imperially liscenced merchants in Guangdong, and foreigners were not allowed to over winter in China (they retreated to Macau) but these stipulations were removed in the treaties
But there's no doubt that Hong Kong is China--Chinese flags are on flagpoles everywhere, you can find a fair amount of Mao memorabilia (whether this is pandering to mainland tourists, true reverence or tongue in cheek irony, I can't be sure); and the museum's second exhibit was on everyday living practices in China. I didn't have time (the museum was closing) to see the other exhibit, but I suspect it's a more rosy view of life than the one I just experienced for 3 weeks. At the very least, I don't see a mannequin reproducing the phlegm gathering and spitting that seems ingrained in China (but not in Hong Kong).
From the museum, I decided to walk down Nathan Road, a big shopping street, towards the tip of Kowloon, specifically the Avenue of Stars
But it was in interesting experience. I had brought my box dinner out to the water and waited stuck between two giggly Koreans (who could not find an angle for their photos that their hair would look perfect) and a very angry mainland Chinese girl (I know, redundant writing) who was yelling into her cell phone for nearly an hour, harping on the same point which was that the person she was talking to did not know here cell number by heart. After listening to her whiny berating, I think maybe the other person knew it, but his/her brain decided selective amnesia would help spare itself the trauma of actually having to interact with her.
Still my day was not quite over
In addition, I'll be taking care of some chores--posting souvenirs, postcards; going to see the view from the Bank of China, this time with ID in hand; wandering around Soho for lunch; hitting the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau and then back to shopping. I'm thinking it'll be a long day...