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Hong Kong

January 27 to February 2, 2006

Zac and I spent the week of the Lunar New Year in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, better known simply as Hong Kong.  It is separated from mainland China by the Sham Chun River, and consists of the New Territories, Kowloon, Hong Kong Island, and the outlying islands.   After spending 6 days there, we learned that Hong Kong is separated from mainland China by far more than a river.  We conducted careful research the whole week and gathered the following evidence which proves that regardless of any British handover in 1997, Hong Kong remains “of the People’s Republic of China” in name only.

In Hong Kong, there are no cars on the sidewalks and the tall buildings are all occupied.  The bakeries make pastries that are not filled with sweet bean paste and the grocery stores stock western food.  The society is very multicultural and there is actual freedom of speech and religion.  People throw their rubbish into the trash bins and they don’t spit and vomit on the sidewalks.  The restrooms come equipped with toilet paper and hand soap, plus they often have western-style toilets.  Hong Kongers wait at the crosswalks and don’t walk in front of cars, causing traffic jams.  They make queues and no one pushes to get on or off the busses.  And best of all, nearly everyone knows a little English and isn’t afraid to use it.  This was especially important for us since even the little Mandarin Chinese we knew was useless in this Cantonese-speaking region.

We arrived in this magnificent land on Friday night, after flying from Dalian to Hangzhou to Shenzhen, then taking a bus from Shenzhen (mainland China) across the border to Hong Kong.  As further proof that Hong Kong is not China, Zac and I didn’t need a visa to enter Hong Kong whereas the mainland Chinese needed a visa to go there.  We also had to change our Yuan into Hong Kong dollars, since they still maintain their separate currency under the policy of “one country, two systems” that will be in effect until 2047. (Please note: HK$ is Hong Kong dollars. Y is Yuan, the mainland Chinese currency. $ represents good ol’ American greenbacks. HK$ and Y are basically equal in value, and it takes about HK$8 or Y8 to equal $1).

Once in Hong Kong, we took the metro to our hostel, located on Nathan Road, the famous “golden mile” shopping district in Tsim Sha Tsui on the very tip of the Kowloon peninsula.  Accommodation in Hong Kong is expensive, so we had booked the cheapest option: a 4-bed dorm at the Cosmic Guesthouse in the Mirador Mansion.  For about $100, we slumbered for the week in cramped quarters with a variety of roommates from Spain, Ireland, France, England and Canada.  After dropping off our bags upon arrival, claustrophobia began to set in so we quickly headed back out to find some supper.

Hong Kong is famous for its restaurants, but Zac and I were floored by the prices.  The cheapest proper meal for two people cost at least HK$100 (we can eat supper in Dalian for Y12-Y25).  Even street food and dumplings were expensive(HK$24.00 for dumpling soup that we can buy in Dalian for Y3.50, HK$15 for a roasted sweet potato we can buy in Dalian for Y3), so we figured as long as we were paying high prices, we might as well take a break from Chinese food and indulge in the international restaurants.  That first night we ate Malaysian food, and throughout the week we dined on Indian and Mexican cuisine, ate pizza twice, and went to McDonalds (with a sandwich, drink and fries costing about HK$22, it was one of the cheapest dining options).

After our repast, we headed down to the waterfront to view the Hong Kong skyline, which is perhaps one of the most beautiful in the world.  From the Walk of Stars (Hong Kong’s shoreline version of the Walk of Fame in Hollywood) we had an unobstructed view of the impressive Hong Kong Island skyline across Victoria Harbour.  The promenade was decorated with red lanterns for the Lunar New Year, and was swarming with people posing for photos next to a Bruce Lee statue with the skyline in the background.  It was about 11:00pm by now, and the city was still very much alive—much more so than at 9:00 the next morning.

Saturday was rainy, so after visiting Kowloon Park in the morning, we decided it was a good day to take in some of Hong Kong’s museums.  We went to the Hong Kong Museum of History, had some pastries for lunch, then spent the afternoon at the Science Museum.  After the museums, we were quite ready to sit down for a while, so we took a bus that went clear out to the New Territories (the northern part of Hong Kong).  It turns out that taking a bus around the city at night in the rain isn’t such a good idea, because we couldn’t see much.  Later, we returned to Kowloon, where we went to the famous Temple Street night market.  Zac and I actually weren’t that impressed with the market, having seen better ones in Dalian.  We’ll allow that maybe the market was small because of the bad weather and the holiday.  We did buy some small flashlights (which we found again a few stalls later for half the price we’d just bargained for—doh!) and two small pieces of watercolor artwork.

On Sunday, the weather was better, cloudy but quite warm (mid 60’s), so we took the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong Island.  Hong Kong Island was beautiful.  The north side of the island was packed with skyscrapers, but it still managed to have plenty of trees in addition to a botanical and zoological park right in the middle.  The city was impeccably clean, the streets were not congested, and the shopping was decidedly upscale.  As far as city life goes, I don’t think it gets much better than Hong Kong Island.  But there was one strange thing: the city was full of Filipino women, camped out on newspapers or cardboard with their friends, playing cards.  Later, we found out that most of them work as domestic maids and live in a small room in their employer’s house.  On Sunday, their day off, or in the case of the Lunar New Year holiday 3 days off, they meet their friends in the city, and spend the day sitting on the pavement playing cards.

We first went to the Mid-levels Escalator, which is the world’s longest covered escalator.  It’s essentially a series of connecting escalators serving as a moving uphill sidewalk.  We hopped on it and road up to Hollywood Avenue where we visited Man Mo Temple—a Buddhist temple clouded with incense smoke and housing plenty of altars to various gods.  Honk Kong religion can be described as an eclectic mix of local beliefs, basically Buddhist but including plenty of traditional deities and superstition.  Throughout the city, there are many door shrines with little gods and fruit offerings, plus the obligatory incense sticks.  The whole city smells quite meditative, which provides a wonderful contrast to the city’s business-oriented atmosphere.

In the afternoon, we took a mini-bus ride up to Victoria Peak, where we had a spectacular aerial view of Hong Kong Island.  At times I felt I was looking over some futuristic city because there were so many tall buildings packed so closely together.  We took a walk around the peak, which provided incredible views of the Hong Kong Island, Victoria Harbour, and Kowloon.  I was impressed with the way Hong Kong had developed so rapidly without completely destroying the natural environment.  All the hilly areas on the island are lushly vegetated and quite jungle-ish. 

On Monday morning, we took a ferry to Lantau Island.  It is the largest of the islands, nearly twice the size of Hong Kong Island, although its population is a mere 45,000.  At Mui Wo, the sleepy southern side of the island where our ferry arrived, we wouldn’t have guessed the island was home to Hong Kong Disneyland and one of the busiest international airports in the world.  Our destination on this island was Ngong Ping, home of the world’s largest seated outdoor bronze Buddha statue.  The Tian Tan Buddha is 100 feet tall and towers serenely over the Po Lin monastery.  We climbed the 260 steps up to the Buddha and confirmed that it was definitely big.  After circling the Buddha a few times and wandering around the monastery, we took the metro back to Hong Kong Island.

We spent the afternoon in the town of Stanley, on the southern side of Hong Kong Island. It seemed like a quaint little shopping town compared to the central district of Hong Kong Island.  We walked to the beach there, then looked around the shops, and ended up at a bakery that sold really wonderful bread.  We ate our non-bean-pasted bread and sat outside the Murray House, a historic building from 1844 that was dismantled brick-by-brick and moved from downtown Hong Kong to Stanley.  We took a little walk to a nearby temple, then took a riveting bus ride back to central Hong Kong.

We were lucky to be in Hong Kong for the Chinese New Year because on Monday night there were fireworks over Victoria harbour.  We got to the Walk of Stars on the Kowloon side around 6:30 to ensure a good view.  We joined the diverse crowd of tourists, immigrants, and locals who were also waiting until the fireworks started at 8:00pm.  It was quite uncomfortable to sit on the pavement for an hour and a half, and that was barely a taste of the three whole days the Filipino women spent sitting on the ground playing cards.  It turned out to be worth the wait for the good view because the fireworks were incredible, with coordinated explosions from three different launching points and an accompanying soundtrack.  We were in a very international crowd, where everyone spoke a different mother tongue, but “oohs” and “aahs” seemed to be universal.

On Tuesday morning we again took the Star Ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island.  There we boarded one of the green trams and went to Victoria Park on the eastern side, where we watched a group of women practicing a Tai Chi sword form and people of all ages jogging and walking.  Later we took the historic Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak.  In 1888 the tramway replaced sedan chairs as the most common way to reach the peak.  We wanted to ride the Peak Tram because it resembled a really slow roller coaster by reaching a gradient of 27 degrees with stunning views of the city on the way up.  The tram was crowded, but the ride was steep and the views were immaculate, so we were not disappointed.

We took the Peak Tram down again and walked back to the Mid-levels escalator.  In Soho, we ate an entire large pizza for lunch (oops), then walked across town to the convention center.  There is nothing very special about the convention center other than it looks really cool and it hosted the ceremony where Hong Kong was transferred from British rule to Chinese rule.  Outside the convention center there is a pillar (erected in 1999) commemorating the peaceful return of Hong Kong, and a large golden Bauhinia statue, the flower symbol of Hong Kong.  I found it interesting that in Hong Kong itself there was only a pillar to honor the return, while in Dalian where the handover had little to no actual effect, they built the giant Xinghai Square.  One might draw the conclusion that mainland China was much happier about the return than Hong Kong.

We took the ferry back to Kowloon where we spent the next couple of hours at the Space Museum.  I learned two interesting things there.  When the Russians sent the first dog into space, they didn’t have a plan to bring it back so the poor thing asphyxiated up there.  Secondly, in China the constellation known to us as The Big Dipper is known as The Celestial Bureaucrat and forms a sort of throne that the bureaucrat sits on while listening to petitioners.  So it seems that both beauty and constellations are in the eye of the beholder.

On Wednesday, we took a ferry to Lamma Island, the third largest island.  There are no cars on Lamma Island, so the island is covered in paved footpaths connecting the houses and shops.  It was a warm and beautiful day and after about five minutes of traipsing along the sidewalks bordered by banana trees, I decided I wanted to live on this island.  (Surely they needed English  teachers, too.)  After a while, we veered off the main track and followed a little path to a deserted beach.  We lazed about and enjoyed the unspoiled scenery and sunshine.  We eventually reached a village on the other side of the island, where after some confusion, we managed to board a ferry back to Hong Kong Island.

Thursday was our last day in Hong Kong.  For breakfast we dined on chocolate milk and donuts then took a ferry to Cheung Chau Island.  It’s a small dumbbell-shaped island that also has no cars, so most of the population is crowded into the isthmus near the harbor.  We arrived early in the morning and observed the locals opening their shops and breakfasting on dumplings.  The harbor was full of colorful Chinese junks and the promenade was lined with flowering Bauhinia trees.  We walked to a temple, then a beach, then visited a stone carving from the bronze age, then saw another temple, then another temple, and finally wandered into a used bookshop run by an old Canadian who had lived on the island for 21 years.  He was quite talkative, and we wished to hang around and hear his stories, but alas, we had to make the 12:15 ferry back to Hong Kong to begin our trip back to Dalian.  We weren’t ready to leave, as it seemed like there was still so much to see and do in Hong Kong.

Ten hours later, we stepped off our plane and onto the Dalian runway.  I literally yelped when I stepped outside, trying to expel the 7 degree air that had entered my lungs.  Were we really lounging on a beach just that morning?  When I walked to work the next day, bundled up against the icy wind, dodging frozen globs of spit and the occasional crusty splash of vomit, weaving through traffic jams at intersections, how I wished I could still be on a Hong Kong island basking in the warm sun on a pristine secluded beach!  But later that night, at our favorite restaurant with our friend Charlie, catching up on the Spring Festival activities, we were content to be back home in Dalian.

Click here for more photos from Hong Kong

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