If I were to describe Hong Kong tersely, I’d call it a more civilized China. It feels like a city halfway between old China and a western city. The first thing I noticed there was that people drove on the other side of the road. Because of that, and the fact that people drove in imaginative ways, riding in a car is always a thrilling experience. Sometimes, it feels as if I were seconds away from being in a car accident but it’s still not as bad as Shanghai, where I was constantly inches away from being in a car wreck.
I stayed at Sealand Guesthouse, which was a bit confusing to find because it’s actually just a suite of rooms in a larger apartment building. My contact for the guesthouse had forgotten to let me know which floor they were on, so I actually rang the doorbell to another, similarly named guesthouse on the wrong floor. I almost checked in to the wrong one, but thankfully, double-checked at the last moment. Turned out my guesthouse was 4 floors up.
The room in the guesthouse itself is definitely Chinese style and not for those who prefer the comfort of a fancy western-style hotel. The room was barely big enough to hold the bed, a TV mounted in the corner, and a small bathroom. The bathroom contains a toilet, and a shower-head directly over the toilet. To take a shower, one has to put the toilet cover on.
When people say that Hong Kong is a great city for shopping, they’re not kidding. There are tons of multi-floor malls, lots of small shops, and outdoor markets. Some of the fashion in the city was a bit too out there for me, but I managed to find a few dresses and shirts that were more my style. I visited the Mongkok Ladies Market one day, which was super touristy. Each stand had counterfeit brand-name goods at lower than genuine prices, but still at high tourist prices. I ended up only spending a few minutes there and went to a mall a few blocks away instead.
The mall was insane. Small, crowded shops on each floor, pushing and shoving girls trying to find the latest fashions, and lots of loud bargaining. Now that felt like China.
The best part of Hong Kong, other than tasty street food (more on that later), is that the public transit system, or more specifically, the subway, is so convenient. I recommend anyone who visits to get an Octopus card (about 150HKD) or a tourist Octopus card (which includes subway fare to/from the airport for a better value) to easily get on and off subways. Since the card is RFID, you just need to wave it in front of the sensor, so it’s pretty fast. It sure beats fumbling for change at the ticket machine every time I need to get on the subway. Maybe I managed to avoid rush hours, but there wasn’t too much crowding on the subways.
For those who don’t want to shop all day, another Hong Kong attraction is the Tian Tan Giant Buddha (Tian Tan Da Fu). It’s kind of a far subway ride past Hong Kong Disneyland, but I think it’s worth it. At the subway stop, there are signs to the cable cars, where you’ll need to buy another ticket to ride the cable cars. There are also busses that go to the buddha, as well as a long, hiking path, but I choose to ride the cable car to the Buddha.
At the final destination, there’s a touristy looking old-village you have to walk through to actually get to the bottom steps leading to the Buddha. We veered away from that for a few hours to get lunch at the vegetarian restaurant nearby, which on hindsight, we should have skipped. The food at the sit-down area was a bit overpriced and not that great. We probably would have done fine with the vegetarian offerings at the deli counter.
After lunch, we climbed the 200 steps up to the giant Buddha and it was indeed giant. There are giftshops all over the inside, bottom floor of the buddha, but if you want to go up the staircase inside (our meal ticket let us go up there free), there’s also an old calligraphy museum in there, which because of my ignorance in calligraphy, I wasn’t that interested in. But hey, at least the view from the outside was nice.
On one of our last nights in Hong Kong, my friend Eddie who lives there took us to The Peak, which is a tall building on a hill on Hong Kong Island. It’s a good night-time activity because the view of the buildings and the water are spectacular at night. Most people seem to take the trolley up there, but there’s usually a crowd or a line, but it’s also possible to take the bus or the taxi up. I took the trolley and I have to say, it was the steepest, scariest trolly I’ve ever been on.
Because Hong Kong is such an international city almost everyone we talked to on the streets had some understanding of English and when that failed, Mandarin. It makes the area a great city to visit for anyone who wants an easy introduction to China. It has all the amenities of a western city (if you’re willing to pay the prices) but also feels like China.
(stay tuned for Hong Kong Part 2: The Food)