Sunday, June 20, 2010

Hong Kong dazzle

After six days in China, it was time to zoom away on an "international" flight to the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, which while technically owned by China is a very different place. "One country, two systems" they like to call it. Whatever the nomenclature, I was ready to escape from China's totalitarian regime!

I zoomed to Shanghai's Pudong airport on the world's first magnetically levitating train, with a top speed of 267 MPH!! Unfortunately during most of the day the top speed is regulated to 185 MPH. Whatever, the thing is fast. We covered an 18 mile journey in 8 minutes...not bad.

Almost immediately I could tell I was going to enjoy Hong Kong much more than Shanghai. No Internet censors, a free media, and hygiene standards second to none (SARS scared them into a culture of sanitation). The Hong Kong airport is truly world-class, easy to navigate and connected to the city center via express train.

My flight from Shanghai was late in arriving so I was forced to hustle to arrive at dinner with my expat friends Kathy & Evan Thorpe and Charles Lin. Kathy and Charles are former coworkers of mine and I also knew Evan from my time in DC. They had made an early reservation at a Cantonese restaurant in the glitzy IFC Mall connected to the Hong Kong island train station. I felt a bit out of place with my backpack and unpressed clothes, but Charles was in shorts so everything was fine! The restaurant had a wonderful view of the Hong Kong island skyline which I was barely able to enjoy as we hastily scarfed down our food (Evan had a hockey game to play afterwards).

With Evan gone, Charles, Kathy and I went elsewhere in the mall for dessert and I caught them up on a couple years worth of DC Energy gossip. Kathy had me try an Asian specialty, durian ice cream, made from the most odorific of fruits. I don't really know how to describe the taste, probably best resembles eating a sweet cardboard, but I didn't like it much and the thing has a mean, persistent aftertaste.

Kathy and Evan hosted me for the night at their condo in the country club-like expat haven of Discovery Bay. It was far away from the city (30 minute ferry ride across the harbor) but close to the lush green mountains which make Hong Kong so special. It's hard to believe that my two friends are now married and all grown up!

Kathy and Evan were leaving town for vacation in Vietnam the next day, so in the morning I took the ferry on the return trip through the stunning harbor and checked into a hotel on the Kowloon side of town, across the harbor from the downtown on Hong Kong Island. After putting my bags down I was ready to explore!

My top priority, especially given that I had a sunny day, was to head up to Victoria Peak, a 1500 foot hill overlooking Hong Kong Island. Land is scarce and valuable in Hong Kong because of the lush surrounding hills, which don't support the skyscrapers that are found down below. Thousands of years ago Hong Kong was a place of extensive volcanic activity, creating the mountains and a naturally deep harbor once the sea filled in.

I headed for the Peak Tram, built in the late 1800s to support home-building at the higher elevations. Before air conditioning, the Peak was the only place in the city to escape Hong Kong's sweltering summertime humidity, and even now hosts the priciest real estate in the city.

The ride to the top was surprisingly steep, maybe a 20 degree incline, and a failure of the Tram would have made for a swift and painful ending. As we approached the Peak the stunning vista of the cityscape and the surrounding harbor could be seen.

I went for a 90 minute hike on the Peak Trail, circumnavigating the hilltop. On the southern edge, I could see the stunning greenery so uncommon for a major city...think if New York City's Central Park was a rainforest with a mountain in it. Towards the west I had a view of the busy barge traffic in the harbor and the suspension bridges connecting Hong Kong's outer islands. And to the north and east, a panoramic view of Hong Kong's unforgettable skyline.

The tram escorted me back down the hill to the Central District, buzzing with Hong Kong's bankers, lawyers, and other masters of the universe. I took the elevator up to the public viewing area of the iconic Bank of China tower, then made my way down to the ferry docks for an inexpensive view of the harbor. At 2.50 HKD ($0.32 USD) the ride from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon is a terrific value for more great views! After disembarking I walked up the famous Nathan Road shopping street. Tiring from brushing away Indian immigrants on the street offering me "tailored suit" and "fake watch, fake handbag", I returned to my hotel for a nap.

In the evening I woke up and headed back to the waterfront to the Avenue of the Stars. It's just like Hollywood with handprints pressed into the sidewalk concrete, except you don't recognize any of the stars! Well, they do have Jackie Chan and a badass statue of Bruce Lee.

Like Shanghai, Hong Kong's skyline dazzles at night. I stuck around for the daily 8PM "Symphony of Lights", a somewhat tacky performance for a view which doesn't need to advertise itself.

I had a lazy Saturday in Kowloon Park watching the parrots and other tropical birds in the aviary, introduced myself to Chinese painting at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, then sat by the water for what I had planned to be blog-writing time. Sadly for my readers, I was interrupted by a Hong Kong teenager who wanted to practice his English. Often these are sinister attempts to draw you in for tea and trinkets you don't want, but this 16 year old was genuine, and I wanted to be a good ambassador for my country by giving him the chance to practice on a native English speaker. He had an exam coming up which would determine his placement in the next grade and was a bit nervous, but his English was not bad! I was a little disturbed to learn that his favorite American TV show was "America's Next Top Model", but we kept going for a good 90 minutes, during which time the skin on my arms baked to the bright color of a lobster!

I broke away to scout out Hong Kong's nightlife districts during the calm of the day, as I needed to watch the US-England World Cup match from the ideal location. I picked one out and returned to my hotel for a nap, needing to hold together my strength for the 2:30 AM kickoff!

After a late 10 PM dinner, I settled into a cozy pub called the Blue Goose, located in the sleazy Wan Chai district In addition to bars, the area is lined with go-go girl clubs. On the walk to the pub I made the mistake of making eye contact with one of the girls sitting outside. She GRABBED me and I was forced to tear myself away as she pleaded, "What's wrong? You no want to have good time??" Aggressive!

The pub was a winner as it met my three conditions: was actually open at 2:30 AM to play the match (though pretty much all the pubs were open), had seats available, and had one person inside sporting a USA shirt! I wasn't expecting many of my teams' supporters in a city full of England fans, but I couldn't be the only American at the bar! I sat at the one table of Americans and endured 90 minutes of heckling from the England blokes, but a fun late night, and little problem catching a taxi home at 5 AM.

My Sunday naturally got off to a late start but I eventually was able to arise to take the ferry out to Lantau Island to reach the Po Lin monastery. This place is home to the "Big Buddha" statue, one of those must-sees while in Hong Kong. The weather was not favorable as a soupy fog covered the hill with the statue, and the area seemed far too commercial for a place of worship. A scenic gondola ride back to town was worth queuing for.

I met a new Hong Kong friend, Pamela, for a sumptuous dinner in the Central District. The two of us had met while rooting for opposing sides in the soccer match the night before, and she knew all the best dishes in the best restaurants. I tried jellyfish for the first time...marinated in a garlic sauce and delicious!

My final full day in Hong Kong again got off to a late start. After lunch I took a tram ride from one end of Hong Kong island to the other, passing through all the major districts. It was slow but inexpensive, and much more comfortable than walking around town in the sticky conditions. The persistent 85 degree weather with 85% humidity did not lend itself to urban hiking like the weather in Melbourne, and you can sweat an unbelievable amount there.

I spent my Monday evening in Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong's hilly equivalent to Adams Morgan in DC, where the masters of the universe like to go party! Pamela introduced me to a live band of Hong Kongers playing songs by the Eagles (!) and I later met up with Charles to watch some more World Cup action.

I was sad to leave Hong Kong as it's a really fun place. It's a location where you can let your hair down and paint the town red, or enjoy fine dining from all cuisines, particularly Cantonese. There's enough English proficiency to hack it as an expat, though if you really want to get in touch with the locals you would be well served to learn some Mandarin or Cantonese. Sometimes Hong Kong feels like a maze of covered pedestrian bridges and tunnels, and sometimes it feels like one giant endless shopping mall, but the city has a vibrancy exuded by few places. Stylish, trendy, well-mannered, a Chinese city painted with a cosmopolitan edge, Hong Kong was like a breath of fresh air after the madness of Shanghai. The city feels a bit like "China lite" but it's a terrific place for an American tourist, and I need to find a way to make it back someday!

1 comment:

  1. Glad to hear you really enjoyed Hong Kong! I have added it to my "must see" list of places ever since I finished a historical fiction a few months ago, with the setting in pre and post-WWII Hong Kong amongst the ex-pat community. I was fascinated!

    Oh, also, by the time you return stateside, I will have moved...I just accepted a new job with DIRECTV at their headquarters in LA! I move in about 2 weeks. I'm headed back to the west coast and can't wait. If you're ever out that way, let me know!