Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hong Kong

The trip from Yangshuo to Hong Kong was quite hellish. It was the first time I had ever taken an overnight sleeper bus, and hopefully it will be the last time.

We could have taken a bus back to Guiling, then taken a sleeper train to Guangzhou, and then taken either another bus or train to Shenzen, and then taken a final bus to Hong Kong. But we figured it would be quicker and easier to just take a bus straight from Yangshuo to Shenzen, which is just across the border from Hong Kong. Boy were we wrong.

First, the bus arrived an hour late to the bus station.The bus company claimed that there was an accident on the road, but I have my doubts. I think they were late because they were loading contraband into the bottom of the bus or doing something else equally nefarious.

The bus itself had an insane layout, albeit a very cramped one. Unfortunately, the pictures I took didn't come out very well, but basically the bus consisted of three rows of six double decker cots, which allowed for thirty six people to sleep on a single bus. This efficient but utterly cramped layout was made possible by elevating the upper portion of each cot so that the next cot would slide in underneath. In other words, my head was basically on top of someone's feet, and my feet were underneath someone's head. Can you say sardines?

In any event, the voyage was supposed to take ten hours, dropping us off in Shenzen at about 6 am. From there, it would be another couple of hours of local buses and metros to get to downtown Hong Kong. In reality, we didn't get to Shenzen until past 10 am! Why? Because the bus driver and his assistant kept inexplicably pulling over on the side of the road and doing something. It was the middle of the night, so I wasn't really sure what was going on, but at one point we were stopped for what seemed like about 45 minutes. This happened several times.

In the morning, when we were what seemed like very close to our final destination, the bus pulled off onto a side road in Shenzen and came to a standstill. Then, the driver's assistant and some other guys began unloading tons of cardboard cargo boxes from the luggage storage. Why were wholesale goods being transported on a civilian bus? Why were they doing it on my time? I was getting really frustrated.

It would have been a funny story, except we had a very important reason to get to Hong Kong by the morning. Mimi still hasn't got a new visa to go to India, and we had to get over to the India Consulate to get things sorted out. Unfortunately, due to the tardiness of the bus, we weren't able to get to the consulate in the morning. We went the next day, but they are telling us that it might not come through until next Tuesday. That would be really bad, because we are supposed to fly to Thailand on Saturday. It's looking like I might go ahead to Thailand and Mimi will stay in Hong Kong until she gets her visa. We are trying to keep our cool but its been a very frustrating experience.

UPDATE: At the time of writing, everything has worked out with Mimi's visa. Still, we spend a decent portion of our time in Hong Kong waiting around at the Indian Consulate and making phone calls in the middle of the night on Skype to their office in New York. We knew all along they'd give it to us, but we also knew that they'd make us wait until the very last minute. It's the unspoken credos of all embassies world wide. Make them wait. They know no other method.

In any event, we arrived in Hong Kong by the early afternoon. By mistake, I had forgotten to get directions to our hostel before we left Yangshuo. But after a bit of searching on the map, we found the right street and hopped on the MTR. The MTR is Hong Kong's super efficient subway system. It's incredibly quiet, clean and accessible. It's also much more expensive than the subways systems in Shanghai and Beijing, with an average trip costing $1-2 USD. We got off at Mongkok East station and began looking for the correct address. When we finally found the building, it was filled to the brim with cell phone stores. Literally every commercial stall in the entire building was selling phones, selling phone accessories, or offering repair services. Our hostel was supposedly on the 7th floor, but we couldn't find an elevator. After three stories of endless cell phone stores, we started asking around. It turned out that the residential entrance to the building was around the corner. No space is wasted in Hong Kong. Everything is overlapping with everything else.

A nice man led us to the proper entrance and we found the hostel. The building seemed to be a mix of budget hostels and private apartments. Overall the building looked like it had seen better days. When we got to our room, I couldn't believe my eyes. I had never seen a smaller accomodation in my life. The room, which was by no means cheap compared to China, was about 6x9 in area. A small double bed went wall to wall and took up perhaps 75% of the room itself. There were no windows. The bathroom was about 4x4 and doubled up as an "everything gets wet" shower. In Hong Kong, no space is wasted. I had read online forums that warned of small hotel rooms, but this was unlike anything I had imagined. Ce la vie.

Hong Kong is very unique city. First off, its unbelievably crowded. Mongkok, the neighborhood we are staying in, is on the Kowloon Peninsula, which is the hub of commerce, restarurants, and just life in general. Every street is packed to the brim with various shops, and often the commerce spills out into bootleg stalls that eat up the actual streets. Often, commericial establishments climb much higher than the first floor. For example, one building we passed had fifteen different bars; one on each floor. The larger avenues are dominated by the hundreds of double decker buses that supplement the MTR rail system. Across the bay lies Hong Kong Island, which is technically the downtown area and is mostly filled with skyscrapers, financial institutions, and upscale commerce. But Kowloon felt like the real Hong Kong. A place where people actually live and thrive.

I wasn't sure if I was going to like Hong Kong. I knew that it was a "global financial center," what ever that means. I also knew it was crowded and offered a very different culture from the rest of China. After a few days here, I've come to the conclusion that I really like this city. In fact, I love it. The one thing that was holding me back from falling in love was the cost of living. Hong Kong is considerably more expensive than China. Beyond our accomodations, food and transportion were anywhere from twice to five times as much as they were in China. But we are only here for a few days, I told myself, so I stopped obsessing over the bills, and started enjoying myself.

The unique culture of Hong Kong is a product of the British colonial legacy. Although it is technically now part of China, it still has its own financial and legal systems. No websites are blocked here. On the contrary, Hong Kongers (is that the right term?) seem to have reached an advanced level of cultural saturation. Sex, violence, and various cultural extremes aren't anything new here, whereas in China, this type of culture overload (mass media + mass consumption) was still nascent. Mass media goes hand in hand with capitalism, and in Hong Kong the ghosts of communism are nowhere to be found. Capitalism is the name of the game here, and it has been for over a century. Whether it wanted it or not, Hong Kong has had a long history of foreign trade and cultural interaction. As a result, nearly everyone here speaks English. In fact, Westerners can be found everywhere in Hong Kong and seem to make up perhaps 5-10% of the cities population (in my estimation). But that's just one of the ways that Hong Kong differs from China. 

In China, the rules for just about everything are very lax. If a bus is full, you push your way on. If you want to cross the street, you walk in front of the cars until they stop for you. If you want to smoke a cigarette, you light one and inhale. Public bathrooms... well I won't even go there. While all of this was a shock to me upon arrival in Shanghai, after a few weeks I was totally used to it, and had actually become quite good at crossing the street and biking around in Chinese cities. When we got to Hong Kong though, everything was different. Yes, Hong Kong is an incredibly crowded and fast paced city. But it's also incredibly organized and surprisingly polite. With all due respect, polite is not an adjective I would ascribe to the Chinese people. Chinese people like to yell. In Hong Kong, it's a totally different vibe.

Here, people line up in orderly queues when boarding the subway cars. No one jay-walks. In fact, guard rails line most of the city streets, suffocating my inner New Yorker and squelching my burning desire to cross the street against the light. Whereas spitting is China's unofficial national pasttime, no one spits in Hong Kong. For a city of 7 million active people, Hong Kong is remarkably clean. "Disinfectant Stations" blanket all public areas. Signs in elevators seem to compete for the most sterilizations per day. The giant garbage piles I grew accostomed to in China are nowhere to be found. Best of all, virtually every bathroom I've used, including ones at train stations, have been spotlessly clean. I actually enjoy going to the bathroom in public in Hong Kong.  The future is now!

Speaking of the future, sometimes walking around Hong Kong makes me feel like I am in the movie the Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise. Soothing voices tell me when to exit the train. Outdoor public walkways seemlessly transform into sleek, glass-paned corporate atriums (atria?). Everything works so well here, it's almost eerie. On the rare occasion, I even got a little whiff of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe.

But OK. That's enough flattering commentary for Hong Kong. What are the downsides? Well, the crowds can be a bit overwhelming. But I am a city boy, and I thrive on crowds. To put it one way, I'm actually excited to venture through India's notoriously complex and overcrowded train stations. What a thrill! So I can handle Hong Kong.

The real downside to Hong Kong is the food. First, the food here is extremely heavy and it is a mystery to me why obesity isn't a problem in this city. The choices are often fried or deep-fried. But the real problem is that Cantonese food is notoriously meat-oriented. Even vegetable dishes are cooked with meal oils and broths. We came to town under the assumption that every dish had meat in it and were very nervous about the food we ate the first day. This included some noodles at a local joint near our hostel, and some Japanese food for dinner. None of the food was particularly good, but none of it tasted overtly of meat, with the exception of some fish flakes on the Japanese dishes.

But sure enough, at about two in the morning that night, Mimi woke up and nauseously stumbled to the bathroom. Woken up by the bathroom light, I walked the two feet to the bathroom to see if she was OK. When Mimi told me she was so dizzy that she couldn't stand up, I became very concerned. Was it vertigo? The flu? Or maybe just food poisoning. We then waited patiently for the fireworks to begin. I'll spare the details, but Mimi's Hong Kong food poisoning experience is one that we are both happy to leave behind us. We woke up the next morning and scoured our veggie bible,, for some restaurants in Hong Kong.

Lucky for us, behind all of the beef balls and bird's nest stew, Hong Kong is teeming with dedicated vegetarian restaurants. In fact, in the past two days we've had some of the best Asian-style vegetarian food either of us can remember. One of the highlights was a place called Harvester, which is a popular buffet-style restaurant in the downtown area. It was so good we actually went back for a second time! The best meal, we had though, was at Evergreen Vegetarian Restaurant, which was coincidentally just a few blocks from our hostel. The Asian-style BBQ ribs were phenomenal, as was the interesting Cold Fish in Sweet Sauce.

So other than pray for Mimi's India visa to come through and hunt for vegetarian restaurants, what did we do in Hong Kong? We acted like tourists! On the second day, the most fun thing we did was take the Peak Tram, which goes from the downtown area up to the top of the mountain on Hong Kong Island. Luckily, it was a clear day and the views from the top were top-notch. We spent the rest of that day exploring the downtown area and looking for interesting back alleys, of which we found a few.

The next day was mostly eaten up by India visa related duties. But in the late afternoon, we ventured out to Lamma, which is one of Hong Kong's smaller, quieter islands. It turned out to be one of the best parts of Hong Kong. In a city of seven million, it is remarkable that Hong Kong designated Lamma Island as a car-free, eco-friendly community. After we got off the ferry, we wandered through a small village of seafood restaurants and eventually arrived at a little beach. The island had a very funky vibe and both Mimi and I really enjoyed the hike. After about two hours, we arrived in another small village that also was filled with seafood restaurants. I had some fresh scallops and fish, both of which were totally delicious!

Overall, I had a blast in Hong Kong. Even though it drained my wallet a little more than I would have liked, I'm really glad I came here. Maybe one day when I'm a high-roller I can come back and do some more exploring here. The next stop for us is Bangkok, a city that I am unspeakably excited to explore. Stay tuned for more updates!

1 comment:

  1. Hong Kong is the FUTURE!
    Your trip sounds incredible, though (minus the bouts of food poisoning and visa shenanigans). I'm glad you're having such a wonderful time and thanks for recording it so well! Really fun to read.