We loved Hong Kong.
Hot-hot-hot, steamy, busy, frenetic, fashion-conscious, all the clichés are true. The energy of the place is infectious, and we eschewed most of the tourist activities in favour of time simply wandering around, catching the ‘ting-ting’ trams, and eating often yummy, often unidentifiable, food. One minute you could be walking down a street full of neon signs, the latest brands and high-end shops with fierce air-conditioning and even fiercer shop assistants, the next stumbling through a dingy alley full of bikes and cheap food stalls, with shirtless old men sitting around playing cards and washing hung out above your heads.
Everywhere there were enigmatic sayings in English like “life is like sushi” and “the sea is eyes”. The noise at all times was immense – music blaring, people shouting, scooters revving, drivers honking their horns, massive screens showing adverts, the trams ‘tinging’, hawkers selling their wares. People raising their voices to speak on their phones above the cacophony and thereby contributing to it. People watching videos on their phones, without earphones.
The heat and humidity were like a physical presence, pushing you down and holding you back. With all this movement and energy you want to walk fast and be dynamic, but our Western bodies wouldn’t comply and we regularly dodged into cafés and shops simply for a few breaths of aircon. Lauren developed a technique of rushing between shops with open doors, then lingering by the door, arms stretched, twirling on the spot, to benefit from the cool drafts.
It truly is a vertical city, with immense buildings that give you a crick in the neck just admiring them. Often commercial enterprises are not at ground level but on the 23rd floor of what looks like a tower block. Meaning you have to go in without the advantage of window shopping first, which felt strange. Another slightly frustrating thing for the uninitiated is that it’s a 3-D kind of city – pavements can be three stories up, concrete walkways cross roads, continue through buildings, and emerge the other side, crossing major roads often involves going above or below ground. When relying on gps to navigate, we often found ourselves unable to continue because we were in the right spot latitude/longitude, but a few floors above or below where we needed to be. Massive amounts of construction was also sometimes a barrier to forward progress, but we simply allowed lots of time to get places.
The food – oh, the food. Hong Kong is a foodie heaven, and we ate local food (dim sum, steamed pork balls, and lots of stuff we just pointed at which sometimes worked, sometimes didn’t). But we also had wonderful indonesian, vietnamese and thai, and even a couple of decent pizzas…. we also went to a cool restaurant that had massive quantities of garlic in all its starters and mains, called ‘mad about garlic’ – Lauren declared the food ‘super yummy’ and made rapid progress learning to use chopsticks.
People were reserved and seemed to prize personal space, which is understandable in such a crowded place. If a person was sitting next to another on a bench for two on a tram and a single seat came free, they would often move to it. The first time this happened to me I thought I had offended in some way, but then I saw this happened regularly among local HK residents too. When weaving between people on the metro or trams, locals seem to manage to glide through silkily, avoiding contact, while I bumped into people and bashed them with my bag no matter how I tried to slip through carefully. People are less ‘smiley’ than in the West, which took a while to adapt to.
I was surprised how little English was spoken, and we often had to resort to google translate or sign language – it usually worked.
Our main purpose in going to HK was to get Russian visas. Russia has a rule that you can only apply in a country of residence. Most countries have this rule but then exceptions are allowed (e.g. China accepted it was impossible for us to apply having been travelling for 10 months already). Russia enforces this fairly strictly and we were refused in the states. Luckily, UK citizens get 180-day temporary residence in HK on arrival, which is considered sufficient to satisfy the Russians (other EU citizens and US citizens only get 90 days, which is not sufficient).
We arrived off an overnight flight from the States, jumped on the metro, dropped our bags, and were at the consulate, grainy eyed and sweaty, by just after 9am. We submitted all the documentation I’d prepared, after paying to change a few things on the advice of the woman at the counter so that it would be more ‘acceptable’ and paid the extortionate fee for the ‘express service’. Given the ‘normal’ service can take up to 20 days, we had little option – a 20 day stay in HK would have cost way more. It was a nervous wait, as all our trains and hotels had to be reserved in order to apply for the visa, so a rejection would massively mess up our plans, but a few days later, we received the visas – Lauren’s having been ‘issued’, according to the details, on a date 3 days in the future… bloody clever those Russians….
We did do a couple of touristy things – for my birthday we got the tram up to Victoria peak – an hour-long queue in the shade of an underpass to get to the ticket booth, then another 20 minutes queue for the actual tram. The tram was nice enough – a very steep climb up behind the enormous buildings, and the views were beautiful once up there. It was too hot to be out on the mountain top for long, but there was a lovely restaurant there and we had a birthday lunch, complete with champagne (for me) and a ‘birthday pizza’ the staff produced….
Another day we ventured across the bay on a local ferry – the views were just as good as on the tourist boats, but it costs a fraction of a ‘tour’. It was pretty spectacular to be out on the water, cutting through barges, smaller boats and tourist ‘junks’, between two spectacular skylines of skyscrapers and mountains.
One night we ventured out to the shore to watch the ‘most spectacular and largest permanent light show in the world’ but were completely underwhelmed – a few lasers, and some pretty buildings, but nothing worth the effort to get there. It was fun to be out and about late at night in HK though, slightly cooler and just as manic.
Panicking about the idea of nearly a week on a train with uncertain access to power for charging devices, we spent one rainy afternoon poking around a crowded, chaotic, completely disorganised second hand bookshop on the first floor of an old building in ‘mid-levels’. To get there we took the ‘longest escalator in the world’, which is actually a series of packed escalators going up the hillside.
It was fun to be in a developed country, and we made full use of some of the activities available – Ice skating, trampoline and ‘ninja courses’ indoor parks, and Lauren even dragged me to the cinema to see Jurassic World. All of these places were freezing from the aircon, and we ended up carrying fleeces around to put on when we went inside…
There was plenty more we could have done – visits to outlying islands, even a day trip to Macau, but in the end we enjoyed some down time in between our various jaunts. When even grocery shopping can be a cultural experience, sometimes its nice just to ‘be’ in a place. We played board games, read our books, and twice woke up in the middle of the night to watch England play in, then get knocked out of the world cup.
The 8 days we were in Hong Kong passed rapidly and left a lasting impression. I’m not sure I could ever get used to the climate, but I would happily spend more time in Hong Kong in the future.
It was also a good ‘halfway house’ to start preparing ourselves (minds and stomachs) for ‘real’ China….