Weather related flight delays put us into Hong Kong late in the evening. After 26 hours of traveling, sleep in our comfortable room at Lanson Place Hotel was easy. The next day we awoke to a different world. With the first step onto to cold January streets of Hong Kong, it is apparent that we were in a different place.
Hong Kong is one of the most congested cities in the world. At least that’s what I had read before we visited. Once on the sidewalks there is little doubt that this is true. Moving around feels like wading through a crowd heading to a Rolling Stones concert. The crowds on the sidewalks almost never slacken.
Away from the hotel the streets are packed with double-decker buses and trams. The vehicles, packed two stories high with people, move three abreast bumper to bumper along main road. Underground the Metro runs with filled full-length trains every 5 minutes. Over 4 million passenger trips are made on the MTR on an average weekday; Hong Kong’s population is slightly above 7 million. The daily ridership is 12 times more than the Bay Area’s BART system that is of similar length. The tramway is also busy; over quarter million passengers ride the double deck cars over the 18.6 miles of track laid in the middle of Hong Kong Island’s main thoroughfares.
Brightly colored neon advertising signs of all size compete for the remaining air space over the road level. The brilliant signs occupy every sight line imaginable. (The neon sign makers must make a killing in Hong Kong.) The nighttime neon lights are an enduring memory of this southern Chinese city.
Also overhead are extensive networks of elevated walkways. These pedestrian viaducts keep the human crowds and the vehicles on separate grades. Where the people can’t move above the roads, they often are able to travel below the street. Near the Metro stops, the underground city lets pedestrians traverse several city blocks well below the surface on subterranean walkways. Hong Kong is a good city for agyrophobics and vampires; it would be easy enough to both avoid crossing streets and the direct sunlight for days at a time.
Certainly agyrophobic shopaholic vampires must love Hong Kong. I’ll be sure to ask the next one I see. The Metro stations, the underground spaces, and almost every other available covered public space are lined with shopping mall style stores. Large swaths of Hong Kong function as a mall. I realize that Hong Kong has seven million residents and around 30 million of visitors per year but how can they keep all of these stores in business? The apartments in Hong Kong are small and the suitcases only hold so much; the shoppers just can’t buy that much stuff.
Construction and repair is ongoing all over Hong Kong. As is typical in South Asia, bamboo polls are rigged as scaffolding for building maintenance. We saw buildings as high as twenty stories completely surrounded with lashed bamboo scaffolds. The scaffolds have no platforms. Workers must support themselves at each level by wedging their feet between the polls. Curiously, never once did we see a worker on one of these bamboo structures during our visit, despite how frequently we saw the scaffolds. Perhaps sufficiently daring bamboo scaffolding workers are in short supply and the scaffold builders are easy to find.
Back down at street level, restaurants filled with people are everywhere. The smells of Chinese five-spice and curry fill the air. Golden brown crispy-skinned ducks hang behind the street front windows. Pots of congee and dark brown vats of stock steam at the restaurant’s doorways. You can almost taste the food walking down the streets.
Hong Kong’s streets are a wall of city noise. Buses rumble by. Trams screech along their steel rails. Dishes clatter. Purposeless exotic cars emit brief roars of acceleration when the rare, short traffic opening occurs. It must be a step of hell to have a Ferrari but only be able to drive it in the congested streets of Hong Kong. Hawkers stuffed into the worst fitting suits imaginable whisper deals of a lifetime on custom tailored suits and “Rolex” watches. (Am I getting old? Now the touts on the street only offer fine clothing and fake watches. No longer are good bud and cheap women offered up.)
There’s one surprise amongst the sights, smells, sounds, and utter chaos of the city. It’s comfortable, clean, and friendly. The throngs move civilly through the streets. People are helpful. That’s particularly noticeable in such a large city. Hong Kong is easy to move around in and it feels safe.
Indeed, safety seems to be a major concern. Signs announce prohibitions against doing anything that could remotely be considered dangerous. Seriously, I saw a two square foot one inch deep depression against a sidewall of an underground tunnel with a sign that warned of a tripping hazard. It was likely that more risk was incurred in installing the sign than from the stepping into the slight hole in the walkway. As spitting might spread germs it warrants a $75 US fine, according to frequent placards. Often Hongkonger’s wear masks to protect against germs. (The constant smog emanating from the north might have something to do with masks.) Escalator handrails, the signs say, are sterilized daily.
Our tour of Hong Kong Island started with a ride on the 1930’s era wood-lined double-decker tram along Hong Kong Island’s main roads. We took the tram from Causeway Bay to the Western Market. From Western Market a short hike later and we were at the beginning of the Mid-Level Escalator. The escalator is a hodge-podge of elevated walkways and moving steps that takes 55,000 people a day up the side of one of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous steep hillsides.
From the top of the Mid-Level Escalator we traversed through the zoo (admission is free). Amongst the zoo’s animals is a pair of North American raccoons. Can we volunteer the half-dozen coons that live in our neighborhood for service at Hong Kong’s zoo? They may find the zoo’s food offerings better than those from our garbage cans.
Further along we reach the base of the Peak Tramway. The Peak Tramway is a funicular railway that heads to a viewpoint up the hill. Most would call the top of the tramway a saddle and not a “peak” but I guess that technicality doesn’t really matter. Unfortunately, with the smog, it was a hazy the city view from the top. We figured we’d head to the top again when the haze cleared as the view must be spectacular. That clear day never came during our visit. It was always smoggy.
Back down the hill we explored the Graham Street’s open-air market. All sorts of fresh food items were on display. Particularly impressive was the fresh fish, some pulled from the nearby tanks and left flopping on the stall’s table as a testament to the freshness.
Not too far from the market was Man Mo Temple.
“It smells like incense,” I said to Becky as we walked along the streets trying to find the temple. “Where’s that coming from?”
It turns out that we smelled the Buddhist temple long before we saw it. Blue clouds of incense smoke boil out of every door and gap in the temple’s tile roof. Visitors commonly light bundles of incense rods and leave them smoldering inserted into designated sand basins scattered inside and out. One rod of incense is clearly not enough. Most visitors leave handfuls of burning rods, some of which are an inch or more thick. I imagine that there’s no sense taking any chances with leaving just one rod. Whatever the exact purpose, certainly more rods must be better. Inside the temple the bundles of burning incense rods choked the air with thick smoke. We could barely breath. Our eyes watered. It has to be incredibly unhealthy to work inside the temples. You might as well be smoking ten packs of cigarettes a day.
A recommended tourist activity in Hong Kong is a ride on the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor. The trip across the deep water channel allows for incomparable unobstructed views of the skyscraper filled skylines on both sides of the waterway. Hong Kong has 36 of the top 100 tallest residential buildings in the world. The world’s fourth largest building, the International Commerce Center, sits along the waterway on the Kowloon side. Perhaps there’s a more spectacular skyline view in the world; I don’t have a clue of where it might be. We splurged for passage on the top deck of the ferry, the most expensive option at $2.50. I took a moment for it to sink in. The Star Ferry ride would cost us 2.50 Hong Kong dollars each. In US dollars, the highest class of tickets across the harbor cost us 32 cents US each.
All this and we even managed to spot a Space Invader. Monsieur Invader visited Hong Kong many years ago and left his tile mosaics behind. I suspect that few remain behind given the years, the urban redevelopment, and the graffiti cleansing proclivities of the local powers. In any event, Hong Kong is a hard city to spot a Space Invader in. There’s some much going on visually everywhere you look.
Wandering about Hong Kong definitely develops an appetite. That’s good. We were in Hong Kong primarily to eat. And eat well we did. Indeed, sandwiched amongst our city touring, we ate the best Chinese food we’ve ever had. There’s one big problem, though. The Chinese restaurants back home will not cut it any longer and Hong Kong is a tad too far from home to get take out.
The full picture set is on Picasa.
Hong Kong hints:
All the public transportation is cheap. For example a one-way trip on the tram costs 26 cents US. Everything is most conveniently paid for with an easy to obtain pre-loaded Octopus debit card available at Metro stops. The Octopus card can also be used to make small purchases at many stores.
Our rooms in Hong Kong did not have heat. I understand that this is not uncommon. Indeed, in multiple story buildings everywhere it’s cooling and not heating that is usually the concern. In January, our rooms were just a little too cool. If you plan on traveling to the region during this time of the year, you might want to bring along those super extra thick flannel PJs.
Generally English works well in Hong Kong. At the least there’s someone near who can and will help out. Guidebooks advise that the taxi drivers don’t speak English. In our experience, about half of the drivers spoke no English. It is a good idea to have your destinations written down in Chinese by hotel’s desk. And take the hotel’s card along with you; it’s your ticket back if you want to take a taxi. But really, you should be taking public transit. It’s easier, cheaper, and faster.