I know what you’re thinking. “Hong Kong!? Right now? Are you sure you that’s a good idea…?”
Welllll, yes and no. The U.S. Travel Agency website lists Hong Kong as a “Travel Advisory Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution” (last updated Oct 7, 2019). You know what other countries are listed as a Level 2? Most of Europe and Asia…
Advice from my Dad on this? “Just don’t be dumb and run towards gathering, yelling crowds. Go the other way.” You got it Dad, I did just that.
Also, I planned and booked this trip way back in June when the protests were still peaceful walks and demonstrations. I had no idea things would still be happening, much less escalate to the scale that they did come October.
Unfortunately, my vacation was cut short by a day, no, not due to violence at the destination, but to Typhoon Hagibis here in Japan. It was the first big hurricane of the season and it came at a lousy time. I was prepared with my extra water and cans of food, but thankfully our area in Aichi Prefecture wasn’t hit as hard as places closer to Tokyo. Because of the high winds and rains though, my flight was rescheduled a full 24 hours later than when it should have taken off.
I was really mad at first, but then I realized there was literally nothing I could do about it. I emailed my hotel telling them what happened and asked for a delayed check in, which they didn’t have a problem with and that was the extent of what I was capable of controlling. I considered standing outside on my tiny balcony and shouting at the universe at how inconvenient this storm was, but the only thing that would do would make me very cold and very wet.
So I settled in for the day to wait out the storm, repacked my backpack, and did some cleaning. Nothing else to do when you’re stuck inside during a typhoon. But the silver lining in this delayed flight was the fact that once I did get on the plane, it wasn’t a full flight, and that meant I had elbow room in my cramped economy seating! (In both directions no less!)
One thing that really messed me up on this trip was the fact that in HK their currency is the Hong Kong Dollar, so everything was in “dollars”. I knew before I arrived that 1 HKD = 0.13 USD, but seeing one muffin with a price tag of $10 was not something I got used to in my short time there. I had my currency converter open on my phone constantly, trying to figure out just how much things actually cost!
After touching down and clearing customs and immigration, I asked directions from two older travelers on how to buy a bus ticket and where to find the routes. Then they asked me which part of the States I was from. I smiled and said NJ, they both laughed and said they were from Staten Island. Practically neighbors! They showed me to my bus, wished me well, and kept walking to their own bus. (Dad you’re right, we always have that instant connection and trust with those from the same place where we’re from!) Funny thing was, the very next day I bumped into my Staten Island guardian angels on the busy morning streets! We just sort of stared at each other before the recognition dawned on us. We laughed again and chatted for a few minutes before they had to catch a train. For as crazy as the universe is, it has a funny way of working.
My hotel rooms seem to get smaller and smaller with each new Asian country I visit. I know Hong Kong is filled with people and short on space, but when I laid in my bed that night, I could touch both walls without even really having to stretch out too far. The bathroom was also an interesting small box where the toilet, sink, and shower unit were all in the same 2′ x 4′ box, so everything got wet when you showered! Since it was only me in this shoebox, it was okay, but there was no way two people could comfortably share that space (even if you really really like each other.)
I love big Asian cities, they have a special kind of madness to them. I also love spotting the westerner in the crowds. Nothing makes me smile more than hearing snippets of English conversations in a city where English is definitely not the first language. Hong Kong is chaos personified, especially now, but never did I feel unsafe or worried about being in the wrong place. I did see graffiti the result of some vandalized metro stations, closed down for repairs, but the city was packed with other tourists and locals who just wanted to get on with their day and not be bothered by the politics. So thats the attitude I adopted as well: I was there to explore and enjoy my time, not hide in my hotel room and worry!
I had two full days and even though it started raining as soon as I stepped out on that first morning, I wasn’t about to let it ruin my day. So I did what any sensible person would do, I went next door to the bakery to get something warm for breakfast! It proved to be the best way to start the day. One egg custard tart and a sweet potato bun later, and the rain slowed enough that it wasn’t like walking through a waterfall.
My little hotel was on the Kowloon side of the country, right off Nathan Road, which is one of the main roads leading from the ports at the south side of the peninsula all the way up through the neighborhood of Mong Kok up north. Armed with a pastry in each hand, I began my adventure walking south towards the water and hopefully towards the ferries.
Pharmacies, McDonalds, Chinese Medicine Shops, bakeries, 7-11’s, metro stations, Starbucks, and restaurants were on every block, making the city feel more familiar than I imagined it would. Everyone was in a hurry to get somewhere and I couldn’t help but feed off that energy as well.
Let me just say wow, nothing holds a candle to the morning rush of city life. I was swept right along in the crowds on the side walks, bumping and jockeying for the best position at each intersection waiting for the light to change before continuing on (or in most cases for a break in the traffic where some brave souls would run across. I didn’t want to risk losing my pastries, so I waited like a good tourist at each light… at least until my hands were empty.)
Hong Kong has two main sides that I could see; one side with older buildings, bamboo scaffolding along dirty high rises, more family restaurants, more locals; and the other with the shiny new skyscrapers, an international mix of crowds, upscale shopping, and business folks running around. I know this is a gross generalization and there are so many points in between these two extremes, but you get the idea. The effect was almost like I was in Manhattan, but I couldn’t read any of the signs or advertisements, and this city had a nicer public transit system.
I knew Hong Kong was an international powerhouse, but I didn’t appreciate what that actually meant until I realized just how many locals spoke enough English to communicate with all of us tourists/westerners. Each cashier, no matter where I was spoke enough English to tell me the price, workers at the local attractions could communicate directions, and ordering at restaurants was a breeze. Having come from a small town in Japan where English is spoken little to none by the locals, this was a really nice and unexpected change.
There was also free wifi basically everywhere around the city and it was fast and amazing. The other thing that was fast and amazing? The public transportation. The buses, subway, trains, and ferries all seem to run round the clock and I hardly had to wait for any of them.
Usually when I travel, I end up running for at least one or two trains, but in this case I found myself running to catch a few ferries which was new. To get from the Kowloon side to Hong Kong Island, you can either take the metro under the water or you can hop on the Star Ferry and cross on the water. I tried both because I could.
Once I was on HK island, I headed for one of the main attractions, The Peak Tram. It’s a funicular railway that began running in 1888 and it shuttles visitors up and down one of the tallest mountains all day. For being as old as it is, this rail car powered up the mountain at a good pace before it reached the terminus at the peak. I don’t know if you can tell from the picture, but it was a very steep ride. And as expected, the views from the top were breathtaking! The morning started out rainy and overcast, but thankfully it cleared up just enough to be able to see all the skyscrapers of the city. At the top was a piazza and shopping center, complete with a Madame Tussauds Wax Museum (those things are everywhere), shops, restaurants, and a higher viewing platform that gave 360 views, but cost extra. (Spoiler alert, I didn’t pay for the higher platform because the free one was perfect.)
After riding the tram back down, I wandered through the streets some, continuing to head towards their “Times Square”. I stumbled upon a big park with some wonderful fountains and gardens. Who knew this concrete jungle would have an actual green jungle right in the middle of it!? They had one of those big water fountains that looked like a mushroom, where the water came out from the top, ran along the top cap, and fell down the sides into the shallow pool underneath it. What delighted me most was the fact that you could stand directly underneath the mushroom and look out through the sheets of falling water. So of course realizing this, I go running through the small break in the waterfall, jumping on the narrow bench so my shoes don’t get soaked, and turned around to see a mother and her kids watching me. We made eye contact and laughed, (I think she was secretly hoping her kids wouldn’t follow me because it might not have been the smartest thing to run under a fountain.) I only thought to take a picture from inside the water, so you’ll have to use your imagination as to what it looked like from the outside…
I wandered through the busy streets of the Wan Chai district, a buzzing commercial center on the Island until my nose caught a familiar scent: pancakes. As confused as I was, I wasn’t about to walk away without investigating. Apparently these things called egg waffles are a major street food snack, its more or less pancake batter poured into a bubble wrap-esque griddle, cooked until its crispy on the outside and warm and puffy on the inside, and then formed around a slight cone so that they bend sightly to fit in the bags. This little hole in the wall shop offered their waffles plain, or with chocolate chips, bananas, green tea, red bean, pork floss, curry, cheese, chestnut, or sesame mixed into the batter. I opted for chocolate chips (because everyone knows thats the best type of pancake). It did not disappoint!
But really, all the food I had was very good. Pretty sure food is always my main motivation while abroad. (And sometimes when I’m home, trips to the grocery stores are my main weekend outings.) My favorite street food by far were these little corner stalls which sold a variety of fish balls, dumplings, sea creatures, and assorted meat things, sometimes on skewers, sometimes not. Sometimes the legs were still attached to the tiny squids and sometimes there was cows stomach instead (I’ve gotten braver with food, but tripe is still out of the question…) My favorite combination from these stalls were dumplings and bright yellow curry fish balls all covered in a spicy sticky sauce. Doesn’t look, or sound, like much, but it was heaven in a tiny greasy bag.
My next day was spent on the island of neighboring country Macau. It was only an hour ferry ride south west, and it was such a culturally confusing place. Macau was a colony of Portugal until about 1999, so there is a very strong Portuguese flair to their cities. Seeing the black and white tiled street, colored tiles on exterior walls of buildings, and the similar styles of architecture, I had flashbacks to walking around the streets of Lisbon just last summer. Then contrast the aesthetic of Portuguese architecture with the signs in Chinese characters, against the towering behemoths of its casinos was such a strange juxtaposition. I saw the Eiffel Tower of The Parisian, the canals of The Venetian, and then a casino called The Galaxy which took me about half an hour to walk through just to reach the other side. It really is the Vegas of Asia. No gambling for me this time, I was on a mission to see as much of the tiny country as I could before I had to catch the ferry back to HK.
One cool little area I walked through was called Villa da Taipa, or Taipa Village. It was only a few streets big, but they were filled with Chinese and Portuguese restaurants, bakeries, tourist shops, and all the charm of a small city center. I was walking slowly, browsing the menus out front of each eatery looking for a place for lunch, when suddenly an older lady saw me and all but pushed me inside her restaurant. I ended up with a big plate of wide flat noodles with beef and bean sprouts covered in a spicy sauce. The lady knew what I was in the mood for before I knew, and it hit the spot!
Another landmark of Macau is the Ruins of St. Paul on the northern part of the island. It was at the end of a of long and winding street filled with food hawkers and locals trying to entice tourists to spend their money at their shop. My favorite part of that street was all the free samples that were being handed out, I had so many cookies… The actual ruins were the facade of an old cathedral that kept getting burned down, it was a majestic, but crowded sight.
What’s the equivalent to turbulence when you’re on a boat? Because the water was much rougher returning from Macau than it was going there and I almost lost my lunch. I didn’t think I’d have to worry about getting seasick, but I was counting down the minutes until I was on solid ground again. It wasn’t a pretty ride back, but I managed not to embarrass myself.
Since I lost a day due to the typhoon, after getting back from Macau, I packed up my backpack and settled in for my final night. I could’ve easily spent the full week exploring all the backstreets and side streets of HK, but part of me was glad I was leaving because of the protests. I don’t know why, but I expected Hong Kong to feel a little bit like Tokyo. But as soon as I stepped off that bus for the first time onto the busy streets, I was proven very wrong. While I love Tokyo, HK is a creature unto itself. For as many people rushing around and as crazy as things were, I cannot wait to go back and explore the places I missed!