Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Good time in the big city...

Hong Kong served as a rude awakening to us. Not rude as in "get out of my way" but more rude as in "time to wake up, otherwise you're going to miss the bus". After 6 1/2 weeks in China, hitting Hong Kong was a full-on reintroduction to Western Civilization. Sure the Chinese have ownership of it but it's still a lot more like the West than not. It's been a great warmup for making the trip down under if only to realize we can now buy something that doesn't come from a stall. Though I'm still getting used to that one :-)

And now without further ado, random thoughts and observations from the two of us about Hong Kong:

- Hong Kong is one of the more multi-cultural big cities we've been in on the trip. Lots of commonwealth folks (India, UK, Australia, etc.) as well as a good mix of Chinese and other Asian folk. Definitely makes for a vibrant atmosphere and one that we've really enjoyed.

- At different points of our visit here, I've felt like I'm in Seattle, San Francisco and Monaco. Again, a bustling melting pot of goodness.

- The public transportation here is clean, efficient and not too pricy. We've taken the MTR (the metro) and the ferries and both have been very good and an easy to use to get around. Haven't tried the buses but from the looks of them (ultra modern double deckers!) they look like they'd be as nice. Now if only the US could get their heads around proper public transport.

- Nothing tastes as good as Ben and Jerry's on a hot steamy summer day when you haven't had real ice cream for 4+ months. Even if it does cost $11.

- Hong Kong is expensive. :-)

- We got the opportunity to go hiking with our guesthouse owner and his local hiking group. 25 people aged between their late 20's and in one case 80 were in tow. Not for the meek at heart as after starting out on a flat paved portion we pretty much went straight up a hill and then offroaded for the next 4 hours. Quite impressive seeing folks just bushwhack their way through some pretty hairy terrain. Of course we finished up with a Cantonese lunch where Becca and I both tried chicken feet and roast pigeon. I tried both. That's all I have to say.

- It's a bit pathetic really but getting to browse through a western book store really made our day. Having actual options for what you want to read was a pleasant little treat for both of us.

- Hong Kong has very rainy summers and is susceptible to flash floods and the like. Enough so that they have a rain warning system with different colors for levels of risk (red, yellow, black, etc.). The only rain we had was a different type of Hong Kong rain: the water dripping down from the various air conditioners above us. Good times.

- We were quite amused by the Indian tailor mafia on Kowloon. As you walk down the street you are constantly approached by a somewhat shady looking men mumbling something about new suits, cheap handbags, designer tailoring etc.. The funny thing is the way that they kind of skulk on the sidewalks and make you the offers under their breath. It feels like they should be opening a trench coat or something and offering us something from the inside. Still, they're easy to shake off for the most part so we didn't mind them.

- We were really impressed by all the green spaces in the city, despite the crush of buildings. Kowloon had a fantastic park with all sorts of athletic facilities and on Hong Kong Island we passed a number of little parks in Central, as well as the botanical/zoological gardens closer to the midlevels. And on top of all of that is the forest land on Victoria Peak. It really makes for a nice atmosphere.

- The weather didn't cooperate with us very much while we were in town. At least, it didn't make for very good photos. Lots of clouds, rain, grey and smog. We did have one beautiful clear day but we weren't doing as many touristy things that day.

- I don't think I realized how much I'd gotten used to being in less developed countries until I was hit by shock after shock walking through Hong Kong. Whether it was all the 'western' food at the fancy supermarket (Brie! Salmon steaks! Cheerios!), the ability to use credit cards at stores, the glitzy malls with all the status symbol brand stores, the western food chains, the clean toilets well-stocked with toilet paper.....It was just reminder after reminder after reminder that things were different now. I don't know whether to be glad or sad about it, but we were definitely back in the developed world.

- While it may seem obvious, given Hong Kong's British history, we were also caught off-guard by how completely bilingual everything was: the signs, the stores, labels, transportation directions, people, etc. For people who are wanting to travel to Asia but are uncomfortable overcoming language barriers, this would certainly be an easy place to visit.

- While the words 'Hong Kong' in our minds conjure up the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island or crazy shops of Kowloon, we discovered that there is a lot more to Hong Kong. The New Territories feature lots of wilderness, great to hike in, and there a plethora of other much less developed islands, like Lamma Island, where our friends Pat and Meaghan live and which feels like a vacation town boardwalk and prohibits cars. If you're visiting Hong Kong, it's definitely worth your while to get beyond the cityscape and explore more of what the area has to offer.

- Even though it's famous for having Victoria peak in the middle of it, I didn't realize just how vertical a place Hong Kong Island. Whether it's the multi-part Central-MidLevels escalator (just a fantastic bit of infrastructure) or the steep roads, or all the flash flood drains, you are constantly reminded that you are perched on or trying to climb up the side of a mountain. It's pretty impressive, actually.

- Hong Kong has a fantastic system of pedways above the traffic on both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. It was a great way to move around the don't have to cross streets or be stopped by traffic lights and you have a nice view down on everything. If only more major cities did this...

- A final note. Jackie Chan is the face of almost everything tourist related in the city. He keeps popping up when you least expect it. On the plus side, we could have bought our own life-sized Jackie Chan cardboard man.

Brian & Becca

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