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Travel Stories: Hong Kong

Posted by in Travel Journals


(I traveled to Hong Kong and took at brief stop in Tokyo in the Summer of 2014, this is what I saw.)

6:27 AM MCO 6/4

“Cell phones contain metal.” When you can’t help but be late to airports, especially an airport like Orlando International, this is the sort of thing you expect to hear. Lines leading to lines leading to lines, many first time flyers, all a bit confused, you learn to cut people a little slack. The metal thing though, I hadn’t considered that this might be the revelation, but then again I’m usually all but undressed by the time I hit the boarding pass check, so I might be a special case.

A morning flight to Hong Kong. I haven’t bothered checking how long, about ten hours in it won’t really matter. What is interesting is that the usual low hum of half-charged laptops and layover despair has been replaced by the crooning of children with light sabers and Nintendo DS’. This demographic shift is likely the result of our first stop at JFK. Either that or Hong Kong is a much more exciting vacation spot than I give it credit for. There is one other guy reading a book on China who is likely in it for the long haul, in tshirt and jeans he has the sort of interested focus reserved for those mentally prepared for spending the better part of the day at 30,000 feet. I wonder if he brought an umbrella, I brought an umbrella, it’s going to rain.

9:27 am JFK 6/5

Grey and miserable in JFK. I spent most of the trip here sleep walking, all my normal electronic distractions no real match for the fact that I had skipped out on sleep for the past while. I plan to be here again in a month for a more extended stay, but for now…terminal one and breakfast.

9:58 am JFK 6/5

There should be a phobia associated with the recognition that this might be the last US toilet you see in a while. There’s one for being out of mobile phone contact…

The bad thing about being groggy while trying to navigate an airport that has the gall to force you outside of security and onto a train to get to another terminal is that you tend to get lost. I wouldn’t know anything about that though…

12PM JFK 6/5

Charge phone, download Cantonese primer, read Wikitravel, find choose your own adventure game books on tablet, ponder options chains, stare longingly at Turkish snack stand. Check.

1:38 PM Tarmac (Japan Airline) 6/5

Stepping onto my flight, I realize that each attendant on Japan Airline is in a heated battle to see who can be the most fastidiously polite. Smiles and bows and thank you’s flow over me. A welcome change from JFKs strikingly boring terminal. Unfortunately, I also realize that I have a middle seat, which for a person my height on a flight this long is bound to lead to some fantastically awkward moments. It could be worse, it could be the window. People like window seats for some reason, those people have no clear understanding of rest room politics.

3:14 PM (Subjective) 10,000 FT 6/5

Something, something, something, baggage delay. Finally, we are in the air. New York recedes under a thin layer of clouds. Sunlight streams in. The journey begins in earnest.

4:44 PM (Subjective) In the sky 6/5

When given a choice between chopsticks and a fork you must always choose the option that, through it’s very inconvenience, makes you feel like a more authentic participant in the culture. When seated next to another American traveler, this choice becomes all the more imperative, because nothing says, “I am an urbane man of the world” like trying to pick up a strawberry between two pieces of wood.

5:15 PM (Subjective) the sky 6/5

The biggest danger of travel is to cast everyone you meet in the role of object lesson, designed by the Universe to teach you something about living. It’s a surprisingly seductive position to take, and I think most of us find ourselves defaulting to it at some point. The real lessons, I have to believe, are found in recognizing the fact that everyone has somewhere to be, some quest or another that they are trying to accomplish, and that you are just an incidental set piece in that story. There is richness in piecing together tiny pieces of those missions.

10:32 PM (Subjective) 59:52 N 165:32 W 6/5

It’s either 10:33 PM or 11:33 AM depending entirely on your frame of reference. In fact, where I am right this second it’s 6:33 PM. Time travel is complicated because looking out the cabin window it looks like the middle of the afternoon, yet despite the report of my senses, my brain is convinced that I’ve already done this today.

5:04 PM (subjective) Narita Tarmac 6/6

We are late. My flight boards in 50 minutes. The race is on. In other news, Narita is made of fog.

5:40 PM (subjective) Narita Airport 6/6

And by race I, of course, meant relatively leisurely stroll through Narita’s efficient terminals, and arrival just in time for a 20 minute delay.

6:05 PM (subjective) Narita Airport 6/6

Western business man traveling to Hong Kong to visit factory. Discusses at length with stranger. Wife not amused.

7:28 PM (subjective) the air 6/6

A cloud like a slab of concrete, dark and and oddly dense, hangs motionless in the sky, backlit by a hard line of dark orange. If you told me that you could stand on it, that it was some hidden sky bound outpost, I would believe you.

The sun sets over somewhere.

11:16 PM (subjective) roads of Hong Kong 6/6

Hong Kong officially boasts one of the most organized Taxi systems I’ve ever had the pleasure of participating in. Instead of the hundred or so strangers screaming at you to get in their car, Hong Kong has lines and complaint cards and something that resembles orderly progression. That being said I apparently picked the hotel not served by my prepaid voucher, which sort of defeats the purpose when all is said and done.

From the road, Hong Kong is very tall. It’s built unapologetically skyward, aggressively so. All tall buildings surrounding central waterways.

1:18 am (subjective) Hyatt regency, Kong 6/6

The good news is that the Hyatt Regency at Sha Tin is a spectacularly nice hotel, one of the nicest perhaps I’ve ever been to internationally. The bad news is that it is about 12 miles away from Central Hong Kong, which means the first order of business is figuring out how the Public transportation systems works.

8:23 am (subjective) Hyatt regency, Hong Kong 6/7

It’s rainy reason in Hong Kong through November, which can be distinguished from non-rainy season by the 70-90% chance of rain extending ad infinitum. With what shall have to pass for the sun up the view outside my window becomes a brilliant tapestry of contradiction with mountains rising in the distance, high rises spreading out to the south, and a gaggle of tourists playing out by a hotel poll beneath my feet and the MRT whizzing by.

9:39 am Kwun Tong Line 6/7

People, people, people, people, trains. British voices, Cantonese script. University to Yau Ma Tei in an hour or less.

Like all trains before it the MRT houses crushes of bored people cacooned in the warm glow of their smart phones.

mTrip is still not interested in believing I’m in Hong Kong.

10:10 am Tin Hau temple 6/7

Hong Kong is a sweaty city. Ten minutes of walking and it’s already dripping off of me. I visit a temple in the middle of skyscrapers. It’s a temple and “community rest area” which means older Chinese men playing Go and younger men smoking, a few wheelchairs, a smattering of low key vendors.

The air of the temple itself is filled with incense smoke, so much so that the people working inside wear masks. The incense is alive within its walls, tendrils of living smoke bringing prayers into the ether.

11:05 am Hong Kong history museum 6/7

In many way Hong Kong feels familiar, not so much as a place like Singapore but certainly moreso than Tokyo. Hong Kong’s history museum, complete with chattering students, and English narrated videos elucidating on ancient rock formations, would not seem out of place in New York City or even Orlando, Florida.

Three quick facts: salt seems to be the currency of early Hong Kong culture; there were groups of people who lived almost entirely on boats, known fascinatingly enough as Boat Dwellers; except for the museums of art, history and heritage, Hong Kong museums seem to have fantastically poor ratings.

Three more: Hoklo marriage rituals include a dragon dance, salt is made in a series of evaporation ponds and Hong Kong has a startling amount of English.

12:54 PM Hong Kong history museum 6/7

The Hong Kong history museum is breathtaking, scenes from Hong Kong history are recreated at scale in many places. You step through the past as you learn more about it.

2:58 PM Cameron road 6/7

Indonesian lunch at Bali, quick subway stop, The sun shines. Inbound to the Avenue of the Stars.

3:31 PM avenue of the stars 6/7

Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and cargo ships sponsored by the Mega Events Fund. A dragon boat race backed by drums. The air smells of salt with weak traces of sewage. And as it turns out Janis Joplin described herself as a weirdo among fools, and was voted as “ugliest man” in her highschool.

Hong Kong is a polluted city. This is no more apparent than when you look out over the water and realize the fog went away hours ago but the haze remains.

5:00 PM Tsim Sha Tsui Station 6/7

Bought what I thought was Green Tea, turns out it was Ginseng and Honey, which is surprisingly intense, especially when you think you’re getting Green Tea. After getting hopefully lost, I made it to my train. Hong Kong vending machines seem only to want to take coins, and it’s about 92 degrees out, so my new mission is to squirrel them away as ward against dehydration.

5:35 PM central 6/7

Welcome to Central where the skyscrapers get taller and more beautiful, and the Porsches and expats come out to play. I just shot a picture at an angle, which I am fairly certain represents appropriate, regional hipster cred.

The worlds longest escalator. Unsure where exactly it goes, but it goes there for quite sometime which makes it deeply satisfying. As it turns out the mid level escalators lead to some sort of expat oasis called Soho, restaurants and stores stuffed to the gills with English speakers.

6:05 PM somewhere in central 6/7

The weather hits it’s sweet spot. This close to the financial district the game becomes Beamer, Porsche or BMW. Porsche is winning by a hair.

Up the stairs and across the bridge, into the parks I go. And apparently into a Cathedral as well. Hong Kong is a different place in the evening, without the swelter. It’s a place at peace.

7:13 PM peak tram line 6/7

Hundreds of people waiting to see the cities highest point. As night falls and taxis move through the street in earnest, the throng pulses. There is beauty here, a kind of glorious human beauty of shared purpose.

Also a film crew, I apparently forgot to mention the film crew.

8:18 PM sky tram 6/7

Up and up we go.

11:28 PM Hyatt Regency

With 10% battery life left on my GPS I made the executive decision to conserve it, especially since the most notable part of the trip down from the peak (which was a brilliant carnival of people and neon and smart phone camera clicks) was a girl who had decided that screaming at her mother for 20 minutes was the very height of comedy. The patience I witnessed there was something to behold.

Hong Kong is alive. There is poetry to this city. Part of it, I imagine, is the tension between its western and eastern influences. I eat food that I’d see nowhere else, visit temples to deities I’ve never heard of, learn history from a perspective that is totally alien to me and yet if I squint hard enough I can imagine that I am in almost any major, western city. It’s a fascinating dichotomy, one I hope to explore further when I visit Lantau island in the morning.

Also, I found a 7/11 100 yards away from my hotel.

7:36 am University Station 6/8

I’m finally becoming used to public transportation here, which is swell considering I’ve had just under 7 hours of sleep over the last 72 hours. It’s a game I play with myself to avoid jet lag, I figure if my body has no idea what time it is at any given location it can’t get confused when it goes back to the States. This theory has yet to be proven out, but it does buy me a handful of extra hours to futz with my tablet.

It’s not quite raining yet, but it really wants to.

8:27 AM Middle Road, Tsim Sha Tsui 6/8

3502. Thanks Dave.

8:41 am bus 3502 6/8

The relative level of plush chotskies found in Chinese vehicles is incredible. I’m not sure if this is a Hong Kong thing but I haven’t seen more Iron Men, Snoopies, Donald Ducks and Angry Birds since, well, ever.

9:00 am Bus 3502 6/8

Our final motley consists of 7 people including myself. Two of likely UK extraction, two likely of Indian. Two who seem undecided, instead spending this initial leg of the trip looking out the window as we pass by Hong Kong’s hazy skyline on the way to the ferry.

The rain changed it’s mind, at least for the moment, the morning is gorgeous.

9:26 am ferry to Lantau island 6/8

There are two main classes of travelers I’ve come across, the solipsists and the communtarians. I would say they are split fairly evenly across the population. Solipsists travel as a mediation on their own reality. They tend to travel alone or in pairs. They’re quiet. The exist slightly outside of the space they inhabit, and their primary conceit is to uncover how this world reflects back onto them. How it changes them. How they, in some small way, affect it.

Communtarians travel to experience somewhere new in the context of people. Whether it’s the local population or their own friends, family, bar mates, or consorts doesn’t really matter. They travel in packs. They make friends, ingratiating themselves with everyone around them. They exist deeply within every experience, driving them forward and stamping it with something entirely their own.

On the far ends of this spectrum you tend to find the same thing, selfishness.

Where do I fall? I’ll leave that one to you.

9:59 am (subjective) ferry to Lantau 6/8

Little children sitting next to you on ferries with their parent remind you of how important a sense of awe is.

10:24 AM (subjective) Lantau Island 6/8

Lantau used to be a farming and fishing island, then it wasn’t, now cows and water buffalo roam and they have a new airport.

Lantau Island, local population: farmers (former), fishermen (former), monks, nuns and prisoners (current). There are four prisons on Lantau island and about 100 monasteries.

Fun fact: once you are done eating one side of a fish, you shouldn’t turn it over or you might make a ship capsize.

Fun fact: The religion of the island — finding how to overcome troubles — anger, jealousy, vexation.

Fun fact redux: Silent houses are private places of worship.

11:25 am Lantau Fishing Village 6/8

Tourism is a bizarre. Visiting this village is like dragging a boat through someone’s backyard, in fact, it precisely is. There is a mild perversity to it all, humanity as spectacle. Life as sideshow. I saw a couple of tourists snapping pictures from what at one point was someone’s home. They waved at us. We waved back.

At the very least we leave them a sizable pile of cash in the bargain.

11:47 am Lantau Island 6/8

Our tour guide has a poetic cadence to the way that he presents information. He makes a point and then repeats it once, twice, a third time but just when you think you could plucks the words out of his mouth he tacks on a totally new point and everything changes.

Taoism. Confucianism. Buddhism.

Balance. Relationships. Emptiness.

12:13 PM (subjective) Latau Buddha 6/8

There is nothing so certain to drive a child to throw coins than a sign explicitly stating not to throw coins.

Humidity may have just passed 500%.

There would be a substantial business in importing foreign specific beverages put out by major brands like Coke and Pepsi. I’d pay quite a premium to be able to find Minute Maid Peach in the States (at least a version with actual Peach)

1:17 PM Po Lin Monastery 6/8

I pulled a big stack of Jokers this time, as it turns out I was totally wrong, everyone was from Oceania. Four Aussies and two New Zealanders. Two are on stopovers from France and two are on a grand tour of Asia. Lovely people one and all.

2:09 PM Po Lin “Village” 6/8

Hint: it’s a shopping center.

Also, it is quite nearly too hot to think.

Finally, umbrellas as heat protection are strongly in vogue.

3:17 PM (subjective) bus to Kowloon 6/8

The cable car from Lantau is an absolute wonder, not only because it gives you a Birdseye view of the island, but it also traps you in a small glass box with your tour mates, where you can discuss the intricacies of aboriginal health care, the joys of the Hong Kong prison system, and why Chicago should never be experienced in Winter.

I am fairly certain school children are riding our bus.

4:40 PM (subjective) central 6/8

I wonder if it is pure coincidence that the holistic medicine museum is at the very top of about 150 steps.

6:42 PM (subjective) harbor city 6/8

It’s a mall.

A poorly organized mall.

A poorly organized mall I might be hopelessly lost in.

This might be a function of diminished mental capacity borne of lack of sleep, heat exhaustion and hunger. After further consideration I retract my previous statement.

Harbor City is a mall.

8:13 PM harbor city 6/8

My headphones died today. I now have Hong Kong headphones, may they live on longer than their Korean brothers.

8:40 PM Hung Hom Line 6/8

Couple gropes on train. They may or may not be children. Nonetheless they are tiny. Girl who is likely not a child stands between cars, staring longingly. Woman who is certainly not a child has an animated conversation, leaning near the door. These headphones are quite lovely. Time to head home.

12:04 am (subjective) Hyatt Regency 6/8

“Is Sha Tin Apple Pie worth putting on pants for?” a question worth asking in your hotel room at midnight.

Answer: sort of.

8:57 am (subjective) YMCA 6/9

Hong Kong has a fantastic public transportation system, I know this because of my extraordinary ability to get hopelessly lost. Despite every cell in my body wanting to put me on a ferry to Mainland China or cast myself out into some dark alley never to be heard from again, the MTR manages to keep me relatively secure.

Today is the Land Between Tours which explores the New Territories. That much I know, the rest I’m a bit fuzzy on.

9:19 am bus near harbor 6/9

$20000 per square foot, what it will cost you to live on the harbor.

Sue is a pro.

We are now listening to an educational tape, which I will say is a first. Well done Sue, well done.

Things to remember: Evil spirits fly in straight lines, thus slanted temple roofs. In the 80s most toilets were open fronted, and many Chinese were curious of westerners, hilarity ensues. Burn a Benz get it in the next life.

Sue was Mongolian in a past life, teaches yoga currently, is looking for a millionaire, and spent seven years or so traveling through Asia.

10:09 am on the bus 6/9

Unsorted facts written in B minor:

Hong Kong has 6 of the most popular McDonalds, blame Snoopy. Hong Kong also has the most millionaires per square miles. The relationship between these two facts remains uncertain.

The PLA now live where the British soldiery used to, the difference is the PLA can’t leave their barracks. Trees in full bloom on the Chinese New Year bring wealth and good luck, they are pretty serious about this, which makes horticulture a bit of a gambit.

Cars are used as a status symbol because all apartments look the same, 4% of people own a car, there is a 110% luxury tax, and that’s why there aren’t any cars on the road and the ones there are are BMWs, Benzs and Porsches.

11:09 am Pang family village 6/9

If you want to understand the wealth of someone in Hong Kong look at their cars, not their homes, extraordinarily modest housing (that doesn’t necessarily have running water) can on occasion hide extreme wealth. There is a lesson here.

Man does Tai Chi with umbrella, zero irony, he does not look the least bit silly, in fact, he looks quite fierce. There is a lesson here.

11:52 am Hakka Village 6/9

On the way to Hakka village. They are farmers who immigrated to Hong Kong hundreds of years ago, and are being displaced as traditional farming practices die.

The also are not to keen on having photos taken of them. The game, taking pictures of the village without stealing anyone’s soul.

12:15 PM (subjective) Hakka Village 6/9

The Hakka village is mostly empty, the older men have died and the younger have moved away. Now, it’s mostly manned by older women. It’s the most deeply peaceful place I’ve visited in Hong Kong.

1:07 PM somewhere on the road 6/9

Spoke about economic development with an Australian gentlemen, chatted a bit with a Russian women living in Singapore who speaks German.

Three hours a night of sleep eventually catches you around the throat. I’m wading through my afternoon in a light haze, which is quite relaxing but does make it hard to think about thoughts for more than fifteen seconds on a stretch, Sue keeps us awake with stories of her travels on the Transcontinental railroad and backpacking across China. The taped voice she puts on afterwards offers a fine opportunity to nap.

1:30pm near Hong Kong harbor 6/9

“And we did take it in a Opium War.” Sue on returning Hong Kong island past Boundary Street when the British government didn’t necessarily have to.

“To be slim, use 2B” context withheld.

3:00 PM harbor city 6/9

Two Australians, a Canadian, an American and a British Ex Pat all walk into a dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong and decide to talk politics. The punch line is obvious. It was probably the most interesting conversation I’ve had in ages.

4:23 PM page one, harbor city 6/9

This is how long it took me to find the book store in Harbor City. The Bookstore I passed four times less than a day ago.

5:26 PM science museum 6/9

Despite it’s relatively low ratings on mTrip the Hong Kong Science Museum has two major advantages: first, it’s air conditioned; second, it’s really, really close to harbor city which is also air conditioned.

6:06 PM (subjective) Space Museum 6/9

“This is English Channel” I fully retract any negative statement I might have made about the Space Museum. Where else can you see an IMAX production called We Are Aliens in Cantonese while wearing giant headphones and the largest 3D googles I’ve ever seen? There is a part of me that thinks this getup was designed to make their point.

6:38 PM (subjective) Space Museum 6/9

I fell asleep…

7:05 PM subway outside science museum 6/9

Tricycle falls.
Little girl doesn’t.
Violent tears fill the air.

Free government wifi, that’s cool.

7:45 AM Cab to Airport 6/10

Hong Kong is a hot, crowded, polluted and unmistakably lovely city. While it’s not as dense with cultural signposts as some places (I’m looking at you Rome), it’s the type of city that rewards you in more subtle ways. It’s a living city, not a theme park for tourists, and as such what you take out of it is derived from living in it alongside it’s people — from pushing your way onto a train and sweating in the streets and eating some dim sum.

I’m going to miss Hong Kong more than most, and considering the next gift it offers me is a 19 hour layover in Narita, that’s saying something.

8:22 AM (subjective) Hong Kong Airport 6/10

Items prohibited in Hong Kong: tear gas, knuckle dusters, and stun guns. There goes that idea.

1:46 PM (subjective) 0:52 minutes outside Japan 6/10

Feverishly trying to devise a way to get into Tokyo to wile away my 20 hour layover, without setting myself up for a missed flight. This should be interesting.

3:55 PM (subjective) Narita Airport

Narita has sunshine, what strange omens are these?

5:23 PM (subjective) Skyliner Train Station 6/10

I’m officially off the reservation.

I’ve never taken a train in Tokyo, but after Hong Kong I’m feeling fairly confident. And the suns out, which is practically a miracle. Add to that the fact that I have a hotel now, and my immediate condition is nothing to sneeze at.

I’m heading to Akihabara (sort of), the route for anyone keeping track should be the number one train to Ueno with a transfer Aoto, from there take the train to Misaki-guchi and stop at Asakusa-bashi. Things from there get hazy but it involves walking.

This train moves more slowly, not as far as actual speed on the track goes. In all likelihood it is much, much faster than any train HK can muster, but it stops for substantially longer and even has a real, live human being manning the door.

I always forget how green Japan can be.

7:49 hotel 6/10

I always forget how Japan Japan can be. I find myself in a 10 x 10 box, complete with a hot plate and a lovely view of the side of a building. On my TV is a commercial for a television show which, from what I can gather, is about filming women on the street and commenting on their breasts. Oppai!

9:13 PM Gundam Cafe 6/10

Mission one accomplished, eating at a restaurant modeled on Gundam Wing. If that isn’t super exciting to you, consider yourself a reasonable adult.

11:58 PM (subjective) sotobori-dori 6/10

Tokyo is quiet, cool and mostly closed. The last trains are running and I’m heading home. What did I do? Mostly hung out in giant, smoky arcades playing fighting games with Otaku.

6:02 AM (subjective) Hotel Yanahibashi 6/11

I need to shave, badly.

In other news I don’t think I have cellular service anywhere in Tokyo. Curious.

8:05 am (subjective) Skyliner towards Narita 6/11

I bought a reserved seat on the Skyliner to Narita, I’m not entirely certain I wanted to do either of these things, but the train is absolutely lovely and quite a bit less crowded than the transfers I took to get here.

Fun fact, leaving Tokyo is as easy as getting to Nippori Station, how you manage that is the adventure.

11:20 AM (subjective) Nirita Airport 6/11

In the air.

11:59 AM Boston Logen Airport 6/11

On the ground.

Time travel, you’re a lovely mistress.