Hong Kong Island
From Kowloon, at sunset. A world famous view over Victoria Harbour.
I'd always thought you needed to be at the airport two hours for your flight so you had time to check in, go through interminable "security checks", do a spot of duty free shopping and walk along equally interminable corridors to your gate. Not any more, it seems, in this era of the internet. Having been dropped off at the airport a generous two-and-a-bit hours in advance, we were surprised to find almost no queue at the Cathay Pacific check-in desks. No queue? Very un-Heathrow. It turns out most people check in and choose their seats online nowadays, a fact that had managed to pass me by completely somehow, and we were narrowly bumped off our flight - which would have meant being put up by Cathay Pacific in an airport hotel (eurgh) and waiting until the next day. After a tense wait we were given the green light - just.
The new airport security rules confuse me. The old ones I can get my head around. X-ray my hand luggage, fine. Pat me down, fine. Check my pockets and put me through a metal detector, fine. But the 100ml containers in a plastic bag thing I just don't get.
According to the new rules it is not OK to take a one-litre bottle of liquid past security but it is OK to take an empty one-litre bottle through, together with ten full 100ml ones, and decant them together on the other side. How this is meant to prevent naughty people from taking liquids altogether less innocuous than water on board a plane, I'm not quite sure. But enough rambling. After a spot of duty-free (de rigueur
since, as they say, money spent in an airport terminal isn't real money) we made it to the plane and were ready to fall asleep. Due to our check-in ineptitude, Alex and I found ourselves on opposite sides, and ends, of the plane. Somehow I managed to get one of those emergency exit seats - the ones where you have to operate the inflatable slide if things go pear-shaped - so was able to luxuriate with one whole metre of legroom, whereupon I promptly fell asleep and woke up an hour or so away from Hong Kong.
We only had a little over 24 hours in Hong Kong - more than enought to conclude that Hong Kong is a very odd fish
Residential tower blocks squeezed up against the hills.
indeed. First impression were strange, and set the tone for our flying visit. The bus into Kowloon from the airport passes through a bizarre landscape of huge flyovers and veritable forests of concrete tower blocks all squeezed between land and sea. Indeed, it was immediately obvious that flat land is in short supply in Hong Kong, being as it is, a maze of not-that-large, hilly islands separated by narrow channels of sea. There seems to be so little room to build anything that everything that does
get built shoots straight up. Amazingly though, the sky was blue - it's always struck me that when you see photos or footage of China in books, in magazines or on television, the sky is always
grey. It's never sunny - always a dull, dank, smoggy grey.
By the time the bus gets into Kowloon - the "mainland" part of Hong Kong, it's already dark. Which is, frankly, the best time to see Hong Kong, where every square inch of available space is covered in neon signs. The flashy, technicolor display that is Hong Kong after dark is something else. Making neon signs in China must surely be a lot trickier than back
home: how on Earth do you bend a neon tube into a Chinese character? Our room for the night is on Nathan Road, Kowloon's main shopping street and home to the only hotels we can afford. Hong Kong very much operates on London prices...Without much difficulty we locate the building our hostel is located in: it's a huge, frankly disgusting-looking concrete building called Mirador Mansions. You may never have heard of Mirador Mansions, but the building's next door neighbour is very similar in appearance and character but much more famous: Chungking Mansions. These two buildings are a truly astonishing Hong Kong phenomenon worth digressing about.
The two buildings are 17 floors high, and are home to the most extraordinary melting pot of people and businesses you could ever hope, or wish, to see in one place. Built in 1961, when monstrous concrete blocks were sexy, the mansions are a labyrinth of dodgy hostels, dodgy money-changers, dodgy Indian restaurants, dodgy tailor shops, dodgy private apartments, dodgy people, dodgy lifts, dodgy staircases and dodgy wiring. Chungking Mansions alone is supposedly home to over 4,000 people - the building is nothing less than a small, self-contained town inside Kowloon. I suppose you
This sign is, I believe, for a pawn shop, which we saw many of in Kowloon.
could live your life there without ever stepping outside - not that you'd want to, mind, for the sake of your sanity. Many of Chungking Mansion's residents are Chinese, as you'd expect, but the most amazing thing about the place is the mix of people who live there, work there and loiter there. According to a local academic, the mansions are home to a mind-boggling 120 nationalities: Chinese, European, Indian, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, Nepalese, Middle Eastern, Nigerian, you name it. A modern-day Tower of Babel, no less.
After running a gauntlet of touts, each advertising his own dodgy restaurant or dodgy guesthouse - or, more simply, plain old marijuana - we made our way inside Mirador Mansions and found the antiquated lifts that are the building's arteries. Slow, usually full and - you guessed it - dodgy, the lift crawled its way to the twelfth floor, home to the reception of the fabulously, although perhaps not aptly, named Cosmic Guesthouse. Cosmic's flashy website was, shall we say, a little optimistic: the guesthouse was in effect a haphazard collection of rooms scattered higgledy-piggledy all over the building. "You're very lucky", said the nice lady at reception, "I've given you a
The gorgeous Mirador Mansions
Water drips constantly from the building's myriad air-conditioning units onto the pavement from above, as if the building itself has sprung a leak.
big family room". Sounded good. A rather suspicious-looking character showed us to our room, which was seven floors down on the fifth floor. The lift only stops at even-numbered floors so we got out on the sixth and used the skanky stairwell to get to the fifth. The grubby, weeping concrete was covered in imaginatively wired fuseboxes and electricity meters, and wires dangled more or less everywhere. Upon our return home, I read that Chungking Mansions - and, no doubt, Mirador as well - are considered fire traps. No kidding. The "family room" was about the size of our toilet at home, except with three single beds squeezed around the sides. There were no windows - but there was a bathroom. Not too bad I suppose, but when you think what twenty quid gets you in Bangkok...
After a quick change of clothes we headed out to find some food. Not as easy at it sounded, since it was Saturday night in one of the world's most densely populated places. After a couple of false starts we finally found a great Korean restaurant just off Nathan Road, and feasted on large quantities of grilled meat and kim chi. Just
When in Hong Kong...
...eat as the Koreans do! A rather lavish dinner at a Korean restaurant in Kowloon on our first night. So much for eating lightly after a long flight. Grilled beef and kim chi. What more could you want?
what we needed to settle our stomachs after a twelve hour flight. By ten or so we were completely exhausted, the time-zone jumping finally catching up with us. Amazingly we managed to find our room with only one wrong turn in Mirador's warren of doors and corridors.
The next day was going to be a marathon: our flight from Hong Kong to the Philippines was not until past midnight, giving us a full day and evening in Hong Kong. After liberal use of the snooze button to shrug off any remaining jet-lag, we ventured out at ten or so, leaving our bags in the care of the guesthouse staff for us to pick up later on our way back to the airport. After breakfast at - hmm - Starbuck's, we had a sniff around Nathan Road. It was Sunday, which meant the hordes of foreign workers employed largely to cook and clean for Hong Kong wealthier households were on their day off, and out in force. We had a quick wander around Kowloon Park, obviously a meeting place for hundreds of Filipino, Indonesian, Malaysian and Indian workers. Dozens of women sat on the paths and grass on plastic sheeting,
gossiping, picnicking and chatting on mobiles. No Cantonese spoken here...just like Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong is another Babel, an extraordinary crossroads where people from every imaginable place congregate to claim their share of Hong Kong's economic boom. Outside Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station, the melting pot was even more varied: European and American businessmen, Arab, Indian, African traders...I even caught a glimpse of a Jewish kippah
rushing past. The human landscape of Hong Kong was like nothing else I'd ever seen - and I'm a Londoner.
At midday we headed to Hung Hom on the MTR - a sleek, efficient network on a par with Singapore's - to meet a Hong Kong friend from our Trinity days, who now works at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Gabriel took us to a great dim sum
place inside the university. None of your typical soggy-sandwich-and-a-cup-of-tea university cafeterias, mind, but a proper restaurant on the top floor with a great view over Victoria Harbour. Dim sum menus are notoriously confusing, and possibly slightly dangerous unless you're a Cantonese speaker - was that a shrimp dumpling or deep-fried chicken feet I just ordered? Being a reader of Japanese doesn't much help, either - Cantonese
I've always wondered...
...exactly who decides which Chinese characters are used to write such random words as "Nathan".
insists on using a special über-complicated version of Chinese characters. As if they weren't complicated enough already. Thankfully, we gwailos
had an expert at hand, and ate delicious dim sum until the bamboo steamers piled up and we were ready to pop.
Determined to walk off some of the calories in those indecently moreish egg custard buns, we got Gabriel to point us towards the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry terminal, a half-hour walk away along the harbour front. The walk along the harbour affords fantastic views of Hong Kong Island, its tight clusters of skyscrapers huddled up against the island's forested slopes. The walk took us along Hong Kong's Avenue of Stars
- modelled, apparently, on Hollywood's Walk of Fame
- featuring paving stones graced with the names and hand-prints of the Hong Kong film industry's biggest stars. Local stars, mostly, since I hadn't heard of any save a rather obvious three: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li (and the last two only barely).
There's nothing particularly fancy per se
about the Star Ferry: it's a simple, regular, boat service that connects Hong Kong Island with Kowloon every few minutes. The distinctive boats that operate the
A busy shipping lane...ferries and ships abound.
service have, however, become iconic and are possibly the most enduring symbol of Hong Kong. The Star Ferry Company was founded in the late 19th century by - of all unlikely people - a Zoroastrian Indian businessman. The Company now operates a fleet of twelve ferries - the Northern Star
, the Shining Star
, the Silver Star
and so on and so forth on the theme - which carry tens of thousands of passengers a day. We hopped on one of the boats at the main Tsim Sha Tsui terminal, by way of a small plastic token purchased from a machine for a couple of dollars. The trip across to Hong Kong isn't long, fifteen or twenty minutes perhaps, but certainly a lot of fun, in a somewhat retro, pseudo-colonial way. We didn't spend a very long time at all on Hong Kong Island, mostly due to the fact that shortly after we jumped off the boat our digital camera decided now was a very good time to start playing up, and we had to rush back to Kowloon to see if we could get ourselves a replacement before we were due at the airport. No such luck, it turns out
Fishing in Victoria Harbour
Not much was biting by the looks of things.
in the end, but...
Back in Kowloon it was beginning to get dark, and dark is when the views of the island get really
amazing. We perched ourselves on a low wall right on the harbour front at the bottom end of Nathan Road, and marvelled as Hong Kong lit up, a blaze of multicoloured lights seemingly floating above the dark waters of Victoria Harbour. As we prepared to leave again for the airport, not 36 hours after we'd arrived, I mused that Hong Kong seemed such an unlikely place for one of the world's financial powerhouses: hilly, indented, not particularly strategically placed - unlike Singapore for instance - just a bit, well, plonked. Strange. Enough musing, though. A plane awaits.
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