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Published: January 31st 2011
After spending nearly 3 months in India and Nepal, it was time for us to return to South East Asia and take in the areas we had not had a chance to take in last time. Our first stop was a fairly big culture shock, moving from the mountainous small capital of Nepal to the gleaming metropolis of Hong Kong. All of a sudden we were back among towering glass skyscrapers, chopsticks and Starbucks, oh and of course London-equivalent prices. It was a little hard for us to take in at first, although it became easier after a gingerbread latte! Just 24 hours earlier we had been in a capital city with an intermittent power supply, to all of a sudden arrive at a luxurious oasis that seemed to have everything.
It was jaw-dropping - not just because we had just come from the considerable poverty of India and Nepal, but also because we are so used to the current climate of austerity in the UK (and most of the West) today. What economic crisis? Hong Kong is the most upscale place either of us has ever been to - consumerism is alive and kicking in
this city. Within 5 minutes of our apartment were Georgio Armani, Gucci, Prada and all of the other stores we so regularly purchase from in London (not!). High-rise luxury shopping malls jostle for space, all spotlessly clean with immaculately suited and booted bellboys opening the doors for you, enormous beautiful Christmas trees in every lobby, laden with extravagantly shining baubles. Beautifully manicured parks line the roads, where swanky shiny cars glide by (pausing patiently at traffic, without honking!!). Elegantly coiffed office workers hurry along, either Christmas shopping or to another chic restaurant.
Obviously all this wealth has to get created somewhere, and hardworking Hong Kongers look the business. HK is a very sharply dressed city, business wear is the norm and even at the weekend people don't really dress down much. It was the first time in a while that we have felt distinctly scruffy and out of place somewhere. It's certainly not a city that many backpackers seem to frequent and we didn't see any others (as obvious as us anyway) in our 5 days there.
The stylish dress was only one of a myriad contrasts to mainland China (whose population, to be frank, look a state). You
definitely get the impression that Hong Kongers see themselves as different to Chinese - the immaculately clean streets, the attention to politeness (no shouting or spitting!), the general cosmopolitan worldliness, is wholly un-Chinese. Essentially, the divide between the communist state and the consumerist financial bubble of HK is huge. Which is not to say that it feels totally western, either - the city itself is a fascinating mixture of Western and Asian influences and is quite different to anywhere else we've seen. The long period of British rule has had a lasting impact and it seems very like a western city with shopping malls, lots of pubs and bars, churches and colonial buildings and recognizable logos and brands everywhere.
However, delving a little deeper and wandering the streets, there are also many Chinese influences dotted around among all this, such as temples, pagodas, tea shops and Chinese restaurants. It seems the two cultures are living side by side in this city and merging, successfully, to give a feel that is uniquely Hong Kong and certainly very cosmopolitan.
Despite our culture shock, it was also a treat to have many of the comforts once again that we vaguely remembered from
A ferry port on Hong Kong Island
The old and the new juxtaposed in Hong Kong
home. Public transport in the city is fantastic and we used it to whizz around regularly, whether by boat, train or the quaint old trams. We even got to travel around with a swipe of a card again....we got the HK version of an Oyster card - the Octopus card! We were excited to go to the cinema (Mike particularly so as he got to have popcorn again), and like a kid in a candy shop, Helen had to have some of that frozen yoghurt from the shop where you get to pour it yourself from lots of different taps, just because, well, it was there.
The variety of cuisines on offer was mind-boggling, particularly after spending so long in India where, although the food really is yummy, there is little opportunity to have international cuisine should you crave it (except for the occasional dodgily made pizza). But it was also the first time in a while that we have had to cast our eyes over the prices on menus and make choices accordingly. We did learn quite quickly to take advantage of the happy hours in many of the bars in the very funky Lan Kwai Fong and
Kong Kong Island at night
Lighting up the Christmas tree, many buildings were decoratively lit
Soho areas, which seem to last for much of the evening. It was great after so long to have a choice of wine from around the world to drink, when for a long time we have only had the choice of the dodgy local brew, if anything. Chilean Cab Sav has never tasted so good, but we had to try it a few times just to make sure!
The city has a tangible energy, which galvanised us into making the most of our time there. It's a good city for walking in, and we pounded the (wonderfully clean and pot-hole free) pavement for hours, taking in the very different areas of HK Island and Kowloon. We made the obligatory trip on the ancient peak tram up to Victoria Peak, the top sitting over 500m above the colour and commotion going on below in the Central district. The ride up is a steep trip between residential tower blocks which, due to the steep angle of the journey, appear to lean into the hill at 45deg rather than us ascending at that angle. At the top, true to the nature of the city, is a massive monstrosity of a shopping complex
Hong Kong Island from Kowloon
The closest we could get to an old junk in the foreground
complete with every kind of gourmet option you may have a craving for - thankfully we found the path that leads off into the lush vegetation around the rim of the hill, affording phenomenal views over the city below (and with very few people, everyone being too busy indulging in retail therapy indoors).
We stopped part way round, at a break in the trees that looked right down over the harbour, and the skyscrapers on both HK Island and Kowloon all being lit up like a giant Christmas tree as the sun set and the light slowly faded. It was one of those magical vistas that makes you tingle - one glittering tower after another coming alive with a different pattern of lights, each trying to outdo the other. Another couple stopped close by us, and we fell into conversation with them in mutual admiration of the scene. It turned out Mark and Michael were from Washington DC, and were celebrating 25 years together (and just getting married!). They were charming, and interesting, and Mike and I shared the bottle of wine we had brought up with us (with glasses swiped from our room), and we had one of
Lamma island with floating fishing village
A world away from the commercialism of Hong Kong island
those memorable evenings when you talk about all sorts of random and illuminating things with lovely strangers that you'll never see again.
Day Tripping to the beach
Our other memorable excursion in HK was to join the Sunday day trippers on a boat trip to one of the nearby islands in order to escape the city. We hopped on a boat at one of the central piers, and in just 30 minutes we were a world away on Lamma Island. We pulled in to a tiny pier and walked on to a pedestrian street with a handful of little seafood restaurants lining the shore. The atmosphere was very relaxed with people sitting in the sun with a lunchtime cold beer.
The island is small, doesn't have any cars on it and you can walk in around an hour to the other coast where there's another little town and an alternative ferry back to Hong Kong island again. The walk across is lovely, through a largely unspoit coastline (except for 1 power station that dominates one of the bays!) and we rounded it off with a seafood lunch overlooking the fishing port of Sok Kwu Wan (and
The Old and the New of Hong Kong
An old tram plies the roads of the modern and gleaming Hong Kong
of course one of those cold beers). It was a great alternative to the hustle of the city and so easy to do given the great transport links in Hong Kong.
Something which puzzled us was the sight, on Sunday afternoon and into the evening, of lots of people setting up little camps along the roads and streets, setting out blankets and picnics. There were hundreds of them, throughout the city. At first we thought we were seeing the start of some sort of protest, but then we realised that they were all women. We found out that they are all the Filipina maids, who all spend their Sunday afternoon off together, relaxing in the only spots it seemed they could, chatting, eating, and giving each other back massages! The edge of a busy road didn't seem to be the most relaxing place to do it, it seemed to us, but I guess that's extreme urbanity!
HK was a brief, intense experience. Helen loved the energy and pizzazz and uniqueness of it, whereas Mike found it frustrating being there on a backpackers budget, when we couldn't really let go and enjoy everything it had to offer. It is
The Dim Sum experience in Hong Kong
In a busy canteen, the Dim Sum lady is surrounded by people looking for the next dish
obviously full of successful and wealthy local and expat businesspeople, who can easily afford its pleasures. We'd love to go back one day, ideally on a short trip when we could blow the budget!
Off to Saigon - hopefully
Following our long weekend city break in Hong Kong, it was back on another plane. As little as it made geographical sense, we had to transit through Bangkok on our way to Vietnam. It is definitely true when people say they end up going through Bangkok on a number of occasions when travelling in SE Asia - it is such a transport hub that it really can't be avoided This was our second visit of this trip and it won't be our last.
We decided to take a couple of days here to relax and enjoy the Singha beer and Thai curries again. It was actually a nice feeling to go back somewhere that we already knew our way around, feeling we could relax straight away....
.....well that was the plan, except that the day before our flight to Vietnam we woke up to the realisation that we had forgotten to get our Vietnam visas sorted
Hong Kong island at sunset
The number of tower blocks on Hong Kong island is bewildering
out while in Hong Kong. Just over 24 hours before we were due to fly and we had nothing organised, and they cannot be arranged on arrival with no warning - ouch! So the relaxing morning we had planned went out the window as we hurriedly got online to try and figure out our options...thankfully, there are agencies out there whose purpose is to help out forgetful travellers, for a fee of course....so, crisis averted at the last minute, on to Vietnam we headed.....
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