When the British packed their bags and handed Hong Kong over to the Chinese in 1997, after being in control of the territory for more than a century, Hong Kong was granted Special Administrative Region (SAR) status. It was to retain its legal system and free-market economy for 50 years, before Beijing could directly interfere. Also, the special status enabled Hong Kong to keep separate immigration and visa procedures from the rest of China. Whereas Western Europeans need to apply for a Chinese visa before entering China, they are free to just turn up at the airport in Hong Kong. A complex result of this is that a tourist who enters Hong Kong from the mainland will have to apply for a new visa before being allowed to go back into China! Having visited Beijing 10 years ago, I always wondered what I would think of Hong Kong. How Chinese would it feel, given its capitalist history? Given that many people I know compare Hong Kong to Singapore, China would surely seem to be on another planet. But on the other hand, Beijing must have changed a great deal since my last visit...
We arrived in Hong Kong on Saturday
on a United Airlines flight from Saigon, after having to wake up at 3am to make it to the airport on time. Needless to say, our energy levels were fairly low... After checking in to Hong Kong Hostel in Causeway Bay, our first priority was to book train tickets for our journey to Shanghai. Because of our experiences in India, we expected red tape, a lot of bureaucracy, and a bit more red tape. Well no! The friendly staff at Hung Hom station got us tickets very quickly. No forms to fill in or anything. You just say where and when you want to go, what class you want to travel in, and you pay. The only drawback was the fact that the train to Shanghai only goes every other day. We had hoped to leave on Tuesday, but now had to decide between Monday (too early) and Wednesday (too late). Flipping a coin proved to be the best solution. Monday it was. We'd just have to be efficient with our time in Hong Kong. Done! After this morale boosting experience, we walked to the Tsim Sha Tsui part of Kowloon, popping into the Museum of History on the way.
The museum takes you through the city's history from prehistorical times, through the Opium Wars and British rule, to the 1997 handover. Afterwards, while Phil went back to the hostel to relax for a while, I wondered around the shopping streets of Causeway Bay as evening fell. It being Saturday, the crowds were out in force. It provided me with a first taste of just how modern, cosmopolitan, and capitalist this place is. Louis Vuitton, Starbucks, Versace, and McDonalds are amongst the names that rule the streets here.
On Sunday, we woke up to the most awful weather on our trip yet. It was wet and gloomy, and my inspiration to go sight-seeing vanished into thin air within seconds. We didn't have much choice though as fate, with the help of a coin, had decided that we would leave the next day. We started off by going to Man Mo Temple, which was interesting not so much because of the temple itself, but because a very enthusiastic student guided us around, explaining the significance of the various religious objects and customs. By the time we had finished at the temple, the weather had taken a turn for the worse.
It was really chucking it down now. While being only partially protected against the elements by our flimsy umbrellas, we walked to the 800m-long Central Escalator, going past the interesting market on Graham Street on the way. As we quickly got bored of the escalator, we decided to have a coffee in a nearby cafe, giving our clothes a chance to dry, as our trousers were soaking wet by now. Afterwards we took the metro to the Heritage Museum in Sha Tin, figuring that it would be better to be inside given the crap weather. The museum was awesome. The permanent collections of ceramics, Chinese opera, bronzes, and fine art are pretty good; but for me the highlight was a temporary exhibition called "Enlightening Trivialities: Ancient Chinese Pastimes". The exhibition included ancient musical instruments, figures of musicians and dancers, board games, paintings etc. which aimed to show how the Chinese spent their leisure time throughout the ages. From the museum we took a metro to the waterfront on the Kowloon side, followed by the Star Ferry back to Hong Kong Island. The weather spoiled the views unfortunately, and I was happy to get back to our hostel. In the evening
the weather got better, and we decided to give the waterfront a second chance. This time we were not disappointed. The skyline of Hong Kong is awesome by night!
One of Hong Kong's main sights that we had missed out on Sunday was the tram to Victoria Peak. From the Peak you are supposed to have a magnificent view of downtown Hong Kong. As the Peak was shrouded in clouds on Sunday, we left it for Monday, hoping that the weather gods would look favourably upon us. Unfortunately not... we were once again awakened by the rain on Monday morning. We decided to take the tram anyway, given that it was our last chance. The ride itself was fun given the track's 27 degree gradient in places, but the view was rubbish. All we could see when we reached the top where the clouds. We quickly went back down to get to the hostel in time to pack and get ready for our 24-hour train journey to Shanghai. More about our journey to the mainland in the next update though...
So, my final verdict on Hong Kong: It's an awesome mix of East and West, more vibrant and
chaotic than ultra-organised Singapore, yet also very different from the Beijing I visited a decade ago. Definately worth a visit, not so much for its cultural background but rather as a paradise for shoppers and gourmands. Just don't expect to be able to survive on a very low budget.
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