After travelling for more than eight months on the same continent, you’d think we’d get too accustomed to it, a bit blasé even. Hong Kong is another proof that’s not the case. The first days here, I walked around with a big smile on my face. Everything is amazing. The smell of summer in the south, the chatter of birds, the warm light, the mix of languages and ethnicities, the well-swept streets that are always dirty enough, the old apartment blocks and retro infrastructure, the constant presence of the sea and the excellent food – we love it. It’s a city to lose yourself in and a place difficult to leave.
Entering it was easy, though. We got off the 19-hour train from Shanghai to Shenzhen at 6:24 AM. There were only four of us left in the compartment and the platform outside was dark and empty. The early hour was ideal: It didn’t take us long to find a sign pointing toward the Hong Kong border and the lines were short.
Leaving mainland China and entering the special administrative region of Hong Kong was surprisingly fluid. We’d had more security checks getting around on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Passport check, stamp, bag scan, temperature check, passport check, receipt of little ticket, nothing to declare at customs and there we were – in a metro station in the same country, but behind a clear border, in a region with its own currency, English as second official language and free access to Google and Facebook. All in less than an hour.
Hong Kong is an intense city. Everything and everyone is competing for space here. The buildings, the hills, the trees, the cars, the boats, the tourists, the locals. Yet it seems to work. There is a lot less honking and pushing than we experienced the past month. Heck, people even stop to let you pass or say “excuse me” when they need to squeeze by. Not all, of course, but comparing this to Beijing and Xian, it’s a world of difference. Even China’s omnipresent scooters have disappeared.
The rugged, somewhat dirty, but often colourful 30-40-storey apartment blocks look like they were built a couple of decades before the high-rises of Korea and mainland China. Squeezed tightly together in the little flat space Hong Kong offers, they stretch upwards, like arms grabbing for something, competing with the palm trees and the mountains for reaching the sky first. The mountains win. After a month of leafless winter in a northern China that seems to have lost its forests, the persistent green of Hong Kong’s mountains is just what we need. Most days it’s above 20 degrees warm. When it’s sunny, it feels like a good summer day in Finland and when it’s cloudy like June in Belgium. It rains a little bit and we realize we haven’t had rain since we visited the tea plantations in Korea two months earlier. East Asian winters really are dry.
We both feel at home in Hong Kong fast, probably because it reminds us a lot of home in Europe. Hong Kong was ruled by the Brits from the middle of the 19th century until 1997, with exception for three years of Japanese occupation during the second world war. You’re reminded of that through Chinese/English street signs, street names (Queen’s Road, Fenwick Street, Humphreys Avenue), left-hand traffic, double-decker busses (and trams!) and more spoken English than we’ve heard since Europe.
I also got a bit of a Japan vibe, possibly due to the safety obsession: Don’t take a quiet road home in the night, cover your mouth when you sneeze, wear a helmet if you work in construction, measure your indoor air quality, beware of pickpockets in the subway, let us know if you feel unwell. These little safety alerts and suggestions are way more present than in Korea and China. Wait, there’s a bit of Korea in there too: Protest banners! Haven’t seen those since we left Seoul.
Hong Kong is said to be the place where East meets West and that saying makes a lot of sense. It’s easily the most multicultural city we’ve visited on our journey. The streets are a mix of Chinese, Southeast Asian, Indian, Middle East and European faces, accents and languages, with a sprinkle of American, African and Australian. There are churches, mosques and synagogues and temples for Buddhists, Taoists and Sikhs. Possibly the best part for a traveller making a short stop: that multiculturalism is noticeable in the excellent food. Oh, we had some rogan josh I won’t soon forget, found an excellent Shanghainese place and had some great sushi, burgers, pizzas and stir-fries.
There’s plenty to do in Hong Kong. The area doesn’t look big on a map and we wondered if ten days wouldn’t be too much. Turns out, it’s nothing and Christophe is already suggesting we go back. The city has its pleasures and despite there being more than 7 million people crammed onto those shores, there are lots of hiking trails and islands to explore.
We were lucky enough to celebrate the Chinese New Year here with several days of events, we checked out Lamma and Lantau islands, tried some of the hiking trails, spent an afternoon on the beach (Christophe was the only one not in a wetsuit to enter the water!), killed ourselves on rental bikes (why do we continue to do this when it hurt so much?), took lots of ferries, browsed markets stocked with fakes and one million malls (books in English, check!). To illustrate the mall density: When getting around Causeway Bay I had to go down to the metro every time I wanted to go somewhere else – navigating on street level just made me mix all the stores up. How many Lukfook jewellery shops do you need in one square kilometre?
Correction: We both want to go back. If you know anyone hiring an English/Swedish speaker, do let me know. An apartment in Big Wave Bay would also be good, preferably with a view of the sea. Thanks in advance.
These are some of our excursions:
We took the one-hour ferry to Sok Kwu Wan near the south of Hong Kong’s third largest island and walked across to Yung Shue Wan in the north. It was a very easy walk, which filled up with tourists as we neared the end point. We found a few quiet spots along the road and lots of lunch places and cafés in Yung Shue Wan. Cute, but very touristy.
Biking on Lantau Island
We took the slow ferry from Central to Mui Wo, where we rented bikes. The breaks worked, the gears seemed to work (turns out they didn’t really manage the reality test) and we headed towards the Shek Pik Reservoir. The south Lantau road was supposed to be relatively flat and without much traffic. Neither was really true and by the time we were back, our legs were all used up. It might have been due to the Chinese New Year, but we were passed by a bus every three minutes and taxis in between of that, none of which were eager to share the road. Heading back, we found a mountain bike trail we could use for most of the road back, skipping the main road – bliss. We didn’t see any buffaloes grazing by the beach, but we found one in the forest.
Lantau’s Big Buddha and Tai O
We returned to Lantau to see the sitting Buddha statue at the Po Lin Monastery. It’s supposed to be the biggest sitting Buddha in the world, but I haven’t checked. It was large alright, and it had a great setting high above the trees on a hill – we had spotted it during our bike trip the previous day – but something was lacking and neither one of us felt too amazed. Next up was the fishing village Tai O, home of the Tanka boat people, where many inhabitants still live in stilt houses on the water. This was really beautiful and, while the village got lots of Tourists, it hadn’t been made into a complete showpiece. You could still find quiet streets with cats, kids and grannies.
Dragon’s Back and the beaches
Dragon’s Back is a ridge on the south side of Hong Kong Island moving up and down like, well, a dragon’s back. It wasn’t particularly difficult and the views were amazing. After maybe an hour and a half the trail went down the ridge and the rest of the walk was through the forest. At the end of the trail, we found the ocean and Big Wave Bay, a cute village full of surfers, café owners, some visitors but void of tour busses. Not a bad day at all.