Hong Kong continues to please me. I’m not sure if it’s just because this is the first time I’ve been at liberty in a proper city in a while, but I don’t think that’s all of it. It’s probably because it’s got all the amenities you could want – an efficient public transit system, fantastic museums and galleries, theatre, music, more shopping I will ever need, great restaurants of every possible cuisine, hilly parks, stunning views, a harbour, Guinness on tap, and at least three different Hashes. I think I could probably live here quite happily for a while.
Hong Kong is also remarkably clean for a big city, almost obsessively so. There are always people sweeping up public spaces, and I constantly see signs that say things like “This door handle is sanitized every two hours” or “This handrail covered with anti-bacterial coating.” There are scrolling LED signs imploring you to cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze, and stickers in the metro cars request that you contact station staff if you are feeling unwell. Sometimes I’m a bit worried that if I cough in the wrong place I’ll get carted of to some kind of reeducation program. I suspect it’s a SARS / H1N1 thing, but it’s still a bit Big Brother.
On Monday I parceled up yet another package home and sent it off via the friendly, efficient and reasonably priced Hong Kong postal system (another reason why I think of this as a separate country – not just the border controls and the different currency – they also have their own postal system.) This made it much easier to put everything that was left back in the Aeronaut and make my way to yet another hotel room and to bed number 135 (for those who are keeping score). As I mentioned, my new room has a window and wifi, so it’s been quite nice. It’s not the Ritz (as evidenced by the cockroach found belly-up and twitching outside the elevator) but for $40 CDN a night it suits my needs.
After the big move I decided to explore my new neighbourhood a bit, hoping to find a good spot to go for a run later that day. The new hotel is very close to Hong Kong Harbour and Victoria Park, so it seemed reasonable to think there’d be some good waterfront running, and maybe some more verdant park-like business as well. Humph. Not exactly. Victoria Park is pleasant enough, but exceedingly small. And the waterfront started out promisingly but soon deteriorated into a maze of dead ends, six lane highways, overpasses, tunnels, closed docks and construction zones. It is emphatically NOT a pedestrian-friendly zone, and is one of the few things I’ve ended up not liking about Hong Kong. Eventually I found my way to the Hong Convention and Exhibition Centre, which the LP claimed had a nice harbour view. I did find the view, but was tired and footsore and fed up with being a pedestrian on the Causeway Bay waterfront, so it’s hard to wax rhapsodic about it.
By the time I was back at the hotel I mostly just wanted a nap, so of course I dug out my running shoes and headed out to attempt a run of some kind. I ended up having to do laps around Victoria Park, due to the aforementioned shocking lack of waterfront access. I later learned that of all the spots in Hong Kong in which to base myself, Causeway Bay is perhaps the least runner-friendly of all. Great. Nonetheless I did manage a respectable 6 km and felt better for it, as usual.
That evening I ate supper in my room. There’s a big grocery store right across the street, so I went over and picked up a takeaway box of sushi and some beer and supplies for breakfast. I thought it would be a quick errand, but ended up spending half a lifetime in line behind a woman with a giant cartload of stuff who needed to have such a long discussion with the cashier about the price of every item that eventually paperwork needed to be filled out and supervisors consulted. People in the other lines breezed through like they were on fast-forward; in my line children were born, grew to old age, and died all while this woman argued about the price of a packet of instant noodles. Civilization rose and fell. Tectonic plates shifted. Stars went supernova. And more importantly, my beer got warm. Humph.
On Tuesday I planned to get back to some serious tourist stuff and visit a few sights on the mainland in the Kowloon peninsula. First though, I needed to get some laundry done, so I stopped in at reception to find out about that. That’s how I ended up meeting Frank, an American traveler in Hong Kong who befriended me, showed me where the cheap laundry was, bought me a latté, and talked my ear off for a pleasant hour that morning. Frank is a retired US Navy man and has that super-friendly, talkative, instant best-buddies manner of many of his countrymen. He also has a Brompton folding bicycle. Bromptons are one of my Favourite Things (check out the video on this page to see why) so I was keen to have a look at one up close and let Frank talk to me about it. Frank was off to Macau later that day, which is where I’m headed next. So you never know, I may get the chance to buy him a coffee there, and hear more about his travels with the Brompton. If not, it was still lovely to meet him and have some friendly conversation with a fellow traveler.
Once I left Frank and put my official tourist hat back on it was a quick trip to Mong Kok to check out the famous Flower Market. It was pleasant, but not the big open market I’d been expecting. Instead it was a long block of individual shops, each selling cut flowers, plants, bamboo, bonsai and other flower-related stuff. It was diverting for a few minutes, but it wasn’t long before I turned my steps to the other sight in the area, a small spot called the Bird Garden. This purported be a park where people brought their songbirds in cages to “air” the birds and chat with each other. Once again, expectations were defied. The Bird Garden was more an outdoor mall of stalls selling birds, bird cages, bird accessories and live bugs to be used as bird food. I didn’t see any old Chinese men airing their birds, smoking, playing ma johng and feeding crickets to their charges, which is definitely what the guidebooks implied would be found.
Mong Kok’s last chance was the Goldfish Market, a street full of shops selling fish and aquarium supplies. This was mildly diverting too, and at least yielded an interesting enough photo to warrant putting here.
The rest of the afternoon was taken up with a nice lunch and a visit to a travel agent to buy a two-week Japan Rail pass. (They must be bought before arriving in Japan, and I reasoned that doing this in Hong Kong would be the simplest thing). All this was just killing time though, because that night I was going to hash! The Ladies Hong Kong Hash House Harriers were the usual fun and friendly bunch and I made it to the start point of the run thanks to their help, the number 72 bus, and Google Maps on the iPhone.
Despite their name, the Ladies Hash is a co-ed bunch, though they have an unwritten rule that a woman must always lead the pack while on the run. Because the run started at 6:45pm everyone arrived equipped with flashlights and headlamps. Everyone, that is, except the visitor from Canada who didn’t have the wit to realize that the sun would set that day, and that running in the dark in an unfamiliar city might be tricky. Never fear though, I was able to stick with other more prepared hashers and had a good run.
Unlike a Winnipeg hash, there was a very very big hill in the area. Other than in Causeway Bay, there is always a big hill in the area in Hong Kong. So naturally we went straight up about 600 steps all the way to the top. This was a bit tedious, but the view at the top was rewarding.
After the run we decamped to a local Thai restaurant and had beer and good food and down-downs. Once again I was confirmed in my belief that hashers are good people, and even made plans to hash with a different local group the very next night, in the very same place. (It seemed that since I’d already figured out the bus system there wasn’t much reason not to come back.) Eventually I made my way back to the hotel that night sweaty, tired, tipsy and content.
Wednesday was free museum day in Hong Kong and I took full advantage by visiting the History Museum before lunch and the Art Museum after. Both were excellent, even if they were filled with bargain-hunting crowds and school kids. At least because it was free I didn’t feel compelled to linger over every display case, however dusty, so as to extract maximum possible value from my admission fee. Instead I skipped happily through several thousand years of history until I got to the first really juicy bit – the Opium Wars. I’d heard of this event before but really knew nothing about it, so I was glad to learn anything. For those who are similarly uniformed, here’s my incredibly simplified Opium-Wars-for-dummies:
Britain had a huge trade imbalance with China due in part to much importation of Chinese tea to please British palates, and much lack of interest in European products among the Chinese. Britain then discovered that opium from its Indian colonies was a huge hit with the Chinese population and the trade imbalance tipped in their favour. China slapped restrictions on opium trade, and trade in general, but smugglers ignored them and eventually it all came to blows. Despite their smaller numbers the British won because they had superior machinery of war, and they imposed the harsh Treaty of Nanking on China in 1842. Among other things, the treaty ceded Hong Kong to Britain.
Simple. And all laid out in easy-to-understand fashion at the Hong Kong History Museum. I also really enjoyed the section of the museum devoted to the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during WWII – another bit of history about which I was woefully uninformed.
The Art museum was also a hit. I was lucky enough to arrive just in time for a guided tour of one of the galleries of antiquities. (Aside: Let me take a moment here to clarify the difference between what I call a guided tour and what I call a group tour. A guided tour is a short-duration visit to a single sight or area, conducted by a knowledgeable, usually local person. A group tour is a seemingly never-ending series of early morning wakeup calls, overnight trains and one night stands, done in the company of 6-12 people among whom the only common denominator is that they all surrendered their credit card details to the same company.) (Ok, perhaps that’s harsh. Let’s just chalk it up to my group tour hangover and move on with the Art Museum.)
The tour I took was of a collection of antique Chinese accessories – hair pins, belt buckles, snuff bottles and the like. It is, potentially, a dry subject, but the woman conducting the tour was very knowledgeable and make it all quite interesting. She knew about all the layers and layers of symbolism on every embroidered knot and amber bead. Talking about the hats and fans and things was really just a way in to a discussion of Chinese life, thought and culture, and well worth an hour of my time.
Then it was time for another hash and another trip up the same hill, though this time we took the jungle route up. It was a hands-and-knees job for much of the way. The Little Sai Wan Hash is clearly a much more energetic bunch than the Ladies of Hong Kong. At least this time I remembered to bring my headlamp, though it turned out to be only slightly brighter than a glow-in-the-dark Halloween mask. Here’s word of advice: Do not attempt the Little Sai Wan “Double Rambo” trail with a dodgey headlamp and tired legs. A little blood and a lot of cursing is the inevitable result. However, the LSW has were kind enough to give me a key chain and a badge, and I left as tipsy and content that night as I’d been the night before.
Finally, it's been nice to have the leisure time and resources to sit down and plan the next leg of the trip. I’m off for a quick stop in Macau then I’ve got flights and hotels pre-booked for Vietnam and Laos, which is a relief. It also looks like my standard of living is going to be pretty decent in southeast Asia. Private bathrooms and wifi seem to be pretty standard in the $20-$40/night range, and I’m determined not to cheap out unnecessarily. I’ve stayed in enough 8-bed dorms, shared enough skanky bathrooms and endured enough long distance bus rides in the last nine months. From now on it’s flights, decent hotels and prearranged airport pickups. I’ve been out here long enough to know what keeps me happy, so now I’m actually going to try to put that knowledge to use. Damn the bank account, I want fluffy towels!