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Five Days in Hong Kong
by Mitch Blatt - Apr 30, 2015
It had been two and a half months since I landed in Shanghai. My visa allowed for 90 days per entry, so I had to get out of the country in two weeks.
At the train station, I asked a friendly Chinese ticket buyer where to buy a ticket for Hong Kong.
“You want to go to Hong Kong?”
“Yeah, I need to get out of China because my visa is about to expire,” I said.
“Hong Kong is a part of China!!!” he said. Then he directed me to a special line for Hong Kong where Mainland Chinese need a passport to buy tickets.
I was off to Hong Kong, and I was going to make a trip of it. I wasn’t going all the way to this legendary city just to cross the border and then cross it again like so many other visa-running foreigners. Hong Kong deserves more than that.
I arrived at Kowloon Station in Hong Kong at 13:00 in the afternoon. After going through the customs checkpoint, I was on my way to switch to the subway when I realized, “Oh, no! I don’t have any Hong Kong currency. This is a part of China, isn’t it?”
The subway didn’t take Chinese Renminbi, but I was able to exchange some for Hong Kong Gangbi (HKD) at the customer service desk. I arrived at my hostel in the heart of Mong Kok, the most crowded place in the world, after slowly cutting and dodging through swarms of people on the sidewalk.
My first reaction in Mong Kok was utter astonishment at the sheer number of people. They were everywhere! Looking up from the street, the entire space above my head was filled with a slurry of signs, packing the air to the point they seemed to mix into a thick sludge of colors and Chinese characters. Of course, I couldn’t read half of them because they were in traditional Chinese (I can only read simplified Chinese). It was quite a spectacle. After securing my bags in my hostel, I jolted back onto the street to explore this amazingly crowded city.
My first inclination in any new city is just to wander around aimlessly and follow my intuition to whatever looks or feels enticing. Worst case scenario: I find my way back to my hostel and have an interesting walk. Best case scenario: I get lost at the far edge of the city after an epic adventure and eventually find a subway station to take back. It’s a win win deal!
From Argyle Street, I started walking north on a random road until I eventually ended up on Shanghai Street. Long signs with single Chinese characters on individual pieces of metal stretched over the alleys; a quintessential image of Chinatown – how fitting.
After walking down a few blocks, I went into a shop that was selling traditional Chinese decorations and “hell money” (fake money burned for the dead).
“Do you know where Temple Street is?” I asked.
“What?” the Chinese shopkeeper said.
“Temple Street? Where is Temple Street?”
I had no idea how to say Temple Street in Cantonese. Next best idea: I wrote the characters down on a piece of paper and hoped he could read my poorly written traditional characters.
“Oh, Temple Street,” he said. “Just south in Jordan.”
As the sky darkened my excitement began to mount as I headed towards the famous Temple Street Night Market.
After walking underneath a red gate and strings of red lanterns, I became surrounded by outdoor restaurant tables and merchandise stalls. Soon I was perusing some trinkety crap and saying “Bu yao” (“don’t want”) more times than I could count, and before long I ended up on the north section of the market among the music lounges. An older Chinese man invited me over to his table.
“Nei si naa lei jan?”
I could understand what he was asking me, “Where are you from?” even though I couldn’t speak more than two words of Cantonese. We struggled to communicate, but he could understand most of my Mandarin, and I could understand bits and pieces of his Cantonese. Quite a few bottles of beer, several tip box-bound twenty dollar bills and even one song of my own later, I headed back toward Mong Kok in the early morning.
Mong Kok Signs
Mong Kok Signs
Mong Kok Street Corner at Night
Temple Street Market
Temple Street Outdoor Karaoke
Temple Street Outdoor Restaurant
The first thing I did the next morning was head straight to the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront to see the view of the great skyscrapers across the Harbour on Hong Kong Island. The Avenue of Stars juts out from the TST waterfront bearing the handprints of Hong Kong’s brightest stars and actors. “Jackie Chan! Wang Kar-wai! Tony Leung!” I thought as I walked. At the end of the walkway there was a Bruce Lee statue just begging me to step up and show my mettle. I must have looked pretty silly in my pitiful pose, trying to emulate Bruce’s kung fu awesomeness. But, I always say, if your Avenue of Stars photos don’t look silly then you’re not doing it right.
After posing with Bruce I was starting to get pretty hungry, so I went across the Harbour to Central and headed for the Lin Heung Tea House for some dim sum. I was a fool if I thought I was going to get a table without a wait in the middle of yum cha (drinking tea) time. The wait was worth it, though, when they brought out the mouth watering rice dumplings and barbecue pork baozi. How lucky! I couldn’t read the traditional characters on the Chinese-only menu, so I had just picked some at random (a great choice in such a situation) and yanked a few more items off the carts that periodically came by. It was downright heavenly.
Central, as the name suggests, is the center of the city and full of touristic points of interest. I walked around this area after breakfast, going to the Western Market, the Man Mo Temple and the Cat Street Market, then took the Mid-Levels Escalators all the way to the top, where I tried to find my way to Victoria Peak through the botanical gardens. Looking out over the grand landscape, towers and islands seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see, and I savored the view. I had my share of walking to get here, so I took the novelty Peak Tram back down (its an experience to be tried anyway) and back to my hostel for some R&R.
Back at the hostel, I met an English guy named Chris. Who better to go to the crazy Lan Kwai Fong bars with than a heavy drinking Englishman? Hidden among the loud music, thumping bars and people standing on the street drinking, we found the perfect spot (we knew it as soon as we saw the “No Gangnam Style” sign on its jukebox). We met some English investment bankers shortly after and went from bar to bar together drinking, dancing, and getting shot down by beautiful ladies.
Posing with Bruce Lee
Dim Sum at the Lin Heung Tea House
Dim Sum at the Lin Heung Tea House
Dim Sum at the Lin Heung Tea House
After two days in the concrete jungle, I wanted to get out of the city. On the third day, I went to Hong Kong’s largest island, Lantau Island. The subway took me to a town just on the edge of the island, and then it was onto an island bus and over the bumpy hills and curves up to the Ngong Ping Plateau to see the Po Lin Monastery. Upon getting off the bus, I walked under an entrance gate to find a Starbucks and a souvenir shop. “Quite the corporate monastery!” I thought. It wasn’t the monastery, though, it was the Ngong Ping Village, a themed “village” that greets visitors with video theaters and shops. The monastery was down the road in the direction of the Tian Tan Big Buddha on top of the hill.
The Big Buddha, looking down from his perch on the top of Mount Muk Yue, beckons you with his left hand in his lap. His fingers, positioned in the mudra of “fulfilling wishes,” pointed towards the huffing visitors climbing the 240 steps, a vow to bestow happiness and blessings on all who come before him. Taking a look around at the top, I could say for certain that he had fulfilled my wishes for the day.
The monastery was engulfed in manmade nature. A well manicured garden cooed with bright purple flowers, while trails to the east of the monastery led through trees to the base on Lantau Peak.
My next stop was Tai O Fishing Village at the far west end of the island. The village is famed for its traditional stilt homes in the water. When I got off the bus, a group of touts surrounded me.
“How about a boat ride to see some dolphins?” one said.
The locals have learned a new kind of fishing – the kind where you troll for tourists.
Everywhere along the narrow village streets, fish were lined up drying in the sun. Walking further along the paved road that leads outside the village center, I could see a bucolic scene with temples and rustic houses perched on the edge of green hills. Sitting down in a cafe, I kicked back and ordered a straight tea. “No milk!” I shouted – Hong Kong people put milk in everything; they even drink milk tea champagne.
I went to bed early that night, tired from the late nights of the past two days and excited to hike to secluded beaches the next morning.
Po Lin Monastery
Po Lin Monastery
Tai O Stilt Houses
Not having set my alarm clock the night before, I woke up later than optimal for my excursion to Tai Long Wan Beach in Sai Kung Country Park. I had a general idea how to get there, but I didn’t check the bus time tables in advance. Taking the subway then switching to a minibus, it took about two hours for me to get to Sai Kung town.
Once in Sai Kung, I went to the stop for the 29R bus only to find that I was ten minutes late and it didn’t come again for another hour and a half. Sai Kung town was interesting enough to pass some time in. It had a nice promenade with views of islands and boats parked in the sea, as well as seafood restaurants with more kinds of fish and crustaceans out front than I had ever seen. I didn’t, however, see enough to warrant spending one and a half hours there.
Luckily, there was another bus that took me to an alternate trailhead from the main bus station. The trail wound through woods and bays. At one point, I had to carefully walk by a herd of cows that was occupying the path. After walking up a hill at the base of Sharp Peak, I descended onto a sandy path, and, through a clearing, I could see the makeshift wood and rope bridge that heralded Ham Tin Wan Beach.
There was almost no one there – just a few hikers like myself coming from the opposite direction – and no development, save for some shack restaurants with plastic tables and chairs.
Continuing along the trail over a rocky ridge with views of the pristine environment, I arrived at the main beach: Sai Wan. There were more buildings there, including some hostels, and I sat down at a restaurant looking at the sea while sipping a beer.
I started talking to some tourists from Canada.
“Want to join our boat to go back to Sai Kung?”
“Thanks for the offer,” I said, but for HK$150 a person I passed.
“Do you know when the last bus leaves?” I asked.
“Five o’clock,” one of them said. It was 4:40, and the bus stop was some ways down the road. How far, I didn’t know.
Running down the path while enjoying quick views of the water reservoir, I made it just in time before the bus left.
Fish Drying in Sai Kung
Bridge to Ham Tin Wan Beach
My time in Hong Kong had come to an end. I was heading back to Mainland China that afternoon. I had seen traditional markets, old fashioned singer lounges, epic cityscapes, beautiful and fragrant temples, fishing villages, secluded beaches, crazy bars and much more. I certainly loved Hong Kong, but after brushing up against so many people on these crowded streets, it felt very claustrophobic at times.
I spent my last half day strolling along the shops of Tsim Sha Tsui. A big green nameplate came into view: the Chungking Mansions. That name sounded familiar. “Chungking Express! That’s where that movie was filmed,” I said to myself. Inside, there were people of all ethnicities standing around.
“Hey, you need a guesthouse?” “Want some hash?” the touts shouted.
I walked through the crowds into the maze of money changers, cell phone sellers and halal markets. This place couldn’t exist just anywhere, it’s special in its own right.
After enjoying a delicious meal of curry and naan, I headed to the train station, thoroughly delighted with my time in Hong Kong but ready to get back to the relative peace and tranquility of Shanghai.
Chungking Mansions at 36 Nathan Road
Delhi Club Specialty Naan (Naan with Egg)
Mitchell grew up in Cleveland, OH and graduated from Indiana University with a B.A. in journalism. He has written about music, sports, travel and culture. Since he began studying Chinese, he has become obsessed with Chinese culture and travel, and has visited over 13 provinces and plans to visit many more. In 2013, he moved to Dali, Yunnan, and launched the travel guide DestinationDali.com. When he's not writing, he enjoys singing karaoke, doing "ganbei's" with friends and strangers, attending punk concerts, and getting lost in the alleyways of ancient cities.