Hong Kong, China – December 2014

Lanterns in Soho, Hong Kong

Lanterns in Soho, Hong Kong

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

It can’t be denied that we had high expectations of this city on beautiful Victoria Harbor! With hindsight perhaps they were too high as we are still not entirely sure what we feel about it!

Whilst we liked many aspects of both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon we are both somewhat relieved that Geoff hasn’t actually been seconded there for the next few months instead of Singapore 😉

The taxi ride from the airport pretty much set the scene for the whole trip – the driver threw our bags unceremoniously into the trunk of his filthy jalopy, squeeeeeezing one of our 4 rucksacks in alongside 4 months of packing in 2 huge cases (OK – we aren’t exactly traveling as light as we had planned 😉 ), tied it all down loosely with a bungee and bounced all the way to the hotel holding the gear stick in place for the half hour journey with grim determination – presumably he was due for a new gear-box 😉 By the time we arrived at the hotel the mince pies we had transported across the world were battered beyond rescue into a bag of broken crumbs and a bottle of water we had forgotten about had burst and flooded into the clothes we were to use for the cool weather in Hong Kong 😉

We stayed on Kowloon at the Harbor Grand – with the advertized advantage of the grand and spectacular views of Hong Kong city itself – which they may well have been if the weather hadn’t had all the appeal of a grim grey November weekend in Skegness (Atlantic City for our US friends 😉 ).

Luckily, we didn’t need the sun to enjoy the smells, sounds and color of the Mong Kok markets or the flashing neon signs stretching across the roads.. or the multicolored fairy lights of the pharmacies on every street corner. I suspect no-one in Hong Kong is terribly concerned about the impact on global warming caused by the burning of 20,000 lights in the average store front 24 hours per day.

Still, after 48 hours here we were both totally exhausted and our Asian adventure had only just started!

Chaos, over-crowding, the disgusting cultural habit of snorting and spitting on the sidewalk, endless depressing, sky high crumbling tenement blocks (each one alone large enough to house the populations of a mid-size city), high end stores mixed in incongruously with grim poverty, dirt and decay, street vendors hawking fake watches and hand bags…. fascinating but gruesome pharmacies selling shark fins, dried sea urchins, sea horses, and other such delicacies (alongside, of all things.. gummi bears… an interesting combination) … the relentless cacophony of the food market stalls, the horrendous odors emanating from the (quite literally) hole-in-the-wall food stalls feeding local workers in the back streets…

I’ll admit I struggle with the bizarre diet of the Chinese at the best of times – but I defy even the most rabid western meat-eater to relish the sight of people gnawing on boiled chicken feet, their tiny limbs dangling from the mouths of their devourers – without it turning his or her stomach even a little … still.. perhaps better that than the wholly unidentifiable “meat products” we saw on sale in restaurants and cafes throughout the city…

If we weren’t already vegetarians we certainly would have been after 2 days in China 😉

The food did become somewhat of an issue overall for me – Geoff convinced me (against my better judgement) to eat “native” twice – the first time should have been safe as it was a vegetarian restaurant, but even after extensive analysis and the best efforts of the waiter to explain, we couldn’t quite identify the vegetable “alleged” to have been stuffed into a deep fried spring roll which was then liberally wrapped in a layer of sticky white glutinous horror….

Whilst the language barrier is quite a challenge in Hong Kong (which surprised us considering this was a British protectorate within our lifetime and has a huge english speaking ex-pat community) we learnt that it was far quicker (but not necessarily prudent!) to just say “yes” to any question asked rather than to put ourselves and our server through the further trauma of trying to communicate in any great depth about the food offerings 😉

After that, I put up quite a desperate fight not to have to endure the dim sum specialities of a reputedly excellent restaurant in Soho and, with hindsight, Geoff had to agree with me that the sticky balls of (possibly) prawn and vegetable held together with a thick layer of something slimy and transparent (with all the texture and appeal of whale blubber) was truly the most repellent thing I have ever been forced to put in my mouth …. So, leaving Geoff to finish off the ghastly meal I headed off to the market to buy some fruit which became my staple diet for the rest of our visit 🙂

I suppose there is just a huge cultural divide (and that is, of course, one of the very reasons international travel is so illuminating) but we did wonder if the Chinese might, conversely, when visiting the US or UK, wonder where on earth they are going to find a decent spicy salad with chicken feet or deep fried crispy chicken head and noodles 😉

As we only had 2 full days to explore, we were on the go non-stop for almost 12 hours per day and it would have been more relaxing perhaps to find a quiet corner on the sidewalk (idling and people watching as we are wont to do) to sit and watch the world go by etc etc … but we discovered that that would have been almost impossible even if we had had the time to do so! In Hong Kong, and particularly Kowloon, if you don’t go with the flow and travel at speed with the tide of humanity you WILL be swept up and trampled and literally NO-ONE will notice because every Hong Kong resident is connected by umbilical cord to the very latest model of cellphone. The Chinese text constantly with complete and utter concentration – particularly whilst moving from one destination to another at speed – so that whilst not so much navigating around the oncoming passersby they actually barge at full pelt, obliviously and directly into them. Initially we wondered if we were failing to pick up on some subtle cultural “rules of the sidewalk” but – no – they were as unaware of their fellow Chinese pedestrians as they were of the peculiar looking westerners leaping around the sidewalk trying not to get injured in a head on collision. Surprisingly we, as westerners, were almost alone in Kowloon – perhaps the other western tourists had already heard that they would be dicing with death when heading into the streets of Mong Kok!

Such appears to be the national obsession with texting that when we arrived at Hong Kong airport we noticed that the escalators and moving sidewalks were liberally labelled with signs warning people to watch where they are going rather than keep their heads stuck in their cellphones…. most of them appeared to be too tied up texting to notice the signs – we maybe should have seen this as an omen 😉 Geoff’s cultural research into this aspect of Chinese life encompassed even the men’s restroom and he assures me that time out from manic texting is not even taken when using the urinals.. now there’s an image I could have done without…

And now onto the parts we did really enjoy – aside from the kaleidoscope of color in both Kowloon and Hong Kong Island… the beautiful glittering glass buildings of the financial district in the city of Hong Kong, the fascinating streets and parks of Mong Kok (one of the most populated areas on earth) with whole streets dedicated to one particular item for sale (one famous for selling goldfish… another full of flower sellers) … the smell of burning incense in the air and the Mong Kok bird market in the bird “park” where owners could take their pets in ornate cages to get some fresh air once in a while … well .. to be honest.. we didn’t really enjoy the bird market at all but it was a spectacle (we are firm believers that birds (like any other animal) should be living free in the wild so the sight and sound of thousands of exotic birds from all over the world in tiny cages was actually deeply disturbing to us 😦 )… the small stands on the street corners from where tailors and cobblers carried on their businesses, signs in restaurants saying “Cash Only or Octopus” !!?? (we subsequently discovered there is a travel card called an “Octopus Card” so we assume it was connected!) … and other interesting linguistic diversions.. the brightly painted overhead signs advertising everything imaginable… Chinese lanterns.. Chinese dragons… the streets of Soho teeming with life so alien to spoilt westerners (like us!) that even the occasional venture into the more sanitized versions of China Towns in New York or London or San Francisco didn’t really prepare us…. these things and more endeared Hong Kong to us… but just not quite as much as we would have anticipated …. life is full of surprises!

Taking a breather from all of the excitement of the city we hopped on a bus out to Stanley to visit the market (not sure why with hindsight as it was filled to bursting with cheap Chinese rip-offs and it had none of the authenticity of the Soho or Mong Kok markets) … luckily we fell upon the Taoist Buddhist temple there and learnt about the burning of incense intended to send a message to Buddha to protect the local fishermen – which was a whole lot more interesting than bad copies of Gucci handbags!

The trip out to Stanley was a peaceful 1/2 hour journey following the winding coastal road through the attractive beach towns of Deep Water Bay and Repulse Bay – a world away from the chaos and poverty of Hong Kong and Kowloon.

After 2 days of leaping from sidewalks out of the way of oncoming texters and general sensory overload we took respite in a massage parlor in a side street of Soho – strictly “no sex” plastered on the door which came as quite a relief to me as my masseur was a very unattractive late middle-aged gentleman with a considerable beer gut bursting forth from his shirt 😉 We had forgotten quite how brutal a good Chinese foot massage could be. My tormentor tackled me with all the savagery he could muster without the buttons actually flying off his shirt under all the exertion. Miraculously I managed to avoid kicking him in the head by way of reflex action whilst enduring his less than tender ministrations but by the end of the hour we both had to admit that we felt very light of foot once we had left the spa so I guess the masseurs did actually know what they were doing 🙂

Overall, we are glad we stopped over in Hong Kong for a few days en route to Singapore because it has been on our “to do” list for some years but we didn’t love it as much as we thought we would – culturally fascinating but also, in some ways a little unappealing at close quarters all at the same time !! 😉

And so onwards to Singapore to spend Christmas evening at Raffles knocking back the Singapore Slings before heading out for our Christmas and New Year vacation in Indochina 🙂

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