Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Hong Kong - The Little Britain of China?

Jan 30 to Feb 4, 2010 (by Swiss)

Since our 30 day China visa necessitated a 6 day buffer between Vietnam and Mao's old stomping grounds, it was decided that Hong Kong would become our home for those six days. We originally didn't plan on staying this long, but we determined it was a worthwhile alternative to worrying about getting a China visa extension.

For you non-geography buffs such as myself, Hong Kong lies just east off the southern tip of China and up until 1997, used to be controlled by the British. China lost control of the land as a result of the opium wars and subsequent 99 year lease of Kowloon and the New Territories in 1898. This lease expired in 1997, and Hong Kong has since been taken back over by China (although with some caveats). While the dental work of Hongkongese is generally pretty good, there is plenty of English influence, not the least of which is the cost of living. Hong Kong is quite developed, streets are littered with people in business suits going about their daily lives, BMWs, Lexuses and Benzs buzz through the streets, and it has a truly big city feel to it. Take a look.

Jetsetting to Hong Kong

We arrived at Hong Kong international airport a little past 1pm, after a very smooth Vietnam airlines flight from Saigon. Our first order of business was to figure out how best to make it into the Kowloon district, known for it's more affordable lodging options. I had done some research online on guest houses, but according to wiki, our best (cheapest) bet was to catch a ride into the city and stroll down Nathan road until we found a room we liked. The rough guide for China that we exchanged in Saigon conveniently had the Hong Kong portion missing, so wiki would be our primary source of info. So we gave the "show up an see what happens" technique a shot.

There are a couple of ways to get from the airport to town, but a very nice lady at the tourist desk informed us the cheapest option was to take the A21 bus for HKD 33 (roughly USD 4.5). Other options would have been a cab or the airport train (super fast but more than 2x the price.) So the bus it was.

The bus dropped us off near Tsim Sha Tsui (TST for short) station, and we began our search for a room. Almost immediately, we were hustled into the Chungking mansion, where we were shown a shoddy room for HKD 180 (roughly USD 23.) We opted out. This experience enlightened us to two things: 1) There are tons of options, and frankly, it's overwhelming to check them all out without having a list of a few to check out (wiki didn't give us any recos on that) and 2) Prices were much steeper than anticipated (we had hoped for a HKD 130-150 room.) So lesson to future visitors: Unless you're down with information overload, go online, create a list of 3-10 spots, then check them out.

It took us about an hour until we found a place just off Nathan road north of Chungking mansion on Kimberley Rd where we were quoted a price of HKD 300, which we managed to reduce to HKD 250 by staying 5 nights. The place was clean, relatively new looking, had TV, A/C, fridge, hot water shower, and free wifi. It was run by two very nice Philipino ladies, and is located at 27-33 Kimberley Rd (852-5138-0651.) The biggest downside was that we had to share a bed and the bed was quite hard for our tastes. The bed hardness, as we found out later, is actually a quite common problem here, supposedly leading a major ex-pat website to list places where you can procure foam mattress covers. I'm not kidding you. But we had a clean, safe place with good wifi, and therefore were quite happy. From what I understand, there are cheaper options, especially if you are willing to settle for a dorm room.

For dinner, we wandered further up Nathan road to the Jordan St Night market, where we had a rather disappointing dinner at an outdoor restaurant. The food actually caused Jason to pick up a bug that lasted most of his stay in the city. After dinner, we strolled back towards our guesthouse while swinging by the grocery store for snacks and drinks which could be stored in our fridge. It was during our walk back that we discovered that McDonalds has a special Doraemon promotion going on, which we figured would be a must-acquisition for our friend Sonia. Jason was on the case.

The last day of the month rang in with Jason feeling miserable due to the prior night's food, so it would be a slow day. The biggest goal for the day was to figure out how we would get to Shanghai, where we had booked a room during the Chinese lunar new year. From what we had heard, travel during this time can be extremely challenging, so we wanted to make sure our travel arrangements were down pat. After a brief lunch at "Relax Cafe", we strolled to CTS (China Travel Services) to get some prices on tickets to Guangzhou and Xiamen.

We had originally planned on hitting up Guangzhou, but after various price checks and a bit of research on the towns, concluded that Xiamen would be a better option. We booked an overnight bus ticket to Xiamen, and later a flight on Spring air from Xiamen to Shanghai after we returned to the room. We found Spring air to offer the cheapest rates, although for future travelers, make sure to check out http://www.elong.net/, as they have some great budget deals as well.

Given Jason's stomach problems, he opted out of dinner. I hit up a little street joint and called it a night shortly thereafter. We were both content having at least gotten our travel arrangements through Shanghai taken care of.

Friends of Friends, Strangers with Candy
With our first couple days being relatively weak in the sightseeing department, we were determined to make Monday a tad more productive in that aspect. As sometimes happens in travel, we actually sort of knew somebody in Hong Kong.

Jason's friend Noel has a friend Dominic who works in Hong Kong for Esprit, and his boyfriend David was visiting while Lawton and I were here. So long story short, we were to meet up with David, whom neither of us had ever met. As such, it was agreed to meet outside exit A1 at Central station between 12:30 and 12:45. Jason was to wear a red shirt, jeans, and have a white rose behind his right ear. Ok, I made that last part up.

As planned, we managed to meet up with David who had been in Hong Kong for about two weeks. We grabbed a very tasty lunch at Brunch Club, a brunch spot in the Central region of HK. This involved our first trip on the Central-Mid-Levels escalators, which allows people to easily increase their potential energy while minimizing their personal work input to get to the desired energy level/elevation.  In other words, it's a giant escalator for lazy people.

Next up was some sightseeing, which included a brief walk-by the governors mansion via the US consulate

and continued on at the base station of the Victoria Peak cable car. Taking this allows the visitor, in exchange for about USD 8, to get some pretty nice views of the city. It would be the highlight of the day, and was chosen due to the somewhat favorable weather at the time. The 10 minute ride was spent admiring the Swiss engineered car

and chuckling at tourists taking pictures

before arriving up top and quickly taking a picture with James Bond himself:

Once at the top, we trotted our way up to the observation deck for some pictures of down town. Even though it was a tad hazy, the views were quite nice. And no, we didn't eat at the establisment shown in the last picture.

Plans for the evening involved taking a slightly choppy but scenic ride on the Star ferry (highly recommended and cheap - 2-2.5 HKD) back to the Kowloon district, where we would later witness a light show on the skyline that is put on every night at 8pm. The English version goes down on Mondays and Wednesdays, but honestly, I don't think it would make much of a difference. It's free, and definitely worth a look if you ever visit.

As it turns out, David is actually a pretty cool dude. And I'm not just saying this because he might read this post. So it was decided that we would check out a light hike he had wanted to do the following day. The ~5.5km trek near Pineapple dam would involve some views of the city, the exploration of remnants of the "Gin Drinkers Line", and most importantly, Monkeys!

To get there, we met up in Kowloon, took the subway to the last stop, hopped on the #82 bus after a brief lunch, and got dropped off about a 10 minute walk from stage six of the MacLehose trail. One amusing aspect of our bus was that it had a large display allowing passengers to see the speed at which the bus was traveling. David had heard that the drivers of these buses were basically taxi driver rejects, so we figure it has something to do with keeping over-zealous drivers honest. In their defense, it should be noted that our guy drove quite well, and we had a very safe ride to the dam.

A brief description of our hike can be found here, although the guide book David had more detail and history than this website. As recommended by the book, we immediately equipped ourselves with sticks to fend off any potentially aggressive monkeys

although I'm happy to report that we were not attacked and no monkeys were harmed during this episode of "Exploring Hong Kong."

Without getting into too much detail, a large portion of the hike allowed us to explore the remnants of the Gin Drinkers Line, a 18 km long defensive line established in WWI and primarily used in WWII by the British to fend off the Japanese. The line, unfortunately, was understaffed and was taken by the Japanese in 1941. As such, it actually carries quite some historical significance, which would be easy to miss without a guide book. To visit some portions of the underground bunkers/tunnels, sign conscious hikers have to ignore the "Danger Desolate Trench Do Not Enter" posts to get to the good stuff:

So here, for your enjoyment, are some of the pictures taken that day. A couple of things to note: Citing home sickness, all the passageways were named after London streets/points of interest, which can be seen in some of the pictures. Also, the last picture shows a victory inscription made by the Japanese when they conquered the site back in the day, which without David's book, would have been quite easy to miss.

The potentially depressing topic of war and loss of life was luckily balanced by nice terrain (the views, unfortunately, were obscured due to foggy weather) and of course the Monkeys. Countless pictures and videos were taken, so here are some of the highlights:

After the conclusion of the hike (I should use that word lightly, as it really wasn't very challenging) we caught the 81 bus back to the Mong Kok subway stop. Dinner was so-so at the street place I had checked out earlier, and Jason was slowly overcoming his stomach bug.

High Rolling?
Wednesday would mark our last full day in Hong Kong. It would also be our "big night out", with plans to meet up with David and Dominic for happy hour and dinner. The morning was spent being lazy, commencing with an excellent lunch at Sher-E-Punjab, an Indian place located on the second floor of the Chungking mansion.

After lunch, we strolled our way towards central, checked out the Avenue of the Stars

took pictures of people standing in line to get into the Louis Vitton store (similar scenes were witnessed at Chanel) before boarding the lower deck of the ferry to the central portion of the city.

We met David once again, after which we decided to go to the very top of the escalator and stroll around town. We even managed a brief (free) visit to the Zoo/Botanical gardens before hitting up "Volume", which advertised free Vodka drinks during their Wednesday Happy Hour.

Unbelievably enough, the drinks were actually free, a gig put on every Wednesday welcoming gay travelers and flight crews to the city. Now, I'm not gay, but I'm cheap, and this certainly seemed like a good deal to me. The place initially was slow, but picked up over the course of the two hours we were there. Dominic joined us around 8pm, as did our friend Anna, who we had met back in Laos and happened to be in town.

After Volume, we had a delicious italian dinner at Mrs. Jones, before heading for some after dinner drinks in the swankier parts of town. The main highlight was a suit filled rooftop bar that Dominic showed us, where we had an absolutely amazing view of the foggy skyline.

Off to China
On Thursday we readied ourselves for our overnight bus ride to China by first indulging in some McDonalds for lunch (a tradition of sorts), where Jason managed to score a Doraemon toy for Sonia. We then went off in search of some wifi for blog stuff. Free wifi was surprisingly scarce in Kowloon, so we settled on sipping overpriced drinks at Starbucks in the New World Centre.

A HKD 5 bus ride got us to the Kowloon City Ferry Pier, which we reached after spending the last of our HKD on pricey but yummy sandwiches to be taken on our bus ride. The bus station ended up being quite confusing, with no real indication as to where our bus would pick us up. After multiple inquiries, all of which pointed us to the same general location, we were fairly certain we were at the right spot. The 30 minute delay in the bus didn't help calming our nerves, but when the bus finally pulled up at 18:50, we were happy to be on our way to China!


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