When Stefje and I flew from Nepal to Hong Kong the difference in environment was instantly apparent: just stepping out of the airport brought a sweltering tropical heat. Long gone was the endless squalor of Kathmandu's backpacker ghetto; it was replaced by a line of skyscraper apartment buildings which stretched across all possible inhabitable ground.
We were deposited by an airport express bus into the downtown and the culture shock of our first foray into Chinese territory was real. Huge buildings surrounded us on all sides, people were excptionally different, and we had trouble navigating the busy pedestrian walkways with our big backpacks.
Soon we met up with our friend Manon, who would be joining us for the next 3 weeks during our exploration of China. We began our exploration of the city by prowling the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, which offered a wide panorama of the skyline across Victoria Harbour on Hong Kong Island.
Huge buildings silhouetted against a threatening grey background, with the real color coming from advertisements which popped off of every single roof. In front of us, boats cut through the deep waters which have made this harbor globally relevant for more than a century.
We stepped down onto the dock to board the Star Ferry, a mainstay of Hong Kong's water since 1888. A strong wind whipped into my face as I peered out into the bay, where hundreds of ships were moored and dozens more raced out to the ocean.
We disembarked in the Wan Chai neighborhood, where our necks suddenly began to ache due to the dizzying heights of skyscrapers. Compared to the rural life which we had grown accustomed to in India and then Nepal, the presence of office workers dressed in business casual garb caught our attention.
The diversity of the architecture combined with the first signs of street food to make the atmosphere feel stimulating and exotic. Foods were weird and new, menus were primarily unreadable, and every single Cantonese character spoke to a new culture with hidden mysteries to unfold.
Despite the urban chaos, there were a few signs of the tropical splendor which makes this area so attractive to the eye. Gradually our legs led us down to Central, which for me was characterized by 3 main attractions: brands, brands, and brands!
Storefronts sported known quantities like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Versace, announcing our arrival in Hong Kong's most expensive neighborhood. The presence of Lululemon pants, Amazon prime boxes, and Starbucks cups may not seem exotic to you, but to us, it felt like halfway around the world we had uncovered a parallel universe.
Alongside the glitzy shopping possibilities, tiny vendors packed into alleyways to sell knock-off handbags right next to expensive jewelry stores. The Star Ferry brought us back to our apartment, where we gratefully put our legs up for an hour before setting out to hit the streets once more.
A light rain began to fall as we set off for the temple street night market. Although the fake headphones and an overwhelming number of selfie sticks made it feel like any standard Asian night market, I was able to unearth a few aspects that were distinctly Chinese. Bright red banners, Hello Kitty backpacks, and calligraphy paintings all signaled that we were certainly not in Thailand anymore.
One wrong turn led us into a street food paradise: suddenly we were underneath a roof plastic sheeting in an air-conditioned shanty where we did our best to fit in with the raucous crowd. While other tables downed beers while smoking cigarettes and playing noisy games of cards, we tucked into noodles, bok choi, and broccoli with garlic, toasting our success to the first day in the wild world of Hong Kong.
On our second day in the city we began by taking the metro to the end of the line. It was our first experience with the ridiculous efficiency of Hong Kong's public transportation systems. In taking a train, another train, and a bus, we spent less than 2 total minutes waiting.
Instantly upon getting on the bus, we escaped the city lifestyle of Hong Kong's center. Greenhouses, grazing cows, and dense undergrowth meant we traded the urban jungle for the real jungle. This luscious scenery brought us to the Big Buddha. The massive statue was perched atop a hill, giving the eyes an excellent vantage point of the forest, the city and the waters.
Six statues surrounded the base, each one with a different offering held in its hand.
Although the statue emanated a feeling of peace when we gazed upwards at it, eye level brought the immense chaos of our first Chinese tourist attraction. At every ceremonial gate, bell, and statue, hordes of people snapped hundreds upon hundreds of pictures.
At the nearby monastery's vegetarian restaurant, we got our first taste of Hong Kong's legendary dim sum. Although I thought that dim sum simply meant steamed wooden baskets of dumplings, we soon discovered that it also meant a wide variety of cakes and small bites. The sesame dumplings with a thick sweet filling were a hit, but the slimy green tea cake with red beans left an uncomfortable taste in my mouth.
Rejuvenated by the lunch, we set off to explore the beautiful buildings of the monastery. Huge warrior statues, ornately decorated walls with pastoral farming scenes, and lively carvings of dragons marked the way.
The diversity and birghtness of colors was remarkable. Green and blue roofs caught the eye, while glittering golds and yellows adorned many of the walls and doors.
At the hall of the 10,000 buddhas, we peeked into the brightest scene yet. Thousands of carved golden statuettes stared back at us, amazing us with their dazzling beauty and prolific numbers.
The juxtaposition between beautiful architecture and abundant nature was inspiring, leaving us feeling calmed by the beauty of the scene.
We followed a signed trail to walk further into the natural surroundings. At a mountain point overlooking the mountainous landscape, we found Chinese proverbs carved into huge planks of wood on the hill.
Back at the bus stand, we decided to make our way to Tai O village. An area which depends on the presence of fish in the area, the village was marked by the presence of dried fish of all shapes and sizes hanging from every single retail storefront.
Once we escaped from the 3 block long tourist promenade, signs of modern life faded away. Locals moved slowly through the streets and life moved at a languid pace, with the residents far removed from the frenetic energy of the nearby city. Although much of the village had been destroyed in a recent fire, we still gained excellent views of traditional stilt houses built into the muddy canals.
That night, we again took to the streets of Hong Kong Island to discover some of the city’s legendary nightlife scene. First, we devoured soft doughy dumplings in noodle soup and a delicious bowl of cold sesame noodles made from an authentic local diner stocked well with beers.
Second, we wandered around Hong Kong’s most happening nightlife districts, which yielded a variety of crazy sights. We began with the world’s longest outdoor escalator system, a series of automatic walkways which runs parallel to a number of happening bars and restaurants which were proving popular for happy hour with the after work happy hour crowd.
The escalators ascended us into the Soho neighborhood; suddenly the only sign that we were still in Asia was the Chinese lettering on a few storefronts. Otherwise, posh wine bars full of expats chatting away noisily in English, showing us another side of the city. The clientele, menus and prices reminded me more of Manhattan than what I’ve come to expect from Asia.
On the edge of Soho, we ended up posting up on the street corner, purchasing a couple of cheap beers, and taking it all in at the popular place affectionately known as “Club 7/11”.
We ended the night by slowly meandering through the rowdy Lan Kwai Fong district. Between the hookah bars, clubs with long lines, and young crowd of expats, locals and tourists, we were reminded of Amsterdam’s Leidesplein district, one of my least favorite places to find myself on a Friday night.
Slight hangovers clouded our mental state as we made our way out to Sai Kwan the following morning. Again we took a metro and a bus to reach away from the city center, this time heading Northeast instead of Southwest to explore every corner of this tiny country.
At the Sai Kwan taxi station we met up with Janith, an old friend of mine from college, and a few of her friends, then we all set off together on a hike through richly green hills. Through steep uphills and downhills we cut along the coast until a lookout point offered us a fantastic view of a string of beaches.
Wide swaths of white sand and clear blue waters were complimented well by the deep greens of intense foliage at every turn. Both behind us on land and out to sea, tall towering rocks were covered with plant life, adding to the enchanting scenery.
Our feet brought us to the 2nd of 3 beaches, where the crowds were thinner and the waves broke perfectly onto fine sands. With the sweaty hiking portion of the day’s itinerary behind us, we were ready for a nice long dip in the refreshing water to let the salty waters let my mind and body float away.
We were happy enough to spend the rest of the afternoon eating noodles and drinking beer on the beach until a boat came to whisk us away, but the peaceful day ended there. The sea had gotten much rougher and outside the protection of our little cove it got much worse. Huge walls of water were suddenly visible from my seat at the front.
Each time we breached a wave the boat dove sharply down like a waterborne roller coaster, eventually crashing with such force that I could feel the impact reverberate up my spine. A squeamish dog named Pablo joined me in disastrous fear of the whole affair; at first he tried to escape but then he curled himself into a ball at my feet as we both resigned ourselves to fate. Half an hour of rough riding later, it was hard to tell who was happier to have dry land beneath him, me or Pablo.
That night we made it out to the Sheung Wan Cooked Food Market, something of a local food court sporting restaurants that served up 7 different cuisines. Over Chinese beers and Thai curries, we soaked in the rowdy cafeteria scene before digging in for a nightcap of some of Hong Kong’s best craft beers at another outdoor bar.
I could glimpse a snippet of blue skies out our prison cell of a hotel room on Sunday morning, meaning soon enough we were on our way to take in Hong Kong’s biggest tourist attraction: Victoria Peak.
Our late night meant by the time we arrived at the station for the vernacular tram at was already 10:30 AM and an hour-long line was snaking back and forth in a sight reminiscent of an amusement park. Eventually, we made it inside the Tram station, where a series of displays informed us about the line’s history.
Astoundingly, the tram began operation in 1888. The first trams quickly replaced the other way to reach the top for wealthy colonialists, which was to be carried up in a lounge chair by a pair of Chinese laborers.
On our way up, it was easy to understand why people would want to reach the peak’s top vantage point. Perhaps no place better displays the junction of wild nature and overwhelming metropolis that is Hong Kong than Victoria Peak.
The luscious lookout had tremendous views of the entire Hong Kong harbor and many of the outlying islands. But before we could gain an unobstructed view, we had to navigate the unpleasant confines of capitalism. The tram’s top stop is merely the ground floor of a 6 story mall flooded with people shopping, eating, and snapping an overwhelming number of selfies.
Gradually we began hiking to escape from the madness, making our way along a long trail around the mountain. First up was Victoria Gardens, where we got excellent unobstructed views of the South Side of the island. Lakes, beaches, sloping hillsides and skyscraper complexes competed for my attention, but soon very little was visible.
Clouds rolled in directly overhead, swimming up the mountainside in huge waves of grey and obscuring the view but making us feel like the whole scene now had an added layer of mystique. Slowly we crossed the governor’s gardens, which included pristinely manicured grounds, Victorian style gazebos, and picnicking families.
We picked a trail that led back towards the city and found ourselves shrouded by canopies and overgrowth, making us feel like we had found a distinctly wild side of the peak region. From the depths of the forest, we could only hear insects and see wide views of blue ocean and wild islands, making us wonder once again if we were really in a metropolis of 7 million people.
As we worked our way back to the tram, the clouds opened up to offer the most spectacular views yet. Suddenly shimmering blue waters split up an endless line of sparkling skyscrapers that reached from the depths of our view up above the highest peaks.
To our left we could see Hong Kong’s legendary junk boats trawling the harbor alongside cargo ships, but to our right there was nothing to glimpse but the endless sprawl of the city.
There were so few small buildings and so little unused space that we were bowled over by the mere efficiency. Sounds of the city faded away; with the ferries trudging slowly across the harbor and barely any roads visible Hong Kong for once seemed utterly peaceful.
An endlessly steep downhill combined with a lack of lunch to leave us dead tired by the time we got back to the rest of the city. Our tired legs brought us straight through the city’s zoo on the way back, which was beautifully designed, well-maintained and free!
On our last morning in Hong Kong I starved myself to prepare for Tim Ho Wan, a Michelin-star Dim Sum restaurant with street food prices (it was $10 for 5 dishes). The restaurant is unique in that it may be the only Michelin star restaurant where you don’t have to speak a single word. Orders happen via pencil and paper and servers come with piping hot plates of dim sum within minutes.
I ordered up baked buns, poached lettuce in sauce, and a weirdly fishy turnip cake that was pan fried. But my real winner was a steamed basket of dumplings with dough so thin I could see straight into the filling.
Fulfilling my quota for weird dish of the day was a stuffed vermicelli rice dish which made me finally begin to appreciate the allure of slimy textures in Chinese cuisine.
After the meal I made my way to the flower market, a riot of colors and smells to remind me that the city is surrounded by tropical vegetation. Huge bouquets of flowers with endless diversity turned the city street into more of a wild garden.
While the flower market was staffed and frequented primarily by women, I found the flip side at the male-dominated Yuen Po Sreet Bird Garden. This oasis of chattering birds and shopkeepers playing s felt far away from the raucous of city streets. Vegetation popped up from every available inch of the surrounding gardens and even some parts of the roofs, while the classically designed archways, stone engravings, and mosaics of birds added elements of artistic craftsmanship.
Birds of all colors and species thrived here, each one housed in ornately designed cages with delicate porcelain bowls. Green parrots squaked, yellow sparrows cooed, and light blue songbirds huddled together in groups.
We had been graced with perfect weather for almost the entire time in Hong Kong, so it was no surprise that the tropical humidity finally broke into an intense midday thunderstorm.
Heavy rains began pooling on the walkways, but in the presence of beautiful birds and nature I didn’t mind it one bit. I spent the afternoon taking in the streets of Hong Kong one last time and visiting the city’s museum of history to gain additional perspective on some of the many cultural influences that have shaped the peninsula, then by 5pm it was time to set off for mainland China!