Whereas Beijing was old and historic and Shanghai was new and sophisticated, almost immediately after arriving in Hong Kong (after a two hour plane ride from Hangzhou into Shenzen, which was delayed for two hours, and then a 90 minute bus ride into Hong Kong – B+L flew straight into HK from Shanghai and had a much smoother experience), we found ourselves, yet again, in another completely different world, this time with more grit and a more “real-city” feel, very similar (we thought) to New York. Hong Kong is compact, it’s crowded (much more so than Beijing or Shanghai, which actually have 4 and 5 times the population, respectively), and of the three big cities we’d visited, it felt like the most livable.
We were all staying off of Nathan Road, Bob and Linda in Tsim Sha Tsui, the most popular area in Kowloon (near the waterfront), and Dave and me about a mile North near the famous Temple Night Market. We met up late in the afternoon (Dave and I had planned to check in to our hotel and be ready to go for the night by the time we all met up, but after our delay, we ended up having to go straight from the bus station to B+L’s hotel) and walked along the water, past the “Avenue of the Stars” to see all the views of Hong Kong Island across the way, which similar to the views of Padong in Shanghai, were breathtaking.
After checking out the waterfront, Dave and I headed to our hotel to check in and we all met up again later near us to walk through the Temple Night Market. It was a nice market with all of the usual souvenirs that we’d been seeing throughout China, plus lots of knock off purses (which Hong Kong is famous for, though neither Linda nor I were in the market for them). We hadn’t been sure if there’d also be food at the night market (there wasn’t), but either way, we planned to eat around that area at one of the many restaurants. Some were outdoor pop-up restaurants, similar to the places that Dave and I eat at all the time in Thailand and others were inside with air-con, but all the places we stopped into had one thing in common – the prices were much higher (almost double) than we’d seen in both Beijing or Shanghai. The higher prices made us feel, even more so, like we were right back in good ole’ NYC.
After searching the area, we finally decided on a place and had a great dinner (the owner was not too keen on letting us in at first, but liked us much more after we ordered a bottle of wine) where in addition to a few apps and fried rice, we tried a lamb cumin and a spicy fried pig intestine dish, both of which were really good. Even Linda tried (and liked!!) the intestines, though she wouldn’t let us tell her exactly what they were until after she finished eating one.
We picked Linda and Bob up from their hotel in the morning and before heading out, had a chat with their concierge (the dreaded Lawrence Liu) to ask him a few questions. He was pretty condescending, saying things like “I know you won’t remember (as we were sitting there with our pen and paper) so why don’t you come back and ask me tomorrow,” or “I’ll tell you how to get to that restaurant if you want to wait for 45 minutes in this heat” (yes we do, please just give us the directions). Luckily, the next few days there was a really great concierge who was very helpful, but the whole time we were joking that they’ve probably never helped nor seen anyone as much as Dave and me (mainly because we met B+L at their hotel every morning we were there, and sometimes at night too), and we weren’t even staying at the hotel. By the end of our time in HK, they knew us all by name.
We planned to spend the day on Hong Kong Island and took the Star Ferry over there from Kowloon (for about 25 cents per person). Hong Kong Island is where all the skyscrapers are and also where all the big companies have their offices. Behind the buildings are mountains, which makes for some very beautiful scenery (there were some nice views from the ferry) and very hilly terrain (similar to San Francisco). When we got over, we headed to the famous Victoria Peak tram, which you take up the mountain behind the city for views looking back over Hong Kong Island, the harbor and into Kowloon. The tram ride cost about 80 HKD pp, round trip (about $10 – though Bob and Linda got a nice 50% senior discount). We assumed that once we got up, there would be a viewing platform to see all the views. The tram takes you up to a big shopping mall and at the top of this, there is a viewing platform, but there’s an additional fee to go outside and look. I was very annoyed when I realized this, as I thought the tram ride was pretty expensive as it was (the ride itself is less than 5 minutes each way), even when the views were included. We could have taken a bus up to the peak for a dollar or so, but opted for the tram ride instead, which made it even more annoying. Bob and Linda paid the extra $5 each, but Dave and I opted out. Luckily, after walking around for a little while, we found another area with some good free views. I thought the whole thing was a little overrated and I actually preferred the views looking over the harbor from Kowloon to HKI, but as this is one of the most popular things to do in HKI, I suppose we had to do it. It was still very nice, but not sure it was $20 (plus another $10 if you go all the way to the top) nice (for 2ppl).
After taking the tram down, we took a trolley to the Sheung Wan area, which is the old town of HKI. I really enjoyed walking through the streets (especially the streets full of vendors selling antiques) and seeing the contrast between this area and the huge fancy skyscrapers just a mile or so back. We went into a big wet market (a market selling meats, fish, etc.) and noticed a sign saying they had prepared foods (ie, a place to eat lunch) on the second floor. We went up and Dave and I were excited at what we saw: a huge cafeteria-like place with all different little restaurants selling food and tons of locals eating lunch. Linda commented that we were the only white people in the whole huge place and we replied that we thought that was a good thing – it meant that the food was probably good and probably cheap. We sat down at a place selling udon soup (which Linda was getting) and thought that we’d be able to pick up food from other places to bring there, like we do so often in Asia at other hawker center type places. Unfortunately, they were strict here and no one wanted to let their plates or bowls out of their sight. So, we had to have lunch in two rounds, first at the Japanese udon place, and then at a Chinese place nearby.
We headed back to Kowloon and after relaxing for a little at B+L’s hotel (great pool at the Sheraton), we went back to the waterfront to check out the Dragon Boat Festival, which I guess we followed to Hong Kong from Taiwan. We had gotten some (and by some I mean 10) coupons for free San Miguel beers at the festival from L+B’s hotel and we wanted to go to collect them and check out some of the dragon boat races. From there, we went back over to HKI to see Lan Kwai Fong, the famous drinking street of Hong Kong, where all of the corporate folks go to hang out after their long days at work. The whole area was really cool and hopping with more Westerners than we’d seen in a long time. I think there were more Western people there than Chinese people, which surprised us. There were tons of bars with happy hour deals and even shishas and Dave and I wanted to stay for a drink but B+L were ready for dinner. We weren’t quite hungry yet so we told them we’d go sit with them, but they urged us to just stay and have a night out. Considering it was a Friday night and we somehow never end up in the fun going out areas on weekends when there’s a lot going on, we couldn’t pass up this chance to be in a great area during the prime going out time. Plus, Dave owed me a date night, and I was ready to collect! We helped B+L find a dinner spot and then headed back to Lan Kwai Fong for a couple of drinks and a shisha. We had a great night out talking about our trip and our future and mostly enjoyed all the great people watching in this very fun and very Western area. And after we were done, we picked up a couple slices of pizza for dinner, a rare treat, as we never see pizza by the slice in Bangkok.
The next day we’d planned to get out of the city and see some of Hong Kong’s beaches. Stanley is a very popular area with its big market and beach, so that was our destination for the day. We took a bus about an hour and a half from Tsim Sha Tsui. The bus was about $2 pp and it was probably the best few dollars we’ve spent our whole trip so far. We felt like we were on a sightseeing bus going through the mountains, past beaches, and just through beautiful scenery the whole time. When we got to Stanley, we walked through the market, grabbed lunch (a couple more slices of pizza!) and then went to check out the beach. Bob and Linda wanted to do some shopping back in Kowloon, so they skipped the beach and went back earlier to do that.
The beach in Stanley was pretty nice (no Thailand beaches, but then again there aren’t many places with beaches that can compare to those)but even better was the beach we stopped at on our way back. We’d passed Deep Water Bay in the morning on our way and as soon as we saw it from the bus, we knew we had to stop there later in the afternoon. We’d originally thought we’d stop at Repulse Bay, another popular beach, but Deep Water Bay looked better. Besides the beach being really pretty, in the background there was a huge roller coaster/amusement park on top of a mountain (Ocean Park, the main competition to Disneyland in HK). It was pretty awesome! Mostly though, after the no swimming rules in Taiwan, we were so happy to just get to go for a dip.
We had a special dinner planned for that night – we were taking Bob and Linda out for dim sum (Chinese appetizers) for their Mother’s/Father’s Day presents. None of us were quite sure what dim sum actually was (was it buns? Dumplings? Appetizers?) but since Hong Kong is famous for it, we knew we wanted to try it. Dave and I had one place in mind that we wanted to go, which we’d read about because they opened a chain in Bangkok (Tim Ho Wan, which is the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world). This is the restaurant we’d asked the first concierge about who told us that he’d only give us directions if we didn’t mind waiting in the heat. The nice concierge told us this place was great (in fact, it was in his neighborhood), but if we wanted somewhere a little closer to B+L’s hotel with no wait (Tim Ho Wan was a few subway stops away), we could also try another place he liked called Caterking. Dave and I popped by there and when the menu looked good, we decided that would be much easier for everyone. We picked up a couple bottles of wine to all share before at their hotel and then had a great dim sum meal, the highlights of which were the shrimp spring rolls, the baked BBQ pork buns, and just because it’s something we’d been wanting to try, the chicken feet.
The following day we were taking an hour ferry ride for a night in Macau, the Vegas of Asia. Dave has been talking about Macau for as long as I can remember, so suffice to say he was very excited about it. Similar to Vegas, Macau has lots of really fancy hotels with tons of gambling. The difference is that where Vegas is more about partying and fun (and some debauchery), Macau is more of a serious gambling place (they actually bring in more gambling income than Vegas) and less (or not at all) about the partying. Few people even drink there (us being the exception of course). We were staying on the north island of Macau, where the old city is, whereas Bob and Linda were staying on “the strip” in Taipa in the south. Our area was more of the daytime exploring area and L+B’s was the nighttime going out and gambling area.
We took the ferry to the north island and dropped all of our bags at the hotel Dave and I were staying at, then we set off to explore, checking out the ruins of St. Paul, the Monte Fort, and the A-Ma temple, stopping in between for lunch (at the most popular place in town which we stumbled upon while sightseeing) near the Largo de Senada, the big town square. Macau was previously owned by Portugal, so there’s a heavy Portuguese influence throughout the city, with all of the signs in Portuguese and an overall very European feel. It was all very cute with colorful buildings and cobblestone streets.
When we were done touring for the day, B+L went to check into their hotel and we met them a couple hours later for a night on “the strip.” They were staying at the Sheraton, which was connected by a huge, fancy mall to a few other hotels, including the Venetian. While all of the hotels were beautiful and the Venetian looks exactly like the one in Vegas, complete with the canal running throughout, the strip itself really has nothing on the Vegas strip. It’s much smaller and less glitzy. The casinos all have much higher minimum bets, but we did find a couple with minimums of about $3 per bet at the Venetian (which all the white people were crowded around). Dave and I were feeling lucky so we sat down at a roulette table and put in $25, which at two chips per round, would last us 4 rounds. At first we weren’t doing so hot, but on our last two chips, we finally won and got all of our money back, plus some. Of course, I was ready to call it quits after that, but Dave wanted to keep going. By that time, Bob and Linda found us and also decided to play for a little. We ended up sitting and playing at the table for an hour or so (though unfortunately, Linda’s chips didn’t last that long) and by the time we decided to leave, we were up $75 – a big win for us!!
Dinner was in Taipa Village on the popular Rue de Cunta street. We’d found a great-sounding place on TripAdvisor called O’Santos serving Portuguese food. The reviews all said the food was great and the friendly owner made the experience even better. All of the reviews were on point and with a 2.5 mL jug of wine, a couple steaks, a fish and some other sides, (plus the great owner of the place who was happy to share his recos with us) we were all happy campers.
The next morning, Bob and Linda wanted to spend some time taking advantage of their nice hotel and Dave and I wanted to see the very South of the island, Coloane, so we went our separate ways and decided to meet up for lunch before heading back to HK in the afternoon. We took the bus to the cute village and then went further to see some of the beaches, which were not very impressive at all (they were black sand and literally had some dead fish floating on the shore; gross) We got back a little earlier than expected and even had time for a quick workout at the Sheraton before our lunch with L+B and ferry back to HK.
For our last night with Bob and Linda, we went to a Peking duck restaurant near them in HK that a good friend of theirs had recommended, Spring Deer. Luckily, we’d made a reservation, as when we got there at8:30 the place was packed. We had our second duck of the trip, which may have been even better than the first (and once again, they brought out all the bones for us to chew on, which was lucky, as without them we would have been missing out on so much meat). It was a great last meal spent reminiscing about our favorite parts of the trip and talking about our future plans. Bob and Linda had been great travel companions during our time in China together, though we know it wasn’t always easy for them with our packed schedules, non-Western toilets, lots of walking, spicy foods, and hot weather (but we’re so proud and impressed at their ability to keep up and be good sports about everything). It was a great and unforgettable two weeks in all of the big cities of China, all of which surpassed all of our expectations (which admittedly were very low to begin with, but we were nothing but pleasantly surprised by what we’d seen so far).
As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in the Guangzhou train station (three hours from HK), which is in the biggest transit city in China (the city itself also has 12 million ppl, which would make it the biggest city in the US by far). We suppose that the biggest transit city in the biggest country in the world probably means that this is also the biggest transit city in the world. There are hundreds of people all around me (including a dozen or so little kids running up and down the aisles and also a few standing about 6 inches from me, staring directly at me), disgusting public bathrooms, crazy lines, people smoking in public despite there being explicit signs saying “no smoking,” and we’re about to take our first overnight train ride in China. All I can think is “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Three hours from the big, fancy, tourist cities and now, for the first time, we’re starting to see the China we were expecting. This could be the longest three weeks of our lives. Stay tuned!