12.16.2015 - 12.18.2015 51 °F
Just when we thought that our hotel rooms couldn't get smaller compared to our Taiwan "pizzzacutfive"-themed room (pizzacutfive is the name of a clothing and lifestyle company in Taiwan that was marketed and wallpapered all over our room), we checked into a matchbox of a room in Kowloon, Hong Kong. The room was less than 100 square feet and the bathroom was a part of the room. The closet was a glass box in the corner with 4 hangers. HOWEVER, they gave us a "handy" mobile phone when we checked in that had free WiFi and calling. We could use it to navigate the city on Google maps and also for making local calls to restaurants and other vendors. It was a such a great idea to provide that to hotel guests at no cost for presumably the tradeoff of free targeted marketing. It also came with a bright orange case that efficiently identified us as tourists for any vendors or locals that were wondering.
We read about how over-inhabited Hong Kong was and figured it would be the same as NYC.... it's not. It is incredible how many giant, sometimes dilapidated sky scraper apartments there are one after another. This picture is of a very small cluster of apartments in Lantau island which is considered a suburb. Imagine a hundred more clusters of apartment buildings like this and constant construction of new buildings. Land is clearly at a premium here.
Hong Kong is 1,100 square kilometers of land including Hong Kong island, Kowloon Province, and a ton of small, mostly uninhabited islands. Hong Kong and China have a "one country, two systems" policy with the People's Republic of China. HK has it's own government and internal affairs but relies on China for defense and foreign policy. Hong Kong is noticeably distinct from mainland china.
We ended up staying in Kowloon across Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island. It's sort of like the Brooklyn to Hong Kong's Manhattan. Hong Kong island is ultra-opulent, and Kowloon is a little more up and coming while housing nearly twice as many people as Hong Kong island. It was very easy to take the metro to and from Kowloon, Hong Kong island, and a few other nearby islands, so staying in Kowloon versus Hong Kong island wasn't really a issue for us. Getting a safe and nice hotel was much more reasonable on the Kowloon side as well for obvious reasons. If we ever went back though we would probably stay on the Hong Kong side for the traditional HK experience.
Kurt had started booking in-person, guided tours for some of our destinations and couldn't settle on getting a tour for Hong Kong or not, so I told him that I would be our official tour guide of Hong Kong. Risky move, I know, so I reached out to friends and read up on my Hong Kong history and current attractions. We basically did a whirlwind, day-long tour. We first went to Po Lin Buddhist Monastery on Landau island. It is home to the 250-ton "Big Buddha Statue." To get there from our hotel we took the orange line metro to it's last stop (about US$ 2), and then took the "360" gondola up to the monastery in the hills (US$ 30 per person, round trip - you can also take public transportation bus or walk/hike at lower or zero fees). The statue was amazing as was the view of the South China Sea from the hills. The monastery opens at 10am with an increasingly longer line as the day goes on. It took about four hours to get there enjoy the sights and get to Hong Kong island.
Next we went to Maxim's Palace (inside the City Hall building) for dim sum per Elinor's great suggestion (holler!). They close at 3pm and open back up for dinner at 5pm. Usually there is a long line to eat, but we got there at 2:30pm, so we had no line, but had to eat quickly. It was very good and had plenty of vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. There is also a fun view of the harbor and a colonial British vibe inside. Note that there is both a Maxim's café and Maxim's Palace. Be sure to go to Maxim's Palace on the higher floor to get the full experience.
After a small bite to eat we took an informal ding ding tour. The ding dings are double decker trams. They are very small and used every day by locals to get around small distances. They share the roads with all other transportation. You hop on and pay as you get off. You need perfect change at HK $2.50 (about 30 US cents). There are different tram lines. They don't go very far, so you're not at too much risk of getting lost. We unexpectedly ended up at Western market, so we got off and walked around.
We then took a sunset tour on the Dukling Junk boat. Junk boats were fishing boats of the 19th century. Ours had sunk to the bottom of the harbor and was restored in 2014 and used for various Jackie Chan movies. It was really beautiful to ride around the harbor at sunset with views of the metropolitan lights and green luscious hills in the background. Because the harbor is small, the wakes of other boats can have a big impact or nearby boats. Each time we were coming into a wake, the tour guide would shout "hold on, tidal wave!" It was pretty fun. The boats are so rare these days that as we pulled into the harbor tourists all rushed over to take pictures. In true Kurt fashion, Kurt started waving to everyone like he was the mayor of Hong Kong...and of course, people waved back.
We ended the night with a shabu shabu Japanese hot pot on the Kowloon side. We wanted a traditional Chinese hot pot, but because the weather was unusually cold, we couldn't get a reservation at any of the spots. Dinner was ok, definitely cozy. It took us thirty minutes to catch a cab back to our hotel. We flagged down at least a dozen cabs that all refused to take us. We're not sure why. Some said they didn't speak English and other said they were Hong Kong island drivers. It seemed like it was because we looked like tourists and likely wanted to drive far from the happening spot we were trying to get picked up from. We eventually got into a cab without saying anything, Then told the driver where we wanted to go. He tried to kick us out, and we just wouldn't have it. We asked how much more we needed to pay him to take us back, and after a whole five minutes of arguing, he took us the 15 minute drive to our hotel.
Before heading out to the airport the next day we woke up early for more dim sum (Kurt can't get enough steamed buns :-O). We ended up sharing a table with Stella and Sandy, a lovely couple born and raised in Hong Kong. Apparently there is an early morning special designed for seniors where each dim sum is less than US$ 1. Stella helped us order, because nothing was in English. She shared stories of Hong Kong and asked us questions about work and our travels. It was nice getting to know some locals briefly, and learn more about what living in Hong Kong is like.
Hong Kong was a new experience different from our prior mainland experiences. We probably wouldn't go back another time purely for pleasure (since it's so far from LA), but have found it the closest proxy to NYC that we've ever experienced.