Hong Kong, Day 1

It was Prince Philip who gave the world the definitive quote on flying. When asked by a reporter how his flight had been, he answered with a question: "have you ever flown in a plane?" The reporter replied in the affirmative, and Prince Phillip said "Well, it was like that." I imagine, however, that royalty doesn't fly economy class.

I was happy to find that even at 2230 in the evening, tourist information was available at the Hong Kong airport. I asked the best way to get to my hotel, and they told me to take bus A21 to stop #16. I asked "wouldn't MTR be better?" to which they replied "No." They sent me to the bus ticket counter, where the woman looked ready to tell me she didn't speak English, but I said "A21" and she said "$33" and I paid her and we got along fine. $33 sounds like a fair chunk of change, but the current exchange rate is about $6HK to $1CAN so that's a little over $5 - quite cheap. The A21 was along in about 10 minutes, and I was happy to find it was a double decker (they're definitely the commonest type of bus on the road here) so I rushed (that's an approximate term - I had 25 kg of bags with me) to the top front seat.

The hotel is lovely and the room fairly large. Well, size is relative - but it's clean, high-ceilinged, new, quiet, and quite a reasonable size compared to most hotel rooms I end up in in Europe. It has what's known as a "city view," which is to say that I didn't plonk for the harbour view. I look out the building at other apartments and business towers - although in fact I can - just - see the water, and the peak of the island. A couple annoyances: the first is that it seems to be best not to drink the water. I was fascinated to find just before I left that asking this question on Travelocity or some other travel site had caused a 1000 entry flame war, all saying "it's fine" or "it's not fine": what it boils down to (pun intended) is that Hong Kong's tap water is fairly good, but many buildings have bad pipes. The clever suggestion by one commenter (that seemed to be a popular post!) that you should "boil the water" left me kind of gob-smacked: boiling the water kills biological hazards, but pipes introduce chemical hazards ... The hotel kindly provided two free bottles of water. They're 500ml, and they'll supply more at $20HK a piece. Or ... you can walk to the Wellcome supermarket a block away and buy two 1.5l bottles for $13HK.

I got to the room around 0030, and was passed out in bed by 0045. Hong Kong is 11 hours off from Toronto - I have no idea which direction, and don't particularly care. I slept - or at least had my eyes closed - for a large chunk of my 18 hours of air time (stop-over in Beijing), and so I got up at 0700 feeling pretty reasonable this morning.

That's a whole lot about practicalities, and I'm still not quite done. I bought an Octopus card. It started out life as a transport card very similar to the Presto card that GO has been using for a while and that the TTC is trying to usher in, but apparently here you can use the Octopus for purchases of items large and small in corner stores and just about everywhere.

I am a giant. Back home in Canada, most people simply refer to me as "tall." But here (as when I was in southeast Asia), I tower over the entire population. But every time I think how cool it is I won the genetic lottery on that one, I go and smash my head into the roof of a bus or tram and remember that this isn't actually an advantage here ...

I had breakfast at N1 Coffee because it looked okay and was only a block away. In Canada, fancy coffee drinks are expensive (latte, cappuccino, mocha ...) and "a coffee" is cheap. At N1 "a coffee" is NOT cheap - but I wasn't thinking about the currency conversion straight and managed to buy a $65HK coffee. And baguette with egg and bacon, which was good. I'd actually finished the latter before the coffee arrived: this is because it's "single sourced Ethiopian" "with winey and blueberry notes" that they made with the proper pour-over technique while serving other people. And I'll be damned if I didn't taste both those things. I'll grudgingly admit that it might even have been worth $11CAN, although I suspect I won't rush to do it again. Turns out they sell a mocha for $40HK ...

I took the Star Ferry over to the Island. For those not familiar with the geography, Hong Kong consists of a peninsula off mainland China and a number of islands, but for most tourists the part that matters is split between the tip of the peninsula (Kowloon) and Hong Kong island. Something a lot of people miss is that there's a lot of Hong Kong beyond the memorable skyline and crowded streets: the New Territories extend some 20-25km north before you hit the border with mainland China, and the Island has quite an array of parks on the south side. Both have plenty of hiking that I hope to take advantage of.

The Star Ferry is a set of boats (a lot like the Toronto Island Ferry) that runs frequently between Kowloon and the Island. It's a short ride, with an impressive view of the very crowded skyline. From the docks I took the first storey covered walk-ways well up into the town: apparently these are very common on the island, keeping the pedestrians above the worst of the traffic in the heart of downtown. I kept heading uphill, and eventually managed to find the Mid-Levels Escalator - something I'd been really looking forward to. This isn't in fact a single escalator: it's dozens of them. And they're not all in a neat row: they zig and zag as available building rights at the time dictated. It gets a huge number of residents from the Mid-Levels (apartment towers part-way up Victoria Peak) to the downtown core in the morning, and back again in the afternoon. The escalators run downhill until 1000, and uphill thereafter. Individually, escalators aren't terribly exciting. But a massive and practical sequence of them, that's built not in a boring straight line, but twists to fit the city ... I really enjoyed it.

photo: Traffic on Hong Kong Island

Traffic on Hong Kong Island

I had no destination in mind today, I just wanted to walk around and get familiar with the city. So, having gone up, I came back down. On the way back down I went into "Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception - Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong." A nice church - I particularly loved the massive Buddhist Bowl / Bell placed right next to the organ.

photo: Buddhist Bowl in the Church

Buddhist Bowl in the Church

I found The Peak Tram, but the line-up looked to be about an hour long - I'll have to ask around to find out the best time of day to go up. But now I had a reason to have at least a short term destination: Tsim Chai Kee Noodle, where I lined up with office workers and tourists. It's a popular place, but the line moves pretty quickly. I never did get to see the menu: they're known for their Wonton Soup, which is indeed very good and very cheap ($28HK). And very fast. Since lunch had lasted all of fifteen minutes I decided some more sitting was in order, so I climbed on an Island tram without bothering to check the direction or destination. The tram is recommended as a tourist destination unto itself in my guidebook and at least one other I saw, and they're right: it's pretty damn entertaining. These are precarious, old double-decker trams that run almost the entire length of the island. They rattle along, peaking at perhaps 25km/h - but they don't even hit that often as stops are frequent and traffic is bad. If you actually need to get somewhere, there's the MTR's underground Island Line covering roughly the same territory: but if you want a view of Hong Kong Island ... the trams are fantastic. Mine ended up going out to Happy Valley, HK's well-known horse racing track. In Macau, you can bet at the casinos. In HK, you can bet on the horses. I don't think either is legal on the mainland, so they're both very popular destinations for in-country tourists. Neither is really my kind of thing, but I'm glad to have seen it.

I rolled back into town on another tram (not that Happy Valley is "out of town," it's surrounded by towers too), with bad traffic reducing our pace to a speed slightly slower than your average pedestrian. But it's hard to complain when the fare is $2.3HK (about 40 cents Canadian). Eventually I got off, did a bit more walking, and took the MTR back to the hotel in the mid-afternoon.

The streets remind me a lot of Bangkok - although that doesn't give an accurate picture of the traffic itself. But the weird juxtaposition of squalor and high-tech is much the same. Massive business towers, creaky ancient apartment towers, people with their noses in their phones, the ever-present sound of construction, a 7-11 on every corner, hand-carts full of garbage being pushed about. In Bangkok there are an immense number of people on small displacement motorcycles. Here, there aren't many motorcycles at all. We have hundreds of old red cabs, lots of double-decker buses, a variety of tiny cube vans, and an impressive collection of Teslas, Porsches, Mercedes, even Aston Martins and a Rolls Royce.

Like many tropical cities, things really get going when the sun goes down and it gets a bit cooler. It looks like many of the stores stay open well into the evening. I walked up to the Night Market, which turned out to be very similar to night markets I'd seen in Vietnam and Thailand: clothing, plastic stuff, knock-offs of well known brands, plug converters, even the occasional drone for sale. The only reason I might want to remember it is because it's the first place I've seen tacky tourist magnets. For those who aren't familiar ... a long time ago, my boss Dara declared that each of us who travelled should bring back a tacky magnet. I was unimpressed, but did as requested. Six or seven years later, this has grown into a truly impressive collection of some of the ugliest and most eye-hurting fridge magnets ever created by humankind, and several of us (myself included) have become quite proud of it and carefully nurture it whenever we travel.

photo: Tourist and cleaner in the church

Tourist and cleaner in the church