We woke up to the sound of construction and honking cars. Our hostel is located in Causeway Bay, similar to Time Square with shopping, neon advertisements, and a constant crowd of people.
Luckily Hong Kong isn’t just about the hustle and bustle, so we took advantage of this fact and made our way to Victoria Peak. First, we had a breakfast of rice, seaweed flakes, and chicken at a fast food chain called Yoshinoya. We ended up being pretty frequent customers here since it was cheap and much healthier than McDonald’s, and in English.
In order to walk to The Peak, we had to take an absurd number of escalators past the Mid-Levels. Hong Kong is built partially on the incline of Victoria Peak, and it gets pretty steep (picture even worse than San Fransisco steep). Finally we got to the top of the escalators, and the bottom of our hike to The Peak. We walked past giant apartment complexes, ritzy mansions, and then onto a windy paved trail that took us over an hour to climb to the top. We were welcomed at the top by a shopping mall (not what I would expect after a hike in a mountain) and a great view of the entire city. To reward ourselves for the hike, we feasted on McDonald’s while overlooking the city–far, far below. It was hard to even grasp how large the city is.
Today we did a self-guided walking tour that took us to Cat Street Market, with vendors selling antique bronze statues and jade beads. We had a few school children come up to us and ask us questions about why we were here, all in English. It’s amazing how young they learn and it reinforces my desire to know another language.
We continued on to Man Mo Temple, which housed two deities, one for Civil Service and one for Education and Literature. The pungent incense smoke was thick and made it hard to breathe, although the locals praying next to the flames and shrines didn’t seem to worry about their smoke intake whatsoever. Minus the lack of air, it was beautiful inside with intricately carved statues and ornamental altars with large burning incense cones hanging from the ceiling. Before going back to the hostel in one of the city trams (known as ding-dings) we saw the Western Market, the dried seafood market, and ate at a Vietnamese restaurant.
Later that evening, we took the MTR (metro) to the other side of Hong Kong, Kowloon. Here, we met one of friends that we studied abroad with on Semester at Sea that’s living here in Hong Kong. It was great getting to catch up, hear his experiences in Hong Kong, and even learn some Cantonese phrases while having dinner and drinks. He took us out to the harbor and walked along the promenade, with a great view of all the skyscrapers glowing along the water.
Today we went took the MTR, and a bus out to a hiking trail called Dragon’s Back. On our bus we met three gorgeous flight attendants from Germany who were out to hike during their layover before their flight home. We stuck together with the girls since we all got lost together trying to find the trail head, and ended up learning a great deal about the lifestyle of a flight attendant. It seems like a pretty sweet gig getting to see all these different places, stay in hotels and eat meals on the airline’s dime.
The hike was windy, but gave a great view of the harbor and some of the city in the distance. We were exhausted and hungry by the time we got back to the bus stop in town and said goodbye to our flight attendant friends. We snacked on cheap sushi (which is big for me, since I never, ever, used to go near the stuff) and headed back to the hostel to warm up.
Feeling rejuvenated, we left the hostel and made our way to the Happy Valley Racetrack, which hosts horse races on Wednesday evenings. My first impression walking through the gates was amazement at how many caucasian people there were all in one place. There was a fair share of Chinese people there too, mostly in the betting rooms, following the races on TV. We watched a few races just to try to understand how it works and then Byron places a few bets on the horses and won a few dollars! Each round of the race goes so quickly since it’s only one lap around the track, but it’s a very high energy few minutes.
After the races, we ate some late night street food…I think it was hot dog and cabbage maybe, but you can never be too sure. Even though it was after midnight, the streets were still filled with people–young, old, and children.
Our hostel is located on the Causeway Bay side of Hong Kong, so we’ve spent most of our time doing activities on this side. Today, we ventured to the other side, Kowloon, by taking a ferry across the water. We walked along the promenade near the harbor, which turned into the Avenue of Stars. This part is similar to the avenue in Hollywood with celebrity’s handprints in the ground. The only name I recognized was Bruce Lee, who had a handprint and a giant statue to commemorate his work.
We wandered around the city, snacked on fried rice and iced green tea, and walked along Nathan Road to all the main shopping areas. The street was lined with high end stores like Cartier and Tiffany, people in the street trying to sell you things–“copy watch, tailor, copy handbag, hashish, marijuana”–a mosque, and a Chinese jewelry store (Chow Tai Fook or Luk Fook) every other block. As we walked further down the street, the shops started getting more and more densely packed together and the neon signage intensified until we found ourselves in the middle of the Ladies Market. It spanned several blocks and had vendors on either side selling jade necklaces, handbags, fake designer watches and more. The funny part was that the pattern of vendors would just repeat. Every fourth one would be selling the exact same thing, which made it hard to know where you should actually shop to get the best deal. I wanted one of the necklaces, so I tried my hand at bargaining with a woman that didn’t speak much English, except to call me “Missy” as she typed her best offer on her calculator. I worked her down to a good number, but tried another bead vendor and got an even better deal. Here was the prime spot to use a few Cantonese phrases, like “Gay cheen ah” (how much) and “Mm gwhy” (excuse me, thank you, etc.). I never enjoy bargaining because I’d much rather just know the price of something up front, but I have to say I’m not too bad at it.
After leaving the chaos of the market, we walked on to Fa Yuen Street, or more commonly known as Sneaker Street, which was just as chaotic. There were Nike, Addidas, New Balance and every other sneaker shop in abundance. It was silly because there would be one Nike store on one side of the street and another identical one on the next block.
Byron and I didn’t bring running shoes in our backpacks, but after a month of not running, we decided the extra weight of carrying shoes was worth it. Byron found a pair in his size, in his favorite color, orange. I found a few pairs, brought them up to the sales associate and asked if they had any in my size, which is 10 (I know it’s big even in the USA, but being 5’8″ requires some extra inches for stability). The sales person laughed and said the biggest they sold was 7.5 and that I should really look in the men’s department. I figured maybe this store was just poorly stocked, so I tried again at other stores and got the exact same reaction. Clearly, I was not sized properly for Asia.
We found out that most Asian households here have maids that do the laundry, resulting in few laundromats for people in our situation. The hostel recommended we go to Great George Laundry, and after getting lost trying to find it, we were a bit hesitant. The store front was marked with a small sign and the woman behind the counter was in the foulest of moods. She grabbed our bags and threw them on the ground, scribbled furiously on our receipt and gruffly told us to be back by 6pm to collect. So much for customer service. I prayed that our clothes (the only ones we had) were in good hands.
Because it was laundry day, all my warm clothes were being washed, leaving me in shorts and Byron in his bathing suit. As if we didn’t already stand out enough.
Regardless of our weather-inappropriate attire, we took the metro to Tung Chung, on Lantau Island. The main tourist itinerary here is to take the cable car up into the mountains to see a giant Buddha statue. However, the line for the cable car was insanely long and it was much too cold for us to hike it. Frustrated, we went inside the CityGate Mall and warmed up over lunch in the food court.
Luckily, the mall had a Nike Factory store, so I went in with low expectations that they would have my size shoe. Amazingly, not only did they have my size, but the exact shoe style and color I wanted and for less money than it would have been to ship it to Hong Kong. Even though the day had somewhat dampened by our failed planning, the success of finding shoes in my size made up for everything. We even got all of our laundry back, without anything missing and all smelling fresh.
Since we decided to stay in Hong Kong for two weeks, we felt that we could spend a day lounging around and not feel guilty for not seeing any cultural sites. We ran in our new shoes around Victoria Park, which was full of people practicing their morning Tai Chi. We read and blogged and just hung out until dinner time, when we met up with our Semester at Sea friend, Shaleen.
He took us to a delicious Indian restaurant in Chungking Mansion, one of the sketchiest places in Hong Kong. It was good to have someone with us that actually knew where the good places to go were since we probably never would have ventured into the Mansion on our own.
Stuffed full of naan, chicken masala, and butter chicken, we enjoyed a hookah at a tiny restaurant and hung out with Shaleen at his apartment until bed.
We started our day again with a run in the park, but today was Sunday, which meant that all the Indonesian maids had work off today and congregated in the park on picnic blankets. There were hundreds of them spread on on the pavement, chatting and enjoying food with the other maids while a market was selling scarves and clothing to them. Not only were the maids out in the park, but the Umbrella Movement was in full force handing out stickers, ribbons, playing music and yelling into bullhorns about the unfair representation the Hong Kong people have in the Chinese government. I had recently written a paper about this in one of my classes, so I found it interesting to actually see the protesters in action fighting to give the power back to the people.
We had a hot dog and ice cream at IKEA for lunch and then took our heavy backpacks on the ferry to Kowloon to move into Shaleen’s apartment, where we were staying for the rest of our time in Hong Kong.
We all walked around Kowloon Park, which was crowded with people enjoying the gardens, the pool, or the Kung Fu demonstration that was showcasing all different ages performing their skill. Shaleen showed us around the city and to his university, while we snacked on pork bun and lotus bun from a street vendor.
We hung out at his apartment for a while and then had dinner down the street at a restaurant with all kinds of dead animals hanging in the window. I had simple pork and rice (which became my go-to meal since all I had to say was “chow sue fon” and I knew I’d like it), but Byron decided to try pigeon, which is served with the head attached with a squawking expression on the bird’s face. It tasted kind of like the dark meat of a chicken.
Byron and I continued along Nathan Road until we found the Temple Street Night Market. We haggled with vendors for things we needed, like an outlet adapter and a watch. We also tasted some tortoise jelly soup, which is supposedly good for your health. After our fill of bargaining in the market, we had some Hong Kong-styled coffee, called Yin Yeung, a mixture of coffee and tea.
Today we decided to give Lantau Island one more try, now that we had warm clothing and the weather was nice. We took the metro out to the island, and stood in line for the 5.7km Ngong Ping 360 cable car ride, feeling lucky with the clear blue sky that was overhead. We piled into a cable car with an Asian family and a British bloke and were swept away from the terminal and out over the hills and water below. We had a perfect view of the airport and could watch as the massive air bus planes took nearly the entire runway to lift off the ground. The Asian family started taking selfies and we followed suit, capturing the city in the background as we were carried higher and higher into the mountains.
Even though it was a nice day out, the mountains were shrouded with mist, so when we first spotted the Tian Tan Buddha statue, it was just a teeny tiny Buddha outline that kept disappearing as the clouds thickened. Very mystical looking.
The cable car dropped us off in Ngong Ping at the entrance of a tacky village, built solely for shops and restaurants and souvenirs for tourists to indulge in. We walked right past this and instead started the ascent up the staircase leading to the massive Buddha statue, which grew bigger with every step closer, and the bronze hand was extended like we were getting ready to high five.
The selfie sticks were out in abundance, with only a few people actually praying to the Buddha. I don’t know much about Buddhism, but apparently this location is special and draws many people who follow the religion. Even though we couldn’t appreciate it for the symbolism and religious meaning, the Buddha was an impressive work of art and architecture.
Afterwards, we had a delicious vegetarian meal at the Buddhist Po Lin Monastery, located at the foot of the statue. Full of cucumber, tofu, and corn, we entered the Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Sure enough, the enormous room had several large Buddha statues in the center, but thousands of smaller ones carved into gold leafed walls. The entire hall shined a rich gold color, with intricate ceiling carvings, giving the place an immense feeling of importance.
To get away from other tourists, and get some exercise, we followed a path through the woods, with wild cattle and buffalo roaming freely, to the start of Lantau trail. It was a grueling hour to the peak full of large stone steps and steep inclines, making my muscles burn. Everyone on the path had music playing from their phones, giving them the extra motivation, so we joined in and blasted S Club 7 to get us to the top. We could see the Buddha far off in the distance on one side, and the rest of our windy trail snaking down the other. It was a perfect temperature for hiking, with a gentle breeze wicking the sweat away and keeping us cool.
At the other end of the trail, we hopped on a bus to Mui Wo, a small town on the water with a surprisingly large number of ex-pats. After a dinner of noodles and coffee-tea, we took the ferry back to Shaleen’s and played chess and relaxed until bed.
Today we took the metro out to Tin Shui Wai, part of the New Territories, to visit the Wetlands Park. We took another two trams and walked up to the gates, just to be told by the security guard that the park is closed on Tuesday’s. Bummer, but we weren’t going to let that ruin our day, so instead we went to the Ping Shan Heritage Trail, beginning at an old police station. We gave the trail a solid effort, following the map to various old ancestral halls and temples, but ran out of patience and appreciation for the heritage after seeing Hong Kong’s oldest pagoda. I hate to say it, but you can only see so many temples before they start to lose their charm and excitement.
Instead of experiencing the culture through visiting historical sites, we decided to embrace Chinese tradition with our stomachs. In Yuen Long, we found the infamous (and Michelin Star awarded) Dai Wing Wah dim sum restaurant (after a struggle to identify the restaurants Chinese characters). Dim sum is a traditional style of eating, similar to Spanish tapas in the sense that you order many small plates of food for the table to share, like dumplings or scallion pancakes. We didn’t know what most of the menu was, so I ordered the things I could deem edible, like chicken roll and sponge cake. Byron was more adventurous and picked pork knuckle in sour ginger soup, fried farinaceous (or at least I think that’s how it was spelled), rice in lotus leaf, and shrimp dumplings. Other than the pork knuckle, it was all delicious and I ate much more of the weird food than my plain chicken roll. We shared a table with a middle aged Chinese couple, and were able to have an entire conversation with the man about what our food was, how to properly eat it, and what table etiquette is. Apparently it is standard in restaurants to clean your bowls and chopsticks and tea cup with hot water and dump the dirty water in a communal bowl on the table. We couldn’t help but question why it was expected for you to clean your utensils in acknowledgement that the restaurant probably didn’t clean them good enough. Makes me wonder how many dirty chopsticks I’ve been using…
After lunch we took a bus to the walled city of Kat Hing Wai, originally built 600 years ago during the Qing dynasty. Inside the walls was one Main Street flanked by a mix of houses, both new and ancient, and extremely narrow alleyways.
We were going to attempt to see more sights, but the figuring out the bus system proved to be a challenge, so we went back to Kowloon and Shaleens to play rummy late into the night with one of his friends from school, Max.
For this whole trip, we’re only planning a few weeks at a time, but at this point we didn’t have more than two days of Vietnam booked and needed to catch up on some wifi and planning. We spent all morning in the iSquare Shopping Mall booking our Vietnamese hotel at $11 a night.
After Shaleen and Max were done with classes for the day, we met up at a fancy dim sum restaurant at the top of the One Shopping Mall. Luckily, Max speaks a bit of Cantonese, which meant we could get some traditional food without paying the English-menu price. We sampled all kinds of plates, including chicken feet, shrimp dumpling and pork bun.
Byron and I had dessert at McDonalds since they have the delicious green tea ice cream, and took the ferry to Central. We strolled through Long Kwai Fong, and then went to the metro stop at Tin Hau and searched for a restaurant Max described as past a hotel, with dead animals in the window, and a sign in Chinese. Amazingly we found the place and used the few Chinese phrases we knew, along with pointing, to order the famous traditional pigs blood dish. I braced myself as the women set down a bowl with gelatinous cubes of reddish brown color floating in broth. I was expecting the very worst, so I was happily surprised that it was good enough to eat another cube and not gag. It’s still not something I would eat again, but worth trying once for sure.
After our adventurous meal, we took the “ding ding” to Happy Valley Race Course for another Wednesday night at the races. We met a few international students from Canada trying to pregame the race at the 7-11 (typical for Hong Kong since there aren’t open container laws), and met up with Shaleen as the horses sped past. Even some of the locals tried to make friends with us and gave us hugs, but I think the heavy beer consumption had something to do with their friendliness. After the races, we all went back to Shaleen’s apartment and played rummy late into the night.
Today was another day of mostly rest and lounging around since we were still exhausted from the constant sightseeing a tourist lifestyle demands. We went to a fast food chain, Cafe de Coral for lunch and I was delightfully surprised with a heaping plate of spaghetti with meat sauce. I’m all about trying local food, but I was really starting to miss my comfort food from home.
Without motivation to be tourists, we just read our books in the park near the art museum, and wandered over to Starbucks to relax with a newspaper and a chesnut latte. Later on, I even found my favorite food (tortilla chips) in a grocery store. Today was a great day for my stomach.
For dinner, we met up with Shaleen, Bryan and Dani (all Fall 2013 Semester at Sea alumni) at a mexican restaurant in Wan Chai. We had delicious nachos and tacos and heard all about Dani’s work experiences at Disney and Bryan’s future plans. SAS is great because even people that you didn’t hang out with all the time on the ship will have this permanent connection of simply sailing together.
After lounging around yesterday, we decided we had to make the most of today, even if it was chilly and foggy. We bought sandwiches at the 7-Eleven for breakfast and ate it on the ferry ride over to Cheung Chau, a nearby island. Normally the island is known for its yearly Bun Festival and for its beaches. Without the festival or good weather, the island still had bustling main streets filled with tiny shops selling dried fish, sarongs, hardware goods, and any kind of live seafood you could imagine. I snacked on an “eggette” from a street cart, which is an egg shaped waffle and extremely tasty.
We walked around the island, which didn’t have a single car–just bikes and small carts–until we got to the Pak Tai Temple. I can’t say it stood out from any of the other temples we’ve seen this far.
As I’m a big fan of the steamed buns, we found one stamped with the design Cheung Chau is known for. The outside was sweet and doughy and the inside was some sort of warm delicious fruit paste.
After having our fill of the island, we took a ferry to Mui Wo and had lunch at the exact same place we did just a few days ago. Afterwards, we took a bus to the small fishing village of Tai O, which is accessed through one of the most curvy, hilly roads I’ve ever seen. In order to access the town, you must walk across a tiny wooden footbridge that crosses a river flanked with boats and stilted houses (mostly wooden and corrugated metal shacks). It was dark and dreary and as we walked around the small town, it seemed to be filled with these tiny run down dwellings with hundreds of cats roaming around waiting for bits of seafood. In contrast to all this, there’s an old police station that was turned into the most luxurious boutique hotel, only accessible by walking on a road past all the destitute housing first.
Cold and tired, we took the same winding bus ride back to Kowloon to meet up with Bryan, Shaleen, and Dylan for a wonton noodle dinner. Soon, a handful of other current SASers joined us to enjoy an incredible view at Ozone, the tallest bar in the world at the top of the Ritz Carlton. Even the cheapest drinks were over $20, so we enjoyed the view as long as we could, and then continued being cheap university students by drinking at the 7-11.
Part of me wondered whether I would feel regret when seeing the current Semester at Sea students because I had considered going on this voyage. However, I’m happy with the decision I made to travel independently because what I miss most of my SAS experience is the memories I made during that specific voyage. Although I’m entirely jealous of the people that get to be on the MV Explorer again, I’m somewhat grateful to keep my fond memories of Semester at Sea as cherished parts of 2013.