Our first two days in Hong Kong!
My friend Imy and I have just returned from an amazing two-week trip to Asia, and we had an absolute ball! There is so much to tell that I’ll be writing about it gradually over the next two weeks, but first let’s start at the beginning: Hong Kong. I have to start this blog post by declaring just how much I loved Hong Kong. I had been there once before, for a week in 2008 during my gap year trip backpacking around China and South-East Asia, and this trip in 2014 only reaffirmed my love for this incredible city. I am determined to return for 12 months, to properly get under its skin and experience living in Asia, whose differences to Europe fascinate me.
Our Cathay Pacific flight from London delivered us very smoothly onto Lantau Island, from where we caught the quick 30-min express train to Hong Kong Station, on the main island. Here we picked up by a shuttle bus and were shown to our first hotel in Hong Kong: the 4* Cosmopolitan Hotel near the Happy Valley Racecourse, close to Causeway Bay. I had found this hotel through an online luxury travel website called Holidays Please, and we were to spend two nights in one of their newly renovated, luxurious Grand Deluxe Rooms, which came with everything we could have wished for: a teddy bear each to welcome us, a view of the racecourse, elegant mother of pearl design details and even a smartphone! I can’t emphasise enough how much we adored this phone: we used it as a Wifi hotspot out and about, allowing us to use Google Maps, TripAdvisor and everything else on our iPhones without paying a leg and an arm for international roaming. Not only did it give us free internet, but it also included free local and international calls to five countries (UK, US, China, Singapore & Australia). It was an absolute godsend and I will now be looking out for the same service in other hotels I travel to in future.
After a quick shower to freshen up we hit the ground running by heading down to nearby Times Square. This was our first glimpse of Hong Kong’s over-the-top addiction to designer shopping – they are literally obsessed! At every turn you’ll see brand new shopping malls and luxury brands from the West, it seemed odd to begin with until we understood that the mainland Chinese come here to buy everything unavailable to them back in China, and to take advantage of the city’s lack of VAT or sales tax. Still, we found the focus on shopping overwhelming and tried to avoid it. So we chose to take back streets and alleyways instead, which led us through more authentic food markets featuring live seafood, such as crabs, lobsters and various fish, not to mention crispy duck restaurants rather gruesomely displaying entire cooked ducks, and holes-in-the-wall selling Bubble Tea, a delicious tea or juice drink with little black tapioca balls inside.
On a friend’s recommendation we had a delicious Dim Sum dinner at the Michelin-starred Din Tai Fung restaurant on Yee Wo Street. I love the price of food in Hong Kong and at £13 each for a feast which we couldn’t even finish, it was certainly the cheapest Michelin-starred meal I’ve ever had!
Despite beginning to feel the effects of jetlag, we mustered our energy and headed for cocktails at Red Bar, a terrace on the 4th floor of the IFC mall that overlooks Kowloon, to admire the illuminated horizon of formidable skyscrapers and find out what Hong Kong has in store at night.
We ended up in Lan Kwai Fong, a small collection of streets in Central that are home to pubs, cocktail bars, shot bars, tribute bands and a hell of a lot of young people from absolutely everywhere! There’s a mix of expats (lots of Brits & Aussies), locals and tourists but there’s a very Western vibe overall. We scored a prime people-watching spot in Rúla Búla bar and watched a huge street party gradually gather right in front of us, featuring some hilarious drunk foreigners in a dance-off with the locals!
We eventually tumbled into our extremely comfy beds back at the Cosmopolitan Hotel and awoke on Sunday famished and very ready for the hotel’s buffet breakfast. They serve a good selection of Asian food and Western food, reflecting the mix of nationalities of the guests. The weather during our stay in Hong Kong was a tad overcast and although the forecast predicted solid rain 24/7, we were only caught out on the odd occasion by a brief downpour of around 30 mins. Fortunately the hotel provide everyone with umbrellas to guard against a rainy surprise!
You can’t visit Hong Kong without taking a trip to the popular area around the Peak, 554m above sea level, offering incredible views of the metropolis below to the north, the tropical jungle wilderness to the south and the outer islands beyond that. A fun way to get there is to start in Central and catch the 800m-long Mid-Levels Escalator (the longest in the world, don’t you know) through the very chic, expat Soho neighbourhood up to Conduit Road, from where you can start to see the juxtaposition of the concrete jungle entwined with the original verdant jungle near the Botanical Gardens. When the Brits arrived and colonised the islands back in 1841 they must have completely bulldozed over a lot of nature to create such a radically different picture!
Wander down to the east (past the Foreign Correspondents Club which I would have loved to go into!) to get to the Peak Tram. The tram has been used since 1888 to transport the fortunate few who could afford to live up on the peak, where the temperature is a little cooler than down at sea level. HK$40 will get you a return ticket on the historic wooden tram that somehow by magic manages to struggle up the unbelievably steep slope leading to the Peak! Even having ridden it before, back in 2008, I still found it a little alarming and wondered if we’d make it! (We did!) Try to get a seat on the right-hand-side for the views, and only splash out for the Sky Terrace observation deck at 428m if it’s a clear day.
Once at the top of the tram you’ll be reminded immediately of the fact that you’re in Hong Kong, because you’ll need to navigate a shopping mall to get outside to see the spectacular view. There are a number of decent 1-3 hour walks beginning from the Peak, and we chose one of the shorter ones that leads up to the Victoria Peak Garden.
5 minutes from the end of our walk we had our first experience of Hong Kong’s wet monsoon thunderstorms! We ducked into a doorway and it was certainly very dramatic to see the water hammering down with thunder and lightening adding to the atmosphere! At this point we were actually grateful for the city’s many shopping malls – it would have been impossible to be outside – and we had a crispy duck pancake dinner at Tien Yi restaurant inside the Pacific Place mall in Admiralty. But a word of warning: it is nigh on impossible to hail down a taxi in Hong Kong during a thunderstorm! You can easily be waiting for half an hour, so find a taxi rank under the cover of a shopping centre or other big building so you can wait in the dry. In the end the storm continued late into the night, so we opted to get some beauty sleep back in the hotel rather than try to brave exploring anywhere outside after dinner.
Drawing the curtains the next day to see our stunning view over the raincourse, we saw that the storm had cleared up. Phew. Before setting out for another day of sightseeing I was treated to a tour of the hotel and in particular one of their divine, luxurious 48m² Grand Executive Suites. Hong Kong is the 4th most densely populated ‘country’ in the world and apparently the average size of a family flat in Hong Kong is just 30m²! I also saw one of their Grand Family Quads, which are filled with teddies and toys for the kids!
To get more of a flavour for the real Hong Kong (by real I mean Chinese, as the main Hong Kong Island feels extremely Western) we headed over to Kowloon via the historic Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour. It’s been around for about 120 years, costs a ridiculous HK$2.50 (equal to 20p) and gives you some great views of the waterfronts on both sides of the harbour.
Disembarking in Kowloon, everything began to feel a lot more familiar. Kowloon is where I stayed last time I visited Hong Kong on a measly backpacker’s budget, as we couldn’t afford the main island. We stayed on Nathan Road in Chungking Mansions to be precise, which was a filthy cockroach-infested hellhole, but an interesting and character-building experience nonetheless! I fancied showing Imy what it was like so after a stroll along the Kowloon promenade we headed north to the monstrous 1960s building that is home to thousands of immigrants and backpackers, basically people who can’t afford anywhere nicer! However I can say that the curry houses there are pretty damn good, just don’t dress up for the occasion!
We continued north along Nathan Road, popping into Kowloon Park for a breather from the 33°C heat and 95% humidity, on on our way to explore some markets. First up we visited the intriguing Jade Market on Kansu Street, where I picked up some trinkets and bits and bobs (no jade, if I’m honest) before stopping by the Goldfish Market further north in Mong Kok, the Flower Market and the Bird Market, which I hadn’t been able to visit in 2008 due to an outbreak of avian flu there.
The Bird Market was my favourite of the four, as it’s enclosed in a walled garden and you’ll wander past brightly-coloured parrots, bags of live grasshoppers and insects on sale, stacks upon stacks of wooden bird cages and sadly overcrowded cages of tiny exotic birds chirping away. The combined squawk of all the birds makes quite a racket and I’m sure the bird sellers must all be deaf.
Over in Kowloon we saw far fewer foreigners and felt for the first time that we were truly abroad. It’s definitely worth experiencing the two different sides of the harbour to better understand the city. What I love about both sides of the harbour is that it doesn’t feel overrun with tourists, as London does for example. The Westerners in Hong Kong are more likely to be expats going about their working day rather than camera-wielding tourists, and at first glance there appears to be a very harmonious balance between the various groups and communities that share this city. I’m sure a resident would know better than me, but I certainly got the impression that the city ‘works’.
We packed such a lot into our four nights in Hong Kong that I’ve had to continue the story in another blog post. There is plenty more to tell, don’t you worry…. Click here to read about the rest of our trip to Hong Kong.