Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Cows in Hong Kong?

View from Hong Kong Peak, with lionNo, the title of this post is not a jab at tourists visiting the Bubba Gumps restaurant at The Peak (the ones who get to enjoy this view to the left). It means literal, four legged, big-brown-eyed bovines, sitting in front of my bus going through the New Territories until the driver honks and makes them move.

Whenever I'm in a new place, I kind of like seeing little echos of the places I've just left. The flyers for Argentine tango lessons in New Zealand shop windows, or the Aussie bar in Laos blasting "I Come from a Land Down Under." So when I saw the cows sitting in the road, I immediately thought "hey, just like Vietnam." Then I stopped, narrowed my eyes and realized that while it was fairly normal to see cows wandering around a mountainside in rural Vietnam, it couldn't be that common in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has been full of surprises like that. One of my hosts told me about a picture she took when she was out hiking on one of the nearby islands in Hong Kong. She sent it to friends of hers who replied "Where is that? I thought you were in Hong Kong!" The rolling forested hills, hiking trails, and beaches didn't add up to their image of the port metropolis.

It didn't to mine either. My first impression of Hong Kong came from sitting in the very front on top of a double-decker public bus from the airport on Lantau Island into Hong Kong Island. Everything looked vertical. It was an entire mass of skyscrapers and elevated highways surrounding hills in every direction for what looked like miles-- Gotham city come to life and filled with Chinese characters.

Then I arrived at my hosts' apartment. Scott and Brooke are the brother-in-law and sister of a semi-distant cousin's girlfriend. I think. It's funny, tell people you're going everywhere, and you will almost always have somebody say "Oooh! How about _____? I have a _____ there you should visit!" Months later, here I am. And man, am I grateful.

Keep in mind that, while I've been happy with my last couple months' style of accommodation, it generally followed the line of one bed (no sheets, sometimes a blanket) under a fan not far from a shared bathroom with an unheated shower head sticking out of the wall somewhere near the toilet, which usually comes without soap, often without toilet paper, and occasionally without a seat. A sink is usually considered an expendable extra. If I have my own bathroom, it's considered a splurge (let alone one with heated water). Don't even get me started on air-con. If I was too hot to sleep, I would take a shower, skip drying myself off, and go to sleep dripping under the fan going full blast.

So when my taxi pulled past the gate up two floors, and the doorman ushered me into the elevator where I went up to floor 25 of 35 to one of the two suites on the floor, I knew I was in for a change. I just didn't know how much of a change. The air conditioning, hot water (not only in the shower but in all the taps) with really good water pressure, my own soft bed and sheets would have been more than enough. The amazing view, Persian rugs and artwork everywhere from all over, polished wood floors, laundry machine, sound system, TV (including just about every channel I'd ever heard of), and wireless internet, were from another world. And that's just in the apartment itself-- 25 floors down sit the fitness center, swimming pool, and direct access to one of the nicest (flat) trails on Hong Kong Island around the mountain.

To top it off, Brooke and Scott have been fantastic hosts. Every other sentence seems to be followed by "oh but you should do what you want, we can arrange things just fine, and by the way do you need more food/drinks/information about cool stuff to do in town?" I brought a package of coconut candy from the Mekong Delta village I visited as a thank you gift. I think I should have brought a full-sized wooden crate of it instead, (though their dentist will probably be happier as things are).

They've pointed me towards some of the things in town worth seeing and the local tricks to get to know the place properly. For example, if Hanoi was a city for motorbikes, Hong Kong is a city to walk. But, unlike Hanoi, it doesn't make this obvious. Walking Hong Kong, especially in Hong Kong Island and southern Kowloon, it's all about finding the escalators to the elevated walkways. You can walk from one end of town to the other and hardly ever touch down on the sidewalk. And even if the city is full of hills, you hardly ever have to walk up or downhill either. You just need to find which buildings will let you walk in one side, take an elevator up fourteen floors, and walk out the other side. Or find the massive line of outdoor escalators going up Central and SoHo (biggest set in the world, I think).

Here's the other thing you might not realize. Yes, it's a massive throbbing metropolis of nearly seven million. But it's also full of natural parks, hiking trails, and beaches. It's half a system of islands after all, and the ferries to each one are quick and relatively cheap, especially if you can borrow an Octopus card (think London's Oyster Card, a Chicago Card, or the new Orca card in Seattle) just charge up at a 7-11, and you can swipe at any public transport line, many stores, and even the local ice cream truck.

The city is clean, well-run, and very safe. Early on, Scott and Brooke both warned me to watch out in crowds. I opened my mouth to tell them, yes I knew to watch for pickpockets and bag slashers, and they continued saying "you'll have to dodge umbrellas like crazy-- they can poke your eye out if you're not careful." It's a different world.

So that's why I'm spending my birthday out here. I just got back from salsa dancing for the first time in months, with a flyer for the next big salsa event tomorrow. For the day, after I pick up my Chinese visa (call it a birthday gift from the People's Republic) I've got hiking trails in mind if it's cool, and beach nearby to go to if it's hot. Then it's back for another tasty home-cooked meal, and then at night, I'm out dancing, and maybe swinging by the bar next door for some live jazz. I'm still a little sad being away from friends and family (this will be my first birthday spent somewhere other than Seattle), but with a lineup like that, I think it's going to be a pretty good day anyway.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. As I write this, it is your birthday eve in your native city. We're glad you get to celebrate your birthday in such a lovely setting and with such wonderful hosts. Your descriptions of your prior typical accomodations was very interesting and your pictures helped with the sense of the vertical in HK especially the picture of the apartment building. Happy Birthday! Lv, Anonymom

  2. Happy birthday.

    That sounds like a culture shock. This: "the escalators to the elevated walkways" made my jaw drop. They seriously have elevated walkways around the city? I need to see this (of course, that could have been said about every entry. Actually, I may have done that).

    We miss you back in the States.

  3. I am not sure what time it is in Hong Kong or if I have caught the early train, but a very happy birthday regardless. :)
    As usual I am terrible at commenting, but I have been following your blog & enjoying it a lot, & looking forward to wherever you are going next. (& possibly using it as a guide? I have some theater things lined up at the moment, but I still want to get out of the country soon...)
    Anyhow. Happy birthday once more. :)

  4. Stumbled into this surfing travel tips. Do you mind saying something about how one gets a visa to another country when you haven't got a set itinerary? Or do you have to set a date? or does that differ country to country? Are there websites that give good info about this? Hong Kong and mainland on my travel wish list. Thanks and Happy Birthday!

  5. Anonymom- Thank you! It's funny hearing how the perspective changes from google maps' view to the on the ground one. I'll have to look it up later.

    Count C- Thanks! It's not above every street, it's more like an extended line of bridges like the one linking... which dept stores in Seattle have this again? But yeah, they're there and they're the key to getting around on foot. no crosswalks or traffic to deal with for one thing.

    ren girl- Thank you! Glad you're enjoying it. We'll make it a swap. I realized a while back that I haven't been involved in any kind of production in any form in over a year. Unless you count one line and making animal noises behind paper plates drawn on with crayon while in a Mayan village. Cool? Sure. Real serious theater production? Erm... Anyway I have some travel things lined up at the moment but I want to get on stage soon(ish). Enjoy i Gelosi and all the best to the BE crew!

    Anonymous- Sure thing! The main things countries want to know when you apply for a visa are that you know what you're doing and that you're not going to either get stuck there or try to stay longer than they want you. Some countries require an exit ticket (buy a refundable one, refund it when you enter), some require 'sufficient funds for onward travel" (some cash USD or Euro along with two credit cards is usually more than enough), and some require a contact in the country who can bail you out if you get into trouble (though it always helps, it's seldom required).

    For specifics on your trip, Hong Kong will be no problem for you. You fill out a standard form on entry you'll recognize just about any country will give, and you'll be given an exit form you must keep (small enough to fit in your passport).The only tricky thing about these is they'll want an address you're staying in. Putting a random town and "hostel" usually does the trick (Obviously no town needed for HK).China will want more, but actually it's not as tough as many people make it out to be. Aside from the usual stuff you gave HK, they will want the following: rough list of places in China you want to visit in time sequence (I got out a map and just guessed), employer information (most recent employer info worked for me, I made a note of it on my app), and contact in China (optional, but I made sure to fill all of this one out-- name, email, phone number, and street address. If you don't have someone, try looking up travel agencies that wouldn't mind you listing them, or maybe making a friend or two on something like

    I think those are the main points. You don't need a set itinerary, but it's good to have a rough idea of what you want to do. After all, making decisions about where you're going doesn't mean you can't change them later.

    Finally, they like you to apply for the visa at home, but doing it in HK is no problem. Just pack a book for your waiting in lines. And don't forget a passport sized photo-- it's good to have a stack of those around if you're doing long unplanned multi-country trips. Best of luck!

    Hmm. I think a dedicated border crossing post might be in order...