After a good flight with Cathy Pacific, one of the best we have had on our journey, where Iberia is worse than bottom of the list. En route we cruised at 35,000 ft as dawn was breaking in the east as we passed over Malasia. A tropical storm was flashing non-stop as we passed massive thunderheads, highlighted by the bolts of lightning being ejected out of the back. Above us we realised that it was the date for the planet alignment and that we had a truly universal spectical with Jupiter, Saturn and mars brightly forming a tight triangle above in the pitch black of space. After another hour we left the clear higher altitude and sunk through the grey blanket cloud that shrouds Hong Kong for most of the year. We didn’t see the ground until we were a few hundred feet above the landing strip and bumped into Hong Kong.
It was our anniversary for the second time in our travels and booked ourselves into a suit room in a top class hotel on Hong Kong island. After picking ourselves up a necessary ocopus card we took the train through the towering blocks of highrise flats, past the bay and into the city. Our first underground experience since Sao Paulo and indeed large city atmosphere, where crowds and bustle reign supreme.
The hotel was far removed though and we took stock with free (quality computer bearing) internet and coffee in the business lounge, before our massively early check in at 10am (usually 15:00). We pretty much relaxed all day, exploring just the surrounding streets and eating on the street, what turned out to be a westernised version of fried rice with some kind of sausage in it, instead of the local version we were trying to order.
The rest of the day we took advantage of the itinerary I had created, which was tea, cake and canapes at 3pm and then wine, cocktails and canapes at 6pm. We read the news, touched base with people at home. We bought some prescription antibiotic cream over the counter for our tropical wounds- infected holes in our arms and legs and nursed them. It was great to have some time out, something you do need after a few months roughing it, every now and again at least. We were going to go for a meal in a better class of restaurant than our measley budget would allow, as for us, we like to experience the full range of class. Experiencing just budget class you miss out on understanding how the upper classes work and vice versa. This was our time to mingle with top busines and we took full use of it, despite not fitting in too well. We ate so many canapes that we didn’t need dinner at all!
The next day though we resigned ourselves to the inevitable downgrade that was coming. In Hong Kong we had heard that there were some seriously dodgy hostels that were occupied by drug dealers and theives, so this time we decided against our usual strategy and booked somewhere in advance. We used our “Garden Club” privileges to the max and they let us use the computers and made us coffee till 2 hours after our supposed checkout time. Then we caught the train from the business district of HK island over to Kowloon, the commerce centre and into a ubiqitous high rise.
Up a rickity lift you needed to queue for surrounded by shops selling knocked off, cheap electrical goods to the 13th floor and into the hostel. Here we picked up a set of headphones to Skype to cure the ongoing problem of broken headsets everywhere for a mere HK22 (2 pounds). A very cramped space and unlike our last few months experience. Our room of four had beds that you could easily reach over to, luckily there was a friendly French girl and a spare bed, so we had relative space considering we were in a room 4m x 3m. Unfortunately though heavy power drilling began on our wall from the outside from construction. The hotel desk apologies and said that as it was Saturday it would only last till 3pm. Great!
We headed straight out as a result and walked down Nathan avenue, full of jewelry shops that had 3- 15 carat diamonds, heavy security and more gems than a pirate would be proud of. The streets were rammed, but there was everything you could imaging. Off the main street discount shops were selling the good quality, cheap clothes that HK is renouned for. I bought a pair of shorts and zip off short/trouser combos with 8 pockets that are so useful when travelling (including 2 zip pockets for wallet and camera). After my patchwork clothing that I had made last until now, this was a very needed investment.
We found a good value restuarant that was almost full (the best indicator for quality you can have) and ordered fried fish skin, a fish dumpling soup (a typical HK dish) and chilli chicken wings. We wandered aimlessly, and explored the smaller avenues as we tend to when we have not seen a city before. Many people selling tailoring and then “marijuana”, should that fail (what a combo)! We checked the prices of food, investigated the local specialities by asking people we met and took in the vibrant atmosphere of the cupboard like restaurants, snazzy shops and novel items, like baskets made out of old newspapers and a cup that had a cafetiere filter built in (I want one!). Every hotel here has a shopping centre inside, clad in marble, with fountains and ornate decoration.
Along with the masses of boutique shops, tea shops and others containing tons of unusual herbs and roots of chinese medicine, there were also most of the western shops we see on the high street. We eventually hit the bar street and were lured in by cheap ‘happy hour’ drinks. Hoegarden for HK22 (12 Hong Kong Dollars to the pound makes that 1.80). Ace! As we were on antibiotics though we were behaved and had one before retiring back to our hostel.
The next day we were set on seeing some of the sights and visited the tourist office as you often need to book activities for HK there. Laura scoped out a chinese cake making class for that afternoon. The tourist office in HK is the most helpful and useful we have found yet. Typical to their nature they are highly effective and quick and we picked up a whole book on local cuisine and places to try it, full information on how to reach the giant Buddha statue via boat and bus, which we agreed to do the following day and loads of markets to visit. So refreshing compared to the “I don’t know I haven’t tried it” attitude of New Zealand, the non-existent information in Bolivia and “I’m on a break” style of Argentina.
Immediately directed towards a popular juice stall for locals we had seen these everywhere the previous day. Aloe vera, mango and pineapple looked good and it was, but the addition of jelly at the bottom, layered with milk and fruit pulp the and ultra thick straw made even a juice exotic and alien. Next we headed up to northern Kowloon above Prince Edward MTR station (See underground map as PDF) where most of the local places to eat congregate. Driven by our new food bible we tried to find a recommended noodle bar, with handpulled noodles (as fresh as you can get, which is the key to taste).
After walking up and down the named road we gave up and headed off to a random direction to find something else when we found it. The guide was wrong. The place however was a very small 8 share table place, where they specialised in noodles with dried and powdered prawn roe. Laura had this while I tried the goode intestine and beef brisket jelly noodles, as we had seen this kind of thing everywhere.
A guy opposite enquired why I had gone for that and commented that young people tend to not eat that anymore. It was historically traditional in a sense and he didn’t like it! Funnily enough though the next guy sat down and ordered what I had and he was young. Perhaps people are moving away from the old style of food towards a more western diet as most countries seem to be. Some clearly were not yet though!
We meandered through more streets of markets, picked Laura up a beautiful new purse after being stolen in Santiago for HK10 (90p) and I some quality “music headphones” as the set with mic for Skype just didn’t multi-function well as music headphones as we had hoped (a good money saving idea though if you can find a pair that works as both) before we needed to head to our cooking class. Another address another saga as the shop was not in a shopping centre as mentioned but on the road.
We made it in time though and were greeted with 2 ‘masters’ of cake making who had trained for over 10 years each. The class was ace, we made two “wife cakes” each, which are rolled meticulously in specific ways to create the desired texture and taste. Lauras turned out perfectly, despite historically being made by the husband for their wife to buy them back after being pawned off to a richer family… Tired of having walked so much, which is a symptom of HK experienced by all, we went back for a rest before heading back out to the lights of the city for 8pm.
Every night a laser show blasts out over the city, syncronised with music and flashing from the skyscrapers of Hong Kong island. A really cool 20 minute show, that shows off the city glitz as the spectacle it is. Next we beeped back into the MTR and headed back north to a famous foodie called temple street. It was packed and chairs spilled into the street, beers flowing and seafood dishes flying out of the kitchen. Tourists and locals were together, although the locals were ordering dish after dish in order to share and the top priced ones too. We were cheap and reserved, despite being highly tempted by a raft of crab and langoustine dishes.
After a few beers and food we were exhausted and so headed back again, fighting past people in the doorway of our block offering Taj Mahal tours, cramped in the 8 person lift past 12 floors of different guesthouses adorned with names from all over the world. Back to our white box room.
We were up early the next morning to set off for Lantau island where the large bronze buddha in the world was sat. An hours cruise down the river (HK14.50) past the massive suspension bridge separating Kowloon from West Kowloons expo island. Off the boat and seemlessly on the bus (HK17) we were climbing through forest and fog through scenery remarkably like Sikim in north India. Winding roads with drop offs to the sea, glimpses of fisherman hand casting nets and scouring the beach line for sea food. After 40 minutes we reached the tourist trap that we hadn’t quite expected. A storm was approaching and it started to drizzle as we renounced the walkway past endless shops selling ‘authentic goods’ after the first shop selling high class chopsticks. Instead we headed to the buddha, up 250 stairs as a looming shadow of the buddha barely visible watched over the stream of people making the ascent.
Despite being a tourist haven it was truly impressive and being shrouded in fog that opened up intermittently made it that much more atmospheric, surrounded by statues making a specific offering each of lotus flower, food, candles etc on top of a hill overlooking lush green trees with low rolls of thunder overhead. We visited the ornate temple and finally saw what lotus flowers look like in the flesh in a haze of incense some as big as large scaffold poles (a snip at HK300), before heading back to the city. The ride out of town was pleasant and improved what was otherwise a “photograph tourist moment”. We did agree it was worth it though.
We took the MTR back to get dropped off at the food area and after looking at a lot of different places found one that was again packed and had things we didn’t recognise. We realised that this has turned into a foodie stop in HK for what was only a week, but that was fine.
We seem to like wandering around a place and just looking, a lot, watching what the locals do and try what they suggest. Here we were advised to go for the tempura soft crab and soups. They were made of soya milk, mine of tofu and light cabbage and Laura’s with noodles and a weird mix of tomato soup and soya. A healthy and surprising mix, but where the crab was the star of the show. We slowly made our way back in the humidity and smog that never stopped in our stay back to the hostel for the last time.
We packed up on our last morning of a whirlwind tour and left our to go for a coffee before our flight. Starbucks is more expensive here as is coffee in general, but we needed it for working out our finances in leisure. We found a last restaurant where we could try another very typical Hong Kong dish of savoury rice soup called Congee, mixed with meat or vegetables etc, before picking up our bags and headed to the station. We figured that the airport express was expensive (HK100) and so we embarked upon a 3 train change to meet up with the express further towards the airport. As you get HK50 deposit back from your octopus card we banked on this for food at the airport. This was a great move and instead of costing HK110 for the journey cost just HK65 (saving of 3.80 or a third of our daily budget, which is always an excellent result in an expensive city like Hong Kong).
We ate well in the airport before sitting on the runway with the burnt orange sun setting to the East where we were headed. Slumping through and being deformed by the smog before disappearing as we climbed back through the grey sky of this giant city. In just over an hour we landed in Guanhzhou in China for our connection and our only port of call here. Immigration stipulates that any written material imported must be declared and we were glad we didn’t have that to deal with. We snubbed the coffee here, which turned out to be more expensive than the UK airports and instead waited it out with the mosquitoes in the waiting hall before our next Southern China flight took off.
Food on board was an interesting warm drink (although it was beer) and some dodgy noodles stuck in a clump with very hot chilli sauce. This was more than we expected for a short flight though and it was better than Iberia’s disgusting affair (this is a running hatred you can see).
At 11:15pm we handed in Hanoi. Although I never landed in Hanoi before Vietnamese immigration 4 years previous was a pain. This was so quick and straightforward. You do need a “letter of acceptance”, which I think is another way of getting cash out of tourists, but after the additional 25USD stamping fee things were sorted. The airport was empty and our taxi was waiting with our names on a sign, as we have seen many times, but experiencing the first time ourselves. We rode out in our airconditioned, smart taxi across paved roads for the 40 minute ride into Hanoi’s centre ready for our new adventure in what we were considering “real South east Asia”. Whether we were right or not is another matter!