Stepping out of the HK airport was no different than walking into a heated oven, if you can try to imagine how that would feel. It was like 40 degrees or something and I really hoped that it was one of those rare extreme heat alert days. Carrying heavy backpacks and drenched in sweat, my friends and I got on the airport bus which was to take us to our hostel in the midst of Hong Kong. Although the weather situation didn’t improve over the next couple of days, HK did manage to impress me right from the very first bus ride. The high buildings and the narrow roads bustling with swarms of pedestrians crossing through intersections gave an interesting New York City-like feel. English signs and an English-speaking public greeted us everywhere, which felt wonderful after the two linguistically challenged weeks we spent in Beijing and Xi’an. I was able to check Facebook and email on my iPod Touch as the bus offered free wifi. And it wasn’t just airport buses but all public buses that provided this service!
Brown People & the Chung King Mansion
Looking out the bus window, I had my first couple of glances at colourful shalwar-kameez-wearing aunties. I thought I was just seeing things but when we got off the bus at Tsim Sha Tsui, I was shocked to find myself in the middle of a sea of brown people! I never knew Hong Kong had a significant South Asian population!!!
As I was trying to absorb the scene before my eyes, an Indian man with a heavy accent approached me to ask if we needed a place to stay. A couple of girls from my group had arrived in HK the night before and had searched every nook and corner to finally find a hostel. This city is super packed with tourists and it can actually become impossible to find a place to stay (i.e., for backpackers on a budget, not for people planning to stay in 5-star hotels). “No, thanks! We have a place booked at the Chung King Mansion,” I told him.
The Chung King Mansion is where the majority of backpackers end up in Hong Kong. Don’t let the name fool you though. Around the time we got there, this “mansion” was more like a 17-story tall, multi-block, under-construction building wrapped in some sort of ripped grey-ish rag at the top. Every floor was packed with at least two different hostels. We stayed at Ashoka (the owners turned out to be Indian Punjabis and had been living in HK for over 30 years!) Three of us shared a bedroom as spacious as a medium sized walk-in closet. The attached washroom was even more interesting. Take one step inside and you’ll find yourself confined in a cube: a sink in front, toilet seat on the left, shower head on your right, and the closed door behind you. No kidding! I would’ve taken pictures of all this like I usually do but I guess there was no way of taking a comprehensible shot of this space. Mind you, it’s not just Ashoka or Chung King Mansion; the overall stuffy feel of Hong Kong has creeped its way inside all similar hostels.
What made all of this bearable for me was the amazing cluster of Indian and Pakistani restaurants in the area. So at the first available opportunity, spicy biryani, fatty butter chicken, and fresh, crunchy naans were had!
What I loved about Hong Kong
Watching the Spectacular Skyline
I knew that HK was going to be all about tall, flashy buildings shining high up in the sky. But once I got to the Peak, there was no questioning why HK’s skyline is almost always rated as #1 in the world. The Peak is a high platform on top of a hill and is a very popular tourist destination. We waited in line for about 1.5 hours before we got to pack ourselves in a tram that took us over 1300ft above sea level. The ride up was so steep that the surrounding buildings seemed to be leaning sideways at a high angle. Once up at the breezy platform, I gazed in awe at the twinkling neons in front of me. It was unreal! We spent a good hour up here, taking in the beautiful view of the harbour and the impressive building structures. On our last day in HK, we took the Star Ferry to Kowloon to watch this beautiful skyline one last time and that’s another view I will never forget. Is any other skyline going to impress me after this? I doubt it. Here are some beautiful pictures taken by my friend Lubby.
Dragon’s Back Trail
On our second full day in Hong Kong, we went hiking at the Dragon’s Back Trail. When I set out for the hike in the morning, we had no clue how far away it was, or what to expect when we got there. After asking at least ten people for directions, we finally boarded a bus which traveled on winding roads around a hill and dropped us at the starting point of the trail. If there’s anything I clearly remember about this day, it is the heat. I remember thinking that the last time I experienced such hot and humid weather was when I was in Saudi Arabia about ten years ago. And I had actually fainted that day… So to avoid going unconscious and falling off a cliff, I put my headscarf in a turban, rolled up my sleeves and started hiking, all the while suppressing the impulse to drink water every two minutes. Less than 500mL of cold-turned-warm-turned-hot water was all I had, so every drop was precious. After hiking for just over an hour, we had completely escaped the congested feel of the city. From the top of the mountain, we could now see lush green hillsides, superb blue-green waters, and eagles soaring close above. What made it more pleasurable were the cool breezes up here and our occasional walk through chilly clouds 🙂 On the way down, we randomly decided to go to the Big Wave Bay beach, which totally freshened me up after the long, sweaty hike. In 2004, TIME magazine Asia actually declared this trail as the best urban hike. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is still true to this day. Check out those views!
So Long, Hong Kong!
From Hong Kong, we also took a day-trip to Macau which I will write about separately. I now wish I had gotten more time to interact with HK locals and check out markets and shopping malls, but sadly we didn’t book enough time for all that. I didn’t feel this way at the time though… may be because our next destination was Singapore and that was really exciting. But ignoring the choking smog and humidity, I can say that Hong Kong went beyond my expectations. An incredible transportation system, delicious South-Asia food, and the experience of spending a couple of crazy days in a major business hub of Asia are what allow me to give Hong Kong Island a well-deserved A rating!
Up Next in Travelog: A Day trip to the Gaming Capital of Asia: Macau