The final insult of China was at the border. In a final, desperate attempt to extract that last bit of cash from you, there is a bus that you have to take and of course this costs money. I throw my Yuan at the ticket counter and I have to make a conscious effort not to be bitter about this petty money grabbing that has been a feature of China since I arrived in Beijing all that time ago.
Hong Kong does things in a more western fashion: all upfront, and wildly inflated. But I am a backpacker and this is a badge that should be worn with pride. No cheap meal is too far to walk to; no attraction too free not to consider; no restaurant too expensive to scoff at (though not to scoff food in). Fortunately though, the best things for a tourist to see in Hong Kong are free.
As soon as I had checked in to the most expensive hostel of my trip so far, it was down to the docks. Desperate times you know. No one wanted me however, so I threw down a couple of HK dollars to try my luck across the harbour. The Star Ferry must rank as the best value cruise in the whole world, and as they run every few minutes there is no need to worry about getting a seat on a sunset cruise. It’s a hell of a show.
Kowloon has a different feel to it than Hong Kong Island, with hawkers offering cheap electronics, watches and massages every few steps. It’s a little incongruous these days however, as while this behaviour hasn’t changed much in decades, the area has come up in leaps and bounds. Kowloon was long the seedy side of the water, but now it is probably more glitzy than the business oriented southern side with huge store fronts of the most exclusive brands in the world. Bright lights, neon signs and at this time of the year Christmas decorations are everywhere! Kitsch? Of course! This is modern Asia.
I wandered up to Temple street where there is a well established night market. It’s not as big or as interesting as others I’ve been to (although the random Sex toy stalls were eye opening), but the food is worth the visit. Unlike most markets, the food here is actually sold by the eateries on Temple street itself: the market has no food, and is more for cheap electronics and questionable souvenirs. Traditional Hong Kong eateries are a bit of a closed shop to those who don’t speak Cantonese but here in Temple street, things were a bit more accommodating. Menus were often bilingual and waiters could speak English – in a local restaurant, even in Hong Kong, this is quite rare. It was here that I had my taste buds blown apart.
I ate well in China. From noodles to rice and strange things on sticks, my palate rarely wanted for excitement (although some Chinese dishes are inexplicably dull) and I didn’t expect to be wowed in Hong Kong, mostly because the most well known food is prohibitively expensive, locked behind a wall of Chinese menus or not really feasible for a single eater (hello Dim Sum). The Oyster cake I had at an unassuming street restaurant will retain a special place in my heart forever, not least due to its simplicity. Oysters, batter, spring onion, and deep fried, served with Chilli sauce and containing enough MSG to give me an out of body experience, I floated back across the harbour.
There are skylines, and there are skylines. Hong Kong rates among the best of these, so you can be sure there are plenty of angles you can see it from. One of the more interesting of these is from above. Central Hong Kong is backed up against a steep hill, which is why the city has grown upwards rather than outwards (although it has certainly done this also of late). The Victoria Peak Tram has been rattling up and down this steep rocky edifice since 1888, but as seven million tourists a year now use it, the train has seen a few upgrades since then. Before the tram was built, wealthy Europeans were ferried up to their mountain homes by sedan chairs fuelled by sweaty local labourers. These days, most of the homes at the top of the peak (and there are not many of them) are owned by unfathomably wealthy businessmen who are more likely to be Hong Kong natives or mainlanders than white interlopers. I could barely afford a coffee at the top, but I felt that I deserved something to accompany the view.
Hong Kong is so much more than just the city! After the second Opium War, China ceded a large area to the colony of Hong Kong which is still known as the “New Territories”. It is here that much of Hong Kong’s charm lies and is what makes it such a unique place in the world. It is a microcosm of a much larger country: well tended satellite villages and towns are dotted around, each with their own character and noticeable numbers of ex-pats doing the rounds. I was not to stop in any of these places though, as I was destined for the Sai Kung national park. Hong Kong isn’t a sprawling city, and much of the land of the Special Administrative Region is semi-tamed wilderness. There are many well maintained hiking trails all over Hong Kong, many of them leading to spectacular beaches that remind you how far south this place is. There are sandy beaches for splashing about in and there are wild beaches that are packed with urban surfers – you don’t have to flee to Indonesia to catch a wave here! There are well surfed breaks all over the east, and these are often accompanied by sleepy hamlets catering to the travelling few who decide to come here. Well, few by Chinese standards. It’s pretty busy at weekends, but at least you can see the floor.
You can hike in the east, Sai Kung.
You can hike south, across the small island of Lamma that deserves a few days exploration in itself. It has a wonderful hippy-ish atmosphere that has attracted a large number of ex-pats here. There is an old woman here who has been slinging bowls of dofu fa for years – under a tarpaulin on the main path across the island, a bowl of the creamiest freshest cold tofu is served with a dash of sweet syrup. It’s more refreshing than an ice cold beer. It pains me to admit that, but there you are. It’s true.
You can hike on the large island of Lantau. Avoiding the airport, the most well known hiking trails in Kong Kong can be found here. The aptly named Sunset Peak is well worth lingering on but you don’t want to be descending in the pitch black. Broken ankles lie in wait along the steep path down.
I love Hong Kong. I love the modern clean city of Hong Kong island. I love the perfect efficiency of the quite staggeringly brilliant public transport system that covers every inch of the SAR with a single payment system. I love the landscape. The food has me in its thrall. The alleyways and creaky old buildings that are bursting with real Cantonese businesses, restaurants and markets can be found nesting cheek to cheek with international banks and fashion outlets. The people are lovely! Everything is clean. Risk of crime is vanishingly small. But despite all these things, Hong Kong retains its edge. It’s not a sterile place and it leads asia – all of Asia – as a place that is both financially centred and liveable but above all, exciting.
In the past 10 months I have visited a large number of cities and in each of them, I ponder whether I could live there; Hong Kong is the first city that made me want to live there.