Hong Kong on My Own

Trip Start Apr 01, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Flu-ish Inspiration

    It's quite clear I haven't travelled anywhere new for awhile. My last entry from Malaysia was in March. Since then I did go home for two weeks in May, making wonderful stops in Chicago, Minnesota and Seattle. During the summer I went to an Incheon island for an extended weekend. My parents also visited for a week in the fall. We explored Seoul and went to Jeju Island (my third trip there). All these trips were great, but didn't really provide writing inspiration. 

    Strangely enough, my newly acquired writing inspiration is all thanks to the flu. Korea has been quite concerned about the flu lately, and school closings are not infrequent. With over 10% of our staff infected with the flu in a two week period in November our CEO decided to pull the plug. He gave us Tues-Sun unpaid vacation. The Monday before the unpaid began I scrambled to find a cheap ticket somewhere relatively warm. The best I could come up with was Hong Kong for 400,000 won or about $350 round trip.

    I booked the ticket on a whim for the next day and gathered as much info as I could. Previously, I had only visited the airport, and knew nothing about the city or the language (Cantonese). Luckily, the second was not important since everyone speaks English pretty well. Beside lack of preparation, I was also embarking alone, travelling to another country solo for the first time in my life. I was excited and nervous, ready for adventure.

Hong Kong Here I Come

The flight itself was great. I flew Cathay Pacific which offered a meal and movies for a flight under four hours. Something completely unheard of in US domestic travel. I watched 500 Days of Summer and sat next to an interesting guy. As an English-speaking Chinese Malay doing business in Korea and living in Hong Kong, he was struggling with learning Cantonese and the embarrasment of his wife's amazing language skills (she speaks 5 well). He provided some interesting advice about things to do and made me excited about the melting pot I was approaching.

I arrived in the chilly city at night. I took a red double decker bus to downtown Kowloon to find Chungking Mansion (CM). Once off the bus I was offered help to find CM and a discounted room by an Arab-looking foreigner. I accepted the first, declined the second and headed into my new crazy home.

The CM is a massive multiplex of apartments, businesses and homes. It is a maze of hallways, stairwells and corners that take time to understand and navigate. At first I found the place unsettling, but grew to enjoy the randomness and enjoyment of discovering new people and businesses easily. Best of all there is so much cheap foreign food.

After many wrong turns and misread signage, I arrived at my reserved hostel room.They had saved me a room,but it was a double. I paid for two beds after a failed haggle and vowed to not repeat teh double mistake again. The beds were perpendicularly jammed into a tiny space, allowing no extra room. The bathroom being smaller than an average closet also didn't provide too much comfort.

That first night was cold. Having too few blankets and terrible insulation, I chilled into the morning in my overpriced room. Before sleep I tried to find a decent cheap beer. I went to the local 7/11 to ask around and discovered nothing but foreigners drinking cheap convenience store beer. Seeking a new crowd, I eventually found an Irish pub and drank my $10 guiness alone. With the edge off, I returned to my cold room and hoped for better luck the next day.

Fast Facts

Hong Kong became a British colony in 1842 after the First Opium War and was granted independence in 1997. They willl remain capitalist and semi-democratic as a Special Autonomous Region (SAR) of China for at least 50 years. The country has big plans to become fully democratic in the next 10 years or so. However, progress is minimal. Currently an appointed body of about 800 people is responsible for determining the Chief Executive. There is very much a culture of openess in Hong Kong, but is still very much a part of China and the government seems to run that way.

With over 7 million people it's one of the most densely populated places on Earth. For being so overpopulated, it's absolutely stunningly beautiful. The urban areas are jam-packed with modern skyscrapers, religious buildings (churches, mosques, temples) and parks. Meanwhile, just outside the cosmopolitan area rise gorgeous green hills of dense forest. Overall, it's a great place for both city and outdoor entertainment.

Fun in the City

Hong Kong is beautiful and fun. I discovered this the next morning. After securing a cheaper, smaller and warmer room, I took a walk down to the nearest boardwalk, in view of Hong Kong Island. The combination of green water, lush mountains and modern skyscrapers was stunning. One of best parts of the city is walking around and taking in the views whether it be man-made or natural. That morning I walked along the Hong Kong walk of fame (including Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and many others I'd never heard of) and went to a free art museum. Afterward I had a better understanding of complex Chinese history and their concern for the flu. Almost every handrail or door handle was placered with a sign explaining how often it was sanitized. Most public areas were sanitized 4-8 times a day...thank heavens!

After a McDonald's lunch, I took the Star Ferry (less than a dollar) to Hong Kong island. My first stop was the IFC mall, a giant complex of high-end shopping. I don't think I could have afforded anything in this mall. Gucci, Prada, you name an overpriced brand and it was there. They did have a movie theater with an LGBT film festival though. I decided to partake and booked a ticket for 'Shortbus' on Saturday (it was Wed).

Leaving luxury, I headed out for Hong Kong Park. First, I found a smaller park complete with St.John's Cathedral, a beautiful church nearly empty of people. This would be the first of many religiuos buildings I would discover in this special region of China, refreshing! Hong Kong Park felt like a little rain forest in the city. I walked around enjoying the aviary, greenhouse, ponds, Asian Games ampitheater (games were coming a few weeks after I left) and many a bride and groom taking wedding photos.

Happy Valley Racecourse

Having had my share of walking, I took a bus to my next destination: the horse track. Formerly a British cemetary, it's now a beautifully-lit full-scale operation. Every Wednesday is race night, including eight different races. It's only about a dollar to get in, and you can bet on every race. I took that liberty, winning about 50% of the time and coming away winning a few hundred Hong Kong Dollars. It was great fun except for the cold and the lonliness. I was underdressed and lacking friends to hang out with. I just wanted to drink with compadres, instead I walked around, making bets and trying out new vantage points. My favorite was railside where you could feel the ground shake when the horses ran by.

This would be my greatest challenge with solo travelling. It's incredibly freeing, but also boring. If you are not comfortable meeting new people on your own than you are spending a lot of time with your own thoughts in crowds. This inevitably gets a bit lonely. Anyway, I still had fun. After the races I went home, met a couple guys at my hostel and decided to try out a different kind of gambling the next day in Macau.


The high-speed ferry to Macau is a fast, beautiful and noisy adventure on a nice day. I say noisy, because if the weather is nice, you will be riding with a bunch of other Chinese. This was the case on the way over, but my mp3 provided a nice soundtrack to the picturesque scenery. I arrived without a booked hotel and quickly discovered why this would be a problem: The Grand Prix! Beginning the day I arrived (Thurs), it had filled all the hotel rooms and doubled all the prices...yeah!

I consulted a travel agent and found a room in the area I wanted. I jumped in a taxi paid $40 HK dollars and received my change in Patacas, the local Macau currency. Pataca is a Portugese word, because Macau was such a colony until 1999. It's an SAR with 50 yeras of freedom similar to HK.

After settling in my room, I took a walk to the main square. Here it's easy to feel like your in Europe filled with Chinese tourists. My first destination was St. Dominic's Church, a beautifully green and yellow painted Catholic church with a free church museum located on the upper floors. On my walk to Macau's most famous landmark, I grabbed some bakkwa, glazed stips of pork...delish and filling. Before eating, I admired and climbed to the top of the St. Paul's Cathedral or at least what's left of it. What used to be a massive structure is now only a wall, but a beautiful one nonetheless and thus has become the symbol of Macau.

Next stop was Fort Monte, an impressive strcuture located on top of a hill right next to St. Paul's. I wandered around the walls admiring cannons, casinos and checking out the museum. After discussing potential routes with a security guard, I started walking to the most famous temple on the island, A-Ma. What was supposed to be 10 minutes according to the guard was a grueling 45-minute up and down hills and into some dead ends trek.

Although small, it was one of the more interesting temples I have ever been to. It was situated on the side of a small rocky hill, providing interesting walkways and crannies. My next mission was to walk to the Macau Tower, similar to the Seoul Tower or Cien Tower, though located on a scenic point on the waterfront.

After walking down some alleys I arrived at a manmade lake lined with trees and some pastel-colored mansions. On the other side of the lake was the tower. With a 50-50 shot, I choose incorrectly left. The worst part of my wrong decision was all the people exercising. One biker was doing laps around the lake and passed me about 5 times. Even runners lapped me a couple times. I maintained my slow and steady walking pace and finally made it to the tower. After enjoying a cup of coffee, I bought a ticket for the observation deck.

Beside the Mamas and the Papas song on repeat, it was a great view of the casinos and the bridges connecting the islands. Apparently, it's one of the more extreme towers allowing customers to bungee jump, climb and walk on the outside for a steep price…ha-ha.

I made it down safely, grabbed some food at a food festival and walked to the casinos. My first stop was the Lisbao, the landmark of the island. I had great success at the automated roulette and left on top and feeling good. I headed back to my hotel, but wanted to try my luck at one more casino. I quickly lost all the money I had won, and went back to my room remembering why I don’t really enjoy gambling that much.

Back to HK

Well rested, I breakfasted at McDonald’s. I wanted Macanese food, but nothing was open at the time. The view from the restaurant was great though. Overlooking the main square, McDonald’s had two floors of some of the most prime real estate on the island.

The ferry back was insanely bumpy. Most of the journey was over whitecaps going quite fast. I was lucky enough to sit on the left side where I could see out the window. The right window was constantly covered with sea spray and completely opaque.

Back in Kowloon I cut through a nice park with a mosque on my way back to the Chungking Mansion. I booked a tiny cheap room and ate a nice Indian lunch of curry and rice. I took the train out into the New Territories away from the city center. I walked toward a mountain to the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery.

The entrance is a steep path lined with golden bodhisattvas. Over a kilometer long, the hike was difficult but fun. The temple itself was amazing. The main temple was adorned with the golden casted body of the monk who built the temple. Around him sat 10,000 mini buddhas located in tiny grooves in the wall. The temple grounds were also spectacular complete with all kinds of statues, temple rooms and towers. I left using the back entrance (equally as impressive as the front) quite satisfied about the experience.

After wondering around for about an hour, I finally found the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. It is a massive building of many rooms and exhibits, most of which seemed to be temporarily closed. Enough were open to receive a good history of Hong Kong and see some ancient Chinese art. I took the train back to Kowloon exhausted from a busy day.    

Fun with a Travellator

I got some much needed rest and then decided to go check out one of HK’s quirkier highlights: the travellator. The travellator is an escalator that travels uphill at night and downhill in the morning, matching the commuting habits of the elite living in the mid-levels. It is more than a kilometer long and travels through the heart of some of HK’s best dining and nightlife.

Despite my hunger, I rode it as far as it would go the first time, reveling in the sensation of not having to walk or pay, yet still moving. Then, based on the observations made going up, I decided upon a Russian restaurant: Ivan. I ordered food and beer I’d never heard of and enjoyed it all. I even enjoyed the ridiculous conversation the next table was having. I looked around for a bar worth going to alone, gave up and headed back for sleep.

I went back to the Travellator the next morning. This time I stopped at Gourmet Burger for a huge mouth watery burger, cheddar cheese fries and a milkshake. I was in lunch heaven. I left bliss for the Hong Kong Zoo and Botanical Garden where I saw lots of monkeys, plants and families. That done I headed to the tram up Victoria Peak. I found the tracks, what appeared to be a station and pressed the button. A minute later the tram stopped for me, but was completely packed. I had to stand up at what felt like a 45 degree angle as we headed up the mountain. The views were good, but would have been better had it not been so cloudy.

I went back to the hotel, slept and waited for my LGBT movie to start (the one I booked at IFC mall on Wed.). I went back to the travellator, got off for Thai and went to the mall too early. I finally killed my wandering boredom by buying a David Sedaris book.

Shortbus was one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen. I’ve definitely never seen that much gay sex in a movie before and would like to keep it that way. Anyway, I won’t get into the gross details. If you like indie and have no aversion to perverse sex scenes, then this is your movie.

Korea Bound

Next day I relaxed at my hostel until I had to leave. I took the expensive, convenient airport express to the airport. I signed up for a Cathay Pacific card that was later cancelled for some unknown reason, played with the internet and boarded my flight. It was more packed and shorter than the way there and included Julie and Julia, a cute movie about Julia Childs with Amy Adams and Meryl Streep.

Upon arrival, Helen greeted me at the gate. It was great to be with loved ones and friends again.

As always, thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed it, Bill


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jbburghardt on

BOO on your Shortbus review! That movie is amazing!

I loved this blog. Mostly because of all the descriptions of the food you ate, you goof. Love it. Can't wait to see you again!

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