Gatecrashing in Hong Kong - life in the fast lane in one of Asia's most exhilarating city
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Let's fly away
A week had passed since clocks went forward, signalling as we all know shorter, colder and invariably wet days. This is of course, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere. Which is why, my imminent trip to Hong Kong in a few days, my first to this fascinating city was surrounded by intriguing curiosity and great excitement.
As it usually seems to be my case in these flash trips, the climax of a long haul trip was preceded by a day at the office – I do need to finance these sorties after all. This particular Friday at the start of November, had its special meaning after all apart from the obvious connotations that Friday usually bears in most of us working mortals. Came the glorious hour, farewell to my office colleagues while contemplating their polite and wryly smiles which in a way hid a slight expression of jealousy and envy for not joining me in this escapade. Shame, we all cried! Well, after all I earned this little indulgence fair and square.
Made my way through London Underground from Victoria, armed with my ever so faithful wheelie case, rucksack with documentation and head full of plans and ideas of what to do in the three days I would spend in Hong Kong.
Once at London Heathrow, I proceeded to Terminal 3 to check in for my air New Zealand flight. Queue was minimal and check in cleared in less than five minutes with confirmation of my allocated seat and wheelie whizzed through to baggage hold. With hardly anything keeping me landside, I made my way towards passport control with the usual ritual of semi-stripping for security. Fortunately, this was a swift and painless process as well.
After killing time window shopping at the airside Duty free shops I excitedly but solemnly made my way to the boarding gate to wait my turn for boarding, which was done within time frame and in a very orderly manner.
Boarded Air New Zealand’s B747-400 greeted by friendly and typically laid back Kiwi cabin crew who directed me to my window seat in row 40. Almost full flight with the good fortune of an empty seat between yours truly and my aisle seating neighbour, an added bonus in terms of comfort as well as avoiding the temptation of ‘accidentally’ elbowing him in the liver while he was asleep.
Lift off was on time at 21.20 and straight away we headed Southeast en route to Hong Kong. Together with the pastel decor of the cabin, I was pleasantly impressed with their legroom in their Pacific Economy cabin. At 34’’ their seat pitch is certainly Industry leading. Their PTV screen at 10 x 12 inches is also well ahead other airlines and together with their AVOD entertainment system, it is certainly a passenger winning feature. Even the virtual 3D flight map is pretty impressive.
Onboard service, very efficient with a friendly laidback kiwi touch and dinner did not disappoint either. After a round of pre-dinner drinks and canapés, there were two dinner options, one international and a typical New Zealand offer based of course on lamb which is what I went for and as I stated above was not the least disappointed. All this washed down with a generous selection of Kiwi wine and various liqueurs to close the dinner ritual. A few hours of film watching, music listening and believe it or not a decent sleep while we crossed Denmark, the Baltic states, the Russian Federation to later hit Kazakhstan, Mongolia and spend a good chunk of the flight over China. I also noticed the few times I woke that the cabin crew cruised the length of the cabin offering water and orange juice to keep us hydrated if requested.
About an hour and a half before touch-down, breakfast was served again with a selection of either warm full breakfast or an Oriental option. At about 16.20 local time, (08.20 London time) we started our descent, still over Chinese territory. We finally landed at 16.55 in Chek Lap Kok airport that serves Hong Kong.
Disembarkation was orderly, local staff separating those of us who stayed in Hong Kong from those continuing to Auckland. A swift underground train ride saw us at the main terminal where we cleared customs not before enduring a 30 minute queue due to two flights from mainline China arriving simultaneously. Unfortunately it seemed that most of these passengers never heard of or didn’t quite grasp the concept of orderly queue – something us Brits tend to practice in every aspect of our lives back home. They just went wherever and however they wished. The only positive I gained from this was that my faithful wheelie bag was going round in circles in the carousel waiting for me to relieve it from its dizzying misery.
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Let's get mezmerised!
A habit I have when I travel is to always try the public transport (where applicable) from airport to city if I arrive at a decent time of day and I must stress that Hong Kong’s airport to city links are second to none and quite reasonable. Purchasing an “Octopus” card for HK$220.00 (aprox £14.20 at the exchange rate of the day...) entitled me to a one way Airport Express trip into Hong Kong Station on Hong Kong Island and three days unlimited metro travel. HK$50.00 is refundable if the ticket or token is returned to a ticket office.
Five minutes after a hassle free purchase at one of the Information booths after leaving baggage collection hall and I was comfortably sat aboard this modern, clean and efficient train en route to Hong Kong Island. This service calls at Tsing Yi (on Lantau island where the airport is also located), then Kowloon before terminating at Hong Kong Island Station 24 minutes later where I changed to the Blue or Island Line of the city’s metro system to get off at Fortress Hill Station on King’s Road, a far cry from London’s exclusive version, but nevertheless very much alive and vibrant. It’s cacophony of light, traffic, noise and smell of diesel, humidity and fried food almost slapped me as soon as I got out of the station. This was the Hong Kong I had heard about so many times. King’s Road is known for its many jewelleries and related premises.
Almost diagonal to the metro station’s exit is Electric Street where my hotel, City Garden was located. A three star superior property well placed in the Causeway Bay area (or Tung Lo Wan in Cantonese). Without the luxury levels of some of the well known established hotels, the cost-quality ratio is more than justified. Check-in without hassle, I was resident in no time and after perusing the room and its features, tried the shower to rejuvenate and resuscitate my jetlagged body. The room I must admit exceeded my expectations in terms of quality, space and comfort. What I did notice first with the hotel staff and in the rest of my stay, was that the level of English was not what I had expected for an ex-British colony. It was clear that there was more of a Chinese influence since the handover in 1997. Not that this bothered me in any respect, but was just something I noticed.
The shower definitely brought me to my bearings and a change of clothes later saw me checking out the hotel’s bar. I just needed that courage and self assurance that a nice cold beer can offer regardless of where in this wide and beautiful world you are. However, with all due respect as soon as karaoke started, I swiftly escaped to the right.
Looking for my bearings around Electric St. and its surrounding backstreets didn’t seem a very good idea at that time as I felt my eyelids were heavier than my will to explore. So back to the hotel it was, tomorrow would be another day.
Indeed, Sunday was another day, renewed and well slept and most importantly, adjusted to the new time (seven hours ahead of my hometown). Invigorating shower and down to sample what goodies and delicacies the breakfast room had on offer. In typical Asian style, the choices on offer and the quality were mesmerising. In my case, this breakfast had to double as lunch as well, as the day ahead promised to be a long interesting one.
Well fed I headed towards HK Convention and Exhibition Centre where one can admire the Kowloon skyline across Victoria Harbour and towards your left, the imposing, mesmerising and awe inspiring skyscrapers on this side of the Harbour – Hong Kong Island. Also, on this plaza you can see the Golden Bauhinia statue which symbolises Hong Kong’s special SAR (Special Administrative Region) status within China. This statue was erected in 1997. Once the usual photo session had taken place for posterity I walked down to Wan Chai pier to catch that bit of history and tradition that is the Star Ferry that cross Victoria Harbour to link Hong Kong Island with Kowloon. This unique service saw its birth way back in 1888 and has a varied and colourful fleet of electro-diesel vessels with such iconic names like Morning Star, Celestial Star or even Twinkling Star. Nowadays, it is still a very important means of transportation between the two main areas of this city and it is used daily by thousands of Hong Kong locals and tourists alike to go from one side of the harbour to the other. You cannot claimed to have experienced Hong Kong unless you have travelled on a Star Ferry, or one of their no less iconic and fun double-decker trams.
After purchasing a ticket for an inflation busting HK$2.00, I joined a crowded scrum cum queue waiting to board the Central Star ferry. Once aboard and having secured a strategic place right at the front, captain raised anchor and with a poignant blend of diesel and sea breeze seeping up your nostrils we initiated our noisy and clang filled journey towards Tsim Sha Tsui pier on Kowloon. It is almost impossible to avoid the temptation of picturing the view on both shores. Hard not to be impressed by the slowly further skyline of Hong Kong Island with its imposing buildings, the not so high but just as important peak and all the cacophony of humanity that inhabits that part of Hong Kong while slowly approaching the no less impressive skyline of Kowloon. Equally impossible, is to not mentally picture all those scenes of political intrigue, criminal plans as well as amorous promises that may have taken place on any of these vessels throughout its history.
Eight minutes later and back to the present, we disembarked on the south end of Harbour city which is at the beginning of Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, with its famous KCR tower clock, and competing side by side HK Cultural Centre, Arts Museum and HK Space Museum. Walk east still on the promenade and you come onto the Avenue of the Stars, a pedestrian boulevard celebrating all the great Chinese exponents of the seventh art. This said, it’s hard not to come across the sculpture of the greatest artist that this land gave Hollywood or the world for that case; Bruce Lee. Almost impossible to get a free moment to picture you next to it, such is the amount of people lined up to admire, photograph or pay respects to the great legend.
Lining up the Avenue of the Stars promenade is the InterContinental Hotel followed by the New World Centre. I decided on my second iconic trip once I went through the NWC. I caught a double-decker tram on Salisbury road towards Kowloon Park drive until I was in Kowloon Park. This beautiful, impressive as well as relaxing park contains one of the very few mosques in this territory as well as an Islamic Centre, beautiful lakes, Hong Kong Heritage Centre (sadly, shut at that time). It boasts a beautiful Chinese Garden and a little pathway exhibiting artwork from local as well as foreign artist.
At around six pm I had to return to the hotel to meet up with some colleagues who were arriving from Bangkok and who were to join for the rest of the stay.
I made the relaxing, romantic and ever so idyllic crossing back to HK Island but this time to Central pier on the Northern Star ferry contemplating an enchanting sunset over the peak which bathed the Hong Kong skylines in a symphony of colours and reflections thanks to the audacious angles and glass panels of their beautiful skyscrapers. This particular route affords a broader view of both shores and the spectacular settings.
Back at the hotel, front desk had a message for me. The mob had arrived, and didn’t seem to waste much time in finding the hotel’s bar. A few hellos and howdy later and I found myself with a long and pleasantly cold glass of beer in my hands. Well, good things come to ye who wait patiently. However, sensing dodgy karaoke on the way we made our great escape and hit the metro towards Lockhart Road which is one of the nightspots of Hong Kong. This is the main street where you come out to bid farewell to the night with an array of restaurants, bars, discos, night clubs, strip joints and other joints of less reputable order. After thorough investigation on the plane, city guides, concierges, we decided to try out one Maya Bar, a watering hole with a Happy hour extending up till ten pm. After almost losing my hearing courtesy of its 1500 dB of noise (wasn’t sure whether a B747 had crashed beside us or a new Ibizan rave CD was playing) squashed in a 20m² premise, we retired to a more sedate bar called The Devil’s Advocate where we could at least hear ourselves drink despite the name. On that token we did a bit of a bar crawl visiting other two premises before retiring on time to catch the last train to fortress Hill not without making the last courtesy visit to hotel’s karaoke bar for the penultimate drink. For some reason the hotel seemed to swivel sideways while I was trying to get to my room.
With a pack of evil dinosaurs dancing or orbiting around my head I woke up next morning. The best way to dispel these demonic creatures was to drown them in the shower. The other thing that really helped me rid them was the Asian breakfast downstairs.
One by one my other two travel companions made their sorry appearance at the breakfast room. Only two coffees later did one of us utter the first coherent sentence. Can’t remember who it was but the fact of the matter was we were ready for a Monday sortie on Hong Kong. It’s fair to say that all three of us were novices in this city. One of them decided to make the trip I made to Kowloon, while two of us decided to explore the sights of HKI.
We browsed through bazaars and jewelleries in Causeway Bay and King’s Road (where I got something for she-who-must-be-obeyed back home). For those in need of serious therapy retail, one of the main and most important malls would be without a shadow of doubt Pacific Place Mall and if you are into a more chaotic style of shopping the Stanley Market is your poison. Without much intention of parting with money or investing in any kind of tack souvenir of useless artefact, I found it a great way of absorbing the local atmosphere amidst the organised chaos and noisy bartering. I also took the opportunity to see closely one of HK’s most iconic building at the moment; the Bank of China building, that hexagon shaped building that has made it way in many a postcard or picture. Despite its impressive structure, many locals see this building as a huge violation of the principles of feng shui because of its contradicting shapes. Nevertheless, despite being its most iconic symbol nowadays it is not the tallest building in the territory. That privilege belongs to 2 IFC (Two International Financial Centre).
Well, with all that tourist activity it was not long before hunger made its dark and usually indiscreet appearance. Now, food in Hong Kong as in most of Asia is a seriously all-in affair and not to be taken with a shy or discreet manner. Food is enjoyed and embraced whole-heartedly; here you share dishes, chat loudly and above all, you make a mess. Stray away from these rules and you may miss out on a great culinary experience.
We found an interesting and full looking Dim-Sum eatery near Central. The waiters, oblivious to whether you spoke Cantonese or not barked you towards the first empty space in the long communal tables and literally threw the book at you. Actually it was the menu but with as many pages as a book due to its extensive offering and (fortunately for us) translation into English as well as Mandarin. I scoffed as many different dishes as my digestive system was able to sustain.
We went back to the hotel to leave the few bobs and pieces I had collected throughout the day and as I re-confirmed our transfer of our early flight back to London we were told that our flight, originally due for 9.10 am the following day had a four hour delay due to a technical fault on its layover in London the day before creating a knock on effect for the rest of the itinerary. The downside? I would reach London at five pm on a wet, dark November evening. The upside? Well, no need to wake up at silly o’clock next day to take a taxi to the airport and more importantly; a late night out in Hong Kong!
That night we’d go to the peak and check out the great views of Hong Kong and Kowloon from above. The cable-car’s gravity defying 45º ascent takes you through high rise residential areas before reaching the summit. Once at the peak the station has an observation deck as well as an array of eateries and souvenir shops. Outside, there are walkways and viewing galleries where on a clear and clouless night as was our case that night, you can admire Hong Kong Island below you and further ahead, the lights of Kowloon across the harbour in all its spectacular glamour. After the obligatory photo shoots we reluctantly joined the queue for the descent. After reaching sea level, we returned to Lockhart rd. and attempted dinner at a lovely Balinese restaurant, but to my disappointment the menu was riddled with peanut based dishes. I am allergic to nuts.
My companions, displaying a solidarity second to none agreed to try a different option and the Balinese waitresses very graciously recommended a Thai restaurant, Muang Bang just a few minute walk from there. A very unpretentious looking restaurant from the outside, the inside was sober but cosy. The menu was devoured just by looking at it, such was the fare on offer. After hard deliberation, I went for the red curry crab with sticky rice. My desert was a flambé mango with banana discreetly showered with finely cut chillies. Of course, all this washed down with freezing Singha beers.
We came back down from food heaven and headed to a funky looking jazz bar for that last nightcap and then to our hotel for a few hours kip.
Last morning, no hangover but early rise so lots of red eyes. After breakfast, shuttle bus transfer at nine am and off to Chep Lap Kok for our twelve hour flight back home. A couple of stops at hotels to pick up more guests and we were off to Lantau where the airport is located.
Again in good Asian tradition, HKG airport is an impressive piece of architecture. With open expansive departures hall, the sense of space is endless. At check in tried for an upgrade to their Premium Economy cabin (Premium Pacific) with no luck as the flight was barely 40% full. The process however was quick and efficient and we were even given HK$80.00 for breakfast as compensation for the delay. Not that you could buy much for that money I discovered once we were airside, but something to help the bill nevertheless. Before I went through passport control, I got my deposit back from my Octopus card, again HK$50.00 that came in handy at the other side.
Impressive airside area with vast amount of glass panels and high ceilings and space, space, space with lots of natural light. Also, for air enthusiasts, great views to runways and aircrafts. There are designated areas with free wi-fi and a few areas with PCs offering free internet access.
Our flight was called at 11.40 am and boarding took place soon after. Once on board we learned that because of the technical problem the entertainment system would not be AVOD, but continuous film show. Not the end of the world, in my case probably a good excuse to catch up on some sleep that would not be a major problem seeing that Economy cabin was less than 30% full. Despite this glitch, I would not hesitate to fly Air New Zealand in future; great legroom in Economy, good food, excellent PTV (when working properly) and efficient, friendly service.
Hong Kong left a flavour of unfinished business in this trip, a place I had to return again – something I did a year later with my family. A place like no other, where East clashes head on with West at a deadly speed creating a confused, explosive, exiting yet well balanced fusion of senses and images. A city that is modern, dynamic, full of life yet where tradition, eccentricity and old world do not go unnoticed. With only three days I had no chance to bet on the horses – a national pastime, at the Happy Valley racecourse, or explore some quaint fishing villages and go out the beaten track or visit Disneyland Hong Kong (that I would do on a later trip with my family). Such is th pace of Hong Kong that one is almost forced to gate crash into it. Possibly with an extra day, I could have slowed my pace a little more and allow Hong Kong to show me that side I wouldn’t have thought existed.
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