Hong Kong for me means skyscrapers, Disneyland and endless shopping. It wouldn’t have been my first choice for a holiday adventure, however with limited time it was a convenient place to escape for a short vacation. I have always had the impression that it’s just a typical metropolis with towering buildings, gigantic shopping malls and expensive accommodation; however on this trip we discovered another side of this fascinating city – its natural beauty. The fantastic food and the fact that we could also visit Macau with just a one hour ferry ride gave us even more reasons to make Hong Kong our destination of choice.
When we arrived in HK just past 9 in the evening it was just 11 degrees Celsius on the ground – probably cold even for the locals considering the average temperature during the coldest month of winter is 17 degrees. It took us half an hour and around 2000 pesos via taxi to reach our hotel in the Wan Chai area. I don’t know about the cheap taxi fares in HK being raved about by some guide books but this is royalty fee here already.
It was just after 10pm when we were finally settled in our small but cozy room. Space is a luxury in this crowded city of over 7 million people so going up vertically is the way to go. We could see the Times Square building from the 20th floor of our hotel so we decided to check out that area on our first night. Surprisingly, many shops were still open. There were still many people strutting in their fashionable clothes with boots as their version of flip flops. There was also a gigantic outdoor screen in front of Times Square and a platform stage being set up for the New Year’s countdown.
This building is filled with upscale shops and surrounded by food halls, restaurants and chiming clocks. We also walked around the Causeway Bay area, which is packed with department stores, malls, electronic and clothing retailers, before we headed to the main shopping area near Lockhart Road where you can also find the huge Japanese department store called Sogo. Finally, we ended the chilly night by devouring hot spicy noodles and Humin fried vermicelli at a local restaurant.
Our first day was spent mainly exploring Causeway Bay, Central and Kowloon area on foot. The first stops were Jardine’s Bazaar and Jardine’s Crescent lined with vegetarian cafes, noodle soups and stalls of cheap clothing like the ones at Baclaran and Divisoria. Then we bought an octopus card to conveniently make use of the efficient transport system in HK.
We took the train to Central and checked out the restful Statue Square where you can find the statue of Sir Thomas Jackson, a one time chief manager of HSBC Bank. Opposite the Square was the commanding headquarters of HSBC which was once the most expensive building ever constructed. The design was impressive, fitting a huge edifice in a constrained space, utilizing natural light by the use of mirrors and revealing the mechanical workings of the building.
Then we headed to the IFC Complex which is composed of another trendy mall, 55-story Four Seasons Hotel and two 88-story towers considered as one of the tallest buildings in the world. Despite so many expensive and upscale stores around, the only thing I remember doing here was using the toilet before setting out to the ferry station.
From Central, Kowloon is accessible either via the subway tunnel under Victoria Harbour or by ferry – we opted to take the short trip across the harbour via Star Ferry to enjoy the magnificent skylines of the Central District staged against the lush Victoria Peak. We were greeted by throngs of tourists and a bustling place of excessive consumerism at Tsim Tsa Tsui.
The Peninsula Hotel was a sight to behold with its beautiful British Colonial architecture, while just looking along the stretch of thousands of shops crammed in Nathan Road would make the savviest of shoppers weary. There were street hawkers offering us “genuine copy” Rolex’s, tailoring services and a dizzying array of camera and electronic stores, clothing stores, bars, restaurants and more.
The Chungking Mansions on the opposite side of Nathan Road were a contrast to the glitzy and glamorous shops. This decrepit building is considered an icon where you can observe the multicultural facet of HK at its best. Inside this dingy building is a cacophony of different nationalities – mostly Indians, Pakistanis and Nigerians and over a hundred more.
The numerous shops of second hand cell phones and cheap clothes reminded me of Greenhills Shopping Center, but the frenetic crowd and the distinct aroma coming from the food stalls of the Indian and Pakistani cuisine was mouth-watering – that is if you are not fussy about how your food is prepared. There were still many restaurants on the second floor that offer the most authentic ethnic cuisine in town but we were content to just try the samosas from one of the Indian food stalls for our appetizer.
Then we headed to a local restaurant in a side-street off Nathan Road and had traditional Cantonese roast goose and pork with veggies. The rest of the afternoon was spent indulging Charlie – the former most reluctant shopper and mall-phobic person I know – shopping nonstop along Nathan Road.
On our second day, we went back to Central to check out Li Yuen Market. Hong Kong is also known for its street markets, selling every kind of goods imaginable. Some of the famous ones among tourists are the Flower Market, Ladies Market and Bird Market at Mong Kok, Jade Market near Tin Hau Temple, Western Market and Temple Street Night Market.
After buying some souvenir clothes, we headed to the Central Market to check out the Mid-Levels Escalator, dubbed as the world’s longest covered escalator. It was built as an alternative to taxis and minibuses to commute up the steep, narrow and winding roads towards the residential area of Mid-Levels. There are several clearly marked exits along this 800m escalator leading to many narrow streets and passageways that are just waiting to be explored.
We got off at the second exit of the escalator to get a glimpse of Stanley Street Market and the area further west of the escalator. Each street has its own character, bustling with curious tourists, throngs of locals, traders, and hawkers. The sight of the locals savoring noodle soups and aromatic Cantonese food at the outdoor tables was so enticing we hurriedly got a table for ourselves.
We had a hefty serving of steamed fish and a huge serving of stir-fry beef with bell pepper. By this time, I had a bit of a grasp already of dealing with the local nuances. If you can’t read the menu just point at the picture, and if there is none, just point and pray it won’t be some exotic “delicacy” of the house. No need to worry if the prices are in Chinese characters – just point and the waiter will type it in using a calculator.
Don’t be surprised if a stranger comes and sits in a vacant chair at your table without even an exchange of pleasantries… and they also use the tea served for drinking to wash the chopsticks! It’s all just part of the crazy atmosphere and culture in the back-street markets of Hong Kong – just sit back and enjoy the hustle and bustle!
After lunch, we got back to the escalator and then exited again at Soho District. The place is a different world from the usual Chinese alleys. It is full of trendy bars and restaurants serving international cuisine. A welcome divergence if you want a break from the intense and chaotic streets elsewhere.
Finally, we went back to the escalator and ascended all the way up to the end where the luxury apartments, condominiums, and mansions tower on the slopes of Victoria Peak. HK has some of the most expensive real estate in the world and the higher you go up the peak the more expensive it becomes. I have never seen so many Jaguars, Mercedes and BMW’s cruising in one area before.
Then, we traced a winding pathway up the peak under the canopy of verdant trees on one side and a wonderful view of the Central skyline on the other. With the help of our guidebook and Charlie’s I-GPS, we found our way to the Zoological and Botanical Garden, Hong Kong Park and the Aviary (on foot still!). Still not content with hiking up the Mid-Level District and walking to reach these places, Charlie and I climbed the tower at the aviary.
Our effort was rewarded by a 360 degree panoramic view of the city’s skyline. It was amazing to see these lush and peaceful respites blending harmoniously with the city’s skyscrapers. There are no entrance fees and they are easily accessible by taxi or train if walking isn’t your thing. Finally, it was my turn to shop so we went back to Nathan Road before heading back to our hotel.
The next two days were spent in Macau. We came back to HK just in time for the New Year’s celebration but we weren’t early enough to find a good spot to watch the fireworks. It was chaos from the train station all the way to the venue of the countdown. We had the occasional peek of the fireworks but the main show was covered by a tall building from where we were standing.
After the fireworks the crowd started to dissipate and seemed to be being herded by the cordoned streets in one area. As it turned out, everyone was heading to Lan Kwai Fong to celebrate and party. This is like the Malate and The Fort of Manila where you can find some of the trendiest and hip bars and restaurants of HK. After one overpriced beer at the first “uncrowded” bar we spotted at Lan Kwai Fong, we decided to leave and just recuperate from the hangover Macau has given us and to prepare to explore the outdoors of HK in the coming days.