From China to….China (Sort of)

After my time in Xi’an, I went down south to Hong Kong to be pleased by a subtropical winter (about 16°C weather) and experience China’s Special Administrative Regions. Hong Kong was British colony for over 100 years after China signed the Treaty of Nanking with the Qing dynasty after the First Opium War. Not yet 20 years ago, in 1997, Hong Kong was given back to China in an event known as “the Handover.”

The Clock Tower, a relic from colonialism.

However, Hong Kong maintains it’s independence from mainland China (mostly — when China tried to intervene in Hong Kong elections it led to some significant protests in 2014). It has a separate government, separate currency, separate police, separate immigration policy, etc.

While Hong Kong is thought of as a huge city, the city is only part of the small semi-nation. The main city is located on the Kowloon peninsula and Hong Kong island. The New Territories (the area in between Hong Kong city and mainland China) and the outlying islands (basically every island except Hong Kong island) are more rural and surprisingly pretty far from the seemingly endless skyscrapers.

One of the first impressions I got in the main city of Hong Kong is that it didn’t really feel very Chinese. This probably shouldn’t have been all that surprising, given that I flew in from mainland China, which is extremely Chinese (obviously). But I was sort of expecting “East meets West” in Hong Kong and what I found was more like “Manhattan meets London” albeit with Chinese food and temples added.

On the other hand, Lantau Island, where I went for a day, had more of an “Asian” feel than the main city. I didn’t make it to the New Territories, since they are kind of far out. (I’ll post about Lantau Island later).

Hong Kong is very easy to travel around, and the city-state has a well-developed tourism infrastructure. Almost on every corner there is a map or signs pointing in the directions of tourist attractions. Given it’s history as a British colony, people are pretty familiar with English (even if they don’t speak it fluently) and all signs have English, making it significantly easier to travel around than it’s mainland counterpart, and even easier than many other Asian cities. The subway is amazing and convenient — tons of 7/11 stores and Mrs. Fields cookie stores in the metro stations makes picking up a snack a breeze.

The Octopus card also makes travelling convenient, just pick one up in a subway station and load it. The card will pay for the bus, metro, and purchases at the 7/11. It can be returned for a refund at the end of your stay (I forgot to do this…ugh).

Hong Kong’s skyline (that rivals that of New York) is world famous and generally considered the number 1 attraction in Hong Kong. There are plenty of places to see it, the most well-known are Victoria Peak and Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade.

There is a laser show at the Promenade every night at 8:00 pm, but honestly it is not very impressive. Half the show is just announcing the participating buildings (they alternate between English and Cantonese on different nights) and then some weak lasers. Hong Kong’s night view is spectacular enough without it, but if you are staying in Tsim Sha Tsui, there’s no harm in checking it out since it’s free anyway.

Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade at night.
View from Victoria Peak during the day.

Victoria Peak is reached using the Peak Tram, which costs 83 HKD for a round trip and HKD 71 for a one way (this includes admission to the main viewing deck).

The Peak has plenty of restaurants, a Madame Tussands, and a large mall called the Peak Galleria.

Another way to see the skyline is to take the Star Ferry through Victoria Harbour from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central on Hong Kong Island. For some reason, my boat ride was free, which made it awesome. It also wasn’t crowded at all.

View of the skyline from the ferry.

On the Central side near the ferry pier is the Maritime Museum, which has some interesting exhibits and is worth seeing.

Hong Kong also has a few markets — the Ladies Market and Stanley Market being some of the most well-known. The Ladies Market is located in Mongkok and contains mostly touristy stuff. I went there to see the atmosphere rather than shop but to be honest it wasn’t that much fun since I didn’t want to actually buy anything.

Do go to the Ladies Market if you want butt pads.

The Stanley Market is located near the south side of Hong Kong Island, near a fairly well-known beach called Repulse Bay. The area was pretty nice and the market had some interesting things, but like the Ladies Market I didn’t find it that much fun without wanting to shop. Although Hong Kong’s winter is mild it’s still not warm enough for beach weather, so it is probably better to come during the warmer months.

Waterfront at Stanley Market.

The Flower Market and the Goldfish Market were much better for atmosphere. They are both located near Prince Edward station and quite unique. There is also a bird market near Prince Edward but I didn’t make it there.

The Goldfish market could easily also be named The Pet Market. It has pet store after pet store located in between the fish and aquariums. This is especially recommended for animal lovers who like seeing cute puppies and kittens (who doesn’t, really?)

They also have turtles.

I went in the evening and pretty much everything was still open, so don’t worry about going later in the day.

The flower market is also great, full of rows and rows of flower shops that spill out onto the street, filling the air with the aromas of flowers. I went here also in the evening (around 7 pm), and many shops were closing up but most were still open. I also came upon a seed shop that sold different seeds and freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juice.

I also liked the Jade Market, but that’s probably because I actually let myself buy something there (a little jade dog). If buying an item from the Jade or Ladies market, do not pay the first price the vendor says. Just start to walk away and he or she will lower the price. Do this a few times and they will keep lowering it. It’s pretty amusing.

The Jade Market is near the Temple Street night market, which pretty much has the same items as the Ladies Market, but I enjoyed the atmosphere here more… maybe because it was night. There’s lots of restaurants around here too.

To explore Hong Kong’s spiritual side, the Chi Lin Nunnery is a nice temple that isn’t too crowded. It’s a nice escape in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The Nan Lian Garden right outside is also lovely.

The temple is built in the Tang dynasty style.

Another highlight in Hong Kong is seeing the Happy Valley Racecourse on a Wednesday night. Horse racing was introduced by the British and has become a large part of Hong Kong culture, as the Chinese love gambling and placing bets on the horses. Happy Valley has “Happy Wednesday” events every week, and the racecourse has a fun atmosphere full of people and good food. The general stand of Happy Valley is only 10 HKD to get in (the Octopus card can be used here), so it’s also incredibly cheap. The racecourse opens at 5:15 pm, and the first race is at 7:15. They are finished at 11 pm.

The racecourse is located near Causeway Bay but it’s a bit of a walk from the station.

Managed to catch one horse in this picture.

Accommodation in Hong Kong tends to be expensive, even an 8 bed dorm with a shared bathroom can be about $35 USD a night. Many of the budget hostels in the city are located in the Chungking Mansions, which I had heard were sketchy (drug dealers apparently hang out there, and it has a horrible elevator and generally not clean). My hostel was located down the street from it so I passed by there a few times and never felt unsafe (I was just offered fake watches and tandoori chicken), although I was never out late at night.

I managed to find a hostel on airbnb.com that was reasonably priced, at $20 USD per night for a 4 bed female dorm, called Tabi88. The hostel’s location was great, in Tsim Sha Tsui near the view of Hong Kong skyline, plenty of restaurants around, and literally a step away from the Tsim Sha Tsui metro station. The beds in the room were comfortable (but I had a hard time climbing the ladder to the top bunk) and lockers were big. The hostel is located in a small Hong Kong style apartment so there isn’t much general space, but hey, it’s Hong Kong.

The airport bus A21 also drops off right in front of the building.

Tabi88 is right across the street from the Kowloon Mosque. There’s also a park with flamingos next to the mosque.

There are two separate showers and toilets which is ideal. However the men’s bathroom had a leak that needed to be fixed. There are no laundry facilities but there is a cheap public laundry nearby.

The problem I had with the hostel was that it had a roach issue, particularly in the bathroom there were a few small roaches. I’ve never stayed at a place with roaches before, and it made me want to leave but I already paid for my stay, plus the owner was super nice and I wouldn’t have even wanted to ask my money back from him.

I did see the owner cleaning the hostel and it was generally not dirty, but I would hope that he would take steps reduce their numbers. Other than that the place was great, and I’d recommend it if it wasn’t for that problem.

The other guests at the hostel were also very nice, some of the friendliest I’ve ever met in a hostel before (which was also part of why I stayed). It’s great for solo travelers because they often met up for dinner and going out.

In the next post, I’ll discuss my day trip to Lantau Island.

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