Travel Update: Hong Kong, Day 1

[Editor’s Note: Due to spotty internet connectivity in mainland China, the upload of some of these travel updates have been delayed by a couple of days. Nevertheless, they are written in the present tense. Hopefully this is not confusing.]

As you may have heard, my friend Kat and I are in Hong Kong. Today was our first full day in the city, and we took the opportunity to get some adventurin’ done.

But before we got to our day full of taking in the sites and sounds of Hong Kong, we started off with a taste of home. At least, that was the hope. We had our hotel’s Western buffet breakfast, which was a novel amalgamation of Continental foods, Asian fruits, waiters clad in British server’s attire and Fox news playing in the background. Oh, and prices that we Canadians were more familiar with – each of our breakfasts cost more than both of our previous night’s dinners combined. So I guess they had their bases covered.

The bowl holds a combination of lychee berry, oatmeal and some sort of vaguely bitter yellow fruit.

After breakfast we headed out on the town. Our first destination was Hong Kong University, where we needed to complete our registration. To get there we needed to take the subway (the ubiquitous MTR) followed by a bus. The nearest MTR station is on the other side of a alleyway market next to our hotel, so we wandered through there.

The fish were popular. Some might even think they’re strangely addictive.

On the way, we spotted a curious sight – a McDonald’s accessible only by stairs. Kat and I concurred in the opinion that this would likely not be very successful in Canada.

“Would you like exercise with that?”

Out in front of the MTR station they had some modern art that, somewhat amazingly, looked like people. I say that this is amazing because modern art usually looks like an unidentifiable object that is also angry at you. In contrast, these gentlemen (at least, I think they are gentlemen) look fairly serene.

Apparently they have Minecraft in Hong Kong.

Inside the station we bought two of the famous Octopus cards. If you aren’t familiar, the premise is this: the card is RFID-equipped and can be used to pay for just about anything in Hong Kong, including trains, buses, vending machines, and restaurants. Apparently, many apartments and hotels also allow you to use them as a key to your place, but our hotel does not. Anyways, we loaded some money on to our cards and headed off.

The MTR itself was fairly crowded, but only slightly more than Vancouver’s SkyTrain during peak hours. Since it was 8:30 in the morning in Hong Kong, I think that the comparison is a good one. The MTR’s trains come much more frequently though – every two minutes. I did not want to cause a ruckus on the train by accidentally elbowing people in an attempt to pull out my camera, so I did not take a photo. I did take a photo of the escalators leading up from the Sheung Wan stop, which is where we got off.

It’s not much, but maybe this will help give you a sense of the number of people involved.

We then caught a bus. It was a double-decker, but it certainly was not the same height as our double-deckers in Canada. I could not stand up fully in  it, and the tiny seats made us look like giants while sitting. Or perhaps our giant selves made the seats look tiny; it would probably depend on who you asked.

When Kat looks like an extra from a production of Gulliver’s Travels, you know there’s a problem.

I was in charge of navigating with my fancy GPS-enabled phone, but unfortunately I got side-tracked trying to add money to my phone’s balance (side-note: I hate you, MasterCard SecureCode. I hate you so much). By the time I was done with that, we were in the wrong part of the island entirely. HKU is on the north-west side of the island, and we had travelled to the south-west end.

This actually wasn’t so bad. We met a very nice Philippina lady on the bus who gave us directions to get back, and even walked us to the correct bus stop (which was not in the direction she was going at all). I was too busy being amazed by her awesomeness to get a picture, so just imagine a cross between Wonder Woman and Mother Theresa, but from the Philippines.

Before getting on the bus that we had been so kindly ushered to, we decided to check out the area we’d wound up in. It’s called Aberdeen, and it is a very wealthy and very touristy area of Hong Kong. It has a majestic bay full of yachts and a kind of tour boat called a sampan. Kat and I were approached by a sampan driver who was very aggressively promoting his services. He advertised 30 minute tours for HKD$60 (about CAD$8) per person. We took him up on his offer, although we later realized that we were probably supposed to haggle (as that is fairly expensive by Hong Kong standards).

The other photo of our driver didn’t turn out, so this is the best you’ll get.

Once on the boat, he started asking us if we would like to go on a 1 hour ride instead (for twice the price, of course). Well, “asking” is generous. The style of bartering in Hong Kong appears to consist of loudly telling someone what they are going to do. Luckily for us, we are a pair of law students with a pretty strong understanding of contract law (and also a cell phone with which to call police), so we were ultimately successful in declining his generous demands. We also accidentally haggled him down to about a 20% discount, so apparently we’re secretly master hagglers.

I have many, many photos from the sampan ride. Here are a few of the highlights:

There were plenty of little work-boats in the bay.
Aberdeen has some beautiful and esoterically-shaped high-rises, and numerous sampans.
There was a giant floating restaurant in the middle of the bay. I want to go there with [amelia].
The three most beautiful words in the English language.
The intrepid sampan-riders

After the sampan tour, we headed off to HKU. There is a lot of construction happening in and around HKU, so it took us a while to find our way to the central square. We were assisted by a very friendly PhD student in the Engineering program who walked us across the whole campus. In what is sure to become a theme, I also forgot to take a photo of this kind stranger. Along the way, as we chatted, he revealed that he had initially assumed that we were visiting officials or something. We thought this was very flattering, although it seemed like a strange conclusion to leap to (especially considering Kat’s shorts – see above).

A few minutes later, it seemed less strange. It turns out that we chose an awesome day to be visiting HKU as tourists, and a terrible day to be visiting as students. It just so happened to be HKU’s 100th anniversary. To mark the occasion, one of the leaders of China’s Communist Party was visiting. This explains why, as we got near to the University, the number of police officers skyrocketed. There were literally dozens on every street-corner. We estimate that we saw roughly 300 police officers around the campus. We did not take any photos of them, because we are not stupid.

The place was also crawling in media-types. More on that in a second.

It also just so happens that the route to the building that we needed to go to was blocked off during the event. This was OK, because we were very lost for the first hour or so and did not know that this was the route that we needed. By the time that we knew where we needed to go, the path was open again.

We actually did wander down that path at one point, and met a wall of police officers and a room full of protestors. Ignorant Canadians that we are, we just wandered in to the room and started moving towards the nearest person in an attempt to ask where we needed to go. We did not get to that person. Instead, we very quickly attracted a number of security guards and police officers, who very courteously listened to our questions and directed us to somewhere else. We didn’t even realize there was a protest until talking to a faculty member later.

Once we got our bearings, we wandered back to that area at precisely the same moment that the important Chinese official left and the protestors were allowed to leave the room and demonstrate openly. They were very orderly and surprisingly quiet, but they did get a nice little chant going for a bit. There were more media and on-lookers than protestors, which struck us as strange.

We still have no idea what they were protesting, but at least the media were interested.

We talked to one faculty member (the one who informed us that this was, in fact, a protest), who seemed sort of embarrassed when we asked why there were so few people at the protest. She defended her school by pointing out that it was the summer semester, and we tried to make up for it by observing that the protestors seemed very engaged, and that in Victoria it would probably only be larger because some people will show up for protests without any idea what it is they’re protesting about. This seemed to assuage her embarrassment.

Then the school’s president showed up, and the media when ballistic. I’ve only ever seen people sprint with microphones extended in front of them in comics and movies, but here it was practically a competitive sport. The mob quickly abandoned the protestors at one end of the square and milled around the big-shot.

A lonely fish in a tiny barrel.

The president eventually managed to move the whole crowd over to the protestors so that he could chat with them, which we thought was nice.

At this point we finally found the appropriate office and completed our registration. The next item on our to-do list was to visit the apartment that we will be staying in during the semester. But first we toured the fancier (and formerly closed-off) parts campus for a bit.

The main building had a series of outdoor squares and gardens on the two floors.
The local flora was remarkably beautiful

Having learned that we had come in through an inconvenient back route, we sought out the actual, official entrance to the University. Eventually we found it. It was a joyous occasion.

Think of how productivity will increase in the Engineering program now that we no longer need guides.

It is at this moment that I must make a quick aside about the use of English in Hong Kong. We’ve found that English signage is usually pretty good, and not subject to the egregious Engrish that you see online. However, sometimes they turn phrases a little differently than we would here. Take, for instance, the following sign that we found just across from the entrance to HKU:

“St. John’s College Breeds the Excellent.” The jokes write themselves.

Having had our fun at HKU, we made our way towards the apartment that is soon to be ours. Along the way we saw some distinctive architectural sights.

If I had to describe Hong Kong in three words, two of them would be “colourful”

It also bears noting that Hong Kong is incredibly hot and humid. In fact, I’m surprised that I did not note it earlier. The heat is constant and the humidity is intense, so it should come as no surprise that everything is air-conditioned. This includes buses (which feature airplane-style personal air-conditioning vents in the ceiling), trains, and even hole-in-the-wall shops with open fronts (i.e. only three walled sides). It should also come as no surprise that water is in high demand. We were constantly buying bottles of water with our convenient Octopus cards. This is basically the only way to get potable water without boiling tap-water, since it is not safe to drink otherwise.

Anyways. Air-conditioning. Hong Kong has a lot of it. Observe:

The few windows without air conditioners are simply apartments with fancier indoor conditioners. No-one goes without.

We passed by dozens of blocks of gaily-coloured and air-conditioned apartment complexes before coming to a public park.

Although Hong Kong is very crowded, the park was practically empty. Busy lives, I guess.

In this park we found a public water fountain. It is the only one that we have seen in our time here. The sign on the front informed us that it used a filter and a UV light to clean the water, and noted the dates on which each had last been replaced. I took a photo, but seriously. It’s a water fountain. You can imagine that on your own.

We also found some gentlemen playing a board game that I did not recognize. One of the players was taking a long time to make his move, and after a while the other player started berating him. A lifetime of Hollywood movies informs me that they were probably playing for the return of the beleaguered man’s daughter.

The man on the right was having some trouble making up his mind.

As luck would have it, the apartment that is soon to be ours is in a building that is just around the corner from this park. We had arrived a little early for our appointment, so we scoped out the area.

Kat lives out her fantasies of being an urban explorer.

Anyways, eventually we went to our apartment. It is actually a very nice building, and is quite upscale. I took a minute to realize this, since (to my Canadian eye) the exterior looked a little shabby. Then I realized that no one uses wood in Hong Kong (bamboo is the closest most places get). Here, it is intended to be a sign of luxury. Indeed, the apartments themselves are quite luxurious. They are also very spacious by Hong Kong standards – a expansive 550 square feet.

The front of our home in Hong Kong
The not-at-all-pretentiously-named “S+Residence”

We are on the “sixth” floor. I put that in quotes because it is secretly the eighth floor, since the ground level doesn’t count (as in British fashion) and they don’t start numbering until after the administrative offices either. Thus, it goes as follows: ground floor, administrative offices, “first” floor, “second” floor, and so on.

This is notable because our building, like many buildings in Hong Kong, has no elevator. This, combined with eating mostly lower-calorie Chinese food and the appetite suppression provided by substantial heat, means that we are very likely to lose some weight on this trip.

The apartment itself is a hard one to give a good sense of in photographs due to the floor plan, so I’ll tackle that one when we move in at the end of the month. Anyways, after a quick walk-through of our apartment we headed up to the community area on the top floor.

From the communal area you can see Belcher Bay Park and the bay. It’s pretty OK, I guess.

Aside from the view, the rooftop area also has a fair amount of seating and a barbecue. We were told that we can use the area of entertaining guests, so I guess we will have to throw some wicked parties. I’ll get right on that after I decide being a hermit is no longer fun.

We took the bus back to our hotel to get our bags. They are bring stored in the apartment (which is currently unoccupied) until we return from our trip to the PRC. Kat was feeling pretty famished, so we stopped by a sports bar next to our hotel for some quick eats.

That sandwich didn’t stand a chance.

We cabbed back to the apartment with our bags and dropped them off. All 4 of the 50lb bags were carried up by a very awesome dude named Rowley, who also carries the distinction of being the first person in Hong Kong whose name I have remembered. I did not get a photo, however. We felt pretty bad for subjecting him to our luggage, but when I tried to pass him a tip he rejected vehemently (but good-naturedly). Tipping is not part of the culture here, and apparently many people feel offended if you offer, so I feel a little bad about that now.

We were pretty exhausted, so we headed back to the hotel. Along the way we stopped by the Wanchai Computer Centre to see if we could get Kat’s BlackBerry unlocked so that she can use it in China. No one could do it on such short notice, but we still had fun poking around the multi-floor complex that was just packed to the gills with tiny specialty computer shops.

Competing shops got placed together, which made walking through the cameras section fun for the two enormous foreigners wandering around with giant cameras. I received many solicitations regarding the lenses that I might want to buy, but unfortunately the only place that had the one that I wanted was selling it for about 10% more than it cost in Canada.

I got pretty distracted by all of the computer goodness around me, and did not take a single photo. Luckily, Kat was more on the ball, so here is the one that she took:

The Centre was made up of long, narrow hallways lined with tiny shops.

I’m sure that you’ll be seeing more of this place, as I definitely plan on returning.

And that’s it! After a long and eventful first day in Hong Kong, we headed back to our hotel room and crashed. Tomorrow we will be leaving for mainland China. We will be touring three cities over the course of two weeks. First stop: Xi’an!