Update: As I write this, we are on a bumpy plane ride from Tokyo to Vienna via Moscow. Our plan is to spend the rest of the summer in Europe with stops in Croatia, Spain, Italy, and France before heading to Seattle in the fall. The blogs seem to be taking a slower route and are stuck somewhere in Asia. Hopefully, they will catch up before too long!
May 21- May 25, 2018: From Hanoi we headed to Hong Kong. Why Hong Kong you might ask? You are not alone as we are often asked how we decide where to go next. How far do we plan in advance? Do we have a plan at all? The answer is yes.....and no.
Way back in December we started musing about our next round of Senior Nomad travels. We were definite about exploring New Zealand and Australia so we booked our airfare and the first few Airbnbs for late January so we could enjoy summer down under. But after those initial bookings there was room to dream.
So we pulled out the atlas and plotted potential itineraries. Singapore had been on our list and since we were near the Philippines why not stop there? And I have a good friend in Guam - she would have been surprised to see us! Bali would be interesting - or should we just head to India - another place we were curious about. And so the conversation went. When I write things like this our lifestyle seems preposterous - even to us. But for now, this is the life we’ve chosen and the world is waiting. So where to?
In the end we decided to spend six months making our way from New Zealand to Japan. After five weeks in New Zealand and a month in Australia, we began our “Asian Tour” with a week in Singapore. From there we would journey through Malaysia with stops in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown. Then on to Bangkok, Thailand, Siem Reap, Cambodia, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi in Vietnam (I’ve blogged about our travels up to Hanoi). Since then we’ve traveled to Hong Kong, Beijing, Seoul, and just finished three weeks in Japan!
So back to Hong Kong. A city with twice the number of Skyscrapers as New York City, it’s nearest competitor. And home to 7.2 million residents living in a country half the size of Luxembourg. We were about to do some intense big city living!
Throughout our five years of travel, we are drawn to places in the news. That has taken us from Cuba to Kyrgyzstan, South Korea to South Africa, and scores of countries in between. A trip to Asia would not be complete without a whistle stop in Hong Kong, a country undocking from the Mother Ship China. In 1984 Britain announced they would "give back" Hong Kong to China in 1997 with the caveat that China would honor Hong Kong's unique autonomous status for the next 50 years. This led to what is now called “One country, Two systems.” No one knows what will happen between now and then, but we wanted to see what it was like today.
Hong Kong is an island and the city is wedged between a harbor and a hillside. For those who can afford to live in the center the only way is up! You either live in a soaring tower in the CBD or in multi-tower complexes that make up the green glass forest that covers the hill.
Oddly, There are also more Rolls Royces per capita than any other city in the world. However, I don’t see how, or why, you would drive a car of any kind in this congested city. Maybe that’s why 90% of the citizens of Hong Kong use the very efficient public transportation system - including an extensive system of outdoor escalators that whoosh you half-way up the hill.
Speaking of public transportation, we arrived at the airport and took the shuttle and then the metro to our Airbnb. May as well jump in with both feet and two big suitcases! It was hot and humid and we exited the metro straight into a crush of traffic and packed sidewalks during lunch hour - but we kept our calm and our most trusted friend Google Maps eventually found our building. Our Airbnb was modest, but the AC worked and we were grateful to be able to put down our heavy luggage and collapse.
After settling in, we explored our neighborhood. With just four days to spend here, we were pleased to just around the corner from a metro station with a tram line just down the street. We could also walk to the harbor where we took excursions to Kowloon and Lamma Island. In our immediate neighborhood we found everything we needed from a traditional Chinese laundry service to a large grocery store, and dozens of small eateries including five Starbucks within walking distance!
Our second day in the city coincided with Buddha’s birthday and there were celebrations everywhere. A person at the tourism office enthusiastically recommended we head to Shau Kei Wan where they also celebrate the sea god Tam Kung’s birthday. She assured me not many tourists would venture that far and we’d get all the excitement of a parade with lion dancing and dragons, along with festivities along the waterfront.
We popped out of the subway station and hit a wall of people lining the parade route. Maybe there weren’t many tourists, but there were plenty of sea god fans having a grand time! I am sure we stood out because many friendly locals offered us places along the route where we could squeeze and have a look. Not only did I snap pictures of dozens of dragons, elaborate floats, and drumming madmen, I saw adults standing on each other's shoulders with a toddler as topper walking along as if that’s an everyday occurrence.
After two hours we’d had our fair share and waded through the crowd until we could bolt for an unoccupied chunk of waterfront. We walked in the opposite direction from the festival and caught our breath.
Later in the day, we headed to Causeway Bay where we would meet new friends. If you remember from the Sydney and Singapore blogs, we had become “Skype” friends with a couple who wrote a book about the business side of Airbnb hosting called The Homestay Guide. They connected us with their family in Sydney who took great care of us. Then we actually met Gabi and Derek in person in Singapore and they made sure we got the most out of our visit there. And now we would be meeting their good friends Romy and Howard in Hong Kong.
It makes such a difference when you have a personal contact in a strange city. If someone tells you to look up their friend, aunt, college roommate, or whomever, do it! It may seem awkward, but really, most often people enjoy meeting “friends of friends” for coffee or a beer and you’ll get some insider tips and see the city in a more personal light.
We met at their beautiful, homey apartment. It was an oasis from the crush of traffic and humanity just around the corner in Hong Kong's retail epicenter. After meeting their daughter Hanna and getting acquainted over tea and homemade desserts, they took us for a walk into the fray. We visited Hong Kong’s equivalent of Time Square and then Romy and I did a quick dash through the Ladies Market (a street market with ladies in mind) and then reconnected with Howard and Michael. We perused the local produce market and a few side streets and ended our day at the Hong Kong Royal Yacht Club for drinks and Chinese nibbles perfectly timed for a stunning sunset.
We returned to Causeway Bay aboard a rickety water taxi and said our goodbyes. I am so glad they suggested we take a tram back to our place. It was a beautiful night and we sat on the top of the double-decker and enjoyed the fresh air as we rattled our way through the blazing lights of the city core.
The free-walking tour we found was in Kowloon, a large city on the peninsula accessible by a short ferry ride across the harbor. But first, we had to find the boat. Hong Kong is known for its many sky-walks that connect the city through office towers and shopping malls that allow you to traverse the city high above the traffic and out of the weather. Once we got the hang of it, we could walk to the harbor in about 15 minutes. Longer if we got distracted by the shops and bakeries we passed along the way. The boat ride itself was quick but offered magnificent views in both directions. You really need to get on the water to appreciate the massive size of this city.
On the Kowloon side, we found more breathing room and vast new buildings. We arrived early for the tour so we went in search of coffee and found a cafe in the Eslite bookstore. Oh, my! It turned out to be a destination of its own with floors of books of course, but also niche boutiques, gourmet foods, coffee bars, tea shops, unique gifts, and cozy nooks for watching the harbor.
The walking tour wasn’t the best, and while I am sure there are benefits to being in a newer, trendier part of Hong Kong, we were definitely happy with our choice to stay on the island and in the vibrant city center.
Most everyone we asked for advice said we had to go to “The Peak” at sunset. Either hike up or take the funicular but it was a must-see. We found an Airbnb Experience called Walk to the Peak for City Lights that used the city’s famous outdoor escalators to get about a third of the way up and then we hiked the rest of the way. It sounded like a good compromise so we signed up. It’s a good thing we walk so many miles every day because it was a serious, up-hill hike to the top.
If I’d read the description more carefully I would have realized we’d miss the sunset at the top and instead would enjoy the city lights at night. So while the tour started late in the afternoon, it grew darker as we climbed. We trudged the last uphill stretch through the woods literally in the dark - our guide thought we’d love that. Hmmmm. Watching the sunset during our hike and the expansive view at the top made it worthwhile. But using the escalators was the best part.
This human conveyor belt is the perfect solution for commuters living high above the city. Called the Central-Mid Level Escalator System, it was installed in 1993 and covers 800 meters (2,600 ft) and rises 443 feet from bottom to top. It runs downhill from 6 am to 10 am and then uphill from 10 am until midnight. They say 85,000 people use them every day! It is free, and you can hop on and off anytime you are distracted by the shops and restaurants along the way.
On our last day, we spent the morning in a small fishing village on Lamma Island. It was a lovely 45 minute ferry ride away, and a beautiful place to begin a trek around the small island. We settled for coffee and a pastry on the waterfront before heading back for an afternoon excursion to another part of the city.
Our friends told us to take the public bus to the high-rent city of Stanley - we’d love the views and a chance to visit the “Beverly Hills” of Hong Kong. We sat on the top of the double-decker bus right in the first row, but it might as well have been the front car of a roller coaster! The hilly route was so twisty and narrow we felt we would either tip off the cliff into the sea, crush the next car coming around the corner - or throw up. If you want to experience it for yourself, here's a video I found on youtube!
We passed some nice beaches and stunning condo complexes perched high above the sea before a harrowing downhill shot straight into town. After getting off we were a little wobbly so finding a restaurant for lunch along the waterfront was a priority.
I’d heard the Stanley Market was one of the best so after lunch I left Michael enjoying his book and did a little shopping. It was indeed, a really nice, quite civilized market with a mix of high-end linen shops gourmet foods and the usual inexpensive - but still fun clothing. I was able to replace two pairs of pants. Michael left his favorite shorts in Hanoi (one last little challenge from that trip) so we replaced them as well.
While we didn’t stay long, we felt we got a sense of what this fascinating Asian outlier is all about. I’ll compare it to the perfect Chinese dumpling - steaming hot, deceptively soft, spicy on the inside and unforgettable.
On to Beijing where we got caught on the wrong side of the law!
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads