Hong Kong – November 2019

After close to 40 years of waiting I finally get to cross Hong Kong off my bucket list. I originally bought the tickets in February of this year because the price was just too good to pass up – $362 per person round trip from PDX. If you know me then you know I live to travel so the nine month wait was absolutely maddening. Then the protests happened and many cautioned us not to go because Hong Kong was in chaos. It’s the same thing we heard from people before multiple trips to Nicaragua and Bosnia. And for a while we questioned it ourselves – not for safety reasons but simply from the aspect that were were travelling to Hong Kong to have a good time while people were protesting for their freedom. After some soul searching and knowing that the images broadcast on TV rarely depict the whole story we ignored the naysayers and went anyway. Without a doubt I can say that I am thankful we did. It was an amazing experience that Linda and I will never forget. A warning to those easily offended: there are images for this trip report that may stoke anger for one side or another. You can continue to read and look or just click away – makes no difference to me. I will not be posting a lot of political commentary in this write-up. If you know me you know my views and if you don’t you can send me an email.

But First We Have to Get There

Let me start here…getting to Hong Kong sucked! We were on a 7am flight to Vancouver which meant getting up a 4:00 and leaving the house by 4:45. Thanks to TSA Precheck we no longer worry about getting through security because there’s never a line. We were sitting at the gate with almost an hour and half left before takeoff. After a one hour flight to Vancouver and four hour layover we boarded our nonstop flight to Hong Kong – thirteen hours in the air. Yes, you read that right. Thirteen hours! I’m thankful for all the free movies but man my knees were throbbing about ten hours in. Once we got to Hong Kong things were a breeze. We hoped on the Airport Express train and twenty 23 minutes later we were standing at Hong Kong Station. From here it’s about a mile walk underground to get to the Central MTR station followed by a 10 minute subway ride to Causeway Bay.

Hitting street level on Lockhart Rd after being underground for the better part of an hour immediately brings back everything we love about China – the luxurious smell of food emanating from street side restaurants, the lights and colors, the noise and above all, the crush of people. And in that moment I knew that I was going to love it here. It was a short one minute walk from Causeway Bay station to our apartment on the 7th floor of Diamond Mansion. Every apartment building here is named either a mansion or a manor – even though the ones we’re staying in are neither. Not sure if that’s a holdover from British times here but that’s how it is. After entering the code to unlock the gate, steep stairs lead to a hallway with two elevators – one with the even numbered floors and one for the odd. The elevator is barely big enough for the two of us with backpacks and I immediately wonder how people move their furniture in. Once we get into our apartment I know the answer – they’re not big enough for real furniture. Mystery solved.

Here it is – all 80 square feet of it. I’m not exaggerating – it was quite literally 8×10 feet in size – including the bathroom/shower. Even though it was a bit on the cramped side, it was functional and had everything we needed for 4 nights – a bed/shower/toilet, mini fridge, microwave, hot plate and most importantly a plugin water heater. You know, for coffee.

Causeway Bay

Danish Bakery in Causeway Bay

The goal when coming to Hong Kong was to stay in at least two different neighborhoods to get a better feel for the city as a whole. Before we left home we had decided to first stay in Causeway Bay for a few days before moving over to the Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood in Kowloon. The protests resulted in far fewer tourists being in the city – an estimated 60% decline by some estimates. This in turn drove down prices for accommodations – also good because HK has some of the highest real estate prices on the planet. Both factors resulted in finding fantastic accommodations in very desirable areas.

Causeway Bay served as our home for the first four nights. It’s known for a many things but two of the best are – Victoria Park and shopping. We visited the park several times on early morning walks. Even at 6:30-7:00 am its full of folks doing Tai Chi. Most of them are probably in their 70’s but move with such grace they could easily be in their 30’s. Surrounding Victoria Park its a mix of apartment buildings, local restaurants, bakeries, KFC and McDonalds, mom and pop shops and gigantic shopping malls. Hong Kong loves its malls. They are everywhere around the city and they are massive. Times Square is 17 stories of stores selling everything from souvenir trinkets to ultra high-end brands including Louis Vuitton and Prada. Our neighborhood even had an IKEA. I half expected to come across a Tesco but that appears to be the one store Causeway Bay doesn’t have. We spent various parts of our first 5 days in eating our way through the delicacies that Causeway Bay has to offer. The pork chop sandwiches from Danish Bakery were to die for as was the roasted goose and pork and the snake soup from She Wong Yee – the most highly rated restaurant in HK to get snake soup.

Causeway Bay Food

In addition to eating (almost constantly) we spent many hours exploring Hong Kong Island on foot, by subway and by the double decker tram affectionately known as the “ding-ding“. After all, we came to see as much of the city and surrounding islands as we could in 11 days.  

The Hong Kong Ding-Ding

During those first four days we explored a great deal of Causeway Bay, rode the escalators, travelators and walked the stairs to the top of the mid-levels, rode the “ding-ding” from Chai Wan to Kennedy Town, marveled at the colors and varieties of the fruits and vegetable in open air markets, took in the pungent smell of the dried seafood markets and shopped for souvenirs on Cat Street.  We rode the train to Lantau Island and a subsequent 30 minute cable car ride to the big Buddha before taking a bus to Tai-O fishing village – a centuries old community of houses built on stilts at the confluence of Tai-O Creek and Tai-O River.  We hiked the iconic Dragon’s Back trail that begins with a slog up hundreds of steps through a Catholic cemetery on the outskirts of the Chai Wan neighborhood.  After several miles of walking steps and paved roads one eventually reaches the trail proper which winds up and down the ridge line with spectacular views to both sides of Hong Kong island.  The trail ends at a bus stop about 1.5 miles from Shek-O Fishing Village where we had a fantastic meal before boarding a bus back to civilization.

Images from our Stay in Causeway Bay

Tsim Sha Tsui

After four fantastic days in Causeway Bay it was time to leave our shoebox apartment and move across Victoria Harbor to Tsim Sha Tsui. TST as its more commonly known, sits at the southern tip of the Kowloon Peninsula and is comprised of a more diverse and younger crowd.  It’s the only place in China where we have seen openly gay couples. The diversity in TST is very similar to what you experience in Portland and it’s a major reason we wanted to stay here. This is also the neighborhood where as a foreigner, you get hassled about buying a Rolex, a handbag or a suit.  But apparently only if you’re white. This was a running joke we had because I got hassled every single time we left our apartment and walked down the street past Chungking Mansion.  Ironically the people hassling me were Indian and African but never Chinese.  

This area of Hong Kong – TST, Hung Hom, Mong Kok and Jordan – is also the current epicenter of the Hong Kong Freedom Movement. Less than ten blocks from our apartment on the edge of TST and Hung Hom sits Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which if you’ve been following the news, was the site of some of the most fierce resistance clashes between student protesters and HK riot police less than a week ago. Given it’s significance in the HK’s recent history we naturally walked over there our first night in TST.  The university itself was still completely roped off and lined with lots of police vehicles with flashing lights and riot police at every intersection.  We met a young local man who asked if I was a journalist or a tourist (something that would happen repeatedly during our stay here). After telling him I was a tourist he said, “A week ago this was a war zone”.  Torn up sidewalks and graffiti made it this even more evident.  There were still protesters inside so we couldn’t get any closer but we did take some pictures.  It was Tuesday November 26th and an uneasy calm had remained in place throughout HK for almost one week.  It would only last a few more days.

Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Our apartment in Mirador Manor was definitely an upgrade in size and came with a couch.  But it fell far short of what was presented on AirBnB. At least it was only $19 per night. And since we weren’t here to spend time indoors we wasted no time getting acquainted with our new surroundings.

Hong Kong has one of the best public transportation networks one the planet. Between the subway, bus, tram and ferry there is nowhere you can’t get to in a very reasonable amount of time. And much faster than if you were to do the same journey by car. In the eleven days we spent here we used every public transportation option and I don’t we spent more than $50 per person total. An added perk of staying in TST is the location to the Kowloon ferry terminal – a five minute walk from our apartment. The ferry terminal serves a multitude of purposes – transportation hub, a place for the Jehovah’s Witnesses to try to recruit followers, street hawkers and a local hangout that in the evenings brings out dozens of different musical acts. Some are singles simply singing with a backup boombox while others are multiple people playing instruments and singing. Some are singing in Cantonese and some in English. They are quite literally spaced about 20-30 apart and all are signing different songs. Definitely something that you don’t see back home.

Star Ferries Crossing Victoria Harbor

There are multiple options to get to Hong Kong island from TST. The quickest was the subway which had an entrance about fifty feet out our front door. The subway system is incredibly easy to navigate with trains running every 3-4 minutes. TST is the first stop in Kowloon on the red line and for us it was two stops and 10 minutes in the other direction to Central Station. When not in rush, we walked the five minutes down to the ferry terminal to hop the Star Ferry to either Wan Chai or Central. Each ferry trip costs $2.60 HK US meaning that for about US $0.33 you get a 10 minute ride across Victoria Harbor – day or night – and some of the best views of Hong Kong and Kowloon. We rode the ferry across the harbor close to a dozen times and it never got old. We also did a one hour harbor tour on the ferry late one afternoon which gives you an appreciation for how many people really live on Hong Kong island and Kowloon – 7.39 million to be exact. Unlike most cities in the US which spread in larger and larger circles over many miles, Hong Kong doesn’t have that luxury. Hong Kong is comprised of 263 islands that are largely mountainous with little to no flat ground. The only option is to build up which is evident from the sheer numb ero f buildings rising 30+ stories lining Victoria Harbor from Kennedy Town to Chai Wan on Hong Kong Island and From Tsim Sha Tsui out to Lohas in the New Territories.

A vendor at the Mong Kok Flower Market

Other than crisscrossing the harbor we spent a considerable amount of time exploring Tsim Sha Tsui and the surrounding neighborhoods of Jordan, Hung Hom, Mong Kok and Kowloon City. We visited the flower market in Mong Kok which had a dazzling display of orchids, pitcher plants and bonsai trees for sale; Temple Street Night market which has something for everyone from the “I Love HK” t-shirt, souvenirs, food stalls to prostitutes; Ladies Market in Mong Kok where most vendors sold an unusually large assortment of granny panties and we visited an in-famous back alley containing some really fantastic street art. We found amazing food all over Kowloon – the absolute best dim sum in Hong Kong is had at One Dim Sum in Mong Kok. We ate there twice. A noodle shop on a side street off the tourist path that had the most amazing won-ton and fish-ball soup I’ve ever had in my life. The food was all prepared by a single woman in an open kitchen. Half way through our meal we both gave her the thumbs up along

Food in Kowloon

with a big smile and immediately more broth came to the table. The second time we went there I even received another bowl with extra won-tons in it. The only English she seemed to know was “good bye” but this kind of thing happens to us quite often when travelling. I’m continuously amazed at the kindness shown to us by complete strangers when the only means of communication may be a few lone words, smiling and a lot of hand waving. We found gooey rice and sweet treats everywhere from bakeries to street vendors and they were always good. Sometimes not exactly what you were expecting but always good.

Hong Kong Street Art

On Thanksgiving Day we rode the Peak Tram to Victoria Peak. Riding a funicular is always a joy but the real attraction is Sky Terrace 428 on top of the Peak Tower. 428 meters above sea level it offers 360 degree views of Hong Kong and Kowloon as well as the islands on the south side of Hong Kong island. We spent a couple of hours enjoying an amazing sunset and watching the lights come to life in Hong Kong’s myriad of high rises. Upon exiting the tram at the base station we see lots of police vans parked around the area. I should point out that the Peak Tram station is right across the street from the US Embassy this was the same day that Trump signed the Hong Kong bill supporting the protesters (actually the 27th in the US but HK is 16 hours ahead). We came upon a few hundred people demonstrating in a small square close to Central Station so we hung around for about an hour and chatted with an older gentleman who was there with his wife and a friend. Nothing happened that night and the police never entered the square to disperse people but it was a sign of things to come in the next few days.

Our remaining days were spent on both sides of Victoria Harbor trying to see as much as we could since time was running out. We rode the ding-ding to Happy Valley to visit a photography museum called the F11 Foto Museum. In addition to a Hong Kong exhibit by Ed van der Elsken it has one of the largest collections of Leica cameras in the world. We spent a good hour studying his photographs and I spent another hour talking with the gallery owner and the security guard in the Leica exhibit about travelling, photography, Hong Kong and the current state of things. We visited an artist collective in Central called PMQ, spent time talking with a waitress at Linda’s favorite bar in Hong Kong – a Hemingway themed bar called The Old Man, we found some of the best Dim Sum in Hong Kong just off Prince Edward Road in Mong Kok and ate there multiple times, we visited the Bruce Lee statue, which is right next to Starbucks and we toured Kowloon Walled City park which was once the site of the most dense collection of housing on the planet – WikiPedia.

Bruce Lee Statue on the Avenue of Stars

For our last full day in Hong Kong on a suggestion from a friend in California we decided to go for a hike on Lamma Island. The only way to get there is by boat but don’t worry the HK ferry system has it covered. For around three US dollars you can take a ferry from Central to Sok Kwu Wan village, grab some food, hike approximately five miles with stops at several beaches and end up in Yung Shue Wan village on to the other end of the island. From there it’s another $3 ferry ride back to Central. We timed the start of our hike by waiting about 15 minutes after the fully packed ferry customers departed on the trail. But honestly, to call it a trail hike is a bit of a misnomer as it’s a basically a paved path the entire way. This is really common in Hong Kong as well as mainland China. For most of the hikes we’ve done on sacred peaks on the mainland and here trails were paved and all steep inclines are steps. Dragon’s Back along the ridge was an exception although even that had stone steps for steep sections rather than switchbacks like you’d find almost every other country I’ve hiked in. We also took a dip in the South China Sea at Hung Shing Ye Beach. Linda was smart and brought her bikini – much to the delight of older Chinese men who I actually caught trying to take pictures of her. Not that I really mind but it’s funny to see them suddenly turn away really quickly when they see my looking at them. Hilarious. Since I was not smart enough to bring a swimsuit with me today I had to go in underwear or not go in at all since being naked in China doesn’t even seem to be an option. The water wasn’t what I would call warm so I dove in and immediately lost my sunglasses. There was enough turbulence that I gave up after a few minutes. I don’t mind opening my eyes in salt water but this was right in shore break so there was nothing to see underwater. I went back in about 5 minutes later and there they were right by my feet! After showering we walked the remaining mile or so to the ferry back to Central.

Images from our stay in Tsim Sha Tsui

Around 3:00 pm as we stepped off the ferry in Tsim Sha Tsui, we knew that something was afoot. There were thousands more people at the ferry terminal than normal. We knew there was a protest planned for today but we didn’t know exactly where. Once we spotted the riot police along the outer perimeter of the ferry terminal on Salisbury Street we knew we’d found it. After quickly showering and ditching our bags we made our way to the corner of Nathan and Salisbury Roads where the protest march was already well under way. A few days later I learned that there were an estimated 380,000 people who participated in the march. The official police tally was a 16,000, a common tactic that’s reported in mainland China to show that there isn’t any real support for the protests. However, it was easy to see there were well over 16,000 people in the two block section that we could see. At one point on our walk along Salisbury Road I turned to Linda and told her that if something were to happen and we get separated that we’d meet back at the apartment. I was a bit concerned because we were hemmed in by buildings with barricaded roads to the left, the harbor to the right and thousands of people in front and behind with riot police on every overpass. However, for the two hours that we walked with the marchers there were no physical confrontations with the riot police although a few times I thought it would happen. Even when the riot police fired a tear gas grenade into the crowd from an overpass about 100 yards in front of our position things did not escalate. Later in the evening though things took a turn and there was substantial violence – some of it in the square right across the street from our apartment on Nathan Rd. And much more in the Wampoa neighborhood a little to the northeast of us. I am including a number of pictures from the protest here and will describe the events as I saw them. We saw a lot more on TV later that night as all the protests are live streamed but I won’t describe that here. Some if it was incredibly hard to watch.

This entry was posted in International Travel.