Tag Archives: china

The Road to Shangri La

Perhaps the essence of travel is discovering if your dreams are real. We conjure images of far-off locales based on what we read, hear or desire and spend a lot of time and effort searching to discover if the vision we see in our head can be matched by any form of reality. While most don’t see past a warm sea, gentle breeze, swaying hammock and slightly bronzed skin, a few have more vivid visions of their own personal paradise. Some travelers have more advanced imaginations and maybe their travel palettes have a few more additional colors than the average housewife visiting Hawaii has.
Throughout history, some of these ‘destinations’ have become legendary. Whether they actually existed or not, their descriptions have driven many an intrepid soul to follow their calling, no matter the cost or hardship that may have had to be endured.


Wu Mansion- Lijiang


Countless conquistadors spent their lives searching for El Dorado, the city of gold and untold riches, some undoubtedly meeting perilous fates during their journey. Although it may have been just myth, the explorer Ponce de Leon will always be associated with the search for the eternal life provided by the Fountain of Youth. Whether just in fictional accounts or not, the Holy Grail and it’s promise of eternal abundance led many Arthurian knights on fruitless journeys. While probably based only on legend, many an ancient mariner must have spent their nights on watch keeping one eye out for the utopian paradise of Atlantis.

A more modern destination that may only exist in the writer’s imagination is the Tibetan city of Shangri La. Described by British author James Hilton in his 1933 book “Lost Horizons’ as a mystical valley high in the isolated mountains of the Himalayas and populated by a harmonious people who lived happy and nearly immortal lives. The name has now become synonymous with any utopian paradise where people might find eternal satisfaction. The novel was such a success that many areas have claimed to be the inspiration for the book’s location. China even officially renamed the city of Zhongdian in 1997 to take advantage of the book’s notoriety.


Songzanlin Monastery- Shangri La



This Chinese Shangri La is located at nearly 11,000 feet in the northern mountains of Yunnan Province. With towering mountains surrounding a valley, friendly people and an ancient lamasery high atop a nearby peak, this version of Shangri La seemed to be a good destination for the second 3 weeks of our tour of China. We would head north from Kunming stopping in several ancient towns, gradually gaining altitude until we reached our final destination high in the mountains. Could we find the promised paradise? We were destined to try…

Backpacker Days…

The bad weather of Zhangjiajie had delayed our departure flight for a couple of days. After a couple of days hanging around the hotel and enjoying the cultural treasure that only the local McDonalds could bring, we were finally able to depart for our next destination of Kunming. We were leaving late in the day, which meant a long wait in the airport before departure but the airport was nice and we strangely had it almost to ourselves for the whole time we waited.


City Gates- Dali


Kunming was just a brief overnight stay before we found our onward travel. Arriving after dark, the city gave off an odd vibe as so many of the buildings were brightly lit up. Even hospitals had displays that were more reminiscent of Las Vegas than the large modern city Kunming looked like the next morning. We would again be traveling by buses which are cheap and frequent in China making for easy scheduling. Just show up and buy a ticket on the next bus and off you go.

The bus journey was a long 6 hours. The views were nice as we climbed upwards towards our first destination of Dali. Small farms were visible in tight valleys along the way. Many tunnels and bridges made up the route. We were the only tourists on the bus and the locals seemed more interested in sleep than scenery, so most closed curtains so we could not see as much as we would have liked. We stopped along the way in a nice rest area and made friends with the local dog and stocked up on cookies for our ride.

Historically speaking Dali is an ancient city with a long past. Once it was a kingdom of its own, separate from the rest of China. Modern Dali is made up of two cities, the old and new. The new section where the bus station is does not give off much of the history that we were seeking for this trip. Upon arrival, we caught a taxi and made our way to the old section of town.


Chinese Palace


Located in a wonderful location between a huge lake to the east and snow covered mountains to the west the old city holds a perfect position to spend several days. After China opened up to tourists, Dali became a popular backpacker destination. With friendly locals and cheap prices, many came for brief stays and ended up hanging around for longer periods of time.

In deference to Dali’s backpacker past, we chose to stay at a wonderful hostel just outside the western gate of the walled old town. We joined an excellent collection of travelers, all with different goals for the city. Some were there to tour the villages that surround the lake, some were here to hike the canyons in the nearby mountains and some seemed to have made a home of the hostel and mostly wanted to take advantage of the cool air, blue skies and cheap beer.

There was a camaraderie between the mixed group that we found enjoyable. Spirited conversations took place around the nightly fire, pool table and bar area. Food and drinks flowed each night of the 6 nights we stayed. Fresh-faced gap year students mixed with salty travelers who gave off auras of many nights spent in shady foreign nightspots. Certainly, future books would be written about adventures had in this area.

We spent our days wandering the streets of old town. Cafes and small restaurants filled our afternoons. Dali does not offer much in terms of ‘must see’ places, but the town is perfect for wandering and just enjoying the blue skies and springlike weather that are so uncommon in China.


Ornate Dali Church


We seemed to be the only Westerners in town as we rarely met foreigners during our days. We continued to be a curiosity to locals and many stopped us to take pictures with us. It was rare that we set on a bench enjoying the warm afternoons without people pointing and sneaking a photo of us. A tour group of 50 spent 20 minutes of their city tour posing with us, in groups and singles until every possible combination of pose had been captured. If there is a Chinese Facebook, we must be famous somewhere.

Nights were spent sitting in the restaurant, listening and participating in conversations with young people just getting started with their travel stories and grizzled travel veterans who probably didn’t desire us to know their “best” adventures.

Soon enough we were off again, climbing higher into the mountains to our next stop of Lijiang.

Into Thin Air…

A three-hour bus ride brought us higher into mountains. Old lungs, age and overweight American bodies began to betray us as we made our way up the hill to our next hotel. Excellent views over the ancient city rewarded our effort as we met the family who runs the small inn. We drew pictures with the young girl while Grandma cooked our breakfast. We quickly made friends and through sign language, smiling and “Ni Hao” greetings we felt at home.


Wu Palace- Lijiang


Lijiang was nearly destroyed in 1996 by a terrible earthquake that left more than 300,000 people homeless. The Chinese government completely rebuilt the old city which now is a World Heritage Site. Winding lanes along tiny streams with ornate bridges and gorgeous ancient architecture greet the visitor as cool afternoons are spent meandering the stunning city. Historic inns, picturesque squares and intricately carved woodwork are all to be discovered on breathtaking walks during the clear sky winter days.

To some, it may seem a bit Disneyfied, but we found it to be spectacular as we visited Wu Mansion, Black Dragon Pool and any number of courtyard houses. Sacred and snow-covered Yulong Mountain dominates in the distance from most points of the old city. 5 days were spent watching Naxi dancers in the square, Tai Chi practicing locals and enjoying delicious meals of mysterious meats and vegetables we had no idea existed.


Yulong Mountain- Lijiang


Almost no English is spoken in the town, which made conversation difficult. All of the stores along the narrow walkways have translated signs but even these did not always help us determine what was for sale. We still do not know what is sold in the “Copper is Petrified Pork” market.

In the Mist…

The air grew thinner as we ascended further north into the even greater heights towards Shangri La. Our bus drove along dizzyingly narrow roads of the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge area. Tiny mountain mining towns along the winding river, populated by more sheep, pigs and yaks than people lined the narrow passages.


Shangri La Old Town


Eventually, we made our way out of the narrows and into an area of large plateaus filled with tiny farms. Prayer flags and stupas marked the road as the air grew thinner and the architecture became more Tibetan in style. Thousands of pigs ran wild and the clothing of the people took on a homemade quality that we had not seen in other areas of China. More influenced by Lhasa than Beijing the area displayed a very different atmosphere than we had seen before.

We were a little shocked our first visions of Shangri La. Ultramodern buildings and unique architecture of a combination of Tibetan and Chinese style lined the wide boulevards of the city. Skies were crystal blue and the air was frigid with a constant breeze. While we had expected a tiny village dominated by a huge monastery, we were surprised by construction everywhere that reminded us of a ski vacation village in the high mountains.


Shangri La Mist


Nearly the entire old town section of Shangri La was burned in 2014. The government has again nearly rebuilt the entire area maintaining it’s unique architecture of wooden buildings and narrow streets. We found our hotel along the narrow pedestrian-only streets and liked it immediately.

The hotel was small and decorated in a style representative of an Indian/Tibetan lodge. A warm fire in the common area greeted us as we enjoyed our ginger tea served by the gracious hosts. It helped compensate for the lack of oxygen and warmed us from the chill.

We spent our 4 days walking the streets of both the old town and more modern surroundings of the new city. We have never visited such an odd place in all of our travels. It is difficult to describe without seeing. We made our way by city bus to the Songzalin Lamasery that lies along a mountain range just north of the city. It was spectacular. Smaller than the Potala Palace in Lhasa but still grand, we spent hours walking through the buildings that are occupied by some 600 monks. The interior of the buildings featured painting covered walls telling the story of Buddha. Huge carved statues of Buddha soared high in the towering interiors. Gold covered urns and statuary surrounded the giant icons and beautiful tapestries hung everywhere. The smell of incense and candles filled the air and created a magical ambiance. Despite the grand appearance, the entire complex gave off a feeling of simpleness and peace. It was the highlight of our 3-week visit to Yunnan province.


Songzanlin Monastery- Shangri La


We followed our dreams and imagination to the heights of the Himalayas much as described by James Hilton in his book many years before. I don’t know if we found our Shangri La, but we thoroughly enjoyed our journey to the heights of Yunnan. We saw places we had never seen before and enjoyed strange food and music that we did not conjure in our imaginations. We enjoyed unique cultures and interacted with strangers that eventually felt like friends. While we did not find eternal life, rich abundance or a magic land of incredible wealth I suppose we did, in fact, find everything we were looking for. Maybe it was the journey to Shangri La that was exactly what we had dreamt of.


Travelling in Styles

Any traveller who has taken more than a few trips will develop a travel style. A typical pattern of behavior that leads to the greatest enjoyment of the area around them. Some will find the companionship and easy planning of group tours best suit their tastes. Some may find the adventure and self-sufficiency of independent travel more to their liking. Solo travels to exotic locations fit the desires of a few intrepid souls. The frugal life of a backpacker surrounded by thatched walls may be the calling of for some. Life on a luxury cruise ship or in ritzy hotels may make up another voyagers dreams.


Fenghuang, China


As happens in all areas of one’s life, other people are going to judge you. You will be ranked according to the travel choices you make and the way they are perceived by others. Those who follow a microphoned guides flag on a well-worn route in some old school European capital will not be thought of in the same light as those who huddle around a faraway pot of spicy broth shared with exotically dressed locals. Those who road trip through the amusement park filled countryside of a palm-fringed beach paradise will not rank well against the intrepid soul who sails independently around the gale wracked cape of a storm-ravaged no man’s land.

However, if there is one thing we have discovered, it is this. If you are having fun and are content with what you are doing, it doesn’t matter what others think. In the last 6 1/2 years, we have tried many different travel styles. From road trips on bumpy Central American highways to backpacking through the sweaty backroads of Southeast Asia to cushy long-term stays in slick seaside bungalows in toney European dream cities, we have probably tried all the different varieties of travel.


Li River


Over time, we have found our style. Renting apartments for a month or so in comfortable locations has become our norm. Places with access to well-stocked markets where we can shop for local ingredients that make up the majority of the meals we prepare ourselves. Locations that offer good transportation infrastructure that allows us to move easily around the area we live. Good access to communications so we can stay in touch and easily access the information we need to stay on the road continuously. Places that are easy on the eye and, if they are off the beaten track, not so far that we couldn’t get back pretty quickly if we needed to.

For sure, we do not occupy the highest rungs of the most intrepid travelers. But we have had a lot of fun and, although at a snail’s pace, managed to see some pretty far reaches of the globe. Although we have surpassed our travel dreams, there are still a couple of countries that are high on the list that we have hesitated to take on. As best as we can guess, they require quicker moves and less normality than we are used to in our chosen travel style. These countries provide less access to the easy pace, routine, communication and normalness that makes up our travel life. They are both vast countries that may possess the most diverse landscapes anywhere on earth. They need to be seen. We have visited them both in years past, but never on our own or without someone else’s help. One of them is India and, to be honest, we are still not up to that challenge. The other is China….and we are going.


Temple of the Sun and Moon- Guilin, China


Hello, Bamboo…
We left our tiny Hong Kong apartment in the early morning before the subway rush began. We struggled to get our overstuffed suitcases through the turnstiles and down the rapidly moving escalators. After a couple of quick line changes, we reached the East Rail Line that would take us to the border at Shenzen, China. It was only a one hour ride but our excitement was intense. We easily acquired our 10-year Chinese visas during our stay in Hong Kong, so we had everything prepared for our crossing. Entry was smooth. We cashed our Hong Kong dollars and got Chinese Yuan from the ATM. We were in.

A pleasant ride on the Shenzen subway took us to the massive Shenzen North train station. Towering ceilings, high-speed trains, McDonalds and KFC greeted us in the futuristic station. Our first glimpse of ancient China was anything but old. We boarded our shining new train for our rapid ride to Guangzhou. We have ridden high-speed trains in France and Japan, but this train seemed smoother and faster. Passing 300 kilometers per hour got us to Guangzhou quickly. We only had a brief stay in this massive terminal before we caught our second high-speed train onward to our final destination.


Cormorant Fisherman


A couple of hours later we arrived in Xingping, a tiny town on the Li River halfway between larger Guilin and Yangshuo. This area of the Guangxi Province is most famous for its beautiful and unique limestone karsts that populate the entire area. Guilin was the hub for this area’s tourism until Yangshuo developed enough to support the many tourists. Among the major interests of the area are river rides on rafts, hiking in the hills or riding country roads on some form of two-wheeled conveyance. The most beautiful scenery in the area may be along the river in the small town of Xingping which is said to resemble Yangshuo before it was developed.

After our initial impression of fast-moving trains and gleaming engineering, Xingping presented more of the picture of China we expected. The potholed roads and bad or nonexistant sidewalks looked even worse in the light rain that was falling when we arrived. The town is very small but no one seemed to have a clue when we asked them directions to our hostel. In fact, they did little more than stare at us and point in different directions. We have become used to at least someone speaking English but China was going to be different. Sign language was going to have to work.


Li River


Luckily we spotted a homemade sign for the hostel and arrived after a wet walk. The night was arriving just as we were. The hostel was old but attractive in a rough way and as we met some of our fellow travelers we felt we had started our Chinese adventure on the right foot.

We passed our 3 days in Xingping simply. We walked along the river and took a ferry to a nearby village. The rain kept us from hiking the spectacular mountains that rose high above the river but the weather was still warm enough that we weren’t kept inside much. Everyone was friendly towards us and seemed to greet us with the phrase “Hello, Babu”. We eventually figured out that they were saying “bamboo” and were referring to the bamboo boats that give rides down the river. Much of the tourist trade is selling boat rides and they were just making us an offer. It was a question rather than a statement. We enjoyed walking the cobbled ancient street that ran through the town. We toured an ancient Chinese theater that has been in operation for an eternity.


Li River Sunset


In the days of old, many fishermen in the area traditionally used cormorants to fish the waters of the river. They tie the bird’s necks so they cannot swallow and light lanterns to attract the fish to the boats. They let the birds do the work unless they are using nets. The fishermen are mostly gone now, but a few still demonstrate their skill on the river. We were able to locate one of the old gentlemen and enjoyed spending some time with him on the river as the sun set on our last evening.

The next day we made the short move to Yangshuo. If mass tourism hasn’t quite found Xingping, it has definitely discovered Yangshou. We stayed nearby the famous West Street area of town. West Street runs from the main access road into town down towards the river. It is lined with every type of tourist attraction you could think of. Wax museums, underground ice skating, loud discos, themed restaurants and hawkers loudly trying to attract attention to whatever they might be selling. It is loud, brash, garish and was quite a shock after the quiet streets of Xingping.


Yangshuo, China


Luckily our hotel was quiet. We spent our three days in Yangshuo enjoyably. We hiked up one of the nearby karsts. The view was incredible from the top and well deserved after the breath-stealing climb up the thousands of muscle destroying steps. We walked the pleasant streets of the small town that was much quieter in the mornings.

Most daringly we even rented scooters for a whole day. Riding in the traffic of town was frightening even though the scooters were pretty easy to ride. Helmetless and with no warmup we thrust ourselves into the busy streets and hoped for the best. Once we arrived in the countryside the traffic subsided and we began to enjoy the freedom of making our own way through the unique mountains and farms that made up the scenery. We enjoyed lunch in a local restaurant in a tiny town with chickens, ducks and cows wandering just outside the open air setting near the river.


Temple of the Sun and Moon



We spent one night in Guilin to make onward transportation easier. The town was modern and seemed huge compared to the first two towns we had visited. We did get out to visit the colorfully lit Sun and Moon temples on a lake in the center of town. It made a fitting end to a busy first week in China.

Brad and Angelina…
Our second week began with another bus ride. Heading north this time, we got our first experience with the Chinese highway system. 6 hours of some of the most amazingly engineered road we have ever travelled on.


Fenghuang, China

The freeway to Fenghuang had more tunnels and bridges than we had ever seen. It was almost as if the designers were attempting to make a statement. At times, it seemed we were continuously either in a tunnel or on an elevated bridge. The tunnels, some more than a mile long were cut through the rough mountainside. The bridges spanned the valleys in between the mountains where small villages and farms lay along the rare level ground. Sweepers in orange suits patrolled the roadsides every mile or so, sweeping the roads to apparently keep a nice shine on the engineering achievement.

Fenghuang, China

Our next destination was the ancient Chinese river town of Fenghuang. Popular with Chinese tourists but less known by the western world, this city lies along the Tuoliang River and was founded more than 1400 years ago. The ancient center has been well preserved and offers the visitor a chance to witness how China must have appeared to visitors many years ago.



Fenghuang, China


Stone city walls, stilt raised houses and narrow streets that lead to bridges of many designs greet the visitor in the central area. Open only to pedestrians, life in the old city comes with all the smells, noise, dampness and congestion one might expect in an ancient city. Wooden guesthouses line the cobbled streets and vendors pull carts laden with goods down alleyways filled with open restaurants and vendor shops. Having noodle soup from a steaming pot in an open-air food stall on a misty morning as the town awakened on a winter morning fulfilled our dreams of China from the olden times.


Fenghuang, China


Spending late mornings and early afternoons wandering routes along the river and across the many bridges or down the many alleys and up the winding streets of the city made for interesting days. We never saw another Western tourist for our entire stay. Chinese tourists and locals seemed to find us quite interesting and we always attracted a crowd wherever we went. Everyone, especially children, seemed to be tickled when they would say “hello” and we would answer back. So many brave locals asked for pictures with us that at times we felt like celebrities. At first flattering, but a little irritating after a week, we had our first taste of what it might be like to be famous. We could understand why many celebrities might become testy.


Fenghuang, China

If the daytime beauty of the city was unique in our travels, the nights were even more so. The entire town along the river is lit just after dark. Not a few buildings or select streets. Everything, literally everything is aggressively lit. Multi-colored lights make the bridges, temples, houses and ancient dwellings glow like a Chinese version of Disneyland’s Main Street, USA. Every version of music from classical Chinese to bongo drums to Karaoke to thumping disco is piped at full volume over the riverside. The peaceful surroundings of the morning become a strange nightclub that continues loudly until 11:30 PM when the cacophony thankfully stops. Nowhere we have travelled has such a dramatic personality change from morning to night.



Farther north in Hunan Province, we reached our next destination. A three-hour bus ride brought us to the small town of Wulingyuan. Located just outside of the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, the town gives off a bit of a ski area vibe. Winter finally caught up with us and the weather turned colder and a chilly haze hung in the skies.




Zhangjiajie is most famous for its towering mountain peaks that rise abruptly above the valley floor below. When viewed from the surrounding mountains these peaks rise through the nearly constant mist and create a unique vision that has inspired artists for centuries. Most recently it is said that much of the inspiration for the settings in the movie Avatar were taken from this classic Chinese wonderland.
We found our nice guest house a short distance from the bus station. The park was located a short walk from the park. We purchased our 4-day pass and made plans to visit the park over the next few days. We were told that the heavy clouds might hamper our view from the upper peaks so we decided to hike the lower portions of the park to start our tour.




Much of the town was shut down because we were so offseason. We had our guesthouse to ourselves and made good friends with the owner and his family during our stay. Mostly only small local restaurants were open and we were welcomed and remembered in each place we stopped to eat. The restaurants generally did not have menus and the fact that they remembered us and our orders made communication on our second visit much easier. Many seemed surprised that we returned more than one day and we quickly felt like regulars.




The park has free buses which transport you everywhere within the park. We used them to take us to several nice trails that we enjoyed leisurely strolls on. Many Chinese tour groups were visiting but we saw very few independent tourists.
On our second day, rain kept us from the park. However, the longest cave in China is located a few kilometers from Zhangjiajie. The perfect place to stay dry on a rainy day! Upon entering the cave we took a half mile boat ride to the end of the cave and then made our way back to the entrance over the next few hours. The cave was warm and with all the stairs and hills, we eventually were in short sleeves and felt much warmer than the winter day we had left outside the cave. The cave was spectacular and for some reason free when we visited, which was nice for our tight budget. Like in Fenghuang, the Chinese decided to garishly light the cave with multicolored lights. It made the cave interesting to look at but in some ways we felt it diminished the natural beauty of this scenic wonder.




Finally, we got a clear sunny day and we had our best day in the park. We rode the 1000 ft outdoor elevator to the top levels of the park and hiked trails to get views over the scenic peaks below. The tallest peaks were over 1000 meters and when viewed from the lofty trails above were among the most incredible natural views we have ever witnessed on our journeys. We returned to the valley floor after a full day by taking the skytram lift. It carried us down through towering peaks and gave an incredible birdseye view of one of the great natural wonderlands anywhere on earth.

We felt lucky to have been granted at least one sunny day to view the park. The next day the weather turned cold again and sleet and snow forced the airport and lifts into the park to close. Our flight was canceled and we had to extend our visit while we waited for onward transportation.




It proved to be our only hitch during our 3-week visit to China. We are glad that we decided to try a different style of travel. The change of pace has been challenging at times and forced us to do things that we normally would not. We have gotten out of our comfort zones and taken on challenges that we weren’t sure we could do without help. Perhaps we will be inspired to reevaluate our travel style in the future and add a little more risk.

For now, we are on our way to the next 3 weeks of our visit to China. Hopefully, it goes as well as the first 3.





Size Doesn’t Really Matter

For the second time in a month, we found ourselves in Shanghai’s massive Pudong airport. Last time we were headed back to the U.S. and booked a nearby hotel to spend our long layover in. Stretching out for a few hours in a comfortable bed and having a relaxed meal is a rare luxury that we enjoyed when we had the chance.


Victoria Harbor from Victoria PeakĀ 

This time we were going in the opposite direction and had already spent a long day of travel from San Francisco. Our stopover this time was 3 hours. Long enough to be uncomfortable but not long enough to leave the airport. We still had a couple of hours more to fly and we really missed the opportunity to relax in the comfort of a hotel. The excitement of getting to our destination didn’t deter us from napping on the next leg of our flight. Already being awake for more than 24 hours has that effect.
We landed in Hong Kong a little after midnight. It is always odd finding your way in a new city when arriving after dark. Landmarks are harder to pick out and not all services are working as usual. We were lucky that our new apartment was directly next to a bus stop for the night bus into town. We found the bus easily and 1 hour and 22 stops later we arrived at our new apartment.


Hong Kong CentralĀ 

If Hong Kong is noted for only two things, which of course it isn’t, they would probably be expense and population density. This means two things for budget travellers. One, you’re probably not going to stay in the nicest parts of town and two, you are going to get a tiny apartment. Not really a problem for us generally but Hong Kong is in the extreme. On Hong Kong Island 500 square foot apartments can easily be US $1,000,000 dollars to buy and we heard tales of some penthouses in tonier buildings that can push 50 million.
We were lucky to find an apartment in the Sham Shui Po area of Kowloon for a price that fit our tiny budget but we would have to make a sacrifice in terms of space. Our smallest apartment ever was in Paris and it was 140 square feet. It was hard to imagine we were going even smaller here. This time we were only going to have 80 square feet! Luckily we would be on the 12th floor and would have a nice view over the city. We hoped that skyline views would make the apartment feel bigger than it was. If only we could get our old and tired bodies up the rickety wooden ladder to the elevated bed each night, perhaps a month in our tiny home would be tolerable.


Temple Street Market



Sham Shui Po does not put on the most attractive face that Hong Kong has to offer, especially to our jetlagged eyes at 1 AM in the morning. The buildings are pretty worn and the streets are very narrow. Everyone lives in buildings from 10 to 40 stories, with the taller ones generally being the newest. Busy storefronts line the sidewalks and many of the streets are pedestrian only, so temporary stalls have opened in the streets also. Clothes are hung to dry outside of every window and traffic is in endless movement. We made our way up the tiny elevator and through the crowded hallways to our room. It looked even smaller than the pictures, but the skyline view lit up as it was, was quite beautiful and made us excited to start our visit, after a hot shower and a nice long sleep.
We spent our first few days getting the house organized and seeing the main sights of the town. We learned the metro system and found groceries. Markets were close by and a metro stop was literally outside our building.


Hong Kong Apartments



The metro is one of the best in the world and can take you virtually anywhere in town within 30 minutes. Despite being swarmed at all hours it was easy to navigate. We bought convenient Octopus cards which make ticketing a breeze. The cars were clean and safe. Signage was available in English, although we found that very few people speak English. We were generally the only non-Chinese riders in our area of town and found many young children stared at us when we were riding. We understood that being a foot taller and 70 pounds heavier than everyone else would be quite startling to young eyes. With a wave and a smile, we could easily make friends with them and this generally got other people smiling and entertained us for our ride.


Star Ferry

We started our visit by making our way around Kowloon and the main areas of Hong Kong Island. Our first look at Victoria Harbor was from the famous Star Ferry. For nearly 100 years the tiny boats have provided service between Hong Kong Central and Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side. For a fare of around 30 cents, they carry you on the 9-minute ride across the harbor. The skyline, when viewed from sea level is breathtaking. The 10th highest building in the world is here and several others are over 1000 feet. It is said that Hong Kong has more buildings over 14 stories than New York City.


Victoria Harbor

Walking through the streets on the island side of the harbor was amazing. Like man-made canyons, the streets cut a narrow path through the towering buildings that lie beside them. Not much of the past has been preserved here as every bit of the tiny amount of buildable land has been used to its maximum potential. Very few of the colonial British buildings have been saved. We had just watched “The World of Suzie Wong” a couple of days earlier and the classic stone buildings and easy access waterfront shown in the movie have all been replaced by glass and steel. Suzie definitely doesn’t live here anymore!


Hong Kong Convention Center

The hills rise quickly from the Central district towards Victoria Peak. The steepness could be intimidating if not for the Mid-level escalators. This series of moving stairs, the longest in the world, whisk you easily upwards until you are well above the shining harbor below. From the top you can slowly wind your way back down the narrow streets and alleys, being sure to stop in one of the trendy bars or restaurants found in these upscale neighborhoods. Art galleries and antique shops abound and we always made sure to stop in one of the many tasty bakeries along the way.


Hong Kong Trams

Back down the hill, we found the easiest way to make our way was by tram. Referred to locally as “ding ding’s” the double-decker electric trams are the easiest and cheapest way to get through the city. Packed with tourists and locals alike, it takes a few minutes to get a seat. Once you do, if you have as much time as we do, relax and enjoy the ride for the entire route. From the west end of town all the way to the Happy Valley racetrack, the slowly moving trams provide the perfect speed and vantage points to take in the most interesting sites of the city. Central, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay neighborhoods pass by, each unique and interesting in its own way.
Of course, the highlight of anyone’s visit is to take in the spectacular view from the top of Victoria Peak. Views of the skyline and harbor are jaw-dropping in the daytime and even more so at night. It is even possible to see off the back side of the peak to the other side of the island. These views probably give a better idea of what visitors saw many years ago.


Nan Lian Gardens

Touring all through the madness of the city can be exhausting after a few days but that proved to not be a problem. We spent days visiting the many urban parks around the area. Kowloon Park and Nan Lian Park were favorites and gorgeous but the best still had to be Hong Kong Park on the island. A teacup museum in a colonial building, an arboretum and a beautiful aviary surround a lake and waterfall that seemed miles from the city but, in fact, were right in the center.
We also found that most of the museums in town were free. What an excellent idea! We found the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum interesting and in an excellent building. The heritage museum in Kowloon Park explained the architecture of the town. The hands-down best museum was the Hong Kong Museum of History. It explained Hong Kong’s history from prehistoric times all the way to the turnover to China. Entire temples, Chinese opera stages and colonial-era towns were built inside. Histories of the different ethnic cultures and examples of their villages were built. Full-size boats and displays of the Japanese occupation were outstanding. We expected to stay for an hour but ended up spending an entire day. A highlight of the city that shouldn’t be missed.


Tai O Fishing Village

Eventually, we had to get out of the city for a while. We set off first for another island called Lantau. On the far side of the island is a small fishing village called Tai O. A metro and long bus ride seemingly took us back in time to a more simpler time when Hong Kong was just a fishing town. Boats instead of roads carried people to their houses built on stilts. It was a weekend and jammed with tourists, but we still enjoyed visiting temples, food stalls and restaurants all on elevated walkways and bridges. We even took a 30-minute boat ride to see dolphins. We didn’t see dolphins but the inexpensive price of the tour still justified the chance to see the town and coastline from the water.


Tai O Sunset

Our longest adventure was by hydrofoil to the former Portuguese settlement of Macau. The hour-long ride at speeds up to 50 knots was fun and was just about 1 hour. Macau is packed with tourists from China who come to visit the massive casinos located there. We were more interested in seeing some of the historic Old Town. The style and architecture of the buildings definitely reminded us of Lisbon. The route from Senado Square to the ruins of St. Paul’s Church was packed with shoppers but we still were able to enjoy some of the old world style that seems to have been erased in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, we had to leave much too soon and perhaps would like to return sometime for a longer visit. Standing on top of the ancient Monte Fort gave us commanding views over the town and made us realize how much we didn’t have a chance to see.


Hong Kong Laser Show

As our stay continued we actually stayed around our own Sham Shui Po area more and more. Each street seemed to feature a different specialty. One had toys, one had electronics, another had food. We visited streets filled with flower shops and another that sold everything to do with birds. We especially enjoyed watching the old men who take their caged birds with them for a “walk” and socialize with each other along the way. Another street is called goldfish street and is lined with aquarium and pet stores. Another street morphed into the biggest display of Christmas items we had ever seen. Each alley and street provided a unique experience.


Ruins of St. Paul’s Church- Macau

Maybe our favorite times were in the evenings in our tiny apartment. With the curtains open and the lights of the city on full display, we spent what seemed like hours just looking out over the city. Nightly laser shows over the harbor were visible from our viewpoint and watching the endlessly bustling crowds on the streets below will be memories we won’t soon forget.