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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.