Suddenly there was blue. A sky patched with a few ivory clouds gave way to verdant hills and cerulean waters. In the distance, one could make out the faint outline of the skyline; down below, the world was lost in a forever blue abyss. The sound of zippers and the click of pens – passports and immigration cards emerged as the plane began its downward arc. The late afternoon sun was blinding as China Eastern 503 from Shanghai-PuDong touched down on the runway – farewell, China. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived at Chek Lap Kok International Airport. Welcome to Hong Kong.”
Hanging under the belly of the People’s Republic in the mouth of the Pearl River Delta, Hong Kong is an unusual place. Officially referred to as a Special Administrative Region (SAR), it is de jure part of China but in reality, it is far from such. Hong Kong has a Beijing-appointed governor, but its citizens enjoy a wide array of freedoms and civil liberties not found on the mainland. Hong Kong is among the freest capitalist economies on the planet, a far cry from even the not-really-Communist-anymore guys up north. It has a partially democratically-elected legislature (with a fully democratic one being phased in over the next several years), maintains an international border between itself and China, can join world bodies independent of its overlord, mints its own currency, and has a separate immigration, visa, and customs regime. PRC citizens need a special permit to travel to the SAR and it was not until 2004 that PRC citizens could visit the city without a government-organized group.
Hong Kong is one of the most iconic and well-known cities in the world. Traditional Chinese junk boats ply Victoria Harbour alongside ferries as supertankers from the Gulf and cruise ships bound for Bangkok and Osaka lay idle in the distance. Cantonese, an odd sounding language related to Mandarin that also flies under the banner of “Chinese,” seems out of place spoken under signs for quays, carriageways, and WCs. The jewel in the British Empire’s East Asian crown, Hong Kong sits geographically on a peninsula physically part of the Chinese mainland as well as on a series of islands, most famously the aptly-named Hong Kong Island.
On the southernmost tip of Kowloon peninsula facing Hong Kong Island, the hectic Tsim Sha Tsui area is the embodiment of that vapid cliché “East meets West” but also of the entire SAR: Sheratons and herbalists, Guccis and Indian hawkers, Earl Grey and coconut water, and Sunday morning buffets and durian fruit stalls all coexist here. It’s artery, Nathan Road, is a never-ending flow of foreigners and developing-world migrants, each seeking something different in a city tinged with a drop of Asia.
After all, Hong Kong is as much Milan as it is Minsk.
After four amazing days in the Chinese capital Beijing, we left for Hong Kong via Shanghai. From the Tsim Sha Shui (TST) promenade facing south towards HK Island.
One of the last physical remnants of the Crown on the TST promenade
HK may not be my favorite place, but sunset produces one of the best views in the world
The HK version of Hollywood Boulevard; here is Jackie Chan's handprints.
Zoomed in on the eastern part of Hong Kong Island near the area called "North Point." So many Japanese companies!
Leaving the TST promenade at nightall, we head up Nathan Road, the main commercial artery of the district. Unlike Orchard Road in Singapore, Nathan is full of high-class Western stores as well as more traditional elements, from herbalists to durian vendors
Dried roots and seeds
Dried anchovies . Hong Kong uses its own currency, not the Chinese renminbi. HK$8 = USD$1
The next morning, we get up early for a long (and hot) day of exploring HK Island (in the distance)
In front of HK Island
A tribute to Hong Kong cinema, much of which is immensely popular in the PRC. Yay capitalism.
Boarding the Star Ferry to cross Victoria Harbour. This has to be the best cost-to-value ride of anywhere - HK$2 (25 cents in USD) for a boat ride across one of the most iconic places on the planet
Our incoming boat
From the ferry pier, we walked to the Peak Tram, the colonial cablecar that takes people up to the top of Victoria Peak
Hello colonialism - the St. James Cathedral
The view from the top of the Peak. HK is often considered the most vertical city in the world due to space constraints.
In the other direction, tankers from the Gulf wait
Lots and lots of boats waiting for port clearance
After the Peak, we took a cab to a town called Aberdeen on the south side of Hong Kong Island. The world's largest floating restaurant, the aptly-named Jumbo Restaurant, is here.
After lunch, we paid a boat-woman to take us around Aberdeen's infamous harbour, filled with traditional boat people live and work entirely on their ships
Amid the glass and steel, a glimmer of traditional HK life
Leaving Aberdeen, I noticed a sign for a tour guide...in Hebrew! !מתל–אביב...להונג–קונג
Back from HK Island, we seek out the Peninsula for the famous (and a necessary evil as a foreigner) tea time
We waited for about an hour - but the tea and snacks make it worthwhile
Later that night, a walk down busy Nathan Road to...
...the nightly laser show. The skyline of Hong Kong Island as viewed from the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade.
Blurry, but you can sort of see the lasers on the top of the buildings
The next day, we took a massive walking tour of the central and western parts of HK Island. In the Admiralty district, I was getting juice made from...
...rambutans (the "hairy fruit")
Up narrow streets
We found our way to a traditional dim sum house. With signs only in Cantonese, we were the only Westerners there. As ladies like this come by, you pick the dim sum you want its recorded on a card.
View of the busy restaurant
Off to find the snake store
Two young people came in while we were taking pictures. The man grabbed a snake from the wire cage, cut with a knife, and then drained some blood into a white fluid. The people drank it like a shot - nothing like warm snake blood!
All kinds of birds' nests
I love signs
Ambling to the western coast of Hong Kong Island
Used in Chinee traditional medicine; also sighted in Beijing
The famous Cat Street, a narrow alley in the SW part of HK Island that sells all sorts of knick-knacks and gaudy Chinese stuff. Apparently selling on the street in front of the actual stores is illegal - the police officers make the stall owners "shut down" but really it's just a coded message for "wait till I'm gone."
Hanging ornaments on Cat Street
Nearby is the Man Mo Temple. Man Tai and Mo Tai were gods thought to bestow academic prowess and were worshipped by students.
Circular incense on the roof
Pressing sugar cane into a drink (had some in Korea - it's good!)
Bamboo scaffolding doesn't seem too safe...
The world's longest escalator transits people who live in the Mid-Levels but work further down the slope
Signs from the escalator
The Yuen Po Bird Market, a place where local traders come to buy and sell songbirds, a symbol of luck in Chinese traditionalism
Crickets for sale
Lots for sale - where do they go at night?
Durians are known for their putrid odor (they are banned on the Singapore MRT!) but after having one as a pancake in Kuala Lumpur, they actually are pretty good
Fish, also a lucky animal, for sale at the Lei Yu Mun Fish Market
The next day, we went to Hong Kong's largest island, Lantau, to take the cable car to the world's largest Buddha
The wait for the car
The view of the airport from the ride up
The entire ride took about 30 minutes
A sign pointing to world monuments upon arriving at the top
View of the Buddha
In front of one of many statues encircling Buddha
The sun actually came out
Buddha's birthday was a few days before, so lots of incense sticks lay on the stone stairs and around these heavy torches
The nearby Po Lin Monastery
Inner circular door to the main complex
The shrine to Buddha
Praying to Buddha in the distance
Bye, Buddha! 再见！