Saturday, 16 November 2013

Hong Kong: Escalators

Before I relay all the details of my adventures in Hong Kong - the sights, the places, and the food - I need to tell you about my quest to reach my hotel. Because when you suffer from topographical disorientation, every mundane journey becomes a riveting experience.

Arriving in Hong Kong: So Far So Good...

As mentioned in a previous post, I am slightly apprehensive at the prospect of trusting a random stranger with my life, and therefore prefer to walk or take the metro whenever I arrive in a new city. 
Before reaching Hong Kong, I had carefully planned out my route: I would take the metro from Mong Kok to Yau Ma Tei station and onward to Central station, where after I would walk the 3 km to my hotel on Hong Kong Island.

Hong Kong Metro Map

But upon arriving in Hong Kong, I made 3 fatal errors, in alarmingly quick succession:

1. Deviating from The Plan

After a late afternoon meeting in Mong Kok, I allowed myself to be talked into taking a taxi to Hong Kong Island. In peak hour traffic. 
It was mentioned, as an after-thought, that the taxis might not be going from Kowloon (where I was) to Hong Kong Island (where I needed to be, preferably before dark), but that I would quite likely find my way since I was resourceful, wasn't I? (Wait... what?!)

Peak-Hour Panic

After waiting in line with approximately 134 people for an equally unbelievable duration, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that no taxi in Kowloon would be going to Hong Kong Island at that hour. I was, however, welcome to wait until midnight, when all taxis would be making their way back to Hong Kong Island for the last journey of the day.

Hong Kong Taxis

And so, viciously angry at myself for deviating from The Plan, I headed to the Mong Kok station. By then my heavy suitcase and I were in the midst of full-on Hong Kong Friday afternoon peak-hour traffic. It felt like all 7 million locals were out on the sweltering streets of Mong Kong, with the single aim of trying to run me over. 
They mostly succeeded too.

Mong Kok Madness

2. Underestimating the Distance

By the time I had made it to Central station, night had fallen. I was tired from walking, shoving and dragging my suitcase. And I still had 3 km to go. Even so, thought I would easily walk (or perhaps even skip) the last 3 km. I had, after all, run distances of 3 km x 7 numerous times before. No sweat.

Jogging 3 km in the cool of the day with shorts and state-of-the-art Asics, is something completely different to walking 3km, in 30 degree C heat, in a skirt and high heels, while dragging a by-then enormous, humongous suitcase. 
It. Was. Torture.
It did not help that my suitcase and I had to cross numerous streets bursting with foreigners in the Lan Kwai Fon area, all smartly dressed for after-work drinks and a night out on the town.

No-So-Happy Hour

3. Outsmarting Googlemaps

Through all the shoving and dragging, I had noticed that Googlemaps was directing me along a certain, longer path up the hill but I kept to (very steep) side streets in the hope of reaching my hotel sooner. 
No such luck. 
Eventually, halfway up a dangerously steep path, I stopped and threw my hands up in despair. 
And that was when I saw it: The world's longest, covered outdoor escalator system, beckoning from right above my head.

Before: Struggling Up Steep Streets

After: Escalating with Ease

If a first-time visitor were to ask me what to do in Hong Kong, I would say: "Look up!"
This seemingly inconspicuous act would make your introduction to Hong Kong much more pleasant than, although definitely not as memorable as, mine. 

Above Board: Hong Kong Walkways Throughout the City

Friday, 1 November 2013

Hong Kong: The Difference

When I told my South African friends that I planned on travelling the 40 km from Shenzhen in Mainland China to visit Hong Kong, they often replied in puzzled tones: "But, isn't Hong Kong in China?"
Or they would smile and nod excitedly, which either meant they were cognisant of the big difference between Hong Kong and the rest of China, or that they had no idea where Hong Kong was.

Either way, I do not blame them at all. 
Hong Kong is an interesting city indeed.

Hong Kong

During World War II Hong Kong was occupied by Japan, but was liberated by Chinese and British troops in 1945. For fourty-seven years, from 1950 to 1997, Hong Kong with it's 600 000 post-war inhabitants remained under British rule. An influx of people followed suit due to the manufacturing trade and high-rise buildings emerged to house the growing number of people. In 1997 the city was handed back to China under the "One country, two systems" principle and is therefore a city within China, but very different from mainland China.

Today, this city of 1100 km2 is home to 7 million people - it's smaller than Johannesburg's 1600 km2, but with twice as many inhabitants.

Busy Bodies

So, what is the difference between Hong Kong and China?
Here are a few I have come across in my brief visit to the city - some are evident, cannot-be-overlooked, in-your-face differences. Others are more subtle.

Crossing Over

  • Visa requirements: South Africans don't need a visa to visit Hong Kong, but they do for (mainland) China. Crossing the border entails filling in forms, standing in a queue, getting your passport stamped, etc., etc. In other words, it is much easier to travel from Paris to the Netherlands than to travel from China to Hong Kong.
  • Currencies: The currency in Hong Kong is Hong Kong Dollar, while in China it is Chinese Renminbi (Yuan). Neither "foreign" currency will be accepted once you cross the border. Yes, I have tried in vain.
  • Traffic regulations: In China you drive on the right. In Hong Kong, on the left. If you have requested a taxi to take you from China to Hong Kong, the driver's steering wheel will be on the right, which means in China the driver will drive on the right side of the road from the wrong side of the car. Luckily, as soon as you cross the border to Hong Kong, the driver will find himself on the left side of the road and therefore on the right side of the car again. Yes, it is as confusing as it sounds.
  • Language: In China everyone (except me, it seems) speaks Mandarin. In Hong Kong, the native tongue is Cantonese and (happy days!) most people can speak and understand English.
  • Legal System: Regulations from the number of children you are allowed to have (one in China and unrestricted in Hong Kong) to the number of Facebook friends (none in China due to the Great Firewall and unrestricted in Hong Kong), and anything in-between changes as soon as you cross the China-Hong Kong border.

Look Right

I found this BBC article very interesting as it mirrored many of my at-first-glance experiences.

When speaking to Hong Kong locals, many of them view Hong Kong as culturally different from mainland China, as explained in this video:

As for me, the more different the places that I get to visit on my journeys, the happier I am. 
Therefore I am looking forward to further exploring this city in, but different from, China.

Sparkling Skyline