Sunday, August 5, 2012

A little bit of paradise in Hong Kong


Hong Kong was never on my destination list. I found myself in a situation where if I wanted to visit China the only way of getting a visa was returning home or stopping by Hong Kong. Before coming to Hong Kong I thought it was just a huge city built for business that was a claustrophobic over 2000 times more population dense than my home country, Australia. But upon arriving I came to realise that Hong Kong has so much more to see than stressed looking business men in the latest fashionable suits.

I spent my first night in glamorous Hong Kong in the airport. After a long 15 and a half trip to HK from Seoul, stopping over in Beijing for 8 hours with an additional 3 hour flight delay, where they lost my backpack, and I accidentally fell asleep almost missing my second flight I had arrived, finally, not having a bed for the past two nights and only having eaten plane food. I had arranged to stay at a couch surfer's place but as it was very early in the morning (2am) I opted to sleep uncomfortably between two metal seats in the airport, and make my way to his place the next day at a more suitable time.

For those who dont know couch surfing is a fantastic online community of like-minded tavelers who either offer their couch, offer a tour of the city or are there just for you to see a smiling face and have a nice conversation. This is fantastic in a new city, as you can really mix with the locals and learn more about the culture and the city from the experts themselves.

I was lucky enough to stay on a local's couch (well actually I had my own room) out in New Territories area. This was a bus and three train rides away from the city centre and was a great way to see the local life. It is amazing just how big HK really is and by staying out in New Territories you are able to see a more humble side of Hongkong away from the shadowing skyscrapper business buildings and flashy malls. English in the outskirts was rare, but people were always willing to help. At least three times I made the long trip into the city center different people escorted me from train station to bus stop making sure I knew exactly where I was going. People were curious as I definately stood out as one of the only foreigners around, but were really friendly and always willing to return a smile.

I stayed out in New Territories in my host's house for a week and then did a little painting on his wall to show my appreciation.




I originally thought that I would only need one week in HK to get my Chinese visa from the embassy, but my week soon turned into almost a month. After picking up my passport and getting ready to head off to China, I found out that the Russian visa requirements had changed. You were only allowed to apply for a Russian visa in your home country, but there was a slight chance that out of all the countries in the world Hong Kong may be the only other alternative. So it was from one embassy to the other, but this time the Russian visa took over 2 weeks for them to process. But good things come to those who wait.

And wait I did, occupying my time mostly on various beaches around the islands, celebrating their national day on the first of July with fireworks and watching the huge masses of people, estimated at 400,000 take to the streets protesting about the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor as well as showing their concern about the new hand over to the Chief Minister where the local Hong Kongers believe that he has conflicts of interest between them and the Chinese government as he has strong ties with the Chinese Communist government. The protests were massive and went all day, wit the most people I have ever seen in my life, all holding colourful banners and making lots of noise. Unfortunately there have been rumours that a few mainland China citizens who were involved in the protests have since disappeared since returning back home. (Here is more information about the protests.) Of course I also spent the rest of my time checking out the nighttime scene in Lan Kwai Fong (also known as LKF) or visiting the world's highest bar in the world, Ozone bar.

Hong Kong has this pulse through the whole city that doesnt sleep at night. And beware Hong Kong's energy is addictive leaving you to backup countless sleepless nights exploring the city's nightlife taking you a few days to realise why you are so tired. Similar to Seoul and Tokyo every subway station brings you into another world of Hong Kong showing you things you have never seen before, new subcultures, when you can spend at least a day at each station and not have completely devoured all it has to offer. Some stations take you right into the heart of the hongkong business district making you feel small and insignificant compared to the towering buildings over your head, as you dodge the important looking business men and women rushing to their next meeting or quick stand up noodle bar for their quick 15 minute break of the day.

Five stops away even before you step out of the station your nose immediately detects the environment you are about to enter with fishy smells and raw meat making your stomach turn as you enter the local markets were almost everything you could imagine is available. You enter a world full of live chickens, frogs, snakes, turtles, eels and fish flying all over the place where you delicately have to avoid flying fish trying to escape or pools of animal blood and gizzards. No wonder the local buses there have signs saying "no live animals on local buses." Then you turn the corner and the scene that looks like part of the movie Saw, soon bursts with colour and sweet aromas as you enter the florist section. And if the animal parts didnt turn you off eating (or turn you vegetarian for that matter) you enter the food court where you can try any of the delicacies you saw downstairs such as turtle, chicken gizzards, noodles with liver, shark fins, birds nests, mutton curry (delicious!) and more. 



The next subway stop takes you to a culturally rich temple right in the heart of Hong Kong city. Entering this temple is immediately relaxing and refreshing almost as if you had forgotten to take a breath since you arrived in HK. The area is silent, yet when you look up from the garden you are surrounded by skyscrappers all peeping into this secret garden oasis. It is like the garden isbeing boxed in literally, with 30 cranes all threatening more buildings to come. Its a pretty good reminder of how Hong Kong may have once been before urbanisation.

A few subway stops along you travel underwater and are transported to the next island across, with a more laid back feel and plenty more beaches to waste away lazy days getting a nice tan (or burn in my case).



 Hong Kong almost seems like the perfect place to live. Plenty of money coming in, jobs available, cheap food, a clean and bustling city, awesome public transport, yet if you need to get away from it all its only a 40 minute ride out of town to the New Territories area, Lamma Island, Hong Kong island beaches or even beaches on Lantau Island. Paradise. Infact 80% of Hong Kong is natural mountains, tropical forests and pristine beaches waiting to be explored.

When I escaped Hong Kong city I was transported almost into another country. 100 story skyscrapers were replaced by beautiful green rolling hills, beaches good enough to rival those of South East Asia, small fishing villages, amazing local seafood and a general easy going island-esk attitude where they arent controlled by time and deadlines, they wake with the sunrise.
 I had found my paradise one train two buses and two hours of trekking from central Hong Kong. 

 
Four others and myself followed this treasure-map like set of directions to this oasis. After the bus rides and tiring hike we emerged into this amazing bay almost like the once from the movie "The Beach". Paradise. So we hitched a tent, had a bonfire with some locals, filled up on some awesome seafood, did some fire twirling and swam to our hearts content before catching a local boat back to the main area.

Just from stepping onto the public transport you get a good indication of just how populated Hong Kong is. The buses and trams are two story to accommodate for the demand as one third of Hong Kong's residents (or Hongkongers as I have heard them being called) catch public transport every day, that makes it almost 2 and a half million utilising the public transport system everyday! Even the airport is a good indicator of the huge population as it has been built just off Lantau Island on reclaimed land, its almost as if they are preparing to run out of space. And its not just the airport that has been built on reclaimed land either, lots of central hong kong area around the main harbour keeps expanding and expanding with more harbour space being sacrificed for the new sky scrapper buildings to take their place. Here is more information.



 
The currency in Hong Kong is odd. For example at one time I had five $20hkd notes, all were different. The notes are all bank issued so some are from HSBC and others are from other issuing banks, almost like free advertisements for the bank. All depending on which ATM you use of what note change you get handed back all determine which lucky note you get. Occasionally seeing the Queen's head stamped on the back of a coin was one of the only reminders I saw that it was once in fact part of the British Colony, before being handed over to China in 1997.



Sorry to disappoint, but I lost my laptop in China and therefore all my photos of Hong Kong. Instead I have included photos from various sources on the internet.

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