Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Last stop (in Asia): Hong Kong

Our last stop in Asia [sad face] was Hong Kong. We nearly didn't make it because, although we got to Manilla airport earlier than had been recommended, there was a queue for immigration which snaked through half of the airport and took 90 minutes to get through. If only there had been some sort of way for them to know how many people would be boarding planes at what times and staff the airport accordingly! Fortunately the plane was delayed to give everyone time to board, and the rest of the journey was problem free.

Our first taste of Hong Kong came from the bus from the airport. The multitude of skyscrapers on display was great, but I was most impressed by the high-tech bus that gave a sort of tour guide, announced each stop and stated which sights/hotel were near to each stop. We had decided to stay on the Kowloon Peninsular rather than Hong Kong island itself. For the first night we stayed in a pretty fancy hotel complete with a bathroom, mini-bar, overpriced nuts and other luxuries the likes of which we had not seen for months.

The following day usual service was resumed as we relocated to a tiny room without a bathroom that was more reasonably priced, and actually much better located as it was within walking distance of the harbour.  After checking in (and changing rooms after finding signs of bed-bugs) we took a stroll around Kowloon, which mostly consists of extremely high-end shops. At first it was quite good fun gawping through the window of the likes of Gucci, Prada and luxury watch and jewellery shops, but there is only so long one can window shop at places at which one will never be able to afford anything.

More interesting was the harbour and the famous Hong Kong skyline. It's easy to see why the skyline of Hong Kong island is so often preceded by the word 'famous” because it's rare for such a major city's skyline to be so easily visible without going to a viewing platform on top of a high tower. The other remarkable thing about the Hong Kong skyline is that behind the impressive tower blocks at the edge of the island is a sizable mountain covered with green trees. In fact, only 25% of Hong Kong is actually developed which gives it a rather odd mixture of some of the most densely populated and valuable real estate in the world right next to beautiful green slopes and a number of beaches.

I must admit that we didn't really make the most of Hong Kong. There is loads to do and see, but there was a definite air of lethargy about us. After 6 months of moving from place to place and trying to fit in as much as we could in each place, as well as the constant planning and organising that is necessary for that to happen, neither of us really wanted to make the effort to plan activities in our final Asian destination. As a result, we spent much of the following day wandering around the streets of Kowloon rather aimlessly. Now I like an aimless wander as much as the next man, but coming at the end of such a fantastic trip Hong Kong just lacked something to make it exciting. This certainly says more about us than it does about Hong Kong though, and anywhere with a Peanuts Cafe is ok in my book.

The day wasn't wasted though, as I did manage to trawl through a few of the numerous tailors in Kowloon and place an order for a tailored suit. I do intend to return to working at some point in the future! We did have plans to get lots of tailored clothes made in H.K. but it was actually much more expensive than we had anticipated so I ended up just buying one suit. I also checked out the notorious Chungking Mansions – a series of dilapidated former apartment complexes which are now home to the cheapest (and dirtiest) hotels in H.K. and just about any type of business you can think of, both legal and illegal. It definitely did have an elicit feel to it but it was a bit disappointing to be honest – although I expect that all the exciting stuff goes on behind closed doors. The most interesting thing about Chungking Mansions as far as I was concerned is how they somehow sit in such close proximity to the luxurious shops and hotels that surround them; fake watches being sold right next door to the real thing.

It hadn't felt like the most fun or exciting of days, but it was saved by a last-minute decision to take the ferry across to the island that evening. The views of the city from the ferry crossing were great, and it felt good to have a sense of purpose. We couldn't spend much time on the island that evening, but we did have time to enjoy the efficiency of the elevated walkways that can be used to walk around a large part of the city, the close-up views of the architecture, and some fantastic food before catching the last ferry back to Kowloon.

The following day we headed back to Hong Kong Island and after a lengthy queue took the a tram up to one of the highest points on the island to enjoy the fantastic views. It really is quite bizarre to see areas of natural beauty right next to densely packed office blocks.

We also bumped into a familiar face up there.

After enjoying the fresh air and scenery we headed back down and wandered around the city streets for a while, checking out the architecture in daylight.


We also took a stroll through one of Hong Kong's many urban parks which included an impressive aviary. I do have to hand it to the Hong Kong authorities – the land on Hong Kong Island is so valuable that it must be extremely tempting to sell it off to the highest bidder, and yet this has been resisted to ensure that there are plenty of open areas throughout the city. In fact 40% of the island is protected as country parks and nature reserves. This, combined with the elevated walkways, give Hong Kong a much more spacious feel than I was expecting. Unfortunately we couldn't stay on the island for the evening as I had to get back to Kowloon for a suit fitting.

Monique may have been disappointed to find tailored clothes to be more expensive than expected in H.K. (and to be honest the tailors were firmly geared towards male customers) but she did manage to find some affordable shopping before we left. We took the subway inland to the area of Kowloon that is renowned for its fabric. Although we arrived to find that most of the shops and stalls were closed for the day due to a national holiday of some sort, Monique still managed to find some great fabric and buttons which she will turn into tailored clothing by her own fair hand. I'm sure that whatever Monique makes will be extra special to her due to where the fabric came from.

Hong Kong was an enjoyable enough stay, albeit far from a highlight of our trip. It is certainly an interesting place with a mixture of high-rise office blocks, high-end shopping, open space, and downright dodgy apartment blocks all thrown together in a small area. It would undoubtedly be a great place to visit for someone with money to splash around, but even then I don't think it would justify visiting H.K. in isolation. Like Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, Hong Kong would be a good place to spend a couple of days en route to somewhere else in Asia, but for us at the tail-end of our trip it felt a bit too tame but without some of the comforts that we were looking forward to getting back to. Maybe if it had been our first port of call we would have found H.K. to be a hectic city full of interesting sights, sounds and smells, but after seeing everything that we have seen on this tip those sort of sights, sounds and smells had become a bit...normal.

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