I can't complain about my life in the last week. I admit, I was very resistant to go to Hong Kong because I was nervous-- I didn't like the idea of screwing up at the mainland Chinese border, becoming lost in unknown territory, the potential of having my visa rejected then flying home...
But actually, the trip to Hong Kong could not have gone better. My main stresses were financing the trip and making sure I did not lose myself. Tuesday night I haphazardly planned a flight to Shenzhen (much with the help of my parents across the world coordinating and making flustered calls with the credit card company) and rounded up my luggage from Peter's apartment (I brought as much as possible, in the event I couldn't come back to China). Fortunately, Peter has done the Hong Kong visa run by crossing the border at Shenzhen before, and wrote me the most explicit directions possible! On Wednesday, my flight took off late due to smog though three hours later I was in Shenzhen. From there I rode the metro line across the city (maybe I'll be back one day, it seems pretty nice) and then arrived at the edge of what is considered Mainland China territory. In a very antic-climatic fashion, I strolled across a river on a glass land bridge and found myself in line at immigration for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR).
That sweet SAR connotation is why I could apply for a new Chinese visa but in the eyes of many, not actually leave China. No problems there; and that's the second border I've crossed on foot (U.S.-Canada at Niagara Falls being the other)! At around 9 PM, many metro stops later and with new currency, I rolled into Hong Kong Island.
Narrow streets and neck-craning buildings, with trolleys and buses to match.
View of Kowloon across Victoria Harbor.
Arriving at Causeway Bay in Hong Kong was an initial shock. Obviously it makes sense that on a mountain-filled island there is minimal space to expand, but I was shocked at the density of the city! The buildings towered, but the greatest impact came from the narrow, single and double lane streets, still teeming with people. My next impression: Shanghai meets New York City. I’m not sure how to describe the atmosphere, but Hong Kong really has it together. The city is distinctly Chinese, but it is wholly different from cities, people, and culture in Mainland China. Perhaps it’s due to the heavy colonial influence and long history of international exposure; pulsating lights, transnational corporations, federal architecture, western systems of finance and governing institutions, English street names, and British accents all pervade the cityscape. Despite the high number of people, there isn't that panicked sensation of fighting for your life in every crowded situation, like I consistently face in Shanghai and Beijing. In fact, not only does the metro not have security scanners and guards, but passengers also wait for each other to ascend and descend the cars!!
At the same time, between the reflective skyscrapers there were characteristic alleyways, loose cables, merchant motorcycles, and rowdy, side street markets. What really threw me off was the usage of traditional Chinese characters (as opposed to simplified that the Mainland has adopted) and Cantonese; if not for the Hong Kongers comprehension of English, I would have been much more helpless! I don’t consider myself a supporter of the colonial system, but it certainly has left Hong Kong in an unique situation. And, it came with Portuguese egg tarts (you can find these all over Shanghai and it was a thrill to finally taste a few from their origin) ;).
There was so much to take it. Once I gave up on trying to acclimate to the humidity (though not quite as oppressive as Thailand’s climate), I really embraced this shining, global port.
I stayed at a very centrally located hostel the first night, then dragged myself to the Entry & Exit Bureau the next morning. I was out of there by 9:30, absolutely relieved to be clutching a receipt for a tourist visa that could be picked up the next morning for 1400 HK dollars (180 USD). I was extremely lucky, because the process for my other two Shanghai classmates didn’t go as smoothly. They’re back in China at this point, but they had to return to the consulate more than once because their applications were rejected or missing materials. I drifted around the city a bit and wandered through this market.
Live seafood is always particular to a seaside city, and there were definitely a few species I didn't recognize (or would know how to consume).
In my 48-hour Hong Kong stay, I was able to do all the ‘Victoria’ sightseeing: Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island and Kowloon (but I was sadly two weeks late to see ‘s giant duck); the tram up to Victoria Peak; and a stroll through Victoria Park.
Hong Kong has a spectacular, glimmering skyline from both sides. The tram that ascends Victoria Peak has been around for over a century and costs less than 5 USD. I bustled with the crowds a bit in the sky mall, but what really made it worthwhile were the walks outside. There’s a lush trail that wraps for several kilometers around the peak, which I didn't take, but I did tackle the steep road that leads to the Victoria Peak Garden. Most tourists don't care to wander this way, and I simply reveled in the solitude of swirling mists and a beautifully kept garden with ornate, iron gazebos.
I was kicking myself for only bringing my iPhone that afternoon..
I guess some days Hong Kong also has bad air quality, so I felt lucky amongst the billowing clouds and cerulean waters.
The sky mall protruding from the mountains.
Mists blowing in and out from the south side of the island.
That night, I met up with an ultimate frisbee player who’s been a Hong Kong transplant for a few years now. Cal lives in Kowloon , deemed the “real” Hong Kong, and it was really enjoyable to have a host show me the city a bit more with such enthusiasm. We were able to go into the matter of colonialism, what the ex-pat scene is like, the merits of the frisbee community, the experience of growing up in the U.S. with a Chinese household, and how to mediate relationships with those back in the States. He let me crash on his couch that night, and I had the pleasure of waking up to spectacular views of the northern side of Kowloon that rises into the mountains. The cost of living here is a bit more than I’m used to, but I had fantastic meals that included traditional Yunnan noodles, Cantonese dim sum, Vietnamese Pho, and Hong Kong wonton soup.
Victoria Garden at Causeway Bay, which was full of tropical foliage, a huge field, jogging tracks, playgrounds, plenty of benches and a public swimming pool.
Above and below: some views from Cal's apartment. Not bad, right?!
The Avenue of the Stars promenade on Kowloon.
I picked up my visa Friday morning then returned to Kowloon to stroll the harbor on Avenue of the Stars. It’s like their version of Hollywood, complete with star tiles of famous Chinese actors. I tried meeting up with one of my Shanghai friends who came to the city for the same visa purpose, but our schedules didn’t quite align because I had to catch my train. The trains from Hong Kong to Beijing only run every other day, so I figured it would be best to return home to start the work week on time. And yup, I ended up riding the rails for nearly 24 hours across 1,225 miles of China.
The experience was so worth it; I bought a hard sleeper middle bunk for less than 80 USD (versus a plane ticket in the $300 range), slept for half the ride, wrote and watched movies on my laptop the other. My other compartment mates were very kind, and I also made friends with a Beijing native who just graduated from her master’s program in Hong Kong. The only issue was the sour smokiness of the car the next morning. If you don’t mind a distinct lack of privacy and a bit of noise, then trains are definitely the most efficient mode of transportation; I’ll always appreciate rolling across the countryside.
So I’m back in China again, with only 27 out of 30 days remaining on my tourist visa. I decided that it will be best to return to the U.S. at the end of the month, because with China constantly revising their immigration laws, I am exhausted with the visa procedures.
It is actually absurd how much pollution effects daily life. After Beijing faced atrocious levels the last several days-- with Friday and the weekend in AQI 400+ levels -- it downpoured last night. The humidity is still pretty high but coupled with a breeze, the smog has been temporarily washed away and life today has been simply beautiful.
I'm currently on the rooftop of Peking Cafe, one of the several bars on Nanluoguxiang. This street, only a few kilometers long, is a sort of hipster revival of Beijing's hutongs. It's a tourist hotspot, cluttered with food vendors, craft and jewelry vendors, curio shops, western-style bars, cafes, boutiques, and many wide-eyed visitors visiting Beijing. I by no means have settled into that comfortable ‘resident’ status yet, but as I weave between sight-seers and settle into hideaways with my laptop, I’m satisfied to consider this another home.
Having an official departure makes everything so real again, so I have to make the most of these next four weeks in China. The sun starts rising at 4:15 AM and doesn't wane until 8 PM. Who knows, I may even go for a run tonight! Also: oh my god, it’s July.
Listening: the rooftop garden jams (featuring everything from Bob Marley, to Ellie Goulding, and fusion jazz) of Peking Cafe on Nanluoguxiang (南锣鼓巷)