March 2, 2013 by travelinggrits
Prior to my journey to South Korea, I thought I had a general aversion to large cities. I was raised in a town with barely 18,000 residents. On a visit to Atlanta during college, I was swept up in morning rush hour traffic and got lost for over an hour; I was glad to retreat back to the moderate pace of the University of South Carolina campus after the weekend was over. I chose to spend my summers as a counselor for an outdoor adventure camp nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, and free weekends were generally spent seeking opportunities to commune with fresh air and green trees near the Riverwalk.
Perhaps I have no desire to live in a city long-term, but I seem to gravitate to these places for my vacations. The draw might be the easy access to a variety of attractions and activities, the convenience of public transportation or the ability to enjoy the “wow factor” without getting dragged down by the mundanity of day-to-day life in the masses.
And as I stepped onto Hong Kong’s Avenue of Stars running alongside Victoria Harbor, I felt this “wow factor.”
Every night, Hong Kong’s skyline lights up with a laser show; many of the prominent skyscrapers blink and blush with neon in sync with peppy electronic music. On our evening in Hong Kong, we stood waterside and gaped at this Symphony of Lights.
Hong Kong is a cross between Seoul and London. The pockets of street markets hawking cheap goods and cramped side-street restaurants serving local fare are Chinese versions of those hidden in Seoul. But there is a bell tower near the Harbor reminiscent of Big Ben, and the subways sternly instruct you to “mind the gap” exactly as they do in London. Hong Kong may be a mixture of Chinese and British culture, but it definitely asserts its own character and history. The Avenue of Stars, Hong Kong’s equivalent of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, pays tribute to its own celebrities, complete with a bronze statue of Bruce Lee.
Hong Kong also has my favorite public transportation system. Not only does it include the usual bus and subway, but also ferries across the harbor and leisurely rides on electric streetcars. Did I mention that this city also has the longest series of escalators in the world?
I find it amusing that I unintentionally selected to photograph a streetcar with a SPAM advertisement.
Day two, we headed to the Hong Kong Museum of History, which was a worthwhile lesson about where Hong Kong has been and how it got to where it is now. Before, I never fully understood the Opium Wars or what led to Hong Kong’s development as a manufacturing center, and I didn’t remember that the Japanese began occupation of Hong Kong the day after Pearl Harbor. I appreciated having this perspective in mind as we hit the streets again.
In a guidebook, I had read about a cha chaan teng (traditional tea restaurant) well reputed for chicken pies and milk tea. The Brits left behind their tea tradition, but Hong Kong transformed it: order a milk tea, and you get a hot brew of black tea strong enough to give you a caffeine buzz with one sip and clouded with a dash of evaporated milk. We hunted up and down side streets until we found the small establishment. After waiting in line outside the door, we crammed into a two-person booth with a Chinese couple who had to help us order since we couldn’t read the characters. I was in the thick of it, and I was loving every minute.
Later, we took a back-breakingly steep tram up the side of the mountain to Victoria’s Peak, where we watched the laser show from another angle. Perhaps the only thing that could take the shine off Hong Kong (and Macau, for that matter) was the haze hanging over the city day and night, an unfortunate harbinger of ubiquitous air pollution.
My home church in America sponsors a missionary couple living in Hong Kong, and, as luck would have it, a last-minute email found that they were available to meet the following morning. I maneuvered the subway system with ease to reach our meeting spot, and from there they took me to a Cantonese Lutheran service held in high-rise apartment complex. I was warmly welcomed there, and although I didn’t know a spot of Chinese, I did learn one word as we shook hands and shared greetings during the service: “pingan,” the word for peace. The experience reminded me that it is always refreshing to take part in communities of faith, no matter where they are or what language they are using to share the word.
The missionaries and I shared a delicious lunch of dim sum, the Chinese version of tapas (small plates). I tried jellyfish, and it wasn’t half bad! We parted ways, and my traveling companion and I spent the rest of the afternoon on a journey to Lantau Island, where we floated up and over the mountains via cable car to reach the Tien Tan Buddha just in time for sunset.
We hit the Hong Kong highlights and saw the best the city had to offer. Although I checked everything off my list, my honeymoon phase hasn’t ended – a return ticket might be in my future. I feel a little traitorous to Seoul, but thanks to the lights, nice visuals and storyline, Hong Kong is this year’s blockbuster.
Next up – Suvarnabhumi. No, I didn’t just sneeze – that’s where I’m going! It’s the Land of a Million Rice Fields, but I don’t think I counted that many. Although I did see elephants and tigers – oh my!