It’s only been a few days into this year’s world trip and I am already behind on the note-taking…


Hong Kong!

Last time’s experience had been somewhat marred by my travel buddy screwing up with her flight, leaving me to go on my own at the last minute. This time around, I barely had enough time to get in touch with all the friends and acquaintances that happened to be there when I was.

I stayed with little brother #3, currently implementing the SE Asia part of our family world domination plot at HK University and proving a very competent guide despite only arriving 6 months before. Tending to his newfound Canadian roots, he was sharing with Chris, hockey-loving Vancouverite and all-around nice guy, a bachelor pad conveniently located in the middle of the dry market near the harbour on Hong Kong Island. The presence of the dry market meant a large population of cats, apparently living a symbiotic relation with the market people, wherein they’d leave the fish stalls alone and presumably keep other four-legged creatures away.

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The Markets

On both evenings, I sampled the variety of local street markets, most of which were nearly walking distance from my hotel in Kowloon. Fast, loud and overwhelming on all sides… In a word: awesome… Also very similar to markets anywhere else in the world. Though I spent a long while getting lost amidst the chaos, I didn’t buy a single item: having no use for chosen dog meat delicacies nor Louis Vuiton ripoffs on the cheap.

The Pit

I really wasn’t planning on hitting Hong Kong’s infamous expat ghetto, even less after Justine’s flaky friend in Hong Kong (with whom I was kinda supposed to hook up, never did, all for the better, most likely… friends of friends… remind me to write about the topic one day…), strongly urged me to go entertain myself there, touting it as “Hong Kong’s very own Roppongi”… Yea, that was a big selling point.

I knew exactly what to expect when on Friday evening I decided to go for a drink in Lan Kwai Fong: not feeling like hitting the sack at 11pm leaving me with few alternatives, by myself, in a city I knew nothing of… I certainly wasn’t let down in my expectations: while undeniably lively and more densely crowded than moribund Roppongi, it features the same congregation of sorry expat losers drowning their bitterness and the vacuousness of their life into whatever alcohol-laden cat piss they can get in a western-labeled bottle.

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Update: Added a few links to relevant flickr-hosted pics.

I’m back… and not even hangover… Must be all the chlorine in the water neutralizing the alcohol.

So, where were we?

Yes: The Sights. But before:

Alone in Hong Kong

I actually “visited” Hong Kong twice before. Mind the bold quotes here, as on both occasions, my visits were little more than short layovers spanning over a single night. Each time, I was taken care of, the moment I exited the airport: once by a friend who lived there, another time by the contact of a San Francisco friend who had arranged a sweet gig in passing, on my way to Thailand. Needless to say: all I saw of the city then, was a bunch of cool neon streets, glitzy lounge bars atop vertiginous buildings and semi-conscious rides back to the airport with the sun rising beautifully over the bay. Unfortunately (or perhaps not?) all those people have long left for greener pastures and, not expecting to arrive on my own, I had made no effort to look for HK-residing cicerones amidst my extended circle of acquaintances.

This is therefore my first real sightseeing trip to the city, and the first time admiring its lovely surroundings in broad daylight. Definitely worth it, if a bit regrettably lonely. On that note, I must say that even if I had many an interesting chats with locals and other visitors (mostly the latter, actually), HK definitely belongs to the category of destinations that are more fun doing with a travel buddy: unlike Tokyo for example, where most locals are willing, nearly eager, to establish contact with visitors and go out of their way, trying to get around the language barrier, Hongkongers appear much less inclined to mingle with the foreigners. I suppose it may have to do with the past few centuries of colonial entanglement, or maybe it’s just me. Don’t get me wrong I had a blast, but definitely felt like it could have been improved by some travelling company. And do not cite expat bars as proof that a single guy can have his fun in this city too (we’ll come to this later).

The Sights (cont.)

Yesterday, after Po Lin, I did the quintessential tram ride to the Peak. Took it around 5:30 and thus managed to catch both a cloudy sunset and a much more impressive view of the whole city by night. I had gotten a return ticket, but the weather being very mild, I walked my way down, catching many nice sights along the way.

As an aside: I said I was surprised at how uncrowded both places where yesterday (I didn’t even have to line to get on the tram, despite supposedly boarding around peak hour): when I went by the tram this afternoon on my way to the park, it was way, way more crowded… Apparently, half of China come spend their week-ends there or something. In any case, beats me why any foreigner wouldn’t want to do that stuff on a weekday, when there’s nobody around.

The Food

Following Jonathan‘s recommendation, I checked out Very Good Rest (or more exactly: 極之好… As I’m not even sure I saw the Anglicized name anywhere): very good indeed, if a bit rough in the service, which I guess is just me needing to get over my Tokyo habits. Beware though: if you do not speak the local idiom, expect to choose from one of the five pictures available amidst a sea of hanzis. Being the adventurous one, I disdainfully ignored the pretty pictures, and went for something that my ever useful semi-reading skills told me contained beef, veggies, sweet and sour… Since the noodles didn’t have that tangy taste so characteristic of dog meat, I suppose I must have had it right…

Before and after my dinner break, I wandered around aimlessly through Mon Kok markets, not really about to buy any more crap at the moment (having just trashed a dozen metric cubes of it) but nonetheless enjoying the ambiance very much, as well as the many many “hourly hotels” scattered through the neighbourhood, equally sharing in the unintentionally ironic names (Hotel Virginia anyone?)…

Boarding is about to end and I’d hate to miss that one, so I’ll keep my adventures in Hong Kong’s very own armpit of Lon Kwai Fong for tomorrow.

All right: it’s late and I’m more than a bit drunk. I have very little to say, and a computer to help me do it.
I’m told this is exactly what blogging is about, so here goes.

The language

You know, for a guy who prides himself in being quite the world-traveler sort, I must admit I arrived here shamefully unprepared. As it turns out, it seems the whole extent of my Cantonese vocabulary is approximately two words, which is even less than what I knew of Japanese before arriving there, and basically not even enough to say thank you at the store without resorting to imperialistic idioms. Furthermore, whatever small remnants of my stays in mainland China I may have (essentially: numbers from one to twelve and ways to order drinks, thanks to endless nights spent playing dice at Xiandu’s one and only world-class nightclub) may as well be Russian for all they care: Cantonese and Mandarin have indeed nothing in common.

The cool part of it all, is the writing… and the realization that my kanji skills are not as bad as I thought they were. Even a very puny reader of Japanese like myself is able to decipher a rough 30% of all public writings (signs, menus etc.) and, when times really call for it, push across to the local a few semantics of my own. You should have seen me and how incredibly proud of myself I was, when I managed to get shown the direction of the bay (wherein my hotel lies), after scribbling the kanjis for “sea” and “coast” to some incredulous local merchants…

My brightest idea of the week undeniably came yesterday, when I opted to pack my old Japanese keitai with me (usually serves as a back-up camera and optional Japanese vocabulary helper for my daily manga reading): made the writing (i.e. “speaking”) part that much easier, especially for somebody like me with more than approximative kanji handwriting skills… Definitely a weird feeling (and not only for me), but utterly rewarding nonetheless.

The sights

Following Jonathan‘s great advice (he should be a freelance guide in Hong Kong: he definitely has the skills for it), I went and did a quick roundup of the typical touristy stuff there is to do in Hong Kong. Still, either because of the season or the day, most of the places I went to weren’t that crowded. Fairly quiet, even, in the case of the Big Buddha in Po Lin… Which made it all the more enjoyable.

Must be the Tokyoite in me talking, but I was amazed at how much real natural landscape there is in HK. As soon as you leave the city itself, it seems quite common to spot entire hills devoid of any construction or pristine beaches on the side of the road… Definitely not something you’d see in Tokyo and its surrounding. Of course, Tokyo’s got its parks, but being able to go to a real beach in HK, in less than it would take you to go to Yokohama from Shinjuku, makes it an incredibly cool place in my book.

On the other hand, the fact that the whole place seems perpetually shrouded in a veil of smog that makes Tokyo look like a febreeze commercial in comparison, is a serious downside… How is it possible to keep that much dioxydes when you are surrounded by water on all sides?…

OK. The rest tomorrow, as I am starting to fall asleep on my keyboard, usually the time where I start repeating myself to no end… Did I tell you about kanjis and Cantonese?

A few words before I go lay down with a cold towel over my head…

I’m well and safe in Hong-Kong.

On the other hand, topping a long series of inauspicious events, Justine missed her plane and probably won’t be able to meet me here at all, which implies a heavy rewriting of my next two days’ schedule. I guess there will be much less drinking and much more touristy crap.

Other than that, I can’t say I missed being in a city where every single word of the local language sounds like complete gibberish to me. Of course, I seem to be able to decipher most street signs and other familiar kanjis, but that’s very little help when dealing with a cab driver who doesn’t seem to have the faintest idea where my hotel’s street is and insists on addressing me in his local idiom (ostensibly because his english skills themselves are limited to “English… no…”). Anyway, I finally made it to the somewhat mediocre hotel we had managed to book before leaving (the previous episode in The Hong-Kong Curse series, being Jus’ friend rescinding her lodging offer, two days before arrival).

I guess the next step is to figure where exactly I am on a map and try to make use of my solo time here. But first I got to sleep off that headache before the gerbil digging through my brain finally makes his way out.