A Tale of Two Cities: Hong Kong & Beijing (Part I)

7:56 PM Jmo 0 Comments

This was the third big trip for Kate and I. We've broadened our worldly minds twice before in Thailand and Cambodia and once more this past August in Australia. As mentioned prior, we are completely in-sync travel mates and I would be hard pressed to find anyone better. Every stress turns into a laugh (or chocolate bender) and every doubt seems to work its way out, one way or another.
Just like our trips previous, the idea of China started off with a "How about?" and a "Sure, why not." as a reply. And the rest was online booking history until Kate arrived back in Korea a week before our trip. It was just like old times and everyone agreed, including her, that it felt like she never left. Welcome back to the land of kimchi, Kate. We've missed you.

Pre-trip Presumptions and Stereotypes: Presumptively, the word "China" may conjure up images of moo shu pork take-out boxes, Olympic opening ceremonies, smokestacks, and flags of red. I must say that my American mind wasn't far from that. My knowledge of the history of the China was about as sparse as my plate after my second helping at a Chinese buffet. High School skimmed it over, my college years recognized the influence of Chinese painting on European artists, and current media outlets reported mainly on China's competition for 1st place in the pollution race. Though I've always been interested, I essentially knew nothing.

The few months following my confirmed ticket into Hong Kong, I spent in a flurry of documentaries and articles. Th Real China,  China's Dirty Secret, The Tiananmen Massacre... What should I expect out of China? What should I prepare for? China was big blot of ink in my mind's notebook. A formidable place holder. Dense, powerful, and abstract.

Hong Kong Day I:
- Kate and I tend to travel on whims. We follow our first thought (best thought) and let the chips fall where they may. Things have, just, always worked out for us. China, on the other hand, took a little more forethought and planning. We needed a visa to enter the Chinese mainland and, instead of waiting around with our passports shipped out to an embassy across the country, we decided to pick them up in Hong Kong. (I say pick them up casually, but really it's quite an intense process.)
Hong Kong has a number of visa agencies scattered about the city. Do your research beforehand and find one that is recommend and that you trust. We went with Forever Bright and all I can say is that it was bare bones and got the job done.
American visas to China are hefty. Think 3 Christmas hams, hefty. These lil' babies become ever heftier once an expedited service fee is glazed over it's latticed skin. Needless to say when we walked in straight from the airport and out of the 85 degree and humid Hong Kong heat, we weren't expecting to have our wallets completely sucked dry of monopoly money. (We had done research prior, but was under the idea that we would be paying a regular processing fee. Not rush delivery.)
When we were hit with the realization that our China visas alone would zap away any possibility of a dolled-up Hong Kong, we stood idle for a moment contemplating flight cancellations. We arrived in Hong Kong on a Friday and needed [needed] to be in China on Tuesday. After our minds went round and round calculating cancellation fees and flight rescheduling, our Bucket List agenda took over and we ended up paying the fee and surrendering our passports. Our on-a-whim adventure was off to an unlucky start. And that's when we checked into our hostel...

I've always had good luck with hostels. Sure I've encountered my fair share of crazies, but for the most part, I swear by them. Hong Kong runs by its own rules. We checked into our hostel in Causeway Bay and were met by the fact that we'd only booked one bed. Well, I guess I'd only booked one bed as that was my job to do. Either by human error or computer glitch, the printout said "one". Dammit. But luckily there was an open bed and with an extra fee (once again) it was ours. The hostel clerk pointed to a small, tanned, Asian woman (girl?) in jeans shorts, and a Walkman stuffed into her ears. "Follow our lady", she said, "She will take you to the other building." Other building?
We followed the lady across the street with another couple and crammed into a tiny elevator after she pointed to the key code on the door and spoke what I assume to be Mandarin. "She says the door code is 2-5.", a little, yet confident, voice spoke beside me. It was the female half of the couple we were with, who happened to be a Hong Konger. Her face half hidden by her friend's backpack. Ah yes, we totally would've understood...
(By the second night we had made some new friends. And by new friends I mean the colony of ants that took up residence in my mattress. Flicking these little specks off the edge of my bed became a nightly routine. I think 14 was the highest count.)

Kate and I peeled off our backpacks, damp with sweat, and let the bare-budget adventure of Hong Kong set in. We were frazzled but determined to not let our trip be sidelined with empty-wallet woes. We headed out for a meal. Food would turn the day around, right? -We made our way around our hostel neighborhood and had little luck finding a place to eat. Wasn't Hong Kong supposed to be stocked full of street vendors and little hole in the wall noodle shops? We finally came across a lil alleyway restaurant, full of locals, and had our first meal of the trip (a ceremonial event for Kate and I). The only problem was, the meal Kate ordered was inedible. Bits of cartilage and bone concealed by a thin layer of duck skin. It was the cherry on the sundae; or the duck skin on the rice rather. We were bummed and felt like Hong Kong was winning the war. We made one last stand as we wandered around a market and stumbled head first into a dessert cafe to salvage the night. There was nothing that ice cream and tapioca bubbles couldn't cure.

Day II:
Take New York City, compact it into a dumpling, deep fry it, and serve it with 600 different dipping sauces and you get Hong Kong. It was fast, busy, crowded, hot, humid, and expensive (by Asian standards). 
To get away from the hustle and bustle of Gucci and Burberry lined Causeway Bay, we set off to find the 10,000 Buddha Monastery in Sha Tin.  This was incredible. At first, I thought this would be another disappointment. We left the subway exit was met by pizza shops and home design centers full of creative ways to maximize your closet space! Not exactly the escape I was looking for. But, following the directions, walk past the parking garage of the design center and there is a little path accented by a little sign: "Monastery". We walked past the little gate, reclaimed by jungle, and soon began our ascent up the golden Buddha lined pathway. Both side of the path were set with life size Buddha statues all depicting different fables.
We were dripping in sweat mid way up the path, let alone once we reached the top. The top of the path boasted beautiful views of a valley flanked with high rise apartment buildings and tiered pagodas in the distance. This was the first time I'd felt release in Hong Kong. This was that moment that reminded you why it is you travel.
We walked a bit further and was greeted with a pond full of turtles, an abandoned colonial home, and a few shrines before it began to rain. We sought out shelter in the awning of a small temple and watched as our view of the valley was swept with a dense, tropical, shower. It was beautiful and we welcomed the cool-down.

Venturing back in the city we visited a few markets and, once night fell, quickly realized that Hong Kong is a nocturnal animal. When 7pm hit the neon was up in full glow, fires were burning in streets, and prostitutes and potential suitors were roaming in search of their next pairing. I guess this is what I expected out of Hong Kong: a certain lawlessness.

Day III:
Hong Kong, like any major international city, is a delicious sum of all of its parts. With people comes culture and with culture comes food. Delicious, delicious food. So it goes without saying that we sought out deliciousness. Deliciousness in the form of chocolate, coffee, real brunch (for those of you that have been living in Korea you will understand...), and whatever else we've been missing.
If you happen to find yourself in Hong Kong and are in need of breakfast options, I have two recommendations for you: 1) 18 Grams: Located in Causeway Bay, this little sliver of a coffee shop reminded Kate and I of a cafe you might find in Downtown Sydney. The coffee was great (and cute latte art!) and the bites were quick and yummy. We went there twice. 2) Brunch Club: Located in Central City and quite the hike up a few concrete hills and stairs this place reminded us of home. The food was great but the wait staff was even better. This place was so packed that Kate and I actually had to sit on the same side of the table together. But it was packed for good reason.

After brunch we took a cable car up to the Tian Tan Buddha to check off another Hong Kong Must. I was really excited to see this initially. The shrine itself was named after the Temple of Heaven in Beijing (which we were going to see in a few days so I felt this to be a great pre-rec) and the trek up along the cable car line was dramatic, beautiful, and showcased some amazing sea views. But once we reached the "village" at the base of the monastery,  for some reason...I just couldn't get past the Subway, Starbucks, and cardboard cut-out "souvenir photo zones". This incredible area, which was lauded as the heart of Buddhism in Hong Kong had been turned into Disney Land.
The Buddha, and surrounding statues, itself was beautiful and the journey up its steps felt like the final step of some religious pilgrimage. But, once again, my romantic visions of an ethereal paradise were squashed as we stumbled upon the gift shop...located inside the Buddha itself.  It was time to go.

To capitalize on this food nirvana, we returned once again to Central City and bummed around Lan Kwai Fong in search of fish and chips and a good martini. Lan Kwai Fong is an area that can sum up Hong Kong's swanky, new money. Endless alleys of trendy clubs, specialty restaurants and high end retail. What makes this area truly interesting are the 'travelators'. Travelators are outdoor escalators that connect different "plateaus" in this section of the city. Hop on and hop off whenever you want. It was amazing to me because this really showcased Hong Kong's ability to capitalize on every inch of its precious space. Lan Kwai Fong was truly the International Yuppie's Playground; where the young and connected could donate some hours and shed some wallet-weight. The only problem was our wallets were on a starvation diet in order to pay for Chinese visa the next day.

Fog and mist on Tian Tan

Day IV:
The main (and incredibly important!) task of the day was picking up our passports from the visa agency. On Friday, after we had turned in our applications and passports, they told us to come back at  Monday, 6-6:30 to collect our visas. This seemed a little risky to us considering that the agency closed at 6:30 and if we missed getting our visas on Monday it would've been impossible to catch our 1pm flight the next day. So, we based our schedule for the day around 5 o'clock. This gave us some wiggle room in case, ohh, I don't know, something went wrong...

We spent the better part of the day checking off the rest of my touristy-business. We swung by the Chungking Mansions and had a peer into the seedy underbelly of Hong Kong spilling out onto the surface streets. The Chungking Mansions intrigue me. Essentially a large office/apartment building, these "mansions" house everything from hostels to drug mules. How is this possible? What sort of organized anarchy allowed for such a system to, dare I say, work? We didn't stick around too long because it was obvious that we would be seen as targets, meal tickets, or worse. After all, we had better things to do ...like pay homage to the statue of Bruce Lee.

At 5 o'clock we entered the visa agency and was greeted by a warm, "Not ready yet." from behind the counter. So we decided to hit an early dinner place close by to kill some time. We didn't want to stray too far. But. Well. Stuff happens.
We couldn't find any restaurants and the places we did find weren't open yet. So we wandered and wandered until we came across a little Indian place called Nana's or Grandma's or Granny's? I can't remember but what I do remember is trusting the name. Surely "Granny" would protect and take care of  us right?
It was a sweet, little, family-run place that more than likely did not see many non-Indians walking through their door. We ate dinner amongst stares and felt right back at home; Korea-home.
Kate looked at her watch: "Shit! We gotta go!" It was 10 to 6 and we were lost. We contemplated our steps and started running. We caught up to a stop light and a concerned local asked where we needed to go. He gave us directions which had us running through a park and down a flight of stairs before we realized they were incorrect. This ate up more time. We were sweating. Running, sweating, out of breath and out of time. Sprinting through the streets of Hong Kong to collect our passports so we could enter a country long closed off to foreigners. It was a surreal dream.
We made it to the agency with minutes to spare and funneled into the crowd of others waiting for their tickets out. Finally a man in a motorcycle helmet and suit pants walks in with a package under his arm. He placed the parcel down on the counter and the woman from behind it let out a, "Ready!". Everyone stood up and rushed over to sift through the stack. We found our books, flipped through their pages full of stamps, and located that bastard of a sticker.
It was official. We were going to China.


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