Hong Kong is stunning, a phantasmagoria of the senses, large and dynamic . But when we arrived at 11:30 pm from Yangon on a Sunday night we were anything but open to its delights. There was no driver waiting to pick us up, no one to guide us to our air bnb downtown. Our address so nondescript, no taxi driver knew where to go. That uneasy rush of dread floated i.n as we entered this huge cosmopolis hauling luggage and overstuffed souvenir bags. Finally found a driver who said he could get us nearby but streets in our area were closed to vehicles. So we disembarked in the dark on the top of a steep, winding cobblestone street. Juggling our gear we walked downhill, passing bar after bar, hearing loud music becoming louder. Around a curve was a Hard Rock Cafe booming bad disco. We hoped we weren’t near our place. Eventually we found Wo On Lane but where was #15? After 20 minutes of peering into little recessed unlit doorways, dark shops and closing restaurants we were anxious and exhausted. We slumped on a metal box to rest and then did another lap. In the dim light on a paper tacked to a wall inside a vestibule was our longed for address. Up 100 steps to a fifth floor, very small, very cute, very black and white apartment. We fell into bed and unbelievably more loud music wafted up into the room from below. Later we would discover a music bar called “Insomnia” around the corner that blasted til 1 am every night. But tonite or what was left of it was only dreams.
Entry to our new abode
Hong Kong is the most unique city I’ve ever visited. It is an island with a scalloped coastline and many harbors. It juts into the South China Sea; its location and deep harbor beckons global commerce. It is densely populated with 6300 people per square km. Business and residential towers have clustered wherever buildable and recent land reclamation created additional housing. The high-rises climb the terrain almost to the top of Victoria Peak, 1312 ft in elevation.
“Central” Hong Kong is the main downtown district and borders Western, Eastern, Southern and Wan Chai districts. We covered quite a bit of territory in our 4 day sojourn and traversing the topography is sincere exercise. One walks on sidewalks that are occasionally interrupted by a couple of steps to accommodate the pitch. An ancient street may bisect a hill and angle off uphill with 50 steep and narrow stone steps lined with street food stalls, houseware vendors and Buddhist altars.
And if I look up, there may be a cement walkway 2 stories up over my head connecting buildings over a roadway. It is dizzying to see so much space occupied and in motion. Color, movement, angles, spirals, multi levels, even escalators that help you navigate the hilly terrain. I feel like I’m climbing endlessly in place in an M.C. Escher print. It is fabulously alive and astonishing.
We have no agenda so everything is an exploration. We decide to find as much street art as we can. It takes us all over Central. Painting on sides of buildings in plain view; alleyways large and small covered in brilliantly colored artwork, intriguing and curious, some secretive and hard to find. Almost all on a slant.
We walk everywhere in the different districts, seemingly for miles. In Central, the commercial downtown, there are metal railings at corners that insure no jaywalking.I “LOOK RIGHT” painted on the road, as you step off the curb alerting you that oncoming traffic comes from the left. There are many signs; where to cross, how to queue, how to drink safely from a public water fountain, sneeze etiquette, wearing a mask, etc. Helpful directions in a busy city and not so subtle guidance for appropriate behavior.
Hong Kong is mainland China’s most prosperous economic link to the rest of the world. There are rumblings that threaten Hong Kong’s relative autonomy and we have spoken with people who fear China exerting more control. The Brits held Hong Kong for 160 years. It has been 22 years since China regained Hong Kong and the people are strongly attached to their freedom of expression in both commerce and attitude. It will be interesting to see what develops. For now, I just paid $50 for a manicure, ten times more than in Cambodia. And we bought milk and cereal for 237HKD or $35. Shockingly expensive.
Underneath the apparent wealth and cosmopolitan vibe, Hong Kong looks and feels like a very big “Chinatown” beating with the deep heart of traditional Chinese life.
I voted for checking out antiques on Hollywood Street, but Steve was very persuasive about visiting Kowloon via the Star Ferry. It has been over 30 years since his last visit to HK when he stayed at the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon. Once, one of the poshest hotels in the world and where Steve actually stayed a night in the suite reserved for Prince Charles. That’s a story for another time. For now, we get to ride on the iconic Star ferry.
The joy was seeing Steve’s fascination and startle at how much the landscape had changed. Literally what was once a hotel on the waterfront was now surrounded by reclaimed land filled with tourist attractions and expensive malls. The Peninsula interior still brought back pleasant memories ; the string quartet playing in the grand lobby, the luxurious dining room and stately palms. I was happy just to appreciate a delicious confection: a tall dark chocolate cup filled with mocha mousse and cafe au lait served from a graceful silver pot.
The real treat was the Star ferry crossing Victoria Harbor at night, seeing a red lit junk, coming into Hong Kong port with the skyline lit up; bright, moving lights, even a classic Chinese painting illuminated in between ads for athletic wear 30 stories tall and a ferris wheel.
Density is defined as “the degree of compactness of a substance”. Hong Kong does density well, successfully jamming so many things into a space. Our dark, narrow, little street had several shops, bars, restaurants, a noodle house serving noodles several feet long (try twirling that on chop sticks) on just one side of the short street. Wo On Lane dead ended with a well tended small shrine next to our apartment’s vestibule and next to the shrine was a passageway into a funnel shaped three story amphitheater with bowers of greenery planted in spiraling tiers. A set of steep steps afforded a short cut to the next street several stories above. It was like being inside a very tall layer cake.
We wanted to view the city from the famed Victoria mountain summit. We thought we’d take the tram up – 8 minutes. We went up through Ice Box Street and started following signs to Peak tram. But then I saw a hillside with zig zag fence railings interspersed with lush foliage and wondered if it was a botanical garden. I was intrigued; Steve was not; insisting we take the tram. I implored, cajoled, til finally, “I’ll meet you up top. Take the tram. I’m going this way”. He fumed and reluctantly followed me up this switchbacked jungle trail in the city staying 25 paces behind. His frustration was palpable but adventure overruled. We took Lower Albert Street to Upper Albert, cutting through the vertical gardens filled with palms and giant fern fronds which surprisingly led to a zoo with monkeys and birds. After that my directions were sketchy but we met an Aussie who enthusiastically recommended going up Peak Road. “You may be old but look like you’re in decent shape, you could do it, it’s worth it”. It was enough for Steve to succomb though he was still pissed and never walked beside me the entire climb. And climb it was. So steep. I could hear him huffing behind me. We passed a heart hospital and I thought if he had a heart attack I could just roll him downhill into the emergency entrance.￼￼
We kept climbing. The view was worth every sweaty second. The summit was covered with typical tourist merchandising and a mega tower that also housed the tram. Our Aussie angel advised taking the less traveled Harlich to Lugard Rd perimeter walk around the summit. We sauntered past mansions, rainforest vegetation and stone benches from the colonial era still inviting repose. Finished our stroll with a choice meal at the Peak Mountain Restaurant celebrating an absolutely splendid amble.
We took the tram down. My knees would never have tolerated the downhill. 8 minutes as advertised; the green forest rushed apace from a crowded car, the luxury apartment towers passed in a blink, the tram decelerated and back we were into the Hong Kong hubbub. Eventually Steve thanked me…
It was time to go home. A marvel of a three month adventure at its close…