Hong Kong - Monday, Oct 15th 2007
10.15.2007 - 10.16.2007
We didn't see much of Shenzhen, though the train station was nice. Customs was easy, once we found it, and when we walked across the border (which looked a lot like an airport terminal) we found ourselves surrounded by overpriced food stalls and book shops. Time to take out cash, which is always fun because you get to see a new currency. Hong Kong uses its own dollar, the HKD, which nearly equally exchanges with the Chinese Yuan, so we didn't have to adjust to a whole new exchange rate. What we did have to get used to right away was that everything is more expensive in Hong Kong, starting with the train ticket into Hong Kong proper. I repeated again that I only wanted a one way ticket, and the teller assured me that the price was indeed correct. Guess I'll have to take out a little more cash next time...
As we walked outside to the train platform, I felt the sun. Oooohh, the sun. The air still wasn't exactly clear here, but there was sun! We'll take it. Hong Kong is a different place altogether. Right away, you can see the difference in infrastructure. Our train actually appeared to have been built in the last decade. As the train hummed quietly, we gently rocked back and forth and I looked around. People were reading papers and magazines, or watching the TV screen mounted on the ceiling. No one stared at us. In fact, no one made eye contact with anyone else. The people were wearing clothes that were crisp, clean, and pressed. (perhaps this was a commuter train for work? It was Monday morning...) I suddenly realized that the dissonance of China was not here. The cacophony that had been our lives for three weeks did not cross with us through customs. The voices on the news show were not yelling at me, they were calmly speaking. It was almost soothing. Cantonese, I like you. I felt my anxiety start to deflate. As we made our way into town, the differences between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland were becoming more and more obvious. Was that some landscaping? Then our train ducked underground for the remainder of our ride.
We arrived at our destination, Kowloon Station, and disembarked. Once up the escalators, we were met with the challenge of finding the right exit. There were about 20. While sharing a dorm room in a hostel in Beijing, we received a recommendation to look for housing in the Mirador Mansions, and to stay away from it's neighbor, the Chunking Mansions. Not exactly sure what we were looking for, we were delighted to find a sign for these mansions down in the subway, directing us to the correct exit. After a bit of a hike, we emerged into Kowloon. You are immediately struck by the immensity of this place. Probably not unlike rising up into Times Square for the first time, except with a keen sense that you are somewhere more foreign. Kowloon is like China on steroids. The buildings here loom larger, climb higher, and bulge in the center, like overfed rodents. Their tails and appendages hang out over the street dripping with flashy billboards and neon signs. This part of Hong Kong appears to be the international hub for street vendors, shopping stalls, shopping malls, and everything else commercial. And it pulses and hums, like a circuit breaker on the verge of blowing a fuse. The tranquility of the commuter train was left behind.
Speaking of fuses, we soon found that our were running short. After looking around, we finally found a shady, dirty, and ominous entrance to the Mirador: simply a walkway that led into the depths of one of these giant 20 story buildings that spans an entire block and looks as though it grudgingly agreed to stop spreading in order to allow a street to cut a path along side it. Tentatively, we entered, moving towards the belly of the beast. Amazingly, the inside of this building is like a run down labyrinthine shopping mall with even more shopping stalls than you could imagine, and at least three stairwalls within sight. Since we were each carrying 30+ pounds of luggage, we left one to guard our belongs, and two to go in search of housing.
I felt like Super Mario running through the dungeon world, up and down the stairs, seeing over the inside balcony where we wanted to go, but not being able to get there.
There were several sets of elevators in the building, but not all elevators stopped at every floor. So if you were on the 10th floor, and my elevator only stops on 2, 6, and 10, to get to the 3rd floor, I need to walk up to 11, find the appropriate elevator, and take it down to 3. It made my brain hurt. And it was even more painful with luggage. Every floor had several hostels, which were composed of about 3-5 rooms each. So, we were trying to shop around, but soon found that you get a lot less for your money here. As we tried to negotiate, one owner looked at us and shrugged, "This is Hong Kong", he said. And all the rooms were the size of closets. At least we found one with three beds, those were hard to come by. So, we had a closet with three beds and a bathroom, though a better word would be "showinklet" or some other combination thereof, seeing as how I could have showered while sitting on the toilet and brushed my teeth at the same time. Compact and cell-like, but cute. Here's the 360:
I took the above photo from my position below:
And then here's the view from the outside:
Kowloon is busting at the seams. After getting settled, and finding our way out again, we noticed there was a Holiday Inn across the street. Before we knew it, we were sitting in their restaurant having $5 cappuccinos. It was a splurge, but it felt good to rest our heads and weary bodies for a while. Admittedly, we lingered longer than necessary, but eventually made our way back.
Kowloon feels like a younger, spunkier offspring of the mainland, caught in the rebellious teen years. It still has the dirt and the grit, but it is slightly more concerned with keeping up appearances. There is certainly a more international flair here, with all kinds of food and all kinds of people. We didn't get stared at quite as frequently, only more hassled on the street to come into one shop or another to buy "beautiful jewelry" or "designer handbags". The same guy asked me at least 10 times, without any recognition that we had interacted before. He must ask a lot of people.
And so we were off again, exploring, walking, and taking the subway. We walked along the waterfront there called Causeway Bay (the bay between Kowloon and the Hong Kong downtown district) and admired the city skyline. We found our way to the popular Kowloon streets with all the shops and poked around for a while. We took our time, thankfully aware that we had a place to sleep and nowhere to ship off to the following day. The sun finally set, but the bustle did not.
So many streets to explore, so little time ... we finally made our way back to the hostel, well fed and more relaxed.