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March 6-10, 2013
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)

Our biggest fear for the next few months was that it would be difficult to communicate in China — we had been warned to learn a bit of Chinese or be prepared to struggle. So to ease into our upcoming challenge (since we had failed to learn Chinese) we thought it might be better to ease into China via Hong Kong.
We flew into Hong Kong in the late afternoon. Walking through customs was easy, as was buying a subway ticket into the city. The airport is only about 25 minutes from the city on the Airport Flyer train. We were looking forward with anticipation to our first couchsurfing stay for our first few days in Hong Kong. Our host for couchsurfing was Randy, an American living and working in Hong Kong, who we had arranged to meet at the Central subway station in Hong Kong that evening.
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We arrived at the subway station, loaded down with our backpacks and sort of wandering around looking lost when Randy finally showed up. Formal introductions done, we then followed Randy out the station. Picking up our pace we quickly fell into a sea of people walking in the same direction. Up an escalator, across an elevated walkway, through a modern mall, another elevated walkway, another escalator, and all this time watching endless western looking ads on billboards. Huh? Wait, did I just see something in English? And what about all these funny English-speaking businessmen and women walking all around?

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English language billboards everywhere

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Elevated walkways are the norm in this area of Hong Kong

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I was following Kristin, who was following and speaking with Randy, and I couldn’t hear a word they were saying because of the rush of people and city sounds surrounding me. But where were we, and what about all this English being spoken all around me, by British people? Up another escalator, now running up the side of a hill. I looked to my right and see a city staircase filled with people going up and down.

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I looked to my left and see an endless series of shops lining the bottom floors of hillside skyscrapers.

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Off the escalator, across the narrow street filled with more English-speaking people! Oops, back onto another escalator going further up this hill. Where are we San Francisco? More shops on the left, no, now its bars, restaurants, pubs, pizza places, Mexican Food?! WHERE THE HECK ARE WE! I was screaming inside. And they’re all filled with English-speaking people!

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Off the escalator, across another narrow busy street and on to another escalator. I was starting to notice the cars now, Mercedes, Porsche, Audi, Buick? Okay I’ve now gone officially crazy, because I thought we were supposed to be in Hong Kong. Off the escalator down another narrow busy street, bumping into English-speaking businessmen and women, American hip hop music blaring from a passing Benz, oh! Finally a group of Chinese-looking people coming our way. But wait, they look like they just jumped out of some New York or Paris fashion magazine, and no way! Did I just hear them rapping to the hip hop American song from the passing Benz, in unison? WHAAAAAAT’S HAPPENING HERE!!!

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We finally arrived at Randy’s place and find out we don’t get the couch because someone else is staying there — we get the private bedroom (yay!). Only one problem…the other couch-surfer closed the bathroom door with the lock on, so the bathroom is off limits until Randy can figure out how to get it open. He didn’t seem too stressed about it. Okay, this just keeps getting weirder and weirder.

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We dropped our bags and took off with Randy for a quick tour of the area and dinner. In a nutshell we came to learn that even though Hong Kong was “returned” back to China 15 years ago after being a British colony it has never lost its British ties, and if anything they have become stronger for international business. Hong Kong is a mega large international business center with mega large skyscrapers, and if you do business internationally you need to speak English. Okay that explains a lot. It just so happens that we are also in the English speaking business center — and party zone — of Hong Kong. The best way to describe this area is San Francisco hills meets New York vibe, and all the money that goes with that.

World Trek SD Card #5 1874

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ImageThe following days were a process of acclimating, but to what we’re not sure, because we found most people spoke some English and there were many international tourists. We were definitely in a large international business center surrounded by all sorts of English-speaking business men and women, and with all that money floating around came all the restaurants, clubs, pubs, boutique stores, and high-end stores. Personally though, it was a little weird seeing so much American-style billboard advertising with western looking models. And if that weren’t strange enough, you had plenty of chic ultra trendy Asians walking around. Hong Kong was happening in a big way.

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This Apple store was not just visually stunning but one of the largest ones we’ve seen.

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There are many ways to get around Hong Kong. First the subway is ultra modern, clean and big. Second, the roadways are almost entirely for motor vehicles, buses, and double-decker trolleys. In many areas of the city pedestrian traffic is elevated off the ground via elevated walkways, moving sidewalks, and in our portion of town, escalators (known as the mid-levels). Another mode of transportation that is famous in Hong Kong is the Star Ferry. This was the only way of transporting large groups of people before the underwater tunnels were dug between the islands that make up Hong Kong. Kristin and I experienced all modes of transportation there via our Octopus card. We love the Octopus card! Once you buy it and load it up (whatever amount works depending on how long and how much you are using the public transportation in Hong Kong) you can use it on all the aforementioned forms of transportation — we even found an ice cream vendor who accepted the Octopus card for payment!
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Soft serve ice cream and we pay with the octopus card? YES!

We had another memorable (à la Malacca) ride in Hong Kong on the double decker bus. All we can say is that if you’re sitting on the top front part of the double decker buses in Hong Kong, you better have not just eaten, and hang on for your life, because you’ll go flying off your seat on the first turn. Or maybe it was just our particular driver. These are also the only seats on the bus with seat belts, if that tells you anything.

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ImageTalking about memorable rides, our best one was taking the cable car to the top of Mt. Victoria for a sky high view of all of Hong Kong (use your Octopus card for this too!).

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ImagePlus if you do the beautiful and spectacular scenic walk around the mountain top, a view of the entire island and neighboring islands awaits you. Once you take in that amazing view you realize the immenseness of Hong Kong and the size of its shipping harbor. All sorts of ships, cruise liners, large cargo ships, ferries, tug boats, yachts, sail boats, dredgers, construction crane ships, everything, is continuously streaming in and out of Hong Kong harbor and waterways. It had not hit us yet, but this was the start of realizing the magnitude and scale of man-made superstructures in China.

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One of the private driveways to a mansion in the hills overlooking Hong Kong.
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Simply Amazing

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We also spent some time walking around the historic area of Hong Kong. I found particularly interesting the apothecary and dried seafood market areas.

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ImageVenturing down some of these small streets and alleys, seeing all the activity and hearing the hodge podge of languages, sent my mind reeling back to the movie Bladerunner, where Harrison Ford and James Edward Olmos race around a futuristic Los Angeles, crowded, multilingual (actually a new language made up of Chinese/Spanish/English/etc), all the ethic neighborhoods mixed, and busy street food vendors selling their dishes in narrow crowded allies. The Hong Kong setting was fitting it almost to a T (just missing the flying cars).

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ImageAlong with all this craziness, we noticed that the scaffolding they used in repairing these skyscrapers was bamboo! Yeah, bamboo! And not just the first few floors, the entire skyscraper! Say what? Seeing is believing.

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This was one of the shorter skyscrapers with bamboo scaffolding that we saw.

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What, no safety harness? Yikes!

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After a few days at Randy’s we moved over to the Kowloon area of Hong Kong, and into Cynthia’s Inn at the Chung King Mansion. Ooo, ooo, you say? A mansion! Wow what was that like? Well it’s not anything like it sounds. On the good side, it was relatively inexpensive for Hong Kong standards. The owner was super nice, the place was clean and we had our own bathroom. Plus it was in a good area for night life and restaurants. Now the downside, it was by far the smallest room we’ve ever stayed in. Luckily we could store our backpacks under the bed.

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The only thing smaller than the room was the bathroom. Kid you not, sink, toilet, and shower in a less than 3 x 5 foot area.

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But that wasn’t the bad part. It was the ground floor of the building that could freak you out, plus the fact that the elevators were small, slow and in no way appropriate for the size of the building it was servicing.

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On the ground floor you could see on a TV screen who was on which elevator.

Kristin insists the whole building would be a death trap if a fire were ever to break out. But that ground floor was filled with small vendor stalls selling everything under the sun. And to make things worse there were some pretty aggressive hawkers trying to sell you all their stuff (fake watches are a favorite). You basically had to run a gauntlet. Oh, did I mention some of the guys looked a little sketchy? Oh, just your run of the mill police activity in front of the mansion, checking IDs in the stairwells, yeah nothing to worry about. But we kind of lucked out, because Cynthia’s Inn was next to the least busy elevator and we found a side entrance to avoid most of the activity. Chalk this one up as an experience.

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That’s our hostel, right above Yan Yan.

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No high pressure hawker gauntlet to run through here.

While in the Kowloon area we attended a Feng Shui class, ate at some noodle restaurants, walked around a Beverly Hills type area with all those high-end stores — and people were waiting in lines to enter those stores. White gloved doormen, of course, controlled the crowds. Did I mention there is serious money floating around here? We would later find out that the fame and reputation of Southern California valley girls would be put to shame compared to these newly crowned Hong Kong and Chinese versions of valley girls. The number of super high-end stores here was astounding. But if the high-end shops are way out of your league, you could always go shopping at the Ladies Market, a street several blocks long, closed to traffic, where every sort of clothing vendor is hawking their goods. As many tourists as locals go in search of the best deals here.

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Our last night was highlighted by the Hong Kong shoreline skyscraper light and sound show. Impressive in its magnitude, it involved both shorelines in a choreographed laser light show with individual skyscrapers displaying lights throbbing in unison to the music.

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But I would have to rank this second to Singapore’s show, only because Hong Kong’s show lacked in a story line and creativity. To its credit, like most things in this area of the world, it was damn big.
Our stay in Hong Kong was eye popping and surprising on many levels. We had done the right thing to come here first to ease our way into China. But the largeness of what we had seen would only be used as a comparison for what was to come. We left Hong Kong for Macau via a modern large ferry. After the immenseness of Hong Kong we longed for something smaller. We were hoping Macau would fill that void.

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ImageImage(Editor’s note: we returned to Hong Kong at the end of our China trip…and ended right back at Cynthia’s Inn. We once again lived to tell the tale.)

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