Winter Vacation Part 5 – Hong Kong

Hong Kong, what an experience. We landed at the airport around noon and took an awesome double-decker bus into the city. Coming from the snowy land of Japan to Hong Kong was quite a shock. Tokyo was very cold and clean while Hong Kong was warm and dirty. I got some fantastic pictures in Osaka and Tokyo of beautiful blue skies and temples. All my pictures from Hong Kong have grey smoggy skies. I felt like my health would take a big hit if I were ever to move there. Regardless of the air pollution though we had a great time.

Getting to Austin Inn

Austin Inn

Our airport shuttle bus dropped us off a few blocks from our hotel, the Austin Inn, on Austin street. How fortuitous that I, Austin, should stay at Austin Inn, on Austin street. The hotel was just a few rooms on the second floor of an apartment building and one weird walk up. Hong Kong exists in a parallel universe without any kind of zoning. Residential, commercial, it’s all the same. There are homes next to restaurants next to apartments all in the same building on the same floor even.

Getting to our room was like descending into the middle of a labyrinth. We had to walk down a hall past a security guard up a flight of stairs, around the corner, up two more flights then through a series of doorways and long hallways. Even when we finally left Hong Kong, Nicole had a hard time finding her way out of the building. Our room was small, very small. I was taller than the room was wide. That means the room was less than 6 feet wide, which made sleeping difficult. Also there were no windows. It was weird.

Our First Night

The first night in Hong Kong, Nicole and I took the MRT, subway, into Central Hong Kong. The subway was only a few blocks away from our hotel and the stop itself was very close to the center of Hong Kong. We hopped off downtown and explored the city center. Our first night we had some amazing food at the equivalent of a Chinese diner. The food took minutes to come out. It was the fastest service I ever had.

Hong Kong Dinner
Hong Kong Dinner

After dinner we walked along the water and picked up some groceries for our hotel. Despite the small room, we did have a refrigerator. What Hong Kong lacked in breathable air they made up for in high-quality groceries. Nicole and I stocked up on all the finery we can’t easily get in Korea like guacamole, fine cheese, olives, and craft beers not from Korea.

Tian Tan Buddha

Hong Kong Gondola
Hong Kong Gondola

The next day, our first full day in Hong Kong, Nicole and I visited Lantau Island and the Tian Tan Buddha. Lantau Island is most excitingly reached by a 5.7km cable car that takes about 20 minutes. If you figure out how to get reservations ahead of time for the cable car, I encourage you to do that. The line for tickets was 30 minutes. It was a great ride out to Lantau Island. We passed over the harbor, numerous mountains, and a hiking path that looked like a million stairs. It reminded me of the gondola we rode in Taiwan but with grassy mountains instead of forested ones.

Out on Lantau Island, Nicole and I walked through a cute little village of gift shops. It looked like the sort of places elves would live if they colonized an area of rural China. The little village had a drum for celebrating Chinese New Year and it’s very own open-air gondola museum complete with a variety of gondolas from around the world. Having made it past the gift shop village, Nicole and I ascended the 268 steps to the top of the Tian Tan Buddha. The site from the top was breathtaking, partly because of the view and partly because of the air pollution.

Hong Kong Disneyland

Hong Kong Disneyland
Hong Kong Disneyland

After a sufficient amount of gazing and drinking in the experience, Nicole and I headed off to Hong Kong Disneyland. Disney Sea was a little bit crowded, but Hong Kong Disneyland was practically empty by Disney standards. There was a 15 minute wait for Space Mountain and every ride in the park had a short enough line to just walk on.

Hong Kong Disneyland is really similar to Magic Kingdom, and I’m guessing Disneyland California, although I’ve never been. The big difference being mostly Chinese visitors and Chinese snacks in addition to the usual hamburgers and fries. There were some little differences as well. For example, they don’t have a Haunted Mansion. Instead they have Mystic Manor. It’s a similar ride through a dark house but instead of ghosts it’s antiquities brought to life so instead of coffins and tombstones it’s suits of armor fighting each other and dragon tapestries come to life. There’s no Thunder Mountain either. Instead they have Grizzly Mountain. It’s a great ride and it has a big twist to it that I was honestly caught off guard by.

Nicole and I got a bunch of great pictures in the Toy Story area with all the oversized toys. We rode Space Mountain twice, got our picture with Buzz Lightyear, learned how to draw Mickey Mouse, went on the Jungle Cruise, saw a parade and wrapped up the day with a firework show. It was so much fun, and a taste of home. There were quite a few Western visitors in the park, and around Hong Kong when we visited. I imagine it’s also a taste of home for many of Hong Kong’s foreign residents.

My tip for Hong Kong Disneyland is this, after the parade a bunch of people will leave the park. Instead of leaving, go further into the park. Nicole and I were able to do almost every single ride in the park between the parade ending and the firework show starting. There were no lines because everyone was either leaving or staking out a spot to watch the firework show.

After the firework show, there was a mad dash for the park exit. The entire park’s population tries to fit onto the same subway train, because it’s the only way in or out. Fortunately, we got on the second train out of Disney and managed to avoid most of the crowd.

Dim Sum

If you’re in China, you’ve got to try dim sum. It’s Chinese tapas, but heavy on dumplings and tea. We visited Maxim’s Palace Chinese restaurant in city hall and had some great dim sum. The restaurant looks like the ballroom in a fancy hotel. It’s filled with white tableclothed tables as far as the eye can see and each one of them is packed with hungry patrons.

When we arrived we were instructed to take a number and wait. We were something like number 198 and we arrived around noon. The wait was only a few minutes and we were quickly seated. Instead of ordering food, waitstaff walk around with wheeled carts filled with various dishes. You ask for a dish that looks good and they place it on your table and mark your ticket. At the end of the meal you bring your ticket up to the register and pay.

Happy Hour

One thing I miss about America is Happy Hour, some time of day when drinks are discounted or two for one. Korea doesn’t have it. Japan doesn’t have it. Hong Kong embraces it. Central Hong Kong is practically built for it. There’s a street filled with bars thats up a steep hill. However, and here’s the kicker, there’s a series of escalators leading up the hill. It’s the longest series of outdoor escalators in the world. But wait, it gets even better. At midnight the escalators switch from going up to going down. In addition to the drinks there were nice restaurants catering to every kind of cuisine imaginable. There was BBQ, Greek food, tapas, Chinese food, everything.

Victoria Peak

Visiting Victoria Peak was the most crowded thing Nicole and I did in Hong Kong. The line for the tram was an hour long, but Victoria Peak is one of the few attractions right in central Hong Kong and we did visit on a weekend. At the top of Victoria Peak there are some shops and restaurants and a nice vantage point looking out over the rest of Hong Kong or as far as the smog will permit you to see. There’s also a nice hiking trail that leads around the top of the peak. It’s paved and well lit with light posts that recall a bygone era. Nicole and I had lunch at the peak at a nice restaurant. We split some bruschetta and seafood bisque.

Hong Kong Tram

Hong Kong has this really cool tram system running through town. The trams are from the early 1900s. They’re wooden, double decker, really tall, and narrow. Basically they’re the night bus from Harry Potter when it squeezes between those two other buses. In addition to the novelty of riding them, they’re extremely affordable. Nicole and I rode on one just around town. We had no destination in mind, we just wanted to ride. The trams are a great way to pack in a cheap tour of the city.

Boom Shack

Boom Shack
Boom Shack

It wasn’t a big moment from the trip, but I still think it’s worth writing about. Nicole and I popped into a little restaurant called Boom Shack. It’s a hole-in-the-wall place on a side alley. The kind of place that serves Illinois beers, chicken and waffles, tacos, and all kinds of burgers. Basically, it’s my kind of place. I started chatting with the owner and it turns out we’re not only from the same town, but also the same neighborhood. The guy used to live a few streets over from where I grew up.

Hong Kong in a Nutshell

Hong Kong in a Nutshell
Hong Kong in a Nutshell

I really enjoyed how international Hong Kong felt. It’s one of the most international cities I’ve ever been to. There seemed to be an equal proportion of just about every group of people on the planet. There were equal portions Chinese residents and international residents. Nicole and I both felt like, aside from the air, Hong Kong would be a great place to live. Many of the amenities and goods available in the west are also available here, from fine groceries to familiar food.

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