KOWLOON, HONG KONG: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 6

Enjoy it while it lasts because I go for the throat when we move on to Vietnam:) Enjoy!

3 April – 5 April, pt. 2: City Garden Hotel, North Point, Hong Kong

While we didn’t do as much sightseeing as we had originally planned, we had gotten to experience the culture, which in some ways may have been better and certainly less touristy. However, we did go to some of the places we wanted to go. The subway was our main mode of transportation for these excursions, but sometimes a taxi supplemented the journey, when the remaining distance was short, but too far for walking.

One of the first places we went to was the Hong Kong Botanical and Zoological Gardens, which was so beautiful. This lush hilltop park filled with exotic plants, birds, reptiles, and mammals, was very peaceful, with one exception: the primates, and no, I’m not referring to the humans. We were about to head back when we heard a loud commotion coming from one of the monkey exhibits that we had passed earlier. The were whooping, chattering, howling so loud, you could feel the sound vibrate in your inner ear. It was amazing; never heard anything like it! It was a very beautiful place.

My hubby goes to the zoo:)
My hubby goes to the zoo:)

Our last full day in North Point, I took my longest MRT trip to date. I went across most of Hong Kong Island, transferred to another MRT, which took me under Victoria Harbor to Kowloon to see the Avenue of Stars, which is basically the Hong Kong film industry’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, combined with Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. They have marble stars scattered along a broad sidewalk, with a breathtaking view back across Victoria Harbor to Hong Kong Island. Some of the stars also include hand prints. They had Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yun Phat, among others, and of course, Bruce Lee. They even have a beautiful 10-foot bronze statue of him. It was fun to see and the view was magnificent, as it was a bright, sunny day.

100_3818

My next stop was to Hong Kong’s 3D Museum. It’s a very touristy place, and overpriced considering how small it was. It was still kinda cool to see this impressive 3D artwork, but it’s hard to describe it. I’d recommend checking out their website to get a feel for how impressive it really is. Still, it only took maybe 30 minutes to go through all of it, and the entrance fee was the equivalent of $30.

100_3828

After that, I walked around Kowloon for a bit before heading back. Not as much of a fan of Kowloon as I am Central Hong Kong. This place used to be and overpopulated slum; not anymore, though based on the southernmost tip of it, I’m not sure it’s an improvement. It’s a massive shopping district for the wealthy, filled with stores that may only the wealthiest 5% can afford. And the salespeople standing outside of some of the privately owned stores…they are pushy. They’ll see a tourist, and aggressively try anything to get you to go into their store.

I’d see other parts of Kowloon later, but the next day, we were leaving North Point, and switching hotels; to the Hyatt Regency in Sha Tin, New Territories, about 22km to the north. By this point, we weren’t looking forward to the move,and were regretting dividing our vacation in Hong Kong between two separate hotels. We’d fallen in love with this neighborhood, and we didn’t want to leave. To be honest, I was a little tearful about having to go. Nevertheless, on 5 April, at noon, we checked out of the City Garden Hotel and took a cab up to the New Territories.

One thing I’ll say about cab drivers here; they may not know much English, so you need the hotel concierge to give you one of their business cards and write where you want to go in Cantonese. But those drivers are honest. They’ll take you exactly where you need to go, and they won’t take the scenic route to boost their fare. It’s something we wouldn’t always encounter in our travels, but we were very grateful for it.

North Point
North Point

As we left North Point, we were feeling rather melancholy about the move. We knew the hotel would probably be nice, but it wouldn’t be the same…it wouldn’t be North Point. Nevertheless, off we went, not sure of what to expect from our new surroundings.
– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston

NORTH POINT, HONG KONG: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 5

3 April – 5 April, pt. 1: City Garden Hotel, North Point, Hong Kong

The next few days sealed the deal for me and Hong Kong. We explored so many places, but we didn’t buy much. I did buy my wife a new camera, and we bought some small items to send to friends back home. For me, it was all about the atmosphere of the place, the food, and the people.

100_3711

The Atmosphere

All of Central Hong Kong is very cosmopolitan, but in different ways. Downtown, in the business district, everything looks rich. The clothing, the buildings, the cars, the stores; it looks like Rodeo Drive with skyscrapers. North Point is different. North Point looks middle class, with the possible exception of the cars. The clothes are middle class; they’re not shabbily dressed; their clothes just didn’t cost $2000. Almost every building is for housing. The bottom floor might still contain a shop or two, but above that, it’s all apartments. Those 25-story buildings make up the majority of Hong Kong’s skyline. I did the math on it; based on the apartment buildings I could see within one block of our hotel, I estimated that there were at least 7000-10,000 people living within one block of us. And yet, it didn’t feel overcrowded anywhere we went. It was shocking paradox. It should have felt like a crazy tumultuous zoo, with everyone going everywhere in some form of organized chaos. But instead, it felt like a sanctuary. It made you feel small, in a good way, as if the city around you would swallow you whole and keep you someplace warm and inviting. You can lose yourself in its streets, its beeping crosswalks, its taxis and buses, its hustle and bustle, and its rhythmic cacophony of sound. Sometimes, I literally did get lost, but I always found my way back (thank you, sense of direction). You would have thought that someone who had spent the majority of their adult life in a metropolitan area of 250,000 would be overwhelmed by all this. But to me, it was paradise on concrete!

100_3732

The Food

Apart from the overrated, overpriced food at the hotel, and McDonald’s and KFC, the food here is wonderful. We probably could’ve been more experimental and brave with our choices, but did try some new things. To start with, you can even find good food or snacks at the Circle K’s and 7-11’s here, something you can’t say about convenience stores in America. But the big one for me was roast suckling pig! We just picked a restaurant in the area that had it and took a taxi there, which was about $3. It was sooooo worth it! I know this was one of the best places for suckling pig in North Point, but certainly not the best rated suckling pig in Hong Kong.

BLISS!
BLISS!

Nevertheless…absolute bliss! Mischa took one of the few pictures of me in existence of me looking truly content. There was nothing special about this restaurant: it looked like any number of Chinese restaurants or diners you might find in America. But the food was so much better. It was like that for most places in Hong Kong. It’s hard to make a mistake with where to go to eat, once you get outside your hotel. Simply walk down the street until you find a place that looks good and go in. A good clue is if people are lined up outside, waiting to go in, which we saw quite often.

Fried pork skin and chicken fried rice
Fried pork skin and chicken fried rice

Another thing: coffee. It’s black. Very black. They do have creamer there, but it’s just like half and half. No flavored creamers there. You can add sugar, but that’s it for non-artificial sweeteners. Second thing – learn to like tea. If you can, you’re golden here. There’s no shortage of teas here, and once you acquire a taste for it, you’ll find that they’re all quite good. All in all, it’s hard to go wrong with food here.

The People

Now this one is tricky, as we discovered in hindsight from our driver that took us back to the airport. There are, for the most part, two distinct groups of people who live in Hong Kong: Native Hong Kongers (for lack of a better term), and Chinese, meaning mainland Chinese. Now the descriptions I’m going to give for both of these groups is a paraphrasing of our driver’s comments, but they are comments which, after careful reflection, I agree with. People who are from Hong Kong are generally quiet, shy, and just want to live their lives in this beautiful city. They can be hard to get to know, but they are still generally polite. What really starts to open them up are attempts to speak to them in Chinese, preferably Cantonese, but Mandarin coming from a white guy works too. For example, the lady at the Circle K saw me every day, usually buying cigarettes, but sometimes other things as well. At some point, I remembered my Chinese lessons from the movie, Rush Hour, and after paying for my purchases said, in my best Mandarin, “Xie, xie.” It wasn’t Cantonese, the primary language in Hong Kong, but still, you should’ve seen her face light up! Being able to have that effect on someone, with just two words, made my day, probably my entire week. Later on, I learned that I was saying thank you in Mandarin, and that the proper way to say it in Cantonese is, “m’goi”. Nevertheless, every time I said, “Xie, xie” to anyone in Hong Kong, it made them so happy, just that I was trying. THAT is how Hong Kong people are.

100_3718

On the other hand, the Chinese, especially from the perspective of Hong Kongers, are rude, ill mannered, generally superficial parasites. Their exploding middle class comes to Hong Kong to buy up properties, which drives housing costs up. They come there to buy up everything they cannot get in China, or better quality versions of what they can get in China. They treat Hong Kong like a giant Costco, buying everything in bulk, then going home. They are demanding, and while few Hong Kongers spit or litter, the Chinese do it anytime they can get away with it (Hong Kong has laws against littering and spitting in most public places…were those laws there before or after the Chinese started coming in droves?). Most people from Hong Kong find them disgusting, and would gladly welcome British influence back over their being a Semi-Autonomous Region of communist China. Hell, one of their parks still has a statue honoring King George VI!!! Maybe there is a different view of the Chinese, but those that I spoke with from Hong Kong, DO NOT like them.

One last observation about the people of Hong Kong. They do have one thing in common with the Chinese: Neither of them like the Japanese…at all. One day, my wife was wearing a vintage looking Star Wars movie poster shirt, that was in Japanese. Everyone was staring and glaring at her. I don’t think she’s worn it since.

So that lovely little combination of Hong Kong culture, food, and people, combined to make this little vacation of ours such a happy one. I never thought I could live in a city this size, but after just 2 or 3 days, I would’ve fucked someone to stay there permanently. And we still hadn’t really seen anything yet! But we’d squeeze in some sightseeing soon.
– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston

CANADA: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 2

Tuesday, 31 March – Wednesday, 1 April:

IMG_0310

Departure day. We left the hotel at about 9am to drop the car off and to get there early. Good thing we did. Our big suitcase turned out to be overweight by 8kg, by Air Canada’s regulations. Basically, we had to throw away 8kg of stuff that we needed less than everything else. We got rid of a lot of pills (vitamins, etc.) and clothes. My wife was NOT happy with me, to say the least, because I told her I knew the weight restrictions for the flight. Turned out that either I had it wrong or the information I had received about it had changed. Either way, the day was not starting out well.

Then the trip through airport security. Yippee!!!! Though not as stringent as the US and the Department of the Fatherland Security, it was still a bit of a pain to go through, especially considering what we’d already been through that morning. But, everything went fairly smoothly; they never found the kilo of Pineapple Express I had shoved up my ass! 🙂 After that, we sat down to put everything back where it needed to be, and took a breather in an area of the airport filled with duty-free shops. It had already been a difficult day, and we’d been there for less than an hour. After that, we went in to Air Canada’s private lounge, which I had arranged for us when I bought the tickets. We had WiFi for our laptops, some food at their buffet, and some complimentary beverages, though they were rather insulting to ME! They even had free Molson! Things were looking better!

GE DIGITAL CAMERA

Just as we were getting ready to leave to head to the terminal for boarding, they announced in the lounge that boarding for our flight was about to begin. We headed over there, just around the corner from the lounge, boarded the plane (a Boeing 787), and took our seats in Premium Economy which had slightly larger seats and slightly more leg room. Almost instantly, an Air Canada stewardess, maybe in her early 50s but still attractive, came up to us and asked if we would like anything to drink. Neither of us can remember her name now, but she was awesome. She was there for us during the entire flight if we needed anything, talked to us, got to know us. She was so sweet and made an extremely long flight much more bearable. We even tipped her secretly before we left. She was that damn good.

So back to the start of the flight. After we took our seats and settled in about 30 minutes before takeoff, we looked around and found that the screen in front of us and the personal TV screens attached to our seats would track the flight’s progress, distance left to go, altitude, outside temperature, etc. It was really cool.

IMG_0313

After the pre-flight speeches, it was time for takeoff. I had the window seat, my wife was next to me in the aisle seat. We heard the engines rev up, and as we accelerated down the runway, we were pushed back into our seats. Mischa gripped my hand tightly as we picked up speed and lifted up off the ground. We banked slightly to the right and we headed up over the inlet between British Columbia and Vancouver Island. Pretty soon, we were flying over towering peaks over the coast of British Columbia and the panhandle of Alaska and then, above the clouds.

If you haven’t been on a flight across the Pacific Ocean (one of the longest non-stop flights out there), it’s really hard to convey how taxing it can be. Imagine you’re in an office cubicle that has enough room for your office chair and room to stand. If you step outside of your cubicle there’s just barely enough room to walk, and if someone else is walking down that “hallway”, there’s barely any room to get out of the way and at the very least you’ll always be brushing up against someone or something. If the “hallway” to the bathroom is free, when you make is to the bathroom, it’s the same size at your cubicle. Your seat, that hallway, and the bathroom; that’s the space you can occupy…for 12-14 hours. Still sound easy? Try it for yourself. Sit in your living room and watch TV for 12 hours straight. Need to go to the bathroom? Walk to your bathroom with your arms close together, do your business while only taking up a space a few inches wider than the width of your shoulders. See if you can do that, and not be exhausted. That’s what it’s like to be on a 787 for over 12 hours.

The remainder of the flight was simply an endurance test, made easier by the aforementioned stewardess, and the fact that we had unlimited access to movies through the airline and our laptop. She watched Wild, which she kind of liked, and I watched Interstellar, which I thought was overrated. The food on board was surprising; better than expected. Nevertheless, we were both continually having to get up and take little walks every hour or two, just to keep from getting stiff on this 12-plus hour flight. As we neared the end of the flight, we were zombies. The flight was landing at about 5:30pm Hong Kong time, but to us, it felt like 2:30am, so we were beat.

We finally landed a little after 5:30, had a long taxi to the terminal, followed by an equally long walk and subway trip to the main terminal to go through customs. After that, we found the company that was taking us to the hotel. By a little after 6pm, we were in the back of an air-conditioned Mercedes, being driven to our hotel, which was 45 minutes away, and on another island. Hong Kong’s airport is on Lantau Island, while our hotel was on Central Hong Kong Island, in the North Point district. Mischa slept most of the way there, and I was in the back seat, just taking everything in, since the driver didn’t say a word. It was getting dark when we got there, and the city would’ve had me awestruck had I not been so tired. The lights, the towering buildings…at over 7 million people this was by far the largest city I had ever been in, and it felt even bigger than that. But at that moment, I was just too tired to appreciate it.

100_3711

We got to the City Garden Hotel at 7pm. We check in and over here, the hotel staff takes your bags up, which for us was a godsend at that moment. We did have some initial problems after getting to our room. The beds in Asia are, for the most part, much harder than those in North America. On top of that, after a long, long day and a long, long flight, my wife wanted a bath. But the stopper in the tub wasn’t working, so we had to call the staff to come up and fix it before she could indulge. Not a great start to our first night in Asia; but that was about to change…