24.05.2014

HONG KONG, THE BLUE CITY

HONG KONG, THE BLUE CITY, Bahar Sinem Özkesici Ünal | 24.05.2014

Hong Kong: the blue city in which we've watched the many films of famous Chinese actors like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Lee... I call it "blue city" because every day is humid and foggy, and the whole city skyline presents photos of skyscrapers and the sea into an amazing grey-blue panorama.

For nearly 150 years this was a British colony, and as a result there are holdovers from the British such as British weights and measures, traffic flows on the left and so on. In 1997 the British government made it independent and it became an autonomous administrative region of China. So Hong Kong is the rarest of places: both a city and a country.

Even though it was known as a dangerous place in the past, today (I think because it's connected to China) it has strict laws and a law-abiding, educated populace all making it one of the safest places on Earth. People are very afraid of committing crimes, so thievery and extortion and similar crimes are fairly rare.

One of the things that makes it different from China is the level of income. While food and drink are relatively cheap, hotels are really expensive. Because the space is smaller than the population can handle it can be hard to find a place to stay for cheap. Most of the buildings are skyscrapers and even they have underground floors. People usually live in one room, with just the bare necessities in places that are basically studios. Even these small rooms have astronomic prices. Because a lot of these places don't even have kitchens people have no choice but to eat outside. As a result there are tons of restaurants on the street and food is cheap.

I was really affected by this when I first went to Hong Kong 10 years ago. At the time I wasn't really expecting such a modern and developed country. The skyscrapers were the same as the ones in America and I was shocked at the Western style of living. Now I've been able to go to Hong Kong on three separate occasions. My last visit was December 2013. The biggest difference between my first and my last visit is this: during my first visit Hong Kong was really cheap, and now the standards of living are the same but it's really expensive. Now Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world. It still has a lot of things to do and high standards and honestly there are still ways to get by for every kind of budget.

Hong Kong is a country made out of a peninsula and 260 small islands. The biggest residential areas are Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Wan Chai, Central and Lantau Island that houses the Big Buddha. In order to travel around freely and be centrally located, these are probably the top four areas to stay.

The airport (Chek Lap Kok) was placed outside the city in 1997 on an island after the old airport fell afoul of the IATA's rules because it was on a peninsula and planes had to land almost flying between houses. It's easy to get into the city from the airport either by metro or by the buses at the stops outside.

Hong Kong is like Istanbul. The two sides of the city are separated by the sea, with Tsim Sha Tsui and Kowloon on one side and Central and Wan Chai on the other. There are regular ferry boats going across and traditional boats too, and there's even a metro that goes under the sea. Transportation is usually done with ferries, metros and "light buses." Taxis are a bit expensive and you can't get on them everywhere, they only pick people up from authorized stops.

Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok form the center and most important part of Kowloon Peninsula in the Yau Tsim Mong district. The longest and widest street in the city Nathan Road is in this district. On the avenue are stores, restaurants, entertainment places, shopping centers, hotels, and hostels. These places all have huge illuminated signs that stretch to the middle of the street and at night they all shimmer colorfully.

The most populous district is Mong Kok at the top of Nathan Road. Every evening in Mong Kok there's the Ladies Market and there's a massive open air market all along the streets. Don't be fooled by the name, there's something to buy for everyone from clothes, bags, shoes, small presents, electronics, jewelry, watches, etc. The prices are reasonable and this huge market is open until midnight. Walking down every single street might take hours so make sure to plan accordingly! :) You can get to Mong Kok from the Tsim Sha Tsui metro stop pretty easily. You can walk all along Nathan Road, but remember that the road is so long that it'll take a while and sap up quite a bit of your energy.

On Nathan Road is the Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Center built for the Indian Muslims. Right next to it is Kowloon Park with little lakes and flamingos inside. Also, for those who love night shopping there's the Temple Street Night Market on Nathan Road. This market is open from 10:00pm at night until 4:00am. Don't forget to bargain!

If we go down the road to Tsim Sha Tsui on the way to coast there's an old British hotel called the Peninsula Hotel that is still resplendent, and you can walk around the Rolls Royce collection in the gardens. The port with the ferries is called Victoria Harbour and just behind it is a clock tower from the British that has become one of the region's symbols. Just behind the clock is the Museum of Art which has really interesting architecture, as well as the Space Museum that looks like a giant egg. If you go to Hong Kong with kids then I especially recommend the Space Museum, it's chock full of great things to learn about space. A little bit ahead of that is the Museum of History.

If you take a walk along the coast there's an Avenue of Stars as in Hollywood. There's all the famous stars of Hong Kong films from the past to the present with their names and handprints. Of course amongst these some of the most famous are Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Lee. Bruce Lee has his own statue on the coast and there's usually a line of people who want to get pictures taken with the statue. People tend to take fighting poses with it in particular and watching them do this is quite amusing in and of itself! :)

Also, every evening at 8:00pm there's a 10 minute show called "Symphony of Lights" that you really should make sure to see. There's a laser light show from skyscrapers on both sides of the sea, almost like they're dancing together. It's truly magnificent. On important days the celebrations usually include fireworks, with the lights flashing over the water. The place to watch these is definitely Tsim Sha Tsui. Especially for the Chinese new year the celebrations along the coast and the dragons dancing in the streets makes this district lively, colorful and very popular.

The first restaurant that I'd recommend is on Nathan Road and it's a Japanese restaurant at the bottom of Wood House passage called Jika Udon. The Japanese Udon noodles they make with seafood, chicken, beef or in soups is well suited to Turkish tastes. In the same passage right across from Jika Udon is a really good sweet shop. People take off their shoes and go sit at the tables and eat the jelly desserts they serve. Chinese people really love the varieties of jellied desserts.

Also there's a good Italian restaurant chain called Spaghetti House for pizza, pasta, and beef. There's a few of them on Nathan Road. This is a restaurant where you can really eat your fill. If you want to try Chinese food like Peking Duck then you're definitely in the right place. I recommend getting the mushroom dumplings with shrimp and vegetables with the special noodles you get in the Far East (especially if you like seafood then get seafood noodles). But be careful before trying eel because you might not like the taste! :)

For those who want to try unusual things then I recommend the turtle restaurant. Usually right when you walk into this restaurant you see massive turtles being boiled. On the menu is turtle meat, turtle eggs, and things like that. I have to admit that I didn't really do much to try anything. On the streets you can buy eggs cooked in soy sauce, the locals love it but the smell is a little off-putting. You can also get a wide range of things similar to our sis kebabs from stalls on the street, obviously only if you're brave enough... :) One of the things that I really liked were the little chocolate and vanilla bubble-shaped waffles that they sell in little stores. These are plain and sauce-less and they give them in paper bags. You eat them by breaking apart the bubbles. Speaking of which you should absolutely try bubble tea. These are fruity milky drinks with tapioca jelly balls that are black starch bubbles in your drink. It's fun to eat the balls while you're drinking the drink! Also dried fish, shrimp and potato chips made out of seaweed are really popular. There are lots of oven-cooked foods sold in the metro stations, with smells that really whet the appetite though I'd suggest you eat the sweet ones. Of the savory ones I'd say you should only eat the cheese-filled ones if you find them. They don't really like salty foods much, the doughs are always sweet and I had a terrible savory croissant-like thing where the breaded bit was sweet and they'd put tuna and garlic inside of it. You can probably imagine the taste. :) On Nathan Road inside of one of the passages there's Jenny Bakery, which has a long line outside of it every single day. We never understood why people were so excited about the cookies there because we didn't want to lose time waiting in line so despite our curiosity we never tried them. :) 

There are a lot of tourists in this part of the city. As a result shopping, hotels and entertainment venues are prevalent. Don't look for typical Chinese wares, you won't see much that's local around here.

In the neighborhood of Kowloon, life is a little bit more local and there are small temples between streets, and little shops that sell Chinese objects, with local grocery stores and markets all around.

Of course near the water there are big hotels, but I think you should probably walk around the interior of the district instead and smell the incense-soaked streets and see how people here really live. Maybe buy some tropical fruits from the fruit stalls as you walk around. My favorite Far Eastern fruit is Dragon Fruit, with its red insides. Lychees and Mangostines are also fantastic and you should try them. While walking around you'll see people selling chestnuts and sweet potatoes on the streets, and you should try the roasted sweet potatoes. They're like candy and you'll never tire of their taste. One of the places here that you have to go to is the ship-shaped mall "Whampoa."

For those who want to see a more mystic sort of place then I highly recommend the "Ten Thousand Buddha Monastery," which is easily accessible by the metro. It's it Sha Tin, so you get out at the Sha Tin metro stop and follow the arrows up the hill, which you'll need to climb a bit. As the name suggests, there are 10,000 different Buddha statues here and you walk between them (they say the real number is even 12,500) to the top where there's a beautiful Buddhist monastery and an amazing view of all of Hong Kong. You can even have lunch there. On your return you walk down the other side of the hill through even more Buddha statues amid the smell of the mountain and the wafting of incense. For us it was a great visit and really interesting.

On the other side of Hong Kong in the districts of Central and Wan Chai is mainly where the British colonists lived and now it's a business district. There are a lot of buildings by famous architects and it's full of skyscrapers. It's worth a visit to see the buildings that form the backbone of Hong Kong's skyline, including the Bank of China Tower, HSBC Tower, Central Plaza, International Commerce Centre and the Convention & Exhibition Centre.

It's easy to get to Wan Chai and Central by ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui.

It's pretty interesting to walk amongst the rising skyscrapers of Central, which has some of the tallest buildings in the world including things like the International Commerce Centre, Bank Of China, Central Plaza, Lippo Towes, Nina Tower, and HSBC Tower. There'll all so close to one another and so tall that you can only really get a good sense of what they look like from afar. The special thing about HSBC Tower is that it can be mounted onto something else and put somewhere else to be built again. After passing through the skyscrapers you get to the backstreets where there are small markets selling local goods.

Towards the hills and you'll see where plenty of Brits still live in the residential centers of Mid Levels. From the skyscrapers to Mid Levels is the world's longest escalator, called the Mid Levels Escalator. By the way don't leave without going to Soho. Things here leftover from the colonial era, and still produced by the British people residing there, are antiques, stores, cafes, and pubs. It's a really lively neighborhood.

Once you're there you should make sure not to miss Victoria Peak. To get to the top of the hill there's an old train called the "Peak Tram" which dates back to the 1800s, and even though the hill is quite steep it goes up easily. Definitely something not to miss. Once you're at the top the view of Hong Kong is spectacular, it's the view that's on most of the postcards you'll see. Try to pick a clear day to head up to the top of Victoria Peak.

You can walk from Central to Wan chai, but the size of the buildings is shocking and even though the walk looks quick it's quite tiring. I think the best thing to do is get on the colonial era tram. The tram between Central and Wan Chai is both cheap and passes regularly along the main road.

The most important building of Wan Chai is probably the eye-catching Convention & Exhibition Center and just in front of it is the Golden Bauhinia statue with gold-colored poinsettias. This statue was a gift from China in 1997 to celebrate the joining of Hong Kong and China. Many tourists take photos with the statue and it's become a popular symbol. There are tons of skyscrapers and shopping malls in Wan Chai. Behind the skyscrapers there are lots of local markets on the streets, so if you have time you can go from street to street and do your shopping that way.

You can get to Lantau Island by either ferry or metro. The island is famous for housing the Big Buddha statue. To get to the top of the hill to see the statue there are buses and cable cars that go up. The cable car is slightly more expensive than the bus... If you go by ferry then make sure to go to Ngong Ping, which is a little fishing village. The Big Buddha really represents a stately figure at the top of the hill. First you get to the main square and Buddhist monastery, and after wandering through the incense you climb a long flight of stairs up to the statue. Waiting for you at the top is a gorgeous view of nature. As you're going back down make sure not to miss the village of the monastery.

Extra:

I think you should make a point of going to the local fishing villages. By metro it's easy to visit Yau Tong or Aberdeen, which are fishing villages, and you can eat tons of fresh seafood at the makeshift fish restaurants all around.

If you've come to Hong Kong with children and you're looking for entertainment, there are lots of amusement parks that are great for the whole family, big and small. The most important of these is Disneyland on Lantau Island and Ocean Park which was built before it. I especially enjoyed Ocean Park. There are dolphin shows, aquariums with sharks, and Chinese pandas. Other than this The Teddy Bear Kingdom and Snoopy's World are good alternatives for fun.

Last word: Hong Kong is a great place for you to feel the mysticism of the Far East as well as modernity and it's a great vacation no matter what you want to do! :)

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