Teresa and I just wrapped up the last leg of our cities + snow journey in Japan and made it safely back to Taiwan to rejoin her relatives. Enjoying all the snow didn’t leave too much time for blogging, so here is a delayed summary of our brief stay in Hong Kong. Write-ups on our Japan experiences (and maybe a video edit?!) to follow soon!
For a recap of the first leg of our trip in Singapore, click here.
Dates: Dec 9 – 13 (78 hours from arrival to departure)
Airlines: Scoot (arrival), Vanilla Air (departure)
Accommodations: Hilton Garden Inn Mong Kok
Transportation: Airport bus, Mass Transit Railway (MTR), Star Ferry, our feet
Our journey from Hong Kong to Singapore was the easiest of our five travel days on this trip, with a moderate-length daytime flight and relatively easy airport connections. Upon landing, we swapped Singaporean dollars for Hong Kong dollars, procured Octopus cards (the local transit pass that can also be used for purchases at many shops), and were flabbergasted that, again, WE WERE STIFFED ON THE PASSPORT STAMP FRONT. Look, I get it that Hong Kong is technically not its own country, but rather a “Special Administrative Region” of China. One Country, Two Systems and all that. But, but…come on! How are we supposed to reach our passport-stamp goals at this rate!
We hopped on one of the double-decker buses headed to Mong Kok and tossed our luggage on the unruly pile accumulating by the entryway. Thus began a careening journey into the city center, throughout which we watched a rolling bag make repeated attempts to escape to freedom. We knew we were headed the right way but were unsure of our stop, so when we were reasonably close, we got off and began our fully-loaded trudge to the hotel.
In my post about Singapore, I may not have fully described our equipment for this trip, but I have been carrying a 90 liter duffel bag (stuffed with snowboarding gear) on my back and a 42 liter backpack on my front. Teresa has been sporting a 37 liter backpack and a 20 liter pack (stuffed with all our tech) on her front. So we probably made for an odd site lumbering down the busy sidewalk.
Using trusty Google Maps, I navigated us over to what looked like a main street but which was really a dark frontage road to a large overpass. We were only a few blocks away, but the sidewalk kept narrowing…and darkening…and getting shadier (I asked Teresa what a row of women wearing a lot of make-up and party outfits sitting on stools outside were waiting for and she shot me a what-were-you-born-yesterday death glare)…until we rounded the corner and suddenly arrived at our hotel.
Our home for our time in Hong Kong was the Hilton Garden Inn in Mong Kok. This was a fair bit more swanky than we have been accustomed to on our trip, but it worked out for us because (1) I was sitting on a pile of rewards points hard-earned during a rough stretch of work travel in 2016, (2) our lower-end accommodation preferences were still pretty expensive in HK, and (3) we wanted to have a place we could reliably rest before our big Japan snowboarding trip, where we knew the snow been falling nonstop. After settling in, we were still a bit hungry, so we went in search of something to eat around 10 PM. Our neighborhood was pretty quiet but we found some baozi and ordered by playing the point-and-show-how-many-you-want-on-your-fingers game. Teresa’s face lit up when she spotted some tasty-looking veggies but then fell when they were dropped into a simmering vat of oil. We took our snacks back to our room and munched on them before falling fast asleep.
The next day turned out to be the sort of down day you need every now and then while traveling, especially if you are old like us. You know, for things like sleeping in, doing laundry, and just chilling out. We started our day by seeking out a tiny but highly recommended breakfast place nearby, where we were seated and promptly handed an abridged English-language menu (we would find this to be the case in many of the restaurants we would visit on the Kowloon side). Since the meaning of characters is the same in Cantonese and Mandarin, we could sometimes read the standard menus and point to the items we wanted, but most of the time the English translation was a big help. Occasionally, people would address Teresa in Cantonese, but she was as helpless as I in these situations. A mother and daughter from a different country came into the restaurant after us and ordered just by showing pictures of what they wanted from their phones to the waitress. When you don’t speak the language, you do whatever you can to communicate, especially if you’re hungry!
With a tasty breakfast of zhou in our bellies, we wandered the neighborhood, found a self-serve laundry next door to the hotel, and sat in the lobby for some blog writing and relaxation while our clothes got clean (the muggy climate during our Singapore stay made this an absolute must). In the interests of being well-prepared for our Japan snowboarding trip, we also squeezed in an hour-long workout in the hotel gym, which left us feeling sore in lots of upper-body places that we had neglected on our bike tour around Taiwan but also very productive.
By mid-afternoon, we set off in search of some of Hong Kong’s renowned dim sum, which we soon located at Tim Ho Wan. Aside from the food stall we spotted in Singapore, this is reputed to be the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. We eagerly devoured each plate after carefully snapping a picture, swapping empty dishes for inbound trays of food as quickly as we could. The restaurant’s flagship BBQ pork buns were as good as advertised and the salted egg bun made for a delicious dessert, but we would recommend forgoing the “seasonal vegetable,” which appeared to be a plate of…microwaved iceberg lettuce?
After cleaning up every last bite, even the lettuce, we walked over to the nearby Pei Ho night market, which featured a wide variety of clothing, electronics, luggage, and other merchandise. In contrast to the Ladies’ and Temple Street Night Markets, which we would see later on our visit, the Pei Ho market actually seems to sell useful everyday items and caters as much to locals as to foreigners. For this reason, it was a bit more varied, relaxed, and enjoyable. The Ladies’ and Temple Street Night Markets, by contrast, appear to be composed entirely of slight variations on the same five stalls (sports jerseys, leather goods, shoes, phone accessories, and cheap poster prints). Perhaps this too is an authentic Hong Kong experience, but I found it amusing that tourists (like us!) will voluntarily subject themselves to being sold unnecessary crap in a stressful, claustrophobic environment.
After perusing for a while and ducking into every place that appeared to sell outdoor gear (you can take Teresa out of Boulder, but you cant take the Boulder out of Teresa), we made our way south to Fa Yuen Street, commonly known as “Sneaker Street,” where shop after shop offers an enormous collection of athletic and casual shoes. Teresa had been hunting for a new pair of shoes recently and was soon checking out the offerings as we made our way back towards the hotel. We turned in pretty early, but the streets were still humming with activity when we left, even on a Sunday night. Teresa had discovered some nearby hikes which might get us out of the hustle and bustle while offering amazing views from above. We picked the route most accessible via public transit, a hike up to Lion Rock, and set our alarms for a relatively early wake-up.
We arose well-rested, but before we could set out, we needed breakfast and supplies. We tracked down some more zhou and bought too many bread things at a bakery – pork cutlet bun, walnut bread, red bean mochi (as Teresa is fond of saying, Asian bread is just…better!) Stocked up, we took the MTR to the Wang Tai Sin station and the start of our hike. We were fortunate that the entire route had been meticulously documented by another blogger, so all we had to do was follow those directions and photos. Coupled with Google Maps, it was really easy to stay on track.
Even before leaving the city, our hiking route took us up some of the steepest sidewalks I have encountered; even San Francisco would have resorted to stairs for these pitches. We saw people trying out all sorts of ways to navigate the inclines – walking uphill backwards, walking downhill backwards, walking crab-style…ok, I made up that last one. We soon left the apartment complexes behind and continued up a quiet road, where many locals were filling water jugs from roadside springs before carting them back down the hill.
Eventually, we arrived at the gate for the off-road portion of hike and hit some serious stairs. The section we were hiking is part of the 100-km MacLehose trail, so we saw a backpacker on this same route as we continued uphill. It didn’t take long for us to reach some amazing vantage points, which posed a dilemma we have faced a couple of times on this trip: what do you do when you’re pretty sure that your current location doesn’t have the best view you’ll see, but the view is still so good you feel compelled to at least snap a picture or two? We basically had the trail to ourselves as we made our way towards the peak and we enjoyed some views off the north side of the ridge away from the city and out towards the New Territories.
After consulting the map and blog in a few spots, we finally reached the turn for Lion Rock and started climbing STRAIGHT UP for 0.6 km. The trail was well-maintained but it sure was steep, basically just a concrete staircase all the way to the peak. Huffing, puffing, and sweating profusely, we decided to look on the bright side and counted this as another solid pre-snowboarding workout. Soon enough we reached the top and encountered a number of other groups taking in the sights and, in one case, celebrating a birthday. It seemed like a decent mix of locals and tourists who all wanted to get an aerial perspective on the city. The steepness, casual hangouts at the summit, and panoramic views made this hike seem like Hong Kong’s version of Boulder’s Mt. Sanitas.
And wow, what amazing views! All of Kowloon stretched out in front of us and we could even make out some of the skyscrapers on the opposite side of Victoria Harbor through the haze. The boundary between the dense city and the lush hillsides made for an incredible contrast, while the steepness of the cliffs below us (rappelling down from the peak is a common practice for local climbers) made it feel like we had a real birds-eye view. Teresa turned to me at one point and asked, “So, this is Sim City, right?” It certainly did feel that way.
We ate lunch at the top and soaked in the views before beginning the journey down. We met quite a few more folks coming up from the opposite side of the peak, of all ages and levels of preparedness, further reinforcing the Mt. Sanitas vibe. We navigated a few sidewalks, bridges, and intersections to return to the MTR and to search for some real food…
Ok, so we didn’t search very hard. On our way out of Tim Ho Wan the day before, we had spotted enough mouthwatering dishes on other tables that we had not tried ourselves that we felt like we had good cause to make a return trip. This meal did not disappoint either, especially since we had learned our lesson about the microwaved-lettuce trap.
Next, we made a return trip to Sneaker Street, where Teresa resumed her search for the perfect pair of running shoes. Consummate comparison shopper that she is, we proceeded methodically down the street, checking prices and models at each place. We also saw the unique way that the shoe stores manage such a constant crush of customer requests: what appear to be two or three distinct stores are actually one shop with a single storage room full of sneakers on top or behind that serves all of the connected storefronts. The salespeople assisting customers will scan a barcode on the shoe and select the needed size on a screen and wham! the correct box of shoes comes flying down a ramp where it is passed to the waiting customer.
After a couple of hours, Teresa hadn’t found anything that met the necessary combination of shoe model, size, and discount, so we headed back to the hotel to get cleaned up and sneak in a late nap – we were working on rotating our sleep schedules a bit to handle a 3:20 AM flight departure in two days time and planned to stay out a bit later this evening. Soon fully refreshed, we took the MTR to the southern end of the Kowloon peninsula to poke around and find some dinner. This area is called Tsim Sha Tsui and it sits directly across Victoria Harbor from the more well-known waterfront of Hong Kong Island. Still, Tsim Sha Tsui (or TST, as it is often abbreviated) is a destination in its own right and hosts a large number of office buildings, shopping malls, and tourist attractions. Which means, PEOPLE. There were A LOT of them, so after a few minutes trying to weave through packed sidewalks to the waterfront, we decided to save those views for the following day, retreating northward to the Yau Ma Tei area.
It was a bit calmer as we approached the Temple Street Night Market, another tourist attraction. The southern end of the market was full of the familiar shops selling electronics, sports jerseys, and other trinkets. It also hosts a large number of open-air corner restaurants, where aggressive hostesses brandished their English-language menus at us while inviting us to grab a table. We opted to walk a bit farther north, through a darker area reserved for fortune-telling and karaoke stalls, until we hit a calmer section of the market. We picked out an open-air place to eat and feasted on steamed fish, clay-pot rice, and a chicken-celery dish. We lingered over dinner for quite a while, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the place. As with the very first moments of our Taiwan cycling tour, I again felt us living out the plans we had set out for ourselves over the past months and years. We stayed until the market closed and made our way back to the hotel, grateful for a late wake-up and check-out in preparation for our early morning flight out of Hong Kong the following day.
After a bit of sleeping in (9 AM!), a quick gym session (must prepare for pow!), and packing up (got to get those luggage weights just right!), we dropped our bags at the front desk and went in search of brunch. Can you guess what we ate? If you picked zhou again, you’re right! We found a small shop in our neighborhood serving it up along with youtiao, a sort of crispy linear donut that made for great dipping.
Fueled up, we were off to Hong Kong island to see city’s main financial and business districts. Getting off the MTR at the Central stop, we emerged onto a streetscape every bit as busy as Tsim Sha Tsui, with similarly fancy storefronts lining the street at the foot of each office tower, but with noticeably more non-tourist foreigners going about their business. Crowded, flashy urban centers lined by luxury stores are not really Teresa’s thing (like, in a viscerally stressful way), so after 20 minutes of wandering this area, Teresa pleaded, “could we please go…anywhere else?” We headed uphill away from the busiest areas into the Soho neighborhood where we found a bit of relief at the Police Married Quarters (PMQ), a former residence for the families of police officers that has now been converted into an art space with many small shops and galleries. We regrouped on the benches in the PMQ courtyard and plotted a path to the aviary in Hong Kong Park, which we hoped would offer similar islands of calm amid the hubbub of the city.
Hong Kong Park is located right next to the base of the Peak Tram, which whisks visitors up to a popular overlook above Hong Kong. Having done our share of aerial sightseeing the previous day, we bypassed the tram in favor of the aviary, which holds roughly 400 birds and creates a pleasant contrast between the bustling city outside and the vibrant chirping of birds inside. We saw many beautiful species and a seemingly equal number of amateur photographers with enormous telephoto lenses. Afterwards, we climbed an overlook tower inside the park for a better view of the area and surrounding buildings, then set out on our way down to the waterfront.
Unlike the other parts of Kowloon and Hong Kong we had visited, the area standing between us and the water was not exactly pedestrian-friendly. Instead, it seemed to have been designed exclusively for cars, with bridges, expressways, and onramps winding between monolithic bank headquarter buildings. Teresa wanted to check out some nearby historical sites instead, so we decided to split up for a few hours of solo exploring. We picked out a specific MTR station and station exit as our rendezvous point at 6:30 PM and went our separate ways. While Teresa searched for some historically-designated temples and a haunted mansion that housed comfort women back when Hong Kong was under Imperial Japanese rule, I ended up weaving through a mall, backtracking from a dead-end under an overpass, and skirting around preparations for a holiday-themed carnival before finally making it to the harbor.
The Star Ferry runs between Kowloon and Hong Kong and came highly recommended as a fantastic way to see the city skylines on both sides of the harbor. At about $2.5 HKD (so, 30 US cents) for each 10-minute ride, it’s cheap enough that you can go back and forth several times to make sure you get just the pictures you want. Plus, it’s a steal compared to the harbor tour that costs $180 HKD for an hour cruise.
I was really hoping for some nighttime photos of the brightly-lit skyline, but I figured I would hop on the ferry a bit early and just try it out. I rode from Central to Tsim Sha Tsui and then back over to Wan Chai before finding a park bench near the convention center to make some notes about our time in Hong Kong and watch the sun set. With the sky completely dark, my ferry ride back to Kowloon brought the fully illuminated views I had been hoping for, and though all I had was my iPhone camera, I still manage to get a few good shots.
Back on land in Tsim Sha Tsui, I hustled over to our rendezvous point, and though I was a bit late, I caught up with Teresa just fine. We wove back along the previous day’s path though Temple Street and found a place to eat a few blocks past the end of the market, where we ordered fish and wonton soup from another abridged English menu. Though the meal itself was tasty enough, it soon became clear on our journey back to the hotel that something wasn’t quite sitting right with Teresa’s stomach. We rested a bit in the hotel lobby, but her discomfort only kept growing; the walk to the bus stop and ride to the airport included several nausea-induced close calls. Somehow, Teresa bravely held it together as we exited the bus, made our way into the airport terminal around 11:00 PM, and got as comfortable as we could as we awaited check-in for our early-morning flight. It wasn’t exactly a promising beginning to the next leg of our journey, but at least we had something exciting to look forward to: a week of snowboarding in the beautiful mountains and the deep, light snow of Japan!