Seoul –> Hong Kong –> Seoul
It’s 7:00am and right now I am queuing at my boarding gate inside Hong Kong International Airport. I can see the sun rise between the distant mountains as it glistens through the haze. Exhausted, running low on Hong Kong Dollars and in need of coffee I feel compelled to spill the beans about the past couple days while it’s fresh.
Unfortunately, I fell asleep at the airport so actually this is being written a week later.
A couple weeks ago I planned a quick two-day trip to Hong Kong. I’m really interested in the city because as a former British colony, naturally most people speak English, not to mention the city is a major global business center. Travel is extremely affordable in East Asia; you can find round trip tickets practically the day of departure for a couple hundred bucks. If you really do your homework and delete your cookies, round-trip offers for as little as $140 to Hong Kong are out there. One of the other exchange students and I talked after they traveled there a few weeks back and had nothing but good things to say about it. Pandas, banking, bright lights and partying? Yeah sounds good.
I left Seoul Friday morning and took the all-stop train to the airport from campus. As the name implies (all-stop) it took quite a while but was definitely worth it for W3,000. I caught an Air India flight early in the afternoon. My flight arrived in Hong Kong around 1630. It’s only about three and a half hours from Incheon to Hong Kong. Immigration was painless, accentuated by the fact that Americans don’t need to have a visa to travel to Hong Kong. One less nightmare to deal with before leaving. Much like Incheon, I found the airport to be really nice all-in-all. The airport has a train, bus system, shuttle cars and taxis that will all take you to town, which is about 45 minutes away with traffic. I would have taken the subway because it was cheaper, but seeing as my hotel was in central (with no real concept of where), I opted to take a taxi into town. Before I found a cab I had to exchange some USDs for HKDs though. The exchange rate was pretty decent, but I do hate exchanging at airports. Their buy price is always like 20% less than sell. $1 was equivalent to about 7.4 HKDs, so I exchanged a little and waited until I made it to town to find a dealer. Anyways, all of the bills are really colorful and vary in size which I found to be awesome yet strange.
Making my way out of the airport I had to shed my jacket because it was likely 20 degrees hotter than the temperature in Seoul. Looking for a taxi, I found a sign (in English!) that directed me to a concrete jungle of winding lines. Thankfully the staff had it moving like a well-oiled machine as they took a no-nonsense approach to navigating confused looking foreigners through the line. All of the taxis at the airport were early nineties model Toyota’s painted fire truck red. At first I thought it might have been an anomaly, but nope, it turns out every taxi is the same. Every single taxi in Hong Kong is a fire truck red early nineties model Toyota Corolla. Making my way from the airport to Central with an elderly taxi driver at the helm speeding on the left side of the road was a little unnerving. Feathering may not be the right word – because it implies finesse – but as this gentleman feathered the gas pedal, the meter seemed to tick, along with my lunch and my patience. Trying not to be a tightwad, I took my mind off of it with the scenery. The tropical climate made the ride much more enjoyable with the window down. Sweet smelling air, palm trees and 75-degree sunny days have a way of putting one of those big goofy grins on a body’s face.
About forty-five minutes later I got dropped off. When I booked my hotel, I apparently lucked into planting myself in the place to be for foreigners. Lan Kwai Fong is a neighborhood with an endless number of bars and streets completely blocked off by boozing foreigners. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to stop and grab a cold one because I had a show to make by 8pm across town, so I checked-in and got suited up. The Hong Kong Philharmonic was performing “Thus Spake Zarathustra” (2001: A Space Odyssey, anyone?) along with some works by Haydn, so I thought it would be a good venue to meet an acquaintance with whom I had to talk about a job opportunity in Shenzhen. The tickets I had purchased a couple weeks prior weren’t available as E-tickets for foreigners, so I had to find the Hong Kong City Hall. Thankfully the hotel had a complimentary Samsung phone with 3G, because I unfortunately dropped my iPhone flat on its face back in Seoul at the airport, which totally shattered the screen but remained functional. Anyways, suited up I was ready to go. Two things I didn’t take into account before wearing a suit: first, it was so damn hot. Fortunately I decided to be super classy and was wearing a short sleeve white shirt underneath minus a tie so it was at least semi-manageable. Second thing: I became an easy target for watch salesman and drug dealers. En route to pick up my tickets I was asked no less than five times if I wanted to take a look at some Rolexes or buy some ice. Tempting, thanks but no thanks.
The city hall is next right across from the HSBC building. As one of the biggest investment banks in the world, the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation building looks incredible at night lit up with neon lights. I put a pin on that one; hopefully it wasn’t the last time I see it. After grabbing my tickets I hopped into a cross-harbor cab because the venue, Hong Kong City Cultural Centre, is opposite Central in Kowloon.
One fantastic performance and productive meeting later, I grabbed a drink at a little German pub in Kowloon and ice cream cone from the shadiest ice cream truck of all time. Apparently that is a universal truth – all ice cream trucks are sketch. Later on I made my way back to Lan Kwai Fong. A few more dejected watch salesman later, I found my way to the bars next to my hotel. To my surprise, almost everyone there seemed to be blonde haired and blue eyed. Still suited up, I relaxed a little when I realized everyone else seemed to be just as (if not more) well dressed and sweaty. All of the bars are wide open (no doors/walls) and are guarded by just a few security personnel. Because many of the bars charge a flat-rate 100 HKDs for some drinks and require a purchase before entry, most of the streets are filled with people boozing outside enjoying the music and dancing. 7-Eleven, planted right on the busiest corner of the winding hilly streets, enables this by charging about 15 HKDs for a beer. It doesn’t seem to take away bar business – it just makes it better. When I say bars, I mean clubs; no old-man bars here. People, myself included, seemed to alternate between the bars and street when they felt a little faint and needed a breather. Even though it’s a pain to navigate Hong Kong, Lan Kwai Fong is definitely worth the visit for anyone ever traveling to the city.
I set my sights on making it back to my hotel before 0230 because I had a busy day ahead. Two seriously cut-up heels later (courtesy of my favorite ill-fitting dress shoes), I did.
In the morning (more appropriately dressed) I moseyed around Central looking for the subway. Kind of in a hurry, but not really, I couldn’t help myself from rubber-necking at just about everything. Street trams, tour busses and palm trees are just a few examples of the differences between Hong Kong and Seoul – moreover – Hong Kong and Fort Wayne.
Different, yes. But better? Well, perhaps. Eventually finding the subway, I grabbed a single-journey ticket to the end of the yellow line. This was the route I had to take to get to Lantau Island, per the advice of my acquaintance at Ewha. On Lantau Island there is Nongping Village, Monastery of Ten Thousand Buddhas, and the worlds largest bronze statue of Buddha. At the end of the line you can choose to take a ferry or board the gondola to the island. I figured it would be faster and the view would be better from a few hundred meters in the air, so I opted to take the gondola. After making a couple calls, chatting up some British tourists and waiting in line for about an hour, I hopped on my ride. The gondola (cable-car) was incredible. It was essentially a clear box, so the entire time I had an unobstructed 360-degree view and could also see beneath me. Lantau Island is about twenty minutes via cable-car from the subway station. Nestled between the lush green mountains, Nongping village became visible about 15 minutes into the ride, and by the end I could see the bronze Buddha atop the peak of a large hill in the distance. Weaving through street vendors and tourists, I made my way to the path that eventually took me to the base of the statue. It was really interesting to the variety of people there. Foreign tourists, business-types and fully geared monks alike scored the long stairway to the peak to pay their respects. I have to say it was truly remarkable. After hiking for a couple hours, playing with the stray dogs and eating some suspicious meat on a stick, I made my way back to the subway station on the gondola.
The ride on the subway was pretty awesome. Packed into a car with little more than an inch to spare, out the window I could see so many shipyards, bridges and buildings that it made my head spin. My destination – Mongkok – is one of the larger stations in Hong Kong. Different from Seoul, where people seem to be slow paced and relatively indecisive, people in and around the station kept a pretty quick pace which required me to kind of keep up so I wouldn’t disturb the flow of traffic, even though I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going. Don’t let the stature of these people deceive you; I am positive that even with my size I could be trampled (haha). Outside, Mongkok can be described as one of the busier districts in Hong Kong.
Portland Street is known for being one of the infamous “red light districts.” Curious, I had to snap some pictures (of the outside, people). Mongkok is probably what you picture when you think of Hong Kong; there are endless neon signs which advertise everything from prostitution to pedicures. Not even kidding – I spotted (in sequence) a Rolex dealer, brothel, jade market, cosmetic shop, and butcher (in the pictures, any sign that says “OK” is a place of prostitution). At night, it really started to pick up steam. Certain major streets became barricaded and a multitude of street performers set up their stations. Against the backdrop of the busy streets, all of the neon signs really popped. At one corner old men were furiously chain smoking and gambling, playing some strange board game. In the middle of another street I approached a large group of people who had circled around people dancing to Santana. I mean truly, this place is something that has to be seen to be comprehended. It is confusing yet wonderful all at once.
Once I had had my fill of street food and people watching, I took the subway back to Lan Kwai Fong for an abbreviated night of debauchery before my early morning Sunday flight.