Hong Kong Stories and Tips

A Taste of China

The Bright Lights of Hong Kong Photo, Hong Kong, China

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China:

That’s Hong Kong to you and me. It's located at the southern tip of China and is split into two large islands, a slice of the mainland, and 200-odd smaller islands. Hong Kong Island is the most populated, and the Kowloon Peninsula makes up the tip of mainland Hong Kong, connected to the New Territories, which are, in turn, connected to mainland China.

If you're not a geographer, however, then it might be better put like this: Hong Kong Island is the heart of the city and where all the big skyscrapers are; Kowloon is where you get the best view of the all those big skyscrapers and is full of shops with bright lights, like you see in the movies; and the New Territories are just where people live.

Hong Kong is often described as the place 'where East meets West', and that's because of the city's history. The British took control of Hong Kong in 1841 and began acquiring more areas (e.g., the New Territories) until they signed a treaty in 1898 that would see it under their rule for 99 years. That agreement ran out a few years ago, and it's now back under Chinese rule, which is the reason it has such a long title: Special Administrative Region (SAR). Described as "one country, two systems," Hong Kong is allowed a high level of autonomy, and as you would expect after a hundred years of foreign rule, it looks quite different from the rest of the People's Republic. Given that it was "British" for such a long time, I naively assumed there would be lots of white faces walking the streets, but the population is about 95% Chinese (and the other 5% aren't all, or even primarily, European).

I think I say this about every place I visit, but Hong Kong was not what I expected. It had a lot more variety than I had anticipated, and I got that feeling after only a few days there.

We arrived in Kowloon at night, and it was exactly as I had pictured the city--big buildings and bright lights. The air was hot and humid, and we had to weave our way through crowds of people as headlights flew past besides us. Even as the clock approached midnight, the streets were still filled, the neon lights were on everywhere, and the shops were all-go. In fact, when I walked the same streets the following morning, it was quite anticlimatic - the city was buzzing the night before, and it somehow felt less exciting in the light of day.

With 7 million people squeezed into the tiny area that constitutes the 'Special Administrative Region', it is one of the most densely populated dependencies on earth. As such, I really wasn't expecting all the hills and beaches on offer. The skyscrapers and bright lights might be the prototypical symbols of the city, but there are bright green rolling hills as far as the eye can see and, surprisingly, stretches of sandy beaches.

Victoria Peak, or simply The Peak, is the highest place on Hong Kong Island and gives you some great views. You can get up it on the Peak Tram, an incredibly steep funicular railway (it feels like the upward journey on a rollercoaster), which is what we did. We weren't satisfied with our vantage point, however. We could still see the tops of hills in the distance and made it our mission to get onto one. Within 5 minutes, we were away from the crowds, at first walking through quiet residential areas and then along grass-lined paths. Another 5 minutes saw us standing atop one of the peaks we were aiming for, and it was well worth it. To our left were the big towers reaching up from beneath us. To our right, we saw greenery, hills, and the sea stretching out to the horizon. Suddenly the hectic and busy city life was nothing but a view in the distance.

Another great place to get a good view and an obligatory part of any trip to the SAR is the Star Ferry, the quirky little boat that shuttles people between the Kowloon Peninsula and the Island all day everyday. It's dirt-cheap and good fun. If you time it just right, there's a light show put on by all the skyscrapers at the same time every evening—worth it more for its amusement value than anything else, it is not to be missed.

Hong Kong is also a good place to shop. Those neon signs are just for show—most of them have shops attached. The city has as good a range of electronics, if not better, than anywhere else, and the prices are good (we stocked up on all the latest CDs, which were less than half the price they would have cost as at home). We did most of our shopping around Nathan Road, which is a big strip running along the Kowloon Peninsula. It's notorious for being a tourist trap, but it's still good for window-shopping, and there are plenty of big-name shops that are safe. We had it in our heads that we needed an iPod, so we spent our time trawling the shops for a bargain. Nathan Road is not the place to go for a good deal, but we did find some good electronics shops near, if not inside, the big skyscraper on Hong Kong Island (you'll know the one!).

My previous stays in Shanghai and Beijing had felt like gentle introductions to China, but if that was swimming in the shallow end, then this was paddling. Although ruled by the People's Republic and largely populated by Chinese, it would make a nice, easy transition to China. For me, after travelling for a month, it almost felt like being home - people were driving on the left again, the buses could have been helicoptered straight from London, and everyone spoke English. At times it was easy to forget I was in Asia, but it was never long before I got a Cantonese slap in the face--our chopstick technique apparently didn't help us blend in, for example, and we got many long stares because of it.

Having spent the last week in China, it was a pleasant taste of home for me. For anyone else going there on holiday, it would be a pleasant taste of China.

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