The Beautiful South, the Normie North, and the Elusive Climax – Hong Kong 2024 Part 3

July 3, 2024 9:51 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

On the quiet morning of the last day of the trip, I checked out of the hotel and headed to a nearby bus stop in atypically crowdless Causeway Bay. Beneath a motorway overpass, I saw my double-decker bus already departing, but the driver graciously stopped to let me in. On a previous visit, another bus driver had let us ride for free because we had no change.

The bus carried only a handful of passengers, and I quickly settled into the first upper deck row. We climbed on an elevated highway and headed southeast, diagonally crossing the eastern part of Central, towards the glitzy Repulse Bay. The bus passed by the horse racing Mecca, Happy Valley, and then entered a long tunnel underneath the mountain.

Shortly afterwards, we had to stop due to a minor road accident blocking the way. We waited for a good 15 minutes before an out-of-order minibus was moved aside. Amusing how calm the situation was: everybody, including the police, was chill the whole time.

Life is a beach

As we continued, it became clear we are not in Kansas anymore. This scenic part of Hong Kong featured winding, high-altitude roads along dramatic, steep mountains and coves, with zero business buildings in sight. A true riviera with beaches, villas, and hotels. One of the more built-up areas was my destination, Repulse Bay. I got off right at the famous high-rise with a hole in it, from where an iconic, warped, oversized apartment building (The Lily) could be seen half a kilometre away. The beach was down some stairs, where a few people were strolling around, and a woman was jogging, wearing a strange mask and hat to protect herself from the sun.

I rested for a while on a small pier with benches and observed a duo of young Western expats discussing life goals, as they are wont to do. My next stop was a small temple, bustling with tourists from nearby countries and locals visiting for New Year’s. The numerous deity statues had inscriptions, some noting which colonizer unveiled them, others describing their meaning, e.g. the old man who is the happy god of love and matrimony. Of course, there was also a fat Buddha statue.

On the winding way back to the bus stop, I marvelled at the walled mansions and couldn’t help but wonder who lived in such upscale neighbourhood. It was interesting to see modern shiny Chinese cars like BYD being more impressive than the usual Western luxury vehicles. Before long, I boarded the bus back, with lunch on my mind.

Retro future

Back in CWB, I wanted to see a very cool piece of architecture only known from pictures. HK has lots of covered pedestrian footbridges with unique and interesting designs, especially those dating from the 1960s and 70s. They complement the modern architecture with old school chic and bring charm to the place. One of the most distinct overpasses is the circular “McDonald’s” bridge over the Paterson Street tram station on Hennessy Road. Apparently its arches match the neighbouring McDonald’s building, where the chain’s first restaurant opened in 1975. Today, they have around 200 fast food locations in the city.

The sun was out and the concrete canyons looked amazing. Well-preserved 1960s neon signage and buildings exuded a timeless style.

Next up, a delicious destination: an Ichiran ramen restaurant, a catch-up on a missed experience in Japan. This is one of the most famous ramen chains in Japan, the other being Ippudo, and in addition to its signature tonkotsu noodle soup, it’s famous for the isolating interior.

Customers are seated in a small cubicle with a curtain in front, behind which the food is served. No person is visible during eating – nether staff nor other visitors. Ramen is ordered via a machine at the entrance, with options selected from a printed menu sheet or an app, which unfortunately didn’t work due to poor reception.

Skirting the faceless tradition, a staff member helped me out by filling the form on my behalf. The sheet has checkboxes like noodle firmness, spiciness etc. The ramen was great, though not as perfect as Ippudo. Maybe it’s different in their native Japan, please don’t @ me. The boiled egg was extra and served unbroken, requiring peeling. Such disregard for the lazy/clumsy demographic.

When I were a lad this was all fields

I continued westwards along coastal Wan Chai and shortly before the Expo centre, there was a brand new subway station, Exhibition Centre, together with its accompanying bus terminal. This area was a huge, messy construction site the last time I was here. The next few afternoon hours were dedicated to shopping attempts, because here it’s a must. With a twist on CNY when most of the shops are closed.

The first bargaining stop was my old favourite Wan Chai Computer Centre, which while not the cheapest, has a lot of stock variety and deals, including used goods. Alas, during the holiday most of the shops were closed and only a couple of stalls offered the used gadgets I was looking for. One of the shops had a cheerful lady shopkeeper who had brought her young daughter at work, and curiously called the manager “my master”. Both traders were very keen on helping me, but I wasn’t in real need and the prices weren’t too dissimilar to home.

Dragon hunter

Then, I jumped into the nearby subway station and headed to a new district for me: Sham Shui Po. Located on the Kowloon side, this authentic working-class area is famous for its massive computer market. The district is also characterized by its down-to-earth, easygoing, and friendly residents, who run small shops with a seemingly effortless knack for selling. Unfortunately, the electronics market, which spans two blocks, was completely closed.

I moved on to the toys hunt and discovered that incidentally, this neighbourhood has a whole block dedicated to holiday decorations and presents for the little ones. And many, many phone accessories on a closed for traffic street. I found exactly what I was looking for – dragon toys – and said goodbye to charming Sham Shui Po and its cool casual vibe.

Middle Kingdom express

I took the subway and yet another long underground exit to the next point of interest. It was yet another exciting mega structure which wasn’t here before: the West Kowloon Terminus, opened in 2018, a futuristic train station connecting the population with the big country up north more quickly and conveniently. It is situated between Austin Station in Kowloon and the Elements mall, which is adjacent to the International Commerce Centre, the tallest building in town.

It is also somewhat controversial, due to the central government border checkpoints and some might say it’s another overreach of the long arm of Beijing into the heart of the Fragrant Harbour. Objectively, it’s very good for travellers to anywhere from Guangzhou to Shanghai, Beijing and beyond, and people are flocking. There is a huge open space in the middle of the station and you can see where you need to go, but not easily understand how to get there.

Culinary epiphany

What did I just spy with my little eye? The logo of a Michelin Guide dumplings restaurant, the legendary Tim Ho Wan. Perfect location for an afternoon snack. Went around the station valley, realised I’m on the wrong floor, entered a corridor, then an escalator and ended up in front of the cave of dim sum wonders. I sauntered inside and immediately sensed something was off. The employees were busy tidying up the place and wasn’t too welcoming. What is going on?

After a staff member wrote down 16:30 on a piece of paper and stuck it in my face, it dawned on me that it’s Chinese New Year and they should close the place early. Still, the restaurant had about half an hour working time left and I politely insisted to be seated.

The ambiance was a bit like the fabled Chinese tea houses of old, but in a more modern setting, with great views over the station waiting area. My crispy baked buns with BBQ pork and slimy steamed rice roll arrived very quickly and I got down to business. The business of worshipping a new religion, as these dumplings were divine. Probably my second crème de la crème dumplings after an inconspicuous dim sum place in Hualien, Taiwan.

Be prepared

After the feast, I made a dry run to the “nearby” Airport Express station to get oriented. This evening’s plan was to watch the Chinese New Year fireworks from the place closest to an Airport Express station (West Kowloon Rail Terminal) and quickly exfiltrate afterwards. My return flight was later that night and I had to make sure the airport is reachable immediately after the show. The path from the big train station to the underground Airport Express stop was peculiar and included a lengthy overpass tunnel into the huge Elements shopping mall and lots of twists and turns and ups and downs. I asked the numerous helpful staff if trains are running regularly and until late. They confirmed that everything is under control and passengers shouldn’t worry.

Tourists need not apply

There was time to visit one more new place, and after so much glamour I decided to hop across the Northern mountains into Sha Tin, a humble district along a beautiful canal. I know it from Ivy Ho’s excellent office romance film Claustrophobia. On the subway there, I was the only foreigner on the train, which is quite uncommon in HK. Just normal everyday people and a single curious European.

The unpretentious quiet place was mostly a living, not commercial area, and had lots of high rise condos, like the ones we’ve all seen in pictures. The river was just a couple of minutes from the station on foot, along a meat market at the ground floor of a high rise, and a small garden with pavilions. The waterway had a long park along its length, and many were enjoying the impending sunset. Including a photographer next to me armed with a DSLR, remember those? I hung around for a while and headed back to the MTR.

Keep walking

While I planned to watch the fireworks from the front of the high-speed train station, most spectators targeted the West Kowloon Cultural District and its wide open space on a peninsula overlooking the harbour. The roads were closed for traffic and people were walking through the night to the coast so I joined them just to get a feel for the place and return immediately. The place looked like an open air concert venue, complete with snacks and facilities.

Shortly before the starting hour of 8 PM, I tried retracing my steps back to the train station to watch the fireworks there. The distances between skyscrapers are longer and take more time to traverse than it seems. Between the cultural district and the high speed train station sits the International Commerce Centre, HK’s tallest building rising to almost 500m. In front of it there is a roundabout with overpasses where I decided to follow a different path and pass by the very entrance of the mega building, situated one level above the road. Big mistake. It was a maze of closed-off roads and passages and I had to follow the special signs for the event through a tunnel, an underground parking lot for busses and who knows what else, before somehow finding myself inside in the Elements mall next to the ICC. At this point my feet hate me.

Going out with a bang

I eventually found my way to the second floor and reached the tunnel leading to the station. Which was inaccessible thanks to a newly locked door. I could see no way of reaching the front of the station as planned. Peak HK confusion, complete with waves of lemmings doing the same: rushing to the station tunnel and getting turned away by the locked door. It’s around 8 PM and the huge station is closed, in this city? How absurd. Of course the reason is the holiday climax, but how to witness it now when the clock is ticking? A small part of the skyline was visible through the window, but that was less than ideal.

Finally I resorted to consulting security and they directed me downstairs along an indoor skating rink, to a secret door which couldn’t be seen from above.

I exited mere seconds before the start and climbed to higher ground, because naturally, there was a construction site blocking the view. Then the thunderous show started and it was probably exactly like the midnight ringing of the (Western) New Year, which we see on news reports starting from Australia, then Hong Kong and so on. Only this time it happened live, in front of my eyes. It was certainly impressive, yet there were no drone performances or anything outrageously extravagant. Anyway, this skyline makes everything better and it was oh so spectacular.

As the show started winding down, it was time to start leaving Hong Kong and I returned to the Airport Express station through the Elements mall, this time without any confusion.

Airside

Last time I flew out of here in the evening, I followed a life hack advice from a local friend and took a shower in a public swimming pool near the airport. This time I didn’t want to risk it and the pool would most likely be closed anyway. So maybe a lounge could help with the hygiene? I asked them, but after the unfavourable quote, it was time for Plan C: barricaded in the toilet and “washed” with a bunch of wet tissues. That would hardly suffice during the usual hot and sweaty HK, but in wintertime it was enough.

The usually bustling airport had relatively few people and the humongous terminal was almost a ghost town. Most of the restaurants were closed and there were one Western and one Asian option. The cheeky cashier requested $1 for a plastic cup for the beer, after pocketing a much bigger tip. The cup was on him.

Small world

The next encounter surprised me, though it really shouldn’t have. As I joined the queue at the gate waiting area, something familiar caught my eye: my multinational employer’s logo on a sweatshirt worn by a passenger in his 50s. I approached him and asked if we are colleagues, thinking he must be an American or something. He explained the company man is not him but his son, also standing right there, and hailing from the same office as me. It became clear we are compatriots, which was cool and funny. They were joined with more family members on an extended Far East trip and apparently we are indeed everywhere.

The night (Air)bus home

The long ride home was aboard an unretired Lufthansa Airbus A340-600: a rare quad engine, single deck passenger jet. It’s one of the longest commercial planes, longer than the A380 and about as long as the biggest 747 variant. Because of this and the old engines, the less that efficient old timer ascends very slowly during take off. As we climbed towards the East, i.e. Hong Kong Island, I expected to see the whole skyline on the right, where my window was. Alas, the plane circumnavigated the main island from the right and there was nothing to see.

The plane is in the standard 2-4-2 configuration and I was at the right-hand window with a German man sitting next to me. He looked around the cabin and found a spare pair of seats and moved, before returning and explaining that that place is reserved for a mother and her child. A few minutes later, the FA invited him back to the spare seat as the mother had been accommodated elsewhere. This means I had the whole two-seat section to myself, which makes all the difference on a 14-hour economy flight.

Over the southern end of the Motherland, I was astounded by the incredible nighttime views of rapidly developing urban China, whose scale never fails to impress. Witness the endless expanse of the possible future megapolis Greater Bay Area (HK, Shenzhen, Guangzhou etc), which would be the world’s biggest city if/when consolidated, home of 80+ million people.

So long, and thanks for all the bao

And there we have it: an exotic weekend with a wealth of impressions, no luggage at all, and travel time close to staying time. Would I recommend it? Absolutely, because it’s incredibly liberating. Of course, you need to be triple backed by multiple bank cards, cash, mobile internet, and medical insurance. Never underestimate the unforeseeability of intercontinental trips, be prepared for anything and enjoy everything. The only regret was maybe not using some kind of fanny pack, as heavy swaying pockets tend to disturb the chi.

Until next time Hong Kong, stay awesome!

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This post was written by rado

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