The descent into Kai Tak airport is quite "interesting". The plane flys low banking over many ten to thirty storey buildings, dilapidated looking housing. The plane comes in lower and lower, closer and closer, until the housing stops, and the runway immediatley begins. When taxiing back along the runway (Which extends into the sea), the wings are overhanging the water. The takeoff is in the same direction, fortunatly, so you fly out over the sea. I flew in with Cathay Pacific, a 13 hour flight from Heathrow. As in Singapore, the first thing that hits you when leaving the airport is the humidity, high at this time of year (September). It is so high that you can easily drink 7-8 liters of water in a day and only go to the toilet once. The rest comes out as sweat. The urge to drink is the main thing you want to do when in Hong Kong at this time of year, closely followed by the urge to shower.
I was met at the airport by a rep from Kuoni, the travel operater, and transferred by Mercedes to the hotel, the Prudential, just off Nathan road in Kowloon. The rep didn't say anything on the way, but there was a woman from Scotland going to the same hotel in the car, so I talked to her. Hong Kong does not appear to be a tidy city. Much of the housing appears in poor shape. The buildings are stained concrete structues of about 20 storeys for the housing. The business district has the usual immaculate glass skyscrapers. The apartments all have air conditioners which stick out from the side of the building so that when you walk down the street, there is a place on the pavement about 20cm from the kerb where you get dripped on. It took me a while to figure out what this was. The streets are not particularly tidy either, especially around the areas where the night markets are. I saw one newspaper seller on the street, who, when some rubbish blew towards his stall, wafted it away into the road with a paper. This is typical. On the whole, unless you are buying something from them, or they are hotel employees, people on the street do not act friendly, just like in many other big cities. They will happily push in into ques, and if you are courteous to them they will not usually acknowledge it. Eventually I gave up being courteous, and pushed about like everyone else. Not many of the people seemed particularly happy either. Perhaps it's just a cultural thing.
There is a smell about the place as wel when it is humid, part pollution and part something else which it took me a while to identify. The whole city was both not as western as I expected and somehow familiar also. Many of the signs are in Chinese only, and many of the restaurants have menus in Chinese only, which I thought would make eating a problem. Until, that is I discovered that some of the real Chinese food is nothing like to stuff you get in western style take aways. The proportion of rice to meat is much higher, and the sauce that the meat comes in is much thinner. Also, it comes with this small plastic bowl of thick white liquid, and it was at this point I discovered the source of the rest of the smell - the thick white liquid, which fortunatley did not taste quite as bad as it smelled. I think it is bean curd, although perhaps it had curdled. It was not good either though. Luckily, there are the usual staples to fall back on, McDonalds and Pizzas, sandwiches and KFC. Some of the staff in McDonald's (Especially the further out ones) only words of English were Big Mac, Coke, Sprite, fries, small, medium and large. In the Pizza place (Called Sun-Something or other), they provide a pair of transparent disposable gloves with the meal. Other people were using them to eat food with their hands, so I donned them to not look out of place. I presume they were for hygiene purposes, as they were completley ineffective against the heat.
Interesting that they don't provide them in McDonald's, and people are happy to eat with bare hands. I could have eaten at some of the market street vendors, but the look and/or smell of the food was enough to put me off (this time anyway. I ate some when I returned to HK years later). If you so desire, you can have any number of spindly squirmy things taken from their tanks and killed (sometimes) and boiled for your eating pleasure (or not). Or, if sea food is not your style, you can try one of the many glazed chickens hanging up in shop windows. However, I thought they looked varnished, not glazed. There are varnished pigs heads too, thankfully without eyes.
Next to all this food in the night markets are the stalls of junk. There are many stalls, many of them selling the same crap. Pirate Disney CDs, Alarm clocks, cheap childrens toys, even cheaper nasty plastic watches, T-Shirts.. it goes on, turning down an even narrower street, The Chinese certainly do like their back streets. The main strip in Kowloon is Nathan road, 3-4 miles or so of shops and Neon. There are about 60 side roads, all narrower, all with neon signs. On each side road are more side roads, narrower still ,with yet more neon. Off these are alleyways, with no neon, probably only because there is not enough room. The night markets are open from about 7pm to 12:30 am. This is a city that goes to bed late. Most shops are open in the evening, and HMV is open until midnight. The streets are packed from about 11 in the morning until about midnight. It seems pretty safe anyway, and there is a slight police presence. There are still people about at 3am. It doesn't get too dark either, because of the neon.
On some back streets and corners are fortune tellers. I went to one, and these were his predictions : Live to 90, get married at either 25 or 30. Three children, 2 girls, one boy. Healthy all my life, lucky between 22 and 43. Wealthy, famous, possibly a writer. You read it here first! If he had said bad things I might have been more inclined to believe it. Amongst all the shops are tailors, who have many touts waiting to encourage you in. I found myself in a tailors 30 mins after leaving the hotel. I took advantage of this to have two shirts made,in less than 48 hours. The tailor wanted me to have much more, but I told him I couldn't afford it. I told later tailors some huge lies to avoid hassle. Having no credit cards is a good one, beaten only by "I'm a student", at which point the assume you are poor.
On Hong Kong Island are the normal shops, Benneton, Virgin, M&S etc. These are contained inside huge shopping centres, connected to some of the MTR (Underground) stations, housing and offices. I'm sure if you arranged it correctly, you could live, travel, shop and work without going outside or even down to ground level. The streets outside these are much like those in Kowloon, except they tend to organize shops into districts. I walked past about 15 tile shops in a row, with another 6 on the opposite side of the road. The use of English here is quite "creative". I saw signs for "Athlete's Foot" - sports shoe shop, and "Bright Growth Medical Centre". I can see what they are getting at, but I wouldn't have worded it that way.
There are two main ways over to Hong Kong Island form Kowloon (attached to the mainland). They are on the MTR (Mass Transit Railway), which is like London's underground, except with slightly bigger carriages, made in England I noticed. This costs about 50p compared with about 14p for the Star ferry, a slower but much more pleasant way to cross the harbour. The ferries operate about every 10 minutes during the day, any you get a nice view of it all on the way. I found there are three places to escape all of the people, the traffic and the smell. Firstly, there is Victoria Peak, where a tram will take you up a very steep slope to a highpoint on one of the mountains, where you can watch the whole city laid out before you, including the planes landing and taking off at Kai Tak.
The second option is to go to a temple. The best I found was Wong Tai Sin temple which is out in the suburbs. There is a MTR station next to the temple and outside the temple are old women handing out joss sticks to people, (not tourists though). Inside the temple are many people bowing, kneeling. praying and burning joss sticks. Next to the Temple is a huge Chinese garden, with a waterfall, and those little bridges and the buildings with the upturned roofs. Very relaxing, and it's only about 20p to get in too. Do not miss Wong Tai Sin temple if you go to Hong Kong.
The third place to excape the bustle is to go to a park. The main park is Kowloon park, a huge area on some of the most expensive real estate in the world. There are many ponds, paths and flamingos. Next to the park is a sports centre with a large indoor pool and three outdoor ones.Also in the ground of the park is the HK history museum, with full details of Hong Kong's turbulent history. The only other way to escape all of this (if you would want to) is to leave, going to the airport for a quick overpriced meal in the departure area (once they have you trapped!), before hopefully going onto somewhere just as interesting, like..Bangkok
I went again to Hong Kong, after the handover. The 2nd trip was at Christmas 2003.
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Copyright © M.F.Hughes 1996