While I have travelled extensively throughout Europe and parts of North America, I have not ventured into Asia nearly as much I would have liked so far. In fact, prior to my most recent trip, I had only visited Singapore (and the Asian part of Istanbul, but who actually “counts” that?). A recent business trip had me packing for a week in Hong Kong, and I was excited for the opportunity to explore a new country, city, and culture during my free time. It became clear to me fairly quickly upon my arrival, however, that I was grossly unprepared for my travels to such a large city in one of the largest countries in the world. After having spent a week in this metropolis of Southeast Asia, I have some insights that may help you with you first experience in this incredibly diverse and complex city.
It is still China, even if not on the Mainland. I think that I’d read somewhere (or I possibly just unknowingly assumed) that because Hong Kong was once under British rule, the country would somehow be less authentically Chinese in terms of culture and language. This was a bad assumption, and so my initial shock when wandering around the streets of Mongkok was much greater than if I’d been in a better mindset. Hong Kong is still very much China, and I think that’s a really good thing! This does mean, however, that all of the signage is in Cantonese (the dialect in Hong Kong), many people do not speak English well, if at all, and the food is very different than anything I’d experienced before. With that being said, visiting Hong Kong and being hit in the face with these cultural differences was an amazing experience, if only at first a little shocking.
The difference between each area of Hong Kong is MASSIVE. While choosing where to stay when in Hong Kong, I had absolutely no idea about the characteristics of each island and neighborhood in the city. I chose, in the end, to stay in Mongkok, and believe that this is a good location for tourists visiting the city. Mongkok is an incredibly local part of the city, and has a lot going on in terms of markets, restaurants, shops, and MTR (subway) connections. It’s also sort of in the middle of Kowloon Island, so it’s pretty easy to get essentially everywhere you’d want to go in Hong Kong.
I also enjoyed the harbor area a lot, and can appreciate the possibility of staying further south on Nathan Road to have easier access to this part of the city. Hong Kong Island feels like an entirely different world compared to Kowloon Island. As I was aware of Hong Kong’s reputation as a major world business center, I expected that much of the city would be incredibly modern, filled with massive skyscrapers, something akin to parts of Manhattan in New York City. While this is true on Hong Kong Island, it isn’t necessarily the case in other parts of the city. The buildings are tall everywhere, but the city at large isn’t any more modern than any other major city I’ve visited.
Traffic: rules need not apply. It took me a long time to figure out the “system” for walking on sidewalks, escalators, etc. in Hong Kong. Pro tip: there is no system. Hong Kong’s traffic situation is a hilarious mix of the UK system (driving on the left side of the street), and the system I’m familiar with in the US (staying to the right side of the sidewalk when walking), which often ends in everyone throwing their hands up and doing whatever the hell they want. And I mean that really seriously. By the end of the week, I became used to the way that people just move through sidewalks without caring if there are any other humans around them. I never, however, became used to the fact that some escalators were on the British system (your escalator is on the left of the set), and some on the US system (your escalator is on the right of the set). I can’t even express to you how many times I nearly began to walk the wrong way on an escalator, certainly to the annoyance of all the people around me. Sometimes it was different even within one building!
Another fun part of this is the way that Hong Kong drivers tend to react towards pedestrians. And that is, absolutely without any regard whatsoever. There are things that look like cross-walks, with signs on the ground telling you which way to look to see oncoming traffic, but SURPRISE! Drivers have the right-of-way here. Or, if they don’t, the drivers seem to think they do. Fortunately, it seems that cross-walks with lights are truly respected, but only to the exact minute of the pedestrian green-light. If you’re an inch onto the cross-walk after that moment, good luck!
Restaurants aren’t always the easiest places to find. I spent the first night looking for a restaurant for dinner on a street where I was assured there were plenty of restaurants, and I couldn’t physically find one. I told my free walking tour guide this tale of woe, and he could only laugh, not understanding how I couldn’t possibly see the signs for the restaurants. The thing is, the restaurants in Hong Kong are often located several stories above street level, so you must first check above your head for signs that designate restaurants (only sometimes in English, of course), and then for the elevator entrance to find which floor you need to get to.
Once I figured out the system, I had some great meals, but man do I wish someone had told me that on my first day! In any case, I managed to have some really excellent meals, and highly recommend Jasmine Garden at Langham Place for great Cantonese cuisine and Indian Restaurant and Bar for an excellent lunch menu.
The smog situation is real. Because Hong Kong is not on Mainland China, I assumed that it was not as adversely affected by the notorious smog that plagues many Chinese cities. And then, I got to the harbor, and I could hardly see the buildings across the water:
The smog situation during this week was explained to me by one of my colleagues as “a generous gift from the Mainland”. In fact, I heard many locals mention that the smog during the week I visited was particularly bad, with a government warning one of the days encouraging people to stay inside as much as possible to avoid the polluted air. With that being said, there’s no denying the fact that the smog lasted for an entire week (at least, I left after one week), and I’m sure it will happen again. Just be prepared for it, because I was very surprised, and then subsequently disappointed that the air quality and visibility was so low.
Human kindness abounds. This is not necessarily unique to Hong Kong or travel in Asia, but after a somewhat shocking first day or two in the city, it was something that I desperately needed to be reminded of. First, I want to preface this by saying that even after traveling to countries and cultures that are vastly different than my own, travel can still be shocking to me, just as it can be to everyone. I’m humbled by this reminder, and I’m grateful for the people that helped to remind me of the positive aspects of culture shock that I met along the way.
I went on a free day that I had to visit the Big Buddha (Tian Ten Buddha) at the Po Lin Monastery. This place is on Lantau Island, one of the many islands that make up Hong Kong, high up in the mountains. The photos of the place looked absolutely incredible, so I was excited for the opportunity to get out of the city a bit to explore some nature and culture. Granted, the day I was able to visit was one of the coldest and rainiest days of the entire week I was in Hong Kong, which was a bummer, but I thought it would still be cool to see. Usually this place is accessible by cable car, but that car will be closed until summer 2017 for renovations, so I was responsible for taking a bus up the mountain to get to the monastery and statue. After sorting that out and hoping onto the bus, I had a very interesting ride up a very steep and narrow mountain road, only to arrive at this:
Obviously, this is not the beautiful view that I expected, even from halfway up the stairs, but I walked up to the statue in any case (I was there, right?). By the time I got to the top, it began raining a lot more, so I took some photos, walked around a bit, but then decided to head down the hill. I made my way through the shopping village, found some cows roaming on the street, and went back towards the buses.
When I got to the (very long) line for the buses, it was clear that I wasn’t making either of the next two buses, which meant that I would be standing on line for at least 40 minutes. Perfect. It was still raining, and I was very much not dressed for such conditions, so I bucked up and prepared myself for a miserable 40 minutes, a little bitter that the experience was not what I had envisioned. After standing for a couple of minutes, two people got on the line behind me, but I didn’t really notice them as I was preoccupied trying to connect to the free Wi-Fi. That was until I noticed that I was no longer standing in the rain. The man behind me was holding an umbrella, and had moved so that we were both covered by its gloriously dry cover. I turned around to say thank you, and we all started laughing at the fairly miserable situation we found ourselves in. We got to talking, and I discovered that they were from England; the man had been traveling in Asia for 6 months and had just arrived in Hong Kong about a week prior where his friend from Bristol had joined him to visit. We spent the next 40 minutes on our long, wet line talking about everything from travel to culture, to the recent contentious votes in both of our countries. Having this sort of connection with people when I was feeling so down and disconnected from the world was a god-send, and that was beyond the fact that these two were incredibly interesting people to meet! We finally made it to the bus, and got back to the town where the MTR station was located to get us back to warm and dry clothes. We all agreed that we were so wet and miserable that we rightly deserved to treat ourselves to Starbucks at the shopping center nearby before getting back on the MTR. We sat at the Starbucks chatting for well over an hour, it was such a great evening. We parted ways on the MTR train without exchanging contact info, so it’s likely that I’ll never see or talk to them again, but I truly enjoyed connecting with other travelers in a way that I haven’t gotten to experience in a while. And it all started with the sharing of an umbrella- something that he certainly did not have to do, but that absolutely made my day and perspective 1000x better. So, thanks, kind strangers!
My second story comes from my last day in Hong Kong, and I wish that it had happened on the first! I was desperately looking for a good, local restaurant for lunch, as I hadn’t yet managed to have dim sum or Chinese barbecue, and I was ready! I had read that a nearby mall to my hotel in Mongkok had some good places to eat, so I went on an adventure to find them. I managed to get to the mall, and kept going up escalators (alternating sides, of course) trying to get to the restaurant section at the top only to discover that this mall was 13 stories high (not including the basement levels)! It just never ended.
I finally found a restaurant that looked like it had local food (Jasmine Garden), and it had a line of about 20 people standing outside, so I figured it had to be good! I took a number (after much doubt about how exactly do to that- the electronic number system for restaurants got me at the beginning), and I waited for my table. I was seated next to another two-person table, and another couple soon joined me. Our tables were quite close together, so when they noticed me looking at the menu practically sideways in confusion over what exactly I should order (I didn’t understand what the concept of dim sum was, at first), they offered to help. I mentioned that I was excited to try the barbecue pork, but was open to suggestions. They gave my order to the waiter (who only spoke Cantonese), and explained what they’d gotten for me to try. I ended up with spring rolls that had shredded chicken inside, steamed rice, and barbecue pork- perfect.
I was instructed to try the spring rolls first plain, and then with the sauce provided. I mentioned that I really liked it with the sauce, and then the wife said something to our waiter. Apparently, she’d asked for a different kind of sauce for me so that I’d have the chance to try the sweet and sour sauce that comes with other types of dim sum. It was so sweet that they were genuinely interested in helping me to try the best bits of their cuisine! They also noticed how significantly I was struggling with the rice with chop sticks (it was my fault, I put it on the plate and put soy sauce on it, so it was no longer sticky), and so they taught me how I’m actually supposed to be eating Chinese food (with a soup spoon, out of a bowl- even when it isn’t soup!).
We also had a chance to talk a bit about our own cultures, countries, travels, and some politics. I was hesitant to comment on politics, not knowing their backgrounds or opinions on the recent controversial changes in my own country, but they jumped right in. It became clear that they were also nervous about the route that American politics is taking, and we had an interesting discussion regarding Chinese/US relations, which is something I hadn’t had a chance yet to discuss openly with someone from the region. They were so truly interested in learning about my life, country, and culture, and I had an amazing time learning about theirs. Having this chance to get to know some local people outside of a business setting was so refreshing, and was exactly what I needed. It was so hard for me to relate to a lot of the people that I’d met, because I admittedly know much less about Chinese culture than I do about many other cultures globally. The fact that this couple took the chance during their Saturday lunch to introduce me to their food and to their own lives was so beautiful, and I’m grateful for the experience. They were also very upset that I hadn’t taken a photo of my food or myself during this clearly momentous lunch, so my phone was taken so that it could be taken care of on my behalf. Now, you all get to experience the amazement:
Thank you, again, kind strangers! I have so much more appreciation now for your country, city, and culture and am thankful for your beautiful introduction.
And so here concludes my lessons learned from a week in Hong Kong. This experience taught me so much more than I was honestly expecting it to, but I suppose by now I should know to always expect to grow and develop from each and every experience that I have. I’m grateful for the time that I spent in this city, and I’m excited for the chance to explore more of this beautiful continent (just hopefully in better weather!).
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