Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Hong Kong: Love at First Sight

Hong Kong skyline from Kowloon

Sometimes no matter how hard you try to plan things and prepare, life throws you a curve ball and you have surrender. I had tried to prepare my Hong Kong arrival as much as possible knowing that having a bike in this city was going to be a challenging, if not impossible.  I was incredibly apprehensive about biking around Hong Kong on my bike.  From the research I had done, biking wasn’t a convenient means of transportation and I was starting to regret choosing Hong Kong for my Asian city of arrival.  However, upon landing, my luggage was missing.  I could have gotten frustrated but since I try to see the positive side of things, for me it meant a little shopping spree for a new outfit (or two) courtesy the airlines and not having to worry about carting my bike around Hong Kong fully laden with my gear.  Funny enough, it was a relief that my luggage didn’t come on time.

Hong Kong.  Wow!  Where to begin?  The best way to describe it is love at first sight.  While it feels chaotic and out-of-control, there is something about this city that draws you in, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but you’re intrigued and excited to experience more despite the simultaneous overwhelming sensation. On my bus ride into the city, I couldn’t stop looking around at all the fascinating views.  Tiny, unpopulated islands scattered across the sea seem so serene next to giant skyscrapers towering over a bustling metropolis.  Highways wind in and out of the tall buildings with overpasses and tunnels every 200 meters.  Hong Kong has developed every last inch possible in the city. Even storefront show signs of making the most of the space they have to display the goods their selling. I’ve seen Southern Thailand through the eyes of a cyclist, so jungles weren’t a new sight, but when a dense metropolis area juxtaposes the jungle, it’s an unbelievable sight.

Mong Kok district

Once on foot, I aimlessly wandered the streets stopping to observe, stare, and smile with amusement and disbelief. The maze of streets is lined with markets, stores, and restaurants.  Every nook and cranny is filled.  Bustling and busy, jammed packed with swarms of people regardless of the time of day.  Everyone seems to have a purpose, their normal daily routine and know exactly where they are going and how to get there. Yet, I’m baffled as to how to read the map and orient myself.  Everything looks the same, restaurants on the corners, narrow deep stores covered wall-to-wall in merchandise, and millions of street signs hanging from above.  Just when I think I know where I am, and perhaps recognize a street name, all of a sudden I’m completely lost and can’t situate north from south and the water from the mountains.  Getting my bearings proved to be my biggest challenge exploring the streets of Hong Kong.  People walk, but for any distance over a few blocks and they hop on the underground, bus or tram, because their public transportation is incredibly reliable, cheap, and fast.

One of Hong Kong's "Wet Markets"
You could call this a hardware store, specializing in electrical items?!?!

There is a peculiar mix of western and Cantonese culture in Hong Kong.  Some restaurants are completely western and familiar looking, while others don’t have a menu in English, and the only recognizable words are the prices.  The supermarkets to my surprise have a lot of foreign brands and if you didn’t know any better you would think you were in a grocery store in North America, until you walk out the front door.  While English is the official language, most signs and publicity are in both English and Cantonese.  English speakers and ex-pats are plentiful in Hong Kong, but the people still manages to preserve their native culture and traditions. You definitely feel as though you are in Asia, but with English widespread, you are never too far out of your comfort zone.

Sensory overload is probably the best way to express one’s first impression of Hong Kong. I usually shut down when I take in too much stimulation, yet in Hong Kong, it’s the exact opposite.  It’s as if the city and people invite you to interact and participate in the ongoing chaos, which is really only on the surface.  Underneath, there is an underlying feeling of order and respect that I find peaceful.  My favorite sites in this city isn’t the skyline at night or the street markets selling unidentifiable food but the street signs.  All throughout the city there are posters and signs reminding me of the profound amount of respect the people have for one another.  What kinds of signs?  There are signs communicating in detail who, when, and how the public restrooms are cleaned. There are posters above elevator buttons that let you know they’ve been sterilized frequently.  There are also signs by the water fountains asking you not to spit, and others in the metro that ask that you kindly wear a mask if you are feeling sick, and yet others that remind you to cover your mouth with your hands when you cough. 

Thanks, that is good to know!

You might think, okay, just because there are signs attempting to maintain civil order, doesn’t mean that the people actually follow these norms.  After living in Barcelona for ten years, unfortunately I have become immune to the acts of vandalism, civil disorder, and the general disrespect that exists between people and their urban environment.  That is the norm for me, what is not normal is for people to want to take really good care of their city.  The people are also extremely pleasant. In fact, they go out of their way to help and take care of you. 

For instance, almost every public area has someone there just to guide people, answer questions, and assist.  In the underground, there are people who show you to the correct train platform, and if there is construction, they help you with the detour.  In the shopping malls, there are elevator attendants who push the button for you, and in public restrooms (yes there are loads and they are free) the cleaning staff greets you as you enter and are constantly cleaning the facilities, without receiving a tip.  I stopped and asked my fair share of people for directions on the street and they all seem to go out of their way to make sure I find where I am going.  I was blown away by the hospitality and respect people have for one another, not to mention you have to search high and low to find a piece of rubbish on the ground.

One of Hong Kong's many temples in the heart of hte city

I’m not a “big city” person by any means.  I protested my Barcelona assignment from The Rotary Club 10 years ago, requesting a small town that seemed more manageable.  But after a few months of living in the Catalan capital, I realized, there are “enormous engulfing” big cities, and “small and friendly” big cities.  Barcelona and Hong Kong fall under the category of small, friendly, and livable big cities.  Believe it or not, people do cycle in Hong Kong.  You won’t find hard-core cyclists on the main roads on Hong Kong Island or Kowloon, but if you head out to one of their many country parks and trails, there are cyclists.  Nature and outdoor activities are easily accessible in this city.  I have felt so comfortable during my week visit in Hong Kong that I could easily stay longer, I love this place.  Tomorrow I take the ferry west to cross the Chinese border and avoid a few of the larger industrial cities east of the Pearl River delta.  I’m terrified but curious, or perhaps you could say naïve.  Whatever I encounter on the other side, it is sure to be the start of another fascinating adventure as I being to explore the Asian continent.

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