Thursday, September 22, 2016

Part 1: Hong Kong

The man I am sitting next to on the plane to Hong Kong has a Chinese Passport and a US Passport, and he starts giving us all kinds of insider info on Hong Kong. Before we know it, we know how to get around Hong Kong and how to pay for it.

The subway system in Hong Kong - or MTR, as it is locally referred to - puts every single other system, even the Underground, to shame. It is completely and utterly idiot proof, full of maps and guides and light up signs and directions and every single stop, no matter where, featuring a slew of convenience stores, restaurants, bakeries, restrooms, Wi-Fi hotspots, ATMs, everything anyone could ever need. Not once did we go the wrong direction, or miss a stop, or get confused, unlike, say, in New York City. The trains were on schedule, fast, and we almost never had to wait more than 2 minutes for one. And a ton of them exited right out into shopping malls.

Speaking of shopping malls, I would not be surprised if Hong Kong had the highest amount of shopping malls per person of anywhere on earth. Step off the MTR? Shopping mall. Turn a corner? Shopping mall. Try to leave a shopping mall? Guess what, you just walked into another. They are everywhere, and seemingly all of them busy.

The MTR is strict. No eating or drinking, not even water. You can tell the cleanliness is a bit of a source of pride. There is no begging because it is illegal and strictly enforced. Of course, that doesn't rid the city of homelessness, and with a keen eye you can see the cardboard shacks and shipping containers that house the less fortunate in a city whose housing prices and rent prices are skyrocketing out of control.

Perhaps most strikingly, Hong Kong is an eminently walkable city, and people are out late walking, playing, shopping at markets, and with nobody ever far from an MTR stop, the time commitment required to explore the city is much smaller than it could be.

Yet beneath the relative orderliness of the city lies anger. Lamp posts are covered with stickers exclaiming that "Hong Kong is not China." Nobody in the city would ever dare identify themselves as Chinese. The constant tension of being the same nation but having a different government is there, and Hong Kong, even with all its wealth and development, is a small fish in a big pond compared to the overwhelming might of the mainland.

The city itself, the skyline, is everywhere. It feels claustrophobic at times, buildings seemingly stacked one after another, many of them narrowest at the base. It is even more crowded vertically than New York City, almost no part of Hong Kong is without towering structures standing high above you. It feels like they could all come tumbling down with just the smallest tremor, all the laundry strung out on wires floating down to fall on top of the rubble. But they haven't.

And like many big cities, Hong Kong loves - loves - car horns. Constant honking, even though the traffic was relatively orderly (certainly compared to later stops). One wonders how bad it would be without such a robust MTR system.

As for sightseeing, there's a lot, although given the relatively small area, Hong Kong isn't exactly a country you could spend a year in doing nothing but checking it out. Still, some of the temples are massive in scope and a sight to behold, many offering the only respite available in the city away from the noise. Perhaps most striking is Victoria Peak, a large rise on the south edge of the city that looks out over the urban sprawl at night. Hong Kong's nighttime light pollution is loud and garish and beautiful, and from atop the hill you can see it all spread out in front of you like a glorious artificial wildfire.

In terms of food, you probably owe it to yourself to at least find a nice dim sum place. You absolutely can't go wrong with BBQ pork dim sum, the sweet, soft steamed bun stuffed with smoky and sweet BBQ pork. It's so simple and yet so good, better than any cheap BBQ pulled pork you might buy in a store in America. Better than any hamburger bun. Washing it down with a nice hot green tea just makes it all the more enjoyable.

At its most fundamental level, Hong Kong stood out to me in the following ways; modern, tall, busy, convenient. It is a city seemingly designed to allow anyone and everyone to traverse it, to never have anyone be without a modern amenity for more than a few steps, and to simply overwhelm you with the sheer height and seemingly never-ending sprawl of sky-reaching buildings.

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