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Lay ho, Hong Kong

Started: 2013-01-03 19:09:57

Submitted: 2013-01-03 22:17:07

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator begins to explore Hong Kong

I slept fitfully in my first night in Hong Kong, exhausted from traveling but jet-lagged; my body clock told me it was Friday morning back home. (In the soul-catching-up hypothesis for travel, mine had barely made it to Seattle.) I eventually got up around 08:00 local time Saturday morning and began to get my bearings in our hotel room. On the theory that three people needed a bit more space than a simple hotel room, I'd booked a one-bedroom suite with a tiny kitchenette and a small kitchen table, though most of the kitchenette was disabled for hotel guests and enabled only for long-term guests. (The fridge had been reclaimed as a minibar, but it was large enough to put milk and orange juice in it for breakfast.) The main living area had a sofa bed where Calvin slept, and Kiesa and I had a small bedroom of our own. By the time I awoke, Calvin was awake (having happily slept all night long) and looking out the window onto Victoria Harbour. We were at the Harbour Plaza North Point, in the far eastern edge of North Point, a residential neighborhood east of the central business district of Hong Kong Island, and we looked out onto the old Kai Tak runway in New Kowloon, which was being rebuilt into a cruise ship terminal. Immediately in front of the hotel, on our side of the harbor, a dredge was operating around the piers for the expressway elevated over the water, and Calvin thought it was the greatest thing ever: a crane on a boat. He was transfixed, and probably thought we came all the way to Hong Kong just so he could watch the dredge.

Calvin looks out the hotel window at Victoria Harbour
Calvin looks out the hotel window at Victoria Harbour

We ate breakfast at the buffet at the hotel restaurant. The buffet featured a variety of breakfast comfort foods from Europe, North America, and Asia; I had congee (rice porridge) with peanuts in addition to my hash browns, toast, and coffee. We headed out to explore the city and found a Starbucks immediately across the street, and a small but well-appointed grocery store next door. We stopped by the grocery store, maybe a little bigger than an American suburban convenience store, and bought muesli and milk for breakfasts, on the theory that the hotel breakfast was fine but maybe a bit on the expensive side.

Our next objectives were to figure out the local mass-transit system ("MTR"); I missed the station exit down the side street and headed down the main street to find the Quarry Bay station entrance. (That was when I noticed that the center location of the metro stations on Google Maps didn't matter much; the station exits were only visible when I zoomed in.) Calvin was excited by the double-decker trams running down the middle of the street, and simply by the variety of traffic. (Kiesa was worried that we'd inadvertently raised a city boy. I tried not to get my hopes up too high.)

We found the station more-or-less where I expected to find it and bought stored-value Octopus cards that we could use on most mass-transit systems around the special administrative region, including the metro. Calvin got a reduced child fare but had to go through the gates himself; he eventually figured out how to scan his RFID card on the reader and go through the gates. We took the MTR subway train west into Central and wandered around in search of a shop where I could get local SIM cards. I had the address, and a good idea where I was going, but navigating the streets of Hong Kong on foot proved somewhat more complicated than I'd expected. There were skywalks going most places but they didn't always go exactly where I expected them to go, and my phone couldn't get a roaming data connection. (I successfully roamed internationally in India this summer, but I think they were serviced by both CDMA and GSM networks, and I only used the CDMA network. My phone came with a Vodafon roaming SIM for GSM networks, but I don't think I managed to turn it on.)

We ended up with a passing tour of Central, past the angular Bank of China building next to the inside-out HSBC building (with, according to some, better feng shui, with its back to the mountain, facing the sea), Statue Square (with its British colonial statues removed by the occupying Japanese during WWII), and the cenotaph honoring the British Empire's war dead in WWI and WWII. (I noticed they gave a Eurocentric start date for WWII, though to be fair, figuring out when the Sino-Japanese war that was eventually subsumed into WWII started is tricky; most historians cite the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937, but the Japanese invaded and occupied Manchuria in 1931.) We eventually found the mall I was looking for, and the 3Shop inside it, where we bought local SIM cards for our mobile phones. Aside from figuring out exactly what we wanted, and getting our phones configured (including entering the unlock code I got from Verizon before leaving home), this required very little ceremony; we didn't have to show any sort of identification other than the credit card I used to pay. Just like that we had local mobile numbers and I had a cheap local data plan.

Kiesa picked up some snacks at a bakery and we contemplated our next move. It was mid-day, and we were hungry, so we headed in the direction of one of Hong Kong's premier vegetarian restaurants, Pure Veggie House, a couple of blocks away, though on the other side of a confusing network of skywalks. We passed the base of the Peak Tram, which advertised an hour-long queue, and headed through the botanical gardens to get to the restaurant. I was getting hungry, and feeling tired and jet-lagged, which was an inconvenient combination, but I managed to order enough tasty Chinese vegetarian food to satisfy us (though, being tired and jet-lagged, I wasn't able to eat very much of it).

We headed back to the botanical gardens and looked around a bit until we found the children's playground, where Calvin ran around and Kiesa and I sat down to take advantage of the free wi-fi provided by the government of Hong Kong.

I was feeling a bit more awake after Calvin had played for a while, so we headed down the hill in search of the Peak Tram. The queue advertised a 90-minute wait, so we decided to scrub that idea and headed instead to Hong Kong Park, which featured a giant enclosed aviary with massive banyan trees overlooking the skyscrapers in Central. I noticed the signs warning one not to feed the birds or come into contact with them, which I took to be anti-bird-flu warnings. All over the city there were also signs next to hand railings on stairs and escalators and elevator buttons saying that "this facility is disinfected every two hours" or so, which I took to be a reaction to SARS and the possibility of another outbreak of a pandemic flu in the densely-populated special administrative region.

Urban jungle: Bank of China tower above the aviary at Hong Kong Park
Urban jungle: Bank of China tower above the aviary at Hong Kong Park
Banyan tree growing through the aviary at Hong Kong Park
Banyan tree growing through the aviary at Hong Kong Park

We found yet another playground and I began to marvel at the plethora of public spaces in Hong Kong. I concluded that one needed public spaces to compensate for the lack of space in one's own apartment, and contrasted this to India, which doesn't do shared public spaces very well (in part because Indians have no sense of shared identity; instead, they stick to their own communities, as defined by their ethnic and religious groups (and, often, caste).

We let Calvin play for a while and headed off in search of the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, where I looked through the tea pots on display and exhibits about the history of tea and the various developments during Chinese history. Calvin was not especially enthralled by the museum but did appreciate the children's play room. We headed next to the adjacent tea house, where we ordered some tea and snacks and got an elaborate tea preparation with the oolong tea we ordered, which included pouring water over the tea pot to warm it up.

We took the street tram to get back to our hotel, winding along the main streets following the historic shore line, which has been extended over the last century by successive waves of reclamation. The tram was standing-room-only as we entered but as we traveled we got enough space to sit down. In my jet-lagged haze, watching the brightly-lit shops scroll by and the people bustle about made me feel like I was watching a movie.

Calvin fell asleep in Kiesa's arms on the tram as it bumped its way, slowly, east toward our hotel. We put him to bed when we returned, then barely managed to stay awake until 20:00 local time, which I declared to be a "plausible early bedtime" and went to sleep.

"Lay ho" is "hello" in Cantonese. For a parallel account of our first day in Hong Kong, see The First Day. For more photos from our first day, see Photos on 2012-12-22.