Warning: this post brought to you by two incredibly jet lagged people.
We travel a lot, so we’re used to jet lag. We tried to sleep on the plane – John did a better job at that than I did, getting a solid 8 hours to my intermittent 6 (I was too excited about flying business class for the first time and kept ordering snacks and wine). We thought we’d be okay… unfortunately we were wrong.
The day we arrived in Hong Kong, we had to push through extreme fatigue. We eventually emerged from our hotel room and walked around, only to lose steam within a few hours, lay down for a nap (mistake!!) and accidentally sleep through dinner. If you know us you know we do not sleep through dinner!
That said, our first impression of Hong Kong was tainted by monster jet lag, so take this with a grain of fried rice.
Hong Kong feels like a cross between the chaos of NYC, the attitude of Paris and the smell of Bourbon Street. More than 7.2 million people live here, packed in at almost 17,000 people per square mile. That’s difficult to imagine until you look up and see nothing but skyscraper on top of skyscraper, most with laundry drying from the windows. The juxtaposition of luxury and poverty was alarming – while there weren’t many beggars at all, there are international designer shopping areas adjacent to dilapidated skyscrapers with micro apartments and, we learned, something called cage houses. Click here for some light (read: depressing) reading. I was sad for these men and women, but John’s silver lining perspective is that a cage is better than being homeless on the street.
You’ll notice the article linked above is from the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s daily newspaper. As a news junkie, I first read the paper out of curiosity on the flight over. I picked up an edition every day we were there because, aside from interesting stories about Hong Kong and mainland China, each paper included no less than five above-the-fold stories about the U.S., carefully following every move of the president and his new appointees. It was surprising to us how closely U.S. politics was covered, although it might be the post-election timing and sentiments.
We took a taxi from the airport to the hotel and I’ll just say it’s oxymoronic that almost every taxi is a Toyota Comfort, because that certainly depends on the driver. But taxis, or “dik si,” are a viable option since there are almost 20,000 of them zipping around this 1,000 square mile city.
The Hong Kong metro system, or MTR, dates back to 1910 and transports almost five million people per day, plus two conspicuous Americans. Once you buy a reloadable Octopus card, it was very easy to navigate, but there are quite a few stops so it can take more than an hour to get from place to place.
My sea faring husband was impressed with the Kwai Chung Container Terminals seen on the taxi drive in, so I wasn’t surprised that Victoria Harbour was our first sightseeing stop. The Harbour is bustling, with about 220,000 ships coming through annually and what felt like the same number of people walking on the promenade the day we were there. Always fans of a good Ferris Wheel view, we took a turn on the Hong Kong Observation Wheel to see the Harbor and Hong Kong island skyline from almost 200 feet up.
For an afternoon/evening view, we checked out the Sky100, a 360° observation deck on the 100th floor of the International Commerce Center in Kowloon. That was cool, but my sixth sense for fanciness discovered the Ritz-Carlton’s Ozone bar just above us on the 118th floor. Of course we had to go there to have a cocktail at the highest bar in the world! There was even an open air terrace to see the view. It was freezing so we took a few pics and shivered our way back inside, where I found the best view from the women’s bathroom.
We reluctantly left my happy place to see what the Temple Street Night Market was all about. Turns out we should have done that in reverse order to purchase a fake designer handbag to fit in better at the Ritz! The night market was reminiscent of the New Orleans French Market and NYC’s China Town. While we didn’t have any wild goose chases into store basements to get a handbag like we did in New York, we were hassled by vendors selling all sorts of items, from wallets and bags to watches, DVDs and toys. John negotiated with a vendor for a very nice set of porcelain chopsticks, which he was proud to get for $6US. We also got a magnet – of you guessed it, pork buns! – for our collection. It was definitely an experience we won’t forget.
One of the most memorable experiences was seeing the Tian Tan “Big Buddha” at Ngong Ping on Lantau Island. It was a 30-minute metro ride, followed by a 40-minute bus ride through winding roads (John scored us the front seat there and back so I could see the road and not get car sick), followed by 268 steps up to Buddha himself. The bronze statue weighs 250 tons and is 112 feet tall – how they got that thing up those treacherous roads remains a mystery to us. It was interesting to learn about the symbolism of Buddha and the “Offering of the Six Devas” (of course John joked that I made the 7th diva) which represent the six perfections necessary for enlightenment. You can read the in-depth information here. The smell of incense is permeating at Tian Tan – each stick represents wishes and prayers offered up by visitors. Of course we sent up wishes for our loved ones, safe travels and for a long and happy marriage. Our favorite part of being on Lantau Island was the sacred cows that grazed the grounds – and rooted through the trash cans – everywhere you looked.
Our favorite aspect of this stop has definitely been experiencing Chinese New Year, also called Lunar New Year or Spring Festival. It’s been incredible learning about the holiday customs and traditions, including:
- The giving of beautiful red envelopes containing money, or “lai see,” to loved ones. These are also given at weddings and special occasions.
- Decorating with ornate “fai chun,” traditional rice paper touting wishes for happiness and prosperity written in Chinese calligraphy (usually red, since the color is said to ward off evil spirits).
- Elaborately costumed lion and dragon dances, which are said to drive away evil spirits and bring good luck, respectively.
- And my personal favorite: write a wish on a piece of paper, tie it to an orange and throw it into the branches of a wishing tree. If your “bao die” hooks onto a branch, legend has it your wish will come true.
It’s now the Year of the Rooster, symbolizing punctuality. In Chinese history, the rooster was essential to daily life, waking villagers each morning to start work. Hopefully John and I will be inspired by the rooster and wake up refreshed and jet lag free (and not at 4 am) for the rest of our time here.
We also learned that during Chinese New Year, many Hong Kongers and mainlanders take time to visit family and friends to enjoy each other’s company, honor ancestors and celebrate life’s blessings. We’re thinking of our loved ones now and everyday throughout this incredible journey.