In the drizzling rain at Victoria Harbor

I don’t think I ever have scheduled a trip with as many flights as this one has, and I hope I never have to again! Although I still like flying, I have to say that it’s lost quite a bit of its novelty to me and is much less exciting than it used to be. Yet, the plans are set – Christine and I are flying from Chicago to Hong Kong, then to Kuala Lumpur, then to Phuket, then to Chiang Mai. We have to figure out how to get to Bangkok from there, but we hope it will be on a train instead of a plane for a brief airline reprieve! But then, it’s from Bangkok to Hong Kong, to Los Angeles (probably just LAX; no time to leave) and back to Chicago. In fact, we were inches away from having yet another round trip flight purchased for us, from Kuala Lumpur to Penang Island and back.

I met Christine and her parents in Milwaukee, where they had kindly offered to transport both Christine and me to the Chicago airport. I’m not used to such things; I think I’ve been taking coach buses to the airport alone ever since the Britain trip in 2007 – the one that started this blog almost five and a half years ago! But they saw us to the airport, got us lunch, and waved us through security (not officially, unfortunately, we still had to be waved by people in uniforms, too). Christine managed to lose her toothbrush in all the excitement. We both felt vindicated to see that the Rapiscan (or Rape Scan) full body particle scanners were sitting derelict and unused in the International Terminal – I’ll never forgive them for making us miss our flight from Fort Lauderdale to San Jose last year.

It was time to settle in for our 15 hour (real time, at least – it was about a day when you take time zones into account) flight. Our seatmate on the massive Boeing 777 was a young Asian woman named, of all things, Christine. She originally had my coveted window seat, but offered it to us unbidden because she said she felt nauseated – before the plane even took off. The hours passed by uneventfully, regretfully spent watching fluffy movies and TV shows instead of practicing our Pimseleur’s Thai audio files. The flight was operated by Cathay Pacific, despite being under the auspices of American Airlines, so the movie titles on our personal tablet-screen-things included both Hong Kong and other Asian masterpieces…like Forbidden City Cop, which probably caught Christine’s eye due to her love of Jackie Chan flicks (the percentage in which he plays a cop is pretty high, I think). Needless to say, it was a low-budget Cantonese comedy, filled with rude jokes and references to Hong Kong pop culture.

Hong Kong was chilly when we arrived on December 29th…but not as chilly as the half meter of snow that we had left behind in Wisconsin. The airport is pretty far removed from the main Hong Kong islands, so the air didn’t even smell that bad as we stepped out onto the curb. I stared in utter incomprehension at the “traditional” Chinese characters inscribed on every surface – but thankfully, English was underneath 80% of them, and I assume that the other 20% wasn’t anything that I needed to know about, anyway. Our bus from the airport to Argyle Street in the Hong Kong downtown was 33 HKD – Hong Kong dollars – a person, or a little under 5 USD apiece. And the bus had free wifi on it too! $5 apparently goes a lot farther in a land where you can be served a ball of squid on a stick for fifty cents.

Christine in the Sincere building…can you spot her?

Lodging, however, is supposedly pretty pricey in Hong Kong compared with other areas of Asia. Christine and I got a hostel room for 26 USD for the two of us, which I thought was pretty good, but relative to our pre-booked hostel lodgings in Thailand, it was easily twice as expensive or more. I immediately rejoiced in my decision to bring my Android from the USA with me – with some careful caching of Google Maps tiles on the bus, plus the always-active GPS system in the phone, I was able to easily find the Dragon Hostel – or the building it was in, at least.  It’s no surprise that space is in a premium in Hong Kong – in our 20 hours there, I didn’t see a single building that was less than 5 stories tall. We found the “Sincere Building” that supposedly housed our beds somewhere within its mammoth guts, but we had to paw our way through six floors of iPad minis (they sure do seem to love iPad minis here), cell phone cases of every color, and tight jeans, some of which were on display racks but the majority were on weirdly made-up Chinese men in the high school to university age group. Almost all of the guys were sporting skintight jeans, swooped and dyed hair, and long scarves. I had been worried that snatchers might try to take advantage of our heavily laden state (two bags apiece) to try to grab something off of us on the packed streets, but Christine pointed out that she was pretty sure we could punch out any twerp who tried anything. Welcome to Hong Kong!

We eventually found our hostel nestled into the corner apartments of the 7th floor, and were able to unburden ourselves. It was exactly how I imagined Chinese tenement style housing would look – our building was in a U-shape, with the door to the block of rooms that included our own facing out over a dreary grey concrete open walkway filled with limply hanging laundry, happily moist plants, and chatting tourists. There were at least 3 hostels that we saw on two floors of the Sincere Building alone, and there could have been more somewhere above or below us in the 15 floors that comprised its edifice.

We decided to just walk around. It was around 9:30 and we had to leave tomorrow afternoon for Malaysia, so we wanted to make the most of it. Using Android and the GPS again, I quickly cached some more maps and we hiked the streets for 3 hours. Hong Kong near Argyle Street is basically…electronic stores, convenience stores, and restaurants – at least visible at street level. Who knows how many tiny attempts at businesses are lurking above us, desperately wishing that they were easily visible to the throngs of potential customers in the streets below. Well, we didn’t have time to explore vertically; we were filling our eyeballs enough as it was. Christine had been to China a couple of years ago, and had already warned me that that the food could be odd, almost like the Chinese were competing to make the strangest parts of plants and animals edible. We saw dead octopi sitting on trays under hot lamps, surrounded by weirdly tasseled plants…or animals; we weren’t quite sure. And every few feet beyond that, someone was trying to sell us an iPad mini, or there would literally be pallets of them sitting out on the street, in big plastic bags to protect their cardboard boxes from the thick warm Hong Kong humidity.

We had two things on our mind – food and drinks. Stephen, our hostel manager, had recommended a particular area for bars, and we were glad of it – there was nothing in our shopping area. But about a half kilometer north of us there was about two solid blocks of them. We were too late for happy hour, unfortunately, and drinks were expensive. We settled on an establishment amusingly named “The Piss Bar II” – we found out later that drinking the piss was more British or Australian slang for just drinking beer. We also got some tiny little peanuts, too, which we thought were complimentary but were charged for in the end, about USD 2 for them. The beer was good – both of us had Tsing Tao, which was the local beer from the region that Christine had lived in before. “They sold it to us to in plastic bags for almost nothing,” Christine recalled fondly. No such luck here – Hong Kong was expensive, all the travel books agreed!

By the time we were all pissed out, most of the restaurants had closed, with thick steel bars settling down over their glass fronts. Tiny little Buddhist shrines with incense were burning eerily in front of many of them, smoke curling the ankles of the late passersby and delicately scenting the air above the ever-present smog. A little soup place was still open though, although we were their last customers. It was here that we discovered the Chinese love of stuffing hot dogs in things…the English menu advertised a “pork soup” which sounded good to me, and Christine got a “Chilled Chicken Pieces” entrée. As it turned out, she got chilied chicken with lettuce, which she picked at sadly, and went after the tasty dark curly noodles in my “pork” (hot dog) soup. We didn’t polish off our bowls, that was for sure. I could almost feel my blood pressure rising.

Christine loves her Dan Tat…or Don Tot?

It was difficult to tell when morning came in our windowless hostel box. Our only direct connection to the outside world was through a gray PVC pipe protruding through the wall, and as the sounds of honking and traffic gradually echoed louder through it, my glowing watch face confirmed that it was 7am. Our flight was at 4pm, so we had the morning to sightsee. Christine and I found some Don Tot, a sweet lemony pastry that she had loved in Tsing Tao, and struck out to the subway to Victoria Harbor, to the Intercontinental Hotel and the Hong Kong Hollywood walk of stars. As Christine’s uncle had told us, it was a gorgeous view from the hotel’s massive picture windows across the channel to Macau to the massive corporate offices on the other side – Panasonic, Sony, LG…they spread out to the east and west and disappeared into the smog.

There were hundreds of stars in the Walk of Stars, and most of them had matching handprints from their owners. Of course, Christine knew a lot of them by name, and we posed with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, and she with several more whose names weren’t familiar to me. A steady drizzle started above us, and I was happy to have brought my Costa Rica-era windbreaker with me…Hong Kong rain is only a few steps away from acid rain, I’d been told. We walked through a quiet park and playground on our way back to the subway station, the third of which I’d seen. I was pleased that the Hong Kong planners had seen fit to provide its citizens with so many outlets for their children to play on – in Jordan, such a thing was almost never seen.

He sure has little hands!

We picked up our bags from the Dragon Hostel, and headed back to the bus stop. Another 33 Hong Kong dollars for each of our bus tickets, and an hour back to the airport. Now that we were seeing the terrain in daylight, it was clear that we were island hopping, crossing over bridge after bridge between tiny mountainous islands with condos and houses dotting each one. I fell asleep in about 20 minutes. Looking forward to seeing my little sister in a few hours!