Sunday, December 27, 2009

The City of Lights

If Paris is the City of Light, then Hong Kong is certainly the City of Lights, as in lots and lots of brightly-colored neon lights that burn through the night.

A skyscraper lit up at night

A night-time overview of the city

And a nicely lit fountain near the waterfront

There's really not a lot of places I've seen that can rival the sheer magnitude and audacity of the neon here. Las Vegas, centered on its big casinos, seems downright organized, almost subdued, in comparison. Tokyo's Shinjuku and Times Square in New York are probably the best comparisons

An overabundance of advertising just off of the main thoroughfare of Nathan Road

Nathan Road itself

It's a neon arms race out here - if you don't advertise your restaurant with a gigantic neon sign, your competitors will just drown you out with theirs

Admittedly, the city is even more lit up than normal (even if that does seem virtually impossible) around Christmas

Hong Kong, generally, is two very distinct cities, separated by Victoria Harbour. There is Hong Kong island - the major financial and business center, with its gigantic high-rises, upscale restaurants, and the atmosphere more reminiscent of New York and London than any part of Asia. And this is really what I had expected of Hong Kong. But, there is the other side of the harbor: Kowloon City and Tsim Sha Tsui - this is the busy, bustling, crowded, fragrant (smelly!) part of town on the peninsula that's connected to mainland China. And it's connected in more ways than one - it's unmistakably Asian. From the 'wet markets' selling fish that's been caught, but hasn't been killed yet to the 'No Hawking' signs on the waterfront, which are quite necessary, as a block away, there are crowds of people trying to sell you anything you can ever imagine. I wouldn't say wish for, because I don't actually wish for a suit or a Rolex knock-off, but I keep being offered them anyway... And, of course, at night, both sides of the harbor are brightly lit up putting up a light show of proportions that can only be measured in Megawatts. Gigawatts?

So, my first impressions of Hong Kong? Well, the very first impression was that it smells! Or specifically, the rooms I had on my first two nights smelled. Especially the first one, but I arrived at 3 in the morning, so I didn't care all that much. I promptly moved to a guesthouse in the ubiquitous Chungking Mansions, where my first room also smelled (but less pungently), and by night 3, I was in an odor-free environment! Chunking Mansions itself defies description - it is a 15 story apartment complex, where each apartment has been converted into a hotel/guesthouse - it is the budget accommodation in the city. It is also quite old, home to a variety of small Indian and Pakistani restaurants downstairs, and generally not all that well maintained. The clientele has a smattering of backpackers lost in a sea of mainland tourists and laborers from India, Pakistan, and a wide variety of other British colonies. This evening I ran into a couple from Bogota, Colombia too (who were trying to find an exit...) - it's kind of like a model UN, except poorly-run former British colonies are over-represented.

All that being said, I'm quite happy with the room, I've finally ended up with - it doesn't smell, I have a window to the outside world (the previous one had a window also, but I'm not sure what it led to - certainly no the outside though), there's hot water, and even constant and free internet access, so not all that bad. As for my overall impressions of Hong Kong - oddly enough, I actually found the place rather relaxing and a little lonely.

The lonely is easy - yes, there's a gigantic, vibrant mass of people populating this town at all hours of the day and night. And some (probably large) number of them are even fellow backpackers, however, lacking hostels and other such obvious ways of meeting other travelers, they immediately blend in and dissipate into the background, and you're back on the street surrounded by locals, mainland tourists, and Indians offering fake Rolexes. Fortunately, I was able to solve this problem first by meeting up with Tim (he of wine tasting in Mendoza last March fame), who's currently in town visiting family, and then further by finding a pickup frisbee game.

As for relaxing? Well, admittedly, I'm certainly in the minority in finding Hong Kong relaxing, but honestly, my concerns in the Philippines included:
- there's Malaria on Palawan, have I taken my malaria pills today yet?
- if I have a flight out of Puerto Princessa at 8, and the bus ride there is supposed to take 7 hours, how early should I leave to account for the inevitable delays and breakdowns?
- the traffic in Manila is so bad, that getting to and from the airport requires budgeting a good two hours extra just for the traffic

Those are potentially difficult problems. Here? The place is tiny - in 7 hours you'd be well into China no matter how many times your bus broke down. The traffic is awful too, but it makes no difference as there's a very fast and efficient (and relatively inexpensive) subway system in place, not to mention the cross-harbor ferries, which don't get you there as fast as the subway, but offer reat views of the harbor along the way. The biggest problem here has really been finding a place to stay that I liked, and I had a ready-made choice of 100 or so guesthouses just here in the Chungking Mansions, along with internet recommendations for which ones people have liked before. The runner-up problem is deciding if I should have Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Indian food for dinner. Maybe it is just me, but I call this relaxing! As for the people persistently trying to sell you something, anything, on the streets (which has been know to annoy people before), I've learned to just take it all in stride by now and laugh about the fact that somebody thinks I'm a good candidate to try selling a Rolex and a suit to! It sure beats the army of Nigerians assaulting you with offers of marijuana and every other substance in the world on every street corner in Kathmandu, not to mention the guys in Cartagena, Colombia, who'll hook you up with a tour, chicas, and cocaina. You decide the order in which you want to prioritize the three! Ok, to be entirely accurate, hashish is on offer here in Hong Kong too, but the would-be sellers, at least, seem a bit surreptitious about it.

Relaxing in Hong Kong!

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