By the time I arrived in central Hong Kong, sweaty and vaguely baffled by the feeling of being in Chinatown rather than China, I was all aflutter. I had come in on a Shanghai, and had been working under the assumption that the border-crossing via bus I was planning to do would be easy to follow and self-explanatory. This was appealing, as I'd never been to Hong Kong, speak no Cantonese and generally suffer from travel related non-prohibitive-but-nonetheless-irritating travelers' anxiety.
Getting a bus ticket to Hong Kong from Shenzhen was easy, getting on the bus would have been simple for even the most directionally challenged traveler, and the drive to the Hong Kong border went off without a hitch. At the border, you exit the bus and enter a checkpoint, which you enter in order to present your belongings and passport for inspection by the Hong Kong authorities. Again, no problems here—"whack whack" went the passport stamps, "have a nice day" went the immigration officials, etc. Read on for more about Hong Kong...
This process was followed by boarding a different bus, one no doubt equipped to drive on the "wrong" side of the road, as they are wont to do in Hong Kong. Again, a simple enough process. However, the buses don't wait for individual passengers (a practice that in hindsight makes total sense—if a few people get caught up at the border, of course the bus will continue on without them. The entire process would would be a nightmare if they didn't function in this way), which can lead the already befuzzled traveler to become increasingly befuzzled. The buses leave every 15 or 30 minutes, so if you miss the group you were with, you just hop onto the next one. No problem if you have any idea of what is going on. This is not always, unfortunately, the case with me.
But I persevered and made it into the outskirts of Hong Kong, where I was presented with my next logistical challenge. The bus driver piloting the second-leg of my trip to the city was a Hong Kong native and did not speak Mandarin. Or, in a different but equally believable scenario, he chose not to understand one foreigner's terrible Mandarin. Either way, it was difficult to ascertain what exactly was going on when the bus stopped in Kowloon and the driver made a speedy getaway in the pale yellow light of the underground parking lot.
While milling about aimlessly in the cellar of said concrete parking garage, I was able to get confirmation that another driver, and another backwards-bus, would be arriving to shuttle the remaining passengers whose ultimate destinations were across Victoria Harbour in Central. Eventually, after a healthy amount of standing around confused, I boarded the next bus and made it to my hotel in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is a fascinating city. Having existed for most of the last 200 years under imperial British rule and still largely separate from Mainland China, the city itself resembles a crock-pot of cultures in contrast to the Mainland where the culture is largely of its own making (not to disparage either place or imply that either is somehow deficient in this regard). For the better part of the 19th and 20th centuries, the majority of Chinese immigrants in America and much of the Western world hailed from Hong Kong, Guangdong and other Cantonese-speaking regions of southern China. Even now, when the number of Mainland immigrants is steadily increasing and Mandarin more frequently heard, the storefronts of Manhattan's Chinatown (and other Chinese enclaves around the world) predominantly display traditional Chinese characters like those still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
So for the Mainland expat who's first introduction to Chinese culture was that of stateside Chinatowns, Hong Kong seems oddly familiar. Even the lilt and feel of Cantonese seems stereotypically Chinese-American, though the presence of British-tinged English and the irrational driving practices are constant reminders that the city is much more tea-and-crumpets than beer-and-hamburgers. It is certainly a unique product of imperialism, cultural mishmash and economic success that brings with it shocking income inequalities and a stark contrast between the poor and destitute and the rich and glamorous.
The city functions extraordinarily well, especially in terms of public transit. The MTR subway system is efficient and surprisingly easy to navigate, the cabs have multi-language dispatch centers ready to solve any communication issues, and there are moving sidewalks that shuttle commuters up the steep hill into which much of Hong Kong is built. Traffic hums along speedily, seemingly unaware that only a few miles north an entire nation is stuck in a self-imposed traffic disaster. Double-decker buses and trams traverse the city, and elevated walkways allow pedestrians to walk for blocks without setting foot on solid ground. It is truly a world city.
Hong Kong is an expensive vacation, but one that seems well worth the cost. There is an absurd amount of delicious food, sights to see and things to do. While downtown Hong Kong is densely packed and is about as urban as it gets, a short subway ride will see you off to lush green forest, additional beautiful mountainous islands and sea-views that call to mind Tolkien's Elves longing to return across the waters to Valinor. Perhaps it is this clash of concrete and natural wonder, coupled with the cultural melding of East and West, that makes Hong Kong such a intriguing destination for travelers of all provenances.
Tomorrow we'll take a look at some of the outlying areas around Hong Kong Island, and the massive Tian Tan Buddha.