This is one of those times when I have, in theory, at least 4 blog posts worth of things to write about but haven’t the wherewithal to even try to shove it all into one, much less 4.
Bear with me then, as I attempt to guide you through a fabulously exciting week in Hong Kong and Macau, with energy levels at an all-time low.
I think I had worked pretty much every single freaking day in September (I’m a girl who just can’t say no, apparently), so by the time the occasionally twin holidays of Mid Autumn Festival and National Day rolled around at the end of September (the former holiday is lunar so bounces around in time from year to year, occasionally meeting up with the fixed National Day) I was ready to run away, far away.
This year, we had a week off.
A whole week to go away! A whole week to rest and recuperate from the madness of Shanghai and work!
Unfortunately, as is always the case with Chinese holidays, no one at work was willing to confirm the ephemeral, slippery holiday dates and so by the time I was given the green light for booking flights, the prices had risen to absurd rates.
Wanna go to, say, the Philippines (normally super cheap, at around 1500-2000rmb)? How does 5000rmb sound?
Thailand for three times the normal rate? Bali for a smidge more than beyond sanely reasonable?
How about Hong Kong, famous for being almost negligible in cost most of the year (think 1000-2000rmb)? How does 4200rmb sound?
No? Well then.
Time for some convoluted planning.
Let’s fly into Shenzhen, shiny, sprawling Southern Chinese boom town, one of the original open ports and home to early Chinese aggressive capitalism and materialism, and take the metro to Hong Kong.
You can do that, you know.
Half the price of flying into Hong Kong directly. Just 2000rmb to Shenzhen, return from Shanghai, during peak holiday time, bought at the last minute; negligible the rest of the year.
At the Shenzhen airport, they actually have the following options for leaving China, in addition to the aforementioned public transport option: ferry to Macau from a port just outside, ferry to the Hong Kong airport (but you need to show proof of a flight out of HK to buy the ticket), express helicopter service to various helipads in Hong Kong and Macau, and an endless stream of pink private buses heading to the border with even more private pink buses on the other side, waiting to whisk you away to any of a dozen districts in Hong Kong.
Online, they say the ride into Hong Kong takes 75 minutes maximum.
On your bus ticket at Shenzhen airport it says 2 hours, not including the border crossing.
On the way back from Hong Kong, the staff behind the desk at the hard-to-find office deep in the bowels of the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry terminal calmly insisted it would take about 4 hours to get back to Shenzhen airport.
It took just under 2 hours, for the record.
For the honour of taking the pink bus to Hong Kong Island (to the Macau Ferry terminal on Connaught Road West), we paid 130rmb. Apparently it’s 120 to go to Kowloon.
Where to Sleep
I’ve been spoiled by 1. my super secret job which sends me all over China and puts me up in the Hilton, Sheraton, Sofitel and their ilk, and 2. travelling in South East Asia and North Africa/Middle East in general as a non-destitute adult.
Unlike a decade ago, I don’t want to sleep in a dorm room. I lived in hostel dorms for most of my 20s. I’m old and cranky now and I want my own room and, preferably my own en-suite bathroom.
In Thailand and Indonesia and Cambodia and Morocco, this is easy and affordable to procure. Sure, you may end up with a bucket and a tap like in Burma, but at least it’s your own private bucket and tap.
In Hong Kong, not so much, especially during a Chinese holiday.
The already exorbitant prices soar as the hordes move in.
Thus, we booked a week at De Edge in Sheung Wan, a few blocks from the Macau Ferry and in a district full of shark fin and crab wholesalers, with a few desiccated sea horse purveyors thrown in for good measure.
It was way above the top of our usual price range, but it was at the bottom of what was available in Hong Kong at the time.
We chose the second cheapest room option, the box with the window (as opposed to just the box).
This was our rather lovely view.
The room itself consisted of a bed, a sink, a slight indentation they intended as a closet, a narrow space to move from bed to sink, and a tiny en-suite bathroom, wholly glassed in.
The toilet, I might add, was barely a meter from the bed and 100% in the line of sight of the person sleeping on the left side.
What is it with China and glassed-in bathrooms? Why even bother adding the glass wall if you are meant to be happy to do your business right next to your loved one on the bed? Why not just put the toilet next to the bed so you don’t have to exert yourself walking that extra distance and having to slide open that glass door?
Even after 4 years in China, I still can’t deal with it.
On the plus side, they had the best (transparent, glassed in) shower EVER.
We had gone to Hong Kong with great intentions.
And then the mental exhaustion set in. The exhaustion that was already there in Shanghai but which had briefly hidden itself away in the excitement of escape.
We started researching restaurants as soon as we arrived last Sunday night.
Want dim sum? Want to queue for 2 hours or more? Want to be in a big, noisy place, harshly lit, banged by carts and yelled at by wait staff? Can you read traditional characters? Can you speak Cantonese?
So on our first night, after a full day spent on planes and buses, we went to a glitzy mall on the waterfront and ate soothing, overpriced ravioli and drank overpriced wine and looked out at the night time harbour instead.
Then we followed that up the next day with a tiny, quiet Sichuan place in a side alley somewhere along the mid-levels escalator. The owner ran out to the 7-11 next door to buy us a non-TsingTao beer (seriously, when you live in China, it’s hard to get that excited about it). When he found out we were from the mainland and could actually handle Chinese food, he added 3 fierce dipping sauces for our smashed cucumber and bamboo and dumplings, and bumped up the Sichuan peppercorn factor in our peanut-noodle soup. It was magnificent.
Then a very fine Indian meal in Kowloon, on Ashley Street, named Gaylords. We went there partly to prove a point, as someone had homophobically suggested it, based on the (*titter*) name.
Other completely inappropriate meals included: a crappy grilled cheese sandwich and faux Vietnamese spring rolls at Ocean Park (other options on the menu there had included crappy pizza, crappy spaghetti bolognese, and crappy… well, crappy theme park everything), gourmet burgers with aioli and jalepenos, bangers and mash at a fake Irish pub in the Venetian casino in Macau (with a pint of Guinness for added inauthenticity) and a hastily grabbed ham and cheese baguette and bag of salt and vinegar crisps from the Pret a Manger at the Central Ferry Pier.
We did end up having two very good Chinese meals, aside from the initial, tiny Sichuan one: first at a glitzy casino in Macau, then back in Kowloon, in a proper little local place on Ashley Street again, not far from Gaylords. That was on our last night.
This is Ashley Street, below. It’s not far from the Temple Street night market, but a bit quieter. This is quiet by Hong Kong standards.
We suck at being motivated enough to queue for 2 hours. We suck at facing crowds and noise.
I’ll show you what the relatively calm little local place had, so you can get an idea as to what is possible if you actually try, just a little bit.
What To Do
We had great plans!
We were going to go to Ocean Park, Victoria Peak, the Temple Street Night Market, Lamma Island, Lantau Island.
We had plans for two days in Macau: one garish, amongst the casinos and fisherman’s wharf, and the other strolling in the lovely old town, eating egg tarts and dodging paper lanterns of bunnies and vegetables.
We were going to explore everything. We were going to venture out into the wilds of the islands, into the vastness of the New Territories. Hiking in the hills was put on the plate as a very credible excursion.
The thing is, when you already live in a huge city in Mainland China, you’re possibly already pretty fried on crowds and noise.
Sometimes you’re so fried (as it turned out we were, by day 3) that all you want to do is stay inside and read all day– or at least part of the day, so you don’t feel like a total loser.
Bad travellers! Bad!
I don’t know if I can sensibly recommend attempting Hong Kong in that state of mental exhaustion during the chaotic throes of a national holiday.
We made it to Victoria Peak and walked down the Old Peak Road, frying our calves for a few days. The photos for that are in my other camera and I’m still too mentally tired to upload those just yet. I’ll save them for another post, if I ever get my act together.
We also made it to the Temple Street Night Market but apparently most of the Night Marketers were at home with their families for the festival. The area was nearly deserted, by Hong Kong standards. We had been there a few years earlier with my parents so we knew what it should look like. It just wasn’t happening. Five clothing stalls do not make a market.
We did quite a bit of wandering around harbourside Kowloon, Sheung Wan and Central. There were enough quiet little alleys and side streets and steep little narrow stair-streets to make our heads not explode.
We made it to Ocean Park, which was awesome. I’m a sucker for theme parks. In Cape Town, when I lived there back at the turn of the century, I went to Ratanga Junction with great regularity. I’ve even been to Disneyland Paris, in the dead of winter, when it physically hurt to go on rides.
There’s a handy shuttle bus to Ocean Park from the Admiralty metro station in Hong Kong. Or rather, there was an endless stream of back to back shuttle buses (double deckers!), as every single Chinese person ever had decided to join us there.
It was crowded, yes.
But I still liked it.
And then there was Macau.
We had meant to go for 2 days. We managed the first (the casino-filled, utterly garish day) but lost momentum for the second (the tasteful, traditional one, with the egg tarts, winding old streets and bunny lanterns).
I have enough surreal casino and Fisherman’s Wharf photos for a whole ‘nother post (still in my camera, yes).
This is what I can show you now. Don’t get too excited just yet.
I should note now how much I love the fact that everything is bilingually marked in Cantonese and Portuguese. A nice change from English, aesthetically.
Days 4 and 5 were spent in recovery.
Small walks, little ferry rides, a beer or cocktail or coffee here and there. Reading in the room. Checking out the underwhelming Avenue of the Stars (too bright at mid day for photos), followed up by the even more underwhelming Space Museum.
We celebrated our last full day in Hong Kong by buying a triple feature’s worth of tickets at the IMAX theatre in the Space Museum.
Because, you know, the best way to visit a world renowned city is to lock yourself away in a dark room for three hours watching tornadoes, astronauts and flying monsters.
It was totally worth it, especially when followed up with the wonton-chicken-greens meal (the one shown above, in loving detail) and a lovely martini in a relatively quiet little bar down a back street.
Do I suck at travel?