Off the Southeast coast of China lies the small island of Hong Kong, a place where the cacophonous din of clinking dishes echoes out of Dim Sum houses to gingerly mix with the loud boasts of red-faced British expats looking to one-up each other’s tall tales, where the hawk-like eyes of the female shop owners catch more in the passing crowds than security cameras could ever aspire to, where the neon-signboards and shop advertisements create a canopy over the streets that blots out nearly as much sunlight as that of a dense rain forest, and where the only entities with a better view of the crowded metropolis below than that of the towering skyscrapers are the mountainous peaks that hem in the city, pinching it between themselves and the sea and giving the city no place to grow but up.
This former British colony — until as late as 1997, that is — which originally made its fortune as an Opium trading hub, is now one of the most densely populated cities on the planet. Although the population is primarily that of Cantonese-speaking Chinese, there is hardly a culture or race that isn’t represented somewhere in the depths of teeming masses, where foreign expats and tourists rub shoulders (literally) with Chinese villagers and countless ethnic minorities all jostling for their own space. Additionally, it is one of those unique places that holds the title of “Special Administrative Region” (SAR), meaning that despite the fact that it is technically a part of China, it enjoys its own level of autonomy apart from the mainland, relatively free to govern its own affairs.
Whereas its suffocating atmosphere and urban crush probably weren’t the best characteristics for a road-weary traveler in need of a break, the sheer intensity of daily life was enough for me to include it as my final stop before heading back home for the Christmas season (along with the fact that it is also the nearest airline hub, too!). A first-time visitor like myself can’t help but be overwhelmed by the vertical nature of the city and the density of its crowds, but once you’ve regained your bearings, the many small wonders of the place begin to emerge: beautifully roasted pork hanging from hooks in shop windows, street-side markets selling trinkets and collectibles from all over the world, impossibly tall stacks of bamboo steamers filled with more styles of dumplings than a single imagination can handle, a mixture of high-tech modernity blended with old-world charm, and the diversity of people and culture that only a city of its magnitude can offer:
By now, I’m sure you’ve grasped the patterns inherent in my travels, and thus won’t be surprised to see the obligatory “Temple” pictures from wherever I’m currently located. And in keeping with tradition, here are a few shots of the small but elaborate (and historically significant) Man Mo Temple — or, at least, as much as I could squeeze out through the sweet-smelling fog of the incense coils:
Given the mountainous terrain the comprises the majority of the island’s geography — combined with the rising population over the last century and a half — it is no surprise to learn that the confines of the city have spilled over across the harbor to the North and onto the jutting peninsula, a tendril of mainland China, known as Kowloon. A quick 5-minute trip on the famous star ferry will whisk you back and forth, allowing you to explore this more commercially active enclave about a kilometer to the North, dine in the high-end, Michelin-starred restaurants, and take in the views over the harbor back towards Hong Kong proper:
On the culinary side of things, my time here was more of a layover than an actual visit, so my gastronomic exploration was reduced to simply hitting a few of the highlights that are on offer in the city, which is a shame, as it is largely recognized as one of the best cities in the world in which to indulge in the gustatory delights. Regardless, I did make a point of dining several times on Dim Sum, a meal that, although was likely invented as a snack with tea in the Guangdong Province of China, has become one of the most quintessential experiences in Hong Kong. The crowded and cavernous restaurants can be intimidating at first, but once you’ve found your seat at one of the communal table, the rest flows smoothly and easily: simply keep an eye out for the passing carts emerging from the kitchens, point at whatever small dishes catch your eye as they pass by (usually dumplings and the like), and then enjoy the feast in front of you. The waiters will simply count your plates once your finished as a way of tallying up the bill.
Only an hour’s ferry ride to the West of the former British colony of Hong Kong lies another former trading port and European colony in that of Macau, a small peninsula that extends out from the Guangdong Province of China which, until 1999, was under Portuguese rule (and which also carries the “Special Administrative Region” tag, allowing it to largely govern itself as a separate entity from the Chinese mainland). In the thirteen years since the country was handed back to China, however, the face of the region has been altered and the economy has flourished under the driving force that is the gaming industry (which has technically been present since the mid-sixties). The small region’s sixteen casino’s — including international names such as The Sands, The Wynn, and The MGM Mirage — along with the vast numbers of Chinese tourists that regularly migrate here for a weekend of indulgence has allowed the city to claim the title of the World’s Top Casino Market, with revenues surpassing even those of Las Vegas.
Even if gambling isn’t your thing, walking the street today reveals a variety of sights ranging from the spacious European-style squares and Portuguese buildings to ultra-modern architectural pieces and public monuments. Given its proximity to Hong and its lenient visa requirements, it has also become a day-tripper’s dream, an activity in which I also made a point of indulging. Here are a few of the scenes that you’ll encounter if you happen to visit someday:
Hong Kong and Macau mark the end of this leg of my journey, as I’m heading back home to the United States to spend the Christmas season with my family and friends before heading back out on the road again in January. This tour of East Asian (starting with Japan back in August and extending through Korea, China, and Taiwan) has certainly been one of the most eye-opening experiences for me as a traveler and has fostered many amazing memories and dear friendships that I’ll cherish for many years to come. As far as plans going forward, the next leg of my journey is likely to be centered around the Indian sub-continent, with probable stops in Dubai, India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal — though, as usual, I’m leaving my itinerary open to any whims that my strike my fancy at the time. If you have any recommendations, too, I’d love to hear them! Until then, I wish the best to you and your families during the upcoming holiday season, and cheers from Hong Kong and Macau!
Post-script: I apologize for the extreme tardiness of this post. After arriving back in the United States a few weeks ago, I quickly became enmeshed in the comings and goings of my old (non-traveling) life and neglected to finish my last post until now. Better late than never, I guess!