Travel Dates: 22nd – 24th October 2013
Is going from China to Hong Kong leaving China? Hong Kong is a SAR of China (Special Administrative Region). This means that it looks after itself and is pretty much independent of China with its own laws and financial system. We don’t need a Chinese visa to go there but we did for the mainland. They operate a one country, two systems policy for Hong Kong. In short for our purposes, it felt like we were out of China, but technically we weren’t. If you ask a Hong Kong local though they will say we were most definitely out and distance themselves as much as possible from the mainland.
Before talking about Hong Kong too much though, we need to deal with leaving China. This was our first flight since leaving London and we were soon longing to be back on overnight trains direct from city to city.
Chengdu airport (where we flew from) is just outside the city and only has 2 terminals. Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication with our taxi driver. When we held up one finger and said “one” he thought we meant two so took us to the wrong terminal. Perhaps this was because we both held up one finger and he did the maths? A half mile walk to the correct terminal and we found the correct check in desk. When we reached the front of a slow queue we found that we had selected the intern run desk. This explained the slow queue but didn’t explain why were left standing for several minutes as a shouted conversation between the interns and their supervisor took place. Getting a bit concerned that there was an issue with our tickets* we were eventually informed that our flight was going to be severely delayed. The shouting was apparently good though as they had moved us to an earlier flight with a different airline. In the end it turns out the taxi driver was right and we did want the other terminal. We slogged back the way we came and eventually managed to check in for our first flight of the trip without issue.
* There had already been one issue with our tickets where Rich booked a ticket for Victoria Gwilliam despite the fact we have been married for nearly two and a half years. Fortunately we noticed this before getting to the airport so managed to sort that out.
Our flight was to Shenzhen in China rather than Hong Kong as it was about half the price of going direct. Shenzhen is only a short hop across the border by bus to our intended destination. The bus ride sounded simple but was actually more complicated than you would think. Initially were were told to wait in a waiting area well inside the airport with no buses in sight. This seemed odd to us and was a little concern however we needn’t have worried as we were soon escorted over to the bus.
At the border, we were ejected from the bus with no signs or instructions on what to do next. The other people on the bus had shot off a we retrieved our luggage so we just followed the majority of the crowd into the closest building. We then had to leave China. Form filling and queuing required, although which forms and which queues could be clearer. Customs came next before crossing the border and entering Hong Kong. Further queues and form filling plus another set of customs and we were out to another bus station on the Hong Kong side. Altogether a bit of a faff and much guesswork on what to do involved, but the cost saving made it worthwhile. I always still get nervous going through customs even though I know I have nothing to hide, and the above process was a bit nerve wracking, especially when my border guard spent ages looking at my passport and visa. He even called over another guard…and then another. It turned out his scanner wasn’t working very well, but he didn’t bother to tell me that, he just let me stand there sweating!
The bus eventually dropped us right in the centre of Kowloon, down by the Harbour. This was our first taste of Hong Kong, and it was so bright with signs and adverts that it was like day light even though the sun had long since set.
We roughly knew where our hostel was but nothing could prepare us for actually trying to find it – tucked away in a dodgy tenement block. We must have been asked at least 20 times if we wanted a room, and one guy seemed quite put out when we said we had somewhere and went off on a little rant about how rude we were not coming to see his room, and just going to the one we had booked!
We booked to stay in this guest house on the internet before arriving in Hong Kong. We were meant to stay for 5 nights originally. We arranged to extend this 1 night earlier over e-mail. In the end we didn’t stay a single night in the hostel. Here is the story…(we are cheating here by inserting the review Rich added to TripAdvisor)
First, let me give some detail about these cheaper hostels/guest houses. There are many of them in old tenement blocks. Merryland Guest House is in Mirador Mansions. Another infamous one is the neighbouring Chunking Mansions (Google the names to get an idea about what they are like for yourself). They are large blocks containing many apartments above shops on the lower floors. The ground floors are a maze of stalls with people everywhere through out the day and night. There are always people around doing business, some less legitimately than others. On your way in you will be offered rooms, watches, suits and anything else you can think of. Expect to be hassled. A lot. If you don’t like this, don’t book this hostel.
After you have made it past the crowds you have to find the correct lift (elevator). There are different ones for different floors and different section of the building so make sure you get the right one. The hostel name will be written on the wall beside the lift. This is the only place you will find the hostel name so you have to search hard for it. The queues for the lifts are generally long. The lifts are very slow and serve many floors. The longest we waited for a lift was just under 10 minutes however other lifts had much longer queues so it could be worse. You will need to cram into the lift with many other people and often food produce being delivered to kitchens above the lower restaurants.
Once on the right floor finding you hostel can be tricky. There will be signs from the lift but it is often a bit of a maze. We saw quite a few people wandering around lost looking for elusive hostels.
A note of fire safety. We try not to think about this too much though. The hostels are licensed which includes fire safety and ours has visible alarms and detectors which we hope work. The other hostels in the building may not be so safe though and you are at risk from them. Going down 15 floors in these buildings in a fire would not be quick as there are a lot of people in the building. Something to keep in mind if choosing to stay here.
The hostels themselves are flats converted to guest houses. The quality of rooms seems to differ greatly but they will all be small. Expect a bed and a few shelves with an attached wet room. The walls/floor/ceiling will most likely be tiled. Don’t expect a view but you may have a window. Most seem to have air conditioning too. The hostels we saw all had a young Indian chap who lived on site in a small storeroom (sleeping on the floor). This provides security and 24 hour assistance. We did pity their living arrangements though.
In terms of Merryland itself. We never really saw it. When we arrived we were put into the London guest house as apparently there was no room for us at Merryland even though we had booked. The London hostel was horrible. It was dirty, mouldy and nothing worked. The toilet continually ran until I manually turned off the water to it. The bathroom door handle wasn’t attached. We had to flip trip switches to get electricity to work. We didn’t dare use the shower as it looked like it would kill us. Fortunately we only stayed here one night (actually about 9 hours total, of which we would have been in the room for only 7 – that is 7 too long).
The next night Merryland still didn’t have space for us but we were moved to another guesthouse called the Shangrila. This was much better. Very clean, everything worked, everything new and well cared for. We stayed here instead of the Merryland for the remaining time.
Pros: Very cheap.
Cons: You get what you pay for. Sorry, in fact you may not get what you pay for as you could be moved anywhere in a number of different buildings.
Anyway, back to Hong Kong…
Having survived our first night in our hostel-cum-death trap, and then moved to our new swanky (!) rooms we were ready to start the site-seeing. As we were staying over in Kowloon, we decided to check out the other main area in HK- the island itself. Knowing how much Rich likes boat trips, we took the 10 minute ferry ride across to the island rather than taking the Metro. The boats are old 1950s/1960s boats that chug away quite happily between the 2 ports every few minutes and are cheaper and much more fun than taking the metro.
One of the things our guide book mentioned was outdoor escalators that go up through the streets. – I couldn’t believe that any city would have spent money on this, and so was intrigued to see them. I hadn’t appreciated how hilly HK was, but suddenly, standing at bottom of a street and looking up, I could entirely understand their reasoning. The area around Central is formed of layer upon layer of streets going back up the hillside, and the escalators take the pain out of getting to the top. They run down in the morning and then upwards the rest of the day, and it was a great way to see the city, just standing on an escalator!
Having exhausted the escalator related entertainments, we then headed for another of HK’s modes of transport – the tram. These cute old fashioned double decker trams run along the base of the hill on HK island, and share the streets with a crazy mix of buses, cars and pedestrians – it is a miracle we didn’t see anyone get squashed.
After a quick pit stop at the hotel we headed out for a quick run (quick as in short, not quick as in fast). Kowloon park was a couple of minutes from our hotel and was a great example of a Chinese park – lots going on in a very small space. We did about 5 laps of the park to make up 5km, but did manage to walk round an aviary, see a sculpture garden, run around a rose maze, check out th local outdoor pool and complete laps of a fitness trail that was basically a hill with some gym equipment on it. All of the parks we have seen have been open till at least 10pm, and we have yet to come across an empty one – maybe the UK can learn something from this?
We had then intended to go the harbour light show, but unfortunately, had read the signs on a building incorrectly. When we had seen signs for “light show 9pm” on a building next to the harbour we had assumed that it was referring to the light show we wanted. In turns out that 9pm is just the time of that building’s light show, rather than the harbour show, which is actually at 8pm. Never mind.
We rounded the day off with some drinks back in the Central area with Sam, one of Rich’s old colleagues from Morgan Stanley, who now lives in HK. We had been in the bar about 10 minutes when we heard a yelp and a crunch as something threw itself through the door and onto the floor next to us. It was certainly quite an entrance, but luckily the only thing damaged was Sam’s pride.
After a bit of late night the previous night, we opted for a gentle start to the day and headed off in search of some markets. which have been one of my favourite things about China. HK promised something we hadn’t seen so far – a bird market. Which is actually just what it says it is – a place for HK-ers to go and buy songbirds. There were hundreds of little (and not so little) birds at the market, complete with fancy cages (think big old fashioned domed one) with little porcelain bowls for their food. There were also plenty of (live) grass hopper sellers, as apparently the done thing is to feed the birds the grasshoppers with chopsticks through the bars of the cages. Sounds a bit of a faff to me!
We then headed through the flower market (where we bought a bloom to liven up our room) to the Goldfish market, which again, is fairly self explanatory. It is basically a street of aquarium shops, where you can pick and mix fish to buy. They even have some hanging up in plastic bags ready to go, although being in a plastic bag in the HK heat cannot be a pleasant experience for the fish. As well as fish we did see a couple of very contented cats – all the dead fish must go somewhere I guess!
Rich had his heart set on Dim Sum for lunch, and more by luck than judgement we came across a Dim Sum restaurant that had been listed as one of top places to eat in the world by Time magazine – we don’t think they had faked the reviews, as it was very tasty, although the service was a little hit and miss and we eventually gave up waiting for our Pineapple buns.
As it was another warm afternoon, and we had a big run planned in the evening, we headed back to Kowloon park for a dip in their pool. For about £1.50 each we spent a very relaxed afternoon lounging about in their open air pools and reading our books.
Feeling relaxed, we headed back to the hostel to get ready for our evening adventure – running up The Peak.