Our Hong Kong Adventure

Just three weeks ago I was boarding a plane to come back to the USA from Hong Kong . Hong Kong was a place I had never been before and honestly I never really gave it much thought. I am a military brat and have traveled to a lot of cool places in my life but none of them have compared to the experiences I had in Hong Kong and Vietnam, maybe it was because I went in with no expectations?

Our Hong Kong adventure started with us attending the OpenStack Design Summit the summit was held in the airport and I know that sounds weird but imagine this –  HUGE airport (like city huge), there are hotels, coffee shops, full restaurants, lounges, stores galore, even a couple of pharmacies and by the way it’s complete with a convention center that’s just a 3 minute train ride away… Did I mention the train station is also in the airport?

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We could have easily stayed in the airport the entire time we were in Hong Kong and I am sure that some people did just that but Colin and I are explorers and like to get out and see things, we are sort of anti-tourist. The first two nights we explored on our own, just getting familiar with the train routes and navigating the city but as the convention went on we noticed that there were quite a few people who hadn’t left the airport. Unacceptable Behavior, I say,   If  you’re in Hong Kong or anywhere else for that matter you should go see something!  I made it my mission to take as many people out to experience Hong Kong as possible and boy did some fun memories come from those outings.

(it often looks cloudy or foggy in Hong Kong, it’s NOT fog it’s pollution and that is the reason that you will see people wearing face masks.)

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What’s interesting about Hong Kong is that with a population of seven million people and being one of the most densely populated places in the world there is chaos but they have a sort of organized chaos. You’re often shoulder to shoulder, personal space is not something you should expect while in Hong Kong but the best way I can describe it is that it’s like the lanes on a road, in Hong Kong they have lanes in the train stations walkways and even on some of the sidewalks. Most of the people stay in their lane except for when they want to pass, the pedestrian traffic just flows. The flow was hard to understand at first because it’s constantly flowing and merging took practice but by the end of the trip we were pros.  I also found it really interesting that (I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time but reflecting on it now) I didn’t see much if any poverty in Hong Kong and we explored most of the island. During my almost 10 days there I only saw one homeless man, I saw no graffiti, and minimal trash which I thought was really unusual for a city so large. If I could compare Hong Kong to somewhere in the USA I would compare it to NYC only neater and cleaner.

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I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for our trip but normally I would study the language a little before going somewhere. It just feels wrong to go into another country and not at least try to speak to them in their language, instead I shamefully downloaded the google translate app because the only Cantonese I know is from watching Ni Hao Kai-Lan on Nick Jr but once I was in Hong Kong I noticed that I rarely came across a person who didn’t speak english. It turns out that Hong Kong island was under british control until 1997 and I had gotten lucky. I still felt bad about my lack of language skills but not as bad as I did previously.

There are a couple of parts of Hong Kong, there’s Central and again if I were to compare it to somewhere in the USA I would compare it to Manhattan. It’s glitz and glamour. You’ll find a lot of upscale shopping, HUGE malls, expensive restaurants, and finance buildings it’s a very comfortable place for the un-adventurous white person. We had a couple of amazing meals in Central so I am not knocking it but I personally prefer to be off the beaten path and do things that I can’t do at home. (I’ll come back to central in a minute)

Then there is Kowloon which was where I spent a lot of my time. It’s quaint, it’s a little off the beaten path but not too far and it wasn’t as crowded and seemingly snobby as central was. Kowloon is still very much in the city but the vibe was different, it was more like a middle class neighborhood vs the business district where I didn’t see one residence. What I liked about Kowloon was that people lived there, the hustle and bustle was the market place and alley ways of restaurants that seemed to go on forever (I can smell the noodles now.)

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We would often venture down these alley ways searching for the busiest restaurants, using their traffic as sort of an in person yelp review, “If they’re all here it must be good” and that tactic worked for the entire trip, the food we had in Hong Kong was amazing, I couldn’t tell you what we ate in the alley way restaurants because the menus weren’t in english so we would just point and grunt at the menu like a couple of apes and then food would appear. What I can tell you about though is the fabulous Dim Sum, We had dim sum quite a few times because it was so damn good.

Once at Tim Ho Wan, – Tim Ho Wan is  a Michelin star Dim Sum restaurant in Mong Kok, the place was small… really small and packed. We showed up as a group of four and waited outside for our name to be called, the list was long but the line moved quickly, we didn’t have to wait long. We were seated at a table near the kitchen. The waiter came by to offer us menus but instead we told him that we were hungry, that we trusted him to order for us, and asked him to keep the dishes coming that we would tell him when we were full. I am not a particularly picky eater so I use this tactic a lot (especially with new places), with the assumption that the people who work there  know what the tastiest dish is and so far this thinking hasn’t steered me wrong. The dishes flew out of the kitchen at a pretty quick pace and I was starting to realize why the lines moved so fast. I stopped counting at about the 9th plate but as quick as the dishes were coming out of the kitchen we were sending empty plates back at around the same rate, not because we felt rushed but because it was so damn good! Every single plate was prepared beautifully. It was almost a shame to eat them so quickly, I felt like I should have taken more time to appreciate the flavors. I am far from being a Dim Sum connoisseur but It was the most delicious Dim Sum restaurant I’ve ever been to. The service matched the quality of the dishes as well and since we didn’t do any of the actual ordering I couldn’t tell you what you should order if you find yourself there but it’s rumored that their beef balls are great. (It’s true but I did just giggle like a 12-year-old)

On our last group outing we went to the Lin Heung Teahouse in Central, the Teahouse Opened in 1918, the longevity of the place was part of the appeal for me but I did put in some additional research in (I take food very seriously) and I read that The Teahouse produces some of the most traditional Cantonese flavors and that old-fashioned dishes hard to find anywhere else. The Teahouse was a completely different atmosphere than Tim Ho Wan –  At the Teahouse you won’t find a Michelin star, there are no candles on the table , and in fact our group of almost ten was seated at a table up against a large industrial looking sink and I believe the sink was used for dishes, dumping questionable liquids, and I think I saw drinking water coming from the same sink. Occasionally you would see a man towing a bucket of dishes (rope, bucket, dishes) through the middle of the restaurant and outside to be washed. As I sat and observed I said a silent prayer, “Please, Please, person above.. Don’t let me get food poisoning.”. The place was packed full of people and no one else seemed worried or green so I brushed it off and stopped observing.  Like before we asked our waiter to pick our dishes for us but unlike Tim Ho Wan our waiter was a bit more hesitant, I don’t know if it was the language barrier (He didn’t speak much english) or the fact that we were the only white people in the restaurant (another good criteria for picking restaurants abroad) and he was worried he couldn’t pick to our tastes but somehow we were able to communicate that we trusted him and again dished were once again flying out of the kitchen, our first dish was a chicken hot pot and that hot pot was so damn delicious that we ended up ordering three more, One was chicken, One was an eggplant, and I think the last was a sea food hot pot but each new pot was tastier than the last.  For a Dim Sum restaurant we didn’t actually order many Dim Sum dishes… I believe we may have been blinded by the hot-pot. All and all both Dim Sum restaurants  were really good and cannot  be compared to one another because they’re completely different. I say that if you have time you should try to go to both. The service at the Teahouse wasn’t as great as Tim Ho Wan either but I think it was a more cultured experience.

It wasn’t all dim sum and noodles though. I have a friend who demanded that I find him a steak dinner, I wouldn’t normally cave to such demands but Jeramiah is a persistent little booger and I folded but with the caveat that I and I alone would pick the place. The restaurant options in Hong Kong are endless and not surprisingly there are quite a few steak restaurants to pick from – like Ruth Chris, Mortons, and even Outback but since I was picking the place we were NOT going to go to The Outback. I don’t necessarily have a problem with someone getting a steak dinner abroad but I try to steer clear of western style restaurants when I am traveling but alas I searched the city for a unique steak restaurant and happened upon Wooloomooloo Steakhouse in Wan Chai.  With a name like Wooloomooloo, I was already sold. Wooloomooloo Steakhouse sits on top (very very top) of a high-rise in Wan Chai. I was able to get a last-minute reservation for five, which is pretty lucky because the place books pretty far in advance. It took us awhile to find the restaurant because it’s in an awkward location with all of the buildings being high-rises it was hard to distinguish which building was which and I think we may have circled the building twice before realizing we were standing right in front of it. You enter what looks like an office building and you take the elevator to the 31st floor. The elevators open up right into the restaurant – The restaurant has an open floor plan, Surrounded by windows with breathtaking views of the city, the tables are beautifully set, candles are twinkling to match the twinkling of the lights in the city, and this was clearly a popular after work mingling spot for Hong Kong businessmen and women.  We were seated at a table in the middle of the room, I don’t normally enjoy being in the middle of a crowded restaurant but in this case I hardly noticed. I ordered the fillet and a basket of fries because I am classy like that and I requested that my steak be cooked medium rare because I am a lady, dammit! My steak came out perfectly cooked, there isn’t much more to report than that.. It was tasty but the views and ambiance were more memorable than the food, maybe that speaks about the food in some way? I don’t know.  After we finished dinner we took the elevator up one more floor to the Wooloomooloo Bar, it’s an open rooftop bar with the most amazing views of Hong Kong – with the lights of the buildings, the cars, and people moving  the city looked alive. I didn’t want to leave that rooftop bar but it was night and frankly I was freezing my ass off. Thinking back, if I were to return to Wooloomooloo I would probably skip the restaurant (I am glad I had the experience but once was enough) and head straight to the bar for drinks and appetizers. If you want a good steak and a no rush atmosphere then Wooloomooloo is a great spot. We did have trouble finding our waitress a couple of times and when it came time to pay the bill she was non-existent as well but I get the feeling that it’s not an eat and run sort of place so be prepared to take your time.

Roof top bar views

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Most nights consisted of eating until we couldn’t eat anymore and then walking through the markets. The most popular market is the Temple Street Night Market in Kowloon, a street bazaar, named after a Tin Hau temple which sits in the centre of its main drag. If you want it or if you can imagine it you can probably find it at the Temple street night market. Trinkets, tea ware, electronics, watches, menswear, jade and antiques are scrutinized and haggled over, while clay pot rice, seafood, noodles and other treats are consumed with gusto.  I don’t know if it was the thrill of the haggle or the sights and smells of the city but I spent numerous nights exploring Temple Street, with so much to see, to touch, feel, and to eat it’s easy to blow a night wandering. Around every corner there was something different like the woman making prescription glasses, the man selling knock off purses, or the lady selling beads and buddhas. I must have walked that street a hundred times during my stay and I can say with confidence that I didn’t see half of what was there. You wouldn’t believe me if you saw the two extra duffel bags I dragged home but trust me.. There was much more.

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My next favorite shopping spot was the Ladies Market in Mong Kok which is said to be Hong Kong’s most famous market, and one of the best for soaking up the hustle and bustle, The market doesn’t just cater to the ladies as the name would suggest, they also sell clothes for men and plenty of cheap Chinese curios. I found the ladies market to be less overwhelming than Temple street. The streets are wider giving you more room to look and  move about freely instead of cramming shoulder to shoulder. If you were to ask me if one market was better than the other I would say that it depends on your comfort level with crowds… Both markets have a lot of the same things the biggest difference is just the location and layout. 

The last market I went to was the Jade Market, unlike the other markets the Jade Market is enclosed and can get quite stuffy and sticky when it’s hot. The people in the Jade market were also more aggressive. Not to say that you aren’t accosted at the other markets because you are but not to this extent. There are beautiful things in the jade market, I saw beautifully sculpted jade chess sets, bracelets, pearls, and more but the persistence of the sellers was a bit overwhelming and I didn’t really feel like I had the ease to really look and appreciate things. Each time I would pause to look at something I would feel someone tugging on my arm, trying to get me to buy their wares and once you’re in their grasp it’s an awkward situation to get out of because the term, “I am just looking”  just isn’t understood.

I went into the Jade market twice, the first time I didn’t stay long because It was hot and I was sweaty and people pawing at me was just too much. The second time I took my friend Jeramiah with me and I think that made me stick it out longer which turned out to be a really good thing.  Jeramiah was on the hunt for something for his wife and daughter and I can think of no better place to find a gift for your lady person in Hong Kong than the Jade Market (all women like jewelry, right?)  We strolled through most of the Jade Market without stopping, dodging the grasps of the sellers around us. Just as we were about to exit the market we saw a kiosk with some beautiful pearls so we stopped to take a peek, we hovered for a minute feeling a bit nervous that someone would spot us and latch on but no one was bothering us. We liked this corner of the market. Finally a young man greets us and we exchange a few pleasantries. He says his name is Larry and Larry wasn’t like a lot of the other sellers in the market, he was young man maybe 21 or 22, and very well spoken – We asked some general questions about the products and before we knew it we had been standing in Larry’s kiosk for 20 or 30 minutes because not only was he giving us details on his own products but he also told us how to spot fake Jade and Pearls, it was really interesting stuff. We ended up purchasing a few items from Larry, he had some beautiful items. As I was leaving I asked Larry for a business card and It reads, “Jade, Gems, Arts, and Leather, Huang Xiao Jie, Shop 294 – Jade Street Market, Kowloon” If you find yourself in the Jade Street Market go see Larry and tell him Ashley says, “Hello.”

Among the eating and shopping we did make time for other interesting things while in Hong Kong. On our last day we  went to Tian Tan Buddha, also known as the Big Buddha in Ngong Ping  near Po Lin Monastery, its said that it symbolises the harmonious relationship between man, nature, people and religion it’s one of the five large Buddha statues in China but Buddha wasn’t my favorite part instead I was drawn to the  it six smaller bronze statues surrounding him known as “The Offering of the Six Devas” they are posed offering flowers, incense, lamp, ointment, fruit, and music to the Buddha. These offerings symbolize charity, morality, patience, zeal, meditation, and wisdom, all of which are necessary to enter into nirvana. The big guy himself is 112 ft tall and weighs 250 metric tons.

The trek to Big Buddha was a long one and what we now refer to as, “Our day of queuing” we got up early that morning and took the train to the bus station where you can buy your tickets for Big Buddha, when purchasing your tickets you can choose to take a bus to the top of the mountain or a gondola. The gondola line looked pretty long so we decided to take a bus up and take the gondola back down, I think we stood in that bus line for about two hours and If there is one thing I am not its patient,  I kept thinking of  all of the things I could be doing instead of  standing in this stupid line but once on the bus it’s about a 30-40 minute ride to Tian Tan Buddha. Upon exiting the bus you find yourself standing in a super cheesy and very expensive strip mall. I spot a Starbucks in the distance and I am not very impressed.. I waited in a two-hour line to come to Buddhas theme park?

We walked towards Tian Tan Buddha and away from the Starbucks and it starts to get better but it’s still far from the zen like experience I was looking for. We stop at the staircase leading to buddha and look up.. and up.. and up exactly 240 steps up. We aren’t lazy people but even we wanted to sit down at the mere sight of all of those steps but we were committed and we we’re not going to let that two-hour wait in line be in vain. It took roughly 10 minutes including breaks to catch our breath to make it to the top of the staircase. We stood and admired Buddha for less time than it took us to get to him, he’s magnificent but once you’re up there the only thing you can think of is that you now have to walk back down but what we didn’t see right away was that In addition, there are 3 floors beneath the Buddha statue: The Hall of UniverseThe Hall of Benevolent Merit, and The Hall of Remembrance. inside is a relic of Gautama Buddha, consisting of some of his alleged cremated remains. You’ll see people praying and lighting incense. I kind of wanted to participate but it felt awkward so I just observed.

This is what it looks like to walk up almost 240 steps and then have a hairy giant step on your foot. I didn’t know the new iPhone had burst mode.

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We were sort of on a time crunch because we spent so much time waiting in lines but we did end up wandering into the attached tea garden. While walking through the tea garden we stumbled upon a house that had some tables set up outside and a homemade sign saying that there are drinks and noodles for sale. It was quaint and it was quirky so it was right up my alley. Inside there was an old woman making soup and when I saw her I knew we had to eat there. We ordered the chicken ramen and took a seat outside. You could hear her inside chopping fresh vegetables and grilling chicken, it was a comforting sound… she was comforting. I don’t know if it was how she made me feel or if it really was the best ramen I’ve ever had but damn that ramen was good!  After lunch we walked about a five minutes down the trail past the tea garden and ended up at “Wisdom Path” – You can’t miss it, high wooden columns reminiscent of bamboo tiles, these tiles are 38 calligraphies set within a figure 8 to symbolize infinity. I know this is going to sound corny but as I was standing amongst the calligraphies I felt a sense peace. Maybe it was the ramen still?

Excuse my squint, it was bright.

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From Big Buddha we took the bus to Tai O it’s about a 30 minute ride from Buddha. Tai O is a small fishing village located on the main part of Lantau Island. The village itself sits mostly on the banks of the river. Sadly, the fishing lifestyle is dying out and while we observed many residents fishing we were told that it barely provides a subsistence income.  Back In 2000 a  fire broke out and destroyed many residences, you can still see evidence of the fires as you walk through the village. The village is now mostly squatters huts and dilapidated stilt houses which often fall into the water. When we first arrived in Tai O Colin saw that there was a dolphin sight-seeing tour. I for one was skeptical about this tour because the water was visibly dirty, In Tai O and many other fishing villages it’s common for the residences to just dump their trash (and other fluids) out of their windows and straight into the water. It’s obvious that they’ve been doing it for a while because the water was littered with trash. I am not an environmentalist.. I mean, I am probably one of the worst offenders out there. My recycling skills need improvement but when we were out on that water it made me sad. The amount of filth was staggering and of course there were no dolphin sightings. After the “dolphin tour” we walked around Tai O for a couple more hours which is a long time for a community so small but the colors, textures, and people were fascinating. The people in Tai O weren’t as warm as the people on the main island but I am not sure how warm I would be if I had strange people walking around my house, taking pictures, and looking in my windows. We were a bit more respectful than that but the majority of the tourists weren’t.

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After Tai O we took the bus back to Big Buddha so we could catch the gondola back down the mountain and once again we were held hostage in a two-hour line. We planned to take the gondola back during sunset and even booked the crystal gondola which has a glass floor. I didn’t realize how truly terrifying the gondola with the glass floor would be but it didn’t matter much because unfortunately we missed the sunset and had to take the ride back in the dark. I imagine that at the right time that the views from the gondola are incredible.

If you’ve made it this far into my post you’re a saint but I have one last Hong Kong story,

As I mentioned earlier, during the summit we took a couple of groups out to explore. After dinner one night Colin and I were planning to get a foot massage (it had been a hell of a walking week) When we mentioned our plans we soon had a following.. a 10 person following. I scrambled trying to find a decent place to get a foot massage and accommodate 10 people at the same time. You should know that when looking for a massage of any kind in asia you have to be careful because you can very easily end up in a brothel by accident. We must have walked by 3 or 4 places claiming to me massage parlors but upon closer inspection you would find that they were offering a different type of massage #ThisIsNotTheMassageYouAreLookingFor

With us is Josh McKenty and McKenty is a strange bird but a good sort of strange (Fun fact: Josh McKenty is a unicycling juggler in his down time) but after the 4th or 5th place he was growing impatient and spotted a foot massage place across the street. The sign pointed us in this direction…

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Now I don’t know about you but I was a bit hesitant to go strolling down a dark alley in the middle of the night but not Josh, “Come on guys! It’s right down here.” he says, already walking fearlessly into the darkness.. Now if we were better friends to Josh we would have tried to stop him or maybe even gone with him but instead the remaining nine of us huddled under a street light at the end of the alley, laughing hysterically at Josh’s bold move, just waiting for him to meet his demise (NINJAS!) but I mean if he was going to get killed he deserved it, right? We watched Josh disappear into the darkness and then reappear again, telling us it was safe and since he returned alive we decided to bravely venture down the alley with him but all of us are still laughing hysterically because what idiot just walks into a strange alley at night? At least 10 idiots do… me included.

We end up at the place Josh has picked and I am convinced it’s a brothel but by this point I don’t trust anything anymore. We walk inside and tell the woman we would like 8 foot massages (two of our followers left out of fear) and in the end I am happy to report that we all received ONLY foot massages. I still couldn’t tell you if the place was a brothel or not but I can speak to the massage.. It was pretty great, so great that the big guy looked like this by the end of the hour.

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The lesson in the story is that when following Josh McKenty down a dark alley you may end up passed out in a massage chair.

Thank you to all of the people who dined with me, shopped with me, and explored with me. It was an experience i’ll never forget.