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My trip to Hong Kong has probably been one of the best decisions of my life so far. It seemed like a nuisance at times, given the extra money I would have to pay, the time it would take, and the excruciating fatigue that I knew would surely follow it. However, I can honestly tell you that it was worth every penny and second I invested on it. It was an amazing weekend, filled with unforgettable experiences, beautiful sights, and big belly laughs.
On Friday, we made our way to the airport right after classes ended. There are very few airports in Taiwan, and the nearest one to my current city, 台南 (Tainan), is about an hour south in 高雄 (Gaoxiong). The flight to Hong Kong is not too long, but you always need a few extra hours when traveling by plane. We planned to arrive on time for dinner, and perhaps even do one of our sightseeing trips that very night. Although we left Tainan around 12pm, we did not leave the Hong Kong airport until around 6-7pm. Hong Kong has tourism down to a science: offer free gifts, free wifi, and fancy coupons and people will be happy. Although we only used one or two things from the welcome packet, just receiving it made us feel at home.
When we tried to take the MTR (subway/metro/tube) that night, we followed street signs to the nearest "subway." We started walking down the stairs only to find another staircase back up at the end. We walked up the other staircase confused but already fairly sure of what had gone wrong. While Kana asked for directions to the nearest 捷運站 (MTR station), I stood to the side unable to stop laughing, Turns out, "subways" in Hong Kong are the underground passageways to cross the street without stopping traffic.
In case you did not already know, Hong Kong is pretty expensive. Bottled water, which I already found to be too expensive in the United States, can cost over $3 US dollars. When I walked into a 7-11 in search of water, which seem to be as common in Hong Kong as they are in Taiwan, another 外國人 (foreigner) suggested I just get beer because it was cheaper. I left the 7-11 with a diet coke.
One of my goals for the weekend was to eat Cantonese food, the most influential food in Hong Kong cuisine. Unfortunately, we did not plan that part of the trip well enough. We usually ate whenever we started to get hungry at the first place we found. Both days we at breakfast at a nearby Starbucks, which had the best yogurt I have ever eaten, and on Saturday we ate Indian food for dinner. We had gotten pretty used to Tainan prices, so the shock of having to spend over $10 US dollars for every meal hit us hard. I think some of us spent more money on that single weekend than we had spent in the past few weeks.
Another big shock was not being able to use Mandarin Chinese to communicate. Obviously, most people speak English, but I found myself saying little phrases in Mandarin out of habit. Things like "excuse me" and "thank you" would pop out of my mouth without me even meaning to say them. The most widely spoken language in Hong Kong is Cantonese, a different Chinese dialect. It seems to be a lot more complicated than Mandarin, with several more tones and a few more vowel combinations. It was funny and confusing to see characters I already knew written on signs with Cantonese pinyin below (all Chinese dialects share the same written language but have different sounds for most characters). The only difference is that, like in Taiwan, they use the traditional version of characters in Hong Kong, which is more complicated than the simplified that they use in the mainland. I've personally grown pretty used to them, though. By the end of the trip, I was back to my English speaking habits. Chinese class on Monday was a struggle.
We were exhausted on Friday night, so we did not even attempt to wake up too early on Saturday morning. Our first stop (after Starbucks, that is) was Victoria Peak, the highest mountain in the Hong Kong islands. We spent a few hours there, walking around, avoiding the rain, and taking pictures of us and the beautiful view. Above, the third row down and first photo on the second row are from the typical Victoria Peak view. Also above, the first photo on the second row up was taken at a different place atop the mountain. We were planning to take the Peak Tram back down but ended up walking all the way down the mountain. The walk was fairly steep, and by the end of it I knew my entire body (but mostly my calves) would be sore from it. As soon as we arrived at the bottom we made our way to the nearest pizza place. I am still not sure whether it actually tasted good, or we were just hungry enough that anything would have tasted like heaven.
After we finished our pizza we made our way to the MTR in order to make use of the one-day pass we had bought at the airport. Although exhausted, we managed to find enough energy to go to the Ladies Market, a famous market in Hong Kong with a great variety of women's clothing and accessories, but also souvenirs and trinkets for anybody who is not interested in that. A few people in our group decided to stop at a coffee shop to buy some coffee and renew their energy. The Ladies Market was only a couple blocks from the coffee shop. I headed toward the nearest purse stall right away. I had not brought any casual purses to carry my essentials on a day-to-day basis, and had had to use my roommates purse the entire morning. Pickpocketing can be a bit of problem in Hong Kong, so not having my things with me was making me nervous. After haggling the price down to half the original, I asked Kana for my wallet. It was gone.
I managed to keep my freak-out hidden deep down inside, but I was already picturing all the scenarios that would undoubtedly derive from this. I would have no money in a foreign country. I would have to cancel my cards and get new ones. I would have to watch out for fraudulent activity on my bank account. I would have no access to my money in a foreign country. It always came back to that. I suppose there are ways to work around that, but I was not looking forward to it. We apologized and made our way back to the subway, hoping to see it somewhere along the way, hoping against logic that it had not been stolen.
The wallet was at the coffee shop. I had a high school ID inside that was proof enough of my identity. As soon as I got it back, I ran back to the purse stall and purchased the bag I had bargained for. The 老板 (store owner) was very surprised I had got it back. Although that buy was more our of impulse and necessity than anything else, I actually really like it. A map of the world covers it entirely, with Hong Kong at the front and center. We all agreed it was perfect for someone who loves to travel as much as I do.
We spent a couple hours there, then had to leave in order to make the famous Hong Kong Starr Ferry ride. We wanted to watch the daily 8 o'clock light show from the ferry, so we broke the rules and waited a couple turns to get on the boat. We took pictures and enjoyed the sight. A couple minutes before 8 o'clock, we made our way into the ferry and sat to the right, following our flawless logic that the ferry would eventually turn to let both sides watch the show. Of course, it did not. We were all so tired we didn't even try to run to the other side. Instead, we decided just to take try again and take the ferry back.
As soon as we made it back to our rooms, we crashed.
We could not help ourselves. On Sunday morning, we went straight back to the market. If you have never been to a market where bargaining is the rule and not the exception, you might not understand how fun it is to bring the price down, sometimes even to half the original one. Of course, shop owners know this will happen before they set the price, so the original price they offer things at can be up to 5 times its true value. You have to be really smart when buying things in Asia. If a shopkeeper can figure out you are a foreigner from your appearance or accent, they will attempt to sell you something for too high a price. To get a good price at a market you first tell them whatever they priced it at was too expensive, then offer a new price. More often than not, that price will be rejected, so pick a low one. Your hope is to end near the middle of the original price and the price you offered. If you still think the price is too high, try walking away. Shopkeepers will even follow you, yelling out lower prices until you turn back and buy the thing.
We again had to leave the market to make out last activity. I had no idea what the Waterfront Promenade was, but Marzia was very insistent on going. Another MTR ride and a short walk later, we finally made it. I am so glad Marzia made us go! The view was unbelievably beautiful. The photograph at the very top of this blog is of that place. Also, the photo at the very bottom of this post was also taken at that spot. Every place we went to in Hong Kong, I always thought it must be the most beautiful place I had ever laid eyes on. How is it possible for a tiny cluster of islands to have so much beauty and such a rich culture? I can't wait to be back.