On our second full day in HK, we struck out on our own and enjoyed some sights and experiences no less beautiful and stimulating than the more touristy experiences we had had the day before. And of course, we only scratched the nanosurface of all that there is to do and see in Hong Kong.

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A narrow street walled in by buildings in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong The storefront of the Chinese Noodle Restaurant in Hong Kong's Kowloon District

We started off in Kowloon, whose claustrophobic urban canyons, crammed with billboards, have a bit more character than the more modern, sterile, finance-oriented buildings of the downtown area. Just the sight of it is highly suggestive, rich with the possibilities of so many lives in such a small space.

In the morning we each had a tasty bowl of spicy noodles at a little eatery with the almost hilariously unimaginative name “Chinese Noodle Restaurant.” (Its Chinese name, 四川麻辣米綫, which I would translate as “Spicy Sichuan Rice Noodles,” is a bit more descriptive.) When eating at places like this, be careful not to let them make you pay the “foreigner tax.” Sometimes people who are obviously foreign (especially Westerners) are charged extra; this did in fact happen to us at one restaurant, but it wasn’t here.

Sichuan-style rice noodles at a restaurant in Hong Kong's Kowloon District Crowds of transit passengers in the Hong Kong subway

The food in Hong Kong is world renowned, and although as a semi-vegetarian I’m not as crazy about HK’s Cantonese and seafood-oriented cuisine as I am about some of China’s other regional cuisines, even my persnickety palate was pleased by the food we had there. These noodles were an even better morning stimulant than coffee.

Afterward, we took a subway ride from Kowloon to downtown HK, the Central District of Hong Kong Island. Although the subway ride was convenient and comfortable, I don’t want to imagine what it must be like during a sweltering August afternoon rush hour. I just hope it has a massively powerful ventilation system.

The central atrium of the Landmark, an upscale shopping mall in downtown Hong Kong Another view of the central atrium of the Landmark, an upscale shopping mall in downtown Hong Kong

The Landmark in downtown HK is probably one of the finest shopping malls in the world, with many of the most exclusive brands represented. As someone with rather plebian tastes and an utter lack of sartorial style, I felt about as comfortable as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. It was beautiful and impressive, but I don’t think anyone with a philosophical bent can help feeling a bit alienated by the hordes of worshippers at downtown Hong Kong’s altar of Mammon.

After we emerged from the Landmark with our bank account fortunately still more or less intact, we witnessed an impressive phenomenon: the lunch rush amidst the office buildings in the Central District. Every day, tens or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of worker drones descend from their mile-high celestial cubicles simultaneously to swarm the streets and mingle with the crowds of shoppers and tourists. This video clip doesn’t fully capture the intensity of it, but it was quite a sight (and sound).

A human billboard puts a costume on to advertise on the streets of downtown Hong Kong The storefront of the Kosmo Wellness Cafe in downtown Hong Kong's Central District

We also witnessed the amusing sight of this “human billboard” (on the aptly named Theatre Lane) preparing some kind of costume—a sun, a sunflower, a strange mythical creature? I can’t tell. Actually, “costume” doesn’t do it justice. “Promotional siege engine” is a more accurate description.

Soon we took shelter from the crowd in the Kosmo Wellness Cafe, an oasis of calm with tasty (and at least nominallly healthful) beverages and friendly service.

A refreshing fruit smoothie and iced milk tea in downtown Hong Kong's Kosmo Wellness Cafe Skyscrapers (including the Center) rise into a blue sky over a street in downtown Hong Kong

Our beverages: a smoothie and some milk tea. I suppose drinking milk tea in Hong Kong is disappointingly predictable, but it was indeed good.

With all the time I’ve spent in places like San Francisco and Shanghai and New York, you might think I would be fairly gawk-proof at the sight of gleaming skyscrapers, but downtown HK is stimulating even to jaded eyes. As the scads of photos (many more than I’ll inflict on you here) I took there prove, I spent a lot of time gazing upward at the impressive buildings, playing the role of slack-jawed American yokel, to the amusement of the locals around us, no doubt. At one point my wife even offered to buy me a bib. Well, she didn’t say that, but I’m pretty sure she was thinking it.

Hong Kong's 2 International Finance Centre, one of the tallest buildings in the world Glass-sided skyscrapers (the Bank of China Tower and the Cheung Kong Centre) reflect a cloudy sky in downtown Hong Kong

I don’t think you can blame me for gawking, though—by some measures Hong Kong has the best skyline in the world, and it currently boasts five of the the twenty tallest buildings in the world, including Two International Finance Centre (left photo), which comes in at #4.

Right: The Bank of China Tower (left) and the Cheung Kong Center are the 12th and 52nd tallest buildings in the world, respectively.

A busy intersection in the Central District of downtown Hong Kong Trolleys in the Central District of downtown Hong Kong

Despite all of the industrial towers of steel and glass, downtown Hong Kong somehow manages to be rather charming, too, with its many shops, its cultural distinctiveness, and its pedestrian-friendly environment.

The trolleys, in particular, are rather quaint to an American’s eye.

A demonstration against Citibank in downtown Hong Kong An anti-Citibank protester in Hong Kong wearing a t-shirt that reads 'pyscho' and 'God destroys'

One somewhat unexpected sight we came across was this anti-Citibank demonstration. This and some other things we observed on our trip, along with the recent [at the time this post was originally written] news about factory workers in China going on strike and successfully demanding better wages, gives me hope for the “little people” of China who have thus far largely been left behind by China’s remarkable economic success.

Right: This protester is wearing a shirt that reads “psycho” (or “insane”) at the top, and it looks like the bottom part says “God destroys.” At least I’m pretty sure he was a protester, not an actual self-declared psycho. In any case, I didn’t even consider messing with him, and as you can see I waited until his back was turned to take this photo. My experience suggests that it’s best just to take people labeled “psycho” at face value.

Next up: our ferry ride to Cheung Chau and a taste of Kowloon nightlife. I’ll chronicle the rest of our trip next week.

—originally published on our old blog on July 20, 2010

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