I’m under no illusion that my travel experiences, in some of the world’s most popular destinations, have a lot to do with the time of year in which I visited. This is why I was stoked a few weeks ago, when the stars aligned just right for us to take a side trip to visit friends in Hong Kong, so we could renew our Malay visa. Not only were both Chris and I free of work commitments, but one of my best buddies happened to be home (she’s been living in Honkers for 10 years) AND, lo and behold, temps were hovering around the 15 degree Celsius mark. To two overheated overlanders who’d been coping with excessive temps and humidity for 18 months now…this trifecta just sounded too good to be true.
You see, I have been to Hong Kong a few times before and my most vivid memories were of sweating buckets just standing in the shade, and having difficulty breathing due to the all the incessant smog. I was never a huge fan of the city, yet I’d only ever visited in summer and knew that my opinion was tainted by the timing of my visits.
So off we went for a week of wintery city-scape shenanigans and, perhaps, a change of heart.
Except I don’t own nearly enough clothing to cope with winter temps so had to borrow half my girlfriend’s wardrobe!
A concrete jungle, shocking climate, horrendous pollution, too many people, good food. That’s pretty much how I’ve always seen Hong Kong, in a nutshell.
Yet as it happens, Hong Kong in winter is an absolute treat and granted me such a different perspective on the city, I can hardly believe it. Among the scattered rains and heavy cloud cover were moments of pure, clear bliss. Blue skies, lofty verdant peaks, a stunning harbour and incredibly enticing islands. This wasn’t the Hong Kong I remembered at all.
In all the times I visited, I had never managed to go up to The Peak, the fog was always so ubiquitous that, to be honest, I don’t even think I ever saw the top of the hill on Hong Kong Island.
As for the crowds, they too were eerily missing, but I have a sneaking suspicion this has much to do with the fact that by now, we have spent a lot of time in some of the most populated cities in SE Asia.
Hong Kong crowded?
Not compared to Bangkok it ain’t!
Made Up of over 260 islands, 170-odd of which are totally uninhabited, Hong Kong is an archipelago like no other. Boasting the highest concentration of skyscrapers of any city in the world – twice as many as New York in fact – this metropolis which started off as a nondescript fishing village, was literally built upwards ever since the British landed in 1841 and claimed it as their own. Unlike all other major Asian cities, foreign presence lies at the very heart of the city’s essence. Without European expats, there simply would be no Hong Kong, a fact that is quite palpable. Sure, we’ve seen plenty of expats in Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur, but never did we feel they were part and parcel of those cities but merely spectators stopping in for a while. In Hong Kong, there are Westerners who were born there and feel as much part of the local population as anybody else, and that’s quite unique.
What may surprise many is the fact that three-quarters of Hong Kong is made up of natural wilderness, with the city boasting dozens of reserves, parks, deserted beaches and outstanding island coastline only accessible by boat. Within just 20 minutes of the most densely populated suburb on earth (Mongkok, where the Ladies’ Markets is), you could be hiking in pristine forests. Something, by the way, which you’d only ever want to do in winter!
We take advantage of a rainy day to barricade ourselves in the Honk Kong Museum of History, a very interesting and humongous complex which retells the story of the city from prehistoric times, right up to the present day. It tells a somewhat unbiased tale of Chinese immersion, of the complete disintegration of its indigenous population by the Han Chinese Dynasty, about the toxic Opium Wars with Great Britain led primarily by the fact that although Europeans went nuts over local products like silk and tea, the desire to reciprocate trade was non-existent.
“There was nothing made in Europe which the Chinese coveted”
That made me smirk.
That was until the Brits inundated the trading port with opium they were growing in India, single-handedly causing a huge drug addiction problem within the local populace.
When Emperor Chia Ch’ing literally banned the import of opium, the Brits responded with war. Imagine that? They literally forced the country to accept their drug, of which they had a seemingly endless supply.
The Opium Wars ended with luck on the British side and the rest, as they say, is history. When the Crown took over Hong Kong in 1841, the city was nothing more than a hamlet of about 20 villages. By the time it was returned to China, on 30 June 1997, it had become one of the world’s most pivotal trading cities. English is still the official language (along with Cantonese) and, from what we gather, locals feel about as Chinese as we do.
Still, the city has plenty of appeal regardless of whether or not you have a local buddy here or not. And considering the fact that neither Chris nor I are fans of big cities, it turned out to be the best city-scape we’ve had in years.
So now I’ll leave you with some interesting facts you may not know about this vibrant, cosmopolitan city. If you’re ever in the mood for a little getaway and wish to explore a unique and enticing place, give Honkers a go. Bet you won’t regret it
Just make sure it’s in the months between November and April 😉
2. It also boasts the most expensive real estate on earth, with tiny one bedroom flats in Tsim Sha Tsui (the southern tip of Kowloon Island) selling for USD 3 mill. That’s a lot of dumplings.
3. Unsurprisingly, HK also boasts the highest concentration of eateries in the world and is home to the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant you’ll ever find anywhere. PS We ate there!
4. Locals are just crazy for designer gear, and HG boasts the most expensive designer retail shopping area in the world, having overtaken New York in 2012.
5. More than 42 million people visit Hong Kong every year, spending more than USD 34 BILLION dollars. This doesn’t include mainland Chinese, of which there are 58 million. That’s right, more than all other nationalities combined.
6. The Global Geopark of China, a UNESCO-listed reserve which covers 1,253 acres, is less than an hour’s drive out of the city.
7. Camping is free for all, in all public parks, beaches and uninhabited islands, unless specifically stated otherwise. We only encountered one ‘no camping’ sign during our week’s exploration. If you had a kayak, you’d have literally thousands of idyllic coves and secluded beaches to explore at length.
8. In 2012, a Hong Kong tycoon offered USD65 million to any man who was able to ‘turn’ his lesbian daughter, woo her, and marry her. He failed and she married her girlfriend instead. You go girl!
9. Hong Kong has the largest fleet of ferries in the world (connecting not just Kowloon to Hong Kong Island but also many cities on mainland China), as well as the longest bi-cable aerial car and one of the most efficient public transport systems, with an on-time rate of 99%.
10. Due to the insane cost of housing, many of the city’s poor live in wire ‘cages’ which can be rented for USD200 a year. It’s believed that over 50,000 locals live like this. Read more here.
11. An 800m-long covered escalator helps commuters get from Mid-Levels to Central. It’s the longest escalator in the world and it switches directions at peak hour. Down in the morning and up in the afternoon.
12. Traditional burial plots can sell for upwards of USD80,000 and spaces are painfully amiss. It’s believed more than 50,000 people’s remains are stored in funeral homes for years, whilst their families wait in queue for a plot. Considering people here are cremated at death and need only a small plot for an urn, a running local joke is that in Hong Kong it costs more to bury the dead than house the living.
And that’s saying something.