Stepping out of China into Hong Kong is a bizarre experience... like two different worlds only a step apart.
A new railway has just been built linking Xiamen to Shenzhen in a mere 3.5 hours on the high-speed train bringing all the glittering gold of Hong Kong that much closer to us. At only 150 RMB a ticket (£15) the temptation is too much to resist and off we set. We hop straight from the Shenzhen metro into the Hong Kong metro which gives us insufficient time to adjust to the magnitude of the change around us. Suddenly, we blend into the crowd. A diverse and international crowd where there are no second glances, no lingering stares. No one feels like a foreigner here. The next stop is announced in clear and correct English, music to my ears. As the doors steam open, the crowd parts to let us off, and we alight unhindered, as happy as Moses in his red sea. An orderly queue waits patiently on the platform before boarding. I begin to relax.
What tourists do:
We don our tourist caps to do the things that would be shameful to leave Hong Kong without doing.
First: the Big Buddha.
A very comfortable cable car ride takes us higher and higher over mountains and forests veined with hiking trails. All signs of city skyscrapers disappear behind the next mountain and we are surrounded by a hushed green.
And then a first sighting of the statue’s silhouette in the distance- seated peacefully, head tilted down towards its pilgrims and apparently unaware of the grandeur its lofty situation emanates.
Its sheer size enables it to contend with the mountains surrounding it. Awe-inspiring.
Nearby a mysterious ‘wisdom trail’ leads us to a set of pillars on a mountainside inscribed with ancient wise sayings.
Beautiful but annoyingly hard to translate so we have to be content with our ignorance and move on. Souvenir shops and tasty egg waffles prove satisfactory compensation.
Next: Ocean Park.
We go early, before it opens as advised by the all-knowing Internet. Crowds have also been informed by the same source it seems. As the gates open we herd in and the fun begins.
We are not disappointed by the rides, the shows, and the amazing array of animals on site. It is very well done.
I am most impressed by the consisted messages of wildlife conservation and environmental protection woven into every experience at the park. Aimed to educate and inspire, this care and attention actually pulls at my heart strings. It feels more poignant to us who have come from the land where littering is a normal occurrence and defecating on the street a part of the daily routine. In fact, the attitude to the environment throughout Hong Kong city is commendable.
A fountain show is the best ending to a good but tiring day.
Other sights we sightsee:
Avenue of stars to see [handprints of] the greats!
And the Hong Kong Museum of History: I finally learn what HSBC stands for. Well worth the visit.
What residents say:
A friend on mine, Taye, recently moved back to Hong Kong from Xiamen with her family. She has experienced different aspects of Hong Kong life: first moving there years ago when it was difficult to find a sandwich for sale, then doing the office-to-bar scene as a young couple in the city centre, and now living in the new territories in a big house with a garden for their kids. She says Hong Kong is a great place to raise kids because of its excellent education, international influence and good sanitary standards. Her kids are already ambassadors of environmental protection and they are only in primary school. However, they have had to adapt to the more conservative societal manners in Hong Kong - a process both confusing for the kids and amusing for the parents watching. The youngest girl was quite upset apparently, and asked her mum if she was no longer beautiful - why? - because the usual crowd of curious people touching her hair and admiring her big eyes had gone. Taye assured her that her beauty is still in tact, it just doesn't stand out in the crowd so much anymore.
Yana, a russian friend I met while she was studying at Xiamen University moved to Hong Kong after graduation to start her first full time job working for a law firm. I asked her for a balanced view of life as a Hong Kong resident:
"Good things: it's a growing city with loads of opportunities; it is a glorious combination of western and asian cultures; it has everything one could ever desire; the people are warm and polite; and, unlike other big cities, it still has huge parks, crystal clean reservoirs, and amazing landscape.
Bad things: everything from rent prices to food is freaking expensive; the humidity level is way above the 'ok' mark; there are too many people which makes it impossible to get to your destination on time - a 'lateness disease'; it will soon belong to China and you can already feel the negative influence; and finally, your life flies in front of your eyes. One blink and its morning, another blink and its time to go to bed."
My couch surfing host, Chris, has been living in Hong Kong for about 2 years, after living in Singapore for a similar period. Having heard tales of the bland cleanliness of Singapore, I was curious to hear how he compares the two experiences. He actually preferred living in Singapore, saying that Singaporeans have a great sense of humour with the way they use English. While it may be bland for a tourist, it is the perfection of comfort for a resident. He finds it more difficult to get along with local people in Hong Kong as it is easier to say the wrong thing. The general attitude in both cities however, is ever more about money, money, money.
What I take away with me:
I am very inspired by our first evening spent in a creative space called Fill in the Blank. It is a unique space, that is available to hire for events, and otherwise good for social gatherings. It has books, games, a small kitchen and a bar- easy to transform into anything you want it to be. We are there for an open mike night where musicians perform in a leisurely, comfortable setting - cozy enough for everyone to get to know each other. I think many cities, including Xiamen, are in need of this kind of space, especially where the fleeting nature of people's affairs makes it difficult to foster a sense of community.
We are overwhelmed by the vast choices of food on offer- the best of the best from every country conceivable, all in one city.
Our taste buds are also enthralled by the fantastically fresh Vietnamese food of Nha Trang. We go back a few times to savour the pho noodle soups and summer rolls, rightfully queuing up to get in each time.
We discover a sanctity called 'Mana! Slow Fast Food' on Wellington Street. The place is the incarnation of good, rustic, healthy values and virtually injects inspiration to all its customers, us included.
I am now determined to master some authentic recipes, returning to China with a pack of rice papers securely under one arm and a bag of quinoa under the other, to bring some of our taste adventures home.
All I have to say about Hong Kong is already written on its walls.