I left Zhengzhou on Wednesday and flew to Hong Kong, where I’m spending four days before going home.
It’s been 26 years since my last visit to Hong Kong and 17 years since the British returned control of the city to China. But it remains distinctly different than the mainland –- a Special Administrative Region with freer political, economic and judicial systems.
Although Hongkongers complain about Beijing’s increasing interference in their affairs, day-to-day life in the city doesn’t appear to have changed much since my last visit. It’s still a major financial and shopping mecca crammed with people and skyscrapers. You see a lot of Buddhist and Taoist temples here, but money is the main religion and the gods are named Mercedes, Cartier and Gucci.
Not, however, at the hostel where I’m staying for 30 bucks a night in the Causeway Bay section of Hong Kong Island. I’ve never liked hotels, so Pat and I often stay at bed and breakfasts when we’re traveling. This time, I went one step further and decided to relive my youth by hanging out with a bunch of 20-something backpackers and sleeping in a dorm-style room with nine bunk beds.
The lounge is like a mini-United Nations. During my first night there, I met travelers from Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, England, Wales, Germany, France, Switzerland and the Ukraine. The guy from Wales is here to study kung fu. A middle-aged tourist guide from Taiwan was in town to take a wine connoisseur’s test. And the Ukrainian was going to neighboring Shenzhen to deliver an IT lecture.
Most of the guests are less than half my age, but they’re all veteran travelers who know a lot about the world. Many of them speak three or four languages, and they’ve all got great travel stories to tell, which is why the bullshit sessions go on all night.
Yesterday I toured Hong Kong Island and Kowloon — the two most famous parts of Hong Kong — on a double-decker bus. We passed by all the major landmarks, including the 88-story Two International Finance Centre, the spaceship-shaped Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Man Mo Temple, Kowloon Park, the Ladies Market, Peak Tower and the Mid-Levels Escalator.
Peak Tower is a shopping complex with a wok-shaped roof that sits near the top of Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island. You ride a funicular railway to the tower, then take a series of escalators to a terrace that offers spectacular views of the Hong Kong skyline and the surrounding mountain peaks. It’s a major tourist site that usually has long lines, but I lucked out by getting there early in the afternoon and quickly getting a seat on the tram.
Covering 2,600 feet, the Mid-Levels Escalator is billed as the world’s longest covered outdoor escalator. It’s really a network of escalators and walkways that help commuters navigate the hilly Central and Western District of Hong Kong Island. The escalators pass by dozens of upscale bars and restaurants that do a huge business with thirsty, hungry workers on their way home. I don’t think I’ve seen such a variety of ethnic restaurants in such a small area. In just one block, I saw the following cuisines: Vietnamese, Argentine, Greek, Italian, French, Chinese, Japanese and Tex-Mex.
As I was leaving the area, I met a journalist covering the grand opening of an upscale Marks & Spencer food store. I asked him if the Chinese government, which controls the press on the mainland, has tried to do the same in Hong Kong.
“It’s going downhill,’’ he told me. “My paper writes what it wants, but some publications are worried about offending the government. I don’t think the press here is as free as it used to be.’’
At night, I walked along the Avenue of Stars, a promenade on the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbour that is Hong Kong’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The walkway has plaques honoring Hong Kong movie stars, complete with their handprints. There’s also several statues, including one of martial arts legend Bruce Lee in a fighting stance. Just about every tourist stops in front of the statue and mimics Lee’s pose for a photograph. Including me.
I then watched the “Symphony of Lights,’’ the nightly multimedia show that features music, laser beams and searchlights. Skyscrapers on both sides of the harbor were lit up like Christmas trees in a dazzling multicolor display that had everyone gazing skyward except the little boy next to me, who was busy playing games on his mother’s iPhone.