Hong Kong - November 2019

Spending a week in Hong Kong has been a wonderful whirlwind, but we will try to capture some of the highlights in this post.

The first three things you notice about Hong Kong are: one, how tall the buildings are - a small apartment building will have 24 floors, many newer ones will have at least 40, such a scene the scene can only be captured with a vertical panorama. Two, the smells - on every street there are multiple little food stalls with roasted ducks and other treats hanging out of the windows. Three, the protests which had a large effect on the city and made the visit even more unique.

# The AirBnB

AirBnB apartment was rather small. When we were looking for the place to stay we had an idea it is going to be small but pictures didn’t really do justice. The apartment was small, period. The whole box was about 16”x16” which fit the room, the kitchen, the shower/bathroom room, a couple of cupboards, a bunk bed, a pull-out sofa and an arcade machine that served as a perfect coffee table. The kitchen could only fit a single person, the bathroom - even less. We could touch both walls with my elbows while showering.

It is important to remember though, that this is a typical apartment and some people probably live their whole lives in those.

# Friday

I had arrived to Hong Kong the week before for a Machine Learning conference, so I started the day by catching up on some sleep. After she decided to spend the day wandering around our neighborhood. It is a large shopping area with each mall ranging from 5 to 10 floors. I chose to visit the one of the smaller shops which consisted of local clothing stalls packed together across several floors - on the fourth one, I discovered a food stand with some of the most delicious kimchi cucumbers that I have ever tasted. After some delicious shrimp shu-mei from an outdoor stand, I retired to the airbnb to relax for the rest of the evening.

Hong Kong dollar is 8 times cheaper than US dollar, simply divide all prices by eight.

# Saturday - Lamma Island

Sergey arrived Saturday morning, but his luggage got delayed in San-Francisco. For some reason United insisted on giving them a local phone number for luggage delivery which, apparently, we didn’t have. We “talked” (using Google translate) to our concierge guy and he gave us the phone number of the front desk.
Next day I’m receiving the email from United baggage service:

Bag arrived tonight and when the delivery vendor called that HK number xxxxxxx and the man shout at the delivery man and told him not to call again.

Please see if you will have other phone no. for them to contact.

Thank you and sorry for the trouble.

We thought this was hilarious and told them that we’ll wait for the delivery person outside and were re-united with the luggage within half an hour.

Our destination for the day was Lamma Island, a popular, laid-back weekend get-away for locals and tourists alike.

First, we needed to get breakfast, so we picked up egg tarts from a local chain Tsui Wah. Anastassia got hooked on those fluffy custard buns and tried to find them around every corner. For coffee, we settled for Starbucks, because despite the plethora of dining options, it was one of the few reliable spots for a cappuccino.

Our next step was to take a taxi to the ferry pier. A challenging task because the drivers speak very little English. I eventually figured out that the best strategy was to show them the location on Google Maps with the name written in both English and Chinese; even then, the process took some trial and error.

*Aside: Hong Kong has three colors of taxis - each is only allowed to operate within a certain zone. We ended up taking the red and the green ones, but did not have the chance to ride the blue ones.*

On the island, we arrived at a peaceful fishing village and did a simple hike to the other end of the island. Many of the hikes in Hong Kong are paved and very accessible. About an hour and a half later, we arrived at another fishing village and had a simple but delicious meal of local fish. We were both tired, so we headed back for several hours of rest.

Sergey forgot to bring shorts, so we went to buy some at one of the local shopping complexes. The mall had approximately 11 floors interconnected by escalators - some of which skip floors. Throughout our trip, we walked through many buildings but the overwhelming, dizzying feeling did not pass. Unfortunately, the dozens of stores in the building had switched to their winter lines and bizarrely enough did not have a single pair of shorts, we later found a pair at the sporting goods store Decathlon (despite the weather being a humid 25C).

For dinner, we decided to have Hot Pot. The place we chose was rather nice, it even had a menu in English (a rare luxury there). We ordered the spicy broth ( a concerned waiter questioned if we were sure) and a delicious spread of lamb and beef. The meal was absolutely delicious, and we would definitely visit again on my next trip to Hong Kong. We were suffering from the spice the whole next day but it was worth it.

# Sunday

On Saturday we went to a local spot for breakfast but discovered that it primarily sold sweet baked goods. This seems to be a common pattern in HK, so we ended up cooking eggs at home the next couple of days. Luckily for us, the tiny kitchen had a hot plate and one pan.

*Aside*: "Pineapple Bun" a popular local treat contains no pineapple, they are simple sweet bread that received its name from its resemblance to the crust of a pineapple.

In the afternoon, we decided to hike to Suicide Cliffs to get a good view of the city at sunset. To access this hike, we took a taxi to a viewing point on the mountain. The taxi driver asked if we were being lazy...he was partially right, but this starting point let us quickly access the best points on the hike. From there, we headed up and down over several hills. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous, but the city itself was covered in a customary smog. We definitely recommend checking out this hike, especially around sunset.

We rewarded ourselves for hiking with *xi lang bao* (soup dumplings) from the famed Din Tai Fung chain. The traditional pork ones were phenomenal (although the only other place I had them is another famous chain in SF); unfortunately, the shrimp ones did not meet our expectations. We finished our evening with a walk through the Temple Street Night Market. The market stalls are designed for tourists - selling a repetitive selection of off-brand airpods, fake Supreme hats, chopsticks and wallets. The main allure of these markets appears to be in giving tourists an opportunity to haggle (and still pay more than the true price of the trinket). Some sellers try to imply price-fairness by posting “No bargain” signs. After a couple of experiments, we discovered that the seller will agree to the price you insist on, but we never tried to push it past 70% of the original price.  While the market itself caters to tourists, it is surrounded by dozens of food carts and cafes. For the carts, all the food is out in the open, so it suffices to point to what you want (and figure out what you are actually eating once it is in your mouth). A few of the popular options include fried octopus, fishballs and shumei.

On our walk home we also passed a slightly sketchy part of the town with porn shops (for those who doesn’t believe in Internet), prostitutes working the corners and a small market with sex toys. Our passage through that spot was quite uneventful.

# Monday

This day, we headed to Sai Kung East Park for some serious hiking on the Sharp Peak trail. We wanted to pick up some quick snacks for the hike and ended up at 7/11 - unlike the outlets in the US whose selection is limited to greasy sausage rolls, the local ones sell dumplings and pork buns. The quality wasn't top-knotch, but they got the job done in the middle of a long hike.

Hong Kong is known for its incredibly organized metro and buses. But this Monday, it was running frustratingly slow..still a train, bus and taxi ride later, we were able to start the hike. The views were gorgeous and in many ways resemble Kuai. After an hour or so, we came upon a beach that was largely empty, but had two operational cafes. They can only be accessed by foot or by boat, so they provided overpriced, but welcome food to weary hikers. Only in Hong Kong, a seemingly remote hike will have a stand with hot food and cold drinks. After a quick iced tea, we proceeded to the next beach which was completely deserted. We were starting to overheat, so we decided to take a dip in the ocean. Cooling off on a remote beach was a special feeling and was one of the highlights on the trip.

Unfortunately, the hard part of the hike was still ahead of us. The Sharp Peak Trail leads to the Sharp Peak a steep and rocky summit. The path to it doesn't bother with switchbacks and shoots straight up. Climbing it takes a lot of focus and energy and a couple of miles we were exhausted (we had climbed up 900ft from the beach); we decided to skip the additional 400 vertical ft to the proper peak and start heading out. The next section turned out to be even more difficult, because it involved scrambling down a mountain of loose rock. Eventually, we made it back onto the paved trail - the sign for the hike we took warned visitors that it was *treacherous* (but also fun).

The rest of the hike was along the Machelose trail, one of several official hiking trails in Hong Kong, each paved and maintained. The main highlight of this section was the random herd of cattle that decided to join us from a side trail. At the end of the trail, we were able to catch a bus back into town. Despite our troubles this morning, it is still impressive how the public busses run through all of the parks and other remote corners of the country.


For dinner that day, we hit up another well-known Dim Sum spot *Tim Ho Wan*, which has been dubbed the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world (technically only the original location, not the one we visited earned the star). We had several of their famous pork buns and pork and shrimp congee. Both were very delicious!

Like most of the world, we were aware of the on-going protests, but until that day, the signs were minor: "Free HK" graffiti on the walls and the occasional broken traffic light. However, today, we discovered that the street near our apartment was littered with bricks. The protestors took apart the sidewalk and filled the street with the blocks so that no traffic would pass. As far as we could tell, similar activity resulted in the MTR delays that morning. The resulting scene was unusual to say the least, but it was peaceful, there were, in fact, more onlookers and journalists than actual participants.

# Tuesday

After dealing with Monday’s transportation issues, we decided that we needed to get out of town. Our initial plan was to go to Shenzen, a city in China that borders Hong Kong. It is the only part of China that you can get a visa for at the border, but we did not realize until the night before that for US citizens it costs around $150. Luckily, Sergey remembered that Macau exists and similarly to Hong Kong we could get in with no visa at all. Getting there took some effort - a failed attempt to take a bus, then a taxi and a ferry…but we made it there in time for lunch.

Macau is a rather unusual place, because from 1557-1999 it was occupied by Portugal. Thus, a lot of architecture is in a classic Portugese style. Despite these cultural routes, very few people speak Portuguese, and no one understood Sergey’s Espanol. The rest of the city is filled with casinos and resembles Vegas. For lunch, we went to a Portuguese restaurant, for octopus rice.

It was delicious, but very filling and left us with no appetite for Portuguese style egg tarts later in the afternoon. Next, we went for a walk through the historic part of town. It really did feel like being in a city in Portugal or Spain than in Asia. The only part that resembled Hong Kong was the never-ending stream of people occupying the streets.  It took us a couple of hours to explore this entire neighborhood, including a stop to buy some almond cookies and beef jerky to take home as souvenirs (Macau is known for both). Finally, we checked out a couple of casinos and headed back. The day trip was a nice change of pace, but I would make a couple of recommendations for future travelers: 1. Skip a sit down meal and snack on the local street food instead. 2. Skip the casinos and check out the beaches instead. We were too tired to do this, but they looked lovely from the ferry.

We got back to Hong Kong a little before 8, and it felt like coming home. We were back just in time for the light show at Victoria Harbor.

# Wednesday

Our attempt to “take it easy” with a day trip to Macau had failed, considering we walked well over 20,000 steps again. So, today, we spent the morning relaxing at home, then headed out to hike Shek O or Dragon’s back - the most famous hike in Hong Kong. The hike took about 3 miles and featured some gorgeous views of the ocean and of sprawling villas. For a city where the average buildings are 20+ stories, it is crazy that a short drive away, there are gorgeous, rolling mountains that make you forget the craziness of the city. The hike ended at Big Wave beach, where Anastassia enjoyed a swim and Sergey - a beer. After, we had the best Pad Thai of our lives in an unassuming shack steps away from the beach.

We continued the day by taking the tram up to Victoria Peak. It is another very touristy destination, but for good reasons - the views of the city were really awesome. The day ended with a repeat trip to Tim Ho Wan for more pork buns and congee.

# Thursday

After spending several days in the cramped (or “cozy”) AirBnB, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice hotel for the last night. The one we chose had a pool on the 41st floor with views that could only be captured with a “vertical panorama” photo. We spent most of the day shopping for gifts and getting our fill of bubble tea and egg tarts. For lunch, we stopped by the food court next door to the hotel for a surprisingly good meal. One of our favorite things about Hong Kong will be how good the food is *everywhere*…even at a fast food cafe.

While we managed to finish our souvenir shopping, a lot of the larger stores at the mall were closed due to the protests. We avoided all of the actual violence, but over the week, we did see an increasing amount of vandalism. Even though we managed to stick to most of our itinerary, it was impossible to ignore the rapidly developing situation around us. For example, the egg tart shop we discovered on one of the first days was completely vandalized towards the end of the week.

For our last dinner in Hong Kong, we decided to get hot pot one more time. This time we chose Market Hotpot, a smaller spot, tucked into the third floor of a walkup. The restaurant was pretty empty, except for a large party of about 20 loud young women and a couple of other small groups. We quickly discovered that the place had no English menu, which posed a challenge for both us and the staff. Until now, every restaurant had an English menu or an option to point at what you want. Now, we had managed to pick up on two symbols during the trip: big (

大) and cow (牛), but they were not enough to complete our order. Miraculously, we managed to order some meat and vegetables. They also only accepted cash only which required two trips to the ATM as Sergey’s card stopped working. Unlike the previous location, the soup had a chicken broth served with the whole bird in the pot.

# Friday

Our flight was in the evening, so we had time for one last hike. This time, we decided to tackle Lantau Peak located on the eastern island of Lantau. We left our luggage in storage lockers at a mall and went to look for the bus to the start of the hike. We asked some MTR workers about our bus stop and were met with extreme skepticism about the fact that we wanted to hike to Ngong Ping (as opposed to taking the bus to the top … it’s a hard hike after all). But after reassuring them that we knew what hiking entailed, we were on our way. The hike took us over rolling hills covered in fog, similar to Suicide cliffs, but no less stunning. It culminated with a giant statue of Budha, a cool final scene for our journey.

This amazing combination of good food, hiking and city scenes is unique to Hong Kong, and it is a trip that we will remember for the rest of our lives.