I just returned from a 3+ week, multi-stop trip to Asia: 11 flights (ranging from 20 minutes to 14.5 hours), 8 airports (from huge, modern ones to 2-room shacks), 4 countries (with layovers in 3 more), 3 big cities and numerous small towns. We saw temperatures ranging from 100° F to below freezing, tropical gardens and snow-covered peaks, languages written in 4 different alphabets. In the interests of time & sanity, I’m going to break the trip into several posts over the coming days.
Our first and last stop on the trip, after finding some cheap round-trip tickets from Seattle, was Hong Kong.
Sometime in the past few years humanity passed a milestone: for the first time in history, the majority of us live in cities. In the timeline of human evolution cities are still a fairly new invention, and in many cases we’re still figuring out how do them right. It’s easy to think of dismal cases of urbanism gone wrong, but there are bright spots; places where things come together in just the right way to create something great. Hong Kong is one of them.
After defeating China in the First Opium War, the British wanted a trade outpost on the South China Sea; Hong Kong is what they ended up with. The British officer that chose Hong Kong as their prize got fired for his choice; although it had a natural deep water port, there was almost no flat, buildable land. If you had to choose a location to build a 7-million person city, a site with topography like Hong Kong’s is one of the last ones you’d pick. The lush, steep-sided mountains and erratic coastline sprinkled with small islands would be better suited for scenic parkland than a large city.
An agreement’s an agreement, though, and 2 expansions and 180 years later we end up with what Hong Kong is today: the world’s most vertical city, forced to be so by its improbable geography. There are more skyscrapers, more residential buildings exceeding 500 ft, and more people living above the 14th floor than any other city in the world. Thirty-story apartment buildings are commonplace, and often overshadowed by larger neighbors. More than a third of world’s 100 tallest residential buildings are in Hong Kong. And the city’s main financial district, Central, wedged on a narrow strip of reclaimed land between the mountain and the harbour, is considered by some to have the world’s most impressive skyline (it’s certainly the best I’ve seen).
As a visitor, Hong Kong is great. The energy, bustle, and sheer crush of humanity you experience at busy times is something you can’t find in Europe or North America – and yes, I’m taking New York into account. To put it in perspective, Kowloon, one of the city’s main districts, has a population density of 111,000 people per square mile – almost double Manhattan’s. Strolling through the frenetic neon jungle at night is exhilarating; probably the closest thing in the human experience to what it must be like for bees to live in their packed hives, or for fish to live in those shape-shifting, millions-strong schools.
We spent our days simply wandering around, never running out of interesting things to see. The city itself is the main attraction, with all the contrasts you’d expect from such a place: there are bustling specialty markets (everything from meat, fish, veggies, and flowers to jade and even goldfish), luxurious shopping malls, humble street food, excellent restaurants. The city has an impressive collection of noteworthy skyscrapers (including two of the world’s 8 tallest), and many of them have either observation decks or rooftop bars. There are beautiful parks, filled with lush tropical vegetation, to provide a respite from all the glass and concrete. Even a few beautiful old temples have been preserved, in a city where “old” isn’t exactly in style. And there’s the series of 20 outdoor, covered escalators that rise from Central halfway up the adjacent mountain, offering a novel and highly popular means of getting to & from neighborhoods perched on the steep and densely populated hillside.
Transportation is, in general, something Hong Kong excels at. Only 1 in 14 people owns a car; everyone else gets around on the extremely efficient and clean public transport system, which includes one of the best subways I’ve ever used. There’s also the airport, perennially ranked as one of the world’s best (#4 this year), and with a unique service that’s awesome for travelers: in-town check-in. You can get your boarding pass and check your luggage at the train station in the city, spend your day doing fun stuff, then shortly before your flight hop on one of the super-frequent express trains to the airport and go straight to your departure gate.
Okay, so it’s a convenient, interesting, and exciting place to visit. The only real drawback that I could find was the air: the city was continuously blanketed with a thick layer of hazy smog during both our visits. It didn’t smell bad or cause us any breathing problems, but it was enough to obscure some great photo-taking opportunities (I hear that it does clear out sometimes).
It’s a symptom of Hong Kong’s success. Many of those ubiquitous “Made in China” products we all buy were made in the Pearl River Delta, “the workshop of the world,” just over the border in mainland China (in Guangdong Province, to be precise). In the last 30 years, China’s economy has grown more than any other country, and the Pearl River Delta has been the fastest growing region in China. Hong Kong is the finance center and outward-facing portal for all that growth, hence the city’s taglines of “Asia’s World City” and “Where East meets West.”
Hong Kong remained a British overseas territory until 1997, when it was returned to China as a Special Autonomous Region, “SAR”, under the Chinese idea of “one country, two systems.” Except military and foreign policy matters, Hong Kong more or less governs itself and has its own currency, government, and, immigration policy. Unlike mainland China, Westerners can come & go without a visa or any special permission – a fact that we definitely used to our advantage on this trip. (Our first excursion, to Macau, will be covered in my next post).
I expected to like Hong Kong, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. I love visiting big but well-organized cities, and Hong Kong fit the bill perfectly. It’s an enlightening, convenient, and fun place to visit, and I hope I’ll get to go back sometime.