Micah and I have to make trips to Hong Kong every couple of months. We have made a couple of trips this year so far and I would like to share my experience of Hong Kong with you. Until the first trip I hadn’t actually gotten to “meet” Hong Kong as I’ve really just ridden through shuttles to and from the airport or to a hotel at night.
There is much debate socially on whether Hong Kong is a part of China. Although, as agreements set forth, in the future Hong Kong will return to China’s control. As for now it is in a unique state of being in close relationship with China politically and yet still maintains its own government. I’ve even seen slogans about it being one country and two governing bodies. Hong Kong has wonderful and undeniable Chinese qualities from a common heritage; however, it has grown and developed in the last few decades that have given Hong Kong a unique flavor. And one of the things it is well-known is its cuisine (which I will hopefully be able to show you someday).
Hong Kong consists of several regions. Its total land area is just slightly over 2,755 km2 (1,064 sq miles). The most northern region is called the New Territories which holds the land that shares the border at the southern edge of Shenzhen. Following south you have the Kowloon Peninsula, then the Hong Kong Island and dozens of other islands spread around the much larger Hong Kong Island. The largest of these minor islands is called Lantau Island. These three regions are subdivided up into 18 city districts.
Since we have made two trips so far let me start with the first one (nice enough place to start right? lol). We stayed in Kowloon in the heart of Kowloon actually. Kowloon is a fairly famous area and it was wonderful to get to stay there—even if the hotel was comically small.
First let me describe how we arrived in Hong Kong. Of course you are crossing the border so you have to pass through security once on the China side and once again on the Hong Kong side. Though neither are that stressful when you travel via ferry. We took a bus down to the ferry and was able to board it about an hour later after we bought the tickets. We simply had to fill out the normal little forms when crossing the border and ran our baggage through an x-ray.
The ferry itself was really interesting. It was basically just a simple boat if you boil it down, lol. I’d never been on a ferry so I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was simple: the VIP’s sat upstairs and everyone sat downstairs in a seating arrangement very similar to that of an airplane. There were lots of windows made frosted by the ocean sprays. After getting off the ferry and through security, we headed straight to the subway so that we could get on to our hotel.
The first big difference we found between China and Hong was here in the subway. Aside from various layout differences and minor aesthetics, there was a huge difference. Hong Kong subways have people–who speak very good English–stationed strategically throughout the subway to help guide people. Each person we came across through our trip was incredibly nice and courteous.
The subway smoothly took us to a block from our hotel, where we were quickly able to check in and get a bit of rest before heading out. Next time I will share with you more of the Hong Kong aside from the mass transit.
Let me know if you have questions or want to know more about something! We love getting comments and feedback. More about Hong Kong will soon follow!
Note: This is part 3 in a series called Arriving in China.
If you haven’t read the previous two then you can do so here (part 1 & part 2)
Crossing the border
I was soo nervous about going through customs because I’d heard and read all about how the guards and customs officers will go through every pocket to look for anything they don’t like. While this might not have sounded like a logical thing to happen when you have hundreds of people crossing the border daily, I was still not convinced that they wouldn’t “pick” on a Western couple. However, my experience was completely anti-climatic compared to the hype that the border crossing had been given. Once we approached the customs area the driver stopped and open up the trunk, then proceeded very slowly (hoping nothing falls out) to the next section where all the documents are meticulously examined while everyone patiently waits in the van. Once we were cleared at that section we went to the next section where they took all the bags out and ran them through an x-ray machine. Any questionable bag was set aside and opened. All the others were haphazardly placed back in the van trunk. We all waited in a line while another guy came and lined up all our documents with their owners. Then, the driver grunted and pointed to the car; we all piled back in. Finally, we passed through one more section and was home free. Welcome to mainland China.
So the driver took us to this very beautiful hotel where a bell boy assisted us. An actual bell boy in an old fashioned uniform came out to get our luggage on some sort of trolley. They loaded up our luggage and gladly took it inside. Upon talking with the very nice people at the desk, we soon discovered our unsaid suspicions true: this was too expensive for our limited budget at $300 USD per night!
Reluctantly, we told them about our budget dilemma. They understood and tried to find something cheaper, but finally gave us directions to walk along the curving street to where we would find cheaper places to stay. They said to be careful because the pickpocketing, price gouging, and scams were worse so we should carefully judge each person. The bell boys helped us back out to the street with a kind but sad smile and watched us walk around the bend.
Of course, exhaustion and disappointment were weighing on us. We didn’t settle for the first yet scary looking place with sketchy feeling people. We walked on and were heading to a place that looked reputable when a couple of guys approached us. They asked if we needed a place to stay for the night and even helped us by grabbing a suitcase each. One of the guys spoke very good English and proceeded to tell use that he knows the hotel we were going to had a room for a decent price. We asked him how much, it was indeed a decent price. In reply to my curiosity, he explained that in certain areas it is very common for people to run small “businesses” in cooperation with hotels. These businesses rent out entire sections, floors, or blocks of room from the hotels at a discount and go about on the streets and tourist areas to drum up business. The hotel has the rooms filled, good references, word of mouth and the men of course make money by raising the price a bit. It is a very interesting symbiotic relationship.
Anyway, Micah and I were able to communicate with each other about whether we had any bad feelings or reservations with them. Neither of us did; in fact, speaking later we both had good feelings about them. Our instincts were verified later that evening when we found out that they had been given a heads up from Professor. How we are not sure at all, but I learned years ago to stop asking “how” as much when it came to our friend.
The men got us checked into a good room on their floor. During the check in process we chatted with them about what we were up to. They seemed really excited about us moving to China and wanted to see how they could help us further. We explained about the travel plan Micah’s boss created. However, they told us that a sleeper bus is what they prefer instead of the trains. After helping us to the room, Micah left with them to the ticket office (3-5 blocks down the way) to buy the tickets. Since the office was closing soon they ran. After successfully buying the tickets, the English speaking man promised to return in the morning to help us to the bus!!
A eye full of soup, supper
Micah returned, so that the two of us could set out at 1030pm to find something proper to eat after two days of airline food. Our first meal in China!! Trepidation started itching at the back of my mind when I recalled videos and images of some of the more strange food people eat here. However, hunger won out and I prepared myself to eat anything that wouldn’t make me queesy. We passed parlors, clubs, and even a 7-eleven! We finally just chose a fast-food style place with a lot of soups and pictures (pictures being the more important part since we didn’t read Chinese).
We chose a less exotic looking soup and chowed down. You know you are hungry when you are half way through the bowl of soup when you suddenly realize with a mixture of horror and hilarity that I had to really look at my soup. To my chagrin what I saw was my very tasty and satisfying soup was looking back at me. Dozens of little shrimp were in my soup! Lesson well learned, in China taste and appearance are not always the same thing.
On the way back to our hotel for some much needed rest, we picked up some drinks and chips at a 7-eleven to company the shrimp now in my belly.
In the morning we woke up, cleaned up, grabbed some McDonalds nearby and waited for our friend. He picked us up and bustled us through an underground walkway, through some other strange rail stations, and then to the bus station terminal where he sat us down. Hey then explained, very thoroughly, that we didn’t speak Chinese, would need help along the bus ride and for the people to make sure that the bus driver and attendants knew to take care of us and make sure we made it back on the bus at each stop. He reported their conversation to us and chatted for a few more minutes telling us that they were very excited for all that we would experience in China and wished they could go along with us. They gave us their best wishes for a good life and safe travels and left in a hurry.
I very much felt overwhelmed by these “guardian angels” that clearly helped us tremendously. They are another set of people along our journey that I will always appreciate.
Note: This is the second installment in the Arriving in China series. If you would like to read that section first, click here.
Chicago’s trippy lights and itinerary changes
Once we arrived in the Chicago airport we immediately scoped out the place and checked the flight board to make sure nothing had changed (as per the advice of the nice woman the previous day). Then we started exploring this new airport. Chicago airport is an odd place complete with displays and even intricate running lights in passenger tunnels.
During our several hour layover, we periodically checked the flight board verifying we were near the correct gate. However, throughout the day both the gate AND the terminal changed twice—we did a lot of walking. Some of the changes were extreme going from opposite end to opposite end of the airport. Eventually, we were able to board the flight to Hong Kong!
International flight with international coke
I remember having a turbulent mixture of both excitement and nervousness–everything was new to me and everything was fascinating to me. International flights, for those that have never been, are very different than domestic flights. For one, it is common place to have your very own headphone jack and a personal TV on the back of the seat in front of you for your own personal viewing pleasure. No more having to watch a single large screen at the front and playing head ping pong with the inevitable tall person in between you and the screen (as was what Micah told me happened on his first flight). We started this flight knowing it was going to be about 14 hours, though it ended up being 16.5, because it had to go around a large ocean storm at some point.
I was a bit anxious on how I would do with the air turbulence. Logically, turbulence makes sense and thus is not something I would see as a point of worry. However, I’m not the bravest person in the world and so was not sure how I would react. When it first happened it startled me but I didn’t have much of a reaction. It was very similar to riding in a car when it crossed from a paved road to a washboard road and back to a paved road. In other words it was no big deal for me; there were screams or gasps around the plane.
The selection of entertainment was amazing. There was TV shows, movies, music, some sports and news casts, and even some basic games (i.e. solitaire, Tetris, and zumba). However, I have to say the food was a little less than desired. I think a packed lunch from a quick store would have been better, but we were able to drink Chinese Coca Cola! My biggest problem with the meal was that since I was gluten free at the time I couldn’t eat about 70% of the miserly food they supplied us. The biggest meal was a small bag of chips with a sandwich made of cold deli meat on a small bagel. All the snacks except the peanuts were bread based and so I couldn’t eat them either. Micah got to eat what I couldn’t, he was well fed.
Though all in all the flight wasn’t bad except one minor incident between myself and a very rude steward. I tried to obey the seatbelt signs, so I waited and waited and
waited to use the restroom all the while watching a dozen more people over several hours get up and go. Finally, after reaching the point of decision wherein I had to decide between disobeying the never changing seatbelt sign or having an accident in my seat: I chose to disobey the seat and follow the others to the queue. A steward looked straight at me and screamed at ME, only ME “Can’t you read?! Get back in your seat!” He never even looked at the others; it was like they were invisible. I was so shocked by being screamed at in such a public place that I went back to my seat. A woman walked by and I felt sorry for the chewing out I was sure he would give her. So I listened…nothing. Again a man walked by and the same thing happened, which is to say nothing at all. So I screwed up my courage, which wasn’t too hard considering I was edging into a boiled indignation. Why would he yell at me and no one else? I was angry now.
So when I passed him to stand in line. He looked at me and took a deep breath to, I presume, yell at me further. I cut him off telling him something like “If you’re going to chastise people for getting up while the seatbelt sign is on, then do so but don’t pick out the one person you feel you can kowtow and scream at her. Now if you don’t want me to use the restroom when the sign is on then have the sign changed more often. I have been waiting for HOURS. Or would you prefer to have to do some cleaning?” He stepped back, glared at me and huffed, but never said a word to me for the remainder of the 9 hours. Once I turned back to face towards the front of the line I was surprised with a few smiles and nods from the others in line. Though, I can’t say that the matter was closed since he repeatedly skipped over me if he was unfortunate enough to be assigned as the server to my area for a meal, snack, or drink. The first time it happened I had to ask for my meal. One of the stewardesses caught on and served me when she’d pass by. I made sure to thank you as much as possible.
Hong kong arrival, So much luggage and no one to help the Americans
After we arrived in Hong Kong, we found our way to the luggage area. At this point, I deeply regretted almost every single item we brought. Since we were moving our entire lives to China we pushed our bags to the limit and took advantage of the maximum allowed luggage per person. It was exhausting pulling all those pieces of luggage through the airport; thankfully early in our commute across the airport we found a trolley cart to ease our burden.
We followed the signs directing us to Mainland China transportation. Hong Kong is famous for their hospitality, so we didn’t worry about not speaking Chinese Mandarin or Cantonese. We also didn’t worry because it is an international hub making it necessary for there to be English speakers and because were English signs everywhere. So we were safe in assuming someone would speak English, right? Wrong, oh so wrong. For whatever reason, NO ONE spoke English and no one wanted to help the stupid Americans by finding someone that could speak English. After 2.5 days of traveling and having just disembarked a 16.5 hour flight we were exhausted, and my patience was thin at best.
After my attempts to find an English speaker failed and even my attempts to use my Chinese-English dictionary on my phone to communicate also failed, Micah went off to try and figure out how to use the pay phone in order to phone his boss. I watched the luggage and kept trying to communicate, but each attempt and each HOUR was draining me more and more. By the time the second guard started his shift and his repetitive staring at me while walking past yet again and watching the clerks talk about me, I silently broke into tears. I tried to hide them but it was no use. Micah had no luck figuring out the phones. We were just stuck there in the lobby with English signs that taunted us with messages which told us we could buy a ticket for Mainland transport in that lobby from their kind clerks. Our only hope was a new shift of clerks in the morning (12 hours away), who could and would help us. We’d have to sleep in the lobby.
Finally, a new woman came in to start her shift. She took one look at me in all my pitifulness and Micah’s frantic look while trying to use the internet to figure something out and she decided we needed help. She came over to us and pulled us over to her desk where she amid very few English words, some dictionary look ups, and a lot of charades finally figured out what we needed and wanted and helped us get on our way. As we were standing in the line waiting for the shuttle to come pick us and others up, I heard and watched her yelling at all the others and pointing at us.
I do remember her very kind smile when I looked up the word for “thank you” on my phone and showed her. I put as much emphasis in my eyes as possible, but I’m sure the fact that I was still occasionally brushing away tears expressed all she needed from me. She spoke softly to me and smiled, waved and headed back to row of desks where she started to yell at the others as I watched unabashedly.
I know I’ll never see her again but I won’t soon forget how kind she was toward us. She was one of the positive people I thought back to in the following weeks.
Welcome to a dark HK, Micah’s relief and my excitement.
So finally aboard the shuttle, luggage loaded, documentation stacked on the dash board and everyone seated, we started off. I remember thinking that I was sad my very first glimpse of a foreign country would be at night when I wouldn’t be able to see much of anything. Micah was wide eyed and taking in as much as he could. He had his arm around me and sat so close to me. He was also pointing things out for me to look at because I don’t see well at night. Despite not having too much to see, Hong Kong still showed us some of its luster. I remember just being dumbfounded with how beautiful it looked even in the limited sight of night. Micah whispered promises of coming back to Hong Kong to explore its beauty someday, a new adventure in the midst of another. I made a similar promise as well.
This series, Arriving in China, continues with the next leg of our journey: Part 3, Shenzhen.
One of the first questions I am often asked after telling people in America or meeting other foreigners here is “Where else have you traveled?” The answer to this is sadly lacking. Let me tell you why. Before moving to China I had flown once to Denver, Colorado to present (as a group) some research I was fortunate enough to work on with the team. Then in 2010, I flew with Micah to Miami, Florida (via a short layover in Atlanta) for our honeymoon cruise to the West Caribbean. As for my experience traveling internationally, well, that is actually more of a lack of experience than its presence. One year in high school, I traveled with one of a few groups from a humanitarian organization that was tasked by their connection with a sister organization in Mexico to help rebuild some homes that had been destroyed and work with spreading information to pedestrians and the homeless. This town was close to the Texan border so I didn’t get to see much of Mexico. As for the rest of my glamorous international traveling….can you count the honeymoon cruise? Yeah that would be about it.
So as you can imagine preparing to move to China was a bit of a jump outside my comfort zone. Actually, I’d say it was a blazing blind gigantic leap off the precipice but call it what you will, too soon and not soon enough the day to board that plane was upon us.
Micah’s excited stories
For weeks before that big day and even scattered throughout our traveling time, Micah would regale me with stories of when he had gone before. He had traveled to China as a teen as part of some sort of teen world touring group. He absolutely fell in love with the country and the people.
So he would tell me stories of chatting with people in Hong Kong, riding rickshaws in Guilin, hiking in the parks of Guangzhou, or even climbing mountains in Guilin. He would always smile and seem even more at peace when he spoke about the mountains of Guilin. Ever since he got back he made sure to carry a picture of the mountains he took and later that became his screen lock photo on every smartphone.
Tornado and escape
So the day finally came, we were shoving things in suit cases up till the last moment when we loaded them into my in-laws van and headed off. I remember thinking how if the butterflies got any more confused or fussy I was not going to have a good flight. I was ping-ponging between excited and nervous and I wont lie, a bit scared. So we get to the airport say our teary goodbyes, check our luggage, head through security with one last wave and turned the corner to head to the gate.
We had gotten there 2.5 hours before the flight departure, so we now had an hour and 45 min to wait. We chatted, Micah thought or played on his phone, I read, and we both watched the people. I started noticing some angry people, but didn’t think anything of it until I happened to look out the glass wall of the terminal to see ominous black clouds. Micah and I both look at the flight itinerary to see a dreaded word plastered across the screens in red: Canceled. Putting two and two together, I so the angry people and the now slight lateness of our gate attendants quickly made my stomach sink. The line for the nearest desk with people was too long. Micah took his bag and I took my carry on and we both tried to figure out what to do now. He called his parents and I jogged to a different desk a few gates down that had relatively few people.
Now here is where I relearned that being nice and polite can get you quite far in some situations. I waited politely not even griping when a rude self-entitled business man pushed me aside. So when it was my turn I could see the woman preparing herself for what I imagine she expected to be a butt-chewing from me. I smiled at her and paused when she balked a little. I calmly explained what my problem was and also told her I’ve never really flown much so I did not know what the protocol was. She gave me a big smile and told me that they had to cancel incoming and certain flights because of a storm that landed the entire area in a tornado warning. She took my boarding pass and asked if I would wait while she tried to figure something out for me. She had several moments when she was put on hold while the person on the phone looked up what they could. In those moments she either chatted with me or attended to other people or answered her colleagues’ questions. She needed Micah’s information so I ran to go get that and returned. I again waited in line, but when she saw me looked at me with this silly expression and waved me in front of the others. Finally, after a while she told me that they were getting people completely out of the airport due to the danger, but that because she liked me she was able to get me on a Dreamliner (upon not reacting to the news as she’d have liked she chuckled and explained that this was a more luxurious plane and that we would like it), she was able to get us a room at a nearby hotel, hotel transportation arranged, a new flight path booked and $40 for supper. She thanked me and I thanked her. It took me a second to realize that she was thanking me for being courteous and kind to her instead of acting like a fool and griping or yelling.
Leaving the Storm
So after parting with the very nice lady and her wish for the best in my new life, I found Micah explained the situation, our new flight path (which the woman formed as she hated the old one) and gave him his new boarding pass. Then we headed to our new gate and waited for our new flight to take us out of the “flight” path of the tornado.
Best friend for best friend
Before all of this happened, we were going to rendezvous with a good friend of mine, but because of the change we ended up in Houston, the city where Micah’s best friend lives.
So he came and ate with us as we used our complimentary supper tickets. The hotel room was probably the MOST expensive and extravagant room I have every stayed in. In the morning, we met the hotel transportation people and were once again back at the airport and awaiting our flight to Chicago. We had 2 layovers but the woman had changed that to just one in Chicago.
Aerial views & Clouds
The flight to Chicago was only a 3-4 hours but it wasn’t bad because she was right the Dreamliner had indeed been quite comfy (as planes go). We had great seats and lots of room with our own TVs. I couldn’t even imagine what the better seats were since we were in economy.
Stay tuned for the continuation of our journey to China.
Below I will include some of my favorite aerial photos from flights to Houston and from Houston to Chicago. To continue on with the next chapter of our journey in this series Arriving in China please go to Part 2, International Flight and Hong Kong & Part 3, Shenzhen.