Last week was our Labor Day four-day long weekend break. A certain friend and I decided that since it was his birthday, and since we'd been extended the invitation by recently-made mutual friends (his friends from college--new friends to me), and since it was, in fact, the longest break we get this semester, we should take the opportunity as it presented itself to head off to the exotic land of Hong Kong.
The journey began with a 20-hour overnight train from Shanghai to Kowloon Station. We got soft-sleeper tickets, and both happened to be on the top bunks. At first sight, I was certain that we'd both be sleeping in the hallway due to a sad physical inability to actually get up on the beds, but it turned out that flip-out foot placements in the walls in combination with a variety of strategically placed bars made the climb relatively easy for spry young people such as us (or is it "such as we"?). We got settled in our room quite nicely; our roommates were a young woman from Hong Kong who spoke no English and an old man who spoke relatively great English for someone I assumed was from the mainland (I forget where he was from). At around 5:00 P.M. on the 30th, we were off.
The train was simply fabulous, and I couldn't stop babbling about how much I was enjoying myself...I've always enjoyed travel by train and boat, and this was my first time on a sleeper. I brought a bottle of wine for the birthday celebration, and we enjoyed it in the dining car with an older couple from Liverpool who were traveling around Asia for 30 days. The food was simple Chinese fare--your basic tofu, Kung Pao chicken, sweet and sour pork, etc--and definitely not bad for a travelling kitchen. We spent a lot of time talking and playing cards and reading. The next day on the train wasn't much different...breakfast in the dining car (fried eggs, bread, jam, and instant coffee), and a lot of reading, chatting, and looking out the window.
We arrived in Kowloon at 1:00 the next afternoon and were met by our friend Will, who we were staying with. After dropping things off at his house, downing some noodles and grabbing a pineapple-barbeque roll at the local bakery, we headed off to hang out around the Midlevels escalator area and the Peak.
The Midlevels escalator is kind of the awesomest thing ever--a seemingly neverending series of escalators up the side of a mountain in downtown Hong Kong. The escalators are surrounded by lots of cool little shops and restaurants, and Ming and I eventually headed back a couple of days later to check out some used bookstores, which DO NOT exist in Shanghai. After reaching the top of the escalators, we continued up the mountain in search of the Peak, the highest point (I think) and supposedly best view that HK has to offer.
Our strategy for finding the Peak was to walk up the mountain, but after running into signs that said things like "The Peak -->" and "<--The Peak" right next to each other, we decided to taxi it for most of the rest of the way. The path at the top of the mountain was a beautiful reprieve from the concrete onslaught that is existing in Asia--HK incorporates nature into its cityscape pretty harmoniously. It was moderately crowded but still quiet and jungley at the top, and we rounded the mountaintop and took in the fresh air and some great views. After a long wait for the tram back down the mountain, we went to Nathan Road for dinner.
Now, at this point it's important to know that when in Asia, one is constantly harassed by men and women trying to sell stuff, beg, scam, give pamphlets for who-knows-what, and peddle fake versions of anything made by human hand. Nathan Road was no different, and being in walking-in-city mode, I naturally kept my focus forward and ignored the continual bombardment offers. By chance, Ming stopped by one of the men who was advertising a restaurant and took a pamphlet--surprisingly, it looked pretty awesome, and we decided to go.
The restaurant advertised was an Indian/Pakistani/Arabic restaurant. We were lead by a bearded man into a shady looking hallway with advertisements for strip clubs all over the walls. He then took us into an elevator that resembled a steel-reinforced cell at Camp X-Ray, and another questionably shady individual entered the elevator and began talking with our escort in hushed voices about "where'd you get that horrible scary big fucking scar on your face." It was at this point I was certain that the three of us were going to be brutally murdered. Turns out, the restaurant was quite pleasant, and the food was absolutely delicious. (Though I suppose that nothing whets the appetite quite like being presented with a delicious and satisfying meal only moments after expecting to be sold into a southeast Asian prostitution ring.) We then headed over to a bar called Carnegies, which just happened to be across the street from the hotel where people were quarantined for 7 days because of a possible M1N1 outbreak. We just roll that hard (actually, by the end of the night I was absolutely exhausted and practically dragging everyone back home).
Saturday morning, we got up early to get out to Lantau Island to see what we first were told was "the world's largest Buddha." At some point later, we read it was actually "the world's largest sitting Buddha," which eventually was changed to "the world's largest outdoor sitting Buddha," and then finally summed up as "the world's largest outdoor sitting bronze Buddha." It was only about an hour into the line that someone mentioned that May 2nd happens to be Buddha's frigging birthday, and that it was likely that every person in Asia was headed where we were. Oops.
So the wait was long (decent though--2 hours when we were expecting 4 so all in all, not bad), the tram ride was terrifying (only to me) and beautiful, and the Buddha mountain village was a tourism clusterfuck. Seeing this thing up close, however, was totally worth it. It was ENORMOUS. We hung out for about 30 minutes or so, then bopped off back down the mountain for a quick change at Will's house and then a bus ride to a beach barbeque with Sarah and company at Deepwater Bay.
Apparently, beach barbeques are a very Hong Kong thing to do. After playing on the beach for a bit while people stoked the fire, we went over to our barbeque pit. The barbequing situation consisted of a large cement area with about 30 or so barbeque pits, each surrounded by four concrete benches. Every single one was occupied. People apparently go out early in the afternoon and spend all day roasting various meats, drinking, and having an overall great day in the sunshine. The whole experience, framed by the beautiful backdrop of the islands and the bay, was a relaxing throwback to summer barbeques in WV or Costa Rica and was the highlight of the trip, at least for me. We left around midnight, and heard the next day that about an hour after we left, the police were called in to stop a brawl in which 20 drunken Hong Kongers started battling with bbq skewers and beer bottles.
Our final full day was spent shopping, which was mostly uneventful...shopping in HK is pretty much exactly like shopping in Shanghai, though I DID find a hot dog stand! (No hot dogs on the mainland...what a pity.) The day ended with a final trip up the escalators for dinner at a great Malaysian mom-and-pop establishment and then a fast jaunt over to the entertainment district (I totally forget what this was called), where we went to a Russian bar with a special room set at like zero degrees Fahrenheit. They give you faux-mink jackets and you stand around sipping vodka in the freezing cold. It's fun for a minute or two, but quickly loses its novelty.
All in all, and despite the rush of the last morning, it was a fantastic time and a great way to spend a much-needed vacation!