The City Across the Border
Yes, patient ones. I have owed you a Hong Kong post for so very long. The problem originally was that I found the city a bit overwhelming, and trying to control it enough to write about it succinctly (HAH) felt like a bit of a chore. Now, though, I’ve spent enough time there that even though I can describe it to you, now it’s just the sheer quantity stuff to talk about that is daunting. Oh well. Must begin sometime.
So let’s talk first about Crossing Over. There are at least four, maybe five, border crossings to get from Shenzhen into Hong Kong, and two of them are in my district. I’ve never used the other ones because, hey, convenient! It is important to note that the Luohu/Louwu Customs, which is the main crossing at the Luohu train station, is the only crossing at which a Chinese visa can be obtained, so for folks coming in to China without having previously acquired a visa can pass through there, and only there.
Aside: China visas. Expensive. Somewhere between $50 and $150 USD for a 30-day visa, depending on how the Chinese government is feeling that day. No, I’m not actually kidding (though perhaps being a little hyperbolic)– they change their policies on entry visas, especially regarding American passports, about every 3 months; or basically whenever they feel like it.
The crossings I use, as I said, are both in my district. The one I discovered first is a ferry that goes from Shekou Port (where Sea World, that bizarre expat neighborhood, is) right to Hong Kong Island. It’s easy to get to, usually not very busy, takes about 45 minutes and it drops off right in the heart of downtown Hong Kong. The only downside is that the ferry is the most expensive method of crossing by quite a bit. It costs about Y11o each way; which is not exorbitant, but not cost-effective for a semi-regular commuter.
The other Nanshan crossing is through Shenzhen Bay Port Customs, which leads to a massive bridge over Shenzhen Bay into the northern, mainland part of Hong Kong known as the New Territories. You walk through the customs building, get on a bus on the Hong Kong side which takes you over the bridge and drops you off at an MTR (metro) station, and from there it’s easy to get to any part of Hong Kong; it’s about 20 minutes to Tseun Wan, which is a neighborhood on the border of Kowloon, about 45 minutes to TST (Tsim Sha Tsui) which is Kowloon proper, essentially downtown on the mainland side and home of the infamous Chungking and Mirador Mansions (not to mention more Louis Vuitton stores than you can shake a stick at), and roughly an hour (and a line transfer) to Central, which is the main part of Hong Kong Island. Transit time varies depending on traffic, and whether you are dumb enough to try to get into Hong Kong at rush hour (incidentally, not a good idea) but for the most part it’s about 2 hours all told from Nanshan to Central.
Traffic, by the way, runs on the opposite side of the road once you cross the border. There are London-style double-decker buses along side the regular bus and cab traffic; and all the of the street corners downtown have “LOOK RIGHT” painted on them (unless it’s a one-way, in which case you might see “LOOK LEFT”). I have, of course, very nearly been hit by a bus on several occasions.
The ferry was an ideal first venture into the city, because it afforded absolutely fantastic views of the verdant, mountainous landscape of the New Territories and Lantou Island; and then, pulling in Sheun Wan where the ferry docks, the glittering skyline of Hong Kong Island came into view. Shenzhen is, as I have mentioned, with all of its glitz and neon a rather gaudy place at times. Hong Kong does not so much suffer from this malady, as somehow the neon and sparkle are quite tasteful, even elegant. During the daytime the structure of the Bank of China and HSBC towers dominate the architectural majesty of the city; at night, these same building form the nexus of a rather dazzling light show–every night at about 8pm–which then subsides into a steady, but elegant, city glow. It’s quite beautiful viewed from TST, just across the bay. (It also appeals to this peripatetic laserist who misses her craft.)
Once you start wandering the districts, Hong Kong at night has its inimitable corners and surprises. In my limited knowledge of the place I’ve explored (a little) the expatriate’s club district Lan Kwai Fong, better known as LKF; wandering east just a little ways takes you past the malls at Admiralty to Wanchai, where you find the redlight district. And it truly is– this area of Wanchai at night is a kind of disturbingly fascinating runnel of (red) neon lights and restaurant signs. Apparently, the seemingly unattached (Western) men walking through this area at night can expect to be first approached, then propositioned, and finally fondled by the very attractive, and somewhat scantily-clad, young women who hang about in the doorways of what look like bars but perhaps are not. (Being a woman, I have not only not had this problem, but have acted as an effective shield against this happening to my male counterpart when I have had occasion to walk through Wanchai at night.) The lights do give a sort of reddish cast, though it’s somewhat overpowered by the bright yellows of the myriad Mexican restaurants and Western Unions, as well as the variegated neon of the clubs.
Hong Kong during the day is a horse of a different color. It’s part concrete jungle, part lush green subtropics. Victoria Harbour figures prominently into the landscape from anywhere on the Island or from TST, where many of the cultural buildings sit. And the city is full of little crooked alleyways, multi-storey markets and little cubby-hole restaurants tucked along the slanted streets. Hong Kong Island is a city of hills, in much the same way that San Francisco is. In fact, it’s home to the (let’s see if I can get this right) longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world, also known as the Travelator or the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator. The system of escalators connects Central district, at the bottom of the hill, to SoHo at the midlevels, to Western at the top; it crosses a number of streets on the way up and there is an entrance to the Travelator at each crossing.
Get this: the escalators run downhill for the morning commuters from the top of the hill, and uphill the rest of the day. Wicked. They run a total of about 800 meters, and according to Wikipedia takes about 20 minutes to travel all the way up; or, as the locals put it, you can start drinking a large bottle of beer at a leisurely pace at the bottom, and finish before even reaching the top.
Central, as I briefly mentioned, is sort of the main downtown area; it’s where a lot of the good shopping lives. SoHo, just above it, is home to many boutiques and bistros, a couple of hookah bars and some really fantastic cocktails.
I haven’t done too much exploring on the mainland side, beyond TST (which will be making an appearance in the next Hong Kong post) and Tseun Wan, where I spent that fateful and frustrating afternoon trying to post money home. Grr. Tseun Wan, which is definitely outside the city center, is definitely a little bit different-feeling Hong Kong. The signs are still in English, and the cars still drive on the opposite side of the road, but you don’t see as many foreigners and it’s more open-air markets and less malls.
Speaking of the next Hong Kong post, I’m going to wrap up here with this abominable word count and let you rest your eyes. I’ll be back (soon!).