Hong Kong was exactly what I had expected it to be - a busy commercial centre - but, as I found out later in the week, quite different from China despite the increasing influx of Chinese tourists.
Panoramic vistas and plenty of shopping in vibrant Hong Kong
I had initially planned to take a 48- to 72-hour ferry from Japan (Osaka) to China (Shanghai) but time constraints and the ferry schedules didn't work in my favour. Another option was to fly there via a two-day stop in Hong Kong. With the visa requirement being merely a stamp on arrival, 48 hours in Hong Kong sounded like a good option. Hong Kong was exactly what I had expected it to be - a busy commercial centre - but, as I found out later in the week, quite different from China despite the increasing influx of Chinese tourists. Rush hour in Hong Kong, it is said, is from 12am to 12am and, for a big city, taxis are cheap - probably because they move at a snail's pace.
For such a small island, there is a lot happening. How exactly does one decide what to do with just 48 hours in a metropolis like Hong Kong? Keeping with my habit of getting a bird's-eye view of a big city on my first day, I headed to the Peak, home to Hong Kong's billionaires (the wealthy in Hong Kong make up 10 per cent of the population) and also home to the greatest panoramic view of the harbour, city and sea. I took a bus tour up to the Peak which also stopped at Stanley Market (HK$310; Dh147). The view was, as promised, spectacular. Stanley Market would have been more of a novelty if I hadn't just arrived from roaming the markets of South-east Asia and, again, I struggled to find local souvenirs or handmade crafts. The stalls were full of knock-off goods, which anyone reading this column could probably tell by now is not my cup of tea. Temple Street night market, however, on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, was great for handmade souvenirs and gifts, quite similar to Luang Prabang's market that I fell in love with in Laos, but I highly doubt any market can beat that.
I stayed in Hong Kong on the Kowloon side, away from the central business district and in the centre of the shopping, market and food-stall district. Hong Kong felt much like a London or New York of the Far East and has all the elements to make it that type of city: transport is easy, prices are big-city prices, and all the well-known international brands are spread across the streets. English is almost as widely spoken as Cantonese, although Mandarin is catching up fast. Kowloon is bisected by Nathan Road, which has swarms of shops. I'm not sure whether it was the exchange rate working in my favour, or that the prices were simply lower, but I found Hong Kong to be relatively inexpensive. I picked up a few work clothes and posted them back to Abu Dhabi. It was the first time I had thought about going back to work in a long time. Perhaps the big commercial towers reminded me of home.
Heading to The Peak on the first day whetted my appetite for a night view. I crossed the harbour on one of Hong Kong's famous Star ferries for HK$5.30 (Dh2.50) one-way. I'd also heard from a local that the best way to go up the Peak was by the famously steep tram. The queue to board a tram lasted about 30 minutes, which I would learn later is nothing compared to the queue times in Shanghai and Beijing. I've seen many city skylines by night but in Hong Kong the harbour throws something different into your standard city skyline night view; it was like Sydney had met Dubai.
I struck luck on my second and last day in Hong Kong. Most of the national museums along the harbour are free on Wednesdays and it was pouring down with rain. I combined these two positive signs and spent an afternoon museum-hopping, from the Museum of Art to the Science Museum to the Space Museum. I occasionally popped out onto Hong Kong's Promenade to take in the views of the skyscrapers and to look at the Avenue of Stars section, with its giant statue of Bruce Lee and handprints of numerous other local celebrities.
Hong Kong was the only city I had been to so far where I hadn't met people and it's a place that I think I would have enjoyed more if I had had more time (at least more than 48 hours) and that I would like to explore more of with company. Next on my map was Shanghai, where I was meeting my brother who had just finished his final A-level year. A day before leaving for Shanghai, I received a message that he wanted a pre-university summer to remember and had an appetite for 24-hour fun. Perhaps my down-time in Hong Kong was a good thing - I'll let you know from China.
Next week: Shanghai, Ismat's next stop as she tours the world.