During the ‘unplanning’ of our international journey last spring, my daughter, Scarlet, expressed a desire to see a Giant Panda preferably in China. We had seen the documentary ‘Born in China’ and this no doubt piqued her curiosity a bit. Wow, I thought. How are we going to accomplish that feat? Tiffany researched Giant Pandas and found several (expensive) guided tours and zoos that featured Giant Panda exhibits in mainland China. Hong Kong also boasted a theme park with Giant Pandas. The visa requirements seemed daunting for mainland China and we opted for Hong Kong instead where (Americans are allowed to stay in Hong Kong for up to 3 months.). The Asian continent was always on our watch list but now we had our first destination booked for Christmas week. Scarlet actually got part of her wish granted since we unexpectedly saw a wonderful Giant Panda exhibit at the Madrid Zoo.
We arrived in Hong Kong without incident on December 20, 2017 after a 13 hour trip from Cairo on ETIHAD AIRLINES. Our trip had a 3 hour layover in Abu Dhabi which definitely helped to break up the long flight. We were flying east and the time difference between Cairo, Egypt and Hong Kong is 6 hours which we knew was going to mess with our circadian sleep rhythm once again. Tiffany had found a mini hotel for our Christmas week stay in Hong Kong. It literally is called the Causeway Bay Mini Hotel. For our party of 6 (including Devin), we had to book 3 rooms. I am sure that everyone has heard of the ridiculously tiny apartments and dwellings that are quite common in Asian countries due to the overcrowding and congestion in urban areas. Well, we got to experience this phenomenon first hand at the Mini Hotel. The width of the rooms was exactly equal to the width of the bed (either a single queen or two (side by side) single beds), not an inch wider. There was about 5 feet of ‘free floor space’ between the end of the bed and the bathroom. The beds were built on a platform with a hollow storage space below for mini suitcase storage. The bathrooms even had small hot showers. Not much wiggle room but functional! (Note: if you have any ‘claustrophobic’ tendencies, this hotel may not be your ‘cup of tea.’) Our rooms were on the 16th floor of the 19 story hotel and of course our girls loved riding the elevator. The check-in desk (literally a desk) was in the basement level of the building. There was no ‘wasted space’ in this operation. No extravagant lobby with high ceilings and fancy décor but it was elegant in its simplicity. There was an eclectic mix of photographs and artwork on the walls and comfortable chairs and couches. An ‘Andy Warhol style’ poster of Chairman Mao adorned one of the walls. And did I mention the ‘curious but pleasant’ French music that was always playing in the background? The staff was hard working and always amiable (especially the room maids).
Our slated arrival in Hong Kong was on Christmas week after all and the girls wondered (prior to our arrival) if there would be any holiday decorations? They were not disappointed! There were Christmas decorations everywhere. Trees, lights, tinsel, bows, wreaths, candles, ornaments, Santa, reindeer, etc. You get the picture. We were surprised to learn that the Causeway Bay area is considered one of the ‘snazziest’ shopping zones in Hong Kong. (Great, I thought, just what we need…you didn’t detect any cynicism in my tone did you?) There were several 16 story shopping malls within minutes walking distance from our hotel. The girls were delighted of course and so we joined the hordes of shoppers trying to ‘blend in’ as much as possible. Our shopping forays were successful and Santa was able to find our Mini Hotel in the middle of Hong Kong. Our children experienced the ‘magic of Christmas’ once again and Tiffany and I breathed a sigh of relief (or exasperation, I am not sure which is more apt?). And to top it all off, we all got a bit of culture and went to see the Hong Kong Ballet performance of The Nutcracker (Tchaikovsky). The ballet was at the Hong Kong Cultural Center. We took a 15 minute ferry ride across the harbor to Kowloon and then had a quick lunch at McDonalds (yes, they have McDonalds here!) and then walked to the Cultural Center. We took a taxi back home (under the harbor by tunnel this time) and had a delightful Christmas Day dinner at our favorite restaurant ‘Brick Lane’. We actually managed to visit this particular restaurant which featured ‘full English breakfasts’ five times and became somewhat attached to one of the waitresses, Jodie, a native of Hong Kong who served us every time. (I think that she kind of liked our family too!) One day when we were just passing by the restaurant she rushed out to greet us on the sidewalk.
What about the Giant Pandas? Well, we did make it to Ocean Park (a relatively short, inexpensive taxi ride from our hotel). Ocean Park is a aquarium, zoo, and amusement park all rolled into one. The park is located on a fantastic site on the shores of the South China Sea that is partly valley and partly mountainous. There are aerial cable cars that transport patrons from one side of the park to the other in very efficient fashion (Note: the cable cars do not cost extra and are a bonus to the reasonable admission price (average $50/ person). The all glass cars offer incredible panoramic views of Hong Kong and the deep water harbor. The park also boasts some fantastic stomach churning roller coasters which Scarlet and her sister Devin really enjoyed! And yes, we did see the Giant Pandas, but it was mid-day and they were ‘napping’ during our visit. Oh well. We even managed to ride one roller coaster all together as a family, since Grace was tall enough to ride with an adult. Ocean Park in Hong Kong was an enjoyable and especially memorable day for our whole family!
You may be wondering why I wrote the title of this blog with a question mark next to China. I had always assumed that Hong Kong was in China, right? While we were in the long queue for the family roller coaster and having a conversation about one thing or another related to China; someone ahead of us impudently interjected himself into our conversation and stated emphatically that we were not in China, but in Hong Kong! We just smiled and gave tacit acknowledgement to his remark. But it got me wondering. I later posed the question on the internet and got some surprising answers to the question. For history buffs (and maybe a Trivial Pursuit answer); Hong Kong was always a British colony until 1997 when it was officially ‘turned over’ to China. Hong Kong has its own currency, legal system, language, culture, etc., and operates more or less autonomously as an independent entity. Technically, Beijing controls all of China but I think that because of the huge economic clout that Hong Kong has, I think that Hong Kong essentially does what it wants.
What else is there to say about Hong Kong? I struck up a short conversation with a university student who is studying to be a Civil Engineer. My girls and I shared a table with him at a shopping center food court. (He seemed pleased to meet an American that held the same degree.) He told me that the city is undergoing phenomenal growth and urban development and was eager to complete his studies and start his career. The impressive world class architecture is second to none that I have seen so far in my world travels. And as a working structural engineer, I have a whole new appreciation for bamboo since I saw many ‘under construction’ high rise towers wrapped with sturdy bamboo scaffolding. The traffic is insane (and the residents and taxi drivers that I talked to agree with me). The narrow streets and sidewalks are teeming with people constantly from early morning until very late at night. Elderly women pushing two wheeled carts overflowing with (you name it) alongside endless buses, taxis and delivery trucks seemingly oblivious to the danger.
The laundry service at the hotel was $9 US for one pair of jeans and $4 US for a pair of underwear a rate we could not afford with 5 little women dirtying laundry. We found an inexpensive laundry service (in an alleyway) that charges by weight. The first time that we found this place (somewhat by accident) we had a bag of clothes that probably weighed between 15 and 20 lbs. We were instructed to place our bag of clothes on an old fashioned mechanical scale and the proprietor took out her calculator and handed us a piece of paper with a number scribbled on it. When I was handed the invoice for $64, I was sticker shocked. The proprietor laughed and explained that the price was in Hong Kong dollars (equivalent to approximately $8 US dollars). OK, I agreed to the price. Their service was very good and we ended up going back there several times within the week.
I appreciate and admire the tenacity of the residents that make this city work so efficiently. The short week that we spent here was only enough to whet our appetite as the saying goes and we would definitely plan a future visit to Mainland China.
Bernie & Tiffany