Six Hong Kong Surprises

One of Hong Kong's alternate skylines on a misty day

I knew when I traveled to Hong Kong that it is a major business center, and I have read enough Hong Kong travel articles to get a flavor, but there is always the unexpected.  Here are my top six Hong Kong surprises.

Surprise #1: Hong Kong has more tall buildings than I expected. I had seen the pictures of Hong Kong Island and knew that the central business district was packed with skyscrapers.  I knew that Kowloon had some too.  But I didn’t know that in Hong Kong, the skyscrapers keep going and going.  When the fog wore off in the mornings, skyscrapers would materialize from the clouds in distant areas of the island.  Each time we alighted at another part of the city or took a ferry, we found new neighborhoods outside of downtown (like Tung Chung and Kennedy Town) which also had forty-story buildings.

A street in Sham Shui Po does not look very British - except for the Circle K

Surprise #2.  Hong Kong is not British.  It’s Chinese. I figured after 150 years of British rule that Hong Kong would be a little British.  There are still English-named subway stops and street names, double-decker busses, and Kit Kats.  But the population is Chinese, and, as a result, daily life outside the businesses operates in Chinese.  English will certainly get you around, but it is certainly a secondary language, as many restaurants had menus only in Chinese in the less-touristed streets.  And there is no guarantee that a stranger in Hong Kong will understand you in English.

Beach at Cheung Chau Island

Surprise #3 Hong Kong is green. The pictures accompanying travel articles always show the skyline, so much that I could just about draw a picture of it before I arrived.  But from Victoria Peak, it’s easy to see how much land that has been left green and untouched.  A view from the peak revealed a swath of parkland leading toward downtown and green islands which could have been transplanted from the Virgin Islands.

Surprise #5  Hong Kong is mountainous. If you’re from Denver, you would say “hilly” but they look like mountains to me.  Hong Kong is famous for its Victoria Peak, and the incline tram (Peak Tram) that takes visitors to the top.  But Pittsburgh also has an incline railroad, and I wouldn’t describe it as mountainous.  Hong Kong reminded me a little of Monaco, where the skyscrapers are stacked up the cliffs and public escalators transport locals to the upper neighborhoods.  The islands of Hong Kong are not the Maldives, barely floating above sea level.  They jut up out of the water like the green Caribbean.

Frog Legs and Noodles in a local cafe with only 2 menus printed in English

Surprise #5  Hong Kong’s vegetarian food has meat. In the U.S., it’s a sure bet to find vegetarian food at a Chinese restaurant.  But here, it was interesting.  A whole page in a menu would be dedicated to bean curd (“tofu”), but none of the items would be vegetarian.  Tofu and vegetables with pork.  Tofu in fish sauce.  Tofu with prawns.   Stir-fry vegetables with pork.  It’s easy to negotiate with the server to have a meat-free dish, but if you can’t communicate in Chinese, the options are strangely limited.

Surprise #6:  Hong Kong is foggy. Or smoggy.  Or misty.  You pick the word.  If you’re looking for the picture-perfect Hong Kong skyline image, it’s best to buy the postcard.  It’s certainly beautiful in person, but don’t expect perfection.

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