A Four Hour Tour (of Hong Kong)

One of the best decisions we made in Hong Kong was to take a guided tour with Joe from Big Foot Tours. Typing that, I realize it sounds like a paid advertisement for them, but honestly, it was a great way to experience the city without feeling like a tourist. Since it was just J-Mar, Joe and I, we weren’t walking around with stickers on or in an obviously large group being herded through the city, and we were able to stop at several places and get the local experience as much as possible. Warning: this is quite a long post with a few graphic images, but it will give you a good taste of what we experienced in the city.

When we met up with Joe, he explained that we’d see the city at our own pace, incorporating the parts of Hong Kong we were most interested in. Which, at the time, wasn’t much because we just plain didn’t know much about Hong Kong (sadly). The Big Foot team has a few set itineraries for their gusts, but the whole time it just felt like we were visiting a friend in the city who kept checking in with us to see what sounded most fun for our next activity.

Our first stop with Joe had us dive right in to the local cuisine. We walked into a local “hole in the wall” food vendor to try congee, a sort of rice porridge. Hong Kong apparently the most delicious congee in the world! We also tried an interesting dish called zhaliang, which is deep fried bread wrapped in a rice noodle. This is a traditional Cantonese breakfast dish. I wasn’t too crazy about the texture on either dish, but J-Mar gives the zhaliang the Mar{asia}k seal of approval.

hkcongee

Next, we took a walk around some of the main streets of Hong Kong Island. As you can see, there is quite the dichotomy between the shopping venues in Hong Kong. On nearly every street in the touristy shopping areas, you have no less than 10 jewelry stores, often the same brand with retail locations on both sides of the street just blocks from each other. There are malls upon malls of luxury brand items, as Hong Kong is a popular tourist destination for wealthy Chinese people hoping to avoid the 40% markup on foreign brands back home. There are tour companies in Hong Kong built solely on luxury shopping experiences. On the other hand, you have the local markets selling produce, fish and meat, which show how the more humble and average Hong Kong citizens live on a daily basis.

hkmarkets

It was amazing to see the difference between the hustle and bustle of the main road with designer-brand-clad tourists hailing taxis from the lobbies of uber-chic hotels versus the back alleyways of the crowded city with people trying to beat the extreme cost of living by negotiating for produce and meat. Warning: shield your eyes or scroll down quick if you don’t like looking at hanging raw meat.

hkmeats

Seeing the seafood and fish vendors was extremely interesting. We learned all about how the fish bladder is the most valuable part of the fish, thus the most expensive. That’s the tube-sort of thing you see below on the right, in the middle of the fish. Really, every part of the fish is used in cooking. Also, if you see a fish head that’s still moving, as shown below on the left, this indicates that the fish monger has very fresh fish to sell.

hkfishmarket

After scoping out the local markets, Joe took us to a local place that served milk tea, or what I’d call the Hong Kong latte. A descendant of British colonization, it’s a sweet drink of black tea mixed with condensed milk. We did well on trying healthy food, if you can’t tell. 😉 Sugar rush straight to the head!

milktea

I told you this post was long! Now check out this escalator system: J-Mar and our tour guide Joe are riding one of a series of covered escalators that spans close to half a mile, with a vertical ascent of close to 500 feet. It is the largest series of covered escalators in the world! Amazing fact right? I know, you’re wondering why that’s even considered important. Don’t worry, I wondered the same thing.

escalators

These escalators are actually used as a public transportation system! (Literally.) It is an incredibly unique and effective idea. The escalator series transports over 50,000 people throughout a residential area called the mid-levels down into the city in the morning for work, and then they all change direction to take people back up into the residential area in the evening rush hour. Obviously, they are covered, meaning it still works for a rainy day and in the hot sun. In a city that is incredibly densely populated with a huge pollution problem, you can see how this technology is such an advantage in so many ways for this city.

Interestingly, the concept has been so effective that retail space for business is actually more valuable on the higher floors that face the escalators (see above left) due to the advertising exposure you get! Another fun fact: the escalators were the final major development/contribution the British made before departing, and it opened in 1993.

hkrealestate

To give you an idea of real estate in one of the most polluted and densely populated cities on earth, above are some prices (in Hong Kong dollars, about 7:1 USD) for apartment rentals in the mid-levels area of Hong Kong. Next to it is a photo of an apartment building with one unit per floor. This is how space in the city must be utilized in order to pack over 7 million people into 426 square miles. That’s 18,000 people per square mile, if you’re calculating, compared to a teensy 84 people per square mile in the good ol’ USA.

hkurbanlife

This means that trees must grow in the side of buildings and the average apartment is housed in a skyscraper.

It also means that you can come across a random Tao temple in the middle of a busy alleyway. An important part of Hong Kong history, the Tao religion remains an interesting part of the country’s culture. It was so fascinating to walk around in this extremely urban environment and all the sudden see a makeshift sacred space right there on the side of the road, like no one was paying attention at all.

hktaotemple

One facet of practicing Taoism is sending up good wishes, prayers or requests to your ancestors. This is accomplished through burning things, primarily paper, as the smoke represents the prayer offering rising up to the ancestors. To this effect, many people create or purchase paper replicas of items of significance in a relationship with a loved one that has passed on, and then burn them. As you can see in the example below, a dog or a bird cage could work, but paper money is an extremely popular choice. The notion that you still need money in heaven is a new one to me, but it was a common site in the market to buy your “ghost money”.

hktaooffering

Another integral part of Hong Kong life is herbal medicine. A shopping area we toured had vendors selling not only herbs and medicinal ingredients, but various herbal teas would be made on the spot for you! We were able to sit with Joe for a nice cup of traditional chrysanthemum tea, and enjoyed his explanations of which herbs were used for various illnesses and conditions as well as the influence of hot and cold on the making and intake of the teas.

In most of the herb shops, you could find a cat or two lounging around. Cats are said to bring good fortune (based on a tale of an ancient man stopping to pet a cat), and they were surprisingly kind to passing customers.

hkherbaltea

On our way out of the tea shop, we decided one last taste was in order, and it may have been the best one of the evening. Joe recommended his favorite Hong Kong barbeque pork joint, and boy was this meat good! J-Mar enjoyed it just as much as I did. It wasn’t quite Rudy’s barbeque from Houston, but it was a surprisingly tangy, sweet, spicy and delicious snack!

hkbbqpork

With our stomachs, brains and feet maxed out, we headed back to our meeting point by “ding ding”, a super compact double-decker tram car, which was actually really fun to ride. It was crazy how close the trams got to each other.

IMG_1139 edit

At the end of our tour, Joe did a great job re-tracing our steps on a map so we could see just how much we covered, and then went above and beyond by recommending some places to visit during the rest of our stay, tailored to our interests. One place we never would have come across on our own ended up becoming one of the best things we did! More on that next time.

One response to “A Four Hour Tour (of Hong Kong)”

  1. Hong Kong: Temple, Tacos, and Toes

    […] day of adventuring, we set out to find a park called Nan Lian Gardens, a recommendation from our tour guide Joe. It was a bit set away from the main tourist areas of Hong Kong, but still smack dab in the urban […]

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