From Hong Kong to Here, Dazed and Amused

I’m having a hard time writing about our week in Hong Kong, which is probably due to the fact we’re currently in Barcelona, a city that has me enraptured. I just can’t wait to descend the apartment steps, hit the narrow cobblestone street, stroll under one of Gaudi’s lamp posts here in the Gothic quarter, and decipher snippets of conversation that are the linguistic equivalent of paella — Catalan, Castilian, French, Italian and English all simmered together, wonderfully textured and heavily seasoned.

Plus, I’m still mentally recovering from the odyssey of getting here. We got ensnared by the weekend British Airways strike, which canceled our connection from London to Barcelona. We almost went to Helsinki — twice — first because the toilets on the 13-hour Hong Kong to London flight malfunctioned, creating a mid-flight emergency (nothing messy, but drink service was suspended and passengers were asked to “hold it” as best as possible). The captain was making contingency plans to land in Finland when someone managed to get the toilets’ vacuum system working again.

We arrived at our hotel in Windsor mid-afternoon London time but our bodies were telling us it was midnight in Hong Kong. The kids were zonked and Morgan was bumbling like Mr. Bean. We soon found ourselves sipping pints in the very British library of our hotel (picture a grand fireplace flanked by framed hunting scenes) with a very starched and tweedy British couple sitting nearby and  giving us curious looks. When Morgan casually stood up and reached for a musty book to browse, the entire shelf of century-old tomes tipped and lurched, and he had to throw both his arms up to prevent it from collapsing. I doubled over with suppressed laughter and then went to our room and fell asleep at dinnertime.

We almost went to Helsinki for a second time the following day. Because of the strike, we were re-booked on a Finn Air flight with an absurd detour and five-hour layover in Helsinki en route to Barcelona. We checked out of the Windsor hotel after spending just 13 hours there and arrived back at Heathrow at 5:30 a.m. Right before we checked in with Finn Air, we found out that British Airways had brought in a substitute plane and crew at the eleventh hour for a flight to Barcelona that day, and we snagged four of the seats on it.

A few hours later, we were in rickety seats in a 757 belonging to a Portuguese-based carrier I had never heard of called EuroAtlantic. The age of the flight attendants ranged from about 18 to 21. The pilot had some reassuring gray hairs, but his co-pilot looked like a groovy yoga instructor. A bald, hulking maintenance worker speaking some Eastern European language I couldn’t recognize kept pacing the aisles, making last-minute checks and looking perplexed while communicating to the Portuguese-speaking crew in broken English. I became convinced that the plane was held together with chewing gum and baling wire and we were all going to die somewhere over France, but Morgan made me laugh when he did his best gee-willikers impression of Mickey Rooney telling Judy Garland, “I know a barn we can use to put on a show!” I could just imagine some mid-level manager at British Airways declaring moments earlier, “I know a plane we can use to get to Spain!”

But all’s well that ends well. Now I’ll try to reconstruct some of our highs and lows in Hong Kong.

We arrived from Sydney on March 12 without a hitch and checked into a gorgeous hotel room at the Shangri-La in Kowloon, which sits across the water from Hong Kong Island.

The view of Hong Kong Harbour from our hotel room in Kowloon.

Morgan and the kids on the waterfront promenade with our hotel, the Kowloon Shangri-La, in the background.

The Shangri-La was the only decent hotel that would allow the four of us to sleep in one room (the kids and me sharing a king-size bed and Morgan on a rollaway), whereas virtually every other place would require us to have two rooms or a suite, which would be prohibitively costly. The room was a godsend, as we needed a retreat from the streets below. I joked that I wished I had a T-shirt that said in English and Cantonese, “I don’t want to buy a watch or a handbag” because sidewalk hawkers constantly tried to sell me one.

We really loved this stylish, spacious hotel room.

Here we are on a typical side street off the swanky shopping strip along Nathan Road known as The Golden Mile.

My kaleidoscopic impressions include tall, narrow apartment and office buildings packed together in astounding high density; clean, efficient subway trains jammed with polite people whom I always felt safe around; jumbled, chattering market stalls overflowing with knick-knacks and knock-offs; and quiet, solemn corners in parks and public squares where dozens of people meditatively tuned out the city and practiced tai chi. The backdrop to it all was a gray sky that blocked the sun and masked the island’s mountains. Smog and clouds perpetually shrouded the city, and I felt the pollution in my eyes and lungs.

We sampled some restaurants and hit the main tourist attractions with mixed success. The famous tram to The Peak was terribly crowded and not nearly as fun or interesting as old-time funiculars we’ve ridden elsewhere; plus, the tacky mall at the top, along with the mucky sky, diminished the experience of viewing Hong Kong from above. At least we discovered the peaceful and pretty Hong Kong Park on the way and admired exotic birds while walking through its impressive aviary.

I screwed up our attempt to view the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, which supposedly is the best and newest museum and is located in the outlying New Territories district. I read that its opening hours are “Monday – Saturday, 10 – 6” but didn’t read far enough to see it also said, “Closed Tuesdays” and you guessed it, we chose Tuesday to go. We were so disappointed to go all the way out there and find it locked up and deserted! The museum is housed in an impressive complex meant to showcase traditional Chinese architecture, but sadly, its beauty is enhanced by its juxtaposition with some of the tallest, most packed-in and impersonal apartment high-rises I have ever seen.

Almost everywhere I looked, I saw apartment buildings like this.

We left the New Territories determined to make a pilgrimage to the Giant Buddha, far away on Lantau Island near the airport, even though we were getting a late start and it would take four transfers on the subway. We ended up having an entertaining time figuring out the subway system and reached our destination at the end of the line about an hour before access to the Buddha closed. Having not done my research ahead of time, I had no idea that we then had to take a loooooonng gondola ride up and over a mountain.

The 25-minute cable car ride to the Big Buddha sweeps visitors across the mountains of Lantau Island.

I tried to suppress my fear of heights and enjoy the kids’ enchantment of the view from the glass-bottomed floor.

The gondola ride was a little too long and high for my liking ...

... but the kids loved lying on the gondola's glass bottom and watching the water and forest below.

We finally got to the erstatz Ngong Ping visitors’ village at the base of the Buddha, where a mountain of souvenir shops and cafes overshadow the Po Lin Monastery, and hurried to hike to the Buddha before the last gondola departed. It was worth it when we scaled the 250 steps and gazed at details not visible from a distance; the massive bronze monument really is awe-inspiring. We were disappointed, though, by the dearth of information available explaining the statue’s history and construction. (We found out later it was built in 1993; we were under the mistaken impression it was quite old.)

We made it to the Big Buddha! It was worth it.

We topped off that fast-paced afternoon with a stroll through the Temple Street Night Market, an experience no Hong Kong visitor should miss. The street fills with scores — perhaps hundreds — of vendors who haggle a mind-boggling array of traditional trinkets, electronic gadgets, fake-designer clothing and mounds of plastic junk.

Warning: walking around Hong Kong at night can lead to sensory overload.

One of countless vendors at the Temple Street Night Market.

I got a clearer idea of how people get used to living and raising a family in Hong Kong when I made a connection with a friend-of-a-friend and her family. A high school classmate emailed to say I should contact her friends Stephanie Oana and and Joe Osha because they’re from Oakland and have two kids about the same age as Colly and Kyle. They live in the community of Stanley, on the south tip of Hong Kong Island. The kids and I took a cab to their house (while poor Morgan stayed behind to cope with stomach troubles), and when we emerged from a long tunnel, the three of us said “how pretty!” as we saw steep hills covered with greenery. It’s easy to be in Hong Kong and forget you’re on an island until you find yourself on a narrow, curvy road like the one toward Stanley, which brings sandy beaches into view.

Colly and Kyle with the Osha-Oana family from Oakland on the Stanley waterfront.

I had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon and dinner with them, as it turns out we have a lot in common and used to live close to each other in the East Bay. They’re living in a condo-like development filled with other ex-pats, and the units are blessed with a rare feature in Hong Kong neighborhoods: a front door that goes directly outside to a play area (as opposed to one that leads to a hallway and elevator).

We wrapped up the week at the Disneyland Hotel, which turned out to be surprisingly classy in terms of service and décor, with lovely landscaping and a waterfront location. I braced myself to dislike Disneyland for its crowds and artificial environment, but it turned out to be a place where we unwound, felt free to run around, encountered few lines and even felt close to nature. HK Disneyland is much smaller than its Anaheim counterpart, with only one roller coaster (Space Mountain), but we found it charming — in part because it brought out the little kid in our quickly maturing preteen. Both Colly and Kyle admitted to liking the corny “It’s a Small World” ride because when they saw the singing and dancing dolls representing different cultures and countries, they could say, “We’ve been there!” or, “I want to go there someday!”

There was something weird but delightful about going round the world on the Small World ride from the vantage point of Hong Kong. In my head I flipped through all the places we’ve been and then pictured the Hong Kong skyline and started singing, “It’s a tall world.”

Celebrating Colly's 12th birthday at Hong Kong Disneyland was a real treat.

Although Hong Kong won’t make our Top Ten list of favorite places, I’m definitely glad we made the week-long, eye-opening stopover there. Here are a few more photos from Morgan:

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