Logging in from China

I’ve been in China for about 40 hours now, and I’m still trying to decide what my first impression is. It’s a little unfair, because the first 20 of those hours were spent in Hong Kong, which isn’t really China.

I get the sense that China is collectively cleaning the house for a visitor, and they’re determined to impress. Unfortunately, (to me, anyway) it seems the standards they’ve set for impressing are western ones. It’s as if China is trying to embrace all things Western, all at once. But, like I said, those are very early impressions.

Hong Kong perhaps epitomizes this attitude, but it’s nothing new for this city. It’s always had one foot in the west and one in the east. And it’s also been used as a showpiece for over a century. I have to believe the pace of the “spruce up” has picked up in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics though. Entire sections along the Harbour on the Hong Kong side have been razed and are being rebuilt. In 20 hours, many of which I spent sleeping after spending over 24 hours in the air and various airports getting here, it’s pretty tough for me to get a sense of the real Hong Kong. I do believe it wasn’t in the few places I looked, however.

Hong Kong does seem to be built to be efficient. I transfered from the airport to my hotel, the Harbour Plaza in Kowloon, with nary a hiccup. The Airport Express, a high speed training linking the gargantuan airport to Kowloon and Hong Kong, zipped me to the Kowloon station in about 20 minutes. It was fast, antiseptic and terribly efficient. I was a little worried about taking public transit at close to midnight, but I needn’t have been. I’d be in more peril taking my daughter to the mall at home (significantly more, which is why I just won’t go there). I was deposited at the station, a 10 minute drive from the hotel by cab. Thankfully, I had printed out directions in Chinese and gave them to the cab driver. I think he was the only person I met in Hong Kong that didn’t speak English.

If you’re going to Hong Kong, definitely check out the Harbour Plaza by Whampoa. Once again, TripAdvisor doesn’t let me down. The room was a little small but very tasteful. The lobby was spectacular. (A sidenote here..that seems to be common in China, spectacular lobbies to impress the guests, which goes back to my original point. China is out to prove something to the West). The highlight was starting my first morning with a visit to the fitness room and a swim in the rooftop pool, overlooking the harbour. Okay, I’m impressed!

I asked the concierge what I could do in the 4 or 5 hours I had before I had to head back to the airport. He suggested a trip to nearby Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district and the famous Nathan Street. Here, I was the victim of racial profiling. Every single shill man for cheap tand sleezy tailoring shops in a 400 kilometer radius descended on me. I literally had them running across the streets, pushing people out of the way to get to me. Okay, I was one of the few caucasians, and I stood out like a sore thumb with my suit jacket slung over my shoulder and my laptop in a backpack in the stifling humidity (more about this in a minute) but I didn’t see anyone else accosted in this way. I’m pretty sure I served as a source of immense amusement for the Hong Kong natives who were watching me get mauled like a t-bone in a dog pound. Normally I would have just ignored them, but I wasn’t sure what was culturally correct. After saying some polite “no thank you’s”  which led to a much longer conversation that I was looking for, I realized my first plan was better. Ignore..ignore..ignore. I walked several blocks up Nathan, realizing that this was not really the Hong Kong I was looking for.

And now, the humidity. It’s a stifling, hot wet blanket that sucks the life blood out through your pores. I live in a semi arid climate, on the northern tip of the Sonoran desert (yes, Canada does have a desert..one) and I don’t do well in humidity. New York constantly throws me into a shirt drenching spasm of perspiration. But New York is bone dry compared to Hong Kong. I had worn what I thought would be a nice light shirt. Within 3 blocks, it was literally soaked everywhere. I might has well thrown it in the harbour and then worn it for my little tour around town. I was drawing stares (polite, but noticeable) and several bemused looks as I left a trail of melted Canadian in the middle of Tsim Sha Tsui . By the time I decided to turn around and head back to the shuttle stop at the foot of Nathan Street, I hesitated to run the gauntlet again, due both to the cascades of perspiration dropping from me, and the phalanx of eager suit hawkers just wating for me to once again cross their paths. I opted to go a few blocks off Nathan and walk back on a side street. It didn’t help with the humidity, but I did miss most of the “really nice custom suit for you” come ons.

I still had a few hours, so I decided to hop on the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong Central. It’s one of those “must dos”.  The harbour is really spectacular. I landed on the other side after a quick but refreshing 8 minute ride. A quick look on the map showed be there was another ferry terminal close to the new massive Convention Hall. I thought this might be a nice walk along the harbour, after which I could catch a ferry back that would drop me a few feet from my hotel. What I wasn’t counting on was that the Chinese Government has decided to rip up that particular stretch of the harbor to rebuild it. So after hitting dead end after dead end, I zigzagged far away from the harbor, trying to find my way to the other ferry terminal. Of course, the exercise brought on another drenching bout of perspiration. People were crossing to the other side of the street, sure that I had some dreaded condition that caused me to expell copious amounts of fluids through my pores.

I finally found the terminal and headed back to the hotel. And it was here that I found my little slice of Hong Kong heaven. There was a nice park and walk way by the harbor, with a breeze blowing in. I found a park bench, put on my headphones and just watched the amazing scene as spectacular cloudscapes blew in over Hong Kong’s mountains while the ships and ferries passed below.

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