Hong Kong In Five Days: Part One
Friday, 24th November
14:56: A wonderful scent wafts through the air, redolent of rice and noodles. It reminds me of my favourite Chinese restaurant back at home. Ironically though, most of the staff have masks covering the lower half of their faces. I am at Hong Kong International Airport, an architectural masterpiece constructed on an artificial island, with rail links, bridges and tunnels connecting it to the rest of Hong Kong. I marvel at its grandiosity as I try to find my way to the immigration desk, only to learn that I have to hop into an underground train to get to immigration and baggage claim points! I wonder if the airport is the size of Nairobi City. Despite its monstrosity, it has numerous signage with very clear directions on how to move around. It is impossible to get stranded.
15:30: Just before exiting the airport, I drag my bag to a foreign exchange counter and buy Hong Kong dollars worth USD 100. The exchange rate is HKD 7 per USD, so I am now 7,000 bob rich haha. I don’t intend to do any shopping and since I paid for my accommodation online, I imagine this much should be enough for my five-day stay, but it later occurs to me that Hong Kong is not as cheap as I initially thought. I approach a customer service desk and inquire how to get to my hotel. A pleasant lady with a delicate face advises me to buy a one-way Airport Express train ticket to Hong Kong Island where I’ll get off and take a free shuttle to my hotel. I do exactly that, while fighting the temptation to touch her face. The train arrives in two minutes and I dash in to catch a window seat.
15:40: We go through dark tunnels and later zoom past skyscrapers and water masses with meticulously designed bridges stretching across them. In about twenty minutes, the train comes to a halt at its last stop. I grab my suitcase and step into this hall that resembles a smaller airport terminus. A sign next to the lift a few meters ahead reads “Free Airport Shuttles”. I get in, together with a bunch of other guys, all white. The lift spits us out three floors up and we find three shuttles waiting. A bubbly guy inquires from us the name of our hotels and then advises which shuttle to hop into. As soon as our shuttle exits the waiting bay, we are met with thin tall buildings, mostly beige or brown in colour with green windows. They remind me of Nyayo House, except they are ten times taller. There’s lots of road construction going on. You would imagine a country as developed as this one does not need to be constructing more roads and bridges but it still is. The road works result in unnecessary traffic on some stretches. In another twenty minutes, I am dropped off right outside my hotel at no cost. If this is not organisation, I don’t know what is.
16:25: The streets are bustling with crowds of people everywhere. It’s like a Professor Owuor convention, only that everyone is in motion and half of the people are dragging suitcases. The other half is waiting for the traffic light to go green then like wildebeests crossing the Mara, they cross the street. ChungKing Mansion is the building that houses my hotel. I can hardly see the entrance as masses of people are sprawled everywhere. I push my way through the crowd. There are gazillions of pantry size stalls on the ground floor. Stalls selling food, stalls dealing currencies, stalls selling fruits, cigarettes and water, stalls, stalls and more stalls everywhere. There are also lots of middlemen asking anyone who cares to listen if they need a hostel for the night. It now makes sense why this building is so chaotic. Plenty of hostels sit here. I spot a queue that leads to a lift and get on it. On the wall next to it, there are names of properties housed in the building but I can’t see my hotel. One more guy tries to convince me to check out his hostel. Frustrated, I tell him that I have a reservation already at Pearl Guesthouse.
“Not here lady, block D. Straight ahead, turn right.” He tells me.
16:35: I finally find the lift to block D. There’s a notice on the door announcing that the lift can only take in five people at a time. A TV screen above it displays what the occupants are up to. Currently, it’s descending from 20th floor with only one person, a young black guy who is picking his nose while grinning at the mirror checking to see whether he has anything stuck between his teeth. Interesting the things people do in private. I queue behind two teenage Asian girls and a middle-aged hippie. I can already tell that I am up for a surprise, and not a good one. The lift which stops on every floor for what seems like eternity finally lands. After four stops, I finally get to my hotel on 13th floor. A plastic signboard with the words “Pearl Guest House” hangs above this door which looks like the entrance to an office on River Road. It’s locked, and there’s no one in sight. Just as I am thinking I was duped, the lift opens and a lady appears from behind me. She walks past me, swipes her card against the lock then turns to me and asks in broken English “Joy your name?” She was expecting me, thank God.
“Yes, that’s me.” I say.
We step into a narrow corridor that leads up to my room which is the size of my campus hostel in Chiromo, with just enough room for a 3*5 bed and one suitcase. The shower cubicle is miniscule, with the shower head pointing directly to the toilet bowl. The room and the shower seem clean though. And so is the bedding. Also, it’s not a dormitory. Glass half full.
***In case you are wondering how I landed here, this is how. I had finalised all my hotel and tour bookings for my entire trip but somehow, unbeknownst to me, I did not secure any accommodation for my first two nights in Hong Kong. I was trying to get a place as close as possible to the marathon starting point so I took my time with that one. I remember going through tonnes of properties on booking.com and narrowing them down to three, which were going for about $80 a night on B&B. I only discovered I had not secured any accommodation the day before my travel.
“At least I had done my research and I have a choice amongst three affordable hotels.” I thought to myself.
Only that when I looked them up, they were now going for $200 a night! I frantically searched for other alternatives with no success. It was peak season in Hong Kong. Even Airbnbs were not going for less than $200 a night. When I finally came across this guesthouse right in the middle of the city going for $100 a night, I quickly booked and paid for it. It looked decent from the photos but there were a few negative reviews on the size of the room which I dismissed. I could live in a shoebox for two nights. After all, I had a grand hotel to recuperate in after my marathon. However, I wish somebody said something about the chaos downstairs. Noise and commotion is a big no for me.***
17:00: Today at 6:00pm marks the last day by which runners can collect their marathon running kit from Poryen Building, 478 Castle Peak Road. I have an hour to get there. Cutting it close is my middle name as you will soon come to learn. I ask the hostess how to get there. She doesn’t seem to know the building I speak off. Perhaps my accent is the problem. I retrieve the email and point at the address.
“Ahhh, let me show you map.” She offers, taking out a map from her jeans pocket.
“You are here. The Tsim Sha Tsui MTR is outside our building. Get in, take the red line to Cheung Sha Wan station then ask customer service how to get to Castle Peak Road.”
Half an hour later, I am in a different part of Hong Kong walking with my neck craned as I try to locate the building.
17:45: I have been walking along Castle Peak Road for about 15 minutes looking for 478. From the MTR station, I joined the road at 215 and the numbers have been gradually increasing. There’s a junction at 228 which I cross when the lights go green then carry on to 278 and the same thing happens about three times. 315, junction, cross. 378, junction, cross. At 425 the road splits into a fork and I am not sure which side to go. I stop two young girls who look like first year students at some Uni and ask them how to get to 478. They are not sure, but they are kind enough to pull out their phones, activate mobile data and use google maps to check. They advise me to stick to the left as my destination is a few blocks down the road.
17:53: I am panting heavily and worried that when I finally find the office, I will find a big chain on the door and a sign that reads “closed”. Luckily, I immediately spot the name “Poryen Building” in black on some elegant tall white building. With only seven minutes to go before they close, I rush towards the glass door of from which spill a cocktail of humans. I almost ram into the door but this tall and slender gentleman holds it for me and says to me “12th Floor.”
“Sorry?” I ask.
“12th floor for the runners’ kit.”
Confused, I look at him wondering what gave off my agenda. Must be my Adidas jersey, or the fact that being a black Kenyan it is assumed that I am a runner. Or perhaps my haste suggested that I was about to miss the cut off time.
“Thank you.” I say as I run towards the elevator.
“See you on Sunday.” He bellows as he walks out of the building.
17:55: The lift lets me out on 12th floor. I can either turn right or left, or walk straight ahead. With only five minutes to go, I do a quick “Inky Pinky Ponky” and settle for straight ahead. I bolt while frantically looking at the offices on both sides of the corridor in a desperate attempt to spot the sports office. I push against a middle-aged lady and as I stop to apologise, I notice she’s carrying a runners’ kit.
“I am really sorry.” I apologise profusely.
“Run run run!!”, she urges me on with a smile on her face while pointing down the corridor.”
I finally spot the words “UNICEF CHARITY RUN” engraved on a glass door on the left but when I push it inwards, it ceases to move. It’s locked, with no one insight!
“Not today Murphy!” I curse as I lean on the wall with my back and slide down to a sitting position, ready to break down into tears. Before I can settle on the ground, someone shows up, let’s me in and retrieves the kit in less than a minute right after I give him my identification. I smell the Adidas shirt and for the first time in hours, I give off a sigh of relief. Thanking him, I walk towards the lift and when it opens, an Asian girl almost trips as she hurriedly leaves the lift and looks around confused.
“Straight ahead. The office is right there.” I point towards where I just came from. She thanks me and runs off.
19:30: After successfully taking a shower in my miniscule bathroom without bumping my butt against the wall, I google “place in Tsim Sha Tsui Hong Kong with a nice view”. Google suggests The Promenade which has fabulous views over Victoria Harbour. I launch my Uber app and key in my destination. It’s a 5km stretch that is estimated at HK$ 55.89 which is the equivalent of USD 7.15 or KSh 736. For the first second time, I miss something about home (Kenya). We do not realise how cheap it is to cab around, but then our public transport is a mess. The first thing I missed was the ability to use cheap mobile data bundles to browse and not having to desperately look for WIFI spots. The Uber will be here in five minutes and knowing how Neanderthal the lift in my block is, I quickly dash out. I find the red Honda waiting for me at the parking spot next to Chungking Mansion and hop on. Daniel, the driver, is warm and chatty. He has an Australian accent. I ask him what an Australian is doing driving a Uber in Hong Kong.
“Did you get fed up with the heat in Australia?”
“Hahahaha” He laughs. “I just missed home. I grew up in HK but my family moved to Australia when I was 12. I only came back three months ago, for good.”
“HK must be a wonderful place then for you to give up the world down under for it.” I say.
“It is. Where are you from?” He asks.
“Kenya.” I say.
“Ahh. What brings you here and why are you alone?”
I tell him that I’ll be running the UNICEF marathon on Sunday and that none of my friends understand the excitement about running international marathons when there are numerous marathons at home, so I am here alone. He’s so impressed, he tells me he has to catch it on TV because it’s usually televised. I tell him that I want to have a grand drink at a grand place with a grand view for about three hours.
“Then you picked the wrong destination.” He says.
“Oh yeah? Where should I go then?” I ask.
“Ozone Bar on the 118th floor at Ritz Carlton.”
“Do I need to rob you or break a bank to pay for my drink there?” I ask with a smirk. He laughs.
“You are funny. Are Kenyans funny?”
“A few of them are comical.” I say.
“Ozone is pricy but affordable. You’ll spend about USD 5 on a beer.” He says.
“Not too bad. Ozone it is.”
19:45: I make my way into the plush foyer of Ritz Carlton. The building stretches so far up into the sky and I struggle to see its end. I wonder what it feels to spend a night in such a place. One day, I will find the answer to this. But today, for the first time in life, I will know what it feels to have a drink from the 118th floor of a building overlooking a harbour and the city in the distant. I immediately spot the lift but instead of walking towards it, I stop to soak in the tasteful design of the reception. Magnificent artwork is spread out all around me, from the red and white wall paintings to the mahogany chaise lounges and the glimmering chandeliers. I get into the lift and get off on 118th floor where some gorgeous hostesses give me a quick brief of the layout. I can either sit inside or outside. Outside is an open area with no roof but with a stunning view of the Hong Kong skyline. Obviously, I seat outside. I indulge in the most delectable sushi and a double shot of Lagavulin while staring at the symphony of lights from Victoria Peak. After about two hours, I cannot afford to be here anymore plus it’s getting really crowded with guys in swanky suits and ladies in flattering dresses flocking in. I pay my bill and call a Uber.
21:45: I alight at Temple Street, a place famed for night shopping and street feasting. The streets are packed with crowds of people walking in search of delectable meals. I walk into the first restaurant that I spot, next to a shop with the sign “Sex Shop”. I am curious to know what they sell but being a solo traveller, I don’t want to raise any eyebrows. I ignore that and settle in the restaurant. My dry chilli pork is exactly that, dry. And blunt. It is also quite pricy at HK$ 72 ($9, Ksh 948) despite being one of the cheapest meals on the menu. I have it with a chip on my shoulder. Everyone around me seems to be enjoying their meal, even the guy on the next table, struggling to get some flesh off the crab on his plate. This is not my kind of party, so half an hour later, I am in my third Uber headed to my shoebox hotel.
22:30: I am showered and in my vest and briefs, ready to slide under the covers. I call my peeps back at home. HK is five hours ahead, so it’s 17:30 in Kenya. The mister has just landed home from work and he tells me how he will need a one week vacation when I get back. Jeez, it’s only been two days! I can hear Xia the younger one shouting “mama” in the background. I speak to them. The older one, Xena, asks me whether I managed to buy her a diamond ring. Yes, that was her request when I left. I don’t know where she acquired her expensive taste from. Shortly after, I black out until the next day at midday.
**The first winner of the #12daysofchristmas giveaway is Jinxy. She commented on Instagram saying that she would love to take her mom for dinner. Her mom lost her sister to cancer and her brother to heart problems. You win a dinner voucher worth KSh 6,000 at Mambo Italia. Congratulations Jinxy and sorry to you and your family for the loss. Get in touch with me.***