Ballin’ on a Budget (Hong Kong)

Twelve hours later I emerged from the Metro in the middle of Hong Kong.   The city was modern, sleek, prosperous and energetic – it had that unmistakable electrifying buzz of a city that is on the move.

Blackberry-toting businessmen and well-dressed women hurried around me as I tried to get my bearings amongst skyscrapers, BMWs and Gucci and Prada stores.

I felt so out of place.  After a half-year on the road I looked like a pauper.  I couldn’t wait to change out of my grubby backpacker clothes into something snazzier.  It was time to comb my beard, iron my slacks and take Hong Kong by storm.

But first things first.  With the exception of Singapore, Hong Kong was the most expensive city I had visited.  I needed to find budget accommodation.

Luckily I had ran into (literally) two friends I had traveled with in Laos and Cambodia – Joan from Catalonia (Spain) and Marian from Germany.  Joan had a tip – a place called Chunking Mansions. In the world of budget travel, any place that has the words “Mansion”, “Palace”, “Manor” or anything similar is always a hole.

This was no exception.  It was a total dump.  Sixteen stories of squalor crammed beyond reasonable limits with dingy guesthouses, dirty from roof to basement, and redolent of pig fat.  Chunking Mansions is undoubtedly the most diverse place I have ever visited in my life.  Almost everyone in the building is a first-generation immigrant – it is the Ellis Island of Hong Kong.

The guesthouses are mainly run by Indians and Nepalese people and the hotel registries read like the roll call at the United Nations:  Gabon, Senegal, Japan, China, Thailand, Philippines, Russia, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Mozambique, Pakistan, India, Brazil…and USA (me!).  And that is just the guesthouses.

The ground floor is a mix between a Chinese electronics arcade and a Arab bazaar, where Bengalis hawk fake iPhones, Ugandans run internet cafes, Malaysians talk business with English expats over the Punjabi’s chai tea and samosas, Pakistani barbers trim the beards of their Islamic brothers from Bangladesh and Algeria (and the occasional haggard American in need of a trim) and hundreds of Indians try their damnedest to sell you everything else under the sun.

Every time I left my hotel room, it was a mad dash to the elevator past the endless Hello, friend, you need room? No!  I escaped into the safety of the elevator for a moment of silence before the man behind me tapped my shoulder and said, Hello, friend, you want mobile phone?  Veerrry cheap…  NO!  The elevator doors opened and I was off like a racehorse past the other hustles: fake Rolex?  You wan’ lady tonight? And of course, the Hello, tailor-made suit for you, my friend?  No, sir, I am homeless.  Oh, I see…you want hashish?

Chungking Mansions was a sight in itself, but there was more to see in Honk Kong.  I took the historic Star Ferry across the harbor to Hong Kong Island and spent a day walking beneath the shadows of Hong Kong’s massive skyscrapers, monuments to wealth and success.  The skyscrapers’ logos read like a summary of global finance.  The Bank of America jostled with the Bank of China for dominance of the skyline.  It was a symbolic pissing contest of global proportions.  This is where your profits are going, shareholders – to keeping up appearances.

While young ambitious financiers sell stocks bonds from the 50th floor, old Chinese men sell shrimp paste and seal penises just outside the lobby.  Seriously.  I wandered from birds’ nest shops (for birds-nest soup), to shark-fin stores, herbal medicine shops, temples, antique shops, and of course, electronic stores.  Hong Kong is the electronic kingdom, and they sell every type of camera, computer, cell phone, gizmo or gadget you could ever desire.   Luckily, I escaped without buying anything I didn’t need.

What I did need was literature.  Once I entered China, I knew that my information would be heavily restricted by the government, from political books to “subversive” internet sites blocked by the “Great Firewall of China.”  Unfortunately, books (like everything else in Hong Kong) were very expensive.  I had to pick wisely.

First pick: What Does China Think? by Mark Leonard, to acquaint myself with contemporary political issues in China.  Second pick: The Wisdom of Confucius, collected works of Confucius himself, to understand the philosophy that has shaped China for thousands of years.   And third pick: Riding the Iron Rooster – By Train Through China, by the great travel writer, Paul Theroux.  I would be on a similar journey, and I had heard good things about this author from many people, so I picked it up.  Each book has a different flavor – the first, informative; the second, philosophical; the third, entertaining and informative, as all travel writers strive to be.  I recommend all three.

Hong Kong was expensive, but I found ways to get by on the cheap.  We crammed four people into a small hotel room, I ate Indian curries from Chumking Mansions, I walked through public parks, visited public museums (free on Wednesdays), and browsed through art galleries and antique shops.  And, when everything in a city is just too damn expensive, there is always one thing you can do for cheap – ride the public bus around town for a few hours.  People watching and local tour combined for less than a dollar!

As I hopped on and off of buses and chatted with locals over tea, I could feel it in my soul…I was falling in love with Hong Kong.  I loved the vibrant mixture of contrasting elements – East and West, green jungle and glass skyscrapers, communistic China and capitalistic Hong Kong.  At first I was intimidated by China’s mixture of historical depth, cultural strength, and economic and political power, but now I desire to embrace this ancient culture.  I would love to return to China, to study Mandarin and learn the ways of the Chinese people.

I immediately decided to extend my stay in Hong Kong.  Everything seemed perfect.  I loved the vibe of Hong Kong, I had found a way to survive cheaply in the city ($20 per day), and I was reunited with my good friends, Joan and Marian.  Then it just got better and better.  As I mentioned before, all three of us were members of Couchsurfing.com and we had branched out to the local Couchsurfing (CS) community.

Couchsurfing is a website that connects travelers with locals from around the world.  So if you are settled at the moment (working or studying), then you host travelers passing through your hometown, and vice-versa.  Hong Kong’s CS community welcomed us with open arms.  Within a single day, I went from traveling solo to mobbing around the neon streets of Hong Kong with seven other CSers.  And each night our group got larger and larger!  First, it was Marion from Quebec, Rene, Cristian, and Alessandro from Germany and Crystal from Hong Kong.  Then we met Kelly and three more girls from Hong Kong, Sidh from India, Jack from Italy, David from Catalonia, Jeremy from France…the list was endless!

We watched the nightly lightshow over Hong Kong harbor, watching Chinese cargo ships passing by and discussing the rise of China and the role of the West in the 21st century.  We went to Hong Kong’s hottest clubs in the Lan Kwai Fong area…then looked at the drink prices and started our own club – the 7-11 club!  2 for 1 specials all week long!

Joan, the Catalan, and Marion, the Quebecer, told us it was St. John’s Day, a holiday in their hometowns where people apparently start fires and jump over them like madmen.  Sounded good to me.  We bought champagne (from the 7-11 club), took the “Peak Train” to a hill overlooking all of Hong Kong, and celebrated St. John’s together, half a world away from Catalonia and Quebec.  We spent hours on top of the hill, hiding from the rain under a small overhand and warming ourselves with wine and the fires of St. John… Mists engulfed the entire mountain and stole our little party away from the rest of Hong Kong.  All of us were far away from friends, family and our hometowns, but we were all brought together through Couchsurfing.

If you can’t tell already, I am a HUGE fan of this website.  Many people have told me they wish they could be traveling, but they have work or school.  Well, this website allows connects you with the international traveling community without even leaving your home.  You can meet travelers for coffee or beers, take them around your town, or even allow them to stay on your couch for a few days.  There are no requirements; anyone of any age, occupation, or race can join.  I encourage you to learn more about this revolutionary movement, and if it seems right for you, make yourself a profile and get in touch with your local CS community!

After about five days of roaming around with my new CS friends, I got an email from my good friend, Cristina, from Spain.  She was coming to Hong Kong in 2 days, could I meet her?  Of course!  I extended my stay for a bit longer, and soaked up a little more of Hong Kong while I could.  She arrived and we went out on the town in style and rode the metro home as the sun rose over Hong Kong.  It was a great way to wrap up a week in Hong Kong, but it was time to move on – mainland China beckoned me.

I had processed my Russian visa with very few problems.  Once again, I had managed to jump through a few hoops and overcome a few obstacles to bring myself one step closer to my dream – the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

I took the train out of Hong Kong and back to mainland China.  I had enjoyed my week in Hong Kong, and as I rode out of town I wondered what would happen to the political anomaly that is Hong Kong – how will this former British colony, this self-governing, ultra-capitalistic enclave re-integrate itself into China?  It was a good question, but first I had to reintegrate myself into mainland China.  No more English speakers, back into a sea of Mandarin!

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