I was pretty excited to get to Hong Kong. It's one of those World Class cities you read about, you know? London, Paris, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong. At the suggestion of Casey (added to the prospect of saving about 200 bucks), I booked a ticket from Beijing to Shenzen, China. Yeah, I'd never heard of it either. However, a map will show you (and me) that it's right next door to ol' Hong Kong, and a little shuttle ride across the border will get you sorted out.
The flight was thankfully uneventful (though I will Say Air China is one of the nicest airlines I've flown so far. Cute flight attendants, decent food, and I got an exit row. You throw those things together and I'll sign up for whatever frequent flyer program you got), and thanks to Casey's directions, I found a good bus company for the ride to Hong Kong. I found out quickly though, that Hong Kong is a good bit south of Beijing. It was f'ng hot. And, ridiculously humid. Where Beijing was a sweet 60-65 degrees, the air outside the airport had apparently been superheated from Mount Doom.
In a near kiss-inducing turn of events, the bus had bone-chilling A/C. I figured out a way to point every nozzle within reach right at my forehead. The bus even had a TV, which ironically was showing terrible old martial arts movie. The English subtitles were hypnotizing - something has to get lost in translation - they can't really be saying those things, right? Even in Mandarin that's bad. Mr. Hively would have kicked my ass for turning something like that in.
After the painfully redundant and inconvenient border procedures, we unfortunately switched buses, but made our way into Hong Kong. I wish I would have recorded the ride in, as the scene was absolutely tremendous. A literal forest of incredibly tall apartment buildings jutted into the dreary, overcast sky. Every 40-50 story building looked the same - four or five grouped together near the highway - another identical set 500 yards to the West. Another set 1000 yards further. Eight or ten more clusters sprouted up across the little bay. Window after window, A/C units stacked one after another. Laundry hanging on lines draped out of every other opening. Where there weren't apartment buildings there were huge industrial buildings - warehouses or storage buildings. Great cranes and lifts moving tractor-trailer boxes here and there.
At one point we rounded a bend and passed a massive concrete structure and I saw the massive new bridges stretching out to the new airport (I say "new" though they were finished nearly 10 years ago). I remember watching the story of the construction of these bridges and the airport on some Discovery Channel show - like "Modern Marvels" or something. They literally built an island out of what was originally just water, built a world-class airport on it, then built what was at one time one of the longest suspension bridges in the world to connect it to the mainland. And, they did it all in like 5 years.
Anyway, the bus finally stopped at some random spot downtown. No real bus station, he just pulled up next to a 7-11 and turned off the engine. Fortunately, I had a map provided by Casey, and I recognized the MTR (which stands for "Mass Transit Railway" or, basically, subway) logo. I knew I could get pretty much anywhere with that sucka.
First order of business: find some money. Of course, Hong Kong is a part of China, but the mantra for it is "One Country, Two Systems". That means a different currency than the Chinese RMB. So, I set about getting my paws on some cash. Oh, and did I mention there were about 10,000 people in this little one block radius? Not a lot of fun with my two packs. And, it really hadn't cooled down much since I got out of the airport. By the time I found an ATM, I had a pretty good little sweat going, and my attitude had declined a few notches.
To make things better, there was a line 10-deep to get money out of the ATM. An amusing scene - a room full of people, none over 5'8", and me - 6'9" with two big backpacks draped on me front and back, sweating like a hog. Pretty classy.
One thing you'll find after traveling for a bit is that pretty much all ATMs seem to sense that a traveler has just inserted their card. Sure, they'll give you money, but they'll charge you a nice service fee, and, just as painfully, they will give you the biggest possible bills they can. So, if I get out 300 HKD, they will give me a 200 and a 100 or something like that. Attendants love you when you bust out a $100 for a $1.30 MTR ticket. So, In order to not piss off too many people, I hiked over to the American Embassy (i.e. McDonald's *Thanks Justin*), and tried to break it. For whatever reason my conscience is eased when breaking a large bill in McD's. They can handle it.
So, once again, there's the freak-show with the big-bags, dripping nasty sweat all over, waiting in line with a bunch of high-schoolers. After downing a six-pack of McNuggets, I tried to make a graceful exit... and failed...
As if in an attempt to make things a little funnier, God decided to add a little rain to the situation. Nothing like pushing your way through a sea of umbrellas (especially when all the little pointy bits are at throat-height). I found my way back to the Prince Edward MTR stop, and rode it to the Tsim Sha Tsui stop. The MTR is actually really nice, clean, and air conditioned. I almost didn't want to leave.
Once at the surface, I was taken aback by the view. This was the Hong Kong I had envisioned. Walls of huge buildings, lines of honking cars, bikes whizzing by, metal grates spewing hot fog, pedestrians filling up nearly every square inch of the sidewalk...
I had the directions to the hostel which I'd printed out from "Hostelworld.com". Now let me explain before going too much further - Hostelworld.com is a great little site that allows you to search for hostel beds/rooms in pretty much any part of the world. I'd found this place while in Beijing. The description was good, the rating was actually pretty high, the location in relation to the city was pretty nice, and most importantly, it was pretty cheap. Realities, however, are sometimes harsh and painful.
There were a couple of hotel-looking buildings, and a few retail places. And, one building I really, really hoped wasn't my building. I looked around for "a mansion". Dummy. That pipe dream was squashed pretty quickly. Nothing like that around here. After wandering around aimlessly for a while, I asked a security officer, who pointed; sure-e-f'ng-nough, right at the piece of crap building I saw earlier.
I begrudgingly walked toward it. The front door was poorly marked and guarded by some pretty cheesy looking shops on either side, manned by pushy Indian guys. I walked up the stairs and in, and was greeted by a money exchange shop, and a little kiosk selling souvenirs, along with a bunch of people just hanging out. Not a great scene.
Building sucks. Check.
After passing through the entrance, I found a tiny set of elevators to my right. To my surprise, there was a queue - chain barriers dividing the little space into lanes - one for the far elevator leading to the even-numbered floors, and one to the near elevator serving the odd floors. There was one spot in the middle for outbound traffic. The rest of the space was filled with people trying to get on. I'm not a building code expert, but it felt like this might be creeping up on a violation of some sort.
I looked down at my directions again. Mirador Hostel on 13F. The 13th floor. That's a freakin great sign. After about five minutes, I got on the elevator, along with enough other people to set off the "over-weight" alarm (which was apparently at least partially disabled, as a little light and a low buzzing noise eeked out of the corner.
Elevators suck. Check.
Three stops later, we landed at 13. I turned the corner and found the "front desk" which consisted of a little guy named "Mr. Lee" in a plastic chair. The reception area was essentially just the hallway with some posters and maps stuck to the walls. I saw the "internet area" where you had to pay for time on super slow-ass computers which looked like ones we used to play Oregon Trail on in grade school. Laundry was hanging from some lines near the ceiling. I got checked in, and Mr. Lee had some little gal who was folding sheets show me to my room. We went down a low, narrow hallway past three doors which she told me were the toilets and showers. Mmmkay.
We then turned right, down a small hallway that was at least 20 degrees warmer than two steps ago. Holy crap. There was a laundry room there and for whatever reason, this place had the only dryer I've seen in the last three months. And true to form, it was blowing kiln-hot air right at our door. She turned the key, and introduced me to my room, which was pretty easily the smallest and most uncomfortable I've been in this year. There were two sets of wooden bunk beds stacked so close to each other I had to walk sideways. The room did have A/C and a TV though, which was a shocker.
Room sucks. Check
I dropped off my bags, and looked around to assess the damage... I walked past the inferno of laundry, and stuck my head in the bathrooms. They were the crappy toilet/shower combo, which means you shower with the toilet and sink and everything else in there with you. It was like being back on the Explorer, but about 1% as cool. To add to the charm, there wasn't even enough room to sit on the toilet properly - I have no idea how they installed that thing in there. It's amazing the extent to which they went to make all this stuff fit into these small places vs. expending a little effort to make it actually work. In the little four-foot by four-foot space, there were no real hooks to put any stuff up on the walls - those that were there were already bent or broken.
Bathrooms suck. Check.
I could go on and on. I could tell you about the set of dorms that were divided from a noisy hallway by only a sheet. About there being no hot water. About a German-looking dude in my room that got up early and put on a full suit and tie, looking like he was going for an interview or something. But I wont, because I'll sound (if I don't already) like a whiner, and you'll get bored. Just understand that if you're ever traveling through Hong Kong on a budget, never, ever stay at the Mirador Mansion.
Oh, I can't resist it - Let me show you a walk through.
This is the street. A frickin busy thoroughfare with enough neon to make me think of Vegas. Approximately 33.4% of the people you see in this picture are Chinese or Indian dudes trying to sell you a watch, a suit or a massage.
This is the front door to the Mirador Mansion. Yes, it sucks.
These are the shops inside the Mirador Mansion. And yes, that one with the mannequin is a sex shop.
These are the "front" Elevators which shut down at 10:00pm. After 10, you have to walk to the "central" elevator and wait in line there with everyone else.
This is the hallway to the hostel. Yup, dark and frickin scary. I was waiting for a 6-foot cockroach to bust open a door and grab me.
This is the hallway to my room. The three "bathrooms/showers/toilets" are to the right.
These are the bathrooms. Spacious.
This is my room. I got the bottom bunk, which as a unit were smaller than any bunk I've been in so far. I know a few of my friends have bigger cribs for their kids.
Somehow the wedged a TV in here, but you could only see it from one of the top two bunks, and there were 3 channels. One of which included Sesame Street in Chinese.
Definitely not the best way to spend your birthday, but it proved to be a memorable one anyway.