Did I read the title of this post correctly?
Yes, yes you did.
Why on earth did you go there – what does Hong Kong have to do with Azerbaijan?
I met one of my best friends, who is teaching English in South Korea, there. And HK has absolutely nothing to do with Azerbaijan, which is one of the reasons why I pursued the trip.
Let me tell you something about my close friends and I: throughout high school we talked about travel – about getting out of our small Michigan town and experiencing the unknown. Travel was always on the tips of our tongues; lunch hour and weekly Barnes and Noble get-togethers were saturated with conversations about exploration. We mapped out routes, joked about who would cause a ruckus by dancing on tables, and vowed to make it happen for ourselves.
What we didn’t plan was that we would end up in non-European countries. For although we were ambitious, we were also Eurocentric. Europe is the place for culture. Anywhere else is insignificant.
Thank God for college. Seriously. College shook up our mindsets, and now a couple of us are spread across the Caucasus and Asia, unsure when we’ll be in Europe next. So when Kyla and I wanted to “meet up somewhere in the middle,” it looked like an East Asian adventure for me – and that is exactly what happened. Price was another factor, when flights dropped to $450 round-trip from Baku to Hong Kong, I took it as a sign.
Now, I am someone who knows next to nothing about east Asian culture and history. Shameful, I know. And with only a few weeks to get ready, I acted against my tendencies to agonize and research every possible detail about a country’s history and culture. But, this turned out to be a good thing — no paradigms or presumptions about Hong Kong interfered with how I felt in the moment; every second was full of eye-opening discovery.
It’s hard to know where to start…so I’ll jump right into the language (nerd alert) and see where that takes us…
Now, I don’t want to offend anyone back home, but when I hear complaints about how “I had to dial 1 for English when I called the cable company,” I want to smack you. Do you know how the rest of the world lives? An average Azerbaijani person in Baku — at a minimum — possesses fluent Azeri and Russian skills. Now add English to the mix. Signs, advertisements, and packaging are in at least two languages. When I see groceries people buy, it is equally made up of Azeri/Turkish and Russian products, because they can read both languages fluently. There is a linguistic harmony between multiple languages in Baku, and Hong Kong displayed that even more so. Almost every local we spoke to had (at least) advanced beginner English skills and everything was systematically labeled in Cantonese and English.
If you think it’s amazing that two languages can live harmoniously in the same place, imagine three. Check out these signs from Macau:
I won’t be fancy and call this section “Cuisine” because, let’s be real, the majority of our meals were street food. But my-oh-my, was it all delicious!
Hong Kong City
Alright, that’s enough boring detail stuff for now…let’s look at the city:
Getting There and Day 1 – Hong Kong City Center
I’m going to be honest with you and admit that I did not realize how far away Hong Kong is from Baku until I was actually traveling there. Distance, combined with several-hour layovers in Dubai, made my journey to HK almost as long as my journey from Memphis, TN to Baku (about 24 hours). It didn’t help that Dubai’s airport only provided you with 30 minutes of excruciatingly slow complimentary wifi to keep you entertained. But maybe they do that on purpose, to make you shop for duty-free products. However, since I’m a lady on a tight budget, I entertained myself by people-watching and ogling at Arabic.
By the time I landed in HK, it was 5:30am local time and I was running on about two hours of poor airplane sleep. I waited for Kyla to land about an hour after me, and after celebrating a joyous reunion we dragged our sorry selves through the airport to get a public transportation card. I can only imagine how ragged we looked as we waited for the bus that took us to Causeway Bay (one of the main parts of HK), and as we stumbled through crowded streets with our things to find the hostel — all in the rain too. By the grace of God we did it, and by 11:30am we crashed for a two hour power nap, during which time we hoped the rain would clear up.
We somehow motivated ourselves to get moving, and enjoyed Hong Kong after a refreshing rain.
I’d planned a rough itinerary but one never knows how far apart sites are in an unfamiliar place. Fortunately once you hit something major in Hong Kong, you’re in reach of many other fun things…
St. John’s Cathedral
One of the things I love most about Hong Kong was the number of religious buildings. Not just that, but they seemed comfortably integrated into the greater community. St. John’s Cathedral, built in 1849, is just one example.
Hong Kong Park
This park…this park was awesome. I don’t know how Hong Kong creates such peace in the middle of the most densely-populated place on the planet but they did. A hint for anyone traveling there: although the park stays open until late evening, the fun stuff (bird atrium, exhibits, etc.) close at 5pm.
After the park we grabbed some tea from the cafe right by St. John’s and headed to the Mid-Level Escalators.
The Mid-Level Escalators are, you guessed it, a series of escalators and stairs that transports you up the surrounding hill side. Lots of shops, restaurants, bars…so lots of expats too. It’s a cool way to get around and see things, but keep in mind that to retrace your path, you have to walk down as the escalators only run down during the morning rush to work.
Right off the escalators is Jamia Mosque. Would have missed it if I didn’t look over my shoulder at the right second. Built in 1890, it is the oldest mosque in Hong Kong.
Unfortunately it was getting dark so the lighting wasn’t the best for pictures…but it was a lovely structure.
I tried to figure out if we could go in (i.e. locating a separate women’s entrance) but gave up after a bit. As we rounded the mosque heading toward the Escalators, we heard a cheery voice call after us, “It looks like you are tourists!”
Friends and family, meet Lancer:
I thought he worked at the mosque but rather he must live in the area and had noticed our dazed gazes and hesitant steps from afar. I’m not sure how long we chatted with this gentleman, 20 minutes maybe? But in that time he tested our literary knowledge by quoting famous lines for us to guess the author, informed us of his back story, and discussed English teaching after we told him our current jobs/projects. Kyla’s South Korea was fine, but my Azerbaijan produced a bemused reaction from Lancer:
“Well that’s…that’s kind of remote, isn’t it?”
Azerbaijan as a final destination is equally strange for Hong Kong residents as it is for Americans. Love it. I guess have a knack for surprising people.
“Is it safe there with the extremism?”
I assured him, like I had done with countless loved ones back home, that Azerbaijan, unlike its unfortunate neighbors, does not have a problem with religious extremism. He seemed okay with Azerbaijan after that, and it wasn’t until I looked at his business card back at the hostel that I noticed his last name, “Khan,” is a monarchical title (“leader,” “king”) used in Azerbaijan’s history. I wish I had caught that in the moment so that I could’ve told him; he would have loved it.
Day 2 – Kowloon
Tired yet from reading so much? It’s a good thing I’m dividing my trip into two parts, so suffer through Kowloon and then you can rest.
Anyway, day two was the first sunny day, and with a high of 70 degrees (about 20 degrees Celsius), it was perfect weather for lots of walking and exploration. We took the MTR (mass transport system), which is probably the most beautiful metro on earth:
Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple
First stop, one of the largest temples in the area, which is better known by a shortened name: Wong Tai Sin Temple. This was my first temple so naturally, I was excited. Not even the millions of other visitors bothered me much, because I soon saw that most of them were there to worship or pray.
Flower Market, Bird Garden, and Ladies Market
We took our leave and walked a few minutes to the Flower Market, literally several blocks of fresh plant and flower sellers.
A short distance away was the Bird Market. We got through this fairly quickly, and I’m happy to say that the birds look good. For being market birds, they live in nice conditions and seemed happy.
After lunch, we found Ladies Market. The name is misleading, because there are multitudes of different products for everyone. I was only able to snap one photo here because I was busy shopping, and had to deal with crazy vendors who chased me down. At least I got good deals.
I’ll quickly note that we visited the Jade Market too, which is close to Tin Hau Temple. Those people were even more crazy and I only made small purchases because, my lord, they got mean when I looked at more expensive bracelets. Still worth looking, because some of the jewelry is fabulous, and you might have better luck than me!
Tin Hau Temple
Moving along to Tin Hau Temple…
Victoria Peak Tram
The final big thing we did on day 2 was take the Victoria Peak Tram to the top of Victoria Peak to experience some panoramic views of the city and harbor. We went in the evening (waited over an hour in line), but I would do it again at any point in the day. The Peak Tram is the steepest tram in the world and takes you quite a way up above the city. When you arrive, don’t be fooled by the big mall that you walk into. Of course they built a mall there. Just walk through and exit on that floor– do NOT take the escalators up because they take you to a tourist trap in which you pay to see views. That’s a completely different package, so don’t bother. The tram fare was $7 or $8 USD round-trip, but I got inspired by the guidebook to walk down a path to get back to city center, so we only purchased a one-way ticket for $5 USD.
First, we enjoyed the awesome views:
Then we walked down. Because the guidebook made it sound so easy. To be fair, we were stupid and just started walking down a path that seemed like the right thing without exploring other possible options.
That’s what you get when two blondes travel together!
Were we lost? Oh yes. Did we feel unsafe? No, I can’t believe how every corner and spare space was well-lit. Plus, we talked with a couple people for help and they were all great. How did our bodies feel? Considering we were sore from our adventures the day before, tired from walking throughout that day, and that we did not make good footwear decisions either…I can say that it was some of the worst pain I’ve ever experienced (and that’s saying a lot). By the time we made it back to our hostel, I was worried about how well we would recover.
But we sprung back to life the day because, my goodness, we had another bout of adventures and shenanigans.
Fortunately for you and me, the other half of my Hong Kong trip will be described in another post!
Until next time… (: