Traditional and modern, materialistic and spiritual, chaotic and peaceful, a real fusion of east and west – Hong Kong is a city hard to sum up in a few words.
For me, arriving here from Hawaii felt like being swept up by a tornado. One minute I was enjoying peaceful, lazy days by the beach and the next, I was flung into big city life in one of the most densely packed areas of the world. I spent the whole first day being disoriented, jet lagged from the 18 hour time difference and thrown off by the sheer number of people around me speaking a language I didn’t understand.
But one day is all it really takes – Hong Kong is such an easy city to navigate, that once you’ve adjusted to the new surroundings, you’ll quickly realize that there’s more to HK than crowds and shopping.
Broadly divided into 4 main areas (Hong Kong island, Kowloon, New Territories and Outlying islands), Hong Kong is basically a collection of peninsulas and islands off mainland China, connected together by a dizzying array of tunnels and ferries. The two most packed areas of Hong Kong are Kowloon and northern Hong Kong island – this is where all the action is – the crowds, the food, the shopping, the nightlife. This is what most people picture when they think of Hong Kong. But what I love about HK is that a quick ferry or bus ride will take you from the madness of city life to the idyllic beaches, lush mountains and sleepy fishing villages of southern Hong Kong Island, New Territories and the Outlying Islands.
I’ve been here for a week now, and already feel at home in this bustling metropolis. I’m staying at a very comfortable, modern hostel called Yessin, right in the heart of Causeway Bay – Hong Kong’s main shopping district. My next post will go into detail on things to do and illustrate the city in pictures, but a few tips on getting started in HK:
- The exchange rate is roughly HK$7 to US$1. Unlike in Argentina, ATMs generally offer a good exchange rate and foreign debit/credit cards can be used to make most purchases.
- The public transportation system here is one of the most developed and diverse ones I’ve ever seen, so getting around is never an issue. Subways, double decker buses, light (mini) buses, trams and ferries all collaborate to move you around and cost almost nothing. For me, hopping on a tram or bus or ferry and letting it take me around was actually one of the best ways of getting acquainted with the city when I first got here.
- The Octopus Card – Most developed cities have a public transportation pass you can use to get around. Fill money on your card and use it to pay instead of carrying cash. It is quicker and more convenient. In HK, the Octopus card not only allows you to pay for all forms of public transportation, but it also is accepted at most convenience stores, McDonalds, kiosks and restaurants. This one universal card can be used to make most of your every day purchases and is a really handy thing to carry. It costs HK$150 to get, which includes HK$100 credit. The remaining HK$50 is a deposit, refunded to you when you return the card.
- Getting a sim card for your phone is cheap and quick, and makes your stay easier. I got a chip for my iPhone and it cost HK$48 (roughly US$7) and came with HK$48 of credit, which will be enough for calls and texts during my ten-day stay. It’s been useful for staying in touch with hostel friends, calling up venues and attractions for hours of operation and reservations, etc. For US$7, definitely worth it.
- Don’t even think about cooking when you’re here. A true food paradise, eating out in HK is always an adventure and is actually cheaper than cooking. The options are endless – every street, block, corner is filled with cheap eateries offering delicious food. Just step into places that smell good or are packed with people…though you may have to use some hand gestures and facial expressions to make yourself understood at the really local places, it’s all part of the fun and, in my opinion, the best way to find the good places.
- Finally, if you like shopping, HK is the place for you. From big-name brands in flashy malls to local trinkets at street markets, Hong Kong has it all. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I’m not much of a shopper, and my only purchase so far has been a belt for my loose jeans (cost – US$1 at the Ladies Market in Mongkok), but shopper or not, it’s fun just to get swept up in the shopping scene and experience this essential part of HK life.