We took the Cathey Pacific flight from Osaka to Hong Kong, and oh, what a joy to a) not have to deal with US Kabuki Security Theater and b) to be treated like a valued customer, even without any status in the coach cabin. Boarding announcements were in Japanese only, and we were momentarily put off by the crush of passengers at the gate. We must have looked like two bewildered American business travelers, with our Medallion tags from another airline, and a gate agent came over to us and kindly escorted us through the melee. We were seated in coach, but the seats were cushy, the service impeccable, and wine and beer was complementary. And there was a meal … a real one, and a good one. I now understand why people speak so highly about the airline.
The first point of contact in Hong Kong is the airport. It’s a thing of beauty and efficiency, and it is connected to the city by the Airport Express, a swift, clean and quiet train that is easy to navigate to with luggage (it’s on the same level as baggage claim, so no stairs or escalators to wrestle suitcases up or down), and which takes exactly 24 minutes from airport to Central Hong Kong station. From whichever station you arrive at (“Please alight here” the announcement requests), you emerge into hub bub. We cabbed from Central Hong Kong to our hotel in Wan Chai, only a few miles away, but on roads so convoluted that even a GPS wouldn’t have helped me. No logical grid of city streets here: parts of the city have been carved out of the surrounding mountains, and while some streets are flat, others are so steep that the sidewalks become staircases in places.
Because I lived on the outskirts of New York City for 38 years, there’s something familiar about Hong Kong, and yet it’s completely foreign, too. Both are big and crowded and diverse, and you’ll hear many languages spoken on their streets. The difference is, New York bustles. Hong Kong teems. Imagine a typical New York avenue. Cut its width in half. Populate the lanes with buses, trolleys, cabs, and private cars that are mostly Mercedes, BMW, Lexus with a sprinkling of Bentleys. Forget about bikes: unlike Kyoto, in which half the commuting is done by bicycle, there wasn’t a single bike to be seen…. and I wouldn’t ride a bike in Hong Kong traffic either! Now cut the width of New York sidewalks in half. Put just as many people on them. Slow your New York walking pace in half, too, because there are so many people. There is advertising everywhere: at eye level, in layers going up the facades of buildings, on every vehicle. Just like New York, only more so.
That’s what a main thoroughfare in Hong Kong is like. What about the side streets? you ask. There are no side streets. It’s all like that. The smallest streets are bazaars or pedestrian malls, and they are packed with shoppers and goods. In Manhattan, when you turn off an avenue onto most streets, the noise level often drops. While there are many high rises, there are also streets lined with 5 story brownstones. If there is such a thing as a five-story building in any of the downtown districts of Hong Kong, I didn’t see it. I saw brand new, shiny 50 story residential high rises at some of the highest price per square foot of any real estate anywhere on the planet, and older, somewhat dismal high rises which sported dingy individual air conditioner units and wash hung out the windows to dry. We were surprised to notice that the scaffolding used on buildings that are being renovated is made of bamboo.
This was a British territory for 120 years, so areas of the city such as Kowloon, across the harbor from Central Hong Kong, have a decidedly British feeling. The downtown area of Hong Kong island, home to the financial district, elicits the feeling of a hive. In all areas, commerce is the religion of choice. Nowhere else have I seen so many Cartier, Hermes, Rolex, and Prada stores – and throngs of people walking around with full Cartier, Hermes, Rolex and Prada shopping bags.
Our tour guide for this leg was Alison King, Axel’s fellow judge at the Miki CDI the week before. She supplied us with the necessities for exploring: an iPhone with local service, maps, and an “Octopus” card, a high-tech scan card for the subways, busses and trolleys, which made it easy to get around by mass transit without having to search for the proper change. Each evening, after a day of touristing, we would met her and her husband Nigel, who is both an FEI steward and one of the foremost pediatric dental surgeons in the world, for dinner somewhere fabulous. We were pleased to find each location without resorting to asking sympathetic natives for directions, and they were pleased that we were fearless enough to barge off into a strange city without a second thought. Alison and Nigel’s hospitality and convivial company made our visit an absolute joy.
A special treat one evening was to go racing at Happy Valley, one of two racetracks in Hong Kong. The other, Sha Tin, was the site of the 2008 Olympic Equestrian events. Racing only takes place three days a week in Hong Kong, and on Wednesdays they race at Happy Valley, which was just a ten minute walk from our hotel. It was exciting to join the mass of people that were all walking toward the track, even on a rainy night, and even more exciting when we discovered that we would be watching from the executive suite over the finish line, as guests of Dr. Brian Stewart, the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Head of Veterinary Regulation and International Liaison. The view from the box showed the spotlit emerald green racecourse, soccer fields in the infield, tennis courts beside the chute, and a backdrop of skyscrapers just beyond the backstretch. There is no stabling at Happy Valley except for the day stalls of those horses on the card that evening: all horses van over from Sha Tin, where they train as well as race on weekends. The horses, of course, go clockwise around the track, as opposed to our American counter-clockwise, the racing is only on turf, and the racing sheet a little bit hard to decifer if you’re used to perusing the Daily Racing Form, but the blur of colorful silks and shimmering horses running hard for the finish is the same thrill anywhere on earth.
We were invited to watch the drug testing as well. All first, second and third place horses are tested, as well as any horse that doesn’t run according to form, and any other horse that the stewards request to be tested. There are strict no drug rules in place in Hong Kong, and strict protocols governing the chain of custody of the test samples: Dr. Stewart told us that from the time the blood and urine is collected until the time the test is returned, there are 51 signatures required to document the whereabouts of the samples. Every step of the process is videotaped, as well. Racing is huge business here, as it is everywhere, and the Jockey Club is serious about its security.
On our last day, Allison took us on a driving tour. Our main stop was at the Bea’s River Riding School, where Allison has several horses in training. The school is managed by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, and serves as its training ground for jockeys. But it also has facilities for dressage, jumping and cross country, and the day we were there the jumps had just been flagged for a horse trials the following weekend. It’s part of the Bea’s River Country Club, and from the clubhouse at the top of the hill were views of wooded mountains. It was hard to believe that we were just 40 minutes from the denseness of downtown Hong Kong.
From there we trekked over hill and dale (or under hill, several times, through the vast mountain tunnels), across the towering new suspension bridges over the harbor, past quickly multiplying high rise housing developments, past the defunct original airport, a single runway right on the harbor, past seemingly endless commercial docks, and down to Stanley Market.
The town of Stanley is at the base of a mountain on the southeast tip of Hong Kong island. If you stand on the beach for a few minutes, you’ll see half a dozen tankers and container ships pass by a few miles off shore on their way in or out of port, indicative of the massive amount of shipping traffic that keeps Hong Kong harbor bustling day and night. The Stanley Market is full of all wonderful things. Clothing, jewelry, knick knacks, handbags…. it’s a shopping paradise. And it’s a good thing that at the very end there is a store that sells that extra piece of luggage you’ll need to get it all home.
Our final stop was on Queens Road West, full galleries and antique stores. We enjoyed the Chinese horses in the windows, and the paintings on the walls. We discovered a gallery that handled only Chinese silk embroidery, and were so taken with the style that we took home a small framed piece. We ogled the stores that sell joss paper and fake money as well as funerary paper replicas of houses, cars, clothing, furniture, anything the deceased might have owned in his life, which are burned at the funeral altar so the deceased will have what he needs in the next life. Joss paper, or spirit money, is burned during holidays as well. The Chinese New Year for the Year of the Rabbit will be on February 3.
We left in the wee hours of the next morning. An insanely fast cab took us back to Central Hong Kong train station, where we checked in for our flight. Seriously. We walked from the cab through the turnstiles of the Airport Express, stepped up to the airline counter, checked in for our flight and checked our bags through to San Diego. We then boarded the train with just our carry ons and rode the 24 minutes to the airport. At security we were treated with respect, and from there it was seats in the front of two 747’s, connecting through Tokyo, with sojourns to the business lounges at both airports. Utterly civilized. It’ll be hard to go back to a coach seat on an American airline on my next trip.
We landed at LAX, and it was a rude comedown. To be fair, the terminal was under construction, but I kept looking around, wondering where was the cleaning staff, who kept the Hong Kong and Japanese airports and train stations spotless with their brooms and dustbins. It was filthy. There were tiles missing from the floor and the wall art. I wanted to hang my head, thinking of the tourists whose first experience in the United States were these unkempt hallways. It wasn’t helped by the setup of the security checkpoint for connecting flight, nor the attitudes of the TSA agents, nor the fact that our puddle jumper flight to San Diego was delayed, that the waiting area was crowded and noise-polluted with unnecessarily redundant and loud announcements, and that there was a screaming child in the next seat once we did get on the plane. But after 20+ hours of flying, I must have been tired, because I fell asleep before the child did.
When we arrived home, the clock said it was three hours after we had taken off from Hong Kong: such is the strangeness of flying trans Pacific. I woke up the next morning have dreamed so deeply that I was still in Hong Kong that I was disoriented.
“Disoriented” … an appropriate word, whose etymology once meant, “to leave the east”.
You’ll find the entire gallery of photos here.