One Day and Ten Ways to Visit Hong Kong on the Cheap

Hong Kong Opening PictureIf I were a Looney Toons character, I would read the above title and promptly respond with, “Succotash!”

I would leave out the “Sufferin’” because anything containing “Hong Kong” and “On the Cheap” in one phrase is such a ludicrous combination that it wouldn’t deserve the dignity of those extra syllables.

Hong Kong is not cheap, I’d scoff silently instead.  Everybody knows that.  Even make-believe, personified cats.

These presentiments hardly bode well for a budget-traveling couple whose collective salary has been seriously compromised since spawning the bright idea of leaving our grown up jobs and working around the world.  But that’s another story.  This story is how to have a fun, spontaneous and really affordable day in Hong Kong!

So without further ado, here’s how we did it:

Plan Ahead1.  Plan (a little) Ahead.  Fine, so it might kill the spontaneity, but it definitely helps to schedule your stopover during the week when hotels tend to charge less.  And as for saving on transportation?  Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (“MTR”) system offers a variety of options, but the most popular way to save is by buying an Octopus Card upon arrival, which provides discounted fares on most transportation and saves all the hassle of carrying exact change.

Surf Websites2.  Surf Websites.   Many budget travelers assume hotels are out of their range and head straight for the backpackers, but we were blown away by the deal we found by giving price-guaranteed websites like Orbitz a chance.  A little internet sleuthing a day before arrival produced a 4-star hotel located in the Western-Central area of Hong Kong Island, right by a trolley stop, for less than 60 USD a night.  Sold!

Hong Kong Cooked Market Stalls3.  Skip the Meals … at fancy restaurants, of course.  Eating is half the fun in Hong Kong!  Food stalls are everywhere, and that is no exaggeration.  On Hong Kong Island, look for buildings and malls with signs like “cooked food market” or “food stalls.”  We had an amazing lunch with hot tea, soup, rice, three different dishes each (vegetables and/or meat) and iced coffee, all for around 5 USD per person!

Hong Kong Trolleys4.  Hop on a Tram.  Tour packages can be pricey – not to mention a potential drain on one’s time and good temper.  But for the commitment-wary, Hong Kong’s famous trams are an amazing deal any way you slice it.  The flat rate of 2.30 HKD per journey allows you to rattle through most of north Hong Kong Island and the convenient destination indicator at the front of each tram makes it easy to know which one to choose.

Victoria Park, Hong Kong5.  Hoof it with a Self-Guided Walking Tour.  Whatever catches your fancy, Hong Kong Walks (available online and at most hotels) has got you covered.  Combining a tram ride with a walking tour, we paid visits to Victoria Park (featured here), Tin Hau Temple, the Old Supreme Court Building, St. John’s Cathedral, Victoria Peak, Duddell Street Gas Lamps and the world’s longest enclosed escalator – the Central to Mid-Levels Escalator – all in a leisurely few hours.

Chop Stamps Specialty Shops6.  Browse One-of-a-Kind Specialty Shops.  Sure, Hong Kong offers pretty much every luxury brand conceivable to mankind, but it is the specialty shops that really make Hong Kong such a world-class shopping destination.  Looking for a vintage snuff bottle?  Hankering for some moon cakes?  Jade?  Dried snake skins?  No?  What about a pet lizard?  From antique curious to edible unmentionables, herbal medicine and kung fu shoes, Hong Kong has a shop – and probably a whole street – devoted to that obscure item you may not be able to find anywhere else in the world.

View from Victoria Peak7.  Climb (or Trolley) up to Victoria Peak.  For 40 HKD per person, you can climb up and return from “The Peak” in Asia’s first cable railway!  The Victoria Peak Tram first rattled up Hong Kong’s highest mountain in 1888 and continues its service today, albeit in an updated, electric-powered version.  Departing every ten to fifteen minutes and operating from seven in the morning to midnight, this is an affordable, fun experience easily slipped into even the busiest one-day-stopover.

Tin Hau Temple, Hong Kong8.  Visit a Temple.  Hong Kong is flush with Buddhist monasteries and Taoist temples, imbued with atmosphere and incense, just waiting to be visited.  We chose pretty, petite Tin Hau Temple, located near the Mass Transit Railway (“MTR”) stop sharing the same name.  Entrance is free and the cool, calm interior offers a respite from the muggy bustle outside, not to mention providing insight into the rich history and culture of Hong Kong.

Temple Street Night Market.Dr Dre and Radiation Phone Receiver9.  Wind it Down at Temple Street Market.  Sundries ranging from disco shoes to radiation-deflecting phone receivers (that’s right), the Temple Street Night Market is an entertaining way to spend a couple hours.  Getting there is quick, cheap and easy: from Hong Kong Island Central Station take the MTR Tsuen Wan Line across Victoria Harbour to Jordan Station, then walk west four blocks.  Once you’ve worked up an appetite, the plethora of outdoor food stalls beckon with rock-bottom prices on victuals like roast duck, spicy seafood, vegetarian hot-pots and more.  Once you’ve shopped (and eaten) ‘til you’re ready to drop, just wobble to the Kowloon Public Pier and …

Sail Away on the Star Ferry10.  Sail Away on the Star Ferry!  A long-standing favorite in Hong Kong, the Star Ferry oozes old world charm as it chugs its way across Victoria Harbour, surrounded by twinkling, city lights and the occasional illuminated junk boat.  The upper deck provides an unparalleled view of the harbor and city skyline, and if you’re lucky enough to ply those waters at eight in the evening, you’ll be treated to Hong Kong’s famous Symphony of Lights.  All this for less than 4 HKD a person!  Of course, if you’re not ready to wind down just yet, consider the ferry ride a mere overture to an evening of people watching and pub-crawling in Hong Kong Island’s SoHo district.  The Central – Mid-levels Escalator operates until midnight, and can take you there for free!

Cheers from Qingdao … Touring the Tsingtao Brewery!

Vintage Tsingtao PosterHere’s one the first lessons of living in China: Nothing is ever spelled consistently.

For instance, Qingdao, a town on China’s eastern coast, about midway between Beijing and Shanghai, is the very same as the formerly spelled Tsingtao, pronounced “Chingdow” (with the the “d” giving a slight “t” sound).  It is this same venerable town that was settled by the Germans in the late 1800s — hence the brewery — and hosts China’s largest beer festival every August. Continue reading

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Bill Murray, and … His Doppelganger?

Gellert Spa, BudapestOkay, I know this guy’s not Bill Murray.  Or … I’m pretty sure.

But the thing is, this photo was taken almost ten years ago when Sam and I were living in Germany.  We took a road trip to Budapest, Hungary, and while there, I fell completely beguiled by this gorgeous hotel and spa built in the early 1900s that was located on the Buda side of the Danube. Continue reading

Shaxi Friday Market along the Tea Horse Trail

Shaxi Friday Market, Woman in Traditional Dress

Shaxi Friday Market Mix ‘n Match: Woman in eclectic mix of modern and traditional Dress … love the socks!

Shaxi (“Shasee”) is a tiny, quaint town midway between Yunnan Province’s larger cities of Lijiang and Dali.

But it makes up in significance what it may lack in size.

It is here that the most complete, surviving trading center for the famed Tea Horse and Caravan Trail takes place every Friday in the form of Shaxi’s Friday Market.

It is believed that tea was first introduced to the world through this Tea Horse route, starting with tea harvested from China’s Yunnan Province and then packed into bricks and carried (along with salt) on the backs of mules to Tibet, then to Burma and India. Continue reading

Skiing in China

Sam and me at PanshanWhen our tour bus pulls into the Panshan Ski Resort at 8:30 in the morning, I peer out the frosty windows, unsure of what to expect.

Our “guide” walks down the isle, collects a 300 RMB deposit from each of us — (a surprise because we’ve already paid our admission fee) — then disappears for a few minutes into the resort grounds.  When he returns, he hands us each a blue card and explains that we will use this card to rent our equipment (no extra fee for boots and skis, but jackets, pants, goggles and locker rental will cost extra).  When we return our ski equipment in good condition, our guide explains, we’ll be refunded our money for anything not considered an “extra.” Continue reading

Hello, Dali!

Foreigner Street, Dali

Foreigner Street, Dali

Of all the places we’ve visited in China, Dali probably wins out as our favorite.

Located in China’s southwest Yunnan Province — about a two hour train ride south from Lijiang — Dali was once known as China’s backpacker paradise but is said to have lost some of its granola appeal in the last decade. That may be so, but Dali still oozes charm.

Continue reading

In Pursuit of Donkey Meat

Mutton Stew(The below article was first published in JIN Magazine’s February 2014 issue)

When Sam and I first arrived in Tianjin, we were excited to explore the local eateries near our hotel.  The trouble was, our language lessons had not advanced beyond basic greetings and naturally, all the shops and restaurants were identified by Chinese characters.

Undaunted, we consulted Google maps, relying upon our Chrome browser to translate the names of various establishments in our area.  Voilà!  One translation in particular caught our interest:

“Donkey Meat Restaurant.” Continue reading

Things to Do in Harbin, China

Harbin's Famous Red Sausage

Harbin’s Famous Hong Chang (Red Sausage)

Harbin was once a thriving Russian immigrant destination and home to around 20,000 Jewish settlers — purportedly the largest Jewish settlement in east Asia.  (The last Jewish settler in Harbin was said to have passed away in the 1980′s however.)

Because of Harbin’s diverse past, Russian architecture, Jewish synagogues and some unexpected food choices await.  So if you came here for the ice festival and are wondering what else there is of interest, here a few of the highlights: Continue reading

Harbin Ice Festival 2014

Harbin Snow and Ice World

Harbin Ice and Snow World 2014

The Harbin Ice Festival is currently the largest ice festival in the world. Located in northern China in a city that blends an eclectic mix of Russian, Jewish and Chinese heritage, Harbin is definitely a destination worth a visit — even when temperatures drop as low as negative 40 degrees, which is, interestingly, the one temperature where Fahrenheit and Celsius are identical! Continue reading

A Pigeon in the Hand is Worth Two in the Factory

My Flying Pigeon!

My Flying Pigeon!

This article was published in JIN Magazine’s January issue, and re-posted on the government’s tourism site, exploringtianjin (dot) com.

Due to word-count limit however, I wasn’t able to provide as much history on Tianjin’s famous Flying Pigeon bicycle as I would have liked.  So, without further ado, may I present the article as originally intended:

A Pigeon in the Hand is Worth Two in the Factory

The Flying Pigeon bicycle is touted as the most popular bicycle brand in history.[1]  First produced in 1950 by the same Tianjin factory that had made Anchor and subsequently Victory brand bicycles, the 20-kilogram, one-speed, all-black design was created to emulate the popular 1930’s style English roadster.[2]  The name “Feige,” which actually translates to “Dove,” was chosen to symbolize peace during a time when war blazed throughout Korea.[3]  For whatever reason, “Flying Pigeon” won out in English parlance over “Flying Dove,” and the rest, as they say, is history. Continue reading