“Welcome to Hong Kong. If you are connecting to another flight, we wish you safe travels. On behalf of my crew, we thank you for flying Cathay Pacific.” The soothing — we are here to serve your needs — voice of the head flight attendant jolted me back to reality — I had been staring blankly at the multi-colored seat in front of me. It wasn’t her voice that caused the jolt; the official announcement that I had made it to Hong Kong was what pulled me back from my dedicated stare. The four-and-a-half-hour flight from Denpasar, Bali, to Hong Kong had been pleasant. The flight was under-booked, which may have meant lost profits for Cathay Pacific, but for me it meant an entire row of four seats completely to myself. It sounds oxymoronic, but on my economy class flight, I was able to spread out. I barely listened to Miss Cathay Pacific as she continued on with her safety warnings: “Please remain seated until the plane has come to a full and complete stop.” I was in Hong Kong, the epitome of globalism; a city so grand it stands on its own. Rather than listen to the flight attendant’s cautions about shifting baggage, I jumped up and grabbed my backpack, ready to take on this great city.
Even buried in the middle of Asia and completely under Chinese rule for over ten years, Hong Kong is a city whose official language is English, and according to DK Eyewitness Travel, it “is widely understood and spoken.” With the problems of a language barrier out of my way, I was convinced that I would be able to experience a whole new culture with few complications. Traveling on my own, I didn’t mind minimizing complications.
From what little attention I paid to my flight attendant’s instructions, I knew my checked luggage would be arriving at Carousel Eight. Once off the plane, I followed the blue and white signs with a briefcase-looking thing on them, the international sign for luggage, to get to the carousel. I then experienced the other perk of an under-booked flight: my bags came up right away; no time to worry about the horror stories of lost luggage I had heard from so many others. I have always been a heavy packer, but three weeks of traveling was a good excuse to be toting along so much. In addition to way too many clothes, my bags also contained Christmas presents from Bali for everyone back home. Just as I had turned away from the luggage check in Bali, the man in the Cathay Pacific uniform informed me that my big red bag was too heavy but that he hadn’t noticed until it was too late to charge me. Now, I was convinced that my habit of heavy packing was never going to catch up with me, especially since this big red bag came equipped with wheels and the smaller matching red bag could easily be attached to the big bag’s handle.
With luggage safely retrieved, I whipped out my folder that I had prepared with everything I might need that day: passport, plane ticket, luggage ID numbers, a map of Hong Kong, and the packet of information printed from the hostel’s Web site. This packet had all the information: reservation number, address, and descriptions of a number of “easy” ways to take public transportation from the airport to the hostel. Figuring that my only mission for the night was to get there, I decided I could handle the slightly longer, but cheaper route: double-decker bus route A21.
Up until customs, I was convinced that I was entering the city of amazing progress where everyone speaks English and everything is done with efficiency and ease. The first signal that I wasn’t in the Westernized culture I had imagined was the father and son behind me in the customs line. I had experience the lack of a concept of an orderly line when I visited my best friend, Lette, in Beijing a year ago. But this was Hong Kong — they must understand the personal bubble here. Around two turns of the customs line, this pair hovered so closely that they were constantly bumping into my backpack. Finally I had enough! One look of the international face for “back off,” and I was good to go, my bubble had been defended and reclaimed. Once on the other side of the customs line, I knew for sure that I was not in the Hong Kong I had imagined: a city independent of the country’s borders and customs. No, this was China, and the only Chinese I knew was “tai gui le” or “too expensive.” While this phrase was helpful last year in Beijing where I spent hours shopping the markets with Lette, it was no help at all getting directions to the bus. At every corner I expected to run into an airport official who spoke perfect English; I mean it was their national language, right? After about five minutes of walking circles on the Hong Kong side of customs, looking for the bus stop, I decided that my DK Eyewitness Travel book had lied. Through hand signals and pointing at my hostel packet, I was able to get an airport official to signal back to me that I needed to go downstairs, take a left, and there I would find my route A21.
Excited to get going, I took off down the first flight of stairs I saw. Looking down two long, stark flights of stairs, I suddenly regretted my heavy packing. Bouncing down a couple flights of stairs couldn’t be any harder on my bags than the airport security, I decided, and with this I pushed onward. As I went, my bag awkwardly bounced down about three steps behind me. When the rolling bag is following at an altitude three stairs higher than its leader, it can’t possibly be as graceful as it was designed to be. Halfway down the first flight I looked around, wondering how many people must be staring at this odd spectacle of a young girl performing an extremely awkward dance with her oversized luggage and making a heck of a lot of noise. During this breather, I realized the stairs were oddly vacant — in fact I was the only one there. Compared to the rest of the modernly designed airport with its stainless steel supports, blue tinted windows and random paintings, this completely bare concrete stairwell seemed unsophisticated and out of place. The only thing that brought any color to the expanse of gray were the few no smoking plaques glued to the walls. Determined to navigate my bags down these stairs, I ignored the sense of plainness and continued my battle. About five stairs from the bottom, I saw another person. He was a young airport employee, ironically lighting up a cigarette right underneath the sign that read “No Smoking. Fine: $5,000 HK.” Again I shrugged my shoulders and turned back to my mission.
Pushing open the heavy metal door, I was dumped outside on a thin sidewalk next to a street filled with taxis — and no bus stop in sight. A taxi would have been an easier way to get to the hostel. But not knowing if the $400 HK dollars I had converted was enough to get me there, I decided to stick to Plan A. I wandered in both directions on the sidewalk, and then it dawned on me why the stairwell had seemed so peculiar. As I walked back, past the door I had just walked out of, I read the big red letters on the door, “Emergency Exit Only!” Oops, at least they weren’t alarmed doors. With this, I hurried past the doors that could be the evidence to prove me guilty of my blonde moment and headed towards the corner that looked like my best bet for a bus stop.
Standing at this corner, I looked down the road at the many bus signs until I found A21. The hostel’s packet said this bus cost $33 HK, and figuring I had more than enough, I jumped in line. The bus pulled up and after shuffling down the line and using all my might to pull my luggage up onto the bus, I gave the driver a $100 bill. To this I got a “no change, no change” and a point in the direction out the front of the bus. After staring blankly for about thirty seconds, and feeling the annoyance of the bus’ usual crowd pushing up behind me, it processed: he didn’t give change; I needed to go to the window he was pointing at to buy a ticket. With this, I heaved my luggage back down to the sidewalk and pushed back through the quickly crowding-on-my-personal-space occupants of the bus line.
To the indicated window and back, with bus ticket and change for $34 (the price had gone up since the hostel last updated their site), I was back in line under the A21 sign waiting for the next bus to come. As the next double-decker bus pulled up, I prepared myself one more time to pull my bag up on the bus and comforted myself with the fact that at least I had the proper payment this time. The little kid inside of me wanted to ditch my bag in the luggage storage and jump up to the top of the double-decker, obviously the best place to catch my first glimpse of Hong Kong. But I stayed put on the bottom level of the bus. What if my luggage mysteriously disappears? What if I miss my stop? I quietly squeezed into a back corner seat, hoping for some solitude, but a large group surrounded me. As they talked and laughed away in a language that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend, I looked down at my directions from the hostel: “it takes about 40 minutes, costs 33 HKD for each person (free of luggage fee). Please stop at the 12th or 13th bus stop (Mirador Plaza/Chung King mansion). You will take 5 to 10 minutes walk to our hostel- Mirador Mansion.” Okay, so I will plan to get off at stop 12 because its name has “Mirador” in it, and if I miss it then I still have stop 13. I will start to migrate towards the front of the bus by stop 10 so I am sure not to miss stop 12. I sat counting the stops so diligently that I didn’t even begin to take in my first views of Hong Kong. Okay, this is the fourth stop, I’m pretty sure, depending on how they count stops. I looked to the front of the bus — seriously Mandi — I hadn’t even noticed until now that at the front of the bus was an electronic sign clearly displaying the upcoming stops. It was all spelt out, name and number, and I had just wasted 20 minutes fretting about counting the stops.
Just as I started to relax and tell myself that I had this one down, we came to stop eight, and then — well — we just stopped. A man in a bus company uniform climbed on the bus, but all I caught from his instructions in English was “no more.” What does that mean? As the bus continued to sit there, I realized what it meant: we weren’t going any farther. With this I shuffled towards the front of the bus to grab my luggage and perform the energy-sucking heave-ho to get from the edge of the bus to the sidewalk (wheels on an oversized bag are no good for getting on and off the bus). I wheeled my way over to the corner where this all-knowing bus official stood and began the pointing and gesturing game, hoping he would understand that I needed to get to either stop 12 or 13. All he had to offer in response was, “streets closed, Christmas Eve parade.”
I had known that it was Christmas Eve, but traveling alone I hadn’t thought much about it. Now was my time to see the world, and when I returned home in six days I could focus on the celebration of Christmas. Bali allowed me to ignore this holiday, but not Hong Kong. There were Christmas lights everywhere and every third person I pushed by in my battle to the hostel was wearing a Santa hat. The man in the bus uniform assured me that my hostel was within walking distance, “mmm – about 25 minute” he explained as I took off in the direction he pointed. Hong Kong had one aspect of the big city thing down: a ton of people. Not only was this a complication, but Christmas is the biggest holiday in Hong Kong, and people from all over China pack the Hong Kong hotels for the couple of days surrounding Christmas. I had picked the busiest time of the year to weave down the main street in search of my hostel. With my head down and my bag rolling as close by as possible without actually running over my heals, I pushed onward. The uniformed man had made one hell of an understatement about how far I had to go. Engulfed in large groups of people attending the Christmas Eve celebration, I was still keeping a good pace, mostly due to my determination just to make it to a bed after such a long day. I looked up at a street sign with the address numbers on it: I was still in the 700 block, and I needed to get all the way to 58 Nathan Road! With this I switched the hand I allowed my luggage to dig into as I pulled (the wheels did not seem nearly as amazing as I had thought in the airport), dropped my head down, and continued towards my destination.
Other than a few pauses to make sure I was still going in the right direction and hadn’t yet passed my hostel, I pushed forward, switching hands, and dealing with the wrath of heavy packing. Pushing through crowds and pulling along clothes and Christmas presents, I made it to the location of my hostel, Mirador Mansion. I took a breather moment to check the time, and I realized I had been ducking through crowds and hauling luggage for over an hour!
The many attempts to get directions on my trek from the airport to the hostel had definitely proved to me that Hong Kong’s grasp of the English language did not match my romanticized vision. As if further proof were needed, I looked up at Mirador Mansion and thought, wow, the meaning of “mansion” had been lost in translation. I couldn’t decide if this tall building was a bigger earthquake hazard due to its decrepitude or health hazard due to its filth. Walking past stalls selling cell phones, suits and sex toys, I found the elevator. This would have been great if I knew what floor to go to.
Across the hall from the elevator through a glass door was a casually dressed older man shuffling a pile of papers around his desk. At 11:30 at night, I figured he was my best bet for directions. I poked my head through the door and again played the game of pointing and gestures; again I was able to find out where to go: the 13th floor. Blinded by exhaustion and determination, I hadn’t even considered the old superstition. It wasn’t until later that I realized the irony. As I recounted my story to Lette and my boyfriend, J.J., I got it: they just stared with disbelief until Lette broke the silence, proclaiming, “oh my God, that is hysterical, we never call floors 13. Wow, only in China.”
I forced my bags to fit through the poles designed to keep large cargo off the elevators. After all, a couple of metal poles were not going to keep me from reaching USA Hostel. Far from the elevator drop point on the 13th floor was a woman with a clipboard, sitting in a folding chair at a rickety folding table. Six weeks earlier when I had booked the room through hostelworld.com I wondered why a number of hostels had almost identical ratings. How I was supposed to make a decision when they seemed to be the same thing? Looking at the wall behind the check-in lady, I now got the answer to my question: they were all the same, one company managed one set of rooms under multiple names. I may have been staying in USA Hostel, but guests of New Garden Hostel, Cosmic Guest House, Traveler’s Friendship and more were also being checked in with the same clipboard, at the same rickety table, by the same women, and we were all being taken to the same Mickey and Minnie Mouse decorated rooms.
Checked in, I had to face one more flight of stairs. One last time that night, I did the stair and luggage dance, awkwardly towing my big red bag up behind me. I put my key card in the door of 1402, and was relieved when the light turned green and I heard the lock click. I entered the room, which, had it not been for the evening’s events, I never would have appreciated so much. Even the tiny twin-sized bed looked marvelous. All that — just to get from the airport to my hostel! But after a good night’s sleep I was ready to take on Hong Kong, and with an entrance like that, I knew I could handle whatever the next five days had in store for me.
Amanda S. Collins