By Jillian Ong
Long before Columbian drug lords and Afghan poppy growers established footholds in the less-than-salubrious narcotics trade, the British were already running one of the largest drug trafficking organisations in the world. During the 1830s, the East India Company traded Indian-grown opium with the Chinese for manufactured goods and tea, resulting in widespread opium addiction across China. Although opium trading was criminalised in 1836, British traders simply bribed government minions to keep opium traffic flowing. This, together with a bag of other squabbles, led to the First Opium War of 1939, which the Chinese lost in 1941. Hong Kong was ceded to the British as part of the peace treaty.
Perhaps the only positive fact ever to result from drug trafficking, modern day Hong Kong is a vibrant Asian city and one of the worldís largest financial capitals. Itís part Chinese, part Western, and wholly unique. In downtown Hong Kong, urbanites jostle their way past rickety traditional craft stalls sitting cheek-by-jowl with glitzy designer stores, while a fifteen minute drive away, white sandy beaches provide a tranquil haven from the cityís pollution and noise. Whether youíre a shopper, a gastronome or a stressed parent looking for anything to distract your brood, Hong Kong caters to all.
Itís often said that Hong Kong people are rude, abrupt and unfriendly. No one whoís ever lived in Russia would agree. In a city of eight million, with one of the highest population densities worldwide, unpleasant encounters are in fact few and far between. As long as you donít expect an apology when you get poked in the eye by someoneís umbrella or orderly queues for public transport, youíll be fine. If you stop a stranger for directions, youíre likely to be sent on your way with a smile. Service staff are generally friendly and helpful, if not always knowledgeable.
Best of all, English is widely-spoken and used. Road signs, transport maps and store labels are in both English and Cantonese. Ever the pragmatic, Hong Kong people recognise the utility of the English language and most speak enough English to interact with strangers, while many are so fluent they put native speakers to shame.
Weather to Go
Hong Kong has a sub-tropical climate, which means itís warm and humid for most of the year, so weather is never really a problem for visitors. The summer months Ė June, July and August Ė are searing and muggy, with temperatures of up to 35 degrees Celsius. These are also the months with the highest rainfall, with rainstorms sometimes lasting two or three days. It doesnít drizzle, either: these raindrops are big, fat and unstoppable.
Unsurprisingly, summer is also high tourist season and queues for the more popular tourist attractions are long. So if time permits, visit Hong Kong instead between mid-September and mid-November. Itís noticeably cooler and drier, and you wonít have to waste time standing behind a snotty, whining family in the queue for Disneyland.
Winter, from December to February, is mild, with temperatures averaging 15 degrees Celsius. Yes, thatís plus 15. A Russian friend who recently visited exclaimed, ďThis is winter? Iím sweating, letís go to the beachĒ Ė and promptly gave herself a ferocious sunburn.
Pearl of the Orientation
Hong Kong can be divided into three distinct areas: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories. Hong Kong Island comprises the financial centre, most of the five-star hotels and the chi-chi shopping. Across the bay, Kowloon, with its markets and backpacker hostels, has a more distinct local flavour. Further north, the New Territories comprise many small villages and beaches as well as numerous islands favoured by weekend day trippers. There are also many outlying islands a short ferry ride from Hong Kong Island, like Lantau, with resorts, residential areas, Hong Kong International Airport and the recentlyopened Disneyland.
Decent budget accommodation is near impossible to find in Hong Kong, so pay your money and pick your view. Here are our top five picks:
For Old World elegance: the Peninsula Hotel, established in the 1920s, is still acknowledged as one of the finest hotels in the world. Liveried staff in white gloves, a cream-and-gold pillared lobby and a long tradition of high tea have all contributed to the Penís legendary status. The hotelís fleet of Rolls-Royce limousines still not luxurious enough for you? If you shell out for an exclusive suite, thereís a helicopter shuttle service from the hotelís rooftop helipad to take you around Hong Kong.
For unrivalled convenience: In a city where a ten-minute walk is considered long, convenience takes on a whole new meaning. The recentlyopened Landmark Mandarin Oriental is right in the centre of it all and five minutes from just about everything: Lan Kwai Fong, the perennially popular bar and restaurant area; the designer boutiques; the Peak Tram and the ferry terminals. It also has this seasonís most fashionable hangout: the MO Bar.
For the best harbour view: Hong Kongís skyline is deservedly famous, and the best views are had from across the harbour, in Kowloon. The glassfronted Intercontinental on Kowloon waterfront has unobstructed views across to Hong Kong Island and Asiaís only branch of acclaimed chef Alain Ducasseís restaurant, Spoon. Obviously, not all the rooms face the harbour, so remember to ask for your view.
For modern luxury: If youíre looking for something beyond cookie-cutter five-star hotels, try the JIA in Causeway Bay, a Philippe Starck-designed boutique hotel. The hotel apartments are sleek, modern and chic, featuring flat-screen TVs, modern kitchen equipment and huge marshmallow- like beds. This hotel doesnít take itself too seriously, offering a complimentary launderette service for you to do your own washing if you donít want to pay exorbitant hotel prices. JIA also has two excellent modern Asian restaurants that are definitely worth visiting.
For the best spa facilities: Whatís a holiday without some pampering? The Grand Hyatt on Hong Kong Islandís waterfront houses Plateau, the ultimate of luxury spas, boasting an extensive range of treatments, an outdoor heated swimming pool open all-year round, fitness and exercise studios, a 400-metre Jogging track, sauna facilities, a poolside Grill restaurant and a tree-lined courtyard serving light refreshments. If this spa could do your taxes, youíd want for nothing more.
Hong Kongís main attractions can be summed in two words: shopping and food. In contrast to cities that boast landmark buildings as cultural symbols, much of Hong Kongís character can only be found down little lanes of shops, markets and street food stalls. The best way to discover Hong Kong is to pick a district, tuck a map under your arm, and wander around. Donít be afraid to be adventurous Ė Hong Kong is generally very safe.
Here are our top five must-dos while youíre in Hong Kong
Take a walk on the Dark Side. Hong Kong Islanders sometimes refer disparagingly to Kowloon as the ďDark SideĒ. While itís not all steel and glass like its counterpart across the harbour, Kowloon makes up in character what it lacks in glitz. Take the Star Ferry from Central and start walking. All varieties of feathered friends can be found in the colourful Bird Market, while the adjacent Flower Market is a must for gardening hobbyists. Thereís also a endless mish-mash of clothes and bits of cheap junk in the Ladiesí Market and the Jade Market. For the more cultural, the Hong Kong History Museum contains a good modern history overview, including a display of post-1997 Hong Kong. When youíre done, have a drink at one of the Kowloon waterfront bars and enjoy the views across to the cityís famous skyline. Alternatively, splash out on high tea at the Peninsula.
Head for the hills. Hong Kongís not all city: within a short distance from the urban centre, there are long-distance trails, nature trails, gentle family trails, trails once used for commerce, and others built for hikers, leading round and over hilltops, through grassland and forest, and past ageing villages overlooking abandoned rice fields. Some trails are only minutes away from downtown areas, and make for pleasant half-day outings. Others are an hour or more by public transport. An accessible favourite on Hong Kong Island is the Dragonís Back walk, an undulating trail with breathtaking views on either side down to the sea. If you have more time to spare, many of the New Territories trails are also stunningly picturesque.
Eat your heart out. Dim sum, literally meaning ďtouching the heartĒ, is a favourite Chinese lunch of small dumplings and other bite-sized snacks. A popular and relatively tourist-friendly place is Maximís Palace at City Hall, where trolleys of dim sum circulate the hall for diners to choose what they fancy. Otherwise, Hong Kongís food scene is one of the most vibrant in Asia Ė youíre guaranteed a good meal in almost every restaurant. Some of the more notable establishments include M at the Fringe, Vong, Indochine and Aqua, the last of which has good harbour views. For cheap and incredibly fresh seafood, take a ferry to Lamma or Cheng Chau and head for one of the many seafood restaurants on the waterfront.
Horse around. Thoroughbred racing is a favourite local pastime, with bi-weekly races from September to June. Of the two racecourses, the one at Happy Valley is the more accessible. During the week, races are typically held on Wednesday evenings. With minimum bets of HK$10 (US$1.30), placing a wager is fun and affordable even if youíre not the betting type. For a grander experience, get a tourist badge to the Membersí Enclosure or book a private box.
Find a bargain. Itís impossible to leave Hong Kong without buying anything, even if thatís nothing more than cheap oriental souvenirs for the office. If you havenít found anything suitable in Kowloon, head to Stanley market. Itís a half-hour drive from Central and sells a good range of the usual collectibles: silly Tshirts, jewellery, silk cushions, tea sets and chopsticks. There are also art shops with framed prints and paintings. Looking for Asian furniture? Head to Horizon Plaza in Ap Lei Chau, a warehouse of many local furniture stores popular with expats in the know.
Both Aeroflot and Cathay Pacific operate direct flights four times a week between Moscow and Hong Kong.
American, British, Australian and most Western European country passport holders do not need to apply for visas prior to arrival in Hong Kong. Russian passports holders do. To check visa requirements, contact the Chinese Embassy in Moscow: Embassy of the Peopleís Republic of China in the Russian Federation 6, Ul. Druzhby, 117330 Moscow. Tel: (095) 956 1169
Alternatively, visit the Hong Kong Governmentís Immigration Information Centre website at: www.immd.gov.hk
Grand Hyatt Hong Kong
1 Harbour Road,Hong Kong
Tel: (+852) 2588 1234
InterContinental Hong Kong
18 Salisbury Road Kowloon, Hong Kong
Tel: (+852) 2721 1211
1-5 Irving Street Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Tel: (+852) 3196 9000
Landmark Mandarin Oriental
15 Queen's Road Central The Landmark Central, Hong Kong
Tel: (+852) 2881 1288
The Peninsula Hong Kong Salisbury Road Kowloon, Hong Kong
Tel: (+852) 2920 2888
1 Peking Road 29th & 30th floors Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong
Tel: (+852) 3427 2288
30-32 D'Aguilar Street 2nd floor, California Tower Central, Hong Kong
Tel: (+852) 2869 7399
M at the Fringe
2 Lower Albert Road 1st floor, South Block Central, Hong Kong
Tel: (+852) 2877 4000
City Hall Low Block 2nd floor, Central, Hong Kong
Tel: (852) 2521 1303
5 Connaught Rd, Mandarin Oriental Hotel (25th floor), Central, Hong Kong