Hong Kong — SFO

Safely through Immigration and Customs, I’m now in one of the United Airlines lounges at San Francisco.  I must continue to say that the mobile TSA app, and TSA PRE, were two of my wisest ever expenses!  I flew through the whole process from landing to arrival at the lounge in less than 30 minutes.

Luggage is safely set for the next flight, including my two new suits and five new shirts custom made for me at Sam’s Tailor in Hong Kong.

I must also say that United Airlines Economy Class (I did not score the upgrade to Business First) is a miserable experience.  Comfort is lacking, food is poor, service is smilingly surly.  I can’t imagine how ugly the 11 hours of flight would have been in standard Economy.


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J and I were talking on Wednesday evening; the conversation was wide-ranging. I have traveled more widely than he has. And he wondered how I had found Hong Kong in comparison with other cities.

My first thought was about me. I had forgotten how hard it is to travel someplace – even with a fine tour guide who knows the language – where one is constantly bombarded by unfamiliar sounds and scents.

In Europe I see letters and words that make sense, even in Eastern Europe. At least something is familiar. And I hear occasional words that resonate. This is not so in China or another country that uses a different alphabet.

Add this: the food is so radically different in China, as are the customs in dining. The smells are unusual and unfamiliar. And at times sickening (as in curdled tofu).

Add this: cities tire. Cities mean more walking that I normally do. They mean dealing with crowds on sidewalks and in public places. Hong Kong contains areas that are very hilly. And Hong Kong is always a place where sidewalks are not easily shared. (Even J commented on how tired he was each day.)

Add this: cultural mores are vastly different.  I vigilantly seek not to pass judgment based on my own standards.  And that’s exhausting.

Hong Kong is tiring. Invigorating. Beautiful. But tiring.


Hong Kong is also a marvel of urban planning. Streets are drivable because of the numerous elevated roadways that take pressure off of the grid. Space is used wisely, with small parks and soccer pitches tucked into every small piece of available space.

The Metro stations are small cities in and of themselves. Exits are well-planned and integrated into buildings, parks, streetscapes. Signage is coherent. They are clean. Customer service is paramount. (All of this is so NOT the case in Chicago or New York.) The Hong Kong MTR is a marvel!

And the airport shuttle?  Even Heathrow could learn a thing from the MTR airport shuttle!

But then . . .Chinese clarity and order break down. The Wednesday trip to the botanical garden was a challenge, with minimal signage and no clarity on maps or in person about the ‘how’ of getting there. Even J said “Why do they make this so difficult?” I could report daily examples of little frustrations that, had I been king, would not have happened in a world ruled by my logic.

But I am not emperor.

I tried learning more Cantonese this week. J kept laughing at me. While Mandarin and Cantonese (spoken in Guangyi, Macau, and Hong Kong) are written the same, the speaking of them is in fact two different languages. Cantonese is also a tonal language, but pronunciations from Mandarin can vary slightly, or totally. Let’s just say my Cantonese is essentially non-existent.


Other thoughts:

  • I saw fewer bugs than ever in any city I’ve ever visited.
  • I also saw exactly two pigeons the whole time I was in Kong Kong, and no seagulls whatsoever.
  • And I saw stern signs prohibiting the feeding of birds, with a stiff fine attached.
  • What I did see was cattle grazing widely at Ngong Ping village on Lantau Island, and begging pieces of fruit – yes, cows begging! – from visitors.
  • The fervor of faith was apparent at the Buddhist and Toaist temples. And the smell of incense is a lovely thing indeed.
  • Red was everywhere as the locals gear up for the Chinese New Year in late January.
  • In any culture, little old men gather to josh and tease and share stories. I saw this clearly on the bus as we returned from Stanley town. We stopped at athe Wilson Trail trailhead, and onto the bus came a dozen or so older men who had been on the trail together – walking sticks, towels to wick away the sweat, sensible walking shoes. In listening to their chatter and their familiar energy, had I closed my eyes I could just as easily been at the local in Bolivar on a Tuesday morning as they guys all gathered for their coffee and tall tales, or as I remember well at the sale barn cafe in Lamoni when the farmers gathered before the day’s work began.
  • Roast goose is not as good as it looks. And a mouthful of Chinese mustard on the roast goose is enough to water the eyes.
  • A slight sunburn in January is not a bad thing at all, if it comes from two days at Repulse Bay beach.

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