I recently mentioned how, upon arriving in Hong Kong, I realized that my expectations of what it would be like were surprisingly off. Hong Kong is far from the Chinese version of Tokyo I’d envisioned – but a completely Westernized, internationalized, English-speaking, posh, New York-like city.
Yet, it seems that I’ve I’ve been proven wrong once again. The above description actually only applies to Hong Kong Island itself – and really, only to the Northern half. In reality, over 80% of Hong Kong’s territory is composed of rolling green hills and unspoiled beaches – only sparsely populated. Hong Kong is not at all the isolated megacity tacked onto the side of China that I once envisioned. Instead, it occupies a nice corner of the mainland, countless rural islands, and just one big commercial center.
For my second day of sightseeing I decided to escape the urban jungle and take a little excursion into the New Territories – the region north of the aptly-named Boundary Street.
So after a brief stop in Kowloon to stroll through Goldfish Street (guess what they sell there), Flower Street (again, I’ll bet you can’t guess) and Yuen Po Street Bird Garden (predictable enough?), I hopped on an overground train to a town called Sha Tin. Although Sha Tin is not known for its “traditional” feel – it’s one of the newer cities in the New Territories, constructed to help alleviate the housing problem on Hong Kong island – I selected it as a starting point mainly because of its Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery.
Just like Hong Kong island, the percentage of English-speakers in Sha Tin (somewhere in the vicinity of 99.99%) made it refreshingly easy to get around. I know I keep mentioning this…but after spending so much time in Japan, Korea, and China, it really just feels STRANGE to be overhearing so many groups of Asians speaking English to each other. Elsewhere, just hearing a local speak English to a foreigner is often enough to make you turn your head – but to each other?
I guess I’ve just been in Asia a little too long… 🙂
Anyway, despite its modernity, Sha Tin it did have a tangibly different feel from the big city itself. Walking from the station to the nearby temple actually reminded me in many ways of exploring a smallish Japanese city by foot, something I’ve done literally thousands of times.
Maybe it had something to do with the abundance of ex-Japanese taxicabs parked on every corner 🙂
After enjoying a refreshing bowl of “Bean Curd Dessert” in the temple’s courtyard, I hopped on a bus across the territory – to another town called Yuen Long. I wasn’t particularly interested in the destination itself, but chose it simply for the opportunity to watch the scenery along the way. As expected, beautiful rolling green hills (and mile-long tunnels) all the way. So different from the images once evoked by the words “Hong Kong.”
Yuen Long ended up being so interesting that I found myself exploring for over two hours – through its small central park where dozens of the town’s elderly had gathered to play checkers, through its huge indoor fish market and outdoors vegetable stalls, and past the opening ceremony of a smallish local department store.
If you’ve ever been to China, you’ll know that the opening celebration for a department store is no small matter, often being accompanied by fireworks and dance performances right out on the sidewalk. This one wasn’t such a major ordeal, but it was still a nice little bonus.
And after a quick Nepalese curry lunch, I caught a “light bus” to Kam Tin, a yet-smaller town that provides access to two 16th century walled villages.
I spent nearly 3 hours in Kam Tin, but somehow never managed to find anything resembling a walled village – even with the help of locals, my lonely planet maps, and the GPS on my phone.
Oh well. It was still a very nice day’s outing 🙂