OK, enough of my blog hiatus. It’s time to get back into a routine.
I have decided to write a series of posts that are a sort of “what’s hot and what’s not” about living in Hong Kong and how those things affect our daily lives here.
So here goes …
What’s hot – HONG KONG’S PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM!
It may sound pedestrian, but this is indeed a highlight of Hong Kong. I come from a city of nearly one million people that is only now building its first rapid transit system, so being transplanted to a place where the public transportation system ranks among the best in the world makes a big impression. And this enthusiasm is coming from a gal who has had her own car since age 19 and has only rarely – and I mean RARELY – used public transportation in the past.
Hong Kong has an awesome combination of MTR (Mass Transit Railway or subway as it is more commonly known elsewhere), buses, mini-buses, trams, ferries and taxis. There is also an outdoor escalator system and a massive and sometimes confusing web of overhead walkways that keep people and vehicles moving in all directions at all times.
From our apartment, we use the shuttle bus service provided at our housing complex. Apartment building shuttles are common here. Our shuttle is a nice full-sized coach bus that runs every 15 minutes down the hill and into the key areas of Wan Chai (about 15 minutes away), Admiralty (20 minutes) and Central (30 minutes). The cost is roughly CAD$2.50 one way.
From any of those stops, we have easy access to other modes of transportation. The MTR is extremely efficient, well signed in English and easy to figure out. You rarely wait more than three minutes between trains. Yes, the stations and trains tend to be crowded but they are bright, modern, amazingly clean (no food or drink on the trains!), orderly and quiet. The latter may be because most everyone has their noses in their phones all the time, even when getting on and off the train and walking through the corridors. There are overhead announcements in the stations (in Cantonese, Mandarin and English) saying “Do not keep your eyes only on your mobile phone”. Each station has underground walkways lined with shops and advertising, but don’t expect to find a public washroom. The cost depends on the distance you travel. It’s about CAD$1.25 for Paul to ride from HK Island to the MTR station near his office in Kowloon.
The bus system is great. If you miss one, you can be sure there will be another six coming along any minute that will get you to the same destination. There are some 500 routes here. Fares vary with the route but are rarely as much as CAD$1. The buses are usually air-conditioned double deckers. I have stopped climbing to the upper level because I find the stairs hard on my damaged knees, particularly when the vehicle jerks and jolts as it does a lot of the time.
The “ding ding” trams (their bell really does make that sound) are an interesting, albeit slow, option of travelling east and west on the island. You get a real birds-eye view of HK streets on the trams, which are fine for short trips and cost about CAD$.03 (really). On trams, you get on at the back and pay at the front when you get off.
I have travelled by mini-bus but that takes courage. The mini-buses are 16-seaters and are sort of like taxis in that you can flag them down and can get off wherever you want within their particular route. But I need to really psyche up to ride on them because the drivers are insane and you have to shout out when you want to get off, but the drivers usually don’t speak English. I have to write the Chinese words down and keep practicing them.
Language can also be an issue with taxis as not that many drivers speak English. I carry the name of our apartment written out in Chinese and I frequently whip out my super-handy Hong Kong Taxi app which translates the names of streets, places and buildings. It also shows the location on a map. More often than not, a taxi driver will know the name of a building rather than a street address. When we lived in Kennedy Town, if we said “New Praya Road”, they were clueless, but when we said “Manhattan Heights”, they knew exactly where it was. Taxis are cheap. A 10-minute journey in good traffic might cost around CAD$4. An important lesson learned: ALWAYS get a receipt from the driver because that is your only way of tracking the taxi if you lose something (… long story with a sad ending for another time.)
Ferries are a common mode of travel across the harbour and to many of the islands that make up Hong Kong (between 232 and 265, depending upon the source). Not all the islands have regular ferry service but the bigger, more populated ones have efficient, although more pricey, ferry systems. Some of the vessels are nicer than others but the ride is always scenic. The famous Star Ferry is really a bit of a clunker. When the ferry comes in to dock, if it doesn’t line up properly with the pier, the crew guy just yells at the captain to go forward or backward. So much for high-tech HK. But it’s really interesting, coming from land-locked Canadian cities, to see how vital those waterways are; they are truly like roads on the sea.
And then there’s the fantastic “Octopus Card” which you use to pay for these public transportation fares. When you come to Hong Kong, make that your first purchase. You load money onto the card and then wave it like a magic wand at the entries and exits where the fare is automatically deducted from the card. The cards can be topped up anywhere, even at the grocery store. And you can use that Octopus Card at a grocery store too. It’s a versatile cashless system.
Paul and I came here intending to live car-free, and so far it is working just fine for us as it does for millions of others here. Like everything else in Hong Kong (except public transportation, that is), it is expensive to have a car here. I’m told the actual cost of cars isn’t the problem; it’s the permanent parking spaces and gas — about CAD$2.00 a litre – falling oil prices be damned.
What’s not – BEING SO FAR AWAY FROM HOME
This must sound like a real “duh” statement, but it is really hard at times — like now — when my mom is in the hospital recovering from a major, major surgery. It is really hard knowing if and when there is a right time to go home in situations like this. I hadn’t thought it would be necessary while she was in hospital, but her stay there is going on way longer than we expected. And when she returns home, I don’t expect my parents will accept a lot of help (they haven’t so far, much to my disappointment). It’s a long and expensive trip from HK to Calgary; I can’t go for less than two weeks and that has considerations and consequences too.
Before I left Canada, I contacted some close family members in Calgary to ask them to serve as back-up for me should anything happen to my parents, and I am eternally grateful for the way in which they have stepped up so graciously. I have also been calling the hospital daily to speak to my mom or one of her nurses or doctors.
The reality of living halfway around the world takes on a less romantic and stark complexion at times like this. I hope my mom knows how much I would like to be there holding her hand and cooking for my dad.