Sunday, 11 December 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 15 - Getting Around

Hong Kong is a pretty small place - 382 square miles  to be exact.  Hong Kong Island, where we spend the vast majority of our time is only 31 square miles. For a Texan, that's the average distance to the corner shop. For a place this small, Hong Kong offers any number of convenient ways to get around.  Public transportation is very good, and taxis are abundant and ridiculously cheap compared the generally outrageous cost of living in this city.

When we moved here, I did the maths and decided that buying a car, insuring it, paying for petrol and parking simply wasn't sensible.  We could each take 2 taxis across the island every day for two years and still spend significantly less than the costs resulting from car ownership. Besides, where would we drive it?  It's not like a car is handy for weekend escapes. To where would we escape?  Drive south and in 1 mile you hit the sea.  Drive north and you hit China, and you aren't allowed to take your car into China. Anyway, most people want to escape FROM China, not to it. So why then, do so many people in this city own cars? Where are they all going? Do they really use their cars to get from Central to Wan Chai, a distance of about a mile? Even if they did, they would still have to park a mile away.  And the traffic would be so bad, it would take them about 30 minutes to do that one mile.  They could most certainly walk faster. Most of my ex-pat colleagues have cars. Some have two. They use them to drive the kids to school (Sadie takes the bus), go to the supermarket (we walk), and get to work (taking twice as long as I do on public transport) and who knows what else. One of my friends here (who shall remain nameless in this blog) has been habitually late  every single time I have ever met up with her to do anything, including her daughter's sports events. Every single time, she blames the traffic.  It's not like the traffic suddenly got bad, and "oh, what a surprise-we are delayed".  The traffic in Hong Kong is horrific every minute of every day.   I once suggested that she and her daughter take the MTR (the Hong Kong underground) to a netball game in Kowloon (probably about 8 miles away as the crow flies) that would take about 20 minutes to get to by MTR. You would think I suggested that they walk through the sewers to get there.  I feel compelled to point out here that the MTR is immaculate, dirt  cheap, easy to use and you never have to wait more than 3 minutes for a train. More on that shortly.   This same woman (whom, by the way, I adore) once got so badly stuck in traffic and was so late for a netball game that she abandoned her car about halfway there and hailed a taxi to find a quicker way to get her and her daughter to the match. They were still late.  She still insists, however, on using the car.

Not only does everyone have cars in Hong Kong, it is illegal to have anything other than a very expensive sports car or a very expensive four wheel drive. This, in a city with tiny roads,no place to go and no place to park. For the life of me, I can't figure it out.  When you walk through the car park in our building, the cheapest car is a cute little Mini Cooper, which I guess just gets by on kitch value. There are Ferraris, Maseratis, Lamborghinis, Porsche's,BMWs, Mercedes and one poor unfortunate sole who appears to be slumming it with an Audi.  They can't drive these card fast; the traffic simply doesn't permit an average speed greater than 20 MPH. And because traffic is so mad, the driving can get a little crazy with people slipping into spaces in the next lane that are smaller than their actual car.  It is sort of like that crazy bus scene in one of the Harry Patter films, where the bus contracts to 1/3 its width to squeeze between two other cars.   It must be done with mirrors, because I can't figure out any other way it could be managed.  Now here though is the really surprising the whole year we have been here, I have only seen one car accident, and that was a fender bender.   Maybe all those really expensive cars have some fancy electronic gadgetry that keeps them from hitting other really expensive cars.

To get to work every day, I take a shuttle bus from our flat to Central, and then get on the MTR to go to my office 2 stops away in Kowloon.   The MTR is brilliant. The trip from Central to my stop  costs about 90 pence and takes less than 10 minutes.  The trains are spotlessly clean and no one is permitted to eat, drink or smoke anywhere in the whole system.  The only down side is that the Hong Kong Chinese have not really figured out the concept of "let people off before you try to get on" When I first arrived here, I was regularly pushed to the back of the train when I was trying to get off by the flood of people trying to get on. These people are ruthless. Five foot tall grannies will take you out at the knees to get to a seat.   Mothers will use their toddler in arms to poke you in the eye. It is a daily battle that, if you don't engage in it, you will find yourself at the end of the line wondering how you got there. So every day, I take up battle stations by the train doors and use my superior height and weight to rugby tackle pregnant women and shove the disabled out of the way, simply so I can get to work. It is truly Darwinian.

Taxis in Hong Kong are also brilliant. A taxi from Hong Kong station to our flat takes about 30 minutes and costs about £6.  I have never really struggled to find a taxi when I need one, and they are universally clean and in good condition.  Like taxi drivers everywhere, the ones in Hong Kong are a mixed bag. Some are safe and considered drivers; others drive like lunatics.  A good percentage of taxi drivers have four or five mobile phones mounted on their dashboard, but I have never been able to ascertain why. They all appear to work and they all ring (and are answered) on our journeys.  There is clearly no hands free law in Hong Kong. What are all those phones for?  One for wife, one for girlfriend, one for mother?  Who knows? Sometimes the drivers want to chat. Sometimes they want to chat to me in Cantonese, although it is abundantly clear that I can't say anything in Cantonese beyond "dai baa cho".  They often laugh when I say this and then say "oh, do you mean Tower number 8?" as if my feeble attempt at a few words of Cantonese is only worthy of a guffaw.  When chatting away to me, I always suspect that they are amusing themselves either by making obscene sexual remarks or issuing a diatribe on stupid, ugly Western women. Either way, I just not my head and smile.

Probably the best thing about getting around Hong Kong is that it is one of the safest places in the world.  There is virtually no street crime and crimes against ex-pats are pretty much unheard of.   Sadie takes taxis everywhere with her friends and by herself, and I am not the least bit worried about it. It will certainly be a shock to her system when she isn't permitted to go anywhere on her own in London!

Probably the worst thing about getting around Hong Kong is being a pedestrian. The pavements are incredibly crowded, and nowhere in the world are people less aware/respectful of those around them. There are no acknowledged rules of what side of the pavement to walk on, and you can frequently meet a wall of people coming at you from the opposite direction, leaving you a choice between being mown over on the pavement, stepping into the street to be mowed over by the traffic or throwing yourself to your knees and praying for the Rapture to lift to up into the sky to avoid being mowed over at all.   People have absolutely no consideration for other pedestrians. None.  They will walk down the street, texting their mates, not looking up and expecting everyone else to walk around them. If you are walking up or down stairs, people will think nothing of pushing you out of the way, stepping in front of you or cutting you up. The other thing that drives me absolutely nuts is the number of people who will stop at the bottom of an escalator to chat with their friends, completely oblivious to the 30 person pile up that they have just caused behind them.  Or the number of people who will stand in front of the entrance to an escalator to chat with their friends, completely oblivious to the 100's of people who now can't get on the escalator at all. It has been a counter cultural thing to do, but again I have learned to take advantage of my superior weight and height, and I steadfastly refuse to move out of the way.  This has led to many, many people plowing into me and then looking up in a surprised fashion as if to say "How did you get here? I thought I was the only one on the planet".

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