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Jet Lag Is My Favorite Drug: And Other Notes from Hong Kong

jet-lag-hong-kong

On my first day in Asia last month, I took a long walk to reorient myself to a place I knew well through countless jet-lagged visits over the past five years.

In Hong Kong, you can wander freely. You can eat milk tarts. You can be a Westerner and not feel completely adrift in unfamiliarity, something that isn’t always possible in mainland China. If you’re like me, you can buy a can of iced coffee at 7-11 in the mornings and a can of beer in the evenings.

After ten previous trips to the city by airport bus, I had recently discovered an easier way. For just $13, travelers can take the express trains direct to the city, where easy connections by metro and shuttle bus are available. For the uber-rich willing to spend $25, taxis are also available. Such is the power that money gives you access to—taxis! Express trains! Wow. For years I thought everyone traveled by cheap public bus for an hour, followed by half an hour traipsing through streets, uncertain of their destination. I guess that was just me.

Old & New

During so many 48-hour transit stops, I developed a ritual: always do something new, and always do something familiar. To practice this ritual, I got on buses and rode wherever they took me. I walked through rainstorms. I needed to do laundry, but I bought $10 t-shirts from Giordano instead. I went to the movies, subtitled in Chinese but played in original English. I went to the Pacific Coffee Company on Nathan Road five times in as many visits. I went to church once.

I discovered a diner that served Western-style eggs and waffles 24 hours a day—a convenient find for my my usual bleary-eyed state in the city. On other sleepless nights I took the train from Kowloon to the Hong Kong side, staying until after 11pm and taking the last train back to my side. One time I checked out of my hostel and went to the Conrad hotel for Sunday brunch. It cost $50 for one person, and it lived up to expectations.

On the initial visits, I stayed at random guest houses, the YWCA, and numerous hostels with shoebox private rooms. Almost always I stayed in Kowloon, the Brooklyn side of Hong Kong, instead of Hong Kong island itself. Once I had a reservation on the other side, but I canceled it due to a flight change. How hard can it be to find a place? I thought. I knew the city, or at least I knew part of it. I went to Mong Kok, the center of China in a city of Chinatowns. In or near Mong Kok you can find the bird market, which sells birds, and the ladies market, which isn’t named for the same reason—although in this area you can also find a number of tiny hotels that rent by the hour, presumably for other jetlagged travelers like me who need to take a nap. (Right?)

I decided to give them a try. After arriving on the hour-long bus from HKG, cheapskate that I am, I carried my bags through the neighborhood and went knocking on doors. “Do you have a room for the night?” I asked. The signs outside advertised $10 an hour or $40 for the night, so I thought I’d save money and have a fun story about staying by myself in a budget hotel usually used for other purposes. But no—no one had a room. At the first place I thought they were just booked up, but by the fifth place I realized the problem: no one would rent to foreigners, or at least an unaccompanied foreigner like me. I finally gave up and hauled my stuff over to the YMCA, where I paid $130 for the only room they had.

Then and Now

This time, I finally stay in Hong Kong proper. It turns out that in addition to the hourly rooms and the random guesthouses on the 21st floors of office buildings, Hong Kong also has nice hotels with 21 whole floors devoted to rooms. Who knew?

As I wander through the crowded streets from Hong Kong station, I remember: in some ways, this is where much of my worldwide wandering began. That first trip, jetlagged and eating pancakes at 4am in McDonald’s—surprisingly jam-packed at that hour. Another trip where I laid down for a nap at 2pm and woke up at 10pm, just in time for sleepwalking the streets and replying to emails from hostel WiFi. That ferry I took to Macau, where I first outlined the plan for visiting every country in the world. I remember wondering if I was up for it, whether it was even possible, how I could do it without going broke or crazy, but also excited by the challenge.

One thing I don’t remember about Hong Kong is running. I’ve ran in many countries, and I’ve ran in Hong Kong before, but not often. Busy streets, jetlag, and high humidity serve to keep my running shoes in the bag more often than not. This time, I resolve to change the pattern. Ten days on the road to Kansas City, Austin, and New York for meetings led to the 16-hour Cathay flight across the Pacific where I started writing these notes , but they didn’t lead to much running.

So on the night I arrive back in town, bleary-eyed as ever, I resolve to repent for lack of running. I unpack my shoes and put them by the door. I get out my running clothes and leave them by the bed. I take a shower and settle in for a night of exhausted restlessness, the product of once again changing a full twelve time zones at once.

Happily, I sleep nearly five hours—not bad for a first night in Asia. I know that the second and third nights will be the hardest, so I take advantage of the small success and dutifully run four miles as the sun comes up over Causeway Bay. This is a small accomplishment, I know, but it helps to retain muscle memory and also increases the odds that I’ll go for another workout in the next stop. Success doubled! I come back tired but glad that I made myself do it.

Onwards

After another shower I head back to HKG airport, because as usual I’m only in transit here. I stop off at the 7-11 for a pastry and bottle of water, then ride the express train, $13 luxury traveler that I am now. I’ll be back next week for another night, but at the moment I’m off to Singapore, from where I’ll finally depart for my real destination: East Timor, also known as the world’s newest country—and known as country #155 for me.

I know this airport better than any major airport in the U.S. Over time and so many visits, I learned its secrets. Terminal I and II are connected by train, so you aren’t missing out on lounges if you have to check in on the lesser Terminal II side. The best airport floor sleeping is found by Gates 20-40. Due to some Kafkaesque logic, if you have an ING bank debit card, you can’t get money from the ING cash machine in departures. The Krispy Kreme in arrivals became a Starbucks a while back, breaking a critical donut ritual I had become attached to after five visits.

I go through security in two minutes (it’s almost always that fast) and head to The Wing for free breakfast. They have recently added a vegetarian menu, so I order Chinese fried noodles with vegetables to go with my coffee. I read the South China Morning Post and most of the International Herald Tribune. As I reply to emails for the next hour in the work area, I remember talking to Leo Babauta on Skype from here a year or two ago. I remember the time I almost missed my flight because I was taking a super-long shower. I remember the time I left this lounge to fly to Pakistan without a visa, talking my way onto the plane and (eventually) my way into the country. Another small victory; take them where you can!

This time I have only one more hour until the flight, so I walk to gate 14 and decide to take my time in boarding. As usual in these parts, I’m heading out on Cathay Pacific, my favorite airline in the world. It gets edged out by Singapore Airlines in some other rankings, but holds sentimental attachment for me. I’ve flown Cathay short-haul to Bangkok, Manila, Karachi, Bali, Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul, and undoubtedly a few other places I can’t remember. I’ve flown Cathay long-haul to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vancouver, New York, London, Rome, and Riyadh. I’ve been in a middle seat at the very back of the plane, and in “Suite 1K” at the very front. (Verdict: 1K is obviously the best choice if you have one… but Cathay economy isn’t bad at all.)

After a short wait, they make a boarding announcement for Business Class and OneWorld elite members. Sometimes I like to be first on the plane when I have the chance, but today I hang back a little. I wait for peasant class to begin boarding, then I join the queue in the back. I finally make it to my 11k aisle seat (Business Class this time, the comfortable purgatory between the suites in the front and the five-to-a-row layout in the back) and settle in. It’s a full flight, and everyone else is already there. I accept a glass of water and finish the newspaper I began earlier.

The British pilot leads us out to the runway and into the air. I start to fall asleep right before lunchtime, and I remember the words of Jacque Cousteau: “Jetlag is my favorite drug.” I know that drinking red wine at this stage of my Pacific entry might be a mistake, but since we only have one life, I can’t resist one glass. Besides, I know in Singapore I’ll have to wake up, sort out my emails at the airport and then head to the city on another train. So why not, I think. Maybe a glass and a half. It goes well with my Indian vegetarian meal.

I’m listening to Rumer on my iPod, who sings my new favorite song: “I’m alive and I’m thankful for this time.” Time, the universe, my choices, and the flight schedules of Cathay Pacific have worked independently to bring me to this moment. Around me are other travelers, some Western, most Asian, all sharing this space as we take off for Singapore.

We could be anywhere, friends. But here we find ourselves—me publishing these notes from the great Changi airport of Singapore, and you reading them from somewhere. What forces have worked independently—or conspired—to bring you to your location today? Where have you been and where are you going?

Before I know it, it’s all over. I’m in another place with different memories. I know I’ll be back in Hong Kong soon, but for now it’s time to move on.

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36 Comments

  • Jeremy Long says:

    Amazing description… I feel like I’m right there with you on your journeys man! Thanks for sharing!

  • Alan says:

    I miss your travel writing! Keep it up, Chris, this is great.

  • Kathleen says:

    Loved your Hong Kong comments. I’m here at home, in deep snow, but tomorrow the forces, and free flights, have conspired to send me to the snow-free Caribbean.

  • Darrell says:

    You live the life. I don’t care what anyone else says.

  • John Wilson says:

    Good stuff. I have been reading you for awhile, and have never made comments on your writings – that will change starting today. I am in Casares, Nicaragua, at a little fishing village on the coast of the Pacific Ocean reading your blog.

    Your writings were instrumental in getting me off my rear end and getting me to go on this trip. Never realized how much work there is in doing the stuff that you do. The question of “Is it work, if you like it?” is pondered by me regularly. Thanks for sharing.

  • Roger Ellman says:

    Soothing and travel-appetite-awakening story of your travels. Truly enjoyed this.

  • Jeanne says:

    Fun read, and waving to you from Penang! We will soon be back to Singapore again ( and onto Bhutan, India and Jordan on our way back to Europe for the summer) so I truly understand your thoughts. We’re also planning a road trip in the US this year which will be something totally different for this traveling family.

    It is all still wonderful isn’t it? We love the joys of perpetual travel!

  • Brigitte says:

    My husband and I were just talking about this question — What forces have worked independently—or conspired—to bring you to your location today? — over the weekend. We’re going through an enormous transition right now. For him, a promotion. For us, a job transfer that is uprooting us and taking us to the West coast. For me, a new beginning as an entrepreneur.

    Taken together, these changes are seemingly a huge rift in our life. But they’re really the logical next step in our evolution as a couple and as individuals. The forces that have all come together in the past few months result from decisions we made as long as 5 years ago.

    I have a friend who says she’s envies how everything is coming together in my life. But if I hadn’t started working on business ideas 5 years ago, if my husband hadn’t made certain choices, we’d be in a very different place today.

  • Jen says:

    Hey Chris, I’ve been reading your blog a while and really enjoy your writing. However, something about this post and the idea of what forces have brought each of us to the where we are in this moment resonated on a deeper level. I found myself getting to the end of the post thinking this is one of my favorite things you written lately. So, thanks!

  • Elsa says:

    The article remind me a busy, rapid, crowded, convenient Asian city that I am familiar with, while I am in Kingston, a small city in Ontario, so quite and calm. Limited bus routs and schedule for transportation, but plenty of place to enjoy the nature (plenty of tall trees, grass, lakes, parks, hiking trails within 20-min drive..) I am not sure which one I like better…I guess it’s good to have a dynamics living style like you do! Cheers!

  • Craig Tobin says:

    Wow. Memories of All Asia Pass circa 2000.

    Loved HKG, airport & Cathay. Slept on floor couple times myself (maybe cleaner than my 17th floor guesthouse in Kowloon: haha, didn’t know that was so common).

    Great city to explore including cheap ferry ride over to HK proper with stunning views.

    Highly recommend the Peak tram to anyone visiting (then walk down).

    Also visit the giant Buddha on Lantau Island as well: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tian_Tan_Buddha. Foolishly took a walking trail alone from here near dusk to another ferry dock on the island and encountered a mean looking water buffalo blocking the path halfway there. Pretty surreal experience for first time in Asia & luckily he was friendlier than he looked.

    Thanks for the flashback. Can’t wait to get back.

    Happy trails!

  • Darlene says:

    While I’ve been to Singapore twice I’ve yet to experience Hong Kong, other than in and out at the airport and I don’t have the miles you do (yet!) do enjoy the lounges. I’ll get there one day soon, thanks for the tips and always keeping us thinking.

  • Enjoyed this picaresque, Chris. Jet lag is a drug. I’ve never been to Hong Kong, but I’ll visit one day. For me the challenge is to be where I am, and not to fantasize about being somewhere else with fewer responsibilities or frustrations. For now I’m in an EarthFare, finished with my lunch, using free WiFi to catch up after a long meeting this morning with a client whom I may choose to gently fire. I may rather write reflections of my own than spend the afternoon finishing web content or developing names for a new restaurant concept, but now that I’m here, I want to walk through my day with open hands. And I want to try something new in this sleepy, comfortable town of Knoxville.

  • Evan says:

    Great post Chris! I fly a fair amount, and try to maintain the positive attitude towards it that you embody. I’m sitting in my girlfriend’s parents’ house in Glasgow, Scotland, working on my new website and enjoying being abroad. I’m Californian and planning a big move over here to be with her. She introduced me to your site, your writing, and even you at your book tour stop in San Francisco recently.

    Thanks for continually inspiring myself, and others, to live life our own way.

  • Global Nomad says:

    Ahhh memories of the The Wing & The Pier & Hong Kong itself. I was lucky, my sister lived there for 15 years until recently moving to Seattle. I passed through HKG so many times, pretty much monthly for the 2 years I was in Beijing. So much to see, so much to do there. Never bored.

    If you get the chance for another 24 hour stopover take a ferry from the Outlying Ferry terminal, next to the new Star Ferry Pier, to the island of Cheng Chau. This is the home of the fishing trawler fleet. Here the waterfront is populated by a large number of seafood restaurants where you can pick your lunch from the tank. Take a left out of the ferry pier & walk to the end of the restaurant row to the New Baccharat restaurant. Their Garlic Scallops & Salt & Pepper Squid are to die for!! Lan Kwai Fong for drinks.

    Now my sister has moved I have found myself in Singapore airport 6 times in the last 8 mths for the first time in years. Fun but I do miss HKG. Next time I head home to Oz I will route thru HKG!

  • John says:

    Your description took me back to the many times I have flown into HK from the states, always arriving in the evening and then catching the bus to Kowloon. The YMCA in Kowloon (both of them) are great places to stay and Nathan Rd. is a wonderful place to explore. Hong Kong has always felt like a home away from home after a person has been roaming around Asia.

  • Fiona says:

    What forces have conspired? A question that’s easy to forget to ask. Funny how easy it is for even a fascinating evolving life to seem mundane. To just see another day drawing to a close. When I could see it through different eyes, because I’m sitting perched on the edge of my bed, in Ghana, West Africa, about to say good night to my daughter. At my feet there’s the final proof of the novel that will hit the [virtual] shelves in a couple of weeks. a Lonely Planet guide to Morocco (oh I would love that to be the next stop), and the dog’s collar – the dog is a seasoned traveller – Australia to US to Canada and now here.

    It’s a work in progress.

    “Memories” and “moving on”, the story of our lives and that nice moment in between…

  • Matt Stewart says:

    Nice piece Chris, definitely brought back memories of Hong Kong.
    That Airport Express is a hard to beat sweet ride. I’ve never done the bus from the airport I will have to give it a try. Of course, back in the day, the flight in Hong Kong was a real treat – that steep banking turn into Kai Tak….
    I thought Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo were all more recently created countries than East Timor. Well I guess they are all recreated after being bundled together.
    And in July you’re list grows by 1 more – South Sudan.

  • Pratik says:

    Chris, you can have a great run right along the HK harbor, especially on the Kowloon side. Good option if you’re strapped for time.

    Start at the Avenue of the Stars, across from the YMCA. You can run east along the waterfront and take a pedestrian bridge and keep continuing till you hit a residential neighborhood. The path eventually hits a dead end. Turn back and retrace. The whole in and out route is about 5-6 miles and the views are great, especially early morning with clear air and sparse crowds. You can even go right up to the Star Ferry pier the other way.

    There are other great routes in the Hong Kong territory, so let me know if you want more.

    Keep up the good work. Been to Hong Kong and Asia in 2009 and would love to go there again.

  • Jean Burman says:

    Loved the ramble through Hong Kong Chris. It’s a timely reminder for the rest of us to get the heck out of [here] as often as we can [wherever here might be for us]

    As for the forces that have brought me [here]… well… all I can say is I might not have chosen them but “they were necessary”.

    Today I am driving down to Mission Beach for a couple of days. It’s raining here in Queensland [and there was a cyclone through the place recently] but I don’t mind. I get to write and paint wherever I am and it doesn’t get much better than that (((chuckles)))

    Cheers and happy travels Chris. Give me a shout when you get to East Timor… [so close I might just be able to hear you] LOL

  • Amy Nieto says:

    Wonderful post, Mr Guillebeau. Reading it has made me want to really visit Hong Kong for some reason. I keep having dreams about these advanced East Asian countries and cities. I had the most wonderful dream about Japan a few years a ago. A giant arc, like the one in St Louis, served as the “entrance” to the country but it was foggy and oh so wonderful as I was flying on a plane. Then I had another dream in which I was flying on this tiny tiny helicopter through the skycrapers of Singapore. So odd, but dreams like those make me so happy.

    Thank you for this entry 🙂

  • dara says:

    An exciting (and well described) journey you’re on! Awesome. I’m reading your words from a black leather sofa in a one bedroom apartment on the panhandle in sunny San Francisco. Quite happy to be here, though fighting a sudden urge to cab it over to SFO and board a plane bound for “somewhere out there” thanks to you! Soon. Today I’m writing, daydreaming, wandering, researching, reading, listening to music, running, planning and enjoying some quality alone time while my boyfriend is in China working.
    Enjoy!
    d

  • Nate says:

    This sounds like quite an adventure! I’m happy to live vicariously through your travels. I have yet to leave the house today. But right now, I’m experimenting with an idea Thoreau has about taking an inner journey. He talks about being the Lewis and Clark of your inner waters (at least that’s the story I tell myself when I’m cranking away on work and don’t have the time to travel!).

  • Chris says:

    great dispatch. enjoyed every word. may your luck and luggage hold.

  • Lily M says:

    Never thought of Kowloon side as the “Brooklyn” of HK, but hey… that could work unless you are poshing it on finest strip of Tsim Sha Tsui. After all, The Peninsula is still there, right? I’ll likely transit there on route to Vancouver before coming to your WDS.

    Enjoy your run in Singapore. I’m sure you’ll stay well hydrated. Hot, hot, hot when I was out there previous weekend.

  • jphripjah says:

    Montenegro became a country in 2006. I think it’s the newest.

  • In my humble opinion, maybe your best post ever on this blog. While listening to Rumer and reading your words, I am with you on every of your steps around Hong-Kong, it’s airport and that airplane.

    Thank you for that. 🙂

  • Louis says:

    Great blog post. You summarized HK really well. Next time you’re in Hong Kong, give me a shout and I’ll take you around. I live half in HK and half in the UK.

  • Caroline says:

    Sitting exhausted in a hotel room in Bangalore with a fellow Canadian intern after having just completed a 5 day conference with the other Artemisia social business interns from across India. About to jump on an overnight bus to visit the temple ruins of Hampi for a few days, followed by flying back to Kolkata to resume my exciting internship with a renewable energy venture.

    What’s best is my past two years since graduating have been equally as exciting and exhausting at the same time. I love it because I’ve met my goal of not doing something lame like going to work at a marketing firm or bank after grad, but am out here doing something completely different, in an emerging field that people still don’t know about, and going to rural places I never would have dreamed.

    This is amazing. So many opportunities and possible paths to tread down that it will be tough to decide my next steps.

  • Annie says:

    Chris, you have arrived as a seasoned traveler and writer! With AONC blog posts, you’re never truly alone, as you can picture all of us hanging on to your every word, especially this one about Hong Kong. There is a wonderful book, written by a friend of mine, Leo Buscaglia, entitled The Way of the Bull. It’s about Leo’s journeys all over the world to find himself, including in Hong Kong and Singapore, Vietnam, in the 60’s and 70’s. He even tried to become a monk in a Buddhist temple! I think I have mentioned this book to you before, but I really want you to read it. Let me know in an e-mail what you think of this book when you read it! Enjoy every experience, even the not-so-nice ones!

  • Fetu says:

    Beautiful writing. It also brought back memories of a week in a hostel in Mongkok by the ladies market. My breakfast was also a can of ice coffee and a pastry from 7-11. I would catch the bus down Nathan Rd so I could sit by the harbor to watch the boat life while I had my breakfast. Then it was time to go explore.

  • Matt says:

    Seriously, that’s the first “travel” article of yours I have ever read. You have an undeniable skill for making us feel there. I got chills listening to that song while reading the close of the article. Perfectly amazing Chris, Thank you!

  • Sarah says:

    LOVED this post, Chris. Incredibly inspiring, as per usual, and the vivid descriptions of places I have yet to be add another location to my bucket list. Thanks for transporting me from a snowy city in Wisconsin in Spring to Hong Kong for a hot minute 🙂

  • Ben says:

    The best post I’ve read here yet, love the way you wrote it, keep more of that coming

  • CURTIN says:

    I’ve actually taken a nap at a Mong Kok hourly hotel with a girl! Everyone thought what you are supposed to think when you see a Western guy and an Asian girl walk into one of these places. But the truth was I was staying up in the New Territories and didn’t want to pay an arm and a leg for a taxi. She had work just a few blocks away in 5 hrs. So it made sense to stay close and pay for only a few hours of sleep. The lady at the desk was very surprised when the room was left in good order and there were no complaints of noises the next day.

    It’s a very funny feeling walking out of one of those places alone too (I stayed an extra hour while she went to work.)

  • Kathy says:

    Another voice added to the chorus singing the praises of this post. Both a memory jogger of my recent trip to Hong Kong (and Singapore), as well as just fine travel writing. Evocative, thought-provoking, fun.

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