These last couple of weeks I haven’t done many spectacular things. I have mainly attended lectures, hung out with my friends and walked around Hong Kong a lot. Things have been steady, except the Sunday when Typhoon Mangkhut hit the city.
Hong Kong was shook by the most severe storm of recorded history a bit over a week ago. Typhoon Mangkhut, as it was called, created winds close to 200 km/h, raised sea water levels close to the coastline and caused general havoc all around the city. It was definitely an experience I had never had before in my life.
Hong Kong is well prepared for such occasions. Everyone knew about the storm approaching and Hong Kong Observatory gave out information as the situation evolved. It was interesting to see how a city like Hong Kong manages a looming super typhoon. Most notably, people were urged to buy food and water in advance to last at least a few days in case of a larger disaster and the windows of buildings were taped across the corners to prevent shattering of the glass. There was a sense of restless anticipation among the locals, and we would soon understand why.
When we woke up to the storm Sunday morning a week ago, the conditions outside our window were unusual to say the least. I saw mist and rain blow through the woods with a crazy speed, leafs and soil flying on the level of my 11th floor flat, windows shaking, and the entire building swaying back and forth. It was a very unusual feeling but I convinced myself buildings are supposed to do that and there is nothing to be afraid of as long as you stay indoors. That’s what I did all Sunday.
We don’t have any natural disasters in Finland so a part of me was also interested to see what it was like. This interest was quickly overshadowed by the locals’ warnings. On Monday last week, the next day after the storm, I went for a walk and could witness the destruction myself. Virtually every street had fallen trees blocking the sidewalks and lanes. I didn’t see it myself, but some buildings had lost roofs and other structures in the storm. Some people suffered injuries in Hong Kong but luckily there were no casualties here.
As I write this, there is another super typhoon gathering in the Pacific Ocean and heading this way. For now, it looks like it might divert more North towards Taiwan. I really hope Philippines will be spared as dozens of people lost their lives there during Mangkhut…
Getting into the Course Work
My courses are now rolling for the 4th week. We have mostly received guidelines for our assignments, which include essays, group works, study visits and creative/visual projects. Two of my courses have midterm tests and at least four will have another test by the end of the semester. I am satisfied with my work load regarding these five courses, even though I feel like some of the tests are a bit unnecessary. It feels like I definitely have enough work to challenge myself, become a better expert on these topics, and learn new things, but not too much to overshadow my non-curricular adventures. The most amazing thing is that in order to complete my assignments, in many cases, I get to explore and study Hong Kong!
One downside of the really efficient air-conditioning systems is that some of our lecture rooms are really cold. It feels nice for 15 minutes after you arrive to the class but, as our lectures are 3-hour long, at some point towards the end you are already dreaming of your winter jacket. Well, at least it gives me a possibility to wear my University of Helsinki hoodie.
The first weeks of my courses have been lecture-based. As October kicks in, more concrete things will happen regarding my studies. I will write about that later on.
I have mentioned previously that CityU hosts a range of extra-curricular activities. My current studies are perfect for me but I sometimes still miss the artsy side of being a design student. Thus, I decided to take up Chinese calligraphy class on Tuesday evenings starting next month!
Other Stuff I’ve Done
These last few weeks I have continued to explore this city without any specific plans. Here are some photos.
In the upcoming weeks, I will have a lot of interesting things to do. Starting this Friday, I’m making a trip to Shenzhen, a 14-million megacity right across the border from Hong Kong. Saturday will be dedicated to some course-related exploration but besides that I will have a couple of days to experience this very close but very different city.
Yesterday, I also bought flights to Taiwan next month. As I’m planning to travel in mainland China in January, now I get to see three sides of contemporary China: Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland. Couldn’t be more excited!
Sometimes you run into words in your native language that you simply can’t translate into English. One of them is the Finnish word ‘arki’. Sanakirja.com offers ordinary or non-special days in life as translation, which is somewhat correct but hardly good material for a blog post header. Nonetheless, I feel like my arki has started here. It has been far from ordinary or non-special, but some kind of regularity has taken shape.
Last week our courses began and we eased into the daily routines of university life. I got myself a french press to make morning coffee and the room is more or less in order. I have explored Hong Kong a lot more and gained new insights through these experiences.
All in all, I feel like I have seen and done extremely lot in this small time. I hope to keep up this pace throughout my exchange and maybe by the end of the year I can say to myself that I know Hong Kong pretty well.
Kicking off the Studies
I am a master’s student back home but here I am taking bachelor level courses. I didn’t necessarily plan it this way but it just happened as a result of my course selections. They are anyway mostly different topics than the ones I dealt with during my bachelor’s studies in design and fit thematically really well with my current degree.
A lot of the courses offered to exchange students in CityU are so-called GE courses, meaning Gateway/General Education, an interdisciplinary approach to various topics. My master’s programme back home is also about synthesizing countless disciplinary viewpoints, so I didn’t see any problem with this arrangement. Besides, I am a curious generalist by nature.
That being said, I am extremely happy with the selection of courses I was able to get! They are:
Discovering the Dynamics of Contemporary Cities and Architecture in China (College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences)
Urban Green City: Pollution and Solution (School of Energy and Environment / Department of Public Policy)
Transport and Development (Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering)
Theory in Architectural and Urban Design (Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering)
Documentary and Everyday Urban Life (School of Creative Media)
I also started a so-called survivor course in Cantonese organized by one of the international societies of my university. The course consists of five Thursday evening sessions and a “graduation trip” to one of the outlying islands of Hong Kong. I don’t get any credits from it but it doesn’t matter since I already got enough courses and my aim is to learn to deal with everyday situations rather than understand the grammar. So far, I can say ‘good day’, ‘bye bye’ and ‘thank you’ in two different ways. Trying to speak Cantonese is like singing as the tones are an important part of the language. I found it incredibly helpful to see the tones in a visualization that helps to understand them in relation to each other.
I got courses from various departments so I could experience their approaches and teaching styles. I will tell more about the courses in my upcoming posts through the given tasks and activities. Each of the courses contribute in some way to my studies and enable me to understand and dig deeper in various themes related to urban development. I will learn about Chinese urbanization, environmental challenges in surging cities, basics of transportation planning, fundamental architectural theories and concepts, and video ethnography as a tool for urban research. What I’m especially excited about is that many of these courses offer me a chance to explore Hong Kong in the context of my studies!
I have one Brazilian, one Australian and three Chinese professors in my courses. It is really eye-opening to experience different teaching methods and approaches. Sometimes some things are done or said differently than back home. For example, I have felt really strange in most of my classes regarding the behaviour of my fellow students. Even in a quite small class room, it seems pretty common to have conversations with your friend during class quite openly while the professor speaks in a microphone and does not get bothered by the chatter. In my experience back home, students usually use WhatsApp for non-scientific communication rather than talk out of turn. It’s not necessarily a Chinese thing because I saw other exchange students engaged in it, too. It is also possible that I’m just getting old!
Another difference I have noticed in subtle clues is that #MeToo is not such an overarching cultural influence here as it is in Europe. Professors might make points in classes with metaphors about stereotypical roles of men and women. There’s more talk of ‘beauty’ and genders in a conforming sense, instead of in the context of deconstructing our biases. Of course this is likely to be different in some courses where these issues are the main theme instead of, e.g., urban planning.
These kinds of experiences are good chances for cultivating your cultural sensitivity and understanding. Going on an exchange to a notably different culture is extremely helpful in learning how to deal with other ways of thinking and expressing oneself.
Eating In and Out
As I anticipated, the school food here is quite different to home. We have many large and small canteens in our campus that serve a variety of food from morning until midnight. Unfortunately for me, Chinese food culture is quite meat-heavy: also in our canteens there are usually only 1-2 plant-based options and 10+ dishes for carnivores. It is the same in most restaurants around this city, especially in the everyday local places that I’m mostly interested in trying. I eat seafood, which is kind of a must in this city, and helps me a lot in finding food.
One of the canteens serves Western-style food like pizza and pasta but I have stuck to the Asian fare. My typical school lunch or dinner is Shanghai-style noodle soup with vegetables or Indian vegetarian curry. I have pretty much tried all the canteens by now and it was really nice change to find a Middle Eastern canteen where I had some veggie biryani and falafels.
We can also make food in the shared kitchens of our dormitory floors. Since you have to acquire all the equipment yourself, I have decided to only make simple soups.
Yesterday, I was in luck because I got invited to have a dinner at a local home. My friend Hilary’s mom had cooked amazing Chinese dishes, including incredibly good steamed fish. It was by far the best food I have had in Hong Kong and also among the best I have ever had. In a way, I’m already looking forward to spending long nights trying to cook different Chinese dishes back home in Helsinki.
So far I haven’t been craving Western food at all. I know this might happen at some point during my exchange. Luckily I already know a place where to go then: a hip restaurant in Wan Chai with wood-fire ovens serving (seemingly flawlessly, judging by what I saw) my ultimate favourite food, pizza margherita…
Adjusting to Life and Visiting New Places
Second week was a period of adjustment and realizations for me. It has seized to feel very new and exciting on every corner but rather I’m feeling like a person who lives here, walks around the crowds and in metro stations looking at his phone, uses local greetings when going to the store, sometimes gets annoyed, and so on.
Luckily, it has rained less than in the first week but the heat sometimes puts me on edge. It is so annoying to walk a few hundred meters outdoors and immediately feel sweaty. Some people might find it weird that at those moments I dream of going to sauna.
Living in the dormitory has proved fun and easy. We get along really well with my flatmate Julien as well as two German guys with whom we share our bathroom. The general vibe in our university has changed a lot since most of the local students came in after the orientation week. There are people playing basketball at the courts in the evenings, some are swimming in the pool, canteens are more full, and generally there are people everywhere. It is mostly a positive change but waiting for elevators can be a drag as so many people are using them at once.
I would like to share a survival tip for anyone finding themselves in a crowded city. I used to be the kind of person who always had those awkward moments when you don’t know whether you or another person walking towards you will be the one to give way on the street. One day, I heard a tip that you should not look them in the eye but rather look somewhere else – this way they will not walk into you! This has been extremely effective and I haven’t had almost any of those awkward dances. From now on, I will only stare at the ground when I’m walking down the street and I suggest you do the same!
During evening walks you can appreciate the neon signs of Hong Kong in their full glory. Unfortunately, they are a dying breed as fire safety regulations and cheaper prices lead business owners to replace their old neon signs with led lights. There might be some good reasons behind this change but the aesthetics of Hong Kong is so strongly based on these beautiful lights that I find it hard to accept their demise!
I took two trips to a nearby Lantau Island that is accessible by a ferry, metro or bus. On the first visit I went to see Tai O, a small picturesque fishing village that was a relaxing change to the busy running around in crowds that is Hong Kong life on most occasions. The bus ride to the village was extremely scenic!
Today I visited the big buddha in Lantau, an impressive landmark erected in 1993 next to a monastery. It is a huge statue that stands out from the mountainous forest scenery. You have to take a 20-minute cablecar ride through breathtaking mountain and ocean views in order to get there.
Observations from Long Walks and Urban Readings
I really love walking. I do it back home as a hobby but when I’m in a new city it becomes a tool to map locations in my mind and form a comprehension of different nodes and routes. Hong Kong is a fantastic city to explore on foot as its streets are incredibly lively and full of activity at all times.
I have been listening to a great (although somewhat too American-centered) audiobook Walkable Cities by Jeff Speck. It is a contemporary account of key ingredients in successful urban design, written and told by a respected practitioner. It builds on the classic works of the likes of Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl but aims to bring a practical contemporary approach to the table. While the new urbanist arguments are much alike across all the available popular literature, Walkable Cities is a very well formulated collection of important points that are easy to digest. I have contemplated its theories in relation to my pedestrian experience in Hong Kong.
Speck proposes a General Theory of Walkability: walking in a city should feel useful, safe, comfortable and interesting. One point he makes in the beginning of the book resonated with my experience here. He described Rome, a city full of narrow sidewalks, cracked and uneven street surfaces and generally chaotic street design. How is it possible that Rome is also one of the most walkable cities in the world? It reveals that good walkability is not rooted in high quality street design, pavement materials or specific allocations of space. It is more fundamentally important that the urban fabric, the entire network of streets and spaces between buildings, is continuous and makes it effortless to walk wherever you are going to.
While Hong Kong is generally extremely walkable, the occasional lack of continuity in pedestrian networks is one of its drawbacks. The scale of facades and block sizes change for the worse towards the edges of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, and sometimes you end up in pedestrian dead ends where crossing a busy road is impossible due to the obstructive fences and lack of pedestrian crossings. It is really frustrating to walk hundreds of meters backwards just to reach a place that was right across the street in the first place. I don’t see any planning-related argument for why some intersections should lack the pedestrian crossings. Luckily, the abundant elevated walkways make up for what is lost in sidewalk fabric continuity every now and then. However, using the walkways, you will sooner or later certainly find yourself inside one of the hundreds of high-end shopping malls. And they are all spaces knowingly designed to be difficult to navigate in and exit.
Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of Hong Kong is the key theme in another great book I found, Cities Without Ground (by the University of Hong Kong architecture professors Adam Frampton, Jonathan D. Solomon and Clara Wong), as hinted by its title. Hong Kong has been built on such a small land area, much of it infill land that used to be sea, gradually adding layers over time and constantly building upwards, that it sometimes truly lacks a distinguishable concept of ground. This might sound strange for a European city dweller but it is a clever and agreeable characterization of the spatial systems in some parts of the city. When you move from the metro station to the shopping mall on infill land passing through several levels of walkways and bridges that all extend to many directions, what is it that distinguishes one of those planes as the fundamental ground? All activities are naturally spread out within three-dimensional series of spaces connected to each other. Cities Without Ground makes an incredible effort in mapping these multilevel public walkways into comprehensive isometric visualizations.
As Hong Kong is one of the densest cities in the world, it is obviously impossible for most people to drive cars here. In fact, the modal share in Hong Kong (wikipedia: modal share/split is the percentage of travellers using a particular type of transportation) shows that 93% of trips in this city are made either by foot or public transportation. In comparison, in London that figure is 63%. According to this article, Hong Kong has “the greenest modal split of Urban Age cities in the developed world”. The exchange between different modes of transport and walking has been made extremely easy and efficient. In Cities Without Ground, it is described like this:
“It is not uncommon, as part of a daily commute, to take a bus to a ferry to a train to a taxi. Facilitated by elegant intermodal switches, such journeys, unthinkable elsewhere, are a hallmark of life in Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong is truly a unique place to take long walks and contemplate these fascinating theories. I’m really excited to utilize the inspiration of this city in my study assignments later on.
After a full week of exploring around Hong Kong, I have begun to form a general understanding of different neighbourhoods and how to get around easily. By walking extensively and exploring the superb metro system every day, I have managed to see a lot even in this short time!
First thing that becomes apparent to a person who arrives in Hong Kong during this season is the extreme heat and humidity. Temperatures rarely descend below 30°c and the continuous rainfall will make sure you never feel dry when walking outside. This hasn’t prevented me from exploring and frankly I’m already getting used to it. Luckily, one thing that Hong Kong really masters is air conditioning! All the indoor spaces, including public transit, are so cold and crisp that a more sensitive person might find it too drastic. Luckily, I just find it enjoyable.
Another aspect of Hong Kong life that is impossible to escape is the crowd. There are over seven million people confined in the relatively small area that is the urban parts of this city. There is no way to avoid some clashes every once in a while! In practical terms, e.g., walking on a crowded street with your umbrella requires some skills as there are hundreds of people doing the same around you at all times. You learn it quite fast, though. Another funny experience is that during rush hour you just sometimes have to let 1-3 trains pass in the metro station before you manage to jam yourself in there. It helps to observe the cool and calm locals just going about their mobile games until the next metro arrives.
Thirdly, as I anticipated throughout the process of applying and researching this place, Hong Kong truly is an impeccable exchange destination for an urban studies and planning student. It is an endless series of unimaginable hyper-urban street views that cater for all senses, be it day or night. Whether you look directly upwards, gaze into the distance or focus on your steps, there are narrow paths, high-rise buildings, unusual urban design solutions, glowing neon signs, endless rows of restaurants, street market stalls, electronics repair workshops, basketball courts, lush green hills, and all sorts of elements imaginable. In other words, Hong Kong is so diverse that its awe and dynamic vibe are inescapable at all times.
Orientation Week at the CityU
My experience of the bureaucracy and different administrative aspects of studying in CityU is somewhat mixed. On the one hand, organizing your studies-related things here on the campus is usually very easy, people are placed in clear lines with adequate information, staff are helpful and it feels both pleasant and efficient. On the other hand, I have really struggled with the various web-based platforms that are used to provide information, complete course registration etc. Often it has felt like the way we are required to handle our courses is unnecessarily complicated. Oh well, I guess these problems are not entirely unfamiliar in the context of Finnish universities either.
First thing I did after arriving in the campus area was to register to get my dormitory room. Getting my room was a pleasant experience as it turned out to be a little bit bigger than I anticipated. I live on the 11th floor with a window facing directly to a lush and green hill at the Northern edge of Kowloon. It is a wonderful way to live: to see nature from your room but to be right next to all the urban amenities. Kind of like living in Helsinki, isn’t it, hahah!
I share my room with a Belgian exchange student Julien who is studying engineering. He is a really nice guy and our campus life here has started truly well! We both have a wardrobe closet, individual bed, desk and a shelf. All of my things fit in them really well. Only a bare mattress is provided, so I had to go to Ikea to buy some bed sheets, blanket and a pillow. Unfortunately, probably the only indoor spaces that aren’t automatically air-conditioned in this city are these student dorm rooms. We have to use a machine downstairs to buy AC credit but luckily it is not too expensive.
The orientation week was nicely organized as it consisted of 1–2 events per day and, thus, left a lot of free time to explore the city on your own. The orientation included a handing out of a couple of welcome packages, campus and library tours, Ikea shopping tour (I went on my own), official enrolling to the courses, getting a student ID, lecture about security in Hong Kong (by the way, it is a very safe city), introductions to extra-curricular activities and so on. There was a so-called ice-breaking party for new exchange students where I got to know some people. I was also delighted to get a really cool tote bag! CityU seems like a very active university that provides a lot of possibilities to work, take up hobbies and get to know other people through several programs in the contexts of sports, voluntary work, study groups, student dorm hall communities and others.
Getting to Know the City
I have already done one Erasmus exchange in Budapest during my BA studies. One thing I learned from that experience is, despite how fun it was, it is worth to strive to find local people to hang out with. In my previous exchange I probably hung out with local people and other exchange students 50-50% but this time I want to tip the ratio slightly more towards to the local side. Of course I have already made many exchange student friends, have had really fun time with them and plan to do more of that! Still, my main mission this time is to understand Hongkongese and their fascinating culture between Chinese and British influences and at the forefront of global urbanization. As I planned, I have spent a lot of time with my local friends who I got to know originally through Couchsurfing. Through them, I have also met other locals and had some wonderful experiences.
Our campus is situated in Northern Kowloon right next to the metro stop Kowloon Tong. This means that we are within walking distance (~2km) from Sham Shui Po, a neighbourhood which I have grown very fond of. My local friend Hilary took me there during my first days to buy some items I needed. I got myself a local sim card for mobile internet access and an extension cord with European sockets for my electronic appliances. Since then, I have gone back to Sham Shui Po with many friends as well as by myself to take in the atmosphere and buy some items.
I fell immediately in love with Sham Shui Po. It is the Hong Kong of movies and our shared imaginations: neon signs, bustling streets, electronic and vegetable markets, street food, historical buildings, and active street life. It is the most local of the neighbourhoods in Hong Kong with no bank towers, shopping malls or Gucci stores. However, some parts of it are gentrifying and you can find art galleries, artisan coffee shops, and young creative people setting up new spaces to fulfill their passions. In other words, just my kind of hoods!
One of the most interesting aspects of exchange in Hong Kong is the variety of different foods I get to try. My diet is based on vegetarian and vegan food but I allow myself to eat seafood. Here especially it is a thing worth doing as Hongkongese cuisine is all about shrimp, fish and other sea creatures. The weirdest thing I had in my soup must have been fish bladder! Luckily, veggie restaurants are common too and there are a lot of different cuisines available, notably Indian and Pakistani places.
Perhaps the thing I love most about Chinese food culture is sharing. I used to be the kind of person who prefers to have their own portion but visiting China last Spring totally changed my perception of what eating together can be. I find it delightful that groups of friends order several pots of different foods and then grab bites of each to eat from their own bowl, all the while making conversation and sharing the moment together. This is what I did with my local friends in Sham Shui Po one evening.
By the way, if you come here on an exchange it is really useful to learn to use chopsticks in advance if you haven’t already!
After the dinner, we decided to go play mahjong, a traditional Chinese board game. We went to one of my friend’s home where her mom accompanied us. Mahjong has a very important place in Chinese traditions and there are countless different rules to it depending on the region. From my perspective, one aspect that seems to be common to all of them is that it is incredibly hard to understand at first, hahah. I’m glad to say that after a few hours of playing, I managed to somewhat grasp the logic of it and memorize almost each tile! It was a fantastic experience to visit a local home and get a glimpse of the culture by playing this popular game with them.
I have also explored several other places in Kowloon, Hong Kong Island and New Territories. While Sham Shui Po and other neighbourhoods in Kowloon have proved to be great places to live and spend time in, the other spots are truly awe-inspiring as well.
One of the most memorable places I visited so far was in Soho, HK Island, where we went to see an outdoor documentary screening with my friends. The film was about a mission of a local urban activist group called Central Western Concern Group. They are local citizens who wanted to protest the plans of demolishing an early-modern administrative building and other low-efficiency lots in the neighbourhood they lived in. The city had plans to intensify the land use and replace some of the existing buildings and lots by luxury apartment towers. CWC Group ended up winning the case and the building now hosts PMQ, a creative center for artists, designers and small brands to work in and sell their products. PMQ was a really cool place where you could spend a whole day without getting bored.
It was a truly fascinating experience to learn about this local activism by taking part in their pop-up screening event on a public stairway next to a vintage shop, reclaiming the street for this communal event – an act of local activism in itself!
Becoming Street Smart
Not to give too rosy a picture, I should share the only negative experience I have had so far. One of the first nights I decided to go for an evening walk and get something to eat at a local restaurant. I strolled to Sham Shui Po and picked one of the hundreds of places along the streets. These local eateries often display information and deal with customers only in Cantonese. I had my local friend send me a phrase saying “May I have something vegetarian or seafood, please”. The food was acceptable and pretty good but, to my disappointment after a successful order, I realized they tried to charge me way too much. I asked the waitress to point out the dishes in the Cantonese menu but obviously she couldn’t because what they were asking me was not there. I ended up haggling the price down just a notch but still getting totally screwed over.
It was a depressing moment for sure to have all that excitement and positive anticipation taken down by an experience of not being respected. However, you can learn from your mistakes. What I immediately decided after that moment was that I was going to a Cantonese class!
When you want to explore places and situations outside the easiest options, these things are bound to happen to you. Still, it’s just money and the experience will only annoy you for a brief moment. Despite what happened to me that night, I’m really happy I went there instead of a more “Western-friendly” place. Now I’m more street smart and better able to tackle situations I’m in. Besides that, I haven’t encountered any attempts to fool me anywhere else.
If you read this and are planning to go or currently are on an exchange, I urge you to get out of your comfort zone and dive deep into the local places. There’s nothing better than that!
Uni Stuff Finally Begins
I have had now a one and a half weeks of what feels like a vacation in a new city. Tomorrow my classes will begin and I couldn’t be more excited about it! It is slowly but surely sinking in that my daily life for the next few months will be based here in Hong Kong and I am not just on a short trip. Never did I feel it more strongly than yesterday when we climbed up the Garden Hill of Sham Shui Po with my friend Hilary.
Thanks for strolling through this mammoth of a blog post. I will write more about the courses and my studies next weekend.
I am Jalmari, a master’s student in Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Helsinki, and I will spend this Autumn semester in Hong Kong. This blog is about my student life here.
Some of my posts will be included in the blog of the exchange services of the University of Helsinki. For this reason, I decided to write in English in order to provide some information about exchange studies for the international student community in my home university.
Preparing for the Exchange
Getting ready for an exchange can be a long, complicated and somewhat exhausting process. I did an Erasmus during my BA studies, so I knew what to expect to some extent. Thankfully, the website of the Uni Helsinki had excellent detailed information about different phases of the application process. While the systems and formalities of my exchange university CityU (The City University of Hong Kong) were confusing at times, I managed to pull everything off in time and got the student visa as well as really interesting courses!
Getting ready for an exchange is much more than just the paperwork, though. It’s mostly pure anticipation and excitement! And it was really easy to get excited about Hong Kong, especially from a perspective of an urban planning student.
Based on my experience, I would recommend these ways to get acquinted with the exchange destination prior to leaving:
Couchsurfing. I am currently writing this post sitting on a couch in a flat in Hong Kong Island. I just arrived here an hour ago and the first thing I got to do was to meet a local, take a shower and stay at his place.
I have used Couchsurfing a lot during my travels and hosted people in Helsinki, too. I have found it to be a perfect tool to immerse yourself in the local culture and make new friends! About a month ago I posted an open request to Hong Kong user community that I need a couch for one night before I get my room in the university dormitory. I got five replies from different people who offered to host me, help me buy a phone card, take me to a history exhibition of the public housing estate, explore the city together etc. Oh, and I have a dinner date with a group of locals next Friday. I sincerely recommend using Couchsurfing to kickstart your experience the right way and avoid being entirely sucked into the exchange student bubble!
Videos. I also read articles and listened to podcasts and audiobooks about Hong Kong but you can really find a lot of captivating video material about this city. I had really good luck as one of my favourite video channels Vox Borders put out a 5-episode miniseries about Hong Kong just this summer. See it here!
Guidebooks. I found a great CITIx60 City Guide about Hong Kong that details the favourite places and off-the-beaten-track tips from 60 local creatives. It is really useful to have a small guidebook full of information about cultural spots, art centers, live music venues, independent shops, cafes and restaurants etc. to get you started once you arrive. Now I have a long list of places to explore without having to dig them up separately.
Nerd alert! One thing I like to do whenever I go anywhere is to set up a personal map in Google’s My Maps service. It is basically a way to geographically bookmark and organize the places you know of and want to visit. Your personal map of interests is also a great tool to help you form an understanding of the geography, how different neighbourhoods are situated in the city and where various functions are located within them. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to make my Hong Kong map yet but I will start filling it gradually here.
Making the Trip
Finally it was time to go to the airport and start my exchange! I chose a flight that had a lengthy layover in Doha, Qatar. It was also among the cheapest alternatives but I wanted to use that chance to visit a new place for me as well as get a chance to walk around between the long flights. I had time to explore Doha from late afternoon to early morning. I ended up wandering around the Souq Waqif bazaar and eating some really tasty Syrian food. After a few hours of walking in 39° C, I took the bus back to the airport.
Arriving in Hong Kong
When my plane landed it was 30° C outside and raining heavily. I took the public transportation to my host’s place in Hong Kong Island but unfortunately got totally soaked during the 100-meter walk from the metro exit to the hallway of his building. Still, it was kind of cool to experience a rain that warm, definitely different to even summer rains in Finland. When I tried to find the flat entrance, people were really helpful and came up to me to help with directions.
Finding your way in the Hong Kong metro was really easy because there were clear signs all over. I already bought the Octopus card which is used in the public transportation but I still have to find out how to get a student discount linked to it. Tomorrow morning I will go to my university by two different metro lines than the ones today. I will check in to my student dormitory and then participate in the activities of the first day of the orientation week. It will be so amazing to see this city in daylight for the first time!
Now I will enjoy this comfy couch that I have as my place for tonight. It has begun.