Letters to Liona: Hello from Hong Kong!

Liona is my 9-year-old niece. She lives in rural Wisconsin where I grew up, and like a lot of starry-eyed country kids, she's fascinated by cities and dreams about traveling and seeing the world. I wanted to find a way to share my journey with Liona and give her a little snapshot of what life is like in different places, so I've decided to write her a letter each month. Thought you might enjoy following along, too.

Dear Liona,

Hello from the bright lights and big city of Hong Kong! Hong Kong is on the southeast coast of China, and its name means "fragrant harbor" in Chinese. It used to be a British colony, and still has some "British-ness" — so it feels a little like a mix of China and Europe. This bustling city is one of the world's busiest ports, with ships carrying all kinds of things between Asia and the rest of the world. A lot of big companies have offices here, and there are a huge number of different-colored skyscrapers lined up right along the ocean.

Hong Kong is actually made up of a peninsula (called Kowloon peninsula), and more than 250 islands(!).

I went up a restaurant on the 118th floor of the world's highest hotel, the Ritz-Carlton, and the view was really amazing. You can see some of the smaller islands in the distance, and boats going in and out of the harbor:

Some parts of Hong Kong are really busy and crowded...

...but other parts, like this tropical island, are very green and quiet and don't have many people.

It seems like there's always a lot of construction going on in Hong Kong, and many new buildings being built. Instead of using wood or metal to create the framework for a building here, they use bamboo. Even the tallest, fanciest skyscrapers begin with a bamboo scaffolding, or frame. Can you see the guy climbing up and working on the scaffolding below?

I'm staying here — in a part of Hong Kong called the New Territories — with my good friends Wendy and Tad. They're both Americans who moved to Hong Kong to live and work.

Wendy and Tad live in an apartment building on the side of a hill (Hong Kong is VERY hilly!). In order to get to their house from the street, you need to walk up four staircases and 97 steps.

Because there are so many people in Hong Kong, most of the houses and apartments are small (especially the kitchens). Here's Wendy in her tiny kitchen, which is smaller than some closets in America!

And, here's the view from the apartment, my temporary home in Hong Kong:

The weather here is really hot and humid. It's a tropical climate, and gets a lot of rain (especially now, which is the rainy season!). Sometimes it will be sunny one minute, and then pouring rain for the next 10 minutes...and then dry and sunny again. There are lots of beautiful flowers and plants that grow here, thanks to the wet weather.

This one, with bright red blossoms, is called the "flame tree" (one of my favorites!).

In the morning, I like to go for a run to explore the neighborhood. Here's my running path:

Along the path, I often see old people doing their morning exercises. This man was doing moves based on tai chi, an ancient Chinese martial art that looks kind of like a slow-motion version of karate.

On the streets and paths of Hong Kong you can also see...monkeys!! They're not shy, and they will definitely try to eat your garbage if you're not careful.

Hong Kong is part of China, but it also has some special freedoms and laws that make it different from the rest of China. Hong Kong has its own flag (below, on the left). The flag of China is flown next to it, on the right.

The languages spoken in Hong Kong are English and Cantonese. Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese and also uses characters that are based on pictures — just like Mandarin (which, you probably remember, is the language spoken in Chengdu and the rest of China).

Some of the characters are even the same...BUT, the spoken languages are different enough that Cantonese-speakers and Mandarin-speakers can't understand each other.

Because English is an official language along with Cantonese, lots of people here speak both languages. And many local signs are written in both English and Cantonese, which makes it much easier to find your way around.

Most people don't have cars in Hong Kong. They get around by using one of the many public transportation options, including bus, taxi, ferry, double-decker streetcar, and subway. The subway is a fast, crowded, and fun way to get to some of the most popular areas of the city.

Come on, let's hop on the subway and go exploring!

My friend Elizabeth is from Hong Kong, so she can show us the best places to go.

Take a look at this street in a busy neighborhood called Mong Kok. The crosswalks are wide enough to allow hundreds of people to cross the street at once!  

Along with all the big stores and shopping malls, there are also loads of tiny shops, and people selling things out of carts on the street corners. This woman has a little key-making business.

One of the most interesting things about Hong Kong is that there are different areas of the city known for selling a certain kind of thing. You can go to that area and find dozens (or even hundreds!) of shops selling whatever it is you're looking for.

For example, if you're looking for fabric to sew a dress, you can spend hours walking through the fabric market...

Or if you want to buy a pet fish, you can head over to the fish market!

I like the flower market the best. There are people here selling every kind of flower you can imagine...

...and little plants for your house or your garden...

...and bouquets of every color. So beautiful!

Are you hungry?

I'm hungry! I think it's time for lunch. 

Probably the most famous food in Hong Kong is called dim sum — dim sum is bite-sized portions of food, usually different kinds of dumplings, that are often served in bamboo steamer baskets like the one you see below. When you go to a dim sum restaurant, you can order ten or fifteen dishes and share them, which works great because they're small, and everyone gets to try many different delicious things. 

Here are some of the dim sum dishes I ate: berry-and-flower-petal jelly squares (in front), tofu-skin noodle rolls (in the steamer basket), and pork dumplings with spicy sauce (my favorite! on the right).

The chefs work together to make dim sum dumplings as quickly as possible: rolling out the dough, adding the filling, and then pinching them closed before they go in the steamer.

We ate a LOT of dim sum. Dim sum, yum!

Dim sum is so popular that you can find it all over the place in Hong Kong. Here are some huge steamer baskets full of dumplings being sold outside on the street.

There are loads of other interesting snacks, too! Here are just a few...including "sesame cod," "salt & lemon candy," and a lot of other things that I can't quite figure out. :)

Another popular snack here: food on sticks! 

If you're shopping for groceries, you might buy your meat at an outdoor shop like this, where you can choose what you want and then the butcher will wrap it up for you.

If you're feeling really adventurous, you can even buy some sea creatures for dinner.

Have you ever seen this fruit before? It's called a dragon fruit, and I think it looks so cool. The inside can be either pink or white, and it tastes like a cross between a kiwi and a pear.

Okay, now that we've got some food...let's go visit some of the islands!

To get to one of the islands, Lamma Island, we can take a ferry ride that lasts about half an hour. For people who live on Lamma Island and work in central Hong Kong, taking the ferry is how they go to work in the morning.

Lamma Island feels very peaceful, and is much quieter than downtown Hong Kong.

It also has a great swimming beach!

Next on our list: Lantau Island, the largest island in Hong Kong. To get there, we'll take a bus over a long bridge to Lantau.

Then, we can take a cable car up into the mountains! The view is spectacular.

From the cable car, you can also see another bridge that's being built to connect to Macau, a city in China. When it's finished, it will be one of the longest bridges in the world — more than 26 miles long!

Here on Lantau Island, it feels less like the city and more like the countryside: we found a cow waiting for our bus. Ha! There were also cows roaming around in the forest...

..and lying on the sand at the beach. :)

We found this small fishing village, where all the houses are built on stilts to keep them out of the water.

The village is called Tai O.

Near the shores of Tai O lives a rare species of pink dolphin. (I didn't even know there was such a thing as pink dolphins until I came to Hong Kong).

And...I was even lucky enough to see one! Can you spot his fin sticking up out of the water?

Cool, huh?!

Well, it's time to say goodbye to the islands and head back home for the night...

Thanks for letting me show you around this beautiful city! Goodnight from Hong Kong...