Before starting our trip, we knew visas for Vietnam, China, and Russia could pose problems for us because we needed to apply for them abroad, and each of them “officially” stated travelers needed to apply from their home countries. At the time, I likened it to Michael Phelps winning his gold medals—nearly impossible but a great success if we pulled it off.

Well truth be told, Vietnam and China didn’t present any challenges. Heck, we got our Vietnam visa the same day we applied for it and our China visa in four days. However, Russia was still a huge question mark. Rules kept changing, but fellow travelers thought Americans might still be able to get one in Hong Kong. We left Bankok just before the rioting and arrived in Hong Kong during their Easter holiday (four days rather than one).

Wow. Hong Kong is unreal. I’ve never seen anything like it. We felt like the country bumpkins hitting the big city. On our bus ride into town, skyscrapers consumed the skyline with their flashing neon signs and lights. One of the prettiest bridges I’ve ever seen lit up the sky with red hues. We were in awe.

We realized a few months before coming that Hong Kong was really expensive, but it didn’t make sense to me until we arrived. Hong Kong is an ultra modern city; a far cry from the other cities in Asia we’ve visited. And, it’s got the retail space to prove it. Burberry, Coach, and Prada grace more than one high-end mall. No wonder we couldn’t afford this city; we couldn’t even afford the knock offs! And so, to save some money we decided to give couchsurfing.com a try (an online community of folks offering up their couches and folks looking for them). We heard about couchsurfing long before our trip, but I always thought we’d be the ones offering up a couch, not the other way around. Couchsurfing is a total stroke of genius; and if we have a couch to offer you bet we’ll have legions of weary travelers coming through (of course you can be selective).

For our first couchsurfing experience, we chose to write the most trusting and patient soul I’ve ever met, Sid. He garnered tons of praise from earlier surfers, so we thought he was a safe bet. But, get this—-he wasn’t even there for most of our stay. He opened his apartment freely to nine strangers (in the course of 6 days) without him being there. Who does that?!? Sid does; the most trusting person I know. For the most part, Sid runs a tight ship; there are signs posted around the apartment filling you in on the do’s and don’ts and intricacies of the apartment. But this is where I noticed some downfalls in the whole couchsurfing world, people don’t follow instructions. For the amount of people coming through Sid’s place, you’ve got to figure that one out of every five didn’t bother to read the instructions before starting the washer or throwing away trash. Admittedly, I don’t have the patience for folks using my space and not respecting the clearly provided instructions, but somehow Sid does. It’s truly remarkable.

In return for letting us crash a week at his pad, we ran some errands for him. He gave us four errands, but unfortunately we failed at two. Hong Kong (or any part of Asia for that matter) does not have one-stop shopping centers. Everyone serves their own little niche. Sid needed his bike’s flat tire repaired, his unicycle seat cut, a new pair of wrist guards, and more sawdust pellets for his composter. Easy enough, right?? Well, the flat tire and seat were simple enough; we just headed down the road to the local bike shop and hardware store. But, the wrist guards and pellets sent us on a tour of Hong Kong. Although totally unsuccessful, we did see lots of Hong Kong’s neighborhoods and gained great efficiency at navigating the city.

In search of wrist guards and pellets (and a new camera), we took ferries from Kowloon and Hong Kong Island; we rode the longest elevated escalator; we whipped around on the mass transit rail to the neighborhoods of Mong Kok, Tsui Sim, Tai Po (where Sid lives), and Kwun Tong; and we entered countless bike shops, pet stalls (sometimes the sawdust is sold as cat litter), and camera stores. Why can’t there be a Target?!?

In between our shopping, we ventured toward the flower and bird markets. Bursting with floral beauty, the flower market buzzed with activity. We visited the day before Easter and thousands of lilies, dahlias, and roses were for sale at jaw dropping prices. I think they sold a dozen roses for US$2!!

Winding our way through the flower market, we found ourselves in the bird market. Everything a bird needs could be bought here. Birds were stacked high on top of each other, surrounded by beautiful bird cages and seed. There was a little area offering up live insects and a showing-off area for the parrots.

We spent some of our time with fellow couchsurfers, tagging along with them and their friends from Hong Kong. On one of our nights out, they took us to what must be the best deal in town—all the beer you can drink for US$3. This is normally the price of one beer in Hong Kong, so it was a great deal. Granted, the place is above some swimming complex but what does that matter when you’re sharing beers? On another day, we headed to the horse races. I really wanted to bet on our last race; there was a longshot horse with a payout of US$170 for every $1 bet. Chris wouldn’t allow it though and things got tense when the horse carried the lead through most of the race. Luckily for Chris, the horse didn’t place.

Ok, so back to the Russian visa. On our first day in Hong Kong we made our way to the Russian embassy. We can’t say things went exactly smoothly that day. We were both on edge, and the application for Americans is two pages long. They asked all sorts of questions like all the countries we’ve visited in the last 10 years and the last two jobs before our current one. Holy cow, we can’t list all the countries in that small of space and who knows where we worked before Disney and PATH. We can’t deal with this kind of pressure!! The Russian consulars were old hands with jittery foreigners though and eventually put us at ease. I think they got a little weary of our questions though because on our last walk to the window, the receptionist just grabbed all our paperwork and led us through step by step. Once everything was completed to satisfaction, she asked whether we wanted next day or seven day service. Who knew such a question would cause such confusion, but it did. The price of next day was double that of seven day, but I thought that was our best option. Mr. Penny Pincher, of course, disagreed.

And thus, our first fight on this trip occurred in the Russian consulate right in front of the very people judging our applications. Not the best timing.

In the end, our little skirmish had no effect on our worthiness to enter Russia, and I’m happy to report we pulled off the trifecta of all visa coordination. We obtained our Russian, China, and Vietnam visas overseas! Oh and yes, Chris was right—seven days in Hong Kong wasn’t too long.

One Response to “The Hong Kong experiment”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    The real miracle isn’t that you successfully couchsurfed or go your Russia visa abroad — it’s that you managed to fend off your first fight of the trip for nearly eight months! Seriously?!