Continued from Part One…
OK if You Have an Expense Account
I tried to construct an argument that London isn’t a world-class city in my mind, but that’s plainly foolish. While I have already hemmed and hawed at the food, everything else is top class, including the Tube, historical sites, bars, parks, museums, arts scene etc. You can even walk into Westminster Abbey and hope to be invited to brunch with Will & Kate, if that’s what you desire. It won’t happen and you might pay 35 pounds, but try anyways.
Speaking of pounds, the ridiculous prices of everything from beer to train rides to scones makes London a tough travel destination for someone on a budget. Even with free accommodation with friends or randoms, you’re still going to struggle to not blow through your bank account. Which is OK, after all many of the world’s other great cities including Sydney and Paris are also ridiculously pricey.
The problem is that for such a premium, London didn’t reach the standards of these other great metropoli. It’s not an urban beach paradise like Sydney, with it’s perfect weather and athletic, laid-back Aussie culture. It lacks the food, wine and romantic ambiance of Paris. Indeed the ambiance, at least in the parts we stayed in, is defined by a tribute to British aristocracy and manners, as well as the civilizing effects of British colonialism exemplified by the remorseless pillaging celebration that is the British Museum.
Maybe it’s my New England upbringing, but kowtowing to the values of British royalty never was my cup of tea. Parts of London I loved, and maybe I was just hanging in the wrong hoods, but in order to make the top tier, you’re going to need to give me something more. Or at least something at a better price.
Surprisingly Liveable Cuisine Stars
Malaysian food, deserves its own comment, but let’s briefly state for the record that having both Indian and Chinese populations competing for local food kings fulfills my greatest culinary fetishes. While the KL certainly shares Singapore’s climate, for some reason the humidity did not feel quite as oppressive, perhaps because of KL’s inland location. Supposedly the traffic rivals other Asian capitals like Beijing, Bangkok and Manila, but I didn’t find that to be the case.
The cultural diversity of Malaysia is on full display in KL and drives the city up the rankings. Muslim prayer calls, cheap Chinese foot rubs and Sari shops ensure that there’s always something new and interesting going on in KL, even if you’re just watching people walk by. And with idlis for breakfast, laksa for lunch and congee for dinner, what more do you need?
Not so much diverse as filled to the brim with Cantonese people. Evidently Guangzhou does have pollution issues, which shouldn’t shock since Guangdong was the original China factory center, but the air smelled fine when I was there. What the city has going for it is a world class public transportation system, excellent parks and several town squares in downtown that are pedestrian focused. Oh yea and the food is spectacular- an array of various seafood dishes, the best dim sum in the world and of course, all sorts of weird stuff like dog hotpot and monkey brains, if you’re into that sort of thing.
As you can tell from the category, Guangzhou seemed more of a city you’d want to live in instead of visit from a tourist perspective. If you’re just traveling, I’d go to KL, Bangkok or even Chengdu instead. But ultimately I think being a good city to live in is more impressive than being a tourist destination. I’m looking for cities to settle down in, not cities to go out with, have a good time, puke on, then leave the next day without calling them back. Know what I mean?
The Cream of the Crop
Yes the pollution is terrible. Ok beyond terrible, but life-affecting, creating God knows how many future cancer patients and lung ailments over the next five generations. And it’s not just the air quality- you never know when you might walk down the street to see a pile of innards dumped onto the sidewalk.
But these are mere externalities, which you ultimately start to ignore once you’ve acclimated yourself to this spectacular city. The monuments and history are second to none, from the Great Wall and Forbidden City, to excellent secondary sites like the Lama Temple and Drum & Bell Towers, you feel as if you are living history. And its not just the tourist site, enough of the ancient Beijing hutongs alley neighborhoods have been maintained to give Beijing some Lao magic. As a visitor you can lose yourself in a hutong, dodging electric motorcycles, looking at anything and everything for sale at bargain prices, and watching old Chinese people exercise like they have for centuries.
And obviously, the food’s incredible, with every Chinese cuisine represented as well as a mix of high-end and low-end dining options. In particular the Xinjiang cuisine is off the charts good. But you can find pretty much any amazing Asian cuisine, including Chinese regional, Japanese, Korean you name it.
With great parks, cheap taxis, excellent public transportation and a perfect blend of old and new, Beijing is truly one of the world’s great cities.
Ok so I went to Paris when I was 13 with my parents and hated it. I was there in March. The weather sucked. My Mom somehow thought that my 9 year old brother and myself would be interested in French cuisine and art mueseums. This was not the case.
Now a much more mature lad (in some ways), I can confirm that Paris is not overhyped in the least, giving writers great and crappy multiple sources of information for their forlorn musings. The winding paved alleyways and delightful architecture. The scrumptious sweets and aromatic wines. The river dividing the city, perfect for strolls with the Eifel Tower peaking out of various corners. And even the art.
So yes Paris, I discovered I was wrong about you. Just like I discovered I was wrong about Game of Thrones, Tom Brady vs. Drew Bledsoe and dating vegetarians. And I’m glad I did.
There’s no reason to crown a champion amongst the top tier of cities. I’ll definitely be going back to all three. But HK just might be my favorite. It’s got a little bit of everything. Excellent nightlife and shopping for those who need action. International flavor provided by the huge ex-pat community. A weird combination of colonial and Cantonese cultures that leads to unique events like the scene at the Wednesday night horse races or the fervor over the Rugby Sevens tournament.
In addition to the mix of cultures, Hong Kong has rock solid fundamentals for a great city. The climate isn’t bad, although you need a high tolerance for humid weather. And for a city known for being densely populated, there’s a stunning amount of green space, hiking trails, beaches and woods and much more. Most of the residential area is crammed into to Kowloon and Hong Kong Island (which is in itself a fantastic bit of urban planning.) Walking around these provides great photo opportunities and incredible views as you marvel at how so many people are stacked on top of each other. But you can easily get away on to a hike, or take the ferry to one of the surrounding islands for a quiet stroll.
The public transportation is a dream, whisking the population around from one island to the next. The food is cheap and delcious, with tons of Cantonese classics like dumpling soup to go with top notch international cuisine. No wonder the Chinese wanted it back.