Reflections on Hong Kong from Five Miles Up

I don’t much like long haul flights. The seats aren’t built for sleep, there is too much noise, the entertainment screen – good as it is on Virgin planes – is too close to my face, and you never quite know what time it is. The food, whilst palatable, sits on one’s stomach and disrupts the body clock. And if the flight doesn’t get to you, the waiting around for hours in airport queues probably will.

Is it worth all of this disruption to one’s bodily routines?

If there was another way to travel the world that overcame these drawbacks, I’d do it. Until that happens (I’m  thinking Star Trek transporter system) we’ll just have to make do.

Because the pain is definitely worth it. Our trip to Hong Kong has been something else.

As I reflect back on the last few days, I realise that our initial apprehension as we first experienced the city’s frenetic lifestyle and energy, its multiculturalism and its diversity, has turned into admiration for a new-found friend. Hong Kong grows on you.

It’s a city in which you soon begin to feel at home. The people  are unfailingly polite and helpful, such as when an elderly gentleman stopped to help us work the ticket machine on the  MTR underground platform in the middle of rush hour, or when the lady on duty at Nan Lian Gardens welcomed us to the park, told us about the layout, and made us feel special.

Our visit to the Gardens was earlier today (or was it yesterday? I’m writing this in mid-air). Sitting a little way out of the city centre right next to the Diamond Hill MTR station, itself underneath the Hollywood Plaza shopping centre, the Gardens are superb. Relatively recent, they are laid out in 1,200 year-old Tang Dynasty style with typical Chinese flair. A line of Banyan trees, with their amazing exposed root systems, leads to quiet pathways, delightful greenery and typically Chinese buildings constructed of beautiful redwood, including a gold pagoda at the centre, striking against the backdrop of residential towers that frame it in the distance.

Nan Lian Gardens

Nan Lian Gardens

Above the Gardens lies the Chi Lin Nunnery, a Buddhist temple set out around a wide ornate courtyard. There is a service taking place and the sounds of passages being read out to the accompaniment of Buddhist bells mixes with the scent of incense.

And yet, only yards away, busy flyovers carry traffic through the city, whilst every view contains an image of the ever-present skyscrapers towering over the scene. It’s another example of the conjunction of old and new, East and West, that makes Hong Kong so fascinating. It’s claim to be ‘Asia’s World City’ seems fully justified to this not-so-seasoned traveller.

The Chinese are obviously pleased to have got their city back. The reunification was 18 years ago, and the agreement signed by Mrs Thatcher at that time stipulated that the new ‘SAR’ – Special Administrative Region – would remain unaltered, with its own separate legal systems and democratic processes, for at least another 50 years. That doesn’t seem so long now we’re a third of the way through it.

Earlier we had visited the Hong Kong History Museum on Chatham Road South. Through a series of large halls the story of the area is told, from the formation of the rocks on which the city is built (mostly volcanic granite) to the earliest tribes, the rise of agriculture and Chinese traditions, cultures and beliefs, through to the Opium Wars, the Cessation of Hong Kong, the creation of the banking systems (especially the good old Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation, whose Head Office stands proudly overlooking the Harbour, and which is responsible for printing and supervising the local currency, the HK Dollar), the Japanese occupation during WW2, and finally to the handover in 1997. It’s all handled in an open and informative way, with apparent balance. That is, until the final audiovisual presentation which sums up in a few minutes the story of the SAR. The emphasis is heavily on the return of the Region to the fold, with the Brits cast as the interlopers and no recognition of the obvious benefits they’ve brought over the course of their 150 year tenureship.

Local elections are in train during our visit, with lots of posters showing headshots of the local candidates. Yet this week an item appears on BBC News reporting that the owner and three staff of a bookshop In Causeway Bay have mysteriously disappeared simultaneously. The shop was known for publishing texts critical of the Chinese Government and its leaders, and was popular with visitors from the mainland where those same books are banned from sale.

China has itself changed significantly in recent years, but by Western standards it has a long way to go in areas of free speech and personal liberty. Let’s hope that Hong Kong can remain the truly international jewel that we have so enjoyed during this last two weeks for many years to come. It’s been a great trip.

Breaking The Dragon’s Back

It’s oppressively hot, the humidity making us feel even warmer as well as perpetually damp as we fail to evaporate our sweat. The trail is well-used and clearly defined but quite demanding as we pick our way across rocks and boulders. As we face a 45 degree climb up the next rise we stop to catch our breath in the heavy air.

We’re on the Dragon’s Back, one of Hong Kong’s most famous trails. It’s popular on a Saturday afternoon, with plenty of locals as well as tourists taking the hike with us, some dressed in serious hiking gear and others in shorts and flip-flops. We’re pleased we’ve donned our walking shoes though.

It seemed an arduous journey to get here. Instead of opting for the highly efficient MTR underground service to the far end of Hong Kong, we decided on the scenic route of Star Ferry across the harbour, then the ancient but busy tramline all the way to its terminus at Shau Kei Wan. You board the trams at the rear and pay on exit, and at busy times (i.e., always) you’ll have to stand as people get off at each stop, gradually moving through the vehicle. Our persistence pays off as we eventually find seats at the back of the upper deck, with great views of the street scene. As everywhere on the island, high tech business towers mix with densely packed residential blocks, the latter displaying drying laundry at every other balcony. A walk along the street here seems as likely to result in being rained on by other people’s underwear as by the regular precipitation, although both have held off for us up to now.

We’re already feeling stiff as we emerge from the tram, it’s a rickety ride and the seats are hard. We walk around the block and eventually ask a minibus driver where we can find the number 9 bus. He guides us to the next street, where we find the bus station and a long queue already formed for our bus to Shek O, Hong Kong’s beachside ‘resort’. We climb aboard and look out for our stop as detailed in our Pocket Rough Guide (very helpful and highly recommended). Most buses have a display board showing progress, but this one was obviously broken so I ask the young man sitting next to me if we’re at the Dragon’s Back stop as he and his party get up to leave. ‘Yes, yes, this is it’ he tells us, and indeed when we alight we find a wooden sign pointing to the Dragon’s Back trail. Something doesn’t feel right, though, so we study the helpful maps displayed on boards a few yards up the path. After working out that this map shows South at the top (not always obvious) we realise that we’re at the wrong end of the trail. The intended route would have involved turning right at the ‘end’ and walking down to Big Wave Bay for a welcome drink, but going this way means we’ll either have to retrace our steps or catch the bus back at the other end.

So we return to the road and wait for the next No 9 to arrive. Fortunately they are every few minutes, so before long we’re at the ‘proper’ end of the trail and making our way up through the undergrowth.

As we get higher the views become more rewarding. There’s a lot of cloud about today and it’s nowhere near as warm as it could be – we wouldn’t fancy doing this walk in midsummer – and the top of Victoria Peak in the near distance is intermittently shrouded in cloud. Further away to the west are the islands of Lamma and Lantau, whilst as we get even higher the east coast comes into the picture too. At one point we reach the top of a rise to find a panoramic view of Shek O, with its beach, golf course, and executive homes directly below. It’s a great sight.

We understand how the Dragon’s Back got its name as the trail is displayed before us, rising and falling over successive peaks like travelling along the spine of a huge reptile. We stop to enjoy our sandwiches on a bench looking out to sea. As we do so a hang glider soars past for the third time, its pilot obviously highly skilled in riding the updrafts as he serenely criss-crosses only a few yards away.

Walking the Spine of the Dragon

Walking the Spine of the Dragon

Eventually the trail drops down onto the steep slopes of the hillside, it’s well-trodden route offering lots of opportunities for twisted ankles. It doesn’t slow down several runners, though, obviously much fitter and braver than us.

Finally we get back to our ‘starting’ point, and turn right under the trees heading for the beach. Our legs are getting tired now and the light is starting to fail. The concrete road is level for a good way offering easy walking, but halfway along the trail suddenly turns at right angles down a steep path, regular steps cut into the stone. It’s hard work going constantly downwards, jarring bones on some of the deeper drops.

The town still looks a good distance away, but suddenly we’re there, emerging alongside homes and next to a children’s playground. We buy cold Coke from the stall by the beach and guzzle it down, grateful for the refreshment after our exertions.

Big Wave Bay is lovely, with golden sand leading out to the sea. It’s obviously a mecca for surfers, and there are many of them out among the waves. It’s getting late in the day but this place is worth another visit.

After a few minutes enjoying the view we catch the minibus that’s just leaving the car park, which drops us right next to Shau Kei Wan MTR station. This time we opt for the quick way home.

Except we don’t stop at Tsim Sha Tsui and our hotel, but carry on to Yau Ma Tei, two stops further on up Nathan Road and next to the Temple Street Night Market. We’ve got some bargaining to do, but that’s a story for another time.

People, People Everywhere…..

One of the characteristics of Hong Kong that most people have mentioned is that it’s full of people. As one of the most densely populated places in the world, that’s certainly true.

Walking down busy Nathan Road, adjacent to our hotel, we’re constantly changing direction, stopping and sidestepping as one does on busy streets. I’m reminded of one of James Herriot’s stories where farmer Arnold Summergill describes one of his rare visits to the local town and why he couldn’t walk on the street. There were too many people about, he said, and he’d had to take ‘big steps and little ‘uns’ and couldn’t get going. ‘Big steps and little ‘uns’ well describes progress here.

It gets far worse, though. We took the MTR underground train last night during rush hour, feeling like fish in a massive moving shoal as we swept with the tide towards our destination. Getting on the wrong side of the people stream can be risky, because having to cross to regain your direction of travel requires bravery and focus. Once across, though, you go with the flow once again until the next change of direction. Just have your ticket ready for the exit barriers.

And then there’s a different kind of crowd as we meander through the Ladies Market. This kilometre-long row of stalls is jammed into the street, with narrow walkways through which we thread carefully. It’s effectively a six-lane market, with two sides to each row of stalls plus the adjacent shops on either side, many of them open-fronted. Here you can buy formal wear, casual wear, outerwear, underwear, rainwear, footwear and sportswear, and a massive range of goods, bags, trinkets, beauty products,,, the list goes on.

Hong Kong Ladies Market

Ladies Market

It’s been markets day today. We started at the Flower Market, a street full of cut flowers, garden products, and shrubs, offering a colourful spectacle and delightful scents. At the end of Flower Market Street is the Bird Market, an area full of semi-permanent stalls selling a vast array of cage birds, from parrots to finches and everything in between, as well as all of the paraphernalia you need to keep your bird, including cages and stands, trinkets and food.

In the latter category it’s possible to buy not only bags of assorted seeds, but also live bird food in the form of bags of crickets and beetles. Apparently the crickets are fed to the hungry bird using chopsticks, an implement we haven’t yet mastered. Perhaps we ought to practice a bit more if we’re to avoid a nasty accident with the cricket supply.

But Hong Kong isn’t all surging crowds. Like all great cities, there are many small oases of calm dotted around. Street gardens and parks offer shaded sitting areas, many of them in delightful surroundings. The Bird Market itself is an unflustered area of calm despite the accompanying trill of thousands of tiny finches. On our return journey we stop in at the Tin Hau Temple, it’s interior a place for quiet reflection like any religious house. Here, it’s the nose and eyes that are assaulted by the constant burning of incense, obviously an important part of the ritual of worship.

Hong Kong Bird Market

Bird Market

We eventually retreat to our hotel to spend some time by the pool. Nine floors up, we’re untroubled by the hustle and bustle below. The peace and quiet is welcome.

View From The Peak

Sitting in Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, the restaurant themed around Tom Hanks’ famous film character Forrest Gump, being served by Chinese staff whilst watching the Darts Championship on the TV, is a reminder of the multicultural nature of this great city. I may be wrong, but I’m not sure that the staff really appreciated the significance of each diner’s table top sign instructing them to ‘Run Forrest, Run’ or ‘Stop Forrest, Stop’ when service was required, even with the film constantly repeating itself on a monitor on the wall. Highly attentive service is a feature, we had discovered, of this part of the world and the signs almost seemed to get in the way of that.

To recap, we’re in the Sky Terrace 428, a shopping mall near the top of Victoria Peak, 428 metres above sea level in Hong Kong. Above us is the viewing platform that any tourist worthy of the name has to visit, including us. Below, shimmering in the darkness like a massive fairground, are the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, Kowloon and beyond, a superb accompaniment to our chosen dish of multiple types of shrimp in batter.

Getting up here is either a demanding climb up the hillside in the clinging humidity, or the easy option of the famous Peak Tram. This ancient funicular railway, the first ever built in Asia during the reign of Queen Victoria after whom the area draws its name,  charges up the hillside at an oblique angle, rising over 1,300 feet in less than a mile and around 8 minutes. We choose the easy option. The orientation of the seats makes it seem that the adjacent towers are leaning heavily to one side as you ascend, a weird feeling. It’s a popular trip, and the carriages are packed with people both ways.

The views from the Sky Terrace are well worth it, though. From Happy Valley, just out of sight to the east, to the islands lying to the west, it’s a fabulous panorama of high rise towers, boats, sea and mountains. It’s one of those views you have to experience to appreciate.

We’d travelled up in daytime, but night falls quickly here and before you know it, it’s dark. The city transforms below you as the lights flicker on, and I reckon the guidebook is right when it says that this is a view you never tire of, because it’s constantly changing.

We were thinking of walking back down through the forest, but we change our minds in the dark and ride the tram back to Central. From there it’s a short walk to the financial centre, with it’s massive buildings and harbour-facing illuminations jockeying to show how rich, powerful and important are the owning institutions. Pride of place has to go to HSBC’s massive block, looking like a giant elongated toaster. Apparently having an unrestricted view of the water the building has great ‘feng shui’, an important consideration in HK, which guarantees it future prosperity. So if you want to bring down the bank, you just need to build something else in front of it. You might have trouble with planning permission, though.

We’re soon back to sea level on the famous Star Ferry for it’s short but dramatic trip across the Harbour to our hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui after a great introduction to the city.

First time in Hong Kong

Lying on a sun lounger overlooking the 8th floor swimming pool, surrounded by the mix of old and new buildings that is modern Hong Kong, it’s gratifying to know that we made it. A visit to this city has been high on my to-do list for years, and now we are here.

We’ve promised ourselves a lazy day today after the 30 hour stint yesterday. We slept on the plane, of course, if you can call it sleeping. ‘Birthday Girl’, Virgin’s first Boeing Dreamliner acquired last year, gave us an impressively smooth ride in its climate and light-controlled cabin (no window blinds, the glass automatically adjusts the light to reflect the passengers’ perceived time zone) but the very nature of the beast doesn’t lend itself to deep sleep. Apart from which, what actual time is it? I’ve suddenly lost track.

The efficient Airport Express train brings us to Kowloon Station from where we catch the free Shuttle Bus that delivers us right into the bowels of our hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui (the dual language onboard information TV helpfully tells us how to pronounce it. For Tsui think Choy rather than Suey).

We’ve been told about the charms of Asian customer service, and here is the evidence of it. Kit, the diminutive but extremely helpful Guest Services Officer, takes us to our room from checkin and points out the aircon, the mini-bar, the lighting, and the view.

And boy, what a view. It’s turned to night in the short time since we left the bus, and Hong Kong is ablaze with lights. We’re looking directly over Victoria Harbour, and it’s magnificent. Colours sparkle and change as we watch, boats ploughing across the scene before us. It invites further exploration.

Hong Kong from our hotel

Hong Kong from our hotel

We opt for the Chinese Restaurant within the hotel for our evening meal, and ponder over the extensive choice of options with fascination and some trepidation. With delicacies quite unlike our local Cantonese restaurant on offer, we’re not entirely sure what we’re going to get. However the pork and ginger noodles are excellent, and the accompanying asparagus shoots are delightfully crisp and tasty.

And now it’s Monday morning, the sun is shining, it’s comfortably warm and the city is beckoning. We’ll take our time to adjust today, but this place promises to be everything we’d hoped and much more.

Let’s get started!