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.
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.
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.