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.
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.