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.