East Meets West
In my mind I somehow pictured Hong Kong as this large flat city separated from the mainland of China by a body of water. So I was surprised to realize that the landscape of Hong Kong island is fairly hilly to mountainous with steep slopes. The part of Hong Kong city that is on the island is squished between a slope and area that they have claimed from the sea. Across Victoria Harbor (one of the deepest maritime ports in the world) lies Kowloon, a continuation of Hong Kong where the Chinese influence is much more prevalent. English influence is apparent with shopping areas dominated by British and American stores and MTR (subway) stops with names such as Forest Hill, Admiralty, and Causeway Bay.
Travel around Hong Kong is as simple as everyone I talked to before going purported it to be, even when weary from over 24 hours of travel. The tricky part is knowing which way you are headed when exiting the subway otherwise you may get trampled by a flood of Hong Kongers that are briskly going to their next destination. Signage (when you can find it) is in Chinese and English, and signposts on corners often direct you to nearly attractions.
Fitting Hong Kong’s almost 8.7 million inhabitants into a relatively small area requires that the city be dominated by extremely tall buildings, giving the city a 3D perspective. The variety of architecture demonstrates a competition of creating the most fantastic and tallest buildings possible. At night, the cityscape is one of the most fantastic, a vibrant symphony of colors in neon lights.
My two days in Hong Kong were filled with an attempt to see as many of the sights as possible. Only two things prevented me from achieving seeing all the sights that I wanted to. One was the weather and the other was my ability to find the longest queues possible.
Several of the attractions promise spectacular views of the city or island. I’m sure on a clear day this is true; however, I did not have such luck. The weather oscillated between foggy and rainy, another adoption of British influence. Often the tops of the tallest buildings were lost in the fog. Even my 23rd story window in my hotel was obscured with fog on several occasions.
My first stop was Kowloon and the Avenue of Stars. On the way I found myself wandering through Kowloon park, an oasis of green in a concrete jungle. The park was filled with interesting sculptures and people exercising. One lovely old lady on one of the pieces of equipment smiled at me broadly and waved. Ambling through the park in no rush to be anywhere specific, I took in the peacefulness among a bustling city.
The Avenue of the Stars is everything it promised to be. A variety of sculptures, polished by thousands of visitors posing for pictures. If you are up on your Chinese movie stars, the impressions of handprints in the concrete might have been more interesting. As I am not, I headed for the ever popular statue of Bruce Lee, the only sculpture with a barricade. Surrounded by tourists posing with the sculpture, often mimicking the famous Bruce Lee pose, it was difficult to actually get a solo picture.
The second destination was the Big Buddha located high on Lantau island. Tourists have two options to get there. One is a cable car that takes you up and over the steep hills, the other is a bus ride that my guidebook purported took an hour. Despite my general dislike of cable cars, I choose this option. So I queued up with all the other tourists assuming the queue wasn’t too bad, just a few switchbacks, across a bridge and I would be there. Unfortunately, this was not the case. After 45 minutes I was almost up the bridge. Once there, I found a mass of people slowly moving through more switchbacks. 2 hours later I bought my ticket.
Some things to do while stuck in a very long queue:
* Read your entire guide book.
* Empathize with bored children confined to their strollers.
* Watch the fog roll in.
* Take random photos of signs.
* Contemplate when to cut your losses and take the bus.
* Wish you had actually ate before getting in line.
Almost 3 hours later I was finally heading through the fog on a cable car. No spectacular views, just the cable disappearing ahead of us and cars returning to the bottom eerily appearing from the fog. At the top was the Big Buddha, stoically sitting peacefully in the mist. Seeing the Buddha this way was actually nice because the focus was on the Buddha and not the spectacular views. As I climbed the stairs I listened to the faint chanting of the monks in the monastery below.
I took the bus back down. It took a half hour.
Rain, Rain Go Away
The next day it was all out rain. Heading for Thailand in hot season, I failed to pack anything to keep me dry and warm. So wearing my warmest possible outfit, I headed out for a second day of sightseeing.
Taking a tram so I could see the city above ground, I went to meet my friend Lisa and her newly adopted son, Georgie. Heading for Man Mo temple, one of the oldest Chinese temples in Hong Kong, we pushed the stroller up the steep hills. Getting around with wheels is not an easy task in many Asian cities, especially ones built on hillsides. The sidewalks often have sets of steps and the curbs have a significant rise to them.
Man Mo temple was a beehive of Taoist worshipers offering incense and prayers to the variety of statutes dedicated to the god of literature (Man) and the god of war (Mo). The dimly lit, small room was overflowing with the aroma of incense. Hanging from the ceiling were objects that I originally assumed were baskets until I realized they were incense coils offered as payer requests.
After a brief visit to the Midlevel Escalators, a system of people movers and escalators designed to aid the commute of midlevels inhabitants to the city below, and lunch we headed across the harbor on the Star Ferry. Riding the Star Ferry is another “must have” experience to get another perspective of Hong Kong’s skyline. Even with the rainy weather and choppy water it was a fun ride with a few good picture opportunities.
Using an Octopus
A card, not the animal.
Octopus cards allow you to move quickly through the transportation system. Accepted on the MTR, trams, buses and ferries, the cards hold monetary value and each transaction is subtracted from the balance. Several convenience stores allow you to use the cards for purchases. Using the Octopus card made my travels through Hong Kong easy, allowing me to just focus on where I was going and not having to buy tickets or have exact change.
I quickly learned that a key to using the Octopus cards is to keep moving once you sweep your card over the reader. If you don’t, you end up getting trapped on the wrong side of the turnstiles. Yes, I learned this by experience. Unable to figure out how to correct this situation, I decided to sweep my card over the incoming reader, take the MTR one stop and back, so that I could get out where I wanted to be.
City Below the City
The MTR system is a city below the city. An intricate system of tunnels connecting the subway stations with multiple exists to get travelers where they need to be efficiently. Along the way are a variety of shops ranging from convenience stores and newsstands to high end stores offering designer goods. Such an efficient mass transit system helps to reduce the traffic and congestion so prevalent in many large cities.
While an efficient way to move around the city, it’s easy to miss seeing the city as a whole.