Islands, Escalators and Soaring Lights

I was ten years to late, to experience, what many have described as ‘thrilling’ – a landing at Kai Tak Airport. Instead I would have to make do with Chek Lap Kok which, apart from boasting several other engineering landmarks, is also known to have the second largest terminal building in the world. It was enough to stun me for sure and I shudder to think what the largest would be like!

Welcome to Hong Kong! My trip would involve a time difference of 12 hours, the longest non-stop flights I have ever undertaken and the added benefit of a little over 4 days to see it all.

But never mind all of that. The important thing is, I was finally there! Hong Kong has fascinated me for the longest time and of all Asian cities, it was the one I wanted to visit the most. A trip had been planned there with a friend for the summer of ’04 but we somehow ended up in Australia (no complaints though!). Ironically, it was the same friend who would play host to me in HK four years later. So with a lot of help and planning by my hosts and only a little cooperation from the weather gods, I set forth to discover just why Hong Kong is touted as Asia’s ‘World City’.

Staying in the very affluent and aptly named ‘Mid Levels‘ meant using the World’s largest outdoor covered escalator system. Also known as the ‘travelator’, this fascinating 800 metre long people mover connects the Mid Levels with Central (by the bay and also the Business District) and is a daily means of commuting for many HK residents.

Much like San Francisco, it is Hong Kong’s terrain that leaves one completely awe struck. Seeing images of its famed skyline nestled on steep mountain slopes is one thing. Experiencing it in person is quite another. Boasting a population of 7 million, most of them housed in a surprisingly small area, one can only marvel at the way the steep slopes and hilly terrain have been tackled in this densely packed city. Escalators and stairways are everywhere but automobiles have to cope as well and cope they do, on some of the steepest motorable roads in the world!

Hong Kong’s skyline is one of the oldest in the world – the early British developers realising that the only way to house a burgeoning population was to build skywards. As a result, old and often decrepit looking buildings jostle for space with swanky new condo blocks and in a way, this lends a certain character to the city. In the same vein, there are swish lounge bars and eateries on the one hand and bustling old Chinese style markets on the other – all seamlessly integrated into the hustle and bustle of the city.

SoHo or ‘South of Hollywood Rd’ is one of the more popular night districts, best known for its wide array of bars, multi cuisine restaurants, cafes, night clubs and some shopping to boot. It is roughly in the middle of the escalator system and a big draw for the many expats living in the Mid Levels. Staunton and Elgin – the main streets of SoHo could easily remind one of London’s tiny back alleys – with a decidedly Chinese influence, no doubt! 😉

Once you’ve descended into Central, via the escalator, there are a number of ways to get around the city. Hong Kong is home to more forms of transport than possibly any other city on this planet – one of the largest bus fleets in the world (double, single & mini), a super efficient underground and commuter rail system, a charming old Tram system, an extensive Ferry system, Cabs of course, 2 Cable Car systems and even a Funicular railway. Did I miss anything? 😉

Queens Road in Central is where all the action is – especially if you’re a double decker fanatic!

The tram system in Hong Kong is exclusively double deck and one of only 3 systems in the world to operate this type of fleet. Started as long back as 1904, the system has obviously gone through a fair bit of upgradation but the trams still manage to retain a distinctly vintage feel and a ride on any one of them is strongly recommended. It is without doubt the cheapest form of transport in the city and a great introduction to the sights and sounds that make up Hong Kong Island.

We boarded one of many passing Trams on Queens Rd and our ride took us from the gleaming commercial towers in Central, on to Wan Chai, which is best known for its local eateries and buzzing night life and eventually into Causeway Bay – HK’s biggest shopping district where hoardings from every conceivable up market brand vie for attention. With commercial rentals second only to Fifth Avenue and prices steeper than the Big Apple, Causeway Bay is somewhat reflective of Hong Kong’s surging economy and the resultant penchant for designer labels.

As integral as the Tram is to Hong Kong, so is the Star Ferry service which operates between the Central Piers on HK Island and Kowloon. The short but very scenic ferry ride, across the busy waterways of Victoria Harbour, sets you down in Tsim Sha Tsui where, on looking back, the views of the harbour and the famed skyline are spectacular.

A little known fact about this icon of Hong Kong – the Star Ferry service was originally founded by a Parsi merchant, Dorabjee Nowrojee in 1888!

There is enough to do in Kowloon am sure, but if your visiting there closer to 8 in the evening, as we were, your best bet is The Peninsula Hotel‘s (The Raffles of HK if you will!) rooftop bar, Felix. For 15 minutes each evening, a synchronised light show across the bay featuring many of HK’s landmark buildings brings the skyline to life. And no visit to this charming hotel is complete without a visit to the men’s room, where an all glass wall provides unhindered views of downtown Kowloon while you answer nature’s call 😉

On the day I arrived, it was overcast and hazy. Day 2 and I awoke to thick fog and for a moment, I thought I was back in Delhi. It was forecast to rain as well and by the time we boarded the Cable Car to Ngong Ping, I gave up all hopes of a scenic ride.

Really ironic given that the whole experience is packaged as ‘Ngong Ping 360‘ for its all round views! For those visiting on a clearer day, the 5.7 km, 25 minute ride described by most as a ‘visually spectacular journey’ is not to be missed. Enough said! 😦

Ngong Ping sits on a plateau on Lantau Island (the new airport is built off the same island) amidst loftier peaks, none of which we saw, of course! It comprises a very tastefully designed Chinese style village complete with a Tea House, retail and dining. At one end of the village is the 102 year old Po Lin Monastery which is an absolute marvel from the inside and at another end is the world’s largest outdoor seated Buddha – the Tian Tan Buddha statue. It is imposing, no doubt, and the fog definitely played its part in providing a truly surreal experience.

Made it back to the city absolutely drenched and cold, got some much needed rest in the evening and awoke to a real gem of a surprise. Miraculously, the skies had cleared!

Big city and bright lights can only mean one thing – time to party! When it comes to a good nightlife, HK is at par with the very best in the world and no better place to start than LKF!

LKF or Lan Kwai Fong or better still Expat Heaven!! One square block worth of bars, pubs and clubs, totally devoid of traffic, the chance to enjoy your pint out on the street, listening to your favourite music and mingling with people from pretty much every corner of the globe. That’s LKF for you. Oh, and did I mention, its open for business till 6 am everyday – just in time for the escalators to start up again 😉

While Hong Kong does have all the trappings of a big city, it also offers one the opportunity to get away from it all. Little known to most visitors, the territories that make up the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region or SAR consist of over 250 islands, most uninhabited. With only a quarter of its total area developed and 40% of its land mass reserved for country parks and nature reserves, it should come as no surprise that a 45 minute commute (subway + bus) from downtown sees you amidst dense sub tropical forests – enjoying the views from the top of a public transit double deck bus all the while!

Dragons Back‘ (named so because of its undulating nature) is stage 8 of the 50 km (31 mile) long Hong Kong Trail. There are 4 major trails across Hong Kong’s territories totalling no less than 300 kms (186 miles). This 8.5 km (5+ mile) trail offers a mix of woodland, open hill sides and stunning views of the South China Sea dotted by innumerable islands. The trail ends at the aptly named ‘Big Wave’ beach which is popular amongst surfers. In ’04, Dragon’s Back was named ‘Best Urban Hike in Asia’ by Time magazine and for good reason to!

Lantau is the largest island in HK but also the least populated amongst the major ones. Home to the new airport, Ngong Ping 360, Asia World Expo, Disneyland and last but not the least, Discovery Bay.

Akin to the gated communities of the US, Discovery Bay is home to a small (by HK standards) population of 15000 residents living mostly in garden houses and condo units and a few skyscrapers. With beaches, golf courses, private clubs and more open space than you can dream of in downtown Hong Kong, DBay is naturally an expat favourite with a rumoured 30 countries represented amongst its populace! Golf carts and cycles are the only means of transport within but a 25 minute ferry ride is all it takes to get to HK’s Central business district. Its a great getaway for city slickers as well with the added attraction of Al Fresco dining by the bay!

Language can often be a barrier in HK – surprising given that the Brits ruled there for so long – but getting around is never a problem. Street signs and maps are everywhere and the information graphics I came across in my short stay there were some of the best I’ve seen in the world. The subway system in HK may not be as complex as that of NYC or London but its certainly one of the easiest to use and the alphabetically designated station exits almost spoil you when your coming from a system (read MTA!) that only provides you with north-south coordinates!!

Staying on the 33rd floor of a Mid Levels high-rise has its obvious advantages but it also somewhat mars the thrill of going up to The Peak. At close to 2000 ft above sea level, Mount Austin, which hosts The Peak Observatory and visitor centre, is the highest mountain on Hong Kong island. However, making it up to The Peak was the real excitement for me. The Peak Tram, a funicular or incline railway, provides the most direct route between Central and Victoria Peak and in doing so offers fabulous views. But what really impressed me was the near vertical ascent! Climbing 400 metres in 1.4 kms – you do the math!

I chose the only clear day on my entire trip to visit The Peak and so, despite enjoying great views from only a few hundred feet below (where I stayed), it all seemed worth while at the end of the day 🙂

My last evening in HK was spent in Stanley on the south eastern part of Hong Kong Island. Like many other spots in HK, the journey there can be as much fun as the destination itself. Be sure to get yourself front row seats on the top deck and if you can, time it closer to magic hour, for you will be rewarded with golden vistas such as this, for miles on end!

If bargain shopping interests you, Stanley’s open air market has it all – silk, clothes, handicrafts, toys and touristy souvenirs. If that’s not your kind of thing, head over to one of many bars and cafes that line its waterfont promenade (with a strong Mediterranean feel to it!) and watch the sun set on HK as you sip on some refreshing Tsing Tao.

There were many things that surprised me about Hong Kong – some that I should have expected and not been surprised about – for instance, the fact that their roads, traffic signals and signs were laid down to British standards. And then there were things that I did not expect of it and so, was naturally surprised to see – more than anything else, cleanliness! For a city reputed to have one of the highest population densities in the world, Hong Kong is astonishingly clean. I seriously wish cities back home would take cue.

So, does it still make the ‘World City’ cut? I think so. Its skyline reminded me of NYC, the streets reminded me of London, the terrain of San Francisco and while I can’t quite pin point what, some areas were just so reminiscent of good ‘ole Bombay. Marketing spiel or not, I totally buy it – HK is, truly, Asia’s world city and I’d love to be back there again someday 🙂

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