Hong Kong & Macau
When I was a growing I knew little of Hong Kong other than it was singularly responsible for an annual spike in house-fires as people strung up the cheap Christmas tree lights for which this distant outpost of the British Empire had become famous. There was a very simple way of telling if a product was good quality or not and that was to simply turn it upside down and check for the words ‘Made in Hong Kong'. If the words were missing you were in the clear. It was some time later, as I sat and watched bemused as the TV showed the celebrations as the territory was returned to Chinese rule, that I realised there was more to Hong Kong than cheap toys and dodgy fake electronics. Arriving in Hong Kong eleven years later, I learned something else: the heat, humidity and pollution in this thriving financial centre are oppressive.
Arriving in a new town after dark can be daunting and I felt a little apprehensive when I stepped from the plane and into the bright lights of the glittering new airport. I'd made a hotel reservation for the next five nights in Kowloon but I'd no idea how to get there; tired from two long flights, I harboured a feeling of dread. The speed that we passed through immigration and were reunited with our bags was bewildering and, stepping from the baggage carousel, I was delighted to discover that the Airport Express station was mere metres away. I was impressed that the train would speed us from Chek Lap Kok Island to Kowloon in just twenty minutes but was still unsure how to get to the hotel when I got there. I shouldn't have worried as, with typical Asian efficiency, we were ushered from the train to a line of courtesy buses which were waiting to speed us onward to our hotel. Just an hour after stepping from the plane I was being shown to my hotel room. As I dropped my bag on the floor and flopped onto the bed I had to concede that my earlier anxiety had been misplaced.
Twenty hours in transit is very tiring and I slept very well; only waking when the maid came to make up the room. After two weeks in a tent (which I'd happily donated to a fellow traveller once I'd used it for the final time) it felt quite alien to have someone looking after me so I sent her away. The area around the hotel had looked quite glamorous and exciting the previous evening - I didn't check but I very much doubted the classy white Christmas lights on the huge tree at the front of the hotel were stamped with the words ‘Made in Hong Kong' - so I was surprised to throw back the curtains and discover what amounted to a slum next door. I would later discover that it was the infamous Chungking House Mansions which, although advertised as a deluxe hotel, is in fact little more than a seedy rabbit warren of illegal gambling, prostitution and drug dealing. It fascinated me that they would choose to build luxury hotels right next to this unsanitary fire trap but it actually summed up Hong Kong perfectly: on the one hand you have the sweat shops pouring out cheap Christmas tree lights and fake designer suits whilst, on the other, you have the wealth that comes from being one of the world's major financial centres.
Leaving the serenity of the hotel lobby was akin to stepping into Bedlam: the heat and pollution were stifling and the noise and commotion on the street was overwhelming. There were instantly people all around pushing everything from Folex watches and cheap suits to their sister and it took a few moments to acclimatise to this assault on the senses. Scanning the street for a way out, I spotted a 7-Eleven and hurried inside to regroup. Armed with a can of Red Bull and a curious excuse for a sandwich, I followed the directions that I'd just been given towards the nearby Star Ferry Terminal.
Hong Kong - since the handover in 1997, a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China - is renowned for its expansive skyline and deep natural harbour. With a population of 7 million people crammed into such a tiny area it is one of the most densely populated areas in the world which means that not a scrap of land is wasted. Nor, indeed, was any space aboard the twin-decked ferry; people herded into every crevice. As we bobbed away from the overcrowded Tsim Sha Tsui ferry terminal, the iconic mountain-backed skyline of Hong Kong Island loomed into sight across Victoria Harbour.
Quickly we arrived on Pier 7 of the Hong Kong Central ferry pier and were herded back off the boat. I made my way, passing the incongruous sight of a wedding taking place in a corner of the terminal building, through the busy streets towards Garden Road. Consisting of Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsular, the New Territories and over 200 offshore islands I had been confused by the geography of the area so had decided the best place to start would be the top of Victoria Peak where I hoped to look down and make sense of Hong Kong. The Peak Tram would speed me from the sea level base station in Garden Road to the 552m summit in just a few minutes and I was soon standing on the viewing terrace atop the upper station. Victoria Peak may have become a big tourist draw but, as I stood and surveyed the spectacular sight stretching into the distance, I couldn't help but marvel at what lay before me.
I spent some time walking through the area; admiring the impressive colonial houses - once reserved exclusively for non-Chinese whites - and enjoying the street markets surrounding the clinical wok-shaped Peak Tower before returning to tram. Back at street level I spent a few hours walking the streets of Central before I was finally forced to retreat to the oasis of my hotel by the oppressive air pollution. After the cool mountain air of New Zealand it was quite a shock not to be able to breathe properly and, having skipped through five time zones since I left, I thought an afternoon nap might refresh me somewhat. I woke just as the sun was coming down and I hurried back to the embankment of Victoria Harbour where I was able to enjoy the colour and spectacle of the skyscrapers on the opposite bank lighting up. As the sun finally dipped behind the mountains, amidst a final flourish of brilliant oranges and reds, I couldn't help but glance back up at Victoria Peak and make a mental note to revisit and see the sunset over the city from that vantage point. I hoped that it would be every bit as spectacular as it was from the Avenue of the Stars where I was standing.
With the addition of the New Territories following the signing of the Second Convention of Peking in 1898, overcrowded Colonial Hong Kong exploded from 30 sq miles to almost 400 overnight. Over the course of the 99-year lease development pushed out into this new land mass but, thanks mainly to the mountainous landscape, the majority of development remained confined to the Kowloon Peninsular and Hong Kong Island. This left much of the new land untouched and, in recent times, much has been ceded to nature reserves which now provide a welcome place for the city-dwellers to retreat and enjoy the many miles of trails. After a day in their city I could see why hiking has become such a popular recreational activity and, in an effort to discover the real Hong Kong, I decided that I'd follow their lead.
I took the MTR out to Tung Chung where I walked the short distance to board the Ngong Ping Skyway for the 5.7km ride across Lantau Island. The huge gondola is an engineering masterpiece and, for the duration of the 25-minute ride, afforded us spectacular views over the South China Sea, North Lantau Country Park and the surrounding terrain as it sped us to our destination: the giant Tian Tan Buddha in the village of Ngong Ping. As we rounded the final curve on the route at Nei Lak Shan the huge statue loomed into view causing the cabin to rock violently as my fellow passengers leapt from their seats in an effort to snap photos of the 34-metre high bronze which is the largest of its kind in the world. I made my way through the overcrowded tourist-trap of Ngong Ping and climbed the 268 steep steps to the base of the Buddha where, as I recovered from my toil, I admired the sheer size of the thing and tried to work out how it had been constructed.
Back in Hong Kong I spent the remainder of the day travelling around the city on the MTR, stopping at random stations before emerging from beneath the ground to investigate what lay on the streets above. From huge shopping malls full of the latest high-tech electronics to tiny backstreets full of traditional restaurants; the contrast was enthralling. I visited Golden Bauhinia Square, named after the huge golden sculpture of the Bauhinia Blakeana which lay at its heart, where the ceremonies for the handover were held before noting the sun was getting lower in the sky and hurrying back to the top of Victoria Peak.
Once I'd watched the sun setting from atop the mountain - yes, it was every bit as memorable from the up there as I had hoped - I made my way through the streets, crowded with shoppers busy buying presents on the final Sunday before Christmas, towards my hotel. As I made my way out of the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Terminal, a poster caught my eye and I stopped to investigate: Macau was just 40-miles and a short jetfoil ride away. On a whim I went inside and bought a return ticket for the following morning.
Originally published on - and Copyright retained by - Boogity, Boogity, Boogity
Previous: New Zealands North Island
Next: Across to Macau
Last edited by UKCraig; 12-20-2009 at 11:05 AM.
Macau & HOME!
I knew nothing of Macau other than it is the location of the famous Guia street circuit, home of the annual Macau Grand Prix but, for me, that was reason enough to visit. Early the next morning I made my way to the China Ferry Terminal in Canton Road; where I boarded the boat, fastened my seat belt and prepared for the bumpy ride. I was relieved that the journey only took 50-minutes as, buffeted by the rough seas, I was starting to feel a little queasy by the time we docked in Macau. Making my way to the street I would quickly discover that Macau was very very different to anywhere that I had ever visited before. I made my way past the throngs of rickshaws and tuk-tuks waiting for passengers and, drawn by what I'd seen as the ferry docked, crossed the parking lot towards the large building which was, quite clearly, the race-control building.
It may be used as a bus stand for fifty-one weeks of the year but, as I stood in the middle of the legendry Macau pitlane, I felt a little shiver run down my spine. I wished that I'd been there during race weekend four weeks earlier, but I liked what I saw and promised myself that I would return another time and that it would coincide with the race. By the end of the day that feeling of wanting to see more had grown to encompass the entire city. It was, I later discovered, nine years to the day since the territory had been handed back to the Chinese and you could see why the Portuguese were so reluctant to give it up.
It has been an inauspicious start as I realised there was no way to get from the ferry terminal to downtown Macau on foot but; with Macau re-inventing itself as the Asian version of Las Vegas since it, like Hong Kong, was returned to Chinese governance; I soon realised that I could take advantage of the free shuttle buses operated by the casinos to bring customers through their doors. I never really liked Las Vegas and, unable to even step through the casino doors without shirt and tie, I positively detested the area of Macau where all the big ugly casinos were located. As I stood looking up in horror at the vulgar Grand Lisboa Hotel & Casino, I pondered making my way back to the waterfront and taking the next ferry back to Hong Kong. I am so relieved that I chose to ignore my initial impression and give the town a second chance as, very soon; it was as if I had stepped into not just another place but another world. A world where time had stood still; where Hong Kong had changed completely under the British, the old-town of Macau had retained every bit of its grandeur from its colonial past as part of the Portuguese Empire.
I won't begin to try and explain what is magical about the place; rather I will leave it to UNESCOs description when it designated the Historic Centre of Macau as a World Heritage Site: "with its historic street, residential, religious and public Portuguese and Chinese buildings, the historic centre of Macau provides a unique testimony to the meeting of aesthetic, cultural, architectural and technological influences from East and West, and bears witness to one of the earliest and longest-lasting encounters between China and the West, based on the vibrancy of international trade." I felt relieved that the heart of this amazing old city would remain out of reach of developers and free from the expansion of the casino area which blotted the landscape as you looked outwards from top of the Ruins of St. Paul's: a magnificent cathedral destroyed by a fire during a typhoon in 1835.
As I wandered through the quiet back-streets it was as if I was stepping from a sleepy Mediterranean town into an old Chinese city market and back. It was quite surreal. And, to add to the confusion, I would soon find myself back at the Grand Lisboa where I hopped on the shuttle bus which would take me back to the ferry terminal. Quickly I was on my way back to my hotel in Kowloon once again and I was relieved to learn that the waters of the Pearl River Delta had subdued and the ride home was far smoother than the outbound journey.
As I had started to do in New Zealand I woke the following morning with just one thought on my mind. The only difference was the number involved: this morning that number was zero. In just a few hours I was going home to the UK for Christmas. Once I'd checked out of the hotel I was at a bit of a loss for what to do and wandered through the streets of Kowloon in a bit of a daze. Eventually I would spend an hour or two walking through the peaceful grounds of the Kowloon Walled Garden (the area previously anything but peaceful as, prior to its demolition by the state in 1993, it was the site of the menacing triad-controlled Kowloon Walled City) before making my way back to the hotel to collect my bags and catch the shuttle bus back to Kowloon Station.
As soon as I arrived back at Kowloon Station I took advantage of the ‘in-town check-in' facility and got rid of my bags. Considerably lighter I made my way upstairs to the huge shopping mall, Elements, where I picked up some Christmas presents for my arrival back home.
Previously I'd been scheduled to depart early on Christmas Eve which would have seen me arrive back in London late that evening but I'd requested to be put on the stand-by list for a flight late this evening instead. I hadn't expected to be on the flight but had popped by the downtown ticketing office as I returned from the China Ferry Terminal the previous evening and was delighted to be told that I had a seat on the earlier flight. I sat at the gate, with a big smile on my face, just staring at the sign: "2325 London-LHR: Boarding Soon" and thinking about everything that meant and about everything that had changed since I was last there. As it changed to "2325 London-LHR: Now Boarding" I felt a rush of adrenaline rush through me and I strode onto the plane unable to contain my excitement. Never has a twelve-hour flight been welcomed with such anticipation and I couldn't wait to get home and surprise my family with my early arrival home.
Originally published on - and Copyright retained by - Boogity, Boogity, Boogity
Previous: Hong Kong
Next: Coming soon!
PS: Like the recent post from New Zealand, these posts are actually from this time last year. Right now I am sat in the comfort of my own house rather than on a flight home!
Great read as always, backed up with great images!
I have never been away long enough to be excited about going home! I can only try to imagine the excitement, anticipation and mixed emotions of returning to your nearest and dearest and the [un]"real world" after such a great and lengthy adventure.
Have you seen the Waitrose ad: "this Christmas there's only one place to be"? That was me. When I first saw that it took me right back to how I felt in the last hours of my trip. I knew I was leaving behind something amazing that I would likely never do again but I couldn't wait to get home. It actually made me feel a little emotional when I saw it - same as I did when we were circling round Heathrow at 4am on Christmas Eve, waiting for the airport to open.
Heathrow not a 24 hour airport??
Originally Posted by UKCraig
I always thought Sydney was the only airport with curfews, but am learning of others, some of which leave me staggered. I guess I am just so used to Melbourne never closing down - which as a taxi driver I really appreciated.
And speaking of airports, did you ever fly into the old Hong Kong airport? Now there was an experience worth having.
Lifey who is reliving memories reading here
Nope, and thank-god for that. It's far too busy and far too noisy for its location already (have a look at the map and zoom out a little... notice how it's tight residential right up to the perimeter of the airport) I think it's only fair to give those poor unfortunates a few hours respite from the air traffic associated with the busiest airport in the world.
No, never flew into Kai Tak unfortunately but have enjoyed many stories about it from friends who had :)