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Hong Kong: Hong Kong
Hong Kong, Hong Kong: On the bull run
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
I happen to land in Hong Kong just after the Chinese New Year. This was the year of the Ox. The Chinese zodiac has 12 creatures each representing a particular year. Therefore, it stands to reason that every 12 years there's a repeat. As fate would have it, this was also the year of the global meltdown. However, in the 3 days that I was in Hong Kong I could see no signs of any recession. The malls were full; the streets were bustling; the hotels had full occupancy; the lines at tourist sites were long. Indeed, the bull was on full throttle.
My cousin Nimish and his wife Shruti who live in Kowloon were my gracious host. As compared to typical Hong Kong homes, their 2 bedroom home was pretty spacious. I urge my architect and interior designer friends to study Hong Kong homes and hotel rooms. It's amazing to see how the guys out there fit things in to make life a wee bit more comfortable in a wee bit space.
After having finished business, I had the weekend to bask in the Hong Kong sun. Though I had clear skies and sunny days, sunlight hardly every reaches the street level. Save when the sun is bang up, the high buildings block the rays. This is definitely the case when one moves along the island of Hong Kong and the Nathan road in Kowloon. The bay separates Hong Kong and Kowloon and one can cross the divide by ferry and the very efficient underground known as MTR (Mass Transit Railway).
The first thing to do on landing is to buy an Octopus card. Consider this card as your little debit card that is good on all buses, MTR, ferries and many convenience stores. I got myself an Octopus HK$ 200 value that saw me through my 2 days of roaming around. At the time of writing 1 US$ gave me about 7.8 HK$. Just so you know HKD is pegged to USD. For years now, the ratio has always remained more or less the same.
I headed out early to Stanley beach. A comfortable 20 minute walk and I was at the pier to take the ferry across the bay to Hong Kong. Top deck costs $2.20 and the lower deck costs $1.70. I tried each. Lower on my way out (be prepared to smell diesel burning). And upper on my way in. The 10 minute journey gives a nice view of the harbour and the Star Cruise ships (I could see Aquarius & Pieces) docked out there. Once on the other side at the Central Pier, I crossed the road and took the bus number 6 to Stanley market. The $8 journey lasts for about 30 minutes that takes you through the long Abeerdeen tunnel and the mountain road. Over looking the South China Sea the road stands witness to the finest homes on the island. Only the extreme rich can afford to have their homes on this side of the town. Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Ferrarris, Jaguars and the likes were parked aplenty. I am told the people out there love to flaunt their wealth. A customized number plate for a car was auctioned for over $1.5 million. I have no idea what the cost of the car was.
The Stanley Beach and the many restaurants neatly lined ashore quickly reminded me about a typical sea side destination of Europe. Scores and scores of whites where all around… most of them, I believe, were residents. Hong Kong is home to many expats from UK. And why not, the British left only ion 1997. No wonder, most of the buildings and roads have English names. Stanley Market is one good place to shop. Hundreds of shops sell world famous brands of garment, footwear, works of art, toys, electronics… the works. Thanks to the vendors' proximity to China, the rates were pretty attractive as compared to shopping downtown. I am not too sure if the brand owners are aware of this thriving market.
On the main street, I was lucky to come across a troupe performing The Lion Dance. On the beats of the drums the Lion (two performers with masks) did an extremely well choreographed dance. I could not gather much information about the significance of the dance but I guess it got to do with good luck & prosperity because the restaurant and shop owners were more than happy to present cash to the leader of the group. I walked the streets and the beach and after a sumptuous pizza lunch (talking of food, Hong Kong is a great place for the gourmet. Master Chefs prepare fine local cuisine and fare from around the world), I took the bus back and got off on the main road that is home to the famed Hong Kong trams.
Despite being a Sunday (I was in the business district), the trams were full to the brim. Since I had no particular destination in mind, I decided to hop on one of the trams that had some room. Fortunately, I got one that had room for me on the upper deck. Trams out there are pretty sleek and pretty cheap too. For just $2 I could go as far as the tram went. However, I jumped off a few stops ahead when I noticed I was at the jetty that flags off ferries and helicopters to Macau… Las Vegas of the East. Chinese by nature love to gamble. I have noticed a large number of Chinese at the tables and at the slots at almost all the casinos that I have visited thus far. Be it in Australia or USA, Macau or Sri Lanka, Chinese outnumber. It's a good idea to visit casinos. Not to gamble but to try the food. To attract crowds, casinos would usually serve good food at equally good prices.
I had no plans to visit Macau which is just 15 minutes by helicopter or about 90 minutes by the catamaran. If you have a spare day and a night do try Macau. It did me good many years ago during my trip to China. Anyways, after walking a bit, I headed back to Kowloon side as I was very keen in walking the Harbour Centre (a massive mall that's interlinked to other equally massive malls and the Star Ferry Terminal) and more importantly catching the Symphony of Lights that happens and 8 PM every day.
At the stroke of 8, lights, music and commentary take over. 40 select buildings on the Hong side are brightly lit up and some of them have lasers beaming out. Various patterns are formed as well lit boats float pass on the bay. This was indeed the largest ever light show that I have witnessed. 13 minutes of sheer bliss. It's a government sponsored event and has rightfully found place in the book of records. I understand that this show is now a permanent feature. And it's free! There was action on this side of town too. I was lucky to witness Echoes of the Condor Heroes. It was a fine display of romantic legends that were created by the famous author Prof Louis Chin (Jim Yong). These are not permanent displays and I imagine themes would change from time to time.
It was 10 PM. Time to walk back home but not before a walk on the Nathan road which is also known as the Golden Mile. This is one of the longest road lined on both sides with shops and shops and shops. The high rises and well decorated shops reminded me of Manhattan, New York. Probably, shopping was not as expensive but wasn't cheap either. Of course, if you have the money, Hong Kong will compete well with any shopping destination of the world. You name the brand and it's there.
I had just one more day with me. Must do on the list was a visit to the Lantau island and of course taking the tram to the peak. 12 hours of walking did help me to get a good night's sleep.
After breakfast I took the MTR headed towards Lai King from TST (Tsim Tsa Tsui) station. I changed trains at Lai King and got on the next one headed to Tung Chung which was the last stop. Just opposite the station was Cityate Hotel and Mall. Most of the shops in the mall were company outlets which are quite popular with the masses as they get to shop brands with very minor defects at bargain prices. To compare, I checked the rates for a pair of Puma running shoes and to my surprise the rate was quite the same when I had checked it the previous day at a regular store. Probably, I was unlucky.
About 100 meters away, was the Ngong Ping cable car station. After waiting in the line for about 20 minutes, I reached the window where I bought a return ticket for $107 (it was a special day, else I would have paid $97) that entitled me to a to & fro ride on the 5.7 km. cable car to village Ngong Ping on the Lantau Island that's now home to the Giant Buddha and Po Lin Monastery. The cable car trip was quite fascinating - crossing the bay, over looking the airport and over lush green mountains. Cheaper way to reach the island is by buses which depart regularly from Tung Chung station. And indeed the cheapest way is to walk. It's a 5 hour trek and many faithful do take this route. Cable car was good for me and is certainly recommended to tourists planning to visit Lantau.
The village was developed in the 90's. It has restaurants offering various cuisines (no I didn't notice a McDonald's but Starbucks was there). There are numerous shops that sell Chinese crafts and memorabilia. After crossing the village, I reached the base of a mountain. A climb of over 150 steps took me up to the statue of Giant Buddha also known as Tian Tan Buddha statue. There's a museum that takes you through the life and times of Buddha. You have the option of buying a coupon that entitles you to a sumptuous vegetarian meal at the monastery at the foothills.
After having paid my respects to Buddha, I returned to the base and walked to the monastery. The monastery was opened in 1924 by three monks. I was appalled by the structures that were beautifully painted with a dominance of red and gold. Visitors and followers alike offer incense to Buddha. The silence within the sanctum sanctorum was soothing. Pillows were placed on the floor making it comfortable to kneel down and offer prayers. I did.
Just so you know, there's a 12-stage 70 km Lantau Trail that takes you up the Lantau Peak, Hong Kong's second highest mountain soaring 934 meters above sea level. The Lantau Island is also home to Hong Disneyland.
Back in the village, I had the option to a few multi-media presentations on Buddha. However, I opted out as I had to be back in town and up the tram. Fortunately, the line at the cable car was not very long (sure enough as the day comes to an end, it would be quite a scene). On reaching Tung Chung station, I took the MTR to Hong Kong. On arrival, I walked over to the Central station and took the Island line to alight at Admiralty. A good 15 minute walk took me to the Peak Tram base station.
The Peak Tram is world's steepest tram that travels at 45 degrees all the way up to the peak. The return fare including a visit to the Sky Terrace at the Peak cost me $48. In about 15 minutes I was on the top that gave me a spectacular view of Hong Kong, Kowloon and the South China Sea. Sky Terrace is a massive boat shape structure that houses restaurants and shops and the world's first EA Experience (Electronic Arts Game Arcade). Window shopping helped me spend time. It was 6 PM. The sun would soon set. And Hong Kong would light up. And sure enough. The view of the setting sun on the South China Sea was as glorious as was the view of brightly lit high rises along the bay. Time just flew past.
It was nearly 8PM. Time to turn back. My flight home would leave the next morning.
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Since my article on Hong Kong was published, the city saw the launch of 1881 Heritage. The thought deserves a special mention. A visit to the iconic structure is highly recommended. Between 2 flights, I had with me a few hours on hand. Time was well spent.
Built in 1881 to serve as Headquarters for the Marine Police, is now Hong Kong’s first heritage hotel and retail complex. 1881 Heritage blends the past and the present; the old and the new. The restoration is homage to the past and preserving the architectural integrity and authenticity of the various structures in the compound.
The compound was out of bound for visitors for nearly 120 years. It’s now open to visitors. Spend a couple of hours walking along the former Kowloon fire station; noon guns and signal cannons; Indian balcony; former marine police headquarters; pigeon courtyard; cells; former stable block; time ball tower; gas lamps; signal mast; typhoon signals and of course the alley housing some fine boutique stores.
The former marine headquarters has been converted into a heritage hotel named Hullet House… magnificent colonial architecture offering intimate luxury suites, restaurants and bar.
The site is just opposite to the Star Ferry Terminal. Entrance is free.
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