Hong KongBy Dave • March 12th, 2008
As soon as we arrived in Hong Kong, I knew I was going to like it. The places all have names like Victoria Peak, or Jackson Road; the underground trains and buses look strikingly similar to London buses, and best of all, after occasionally struggling in China (our record was six restaurants in one night before we found an English menu in Xian), everything - everything was bilingual. The signs, the bus timetables â€“ everything. They even had 7/11 shops everywhere.
It is, in short, China for wimps, and I was thrilled.
Up until 1997, of course, Hong Kong belonged to England. It had done since 1897, and worked under an unusual kind of tenancy agreement. Of course, since 1945, mainland China was (and still is, I suppose) avowedly and occasionally violently communist. Hong Kong escaped, and became a world centre of banking (HSBCâ€™s logo appears on the money). It became unashamedly affluent, as did many of the people living there.
It was the first mega-city weâ€™d been to. There are sky-scrapers dotted around all over the place, from apartment buildings to international plazas housing the headquarters of corporations and banks. There are expatriate shops everywhere, selling western food and English-language books.
We had settled on a tiny, windowless room in a hostel in Mong Kok, a permanently illiuminated, neon district on the island of Kowloon. It wasnâ€™t much but it was home, we thought. Even better, it had wireless internet.
Owing to my own idiocy when it came to buying train tickets in China, we werenâ€™t in Hong Kong for very long. We had originally planned on four days, which sounded like almost enough time to do everything we wanted. As it was we had an afternoon, one full day and the morning of the next; the latter destined to be spent nervously packing and searching for a good way to the airport.
It wasnâ€™t nearly enough time, but we made the best of it. What should you do if you only have 24 hours to do things in Hong Kong?
We took the ferry across the harbour. This is standard Hong Kong visitor fare, but it was still a high-point. The midway point between Kowloon and Hong Kong islands is illuminated in red and green neon and looks capitalistically splendid.
We went to a tea-house, our first in China. We visited Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong island, which requires you to take a hair-raising cable-pulled tram. Then we had cocktails at the top as we overlooked the harbour.
The next day, we decided we were all for this ferry business, and took another one to the central pier. From there, we leapt on the first ferry we found to Lantau island.
Lantau has a few unique charms. Its airport, bizarrely, is one of them, built entirely on reclaimed land. It also has a very big Buddha. Iâ€™m not clear on whether itâ€™s the biggest Buddha in the world, or if itâ€™s just a remarkably large one, but either way, any world tour must take in its fair share of Huge Things, so we made our way there.
My friends, I would go and live on Lantau island in a second. The cooked-food market (a characteristically charming Chinese translation), disparagingly cast aside by our Lonely Planet, served some of the best seafood Iâ€™d ever tasted, while we sat by the water and watched solitary fishermen in tiny boats cast their nets against a backdrop of deep green hills and a white beach. We caught an air-conditioned bus (incidentally, the first time weâ€™d needed air conditioning since we left London) to the Buddha, and our journey took in waterfalls and miles of unspoiled, footprint-free beaches. You can camp on Lantau. I lingered briefly on the possibilities of living there and commuting to some distant job on Hong Kong.
The Buddha, of course, is big, and like all Big Things to see on a world tour, was swimming in tourists. This means two things in China: expensive bottles of water, and clean toilets.
Forgoing the former, we went for a hike. We found ourselves, at length, in a quiet enclave with a rocky footpath leading up to an unseen peak. We heaved ourselves up it and were rewarded not only with the best view of the Big Buddha (being at the thing itself just meant getting elbowed out of the way by French tourists), but 360 degree panoramas of Lantau itself. It was stunning.
We caught the bus back; then to the ferry, then to the underground system.
Hong Kong, perhaps, was the first place we visited that we left much too soon. Beijing qualifies, I suppose, if only because itâ€™s the size of a small country and it would have been nice to have tried out some of the ex-pat places while we were there. But Hong Kong qualifies because it was the first place we visited that I wanted to simply be in. I wanted to visit Lantau every day, just because taking the ferry was fun and there was good food at the other end.
Unfortunately, we had our second flight waiting for us. We caught the stunningly efficient airport bus from Mong Kok, and were soon on the three-hour flight to Bangkok. From Bangkok to northern Thailand, from there Laos and Cambodia. As soon as we left, I missed Hong Kong.
Dave doesnâ€™t feel too weepy about Hong Kong any more, but Iâ€™d love to go back.
The original version of this article referred to Victoria Peak as being the highest peak on Kowloon Island. It’s not on Kowloon at all, but it’s the highest peak on Hong Kong island. I wrote it the first way because I’m an idiot who didn’t check his facts carefully enough. Either way, I still recommend a visit and a cocktail.Tags: apartment buildings, bus timetables, china, english language books, english menu, expatriate, hong kong, hsbc, kowloon, london buses, mainland china, mega city, mong kok, sky scrapers, tenancy agreement, train tickets, underground trains, victoria peak, western food, wimps, windowless room, wireless internet