Hong Kong - Andrew and Jacqui - 2005
Until 1997 Hong Kong was a British colony on the South China Sea. The British lease ran out that year and Hong Kong became part of the People's Republic of China, albeit as a Special Administrative Region with its own laws, currency and statehood.
Hong Kong is a series of islands and a small part of mainland China. The main settlement, Hong Kong City itself, is on Hong Kong island, facing it across the harbour is Kowloon. Another of the islands is Lantau, home to the Po Lin Monastery with its giant Buddha.
Hong Kong - Andrew and Jacqui - 2005
It had never been our intention that our trip to Hong Kong would be our honeymoon. In the end circumstances made it so.
Originally we had just seen a cheap deal and decided to give it a go!
Our flight was with Swiss Air via Zurich and they were exemplary in their service one of the better airlines weve encountered. A good thing on what is, to date, still the longest flight weve taken.
We arrived quite late in the day although by this point we had lost track of which day it actually was. So we did little except check in to our hotel which was some way from Central near the Happy Valley Racetrack. Here, for the first time, we encountered the over-man-powered way of life here. One person opened the taxi door for us, a second took our bags to the check in desk, a third checked us in, a fourth took our bags to the lift and a fifth showed us to our room!
We did briefly pop our heads outside on this first evening, but the hotel was not in a particularly attractive part of Hong Kong and so we soon beat a retreat out of the stifling heat into the aggressive air con of the hotel and made our way to the restaurant there. Here began our problem with food during our honeymoon. Having ordered we were presented with a free hors doeuvres a bowl of chicken feet. Now I am a vegetarian and immediately pushed them as far from me as they could possibly go Jacqui, not a vegetarian, still did not want to see them and we asked they be removed. The waiter gave us a look like idiot foreign fools and took them away and then presented us with a frankly dire bowl of food. Mine was yucky noodles with gooey sauce and Jacqui seemed to be given a bowl of assorted chicken bits which looked just like they might if they hadnt been cooked. We ate as much as we could stomach and then beat a quick retreat.
Putting aside our unfortunate food encounter, the next day we were up early and took the Hotel shuttle bus to Central. Our first stop, the one all the books said was essential to a Hong Kong visit, was to take the tram up the very steep hillside to Victoria Peak which towers above Central Hong Kong.
This did, indeed, turn out to be the highlight of our visit. The views of the Harbour when clear are spectacular. We had medium-clear and so did at least get some views. We revisited at the end of our holiday and the pollution was so great you couldnt see the Harbour and could barely see anything because your eyes were watering too much!
As well as walkways and viewpoints, there is a little shopping centre at the top of Victoria Peak and we bought some of our best souvenirs and had some of our better (i.e. edible) food in here. As a tourist place it seemed to be more used to dealing with westerners and their odd food-sensitivities!
Hong Kong Central District
The tram back down put us near St. Johns Cathedral and it was a relatively small walk down to the Harbour area under the shadow of Hong Kongs tallest building, the 2IFC (although it is about to be overtaken by a new building, the ICC). Walking to the Kowloon Ferry we were assailed (and shamed to say caught) by the first suit hustler of many we would soon grow tired of. This guy managed to get us into his shop. There he pressured me in particular to buy one of his suits, then two of his suits. We tried to politely declined but eventually our patience grew shorter as did his. He began to get a little abusive and so we demanded to be allowed to leave. Begrudgingly we got away and vowed never to go near another suit seller in Hong Kong again another of the myths (that of the super cheap tailored suit) completely destroyed.
The Star Ferries across Victoria Harbour are another of Hong Kongs better known attractions and are, in their own way, worthy of the title. They bump and rock across the surprisingly turbulent waters and are full of chattering people which gives them a certain feeling.
They certainly offer some of the best views of Central Hong Kong across the Harbour, dominated by the 2IFC building, but also by the other skyscrapers along the front.
A walkway around Kowloon front gives some excellent views. This is called the Walk of the Stars and features various film-oriented statuary plus the Hong Kong equivalent of the stars set in the pavement that you see in Los Angeles. Not being aficionados of Hong Kong movies we only recognised a few of the names, Jet Li and Jackie Chan for instance. Chan, in particular, is a favourite son of Hong Kong and lends his name to tourist brochures, films and all manner of other promotional items for his native city.
The guidebooks all told us that it was essential to go up the shopping street, Nathan Road, which goes straight through the middle of Kowloon and thus through one of the worlds most densely populated areas. So gamely we set off along the street, but didnt get particular far when we began to tire of being stopped every few feet by yet another person attempting to sell us suits. Before long this became nothing short of annoying and we gave up, turning off the main drag and onto the quieter back streets in some relief. Nathan Road is horrendous, a churning mass of hawkers and suit sellers, none of whom have any sense of personal space or decorum whilst congested traffic chugs out pollution.
We ducked into one of the many underground shopping malls which are dotted all over Hong Kong and thankfully sat down to have a bit of lunch. We managed to find some cakes and drinks from, ironically, Honeymoon Desserts and spent a little while relaxing enough to feel able to go back outside into the heat and chaos.
We were trying to find our way to famous Temple Street Night Market. We did this, in the end, by walking along a dusty and dirty dual carriageway which ran alongside the docks and then, finally, got to the Market just as night was starting to draw in.
Once again, Temple Street Night Market was supposed to be one of Hong Kongs great places to visit and, although there was some nice jade jewellery and other odds and ends for sale, it certainly didnt live up to its reputation and had a rather seedy and slightly dangerous feel not enhanced at all when Jacqui had to find a toilet and was greeted with what can only be politely described as a s**t hole quite literally a hole in which to do the necessary.
We had expected to linger around the Night Market for some time, but in the end we tired of it quite quickly and found a taxi to take us back to Kowloon Harbour, being in no mood to dodge the suit sellers of Nathan Road again.
At the Harbour we were greeted by the magnificent sight of Central Hong Kong lit up for the evening, which to be fair is one of the great urban views to be had on the planet and is one of our better memories of our time in Hong Kong.
We came to the conclusion that Kowloon was worth visiting for the views across the Harbour get off the ferry, walk along the Walk of the Stars, wait for night in the Peninsula Hotel bar, and then go home. Unless your idea of fun is being pestered by the most persistent salespeople on the planet (none of whom, incidentally, were Chinese).
Looking at the map, Andrew made the fateful decision to take the Star Ferry not back to the main terminal by the 2IFC building but to the Hong Kong Exhibition Centre quay which was closer to the hotel. The Ferry itself was no problem, the problem came when we arrived on the other side. Here we found ourselves in a massive car park with no sign of anything like a taxi or other form of transportation. Concern that we might end up walking down one of the huge main roads back to the Hotel began to set in in retrospect that would have been a cakewalk compared to what was to come.
Eventually a taxi did arrive. We got in gratefully and started to head towards our Hotel. We arrived there and the drive drove past it. Initially, we thought this might be something to do with the road system, but as we got further up the hill behind the hotel we began to worry. We started to protest, but our driver said nothing and we continued to head on what would transpire to be the road up into the hills which eventually leads to Stanley (on the opposite side of Hong Kong Island). Our protests began to get louder and more forceful and Jacqui told me very loudly to phone the police on my mobile. She and I both knew that my mobile did not work in Hong Kong, but I nevertheless went through the motions. This, coupled with the fact that we were both much larger than our driver, seems to have changed his mind and we began to head back downhill. Still he seemed less than keen to head to the Hotel but then, with some relief, I recognised the Happy Valley Racecourse and we demanded in no uncertain terms that the driver stop. This time he did. We gave him some money and got out of the taxi very quickly indeed. He drove off and we walked along the side of the Racecourse back to our Hotel. We were angry and a little scared we never used another taxi in Hong Kong again and felt disinclined to go anywhere after dark from hereon in.
The next day we cautiously took a bus across the island (ironically on the same road we had encountered in our night time taxi escapade) to Stanley on the opposite shore of Hong Kong Island.
Stanley was a pleasant enough place, the Market for which it is famous was considerably better than Temple Street a good selection of jade and silks, plus some other goods and a complete lack of suit sellers which was a complete relief. We did, actually, quite enjoy the Stanley Market the only shopping experience in Hong Kong we might feasibly recommend.
Outside we were greeted with a lion dance although for what particular festival we were not sure, we suspected it was just there for the tourists. Be that as it may, it was nice to feel relaxed for a while after the hardships and scares of the previous day.
The bus back took us to our local shopping centre, Causeway Bay, which was only a short distance from our hotel and was served by frequent shuttle buses. Here we did our best to immerse ourselves in the real life of Hong Kong, going into some of the little shops and side markets and also into the massive shopping mall which occupies one building above the Metro Station.
However, we found here, as almost everywhere else in Hong Kong we attracted far too much attention. Particularly Jacqui, one of only three black people we saw in the whole week, to the extent that people would literally stop and stare at us and on one memorable occasion even asked us to pose with them for a photograph.
We did manage to find a passable pasta meal in Hong Kong, having long since wimped out on trying to eat local food, and did stay in Causeway Bay until just after dark before getting the shuttle bus back to the Hotel.
The following day, our last full day in Hong Kong, we had booked up on a tour of the nearby island of Lantau. The coach took us to a little boat which took us to Lantau and another coach. Our first brief stop was on a little beach where people had a quick drink and a comfort break and Jacqui and I had a quick walk and put a toe in the South China Sea.
Then we had our first proper stop at Tai-O, a small traditional fishing village on the island which is built on stilts along the mouth of a river. It felt like a million miles from the chaos and insanity of Hong Kong itself. The village is very ramshackle, and it did feel a little voyeuristic looking around peoples houses. However, the contrast to Hong Kong was startling and it did actually make you think that this is what the whole place would have been like all those centuries ago when the British first turned up and started building.
The last stop on the tour was the one which we had all booked up to come and see the Po Lin Monastery and, more particularly, its Buddha statue known not surprisingly as Big Buddha (more correctly as the Tian Tan Buddha).
Fortunately, our coach driver was feeling kind and took us right up to the base of the Big Buddha, rather than making us walk up the huge steps from the Monastery itself. We all got out and went over to the statue which is gargantuan (not, since 2007, the largest which is more than double its height but still a pretty impressive 110 feet tall and weighing around 250 tons, constructed as recently as 1993).
From here you are afforded a spectacular view down to the Monastery and out across Lantau Island. We now had two choices walk down the steps to the Monastery or get back on the coach and be driven down. Even though the heat on Lantau wasnt quite as oppressive as in Hong Kong town it was still pretty hot so we took the coach!
Before exploring the Monastery we had lunch at the Monks Refectory. This was a fascinating meal of entirely vegetarian dishes including fish and chicken neither of which looked or tasted much like their meat counterparts but which were actually both very nice. This meal was by far the best one we had in our entire trip to Hong Kong!
Then we went off to look around the Monastery. The Monastery dates back to around 1920 and is a Zen Buddhist institution). I took a sneaky photograph of the interior of the main temple (which you werent supposed to do!) and we did a variation on the usual candle-at-a-cathedral routine with incense sticks.
Our last view of Po Lin was at the rotunda near the base of the steps up to the Big Buddha where, having waited for the faithful to finish praying, we got one of the few pictures of us both from the trip.
Our last morning in Hong Kong, we decided to go back up Victoria Peak. However, by this point the weather had changed and the pollution which was previously being blown away (to some extent at least) now was hanging around in big throat-ripping clouds. The views from the Peak were considerably less than on our first visit and after a while the pollution started to make you feel quite ill.
We left for the Airport a massive half empty edifice on our visit having spent plenty of time in Hong Kong. It is easy to see why it has become a stop over destination apart from the day in Lantau we could have seen everything else we had seen in a day or two. We had taken six and it was too long. We left feeling glad we had come but with very mixed feelings and a general air of been there, done that, not going back again.
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