Inevitably, our departure from the UK and Europe in mid-October after a stay of a very enjoyable four months heralded a series of fond farewells to family and friends, including an invitation to a superb lunch with Elaine’s parents at The Chestnut Horse, Easton near Winchester. Here’s then to the next time we are in those latitudes, when we will do our utmost to meet up with those who we were unable to fit in!
We decided to break our journey back to Thailand by flying via Hong Kong, which Bob had never visited and Elaine had briefly in 1990 before the handover in 1997. Much had changed in the intervening 24 years so it was a voyage of discovery for us both to what turned out to be an ultra-modern, vibrant, world class arena. A fascinating city that never sleeps …
The efficient Airport Express rail link from the airport on Lantau Island to Central district on Hong Kong Island, and the free shuttle bus to the Island Pacific Hotel had us settled in to our 18th floor room with its view over the harbour before lunch, and we spent the rest of the day recovering from the only slight effects of jet lag before going exploring.
Archaeological findings date the first human settlements to 30,000 years ago, and Hong Kong Island was incorporated into China during the Qin Dynasty. The island became a British Colony in January 1841, and then Kowloon was ceded to Great Britain in 1860. The New Territories were subsequently leased in 1898 for a term of 99 years. There are many Outlying Islands off the New Territories, the largest being Lantau, which is also home to the Hong Kong International Airport.
The population was estimated to be 7.2 million in 2013, of which 95% are Han Chinese, with immigrants of Filipinos, Indonesians and Thais, whilst there are a significant number of Aussies, Europeans, Japanese and N Americans, so creating a truly international metropolis.
We think we made the most of our opportunity to explore Hong Kong – by every conceivable means of public transport and of course …
We used the pay-on-exit double decker tram or ‘ding ding’ from the hotel to ‘Central’ taking us past dried fish merchants selling anything from sea cucumbers to sharks’ fins and seemingly every conceivable and inconceivable Chinese fish delicacy in between, often found drying by the roadside. Fragrant Harbour, as Hong Kong is otherwise known, is definitely a misnomer in this area! Seeing expensive birds’ nest end products for sale, took us right back to last October in Kumai, Indonesia where we witnessed swifts nesting in ‘silos’ thus manufacturing the ‘raw’ material. See blog post Orangutans in Borneo.
On our first full day we took a shortened tram ride east, as unfortunately the Protests in Admiralty where the government offices are, prevented our freedom to visit this area. But the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator combination of moving stairs and travelators, which is the longest in the world, provided an alternative and interesting opportunity to get an idea of the sheer scale of the city and harbour.
We walked back down through the Zoological Gardens, and to our surprise saw ring tailed lemurs, which we hope to see in their natural environment next year in Madagascar. As we reached the lower levels there was a Spanish festival taking place, all adding to the vibrant atmosphere of the city.
Day 2 took us by bus to Stanley in the south east of the island, famous for its clothes and handicraft markets. On the way we saw Aberdeen fishing harbour and Repulse Bay with its residential buildings, one owned by The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels Ltd. The buildings are known for the square “hole” in the centre of this massive block of apartments, purportedly added for feng shui purposes.
A new iPhone for Elaine took us to Kowloon by the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), but first we visited Diamond Hill Nan Lian Gardens and the adjoining Chi Lin Nunnery – an oasis of calm surrounded by flyovers, high rises and shopping malls. Here we chanced upon a charming Exhibition of Chinese Enamel Wares and Japanese Cloisonné Enamels. Photographs were not allowed, but it was intriguing to see the intricate work on creating enamelware, and the exquisite finished articles, some dating back hundreds of years.
Then on to Mong Kok, a busy shopping area, known for its electronics and street markets. This was and still is a major protest area, and it was fascinating to see the major thoroughfares occupied by students who had created very efficient barricades.
To finish the day off we enjoyed a prime table at an Italian restaurant with al fresco dining, on Kowloon waterfront, watching the laser show on HK Island, with the city so brilliantly lit with its backdrop of the almost vertical slopes of the hill. We returned using the Star Ferry, a 10 minute trip across the harbour on one of the two tier green and white ferries plying between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon since 1898.
Eating out in the evenings was always an interesting experience, but the Greek restaurant Santorini in SoHo, just off the Mid levels escalator was excellent, and the area is popular with western tourists. We also had a couple of very tasty and cheap meals near the hotel in a typical Hong Kong canteen style restaurant.
By night Hong Kong comes alive with its high end fashion and haute couture labels in neon lights and for his fans, George is there too … sadly only as a huge poster.
On our penultimate day we took the MTR to Lantau Island, and then the 5.7 km cable car ride to Ngong Ping 360 Village with its temples at Po Lin monastery and the biggest open air bronze Buddha in the world – the Tin Tan Buddha. Perhaps we are being complacent when we remark on our slight disappointment at the overall vista and what we considered to be a big tourist trap with its fast food outlets and tourist souvenir shops. Have we been spoiled by our wonderful experiences in Penang and Phuket we wonder?
After some last minute shopping we took the world’s steepest funicular railway to Victoria Peak at 1800 ft. We arrived at sunset on the Look Out at The Peak Tower, and watched as the city lights came on well below us, and further up the hill some of the world’s most expensive properties, owned by billionaire tycoons. Dinner on our last evening had been booked at ‘The Peak Lookout’, away from the madding crowds visiting the fast food outlets, where we found peace and great views looking NW over the city.
So after six days we can safely say there is something for everyone, we have ‘done’ the main sights and now continue our journey to Thailand.