Cartoon figure on
Kowloon's Avenue of the Stars
2008 I was lucky enough to win a month-long scholarship to Cardiff
University, thanks to the British High Commission and Air New
Zealand. On the way back I had a frantic, and fabulous, 48-hour
stopover in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong in 48
Exploring Hong Kong’s hectic
blend of east and west during an all too short stopover
Monday, 3.50pm: Flight NZ38 drops
through the clouds, revealing towering apartment blocks crowded around the
fringes of a rugged island.
The airport’s so big I have to catch a train
just to get to baggage reclaim — but, unlike Heathrow, it’s clean, spacious
and easy to navigate.
4.30pm: Find out the fast train to the
city costs HK$100 (NZ$16); take a double-decker bus instead for one third
the price. Great views as the highway island-hops to the city via a series
of giant suspension bridges and plunges into Kowloon’s chaotic streets.
6.10pm: Pick a cheap guest house in the
crumbling Mirador Mansions, on Kowloon’s main drag and next door to the
infamous backpacker ghetto Chungking Mansions. It’s more of a 16-storey slum
than a mansion; the first room I’m shown is windowless and so small I can
only lie down in the foetal position — lesson No. 1 on the value of space in
6.15pm: Take a triple room instead,
which has a window and a view of the neon-lit street 13 floors below. Even
the triple room is so small it’d be hard work getting three people in at
once. However, it’s spotless and even the air-con works. I’m just mystified
by the tap above my pillow.
7pm: Stroll down to the waterfront,
ignoring the hawkers of fake Rolexes. I’m gobsmacked by the skyline of Hong
Kong Island across the water — it’s like Manhattan with mountains.
7.20pm: Discover one of Hong Kong’s
great bargains — the ferry between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island costs just
HK$1.70 (30c), or a few cents more to perch on the upper deck. The view of
the city lights across the water is sublime.
As the ferry pulls in, it’s hit by the wake of
a passing ship and lurches violently. A gaggle of schoolgirls is flicked off
the gangway and lands squealing on the deck.
9.30pm: Wander to the Temple St night
market, several blocks of glaring neon, novelty ties, clothes, tourist tat
and fortune tellers. Everywhere people are tucking into mountains of food —
but, somehow, the only fat people you see are Westerners.
Hong Kong Island skyline
11.10pm: As I head back to the
‘Mansions’ I’m puzzled by the nice ladies offering me reflexology sessions.
If they’re selling foot massages how come they’re offering to come
back to my room for HK$250 an hour?
Tuesday, 9.30am: Sleep right through
the alarm and wake up late; I blame the jet lag. Hit my head on the tap as I
9.45am: Give up waiting for the lift
and walk down 13 storeys of stairs, past shrines and smoking incense,
laundry draped over bamboo poles, betel juice splatters on the walls, and
wrinkled old women sweeping the corridors.
10am: Take a picnic breakfast (ice
coffee and a chocolate bun that looks like a UFO rendered in dough) to the
waterfront Avenue of the Stars, Hong Kong’s equivalent of Hollywood’s Walk
of Fame. Watch as crowds of Chinese tourists try out Jackie Chan’s handprint
for size or pose in front of Bruce Lee’s statue. I’m still amazed by the
skyline, the helicopters buzzing from hotel roofs, and the endless
procession of barges, ferries and fishing boats. One tiny boat is bravely
weaving between the freighters as the fishermen cast out their nets.
Beijing couple pose with
Bruce Lee statue
10.50am: The sun breaks through the
cloud. The temperature soars from the merely sweltering to borderline
intolerable. Regret not packing shorts.
11.30am: Catch a ferry back to Hong
Kong Island. An elevated walkway to the city takes me high above bustling
streets from one air-conditioned shopping mall to another. The shopping is
possibly outstanding, but I wouldn’t know. However, I can report the public
toilets are free, spotless, and manned by uniformed attendants handing out
12 noon: I take a peek inside architect
Norman Foster’s acclaimed HSBC headquarters, a modern-day cathedral to
banking with a 10-storey atrium. It was apparently the world’s most
expensive building when it opened in 1985. When I try exploring further a
security guard sends me back downstairs, firmly but with exquisite
1.05pm: Take the Central to Mid-Levels
escalator. ‘So whoopdie-doo,’ I hear you say — but this is no ordinary
escalator. Each morning it takes tens of thousands of commuters 800m from
the apartment blocks crowding Mt Victoria’s slopes down to the CBD; every
day at 10.20am it reverses direction.
Riding Hong Kong's
1.15pm: Hop off at Hollywood Rd, Hong
Kong’s antiques strip. Turns out to be a bit of a tourist trap, but I also
stumble on a bustling market offering mystery fruit, live fish, meat, and
traditional cafes with vast lunchtime queues spilling from the doors.
Squeeze next to four ladies at a cafe and, finding the menu is Chinese
only, I order by pointing at someone else’s noodle soup and get almost what
I want. Congratulate myself for doing well with the chopsticks — until a
waiter rushes over with a fork and napkin, deep concern etched on his
2pm: Visit Man Mo Temple. The temple is
surrounded by highrises but inside it’s another world, the air thick with
smoke from hundreds of incense coils suspended from the ceiling.
2.45pm: Head back to the escalator,
which then zig-zags between a forest of soaring apartment blocks. Wander
down to the botanical gardens via a series of walkways and flyovers, like a
pedestrian-only Spaghetti Junction.
3.30pm: Visit another architectural
marvel, the 70-storey Bank of China. Ask if I can check out the view and —
despite my by now dishevelled appearance — security guards point me to the
ear-popping, high-speed lift.
Incense coils in Man Mo
4.15pm: Hop on the Peak Tram, a
funicular railway that climbs 1.4km up Victoria Peak. In places the track
climbs by almost 30 degrees; I try not to think about what would happen if
the cable snaps. Watch as the city’s skyscrapers drop away beside the rails.
4.30pm: The passengers are disgorged
into Peak Tower, the inevitable shopping centre with a viewing deck charging
I find that the view from a free lookout two minutes’ walk away is just as
stunning, even with the mist swirling around. The cool breeze is a relief
after the stickiness of the city; I take a siesta of sorts, and walk part of
a 3km trail that loops round the peak. With dusk approaching the forest
comes alive with birds, frogs and insects.
7.30pm: Find a supermarket among the
Peak’s glitzy restaurants and buy a couple of beers to savour at the lookout
as the city lights come on — the high point of my stay in Hong Kong, in
8.35pm: Take a bus, then the ferry back
The author at Victoria
11pm: Wander back to the night market
and find a table at a busy outdoor restaurant. I go for the fried dried
seafood with chilli, cashews and a mystery vegetable (NZ$9). Superb.
11.10pm: I find the restaurant also
employs beer girls — pretty young women whose only job is to bring you more
beer. Proof, in case you still needed it, that this is a highly civilised
Alas, my beer girl claims to be shy and won’t be in a photo. Instead I make
friends with Yomu, a lovely lad visiting from Hunan Province.
Wednesday, 8.30am: Breakfast aboard the
ferry to Hong Kong Island (samosas from a tiny Indian stall), and a last
look at that glorious skyline.
9.15am: Arrive at Two IFC, one of the
world’s tallest buildings. The girl at the desk tells me the viewing deck
doesn’t open until 10am, and suggests I visit the mall. As much as I loathe
shopping I take her advice and cool off in the air conditioning.
Yomu and friends
10.02am: A high-speed lift flings me to
the 55th floor. Nice that it’s free, but no view’s quite the same through a
thick layer of glass. Besides, the observation level is a good 100m shy of
the top floor.
10.30am: Catch a ferry to Mui Wo on
Lantau Island. The one-hour crossing costs just $2; you can pay double that
to be sealed inside a cabin, but I’d rather be on the open deck, lashed by
spray and squalls. Lantau is home to a giant bronze Buddha on a mountain
peak; conveniently, it’s also home to the airport.
12.20pm: Arrive at Po Lin Monastery
after a winding bus trip into the hills; climb 260 steps into the mist to a
giant Buddha I can’t see. I do see, however, see a crystal reliquary
containing a sliver of bone from, apparently, the real Buddha. I cap off the
visit with a pilgrim’s meal served with a dose of grammatically suspect
Buddhist wisdom: ‘Don’t afraid of becoming poor, what we have got in our
live is not decided by us, but our fate.’
Pilgrim's meal at Po Lin
1.45pm: Consider taking a bus around
the island to the airport, but seeing it’s just 7km in a direct line from
the monastery, I take a gamble and walk cross-country. I pray I don’t get
lost in the mist and miss my flight, but the track is clearly marked as it
drops through lush forest echoing with chants from another monastery. Pass
grey-robed monks digging vegetable patches and iridescent blue butterflies
the size of sparrows.
2.55pm: Emerge from the bush on the
edge of a small town of huge apartment blocks. Within minutes a bus turns up
and whisks me the last few kilometres to the airport.
3.30pm: Check-in. Vow to come back to
Hong Kong — but next time I’ll make sure I have more than 48 hours.
First published in the
Northern Advocate, July 2008.
Walking path across Lantau