Hong Kong has over 100-years of history with the UK, its status as an overseas territory ending in 1999 when it was returned to the PRC. With its colonial history evident in its naming conventions (many things being named after Queen Victoria), English as an official second language a modern-day business hub, it is an ideal and easy place to visit in the region – and despite its reputation as a sprawling metropolis – has numerous landscapes, remote and rural areas to explore.
This blog is a record of a visit made in March 2017 – and whilst it perhaps not presently an ideal time to visit due to political tensions (a product of its established Sino-Anglo culture), it is nevertheless well worth a visit when possible. It is advisable to visit outside of the main summer months, as a coastal city it can average 30 degrees and 100% humidity, as well as being monsoonal.
Our first activity was a visit to Victoria Peak – the highest point in the region at 550m high. Whilst there is a tram to the top, this typically involves a queue, whilst following the collection of footpaths to the top gives some pretty spectacular views back across the harbour. From the track you can appreciate the size of the buildings where the sub-tropical forest meets the edge of the city – as well as watching Black Kites soar between the buildings.
From the top, we took the rural track down the opposing side of the mountain; again, away from the city and through mountainous country, before taking a return bus to the city. That first evening we also stopped off in the ‘Golden Computer Arcade’ – think a 4 storey shopping centre dedicated to computer retail and components – and well worth a visit if you’re looking for technology at knock-down prices.
The following day we took a visit to Lantau Island – the largest island in the territory – taking a ferry from Kowloon to Tai O, a fishing village on stilts (I had my first sample of a ‘fish ball’). There was also a number of impressively ornate Confucian temples (there were a lot of these in the area!).
From there we took a bus up to the top of Lantau Island – where there is the famous Tian Tan Buddha and Po Lin monastery. At 34m high, and set on a hilltop its approached via a (very) long stair case and features a museum in its base. The monastery is equally grand, with enormous statues of Buddha. Rather than returning to the city via the Cable Car (because it was closed), we again walked back through the rural country park – a trail of 4-5 miles to the outermost metro station.
Another country park we visited was ‘Lion Rock’, a cliff at the northern edge of Kowloon with a rock trail to the cliff summit and is also a rock-climbing venue. Whilst it typically offers views back towards Hong Kong Island, it was unfortunately cloudy but you can still see the resemblance. Given the inclement weather, we returned to the city centre where we visited the Bird Market and Chinese Gate.
That evening, we also went to explore the fish market (market stalls sell literally thousands of fish, individually bagged, not to mention other aquatic pets, lizards etc), and took a ride on the ‘Star Ferry’ – whilst there are many ferries or tours between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island that offer cityscape views, this public service ferry is still one of the classic experiences; but not missing the laser-light display that takes place every evening on the waterfront.
Another great walk in Hong Kong is the ‘Dragons Back’ a trek running along the top of 7 hills. Whilst exposed, and around 8 miles in length – it is possible to completely forget that the rest of Hong Kong is just around the other side of the island.
Other things not to miss are the ‘ding-dings’ – Hong Kong island has a series of tramways that run across it – with impressively narrow trams that run through the city, and are good fun to ride on, albeit with a rickety feel. Similarly, McDonalds has a number of more unusual options by western standards – they serve ‘Squid Ink’ buns, Taro Pie a hot desert and hot ovaltine as a breakfast drink!
Another notable feature of the city is the many public parks and oriental gardens – immaculately kept, and in some places with large exotic aviaries also open to the Public – using clever architecture to block out the city noise (but with the skyscrapers still evidentially present if you look upwards).
Similarly, the number of temples, shrines and monasteries are equally astounding (and impressive inside) – albeit invariably filled with smoking incense sticks but filled with offerings, statues and exquisite red/gold decorations. One example is the ‘Ten Thousand Buddha’ Temple – its approach winds its way up a hillside lined with statues, before entering a prayer complex with estimated 12,000 Buddhas of varying shape, size and age.
A particularly notable day trip from Hong Kong was to the ex-Portuguese territory of Macau, with numerous number of colonial remnants and a fine castle. We travelled there by Hydrofoil from Hong-Kong – a 40 minute, exciting but quite turbulent ride.
In Macau, some of the best visits are the Mount Fortress, a colonial fortress that gives some good views over Façade of St Pauls – a ruined church in which only the exquisitely carved façade remains.
Also notable is the colonial architecture of the centre and ‘Natas’ – a roasted egg pastry that is a Portuguese delicacy. One of the drawbacks was that Macau was very, very crowded – it is very popular as a tourist destination to the mainlanders – combined with it being the only Chinese territory that allows gambling. However, this didn’t detract from the fun we had.
Another highly interesting day trip was across the border into Shenzhen, in mainland China. It is possible to get a 5-day visa to the Shenzhen region at the border of Hong-Kong, however it is worth noting that they scrutinise your passport heavily (if you have stamps for countries not in good relations with China at that time, you may not be permitted through).
Similarly, the charge for the visa fluctuates depending on that nations present relations with China – when we went through, US citizens were being charged $200 in contrast to UK $40. Further, outside of the Hong Kong SAR the bilingual signage ends completely, as well as a currency change to RMB.
During our day trip – after first having difficulty trying to purchase metro tickets as they use an interest contactless ‘token’ we visited ‘Splendid China’. This was a series of model villages and mock landscapes designed to show all the variety of cultures present within the PRC. Naturally, the scenery, landscaping and detail was fantastic – with an interesting aspect on seeing how they view they’re own influence (according to the model village and display, Tibetan cultures are being ‘enlightened’ from their primitive, pre-annexed ways
The difference in culture was quite profound; prior to crossing back to Hong Kong we had time to visit one of the local parks. En-route, we saw a lady laying flowers and ‘grieving’ underneath a billboard sized poster of Deng Xiaoping – a Chinese premier who died in 1997 and is considered somewhat unsavoury in the Western hemisphere.
This culminated our trip to Hong Kong – however – on the last evening as the weather was clear we climbed the hill behind our accommodation in the HK YHA Mei Ho House, in Sham Shui Po – made out of one of the last surviving ‘H Blocks’ used for resettlement in the 1950s.
We were sad to leave Hong Kong – a sprawling metropolis with but so much to do both in the city and out in the rural countryside. It is unique in the way it merges Chinese and British identities and is certainly worth visiting whether it be for a stopover or dedicated trip.
Blog post written by David Hood
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