I sat on a ledge by a large window, knocking my spectacles against the glass and looking down upon what seemed like all of Hong Kong. The island of Hong Kong in one view and then, as I moved along the 360 degree panorama, the Kowloon Peninsula. On the one hand, the high-rise landscape of this teeming world city; and on the other, the horizontal invitation of the sea with ferries, boats and vessels dotting the blue. It wasn’t Man vs. Nature so much as Man and Nature settling down together after much jostling, shoving and fractious elbowing. Affording me all this wonderful perspective was a superb vantage point–I was at the Sky 100 Hong Kong Observation Deck, the 100th floor of the 114-storied International Commerce Centre on Victoria Harbour. Designed with large glass windows, informative placards and interactive gizmos, it was a fantastic introduction to the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong.
This was a mixed jumble of a trip. The advantages of Hong Kong were unmissable: its glitzy malls, its fabulous food, so many fun things to do, and of course the infrastructure. I gawked in a very country cousin fashion at the wonderful underwater tunnels that seemed to defy the laws of nature, the superb transportation system that included taxis, trains, buses, trams and ferries, which make short work of getting around a region that spreads across some 260-odd islands.
On the other hand, I was told that Hong Kong had another, almost secret side–the outdoors. It is true that this is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, but the policies of the British, the region’s erstwhile rulers, ensured that the built-up area was restricted to less than 25 per cent of land area–the rest is taken up by woodlands, mountains and grasslands. Which made a leisurely walkabout a very pleasant prospect indeed.
But quite a bit of my sojourn was spent in the city. A glimpse into the movie world of the Far East was laid out in the Avenue of Stars at Tsim Sha Tsui, where youngsters took broad-grinned selfies next to a sculpture of the iconic Bruce Lee and pored over hand prints of various celebrities pressed into concrete. I took a bus tour that pointed out notable features and presented a scratchy history, and then I went on a rather exciting visit to Ocean Park, which is a theme park as well as a zoo. Apart from an impressive list of oceanic life, it also houses a menagerie with some local fauna. I was quite taken with the Sichuan golden snub-nosed monkey (a dear creature), the giant panda (eating what else but shoots), and the very charming red panda (also called the firefox).
Over the days, we ate out at a series of elegant places, absorbed the high-octane vibe of the city, and walked into several high-end malls, where I considered garments with designer labels and prohibitive price tags, red hot shoes, and bags to utterly die for. I walked about in the throbbing entertainment hub, along the upmarket Lan Kwai Fong where long queues of the fashionable awaited entry into a much-sought-after clubhouse. Soon enough, the glitz started to hurt my eyes and I looked for the calming influence of nature and fresh air.
Happily, I was able to go for a walk one morning along the beautiful Bowen Road, a four kilometre arborous trail that’s a favourite with joggers. The track dips and climbs and lets you look down on nice views of Central and Wan Chai neighbourhoods. I stopped for breath and found sturdy, interesting looking shoots of bamboo by the path–a closer inspection revealed poetry etched all over them...beautiful calligraphy by a person or persons unknown. I looked down for a few peaceful moments at the aqueduct that the road is built upon, staggered up to a shrine called Lover’s Rock that promises marital bliss to those who propitiate here, and came back to the hotel, glad to have worked up a sweat. The next day was marked by squalls but, undeterred, we pushed on to the village of Ngong Ping on Lantau Island. The route to Big Buddha, a 34m-tall bronze statue of the Buddha Amoghasiddhi, is accomplished by way of cable car. The gondola glided smoothly over hilly terrain and its glass floor made it possible to see the land and flowing rivulets beneath. As we approached the village though, it was the Buddha himself who had us transfixed. It is a particularly aesthetic piece of work–his face is utterly serene, his spine is typically erect but a very slight bend of the back robs the pose of rigidity, giving us a sweet sense of his compassion. It takes 268 steps to reach his feet and the view of Lantau’s peaks is worth every one of them.
Lunch was scheduled at Po Lin monastery and was touted to be an all-vegetarian fare. We were hungry when we ordered but that can’t explain the experience of eating there. Was it a quality of devotion that went into the cooking of their generous array of noodles, rice, rolls, vegetables and broth? Or the fact that we were seated in hallowed precincts? Whatever it was, the quality of sattva leaped off the table as they started to serve. We ate lavishly, I remember, and were replete; in fact, soul-satisfied.
The next day saw me at the ferry with my guide Michael–and how vastly different was the island we pulled away from compared to the island we docked at! Lamma Island is a sleepy little place, where it is prohibited to have buildings with more than three stories and what’s more, no cars! There is a lovely trail here that would take us a couple of hours to walk and I was excited. Even as we walked out of the pier, we came to a long line of seafood restaurants that the village of Sok Kwu Wan is famous for. Lobsters, prawns, squid, clams of several kinds, squilla shrimp, at least half a dozen species of groupers–live seafood stored in saltwater compartments; simply point and order, and watch the waters as you wait for your food cooked as fresh as it can get. I passed a mahjong parlour in which two elderly gents pored over their tiles, and would have entered to take a closer look but Michael held me back. There were probably considerable amounts riding on the outcome, I learned–distractions in the form of interested tourists would be frowned upon.
We paid our respects to Tin Hau, the Goddess of the Sea, at a temple that stands quite at the beginning, and set off. The trail, alas, was a paved one but the disappointment of not finding a soft track wore off as the trees closed in picturesquely on the path. I had read of the Kamikaze caves and was keen to take a look–these, it turned out, were natural rock grottos that dotted the island and the Japanese had had a daring plan for their use. Speed boats would lie in wait in these caverns and launch suicidal attacks on Allied warships when they passed by. But it came to naught for the war ended before the necessary alterations could be made, and so the Kamikaze caves are named after the idea rather than the fact of it. Well, then.
It started to pour as we walked and it was lovely to look on as rain clouds worked furiously for miles into the sea. We celebrated the end of the walk with bean curd gelatin dessert–a delicacy, I learnt, that was a favourite of actor Chow Yun Fat’s, who grew up on this island. The market at Lamma Island reveals the predominantly expat population that makes it home. A shop full of cat-themed products, for instance, and several rather nice eateries. For lunch, I tried an intriguing (and successful) concoction of chopped pineapple in herbed rice at the Green Cottage in Yung Shue Wan village before we headed back again.
The morning away only highlighted the contrasts that Hong Kong presents. Standing by the water at Harbour City, people around me relaxing over drink and food at outdoor tables, I watched as the sun went down and the lights of Hong Kong took over. Each building had running lights set across in various patterns, beams of fluorescent colour were hurled from rooftops and the whole city, it seemed, had conspired to delight its citizens with a light show–for no special reason whatsoever. I remembered being told that that the Urdu word for city–shahar–derives from ashharr or lights. And I remembered Faiz who once beseeched the glittering city to keep the lamp-wicks high. Hong Kong heeds the poet and, every evening, it turns up the flame.
All the Indian metros are connected to Hong Kong via direct and onestop flights. Fares cost upwards of â‚¹26,000 (round trip, economy). Visas The Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong offers visa on arrival to Indian citizens for visits of less than 14 days. For longer visits, apply to the Chinese Consulate General in Mumbai (â‚¹2,400; 11th Floor, Nariman Bhavan, 227, Backbay Reclamation, Nariman Point; 022-66324303/4/5/6; mumbai. chineseconsulate.org).
1HK$ = â‚¹8 (approx.)
Where to Stay
It goes without saying that you are spoilt for choice when it comes to accommodation in this city. I stayed at the fairly new, award-winning Hotel Indigo (from HK$2,300 plus taxes; hotelindigo.com) in the humming entertainment district of Wan Chai. The all-glass front gives spectacular views of the neighbourhood and there is a glass-bottomed infinity pool on the 29th floor for more thrills, if you can take it. On the higher scale, there is the superbly styled The Upper House (from HK$4,500; upperhouse. com) on Queensway, designed by Andre Fu. On Lantau Island, you might be happy with the almost-seaside resort Auberge (from HK$1,490; aubergediscoverybay.com), which has great views. Reasonably priced and rather more quirky is Pentahotel Pentahotel (from HK$704, pentahotels.com) in Kowloon–a hip, edgy option for high-end backpackers. Getting around The SAR of Hong Kong comprises the eponymous island, Kowloon and the New Territories (both on the mainland), as well as the Outlying Islands. The public transport system is well-integrated and includes the MTR, ferries, buses, trams and taxis. It makes sense to invest in the travel Octopus (octopus.com.hk), an electronic smart card that allows you to hop on and off trains, trams, subways, buses, and ferries without worrying about purchasing tickets each time or fumbling for exact change. It costs a minimum of HK$150 including a refundable deposit of HK$50.
What to See & Do
Take a trip up to Sky 100 Hong Kong Observation Deck (HK$168 for adults, HK$118 for children below 11; sky100.com.hk) for a 360 degree view of the famous city skyline. Not only is the view excellent, the elevator is an extra thrill–the ride up to 393m, that is, the 100th floor, takes precisely 60 seconds.
A trip to Ocean Park (HK$320 for adults, $160 for children below 11; oceanpark.com.hk) is very much in order. It features a marine mammal park, an oceanarium, and a small collection of local terrestrial fauna. I caught my first ever look of penguins in the flesh, and the rides are super fun too.
Visit the Ngong Ping village on Lantau Island to see the Big Buddha (a day pass costs from HK$225; np360.com.hk). The 5.7km cable ride is impressive with great views of the South China Sea, there is a kung fu show, and shops with some rather nice souvenirs as well.
Walk the 6km family trail on Lamma Island. A 30-minute ferry ride from Central Pier 4 brings you to Sok Kwu Wan village.
The Avenue of Stars at Tsim Sha Tsui has hand and footprints of a galaxy of movie stars pressed into concrete, and it’s a pleasant enough walk.
For the city’s sights, take a tour with the Big Bus Company (24-hour hop-on, hop-off package; HK$380 for adults, HK$280 for children; bigbustours.com). Plug in the headphones and listen to the narration as you pass the landmarks.
Walk about Soho and Lan Kwai Fong for their throbbing nightlife, and a series of excellent art galleries.
Where to Eat
The need for authentic Chinese drew us to the Lei Garden Restaurant (lei garden.hk) in Tsim Sha Tsui, where you must try their signature red date cake. Everything was superlatively cheesy at the European-styled Classified (classifiedfood.com) in the Tai Hang area. The salads were attractive, the pizzas delectable, and the selection of cheese was superb. In spite of the heavy dinner, we managed to tuck into the delicious and light local desserts at the very popular Xia Tian Gu (852-28826133). I also particularly enjoyed our meal at BLT Steak at Harbour City in Tsim Sha Tsui, where they offered us some world-class popovers. For its range of congee, soups, rolls and steady stream of aromatic tea, I relished my dinner at the Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop (tasty.com.hk) in Happy Valley. At Ngong Ping, you must eat the all-vegetarian fare at the Po Lin Monastery kitchens (plm.org. hk) and on Lamma Island, do try the exotic Green Cottage (852-2982634) at Yung Shue Wan village.
Hong Kong Tourism Board has an excellent application that you must download if you mean to wander off on your own. Available at discoverhongkong.com, this rather neat program uses Augmented Reality (AR) technology–point your camera and let your app recognise where you are! Plus it has a few interesting trails–heritage, architecture and so on–marked out for you with accompanying information, eateries in the vicinity and much more. Quite invaluable.
This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of Outlook Traveller