“Hong Kong, you impressed me.”
That is not something I say often about a city because I am not at all keen on skyscrapers and concrete jungles but for some reason I really took to Hong Kong. I think it’s the feeling of a city when you go for a walk that either attracts you or makes you feel uncomfortable and out of place. Walking around the streets of Hong Kong surprised me. You’d expect a place of this size to be hectic, rushed, somewhat disorganised and filled with frantic people. Yes, it is busy and there are people everywhere yet, it didn’t make me feel claustrophobic or out of place. I can’t quite put my finger on what it was that makes this city so different.
We had allocated 4 nights in Hong Kong on our way back from Europe. Just a quick stop over to see what this city is like now. Our first visit was just over 20 years ago when flying into Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak International airport was an unforgettable experience. Flying past sky scrapers so close that you could almost see what people had on the dinner table was frightening and there sure was a sigh of relief when the plane had touched down safely.
That has all changed of course with the opening of Chek Lap Kok International Airport on Lantau island, a fair distance away from the city centre. It’s a modern, well organised airport and which is well connected to the rest of Hong Kong and the world.
There were a few things on our “to do” list as we arrived but miserable weather and jet lag caught us off guard, and in the end, we ended up wandering mainly around the area close to our hotel. That is not a bad thing as it drew my attention to “little things”. I started jotting down some points in the form of hashtags and this is how I thought I should share my experience with you. Hopefully you will find it interesting.
Let’s start with the transport options to and from the airport as this is usually what everybody wants to know about before even arriving in any city. Chek Lap Kok airport is linked to the other parts of Hong Kong by train, bus or taxi and of course private transfers. I am the sort of traveller that looks at cost but at convenience as well. The MTR in Hong Kong (public train system), is the cheapest way to get into town (HG$110 one way) but when I get off a long haul flight to a place I am not familiar with and with luggage, I prefer something a little more convenient. We opted for the airport shuttle bus which serves a lot of the major hotels and cost us HK$150 per person. Easy and hassle free.
On the way back to the airport there were 4 of us and we were a little unsure about what to do. I considered checking our luggage in the day prior to departure in town and then take the train early the next day. However, making our way to the office with all our luggage in tow on a miserable day was not appealing.
The shuttle bus was an option but with the 4 of us a taxi turned out to be cheaper. A taxi will set you back around HK$400. The concierge informed us that one taxi was sufficient for the 4 of us including 4 pieces of luggage. My Western brain, worrying about restrictions and health & safety regulations, couldn’t see it work out. But it did. Who said that you have to be able to close the boot?
Public transport in Hong Kong is a breeze.
If you spend more than a couple of days in Hong Kong, it’s well worth buying the Octopus card that will be preloaded with an amount and can be topped up if needed. You can use the complete network with this card. The MTR, local buses, ferries and the old trams on Hong Kong island as well. At the end of your trip you can return the octopus card at the airport and receive a refund of any unused funds minus a small fee.
Public transport is organised, frequent and really easy. It’s clean and yes busy of course. Don’t expect to get a seat all the time, especially not on the MTR.
I think everybody uses it apart from those who show off their fancy luxury cars that are everywhere. Mercedes, Audi, Ferrari, Maserati, just to name a few. They clearly are a status symbol in this city and I could not help but wonder why you would buy a fast car in a place where you spend the majority of time in traffic, small streets or driving slowly around the countless bends. It’s way more fun to sit upstairs on a double decker bus in the first row when it takes these bends.
Be sure to head over to Hong Kong Island with the original Star Ferry and jump on one of the colonial style trams, which gave me a sense of what Hong Kong was like under colonial rule.
As you walk around the city you will come across many building sites. Some are only small and you may think that bamboo scaffolding seems an ok choice. Look up. You will see skyscrapers surrounded by bamboo scaffolding. The stark contrast between ultra modern high rise architecture and the ancient art of bamboo scaffolding is a fascinating sight and in Hong Kong it’s still the primary material of choice. I noticed this all those years ago when visiting Hong Kong for the first time and nothing has changed.
All that is needed for a strong structure are bamboo rods, cutters and plastic fibre straps. Take some time and inspect some of the countless places with bamboo scaffolding.
I have become a lot more adventurous when it comes to trying local foods in the places I travel to. If you are familiar with local food choices in Hong Kong, go for it, but if you are like me picking meals from pictures on Chinese menus without English translations, be aware. The locals use just about every part of an animal and what may look delicious on a picture may be hard to stomach. If it wasn’t for my daughter I would have ended up with intestines and stomach skewers because they looked really good.
Standing in a queue of some sort is a way of life in Hong Kong and not once did I hear anyone complain about it. No rude pushing and shoving or abusive language. There is a way on how it’s done and that’s it. There is one way in and one way out on buses and trams and commuters make one long line patiently waiting their turn to get on. I caught myself a couple of times wondering what was so special that people were lining up along the edge of the footpath in a long row. Turned out they were waiting for the bus. Watch, learn and copy the locals and you will soon get the hang of it even if standing in a queue seems the biggest waste of time. You are on holidays, enjoy the experience.
While the majority of people flock to the shopping malls in Hong Kong, especially on a miserable day, we opted to go for a stroll in the vicinity of our hotel on Hong Kong island. Victoria park was reasonably close by and we walked along Kennedy Street. Here you will find some big retainer walls and some parts are completely covered in the roots of big trees. It’s the seemingly little but unusual things that I find fascinating and that stick in my mind. Interestingly, the practice of planting wall trees, many of them Chinese Banyan trees, dates back to before World War II when masonry retainer walls were constructed to avoid landslides. The tree roots further strengthen these walls and over time large trees played an important part in improving air quality while also providing habitats for birds and insects.
I highly recommend a walk along some of the areas that still have stone wall trees as they are artistically shaped and part of Hong Kong’s history.
Hong Kong is a great city to visit and I can see how some travellers make this their primary destination while others just like to spend a few days here. There is lots to do other than shopping and I highly recommend grabbing a travel guide and make a short list of things and places that interest you.
I consider it to be one of the best stopover destinations in Asia and thanks to airlines such as Lufthansa and Cathay now forming alliances and offering amazing airfares to Europe, it is a fantastic alternative to long established routes via Singapore and the Middle East. Hong Kong also makes a great stopover for onward travel to Japan with Cathay Pacific serving both, Narita and Hanida international airports in Tokyo as well as other major cities within this popular destination.