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<< Day 15: Chao Long to Hong Kong
Hong Kong and Home
The island of Hong Kong exuded a vibe that was distinct from the other places we had visited in China.
Until 1997, it had been a colony of Britain, and it still retains a degree of autonomy, with separate legal systems and a free-market economy. Passports are stamped when entering from mainland China, as if you are entering another country. The Chinese language in Hong Kong is Cantonese, not Mandarin. English is widely spoken, however, and we caught snippets of many other European languages as we walked through the downtown area.
Hong Kong was a part of China, yet apart. And it was a fitting place to begin the transition process of ending our journey and returning home.
We had one glorious day to explore Hong Kong. And we made the most of it.
Much has been written about the magnificent downtown skyline. We selected our hotel for its prime location and, most of all, its view—which was just as spectacular this morning as it had been last night.
Since we were going to be in Hong Kong such a short time, we splurged with our hotel—not for deluxe service or pampering from the staff (which we didn’t get, but didn’t expect or want anyway). No, we were here strictly for the view.
Our hotel, the Bishop Lei International House, is run by the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, and the rooms are available to anyone. We stayed on the top floor, with a small sun room and outdoor balcony.
Our room had two levels, with a spiral staircase connecting the sitting area with a large bedroom.
The panorama outside our windows made us as giddy as kids in a candy shop. “Come see, come see!” “Look over there!” We never got tired of looking.
Down below us was the Catholic Church, squeezed on all sides by tall buildings.
A rowdy repetitive call came from the trees to our right—we later tracked the call to an energetic gibbon that lived in the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens.
The downtown area of Hong Kong is built on the slope of a hill that gradually ascends until it reaches Victoria Peak. Our hotel was located in an area known as the “mid-levels”, presumably because it was around the mid-way point up the hill.
We were all in a free-flowing mood today. We wanted to just wander and explore Hong Kong at a relaxed pace. We got out our map and traced a walking route from the hotel to the entrance of a tram that went to the top of Victoria Peak. Off we went!
Our walking path initially wound down and under an elevated roadway.
Then the path crossed through the peaceful sanctuary of the Zoological and Botanical Gardens. There is no admission fee. The exhibits were small but well-maintained, with homes for animals such as the ring-tailed lemur from Madagascar, the golden agouti from South America, and the buff-cheeked gibbons that we had heard calling all morning.
This vocal gibbon was the one whose bellows had reached our hotel room.
We also loved the large but slow-moving spurred tortoises from the Sahara Desert.
On the far side of the Gardens was a memorial gateway dedicated to the Chinese who had died for the Allied cause during the two World Wars.
Continuing downhill, we were moving faster than the red taxis stuck in bumper to bumper traffic.
There was a wide range of architecture.
The office of the Consulate General of the United States is the “go to” place for visa or passport issues—luckily, we had no need for those services during our trip.
This tree appeared to have a second, parasitic tree growing around it.
Even with our map and an address, we couldn’t find the entrance to the tram ride. We stopped and asked two very nice police officers (who spoke English) for directions, and they pointed right behind us. How did we miss it?
Riding the Peak Tram has been on most tourists’ “to do” list since 1888, when the first group was hauled to the top of Victoria Peak. There is usually a steady stream of people waiting in line for tickets.
After purchasing our tickets, we waited in another line to reach the tram boarding area. Here are Ben and the kids on the side of the empty tram rails.
The tram route cut uphill through trees and thick foliage, and there were no views until we reached the peak.
Genevieve, on the tram:
At the top, we were deposited into the bowels of a multilevel shopping area, which we hadn’t expected. There were no clear signs on whether to take the escalators up or down to exit, and we ended up choosing the wrong direction. Eventually, we escaped. Thankfully, there was no fire, or we would have been in big trouble, rushing from one side to another, looking for the exit doors.
The shopping mall is also known as Peak Tower.
It was completed in 1997 and designed by a British architect who created a “wok” shape on the top.
A paved walkway led north past the tower and offered sweeping views of the downtown and harbor.
We then consulted a large map exhibit near the tower, and decided to walk down the squiggly white line labeled “Old Peak Road” (zigzagging under the “You Are Here” marker on the map).
The road was pedestrian only, and we had it all to ourselves.
Green plants seemed to cover everything around us. Many of the tree trunks we passed were adorned with small round leaves, like jewels.
Old Peak Road led us down, down, down, until we eventually reached the Zoological and Botanical Gardens. Earlier, I had noticed a sign pointing the way to a playground. We found the sign again and followed the arrow, only to discover that the area was designed for toddlers and very young children. However, there was a set of swings that Genevieve and Sebastian enjoyed.
On my city map, I noticed that another “children’s play area” was located in Hong Kong Park, a few blocks away. This one was much bigger and had long slides and equipment that were just right for Genevieve and Sebastian.
There were signs all around the park announcing that the play area was disinfected 4 times a day. The signs also provided a list of things to do to prevent the spread of swine flu, including washing your hands, no spitting, and wearing a mask if you have any flu symptoms.
In the trees that ringed the play area were large parrots, perched in the uppermost branches.
How do you feel today, Genevieve?
After the children finished playing, we headed west through the busy city streets. We walked past many clothing shops, businesses, restaurants, and art galleries. Here is my favorite gallery exhibit:
New buildings contrasted with old buildings.
Cutting from north to south, and making the Hong Kong slopes easier to navigate, were the Central-Mid-levels escalators—a half mile of escalators and moving walkways that the Guinness Book of World Records proclaims to be the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world.
Our hotel was located near the top of the escalator system, and we had ridden a portion of the escalators last night, getting to and from our dinner restaurant. Today we decided to follow the escalators all of the way down to the bottom of the hill.
Since it was the afternoon, the escalators were flowing uphill in order to accommodate the flow of people returning home from work. (They flow downhill in the morning.) We ended up walking down many stairs, located on the side of the escalators.
The escalators were often floated high in the air, which gave a good view of the streets below.
One portion of the escalator system passed through an exhibit area that had large sculptural figures.
Sebastian liked the girl wearing a bear costume.
The escalator route deposited us in the flat area (near Connaught Road Central). We refreshed ourselves with some ice-cream, found an electronics shop to replace the iTouch charger that we had inadvertently left behind in Chao Long, and also spent some time selecting books for each of us in an English bookstore chain called Dymocks.
We then rode the escalators all of the way to the top (about 20 minutes), and walked back down a short distance to our hotel.
Genevieve, going up!
At the top of the escalators:
Tonight for dinner, we rode the escalators partway down to reach a Vietnamese restaurant that was recommended in our Lonely Planet guidebook. We were dismayed to find the restaurant completely packed, with a line of people (mostly Westerners) waiting for a table. Abandoning our guide book, we walked around the block and found Ser Wong Fun, next to the escalators.
We peeked in and saw lots of Chinese people eating from plates heaped with delicious looking food. There was one empty table in the middle. A smiling waiter waved us inside, motioning to the table. He immediately brought us hot tea and English menus with pictures. I scoped out the food on the tables around us and ordered a noodle dish that wasn’t on the menu, plus some fried squid, shrimp, pork and green beans, and rice. It was all very good, and the service was excellent. What a find!
We hurried back to the hotel so that we could catch the Symphony of Lights, a free nightly show involving laser beams, searchlights and colored lights that are synchronized to music. According to the Hong Kong Board of Tourism, the show creates “a stunning, unforgettable spectacle”. The best place to watch is supposed to be down at the harbor or from a boat in the bay. We knew we wouldn’t be able to hear the music from our hotel, but we figured we would be able to see the bright beams shooting skyward and also enjoy the skyscraper lights.
I think that we were just too far away to appreciate the experience. We didn’t see any laser beams or searchlights, but we did see lights go on and off on some of the buildings. Here you can see the colorful tops of two buildings:
And the criss-cross lights on the Bank of China building did go off and on:
We lingered, savoring the view long after the light show finale. The spiky top of the Two International Finance Center both intrigued and repelled us.
We all agreed that the building looked like it could be the headquarters for the Evil Empire.
On the way to the airport the next morning, we passed over the magnificent Stonecutter’s bridge, completed in December 2009.
It spans almost a mile and is the second longest cable-stayed bridge in the world (the first is also in China, over the Yangtze River).
Some new apartment buildings:
Genevieve was not feeling well this morning. I will be eternally grateful for the patience and kind heart of our airport taxi driver, who did not speak very much English but who must have been a dad because he was so relaxed and calm, with eyes that didn’t even flicker toward the back seat when Genevieve got sick.
We had almost a 3-hour wait at the airport. Here is Genevieve in front of a children’s mural:
We flew directly from Hong Kong to San Francisco. The time in Hong Kong is 15 hours ahead of California. The kids were fascinated to learn that we were arriving home at 8:45 a.m., which is 3 hours before the time we had left Hong Kong that morning (11:45 a.m.).
“How was China?” our friends would ask over the next few weeks. China was many things to us—exciting, full of rich history, constantly changing, overwhelming at times, diverse, visually stunning, polluted in places, crowded, peacefully serene. How do we explain all of that in a short response? The answer: “Amazing.” Yes . . . it was amazing.
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