Published: November 29th 2008November 28th 2008
Not having spent a winter in the UK for a couple of years and struggling to reacclimatise to the cold and damp, we headed off to Hong Kong for a week to warm up! My mum Janet wanted to come away with us somewhere, hardly seeing us recently since we've been travelling for two and a half years, and after a bit of a debate we thought that Hong Kong would be somewhere that she would enjoy. It was to be her first experience of Asia, in fact her first trip outside Europe. We wanted to take her somewhere that was as "different" as possible to anywhere she'd been before, but still easy to get around with little hassle. Claire and I had been there before a few years ago, but only on a four day stopover on the way back from three months around SE Asia and Australia and then we'd been too worn out to really get the best from it and we'd had mixed feelings about the place.
Before we ever travelled we thought that Hong Kong was an island, in fact the territory includes about 260 islands but Hong Kong Island isn't even the biggest and
forms only 7% of the whole area. Immediately across Victoria Harbour from the island is the Kowloon Peninsula and then further towards mainland China, the New Territories which make up the majority of the region. They're called new because Britain didn't demand them until around 50 years after it took over Kowloon and the Island, and wheras those areas were granted to Britain "in perpetuity", it slipped up and was only granted the New Territories for 99 years leading to the whole area having to be handed back to China in 1997. Another preconceived idea of Hong Kong is that its horribly crowded, and in fact as a region has the fourth highest population density in the world (6,352 people per square kilometer, compared to 246 for the UK or 2.6 for Australia!), but thats not spread evenly across the territory and many areas are quite hilly and unsuitable for development and so there is quite a lot of unspoilt scenary around and its possible to go walking and get away from the crowds.
We stayed to the west of the Island, in the wholesale dried fish area which we could smell from the tram as we neared our
stop, and our hotel was surrounded with shops selling baskets of occasionally recognisable bits of seafood like sharksfins and sea cucumbers. Sometimes alongside the traffic fumes there would be a rack of fish parts out drying. The fumes weren't as bad as last time we visited, maybe partly because of the time of year, and also because more vehicles are now using LPG. Last time we didn't even bother going to the top of Victoria Peak, the high hill in the centre of the Island, because there wouldn't have been any view, but the smog this year was much better and every day we had pretty clear views across the harbour.
Our top tip for Hong Kong is to get an Octopus Card (like the Oyster Card in the UK) which makes using public transport much easier and saves having to queue for tickets and carrying change around for the trams and buses. They can also be used in lots of shops like 7-11 and Starbucks and you can even buy beer with them at the horseracing! Public transport is excellent and made it easy for use to go down to the south of the island to Stanley Market
and the town of Aberdeen, up nearly to the Chinese border and also explore several of the outlaying islands.
One of these islands was Cheung Chau, "Long Island", where Janet and I spent an interesting few hours. The streets are too narrow for motor vehicles, so there aren't any apart from emergency vehicles. Its fairly well populated and there are lots of shops, so the harbour is busy with boats bringing everything from fish to high definition TVs which all get unloaded onto either hand operated pump trolleys or onto three wheeler little truck things which whizz around the town. We also travelled across Lantau Island (the biggest) to Tai O, a village with stilt houses called pang uk, somewhere that was as different to the stereotypical image of Hong Kong and its skyscrapers as is possible. From Tai O we caught a bus up to Ngong Ping and the Tian Tan Buddha which at 34 metres is the highest outdoor seated Buddha in the world. A 5.7km cable car then goes down from there to Tung Chung for the train back to Hong Kong Island.
Hong Kong is the worlds most vertical city and has more skyscrapers
than anywhere else. The view from the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront on Kowloon looking across the harbour to the Island has gotta be the worlds best cityscape. 38 of the 100 highest buildings are around here, with the highest in Hong Kong still being built on Kowloon. At night the lights and lazers on many buildings flash in time to music, a bit tacky but as the worlds biggest light show definitely worth seeing and it draws large crowds. The biggest crowds we saw though were at the races. Horse racing is massive in Hong Kong, and there are two race courses, one in Happy Valley on the island, and the other (much bigger) at Sha Tin in the New Territories. (Never quite worked out how to pronounce Sha Tin...) We went to Happy Valley and were amazed at how big the stadium is, it holds around 47,000 and looks a bit surreal surrounded by tall blocks of flats. Buying a beer with our octopus card we found a seat next to some guys from the Rhonda Valley and managed to lose every cent we bet.
We stayed a week and could easily have filled a few more days.
Janet in the foreground
Hong Kong was a really good choice of places to take Janet, plenty of varied and often strange sights but easy to get around and apart from a few tailors on Kowloon trying to get me to buy a suit, absolutely no hassle at all. Maybe the weirdest experience was at the airport on the way home when a young guy from Beijing came over and asked us to help him with his English. He was on his way to Thailand to see his girlfriend but was stuck because the airports there were closed. He'd been reading English newspapers and had made a list of words he hadn't understood. Innocent enough to start with, like "review" and "debtor" but then we began to wonder what else he'd been reading when the words changed to things like "erection" and "penetration"! Try explaining them with your mum sitting next to you!
There are more photos below