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Published: January 28th 2009
Hong Kong (January 10th - 20th 2009) Main sights:
The Peak, Giant Buddha, Ngong Ping 360, Po Lin Monastery, Hong Kong Museum of History, Mai Po Wetlands, Tai O Fishing Village, Temple Street Night Market, Dr Sun Yat-Sen Museum, Macau (daytrip) Top 3 experiences:
1) Gawping at the skyline from Tsim Sha Tsui promenade
2) Exploring mini-Mediterranean Macau
3) Birdwatching in Mai Po Daily budget (travel, food and accommodation):
423 Hong Kong dollars = 40 pounds My rating:
To say Hong Kong is a shopping destination doesn't really do it justice. HK is a city built for shopaholics with a mall on every corner and spending in the genes. Of course, you expect plenty of shopping centres. But in HK there's a mall at every major tourist attraction. In HK there's a mall in every newbuild town. In HK there's a mall you enter every time you travel to work.
Shopping is a way of life.
Am I exaggerating? When we set off from Lanteau Island for some sightseeing we have to walk through a shopping centre to reach the MTR station. Not only that, we must navigate several deliberately
confusing escalators up through the various levels and back down again. Upon finally exiting the mall we briefly enter a shopping plaza before ducking into the MTR station and yet more shops. Our arrival at the major stations in Kowloon and HK Island is similary greeted by retailers.
Then we emerge from the MTR to find many streets are fenced off to pedestrians. Instead we must enter raised walkways where - it's a good bet - there'll be more shops. If we do somehow make it to tourist attractions like The Peak, a hilltop resort with breathtaking views, or the world's largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha it soon becomes obvious it's primarily an excuse for another mall.
Alternatively, we could go shopping in the Temple Street Night Market, Ladies Market, Jade Market, Flower Market, Goldfish Market. Welcome to HK - The Shopping Mall City. Gawping at the skyline:
Ok then, what to do if you're a backpacker, limited to buying only what you're willing to lug round on your back for the next 3 months?
#1 on your list is taking in the skyscrapers. Granted, they're pretty much impossible to miss but that doesn't mean
you should neglect some serious gawp-time. Slack lower jaw optional.
There are several great vantage points across the city. Getting a tram to The Peak is an eye-popping experience as you rise above the towering skyscrapers one by one. A Star ferry across Victoria Harbour is another tourist classic.
But for me the best spot is the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade. This reclaimed land has a few major attractions of its own from the HK Cultural Centre to the Hollywood-esque Avenue of Stars, but its real appeal is the skyline of HK Island opposite. Watching the ferries come in and the Black Kites circling overhead is one of the few genuinely relaxing activities in central HK. Macau:
Originally, Macau wasn't even in the plan. One of two Special Administrative Regions of China - the other is HK - in recent years it's become notorious as a mecca for glitzy casinos and professional gamblers.
Asia's Las Vegas.
Yet our last-minute decision to visit really paid off. After a one-hour ferry ride, you soon realise Macau has another side. Historically, this tiny outpost was taken by the Portuguese long before HK was invaded by the Brits.
Useful as a link with mainland China and the Pacific, Western traders relied on it to bring exotic treasures to Europe. In return, they put Macau on the map - not least by building a little piece of home here.
Today, the Portuguese district is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as a monumental culture shock. Quaint churches, cathedrals and verandas overlooking sleepy plazas are everywhere. As you walk through the pastel-coloured streets you can almost imagine you're in Portugal, or Spain, or southern Italy.
That is, until you see the casinos. As a general rule, it seems the more over-the-top they are, the better, with their gaudy light shows and gravity-defying designs.
I must admit I have very
mixed feelings about the casinos. On the one hand, it's a real experience to pass underneath at night. But their outrageous wealth looks almost pornographic compared to the low-rise shanty towns nearby.
All things considered, Macau is a very strange place. Mai Po:
Mai Po is everything central HK isn't. Vast open spaces. Unspoilt wetlands. Home to more than 300 birdspecies, some extremely rare. Not what you generally think of when someone says HK,
but it's all here in the Northern Territories.
Even for somebody with my staggering level of birdie ignorance, Mai Po is well worth a visit. You can take a stroll round the pretty shrimp and fish pools, check out HK's largest mangrove forest and even cross into mainland China via an intimidating barbed wire fence.
Once over the border, a floating causeway takes you through the mangroves into a birdhide with spectacular views over the Pearl River Delta. Even if birdspotting isn't your thing, watching thousands of the little critters gather on the mudflats is pretty amazing, and the shipping tankers and skyscrapers of Shenzen form a memorable backdrop. Random fact:
Most banknotes in HK are issued by HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation). The bank literally has a licence to print money. Impressions:
For all its obsession with shopping, there's no getting away from the fact that central HK is very well designed. Every street feels fully thought out, as if the town planners have honed their craft through years of SimCity before finally sketching a blueprint. Not many cities run ads inviting citizens to put forward suggestions for redesigning their local
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the newbuild towns.
Every concourse and plaza is there for a reason, every conceivable amenity is within easy reach. On the road, vehicles pass uninterrupted by pedestrians, who are kept moving through flyovers and subways and the flawless MTR system. Meanwhile, public places and commuter routes are uniformly well lit - no Western city feels this safe.
Perhaps it's a double-edged sword though. HK feels a bit too
sheltered. Mai Po, for example, is devoid of local visitors - it's hard to imagine a pristine nature reserve so deserted within an hour of central London. Even worse, those hardy souls who come generally refuse a 30-minute walk though beautiful mangroves to the Pearl River Delta.
In a similar vein, public health warnings are absolutely everywhere. Whether you're watching TV, hanging like monkeys on the MTR or waiting for a bus, you're bombarded by ads reminding you to skip school if you're sniffly and demonstrating the most hygienic way to sneeze. It's hard to shake the feeling you're being mollycoddled.
Also, the downside of endless town planning becomes apparent in the parks. Every public space is meticulously laid
out with pavements and little enclosures and amenities and visitor centres, so much so that it often feels as if you're being deliberately cut off from nature. The Great Outdoors is clearly not a big draw for the local population.
HK's final problem is that it just fells, well, a bit too modern. It's a city without roots.
Unlike Macau, where stately buildings sit side by side with skyscraper-casinos, in HK the skyscrapers have won a resounding victory. Few historical buildings have survived the relentless bouts of urban renewal. Instead, you get the sense HK is a city that completely rebuilds itself with every new generation.
At present, HK is clearly styling itself as the
modern Western city. Plenty of times, I look about me and think I could just as easily be in London, or Paris, or Madrid. Except all those cities have their own identities. Wherever you are, there's always something
different, something that reminds you what city you're in and what makes it different to any other city.
In London, for example, it's the black cabs, the chimes of Big Ben, the Tower of London and a million other cliches. I'm not altogether sure HK has that.
'Asia's World City'. HK's slogan is plastered all over the tourist guides and leaflets. Without doubt it qualifies as a world city, but there's little to remind you you're still in Asia. Next stop: Cambodia
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