What do you do when you find you have an unexpected week off work? There are a hundred and one ways that I could have easily occupied the time in Dubai and yet I also feared that I would probably fail to truly maximise the time and so turned my thoughts towards doing some exploring. But where?
Since arriving in the Middle East, a perfect jumping off point for the Far East, all of my trips have basically taken me back West, something that I have realised on numerous occasions feels like a missed opportunity. So, my thoughts headed east and specifically to both Singapore and Hong Kong, where I am fortunate enough to have friends in both cities. For a short period I did consider playing out the true jet-set image by taking in both during the same trip, especially as I was keen to visit INSEAD’s campus in Singapore, but concluded that the schedule would be too crammed and the additional time spent in transit a poor use of a limited number of hours that could be better directed to actually exploring and relaxing. Given that I had visited Singapore once before, albeit many years ago, and had never been to Hong Kong I opted for the latter and so booked the flights. Decision made.
Its strange that in spite of living in an age of ample online sources of information, including video footage and Google Maps data, my imagined ideas of the place and what I actually experienced in person were so different. I took an overnight flight, relishing in my luck at having an entire row of seats to myself thus affording me some – but not enough – sleep as I headed east and landed at Hong Kong’s airport, perched at the far end of Lantau Island, a 30 minute metro ride from the city itself, and built upon reclaimed land, a technology that has revolutionised and transformed Hong Kong over the years. With a return airport express ticket in hand, facilitated by the incredibly helpful attendant who I swear spoke better English than I do, I boarded the train all the while amazed at just how few people there were. Anywhere. I told myself that I must have simply arrived at a bizarrely early hour and that the city was yet to wake as I had been expecting to grapple with throngs of people from the moment I arrived.
It was especially overcast and cloudy as I arrived and the first glimpses of Hong Kong were dark, dreary views of construction over the bay, and nondescript high rises as we approached Kowloon. Views of the famous skyline itself would have to wait as we went from Kowloon station to Hong Kong station, my final stop and from where I was advised to grab a cab for the short journey to Wan Chai and the SPCA, my home for the week and where my friend Matt, a fellow vet, and his girlfriend, Thea, lived. The first thing that struck me was actually how relatively small, geographically speaking, Hong Kong truly is. The island of Hong Kong, and the city that everyone knows, starts at the edge of Hong Kong bay, approximately 1km narrower now than it once was on account of the degree of reclamation that has taken place, and quickly climbs steeply to hills covered in lush vegetation before sweeping down to the opposite coast, where small coves, bays and exclusive settlements like Stanley are situated. The fact that Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places on the planet is thus down to the engineering miracle that is the high-rise, with impossibly tall buildings clinging to slopes that would make some ski resorts giddy. Just how some of them were built amazes me!
In spite of grand plans to grab the day by the horns and make the most of my time in the city, I confess that my “quick nap” turned into an all-day snore-fest and it was the early evening, once Matt had returned from work, that I emerged bleary eyed and ready to sample some of the local cuisine. Food plays a big role in Hong Kong and it is delicious, with a classically local dim sum joint being our destination, after a couple of cheeky beers in one of the many bars. Matt had advised me to pick up a pre-paid 4G SIM card for my phone and a quick stop at one of the small street-side vendors saw me instantly connected to the network and thus able to function as any digital citizen of the city.
Determined to make up for the loss of the previous day, although I clearly needed the sleep, I got up relatively early the next day, starting out with a run that saw me weave through the neighbourhood of Wan Chai, through and around Victoria Park, a short distance from the apartment, around Happy Valley, the famous racetrack, and back along the waterfront, stopping off for some delicious BBQ pork buns for breakfast Hong Kong style. Feeling somewhat reenergised and taking the advice of Thea, I packed up a few things in a daypack, hailed a cab and headed up to Parkview and the start of a hiking trail known as the Wilson Trail, and specifically a section of it that took in the Twins, two peaks that ultimately brought me down to Stanley on the other side of the island. It was a very overcast day and as we climbed into Parkview, we entered an eery world that felt almost dreamlike such was the effect of being up in the clouds. The hike initially involved a steep ascent of multiple stone steps before winding along a narrow hilltop track that saw me above the cloudline and, as such, without the views that I knew would have been spectacular. I did have sounds though, with various birdsong intermingling with the distant clang of construction, growing louder as I approached Repulse Bay, the source of the building din. Being in China I could not help imagine that the bangs, grumbles and clatters were in fact a giant dragon, hidden from view by the cloak of cloud that kept its presence secret.
I know that Hong Kong is a very humid, and thus wet, place but it seemed that I had elected to head out during a particularly wet week, although Dubai didn’t fare too much better as it turned out. As such, in addition to getting soggy via the humidity and exertion required on the hike, I also found myself caught in a thunderstorm. All told, I arrived in Stanley feeling as though I had walked there via a hot, steamy shower! My initial plan had been to do a training swim in the sea off Stanley’s beach but given the rather grey day, the fact that I was actually pretty tired and keen to return to Hong Kong itself in order to make the races and the fact that I had read all about the sharks that do populate the waters around the area, I opted to keep my soggy feet on dry land.
Refuelled and souvenir in hand, I hopped on one of the minibuses heading back into the city and enjoyed views of Clearwater Bay, Repulse Bay and Ocean Park, a theme park nestled up on a headland opposite Repulse Bay, before we drove through the Aberdeen Tunnel and emerged back into Hong Kong proper. A swift turnaround back at the apartment and it was off out again, this time with brolly in hand, to grab some dinner and check out the races, a hugely popular activity on Wednesday night in Hong Kong.
The Happy Valley racecourse sits in, well, a valley and was actually named somewhat tongue in cheek on account of the fact that when it was first settled, the marshy environment, and the legions of mosquitoes that came with it, meant that many of the settlers died, with the area being turned over to numerous cemeteries, gravestones visible as they climb the slopes like dull, grey, geometric creepers. Once inside the racetrack, the mood was one of a much more jovial nature, with throngs of racegoers all enjoying the food, booze and music on show, in addition to waging a fortune on the outcome of the various races being run that night. Apparently more than $100M is bet each week alone, if the book I read is to be believed. A staggering amount of money that makes the Jockey Club one of the biggest contributors to the city coffers out of anyone. I, for one, am not that keen on betting and so after watching one race, I headed out and toward a nearby hotel where I was certain I would be rewarded with a stunning elevated view of the entire course, in addition to it being dry. Randomly, during the walk from the track I passed Vernon Troy, of Austin Powers’ Mini Me fame, out for an evening with his friends. Dubai, it seems, is not the only place for random celeb-spotting.
Thursday was spent closer to home, and took Matt and I over the bay via one of the very many ferries that zip around the harbour to Kowloon, with the New Territories and China beyond. We checked out Chungking Mansions, a labyrinthine multi-level building of stalls, restaurants and many other services alike, before taking in the Hong Kong skyline from the harbour. Much like in Dubai, construction is everywhere in Hong Kong, with the city constantly growing and changing. The energy is one of high velocity growth and optimism and feels so at odds with what I experienced during my brief visit back to the UK.
Returning to Downtown via the incredibly efficient metro, we headed up to Lan Kwai Fong, the (in)famous bar and restaurant region of the city, where Matt suggested an awesome Brazilian grill for lunch. More walking, including checking out the awesome Mid-levels escalator – yes, Hong Kong actually has an escalator that goes up the hill! That is just THE BEST! With Hong Kong being so dense it is actually pretty straightforward to explore much of it quite quickly and with this sense of curiosity I headed off independently for the Peak tram and to see whether the views would be kind enough to come out and play. They did and they were worth it!
The tram that takes visitors from Downtown up the incredibly steep slopes to the Peak, and the 360-degree viewing platform, was well worth the ticket price, with the clouds thankfully clearing for my visit and permitting spectacular views over the city, the bay, Kowloon and beyond. Any visit to Hong Kong simply has to include this on the itinerary and once I had exhausted my inner photographer I took advantage of my 4G to Skype the folks back home and share the experience and view with them. A great day of touristy fun all told and topped off with a fantastic Chinese meal with my hosts and a variety of their friends at a Wan Chai restaurant.
By this stage I was getting into the tourist swing of things and so looked to check out one of the ‘Top Ten’ that a friend, Rosee, had suggested: the Giant Buddha. A relatively short metro trip back out west to the tip of Lantau island and the town just next to the airport saw me connect with the cable car that takes visitors up and over the hills to Ngong Ping, site of the Po Lin monastery and 34m high bronze Buddha that sits breathtakingly atop a hill. The more energised visitor has the option to trek up the lengthy trail, something I elected to pass on although would consider as an awesome training run one day if I ever return. The short stroll from the cable car station towards the Buddha and monastery took me through the somewhat touristy village, complete with shops selling various momentos, snacks and other paraphanalia, before passing through an impressive stone arch and onto a large, circular area, with the monastery to the left and, up a long flight of stone stairs, the Buddha himself.
The monastery was serenely peaceful, beautifully gilded, with incredibly intricate and ornate decorations adorning both the inside of the temples and the exteriors, and it was easy to find a sense of peace as I idly wandered around, with cows nonchalantly sidling past in search of a quiet patch to solemnly chew the cud and consider the tourists enthusiastically snapping away. I confess that I was one of those same tourists and all three cameras – Theta (360-degree), SLR and iPhone – were called upon to capture various aspects of the visit. Completely aware of the fact that I was playing the perfect tourist I slipped into one of the tea houses as I left, enjoying a delicious pot of jasmine tea and some almond cookies, before taking the chilly return cable-car back to the train and Hong Kong.
With Matt and Thea off on holiday that day, I had arranged to catch up with some other Hong Kong based friends over the weekend, meeting them at a rooftop bar at the International Finance Centre mall, with views back out over the bay to Kowloon. Our initial destination that evening was to check out the Taste food event, one of which is held in Dubai each year and, I believe, other cities around the world. As much as the small amounts of food I got to taste were undeniably delicious, I did rather find the event overpriced, overhyped and despite spending a reasonable amount left feeling just as hungry as I did upon entering. It may have been this lack of complete saiety that saw the rest of the evening unfold as it did, with the four of us piling into a taxi for a trip over to Wan Chai and the start of an evening of drinking and clubbing, culminating in me being the last to spill out of our final nightspot and find my way back to the apartment only after initially having to correct course as I found myself walking uphill as opposed to down towards the bay! I was certainly grateful that Hong Kong is fundamentally easy to navigate at that point, otherwise I have no idea where I might have ended up.
It is a sad truth that there must be balance in the world and so it was that a heavy and lengthy night must be paid for with the loss of the following day. The sofa was my friend for pretty much the entirety of Saturday, feeling as devoid of energy and drive to move as I must have surely looked. Through the collective will of the group and facilitated via the steadily growing crescendo of Whats App pings, a plan to meet up for some food was actioned and another evening commenced, this time starting at a delicious BBQ restaurant in SoHo. Bellies full and heads a little less swirling our evening took in a couple of the bars in the Mid Levels area of the city, with one serving the saving grace of the evening, Espresso Martinis, that saw us all make it through to watching the Six Nations rugby match between England and Wales. Another great evening in a truly energetic city.
One of the last things I did in Hong Kong, at the advice of my friend James, was to get up nice and early, head over to Kowloon and enjoy breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton hotel’s dining room on the 103rd floor of the International Commerce Centre. The breakfast was standard high-end hotel fare but the real attraction was the view, this time back across the bay to take in the entirety of Hong Kong island itself. Beautiful! Busy! Burgeoning! From this vantage point it is possible to appreciate just how active the bay is, with boats of all shapes and sizes buzzing along, zipping across each others’ paths as they headed off on whatever business they were on, whether it be collecting and delivering cargo or ferrying passengers around the bay and city. Hong Kong truly is a spectacle and testament to the engineering expertise of humans as well as our drive to keep growing and changing. It is a city that I had preconceptions of but found myself surprised by, pleasantly so. It is one that I could imagine myself living in, despite the fact that the summer months are just as hot and muggy as any experienced in Dubai, and for anyone seeking an exciting city escape, but with the option to head out into nature as well, then Hong Kong is the place to go.