Tuesday, March 20, 2007 Hong Kong Hong Kong

Some more things we did in Hong Kong

Des Voeux Road, Hong Kong [Enlarge]

Hong Kong is geographically part of the Guangdong (Canton) province of China, and so its language and cuisine are Cantonese. Naturally we felt obliged to sample a bit of the local fare, and what better way to try Cantonese food than to have a spot of dim sum? The locals eat these little steamed snacks for breakfast and/or lunch, and we stumbled across an excellent, very reasonable, and very popular restaurant called Mu Dan Ting in the Tsim Sha Tsui area of Kowloon. Everything is highrise here so like most restaurants it doesn't have a ground floor level, just a lectern-style stand on the street with a menu for you to peruse and a member of staff to point you to the lift and send you up to the correct floor. It turns out that Mu Dan Ting is a popular place for Kowloon office workers to go for lunch. For just over 100 Hong Kong dollars (GBP 6.52 / USD 12.80) we filled ourselves up with a selection of delicious dim sum and drank as much jasmine tea as we could.

We're getting better at the chopsticks, but the bottom line is it's embarrassing using them in front of Chinese people. Chinese babies can handle them better than us. The locals are very polite and don't laugh at us, at least not to our faces, but we know they think we're from an uncivilised culture where you sit down to eat wielding the same implements as a butcher uses. Still, we are now skilled enough to eat our noodles with chopsticks, and even cashew nuts in special slippery sauce.

We followed up our tasty lunch with a trip to the space museum and planetarium. On the way to the museum we discovered one of Hong Kong's surprise malls. Hong Kong has more shopping malls than any city could ever need, and you come across them just when you're least expecting it. This one was in the subway under Salisbury Road. You descend the stairs expecting it to be like any other simple subway to cross the road, but then it opens out in to a cavernous underworld of designer boutiques and food outlets. Shopping is such a serious business here that there's even a network of elevated, covered walkways linking the buildings on Hong Kong island so that you can keep out of the rain or sun and away from the streets. Typhoons, heatwaves, rush-hour traffic: nothing need spoil your spending!

We discovered our next surprise mall the very next day. This one was up a mountain. One reason that Hong Kong real estate is so expensive is that only a thin strip of land on the coast is suitable for building on. Continuous coastal reclamation is creating new land, but fundamentally the problem is that there's a mountain range right behind the city. A popular viewpoint in these hills is The Peak, to which some enterprising soul built a funicular railway (the Peak Tram) in the nineteenth century to take tourists and pleasure-seeking colonialists to the top. No doubt the Victorians were content with a cream tea and a nice view, but these days the modern visitor demands more, so there's a mall at the top. Obviously. And this is no small, token-gesture mall—it's the real thing.

The Peak is well worth a visit even if you're not in the mood for shopping. We decided to take the scenic route from Kowloon, starting with the famous Star Ferry across the harbour. You can pay HKD 2.20 for the top deck or HKD 1.70 for the lower deck. The extra three pence (6 US cents) doesn't seem to buy you anything extra, in case you're wondering. From the ferry pier we walked for ten minutes across town past the beautiful No. 2 International Finance Centre (Two IFC), currently the tallest building in Hong Kong and fifth tallest in the world. A little way further inland we reached the foot of the Central–Mid-Levels Escalator. This is an 800 metre system of escalators and travelators that whisk you all the way up the hill from Central District to the Mid Levels, above SoHo district. It's the world's longest escalator system, apparently, and it's free to use, taking seventeen minutes to get to the top. In the morning rush-hour it runs downhill, then from 10:20 it runs uphill.

From the top of the escalator, amongst the commuter suburbs, we walked through the botanical and zoological gardens, again another freebie, stopping to gawp at and be gawped at by various comedy primates and a sleepy leopard, and worked our way back down the hill towards the Peak Tram terminus. It was a long way round, but worth it to see some extra Hong Kong sights on the way. The view from The Peak was stunning, although it was a bit cloudy; the top ten floors of the Two IFC tower were actually in the clouds.

Beach on Lamma Island [Enlarge]

Hong Kong S.A.R. has many rural islands and we didn't want to leave without visiting one. Yesterday we took the short trip to Lamma Island—we chose this one mainly because there are ferries to and from villages on either side of it, with a pleasant walk across the island linking the two ports. The island is car-free. Most people use bicycles to get around, and the local council has a fleet of golf buggies for jobs like refuse collection and park maintenance. Another thing the island has is a huge power station generating electricity for virtually all of Hong Kong's residents. It's a bit of an eyesore in the otherwise pristine landscape of golden beaches and jungled hills, but something has to drive all that neon. Our plan for the end of our walk had been to have lunch at one of the many excellent fish restaurants in the village of Sok Kwu Wan. However the restaurants were all the type of establishment where the menu is still alive when you sit down, swimming around happily in bubbling tanks. It wasn't long since breakfast and we weren't really hungry—and at a time when we didn't need to eat, it just seemed wrong to be the cause the demise of another creature. So we caught the first ferry back to Hong Kong.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new Favourite City. Just eleven days after leaving Bangkok, it has sadly been knocked from the top spot (but only just). There is so much to do here and we wish we could stay for much longer.

We're off now to catch the TurboJet high-speed ferry to Macau on the other side of the Pearl River delta. Macau is another former European colony (Portuguese) which has recently returned to Chinese control as a Special Administrative Region. It has had a very different history and culture to Hong Kong, and it will be interesting to compare the two cities. In a few days we'll be back in Hong Kong again for one last look, because we're due to take the train from here to Shanghai on 25th March.