I’ve always loved Hong Kong, a wild mixture of ultra-modernity and ancient Chinese mysteries and intrigue in a fairy tale setting of unsurpassed natural beauty. Despite being very densely populated (throngs of people are everywhere, impossible to avoid), it is a highly desirable place to live and work.
In Hong Kong recently with my family, my first visit there in 18 years, I noted with satisfaction some of the changes. From the 1980s through the 1990s I traveled on business to Hong Kong and never tired of its unceasing march to modernity, so I can’t say that I was surprised to see the city continue to vigorously renew itself.
For instance, the “new” Hong Kong International Airport (new to me, at least) opened in 1998 not long after my last flight out of the venerable Kai Tak Airport in Kowloon, now transformed into a cruise ship terminal. Though a long way away from Central and Kowloon, the new Chek Lap Kok Airport is sleek, typically Hong Kong modern, easy to use, and has good rail and road services to connect to town.
After our arrival via Cathay Pacific’s morning nonstop from JFK, we opted to take the train into town. The MTR (http://www.mtr.com.hk/en/customer/tickets/tf_index.html) is not cheap at HK$90 and HK$100 one way to Kowloon and Central respectively (just under US$12-13), especially times four tickets, but we wanted the experience and desired, too, to become familiar with the stops in Kowloon for future reference. We found the Airport Express to be easy to find, pay for, and use, and it was fast to boot: about 20 minutes to Kowloon. The MTR website says that the Airport Express runs every 10 minutes from 05:50 to 01:15 daily, so there is little waiting. The rate of six express trains per hour is better than most cities’ frequent bus service.
Once at Kowloon station, we found the right free shuttle bus to board that would drop us at our hotel. MTR provides courtesy circulator services on several routes within Kowloon to make it easy to get to and from the metro stations, a “last mile” service that is brilliant and works well, although by chance our hotel was the last stop on our particular route. The ride on city streets anywhere in Kowloon or Central, whether in a taxi, bus, or fancy Daimler limo, is excruciatingly slow because of traffic congestion. The shuttle bus ride took 25 minutes to reach our hotel from the Kowloon MTR stop—a relatively short distance—though the long train ride into town from the airport was just 20 minutes. This comparison illustrates why most savvy business people book hotels within easy walking distance of an MTR stop when in Hong Kong.
Over the next few days the four of us traipsed over a good bit of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, including Central, and all the way to lovely and still-quaint Stanley Market on the south side of the island. We spent a great deal of our time in motor vehicles, public and private, just trying to get to and from our hotel. Traffic was outrageous. Even on Sunday it took almost 40 minutes to get from our hotel in Mongkok (Kowloon) to the bus terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui, not a long distance. Sitting in unmoving taxis or buses drove home the fact that location is everything in Hong Kong. I am not sure why anyone bothers to own a fancy fast car except as a status symbol because every vehicle moves at the same crawl.
However, driving can have its little moments of wonder. Our Hong Kong taxi driver the first morning had a carnivorous pitcher plant thriving on his dashboard, no doubt devouring flies. Since these rare plants are being smuggled from the bogs and pocosins of my native eastern North Carolina, I couldn’t help wondering if I’d stumbled upon the market for the illegal trade.
Hong Kong Central features cute and colorful bi-level trams, a tourist novelty more than a serious mobility option. We didn’t ride one anywhere.
We found walking to be the least stressful and most enjoyable way to get around, and we consequently walked a great deal within Central and Kowloon to reach destinations such as the bird, fish, and flower markets.
Besides, a pedestrian in Kong Kong is liable to stroll upon a unique street-level scene which would be missed by passing motorists:
On foot I never tire of studying the ingenious bamboo scaffolding used all over Southeast Asia and omnipresent at Hong Kong construction sites, even around traffic signals, as here:
Central is literally made for walking, with inter-connected pedestrian bridges suspended over traffic almost everywhere. We also visited the Night Market in Kowloon by foot, the optimal means of mobility to experience it.
The Star Ferry remains a cheap and charming way to cross Victoria Harbour between Kowloon and Central. We mastered the ticket machines and boarding procedures, never tiring of the trip on the water, one of the few unchanged experiences in Hong Kong.
This night photo from the ferry shows Hong Kong lit up like, well, a Christmas tree on the ride over to Central from Tsim Sha Sui (Kowloon):
And the morning view is just as breathtaking. At the Central ferry landing we walked up the ramp to the sounds of Chinese choirs singing Christmas songs like “Joy to the World”.
By getting to the Victoria Peak Tram station at seven one early morning, we were able to avoid the long queues that build up later in the day, and we also had an invigorating 5 kms walk around the hill at the top with spectacular views of the city.
Going down, however, we chose one of the many city’s double-decker buses, and it was quite cheap to get back to Central. We found similar bus service available to just about everywhere from Central. As in London, the expansive views from the front of the top deck provide great orientation to city streets and byways, true whether one’s visit is for business or leisure.
Considering the population density and teeming multitudes of people that define the city, I was surprised one evening to peer down an alley and capture the image below.
I noted several interesting takeaways from this creepy photo taken on Tai Kok Tsui Road, one of the main drags of the Mongkok district of Kowloon (Hong Kong):
- All around me (just behind where I stood to take this picture) was a veritable sea of humanity so crowded on this busy thoroughfare that my wife and I could hardly move, even on this Sunday night, but you’d never know it from this perspective.
- Despite the fact that Hong Kong has one of the highest population densities on earth, there is not a soul to be seen in this gritty scene (though the lit windows in the flats in the distance speak of human activity).
- Since it was taken in mid-December, I liked the suggestion of Christmas in the red bucket and the green dumpster, however bleak, in an otherwise mostly monochromatic tableau.
- This is, to me, a balancing contrast to the flash and glitz of Hong Kong, replete as the city is with Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Ferraris, and Aston Martins. I’d guess no Patek Philippe wristwatches have ever been seen in this dismal alley.
- The reality of pipes, wires, machinery, and odd wrought metal, not to mention the pervasive grime and dirt, all stuff that speaks to keeping the world operating, is captured in this scene.
- The Chinese characters on the near dumpster place us unmistakably in Asia.
- If I’d arranged the items myself, I couldn’t have done it better for effect: the detritus of city life strewn out along the alley for our consideration.
- The delicious irony of the prosperous denizens of the expensive, fancy flats in the background peering out onto this harsh urban streetscape makes me smile.
Returning to the airport a few days later—reluctantly, as I wasn’t ready to leave Hong Kong—we opted for a taxi, as it was morning and a reverse commute. I thought we’d beat the worst of the traffic, and we did. The trip from hotel to departure terminal took 45 minutes and cost HK$280 with tip (about US$36.75), about the same time as the inbound trip by MTR train and shuttle bus, and for less money since we were four. Of course if I’d been alone and traveling on business, the MTR would have been more economical.
My overall impressions of the city after so many years of absence? Hong Kong has lost some of its Old China sense of intrigue, but its unceasing urban energy, economic vitality, youthful outlook, and modern architecture continue to make it irresistible. Traffic, always bad, is maddening now. Better to avoid all means of rubber-tired conveyance, sticking to the MTR and one’s own two feet wherever possible. Choosing a hotel close to an MTR station or within easy walking distance of one’s work place therefore becomes critically important.