A tour of China and Hong Kong
06.08.2016 - 25.08.2016 36 °C
Beijing in 1989 was in a small way the inspiration behind taking this trip. Not so much because of the student uprising that took place and the subsequent events that unfolded in and around Tiananmen Square at the time but because we, had our own circumstances permitted, could easily have been in Beijing at that very time. With my parents posted to Beijing in the Foreign Office the opportunity was certainly there, had it not been for the birth of our second child. So China was sort of unfinished business.
London to Shanghai is just short of 10,000 kilometres and eleven hours flying time from Heathrow to Pu Dong. The much modernised Shanghai was our starting point on a tour of China which would end in Hong Kong.
Our first real sight of the city after landing took us to the waterfront with its modern and futuristic buildings on one side of the Huangpu River and the old and more traditional Bund on the other. We took a harbour cruise that evening which was a great way to start to see it. It’s slightly chaotic as you would expect and the inability of the Chinese to queue for anything was something that we would have to come to terms with over the next 19 days; hopefully without causing an international incident. Anyway, tickets bought and place secured on the boat we enjoyed an hour watching the multi-coloured lights of Shanghai dance around the buildings as if showing off its latest outfit.
We spent time walking the promenade on the Bund side of the river the following day. The sun had ramped the temperature up to around 35 degrees and, with humidity being high, China in August was clearly going to be a challenge and it didn’t take long for us to instinctively seek out any shade.
Shanghai is an exciting city and, away from the waterfront, Nanjing Road in the traditional old town, with its ancient Hu Xin Ting Teahouse, and the classic Yu Yuan Gardens is the place to shop. We also saw the beautiful Jade Buddha Temple, just about the only place that I wasn’t allowed to take photographs in the entire three weeks.
Just outside the city is a town called Suzhou, well known for its gardens. This beautiful 2,500-year-old city is famous for its landscaped gardens, narrow channels and traditional Chinese architecture. Built on a network of interlocking canals, Suzhou's waters feed the series of classical gardens. These date back as far as the 10th century, and have been restored to their former glory with a few listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
On route from Shanghai to Suzhou our coach was trundling along quite happily when an alarm sounded inside the bus. The problem turned out to be an air-con failure. Beyond swift roadside repair, we waited patiently in whatever shade we could find while a new coach was sent to pick us up and complete the remaining 35 or 40 minutes driving to Suzhou.
We eventually visited both the ‘Lingering Garden’ and the ‘Humble Administrators Garden’, both very classically oriental with ornate walkways, bridges, ponds and Lotus flowers being a feature. In between the gardens we took a trip on the local canal which gave us our first real sight of everyday life in China. Modest canal side houses with small extensions or terraces on the back which teetered on bamboo stilts overhanging the canal, many decorated with plants and Chinese lanterns but which failed to disguise the damp looking walls on each of the properties. It was an interesting insight and in stark contrast, just one road back, was a very smart-looking commercial shopping street visible between some of the houses that could have been a part of any city in the UK.
Back in Shanghai we went out for dinner. So far the food had been very good although very much a case of “what would you like with your sticky rice today??” Green or Jasmine Tea were also regularly on the agenda with beer offered rather than wine.
From Shanghai we took a short flight to Wuhan before catching a train to Yichang where we would board a boat for our 4 days and nights of cruising on the Yangtse River. We took an upgrade on the boat which gave us a cabin on the Promenade Deck, all our meals in the Executive Dining Room, free soft drinks, tea and coffee throughout the day and a free happy hour every evening. It turned out to be well worth it.
The cruise from Yichang to Chongqing routed us through the massive Three Gorges Dam project. On board, there were all kinds of presentations including Chinese medicine, Mah Jong, Acupuncture, Snuff Bottle Painting and Tai Chi to name a few while in the evenings there were cultural fashion and dance shows all included. It was all good fun and added to the variety of the trip. It’s typical “confined living’ as you would expect on a river cruise but for sleeping and the occasional use of the balcony the space in the cabin was fine. The gorges themselves, namely Xiling Gorge, Wuxia and Qutang make for some lovely scenery and we were lucky with the weather. Along the way we stopped at Badong, took a ride up the Shennong Stream tributary, and visited the Shibaozhai Pagoda and Temple.
We docked at Badong and those of us that didn’t choose to take the optional excursion had time to wander into the town and explore a little. It was more a village than a town and while it didn’t look or feel like the most prosperous of places to live there was evidence of work going on to smarten the place up, especially riverside where a new walk was being laid which would link the village and the piers by way of steps up from the river to an adjoining square and then up further to the main high street. It was an overcast day which took some of the ferocity of the sun away and eventually the first drops of rain were felt. We continued our walk through the village a bit further and found a small local market where fruit, vegetables, rice and more general household goods were being sold and where a shopkeeper was making tofu which was then transported around the village and surrounding areas on the back of a scooter-cart to be marketed to the locals. The people seemed friendly and certainly weren’t shy of the camera but we couldn’t really go too much further and the rain was getting slightly heavier so we turned and headed back to the boat for the onward journey.
The Shennong Stream is a narrow tributary of the Yangtse for which we transferred on to a smaller boat. It is lovely scenery and after about 45 minutes of cruising we pulled in and climbed numerous steps to reach a small square surrounded by buildings that included a shop, a small museum and a theatre. The theatre was putting on free cultural shows and with one just about to begin we followed the introductory drumbeat, pulled back the tarpaulin-like curtains acting as doors and also screens from the sun and found ourselves at the back of the theatre with standing-room only. It was absolutely boiling in there but was still a preferred option in order to firstly see the show and secondly to be out of the direct sunshine for a while. The show lasted half an hour or so and the various songs told a story which could be followed to an extent with the scenery supplemented by acting at stages right and left as a related sideshow to the singers and musicians but was obviously lost on us as far as the language was concerned.
We also stopped at Shibaozhai and walked up the hill and down through the main street to the ‘Drunken Bridge’ which led to the Shibaozhai Temple. The bridge was safe enough but was constructed using wooden boards on secured cables and this allowed a flexibility so as people walked over the bridge it moved with the pressure of each and everybody’s footsteps creating a wobble underfoot and a few laughs as we struggled across. The pagoda has 12 floors and again the heat made it more challenging but there’s an ‘out’ at the ninth level that most of us took to see the inside of the small temple before going back down via some outside steps. There were some good views from the temple and the bridge with the low level of the estuary being highlighted by a couple of boats stranded on higher, dry ground that would have to now wait for the water level to rise before being capable of floating once again.
Back on the boat, as we exited the third gorge the scenery faded away from the picturesque and imposing mountainside to the flatter and more industrial sights as we approached Chongqing.
Chongqing is China’s largest city, emerging over the past 20 years from a medium sized town to a population of 34 million people. It wouldn’t be top of the list for sight-seeing but was a conduit for us reaching Chengdu and, among other things, seeing the Pandas!! However, before leaving the city we did at least do it some justice by spending some time in Erling Park watching people having their ears cleaned (seriously!), getting massaged and playing Mah Jong (not all at the same time) while we sat, chatted and drank Green Tea. We also saw Chiang Kai Shek’s house and went for a stroll in Qicikou Old Town before continuing the journey by high-speed train to Chengdu.
Chengdu is a tidy city with a newly-modernised feel to it, like much of the China we had so far seen. But our first morning in Chengdu would be spent at the Panda Breeding Centre. On arrival in Chengdu we had been greeted by rain but that was a blessing in disguise as the cooler weather that followed greatly improved our chances of the Pandas spending more time outside of their houses. The Breeding Centre is a fantastic environment for the Pandas – basically a forest of Bamboo and other trees and greenery – with the required medical and care enclosures as the staff work to proliferate the numbers of Pandas in existence. It was a fun morning despite the fighting for space with the over-excited Chinese. The Pandas performed for us and it was great to see them from basically birth through to adult in the different rooms and enclosures.
It was always going to be difficult to top seeing the animals on this particular day but we still had time to have a wander around Jinli Sreet. It’s very commercial but also very colourful and representative of Chinese traditions. Of course there are shops and stalls selling toy pandas and chopsticks but you get the feeling that these would be there even if tourists weren’t permitted. The food and drink outlets are interesting as you rarely see a menu or pricelist in English so it really is a case of point and hope, with the food anyway. We bought a Panda by the way!
Having spent a massive 20 Yuan (£2.40) in Jinli Street we moved on to a local park where we drank more tea - Jasmine Tea this time. Back to the hotel with just enough time to freshen up and eat before going out to the theatre where we had tickets for the Chengdu Face-Changing Show. The show was around ninety minutes of music, comedy, Chinese opera and the Face Changing act; quite challenging at times as you can probably imagine but still good fun and very cultural and colourful PLUS we had more Green Tea!!!!
A good night sleep was needed after a busy couple of days and before we jetted off the following day from Chengdu Airport to Xian. Almost everything, coach breakdown aside, had so far moved along like clockwork but the Chengdu to Xian transfer kind of spoiled things a bit, temporarily. The flight, ours plus a few others to different destinations, had an indefinite delay. With a variable like that it’s difficult to know precisely what the best course of action is but our Tour Manager (who was excellent throughout) gathered as much information as possible and then arranged for us to be checked into a hotel close to the airport and given lunch while we awaited further news. We lost four hours that day but thankfully (a) didn’t have to stay the night in the hotel, and (b) didn’t have to eat any more of their food there. So, all was well. The delay meant that we couldn’t visit the Han Tombs after arriving at Xian as originally planned but a small rescheduling resulted in the visit remaining on the itinerary. Instead, we visited the city walls and, similarly constructed to the Great Wall, it was possible to walk or cycle along the top of the walls if you wanted to. We took a tandem and travelled from the South Gate to the East Gate which took about 25 minutes allowing for a few stops to take some photos as the sun set. It was a fun way to end what had been a disrupted day.
Xian used to be the Capital of China but its international appeal now is really due to the worldwide exposure and acclaim received for the finding of the Terracotta Warriors so, after dinner and a restful night we set off for Li Shan Mountain to see the 6,000 soldiers, horses and chariots found by a farmer digging a well in 1974. For me, whilst it was still great to see and an amazing story, the sight of the Terracotta Warriors probably had less of a visual impact on me than anything else on this trip to the Far East. It was basically everything I expected and had seen in photos and on T.V.; nothing more, nothing less.
From the air-conditioned hangars of the Terracotta Army we made our way back to the city to see the Small Wild Goose Pagoda and also see some Calligraphy. The pagoda is located in a small park/garden and is in the classic style but the idea of climbing to the top simply didn’t appeal at the end of what had been a very hot day in Xian. So, a few photos later we were heading for what turned out to be a lesson in Calligraphy. Under the enthusiastic instruction of our teacher we were all challenged to copy some Chinese characters using the Calligraphy Brush on Rice Paper. There was also a marketing element to the exercise with various artwork and calligraphy on sale including the opportunity to have family or friends names written in calligraphy and taken home as presents, which we did.
We still had the Han Tombs to fit in before we left Xian so it was decided that we would get up an hour earlier the following day and, on the way to the airport for our flight to Beijing, China’s Capital, we would arrive at the tombs as they opened for the day and see the artefacts that had been found. Similar to the Terracotta Army but a more recent find, the Han Tombs revealed numerous smaller but less detailed ceramic figures along with farm animals, carts, cartwheels and pots. It was good to see, especially as we soon realised it was something that we had heard and read about for the first time shortly before we left the UK. So that was Xian, a nice city in my opinion and probably my favourite on the trip. Next stop Beijing!
The Chinese Capital carried an added interest for me as my parents lived and worked in the city for a year back in 1989 so I was keen to see roughly the area where they lived and the location of where they worked. Whether they would recognise much now, 27 years later, is doubtful as the city has developed enormously since then. For example, back in 1989 Beijing had just two Ring Roads. In 2008, when they held the Olympic Games there were four. Today they are finishing off Ring Road number seven! Having said that I am sure that the centre of the city remains largely unchanged.
The weather intervened on arrival in Beijing so our plans were tweaked again and rather than visit the Summer Palace which, by definition, didn’t align with the rain, we diverted to the Temple of Heaven where decent weather mattered less. The approach is made on foot through a neat and tidy park with many trees and ornate covered walkways leading to the steps from which you reach the large circular arena that holds in its centre the Temple of Heaven.
The surrounding buildings and the temple itself are typically attractive and in keeping with all other similar buildings that we have seen in China. Their use of colour, detail and design is a very attractive aspect of the Chinese culture.
The Chinese, primarily the women, love an umbrella and, it seems, regardless of the weather. They love an umbrella when it rains and they love an umbrella equally when the sun is out. Personally, I’m the wrong height to be anywhere near one umbrella let alone several hundred. However, it does make for some interesting photographs and that was certainly the case at the Temple of Heaven where the rain hadn’t put any visitors off.
Before heading to the hotel we stopped close to Tiananmen Square in Tiananmen Street to simply spend some time walking one of the main thoroughfares, stopping at shops as we pleased until we reached the top end of the street, nearest the square. Tiananmen Street gave the impression of recent refurbishment with many smart shops and a series of sculptures/statues dotted along the street on both sides depicting various Chinese Trades such as Calligraphy and Paper Making.
The modern architecture in Beijing, like in the other cities, had a touch of Feng Shue about them and none more so than the building shaped like a twisted lowercase “n” that the Chinese refer to as ‘the underpants’.
I suppose many peoples highlight of a trip to China would be a visit to The Great Wall and I expected it to be one of mine. Whether it would simply be just another of those iconic sights that are exactly as you expect them to be remained to be seen as we left our hotel after breakfast the following day and headed for the Badaling entrance to The Great Wall.
It took us just under a couple of hours to get from the centre of Beijing to Badaling and although we were there early, we weren’t the first – by a long way!!
We were presented with two options; the easy route or the harder route and after thinking about it and looking at the crowds we decided on the harder route which was far less populated and, as pointed out by our Tour Manager, the first three sections on the difficult side weren’t too bad in any case – and as we weren’t contemplating going as far as completing three sections then we should be ok.
It was another hot day but to balance it out a bit the location of the Great Wall, atop the mountain range, attracted a nice breeze which, when coupled with some rare shade, was really welcome during our hour and a half or so on the Wall. So, with the first of the steps in front of us we set off. Varying gradients, inconsistent step heights, uneven cobbles, and people simply ‘getting in the way’ one way or another added to the challenge and the fun. Railings on either side of the wall certainly helped if walking in the middle started to become a struggle. We completed the first section which was our original target but decided to press on as far as we could. There turned out to be a convenient platform, half way up the second section, where an nicely positioned tree on the mountainside also provided the shade required to match with the cooling breeze. We stood there for about twenty minutes before beginning our walk down.
The Great Wall more than met my expectations and despite me having seen many photographs and a lot of video footage of it the sheer size (as far as you could see) coupled with some of the extreme terrain and the gradients, curves and corners that had to be constructed makes it a far more impressive achievement (and sight) than I had given it credit for. Amazing. And here’s a statistic; the complete length of the Great Wall is 500 miles longer than the distance between London and Beijing!
After lunch we headed back towards the city via the Sacred Way (Avenue of Statues). The path, which (like others we have seen on the trip) is slightly curved to fool evil spirits, is lined on either side with willows and carved stone statues of both warriors and animals. It’s the best part of one mile long but is a short respite away from the crowds.
Despite everything that we had so far seen and done there was still a gap or two in our Chinese experience as far as I was concerned. And one of those gaps was to be filled by Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City on the following day.
1989 sticks in the memory for me not just because of the iconic photograph of the student and the tank but for the fact that my parents were working for the UK Government at the time and, along with others, suffered several days of angst while safe passage to Beijing Airport was negotiated, allowing them to fly out to Hong Kong and, as it transpired, never return to China. It was an interesting few days for us and, unable at the time to visit them on post, Beijing felt like unfinished business for me.
Tiananmen Square is huge and in way a little bit soulless with its buildings on each side of the square being so far apart. Tiananmen Tower and the Gate of Heavenly Peace are on the north side of Tiananmen Square, the National Museum of China on the east side of the Square, the Great Hall of the People on the west side and Zhengyangmen Gate Tower marking the south end. In its centre, a Monument to the People’s Heroes.
After walking to the centre of the square, past the huge queue that had already formed to see the embalmed body of Chairman Mao (Zedong) we proceeded towards the Gate of Heavenly Peace over which Chairman Mao still presides as if still alive and in power. This gate forms the entrance to the Forbidden City. All I can say is that the Chinese public are certainly making up for lost time as this turned out to be as crowded as anywhere we had been in China. At times, our attempt to admire the buildings that house the Imperial Palace was a real test of both temperament and patience but we persisted and prevailed, enjoying the occasion more on reflection than in the moment. It is such a vast area and living in such an environment would have obviously been in extreme contrast to that of the general population. I am glad that we saw it.
Away from the hordes and back on the bus in air conditioned heaven we drove to another part of the city to see the residential alleyways and houses of Old Beijing known as the Hutongs. The best way to see these is on a Bicycle Rickshaw so this is what we did. The calf muscles on our Rickshaw driver were testament to the years of hard graft that had been put in to scrape a living and he must have been hoping for two short and very light people than the one very short and light person plus me that clambered into his Rickshaw that afternoon. Regardless, he drove us through the lanes where we stopped at a family home and were shown around – another insight into regular Chinese living. The owners had a pet Cricket in a tiny cage, a couple of pet birds and three cages containing White fluffy rabbits. I instantly worried more for the future of the rabbits than I did both the birds and the cricket.
Our route back to the hotel took us via the Olympic Stadium (we call it ‘The Birds Nest’; the Chinese call it ‘The Toilet Seat’). It still sits alongside the National Aquatics centre (‘The Water Cube’) but according to locals neither is extensively used any more.
And that was that. We drove past the British Embassy as darkness started to fall and after dinner collapsed into bed ahead of a very early start the following morning and the final ‘independent’ leg of our Far East tour – four nights in Hong Kong.
It is a three hour flight from Beijing to Hong Kong, now almost twenty years under Chinese control but with a further forty years until the former British colony is a fully-fledged member of the People’s Republic of China. It had been an early start but this meant that we had at least half a day still to explore once we had checked into the Harbour Grand on Kowloon. The hotel had a free shuttle-bus that operated in both directions every twenty minutes between the hotel and Tsim Sha Tsui (next to The Peninsula Hotel near to the waterfront and the ferry) and this turned out to be a massive benefit over the four days.
Without any kind of plan for our first few hours we jumped on the Shuttle Bus and headed for the waterfront. We wandered around, got our bearings, skirted around a noisy but passive protest about organ harvesting, researched the Star Ferry and then found a restaurant for some pasta - anything really that didn’t include sticky rice!!!! After that, we enjoyed watching the lights of Hong Kong come on from our hotel room overlooking the harbour.
After breakfast the following day we boarded a minibus for a half day tour of Hong Kong Island. It included the funicular up to The Peak, a boat trip around the floating village in Aberdeen Harbour and a visit to Stanley Market so a few boxes would get firmly ticked as far as Hong Kong is concerned and that would leave the remaining three days to do exactly what we wanted and without any definite plans.
Having said that we had an idea of possibly going to Kowloon Walled City Park, Ladies Market, Old Hong Kong, Temple Street Market and Lantau Island so we made a conscious effort to get to these places but didn’t know either how or when at this stage.
The view from The Peak is a ‘must see’ and one of those iconic images that are associated with a specific place. Now regarded by many as the richest city in the world nobody can doubt its other claim of having the greatest number of skyscrapers on the planet. It was then a fairly short drive, past Repulse Bay, to Aberdeen Harbour where a combination of Sampans, Junks and Luxury Boats live in close quarters. We took a Sampan ride through the harbour and between the house boats that make up the floating village, home to thousands. As a backdrop to the harbour, the high rise ‘Pigeon Houses’ stand imposingly as evidence of the extent of the confined living that exists in this part of the world.
By way of their behaviours the people of Hong Kong place themselves somewhere between those of China (with its strict discipline) and the UK (with its democratic freedom). Not that surprising really as the former British colony is almost 20 years into a 60 year transition from British governorship to total Chinese control. It will be interesting how the next forty years pans out, both in Hong Kong and on mainland China where surely there will be some ‘give’ as well as ‘take’.
Free from the organised touring we were now on ‘free time’ so needed to decide our next move. We made a decision over lunch to buy an ‘Octopus Card’ (similar to London’s Oyster Card) and immediately tested it by using the Underground to get over to Hong Kong Island and the area there which is typically ‘Old’ Hong Kong. And it does have a different feel to it - with its market stalls selling antiques, the narrow streets, older traditional trades, colourful shop fronts and advertising extended in competition with one another over and above the road. We wandered around Hollywood Road and its adjoining streets and alleys taking photos while at the same time looking for the Buddhist Man Mo Temple.
The temple was a good find with so much colour inside being enhanced to the extreme by strong beams of sunlight arrowing diagonally through the interior but the influence of Buddhism certainly felt stronger in China than it did in Hong Kong which given its history is probably not that surprising.
Leaving the temple we made our way back down in a general direction of where we felt we had arrived on the Underground. Along the way there were numerous market stalls, many selling antiques, some selling posters of Mao and copies of his Little Red Book and others trading more general items. We also came upon a really nice Coffee Shop called The Roaster (not a Starbucks!! Yippee!!) being run by a couple of local girls who took great pride in their work and the quality of what they were offering (and rightly proud of the press reviews that had been written and that they displayed on a part of the café window). A friendly man and his young daughter waved and said goodbye as we sat having ordered our Cappuccino and Hot Chocolate; both drinks noticeably missing from the diet of the previous two and a bit weeks.
Rested and refreshed we carried on with our walk back to the Underground Station we passed a ladder, totally made of Bamboo, leaning against a wall …… in Ladder Street! Eventually, back on the main street the narrow trams were busy going about their business. We had reached the underground station and decided to walk on down to the Star Ferry terminal and catch the ferry back across the harbour to Kowloon BUT it was still daylight and what we wanted to do was travel across with Victoria Harbour lit up for the evening. So, we noticed that the ferry terminals also had eateries within them and therefore took the decision to take a table in Watermark, a nice looking restaurant that overlooked the harbour. It wasn’t the cheapest – it wouldn’t be would it – but it was a really good decision. We had two courses plus drinks and in addition to watching the lights come on over at Kowloon we had also bought ourselves enough time to guarantee that on our Star Ferry crossing we would be able to see all of the lights of both Hong Kong and Kowloon (known as The Symphony of Lights) plus the start of the PULSE 3D Light Show that was being presented two or three times each night during the Summer from the Kowloon clock tower. It effectively saved us the cost of taking the harbour cruise at night.
Back on Kowloon and leaving the Star Ferry behind we made our way to the raised area from where PULSE was being played out. We waited the ten minutes until the start of the next show and then enjoyed it and the music at close quarters.
From here it was a short stroll back to The Peninsula where we could get our Shuttle Bus back to the Harbour Grand. It had been a really good day.
After breakfast the following morning we decided to use the public transport again and find our own way to Lantau Island. Not only was this good fun but we also saved a lot of money compared to the cost of an excursion and also some time. We took the Shuttle Bus again down to Tsim Sha Tsui as usual and walked the short distance to catch the Star Ferry over to Pier 7 on Hong Kong Island. The Lantau ferry used Pier 6 so it was an easy walk by foot to disembark the Star Ferry and take our seats on the Lantau Ferry with the cost still being covered by our Octopus Card.
A visit to Lantau Island appealed because it was different to what we had so far seen in China and Hong Kong. It also had the Po Lin Monastery, the big Bronze Buddha, and Tai-O stilt village to sight-see. The boat from Pier 6 to Lantau took about 45 minutes and drops you by the bus station from where the bus (No.2) to Ngong Ping runs regularly. The journey of about another 30 or 40 minutes takes you through scenery reminiscent of a Caribbean island and there is surprisingly little traffic to prevent our bus driver from tearing round corners as if he was pushing for an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.
Ngong Ping is the location of both the Po Lin Monastery and the big Bronze Buddha. With little real knowledge of either we headed for the Monastery before taking on the 210 steps leading up to the Giant Buddha.
Po Lin was a great surprise. The smell of incense gradually wafts into your life as you walk the long path towards the entrance where there are several large burners spreading their jasmine scent or whatever else was smouldering and smoking. A series of steps lead up to the doors of the first temple room in a building with fantastic symmetry and colour. Inside, more vivid colour, more artwork and in pride of place, three golden Buddha’s. The space on the left side of the room was dedicated to worship and prayer with a number of rows of square kneeling pads and beyond here and behind the main screen that provided the backdrop to the three Buddha’s was a rear entrance/exit that led to another large building fronted by more steps and even more colourful and attractive detail that framed the front doors to one of the most opulent rooms of its kind that you could expect to see. Five large Golden Buddha’s were the focal point at the back of a room dominated by the colour gold but with multi-coloured patterning on the ceiling beams and the walls and platforms. This had been an unexpected highlight – and now for the Giant Buddha.
There really isn’t a choice. The steps may look daunting but once you are there it simply has to be done. Slightly more than 200 steps - there are convenient platforms that break up their flow and offer the chance of a breather if you need it. And it doesn’t take long. Once at the top the size of the Buddha is impressive as are the views, especially if you climb the extra few steps to the elevated walkway around the statue.
We couldn’t find a bus stop at the top like we had been originally told so after spending some time we made our way back down the steps, past the group of stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs plus the more tempting cold drinks and ice cream, and back through the main entrance to the bus stops where we arrived. Our next destination during our short visit to Lantau Island was the stilt village of Tai-O. It didn’t take long for the next bus to arrive; far quicker in fact than the timetable suggested and the ride to Tai-O was equally as frenetic as the first up to Ngong Ping. Having taken the local transport rather than an organised tourist bus we found ourselves ‘downtown’ in terms of being nearer to the local market than anything remotely ‘touristy’. This actually suited us and to wander through the local market and to see what was being bought as general produce rather than us simply being processed through a network of stalls geared to foreigners looking for souvenirs or ‘original fakes’ was a lot more interesting. Exiting the market we found ourselves in the streets and alleys of Tai-O with the harbour immediately behind the properties on the left side. We continued walking, searching out shade at every opportunity as it was so hot, until we found a side alley that led towards the water. From the water’s edge the stilt village was immediately visible. Wooden properties propped up over the water on slim and fairly fragile looking wooden piles that had been driven into the bed of the harbour, providing an elevated foundation for their homes. The numerous houses were effectively conjoined, no doubt providing an added strength and stability during difficult weathers and at times when repairs must be required. The entire stilt community was linked to the more permanent looking residences on ‘the mainland’ and their market and public buses by a bridge across the water to the nearest stilt house. I found it fascinating and seeing it reminded me of the experience that we had at Lake Titicaca in Peru when we saw the Aymara people and how they lived on the Reed Islands.
We caught a bus back up to Ngong Ping to then walk through the village to the Cable Car which would take us on a 25 minute ride down to the main town, Tung Chung, where we could then get the Underground back to Tsim Sha Tsui after stopping for a late lunch.
Back at the hotel we had a few spare hours and then we went out in the evening in Kowloon, local to the Harbour Grand, for something to eat. This time we found a German Restaurant (still avoiding Sticky Rice!!) just a couple of roads from the hotel which made for an easy circuit of the area including the Whampoa ship that sat bizarrely a long way from any water between high rise residential blocks. This turned out to be a leisure facility including a restaurant but we had no time to explore it further unfortunately.
We were now just one night of sleep away from our final full day tomorrow. The list of things that we wanted to do was now down to Kowloon Walled City Park, Ladies Market, The Avenue of Stars and Temple Street Night Market. Disappointingly, the Avenue of Stars was closed for refurbishment but there was plenty that we could do if we needed to fill time.
The breakfast at the Harbour Grand was fantastic so it made sense to make the most of it both today and before we leave for the airport tomorrow. So, we planned a route via the Underground to the area where Kowloon Walled City Park was. It was also the location of the Hau Wong Temple which we now had time to visit before we went to see the Park.
The temple was quite tiny and had a couple of attendants who presumably opened it and closed it each day and made sure that things were as they should be in-between. It’s a Grade 1 historical building built about 300 years ago and certainly worth spending a little time. Literally over the road is Kowloon Walled City Park.
The site was used by Chinese imperial officials since the 16th century. In 1841, when Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain, Kowloon Walled City was already a garrison and was reinforced by the Chinese Government. The fort’s fate changed in 1898 when the New Territories were leased to Britain for 99 years. Although the walled city remained Chinese territory by treaty, their troops and officials were forced to vacate the site just one year later. This left a power vacuum that was filled by criminals, and the garrison became a city within a city and fugitives and other criminal elements flocked to the lawless enclave from that day forward. Beyond the reach of the law, the area mushroomed into a squalid maze of illegally constructed buildings, where everything from drug trafficking and prostitution to unlicensed dentistry flourished in a labyrinth of dank, dark alleyways.
In 1987, with the agreement of China, the colonial government finally took control of the no-go area, resettled its inhabitants, and replaced the slum with a park. Today, the Chinese-style Park preserves traces of the walled city including the imperial government administrative building (known as a “yamen”). The garden–style of the park now offers visitors a chance to appreciate nature in a place where the darker side of life once flourished.
Not far from the Walled City Park is the Mong Kok business district and the Ladies Market. This and Temple Street Night Market would be our final opportunities to pick up any last minute gifts to take home the following day.
Mong Kok is an amazing looking area with its colourful advertising suspended above the road from both sides of the main street. It’s very busy and very commercial but was typical of what I expected from Hong Kong. Ladies Market is one road back from the main street and offers no more and no less than you could guess would be available from a market that primarily (but not exclusively) targets female shoppers and their children.
It was early-afternoon by the time we got back to our room and decided on some time in and around the rooftop pool followed by a snack in the hotel, before heading out in the evening.
It was dark by 6:30 to 7 pm every day while we were in China and Hong Kong so it would easily be getting dark by the time we got to Temple Street. The route was easy; we just had to get on the underground and find Jordan station which was just one stop on the line from Tsim Sha Tsui where the hotel’s Shuttle Bus stops and picks up.
Emerging back at street level the area around Jordan station was predictably lively and we asked a friendly face where Temple Street was. About a 2 or 3 minute walk as it happened so again it couldn’t have been easier. And you can’t miss it because it has its own ‘Temple Street’ gateway over the road. It’s very much a conventional market but with a focus also on street food being offered by vendors on the corners of the roads near the main entrance. And by the time we exited the market, having bought various bits and pieces to take home as presents, the street was crammed full of people sat eating and drinking with barely a spare seat or table in sight. However, we did find a table where we rested for a while with the largest and cheapest beer we had had during the entire trip. It was a nice way to end.
China and Hong Kong had been eventful and memorable in equal measure and not even the four hour delay to our taking off at Hong Kong airport (after boarding the plane for the journey home) could detract from the great experience and memories that we took back to the UK with us. The sheer numbers of people, the quite different behaviours, the extreme weather and of course the visual impact of some of the things that we saw will long stay in the memory. 2,400 photographs had been accumulated over the three weeks and for the next few months there would be time spent sorting, deleting and cropping these while at the same time reliving it all.