For a shorter post on things to do in Hong Kong, click here.
Hong Kong is an astoundingly modern city decorated with a rain forest climate and soaring palms. Everything about it is larger than life, from the glass-covered Central Banking District to the opulent Botanical Gardens hidden away just seconds from it. A beautiful contrast of ‘East meets West’, Hong Kong delivered everything I expected from it and more.
We arrived at our hostel in one of the busiest districts of the city, a less than five minute walk from Victoria Harbour. The Museum of Art is located on the harbour, and this was our first port of call. Our short walk there took us along one of the busiest streets in Hong Kong, Nathan Road. One of the busiest districts as boasting several shopping centres, hotels and restaurant overlooking the harbour and an array of museums. A video installation following China and Hong Kong through their modernisation over the twentieth century greeted us directly after the entrance, we were plunged into darkness and led around a maze of screens depicting different places, people and periods in time. Before even having visited the city, we were allowed to virtually witness its development and see it today. The back wall of the museum in itself is a work of art. Constructed of monumental plates of glass, it offers a uniquely unobstructed and peaceful view of the harbour and the masses of skyscrapers on its other side. Contrasting deeply with this wall of modernity, the upper floors exhibit traditional Eastern prints, sculpture and paintings. A cheap ticket, traditional art and an insight into how this magnificent city came to fruition – I cannot recommend enough visiting the Museum of Art.
Although there are many modes of transport in the city centre, the subway is quicker and relatively similar in price to the others. After taking the subway into the city, we took the tram to Victoria Peak. On the way up, the tram climbs a mountainside on what is essentially a vertical – not for the faint hearted. From the top of peak you get a 360 view of the city, mountains and sea ports and even with my inexplicable fear of heights I found it breathtaking. We took the journey up in the later afternoon to ensure we saw the city in daylight, sunset and darkness due to our restrictive timescale. It’s possible to get one way tickets or if you’re really keen you can hike up and back down at no cost at all. Atop the mountain there’s a shopping centre packed with restaurants, bars and shops. We ate dinner and drank cocktails in what was a surprisingly reasonably priced restaurant on the top level, and were able to watch the city whilst having our meal in broad daylight, then a pink, cloudy sunset and finally plunged into darkness.
After taking the tram back down to earth we wandered through the financial and shopping districts, a completely new world in the night. The sheer size of the buildings are difficult to comprehend and even more so to describe; in every direction and illuminated in every colour. Unlike the typical white lights of a big city, Hong Kong is unashamedly colourful. Each building taller, brighter, more glacial than the last. We then returned to the harbour to see it in its rainbow of lights, reflecting toward us over the river.
The Botanical Gardens are located in the middle of the city, a steep climb away from the CBD. The Hong Kong climate is tropical and once in the gardens, surrounded by bounds of greenery and primate enclosures, you feel a world away from the bustling city outside its limits. The giveaway is in the skyscrapers creeping into sight over the trees and the colossal concrete columns supporting the above highways. The tension between tradition and modernity is prominent in Hong Kong, but they seem to have found their equilibrium. The contrast between these opposite elements makes it intriguing – I found myself walk further into the gardens to see for myself the way in which trees and plants grew around the newer elements of the city.
Our afternoon consisted of a short lived trip to Disneyland – but it didn’t disappoint. There was a Level 8 typhoon passing through, so outdoor attractions were closed at the park. This was my first experience at a Disney resort, so the weather didn’t dampen my excitement. I had no idea what the park would be like and I was amazed by everything about it. The park is a relatively cheap day out and easy to get to if you want to escape the hustle of the city for even a few hours it’s a great place to go and release your inner child. I was told it was relatively small in comparison to the other parks, but for me it was exceptional. The details of everything from the restaurants to the stores was so meticulously detailed, and I found it so refreshing to not have to behave like an adult for even just a few hours. After a couple of hours we thought it best to return to the city – even I had had enough of Space Mountain for one day.
That evening we went to the Ladies’ and Temple Street Markets. Stock varies from fresh fish to suitcases, and the market stalls line streets upon streets. Patience, an ability to haggle and learning to say ‘no’ are three essential skills for manoeuvring the markets. After spending only s short time in them, these markets again exhibit the stark constant between modernity and tradition. Traditional silk dresses and fans can be purchased from one stall and the next sells cases for phones and laptops. Within these traditional stalls, beautifully crafted clothes and accessories can be purchased for fragments of the prices of those in the shopping districts. Supporting local people and families is, for me at least, one of the most important parts of visiting areas of the world that are still developing. It could be very easy to be fooled by the seemingly booming city centre, but as I found out from visiting the less developed parts of the city. If you merely scratch the surface the rich-poor divide is more than evident. There is something to be said for the divisions between rich and poor, then modern and traditional. The modernised parts of the city are full of young, prospering business men and women passing designer stores on their way to their office buildings. A few streets away, people can be seen searching through trash cans or piles. Although perhaps not shedding a positive light on the city, I feel it is extremely important to see past the glittering skyline of this city.
We stopped at a pizza place for some dinner in the depths of Temple Street and sat next to a Phillipino woman who we got talking to. One of the most important parts of travelling is engaging with locals and hearing their version of events, about their lives. In cities it’s difficult to converse with anyone at all; everyone is buried in their work or their phone or running to catch a train. If someone has something to say, listening will only benefit your experience.
Our last morning was spent at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Sha Tin which is located atop a steep hill, but is more than worth the climb. There are several rest benches and the top levels of the site are on several ledges, which was sincerely appreciated in the baking heat.The entire path upwards is lined on either side with individually designed Buddha sculptures, each life size and bathed in gold leaf with a differing expression to those around it. Once at the top there are tens of buildings and mausoleums filled within and surrounded by more figures. The architecture is astounding; curvature and exotic shapes make up the colourful religious buildings. There are pools spread around the buildings home to fish and turtles, monks can be respectfully observed in prayer and executing their daily tasks.This small utopia borders main roads and corporate buildings, but it is a spiritual sanctuary hidden away from the distractions of modernity. It offers various vantage points of the city, some through a frame of trees; the culture dichotomy is all too present.
Religion and worship evidently for many of the citizens of Hong Kong and seeing a part of their culture that involves neither consumerism or materiality was refreshing. The City, like the temples, helps a visitor in understanding many dimensions of the local culture and inhabitant. The artistic prowess in the sculptures and buildings stand tall above the city below. A beautiful way to end our short time in Hong Kong, epitomising the spirituality so often associated with the East on one hand and on the other the capitalism of the West.