I had visited Hong Kong once before, but that was thirty years ago. I remember skyscrapers towering over seedy street markets, masses of small shops selling cameras and Walkmans, and a general feeling of British authority overlaying a rather suppressed Chinese culture.
I also remember arriving at an airport squashed between high-rise blocks of flats and waving at the occupants as the plane attempted to hit the runway rather than the lines of washing sticking out from the balconies.
So what’s changed? Well certainly arriving at the airport is not half as interesting. Hong Kong airport is now a massive concrete desert stuck on to Lantau Island.
However I was very pleased to arrive after seventeen hours of Malaysian Airways from London via Kuala Lumpur. All very efficient with pretty little air hostesses handing out reasonable food, but rather doubtful wine.
As always when a long haul flight involves a stop along the way, I was amazed that our luggage appeared on the carousel at the destination.
I was also amazed that the taxi fare for the 30km drive from the airport to Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon cost only HK$244 (less than £20) and the taxi driver immediately offered me HK$6 change expecting me to accept it. This is not London!
So Stage 1 of my Round the World in 30 Days trip found me in the centre of Hong Kong at 1am checking in to the Holiday Inn Golden Mile. I felt surprisingly un-jetlagged.
After thirty years I’d forgotten just how polite and helpful everyone seems to be in Hong Kong, or is this something new?
Hotels are not cheap in central Hong Kong, but the Golden Mile Holiday Inn is of Intercontinental Hotel standard and not unreasonably priced with a Senior discount flexible rate. I opted to upgrade to a Club Executive room. A good move. The complimentary breakfast, afternoon tea and evening cocktails with snacks (actually a very tasty, full evening meal) were all of an excellent standard.
I highly recommended this hotel, particularly for location, just five minutes walk from the Star Ferry terminal, but also for the efficient, friendly manner of the staff.
I’d allowed just three nights in Hong Kong in what was a fairly tight round the world itinerary. Too short a time of course, but at least it allowed us to get a feel of this fascinating city, as indicated in my highlights.
My Ten Highlights of Hong Kong
1. Star Ferries and Harbour Tour. The Star Ferries date back to 1887 and were the main way to travel from Kowloon on the mainland to Honk Kong Island, until tunnels were built in the 1970s. The ferries are free of charge to the over 65s, but you need to have purchased an Elder Octopus Card as proof. A great way to see the Hong Kong skyline is to take a one hour Harbour Tour for just £7 with refreshments. Seniors get a 10% discount.
2. Hong Kong Island and Statue Square. You can travel up through much of Central Hong Kong Island on a series of escalators without seeing the light of day. However, I emerged along the way to see some of the old administrative buildings of Hong Kong near Chater Square and St John’s Cathedral.
3. Peak Tram. Dating back to 1881, the Peak Tram takes you steeply most of the way up the Peak. Seniors over 65 get more than 50% discount.
4. Peak Circle Walk. Don’t bother with the shops, restaurants and Sky Terrace after the Peak Tram ride, but head off on the 3km walk around the peak. Information boards provide details about the many unusual plants and birds to be seen along the way.
5. Waterfront in Kowloon. The promenade along the Kowloon waterfront, some of it raised, gave great views over to Hong Kong Island. Near the Star Ferry terminal are the old Clock Tower, the Hong Kong Museum of Art and the Hong Kong Science Museum. Further along the ‘Avenue of Stars’ commemorates Hong Kong’s greatest film stars.
6. Golden Mile and Mansion. Of course, you don’t need to purchase anything at the top brand shops and gold outlets along this section of Nathan Street – I certainly didn’t – but it is interesting to window shop.
7. Temple Street Market. I visited at 11-o-clock in the evening when the market was in full swing. It was difficult to resist buying from the vast range of goods on display and the persuasive, but not pushy, salesgirls.
8. Dim Sum restaurants. We were fortunate in being guided to good dim sum restaurants by Hong Kong residents whom we knew. Always a teapot of tea and a teapot of hot water are placed on the table. I was surprised to see that the tea was initially used to warm the cups and the plates before being discarded. I also didn’t expect savoury and sweet dishes to be mixed; I dipped one tasty looking morsel in balsamic vinegar before realising it was full of vanilla custard. It amused our hosts!
9. Travelling to Tai Po in the New Territories. Most tourists confine themselves to Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. We were fortunate in being hosted one day by someone who has a restaurant in our home town in England.
He chaperoned us through the Metro and rail system to Tai Po where we visited a very high quality food shop; it reminded me of the Food Hall in Harrods. The little packs of birds nests cost well over £100 each, but at least they were three for the price of two! Our visit to Tai Po was rounded off with a pint in the ‘King’s Belly’ pub, watching Cardiff versus Aston Villa on the television.
10. Visiting villages in Lam Tsuen district. Our host from England took us to his home in the village of Tong Sheung Tsuen, one of a collection of villages in Lam Tsuen, a few miles from Tai Po and close to the border with Mainland China.
This is very different from the tourists’ Hong Kong. A peaceful rural area by the Lam Tsuen River surrounded by hills. A unique feature is the Wishing Tree near the ancient Tin Hau Temple and the New Year Pavilion.
Of course this short visit just scratched the surface of Hong Kong, but we saw enough for us to decide to return in the not too distant future.
Had it changed over the last thirty years? Well not as much as I thought it would have.
Driving down the motorway from the airport we could well have been in England. The road signs are all the same, they drive on the left and there are double-decker buses.
Much of the seediness of the street markets seems to have gone, but you are still touted by hawkers keen to get you into their camera and iPad shops or to have a suit made in 2 hours or so.
Almost everyone now seems to be very young as they rush madly around, but maybe that is just a sign of my age! A confident, young Chinese culture has very much taken over since 1997 and the many remaining Brits now need to know their place.
I won’t include Hong Kong in my Top Ten Cities of the world. Okay, it is undoubtedly a great world city, but it is too busy being busy and making money to be really attractive to Senior tourists such as me!
So after three hectic days, back to the airport and off to Fiji.