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“Beware of pick-pockets” we were warned, “and guard your things – especially your passport”. Armed with all kinds of travel lore, we were in for a big surprise when we arrived in Hong Kong on our week-long summer vacation. Well, Hong Kong has surprises galore – especially if you are visiting after more than a decade. But the biggest surprise of them all is – Hong Kong is one of the safest cities in the world and is nothing like what folks back home warned you about!
The Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok on Lantau Island is truly world class and one of the largest in the world. The first thing we did as soon as we arrived was to get an Octopus Card which can be used on the MTR (Mass Transit Railway), Star Ferry and the city bus. And getting to the city couldn’t be easier. For a cool HK $100, the Airport Express train whisks passengers from the arrival hall to Tsing Yi, Kowloon or Central at 135 km/h and before we knew it, we were outside the Kowloon MTR Station waiting to board the Airport Shuttle Bus. The Airport Shuttle gave us our first glimpse of Hong Kong’s amazing skyline – a fascinating mix of skyscrapers and rocky hills under a powder blue sky.
We were dropped at Tsim Sha Shui East, right next to our hotel - the YMCA Salisbury. Located right in the heart of Hong Kong’s shopping district, the YMCA-run Salisbury is just a stroll away from the Star Ferry Pier, the Hong Kong Space Museum and the Cultural Centre and is recommended even by the Lonely Planet for its clean and comfortable rooms. Our room had a splendid view of the harbour front. The view only got better at night, with all the buildings lit up. Visitors are treated to a spectacular “City Lights Show” at 8.00pm everyday when laser beams pierce the night sky from the rooftops of the tallest buildings, and one can tune in to the FM radio for a live commentary.
Hong Kong comprises of three main areas around the South China Sea: the Kowloon peninsula on mainland China, the Hong Kong Island where Admiralty, Central and most business establishments are and Lantau Island, where the airport, Disneyland and many other new developmental activities are coming up. Commuting is a pleasure in Hong Kong (though you need a strong pair of legs), and you have the option of choosing from the 5-line MTR, the Star Ferry and of course, the famous Hong Kong red-top taxis!
The pride of Hong Kong is the Star Ferry, started in 1898 by Dorabjes Nowrojee, a Parsi from India, and zealously preserved by the government in peak form. Hong Kong’s living legend, the Star Ferry’s stormy history is interwoven with the history of Hong Kong itself. Though the MTR is a lot more convenient and hassle-free, nothing can beat the pleasure of crossing the sea on the ferry, with the wind slicing through your hair.
And speaking of history, Hong Kong has many interesting museums, but your first step to understanding this “economic tiger” starts at the Hong Kong History Museum in Kowloon. The Museum offers a fascinating view of Hong Kong’s history from pre-historic times to the present, with multimedia shows, life-like exhibits and interactive kiosks complete with recreated 18th century streets, fishing piers with Chinese junks at quay, Chinese tea shops and British establishments. Pages from history come alive in the meticulously-recreated walk-through exhibits of the earliest Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation, the General Post Office, a British-run primary school and marketplace!
We had our best view of Hong Kong from the Victoria Peak, which is the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island. The peak and the vertical tram that takes tourists up the mountain are undoubtedly the biggest tourist attraction here. An evening at the peak is well spent, as the setting sun lifts its amber veil on the dazzling jewel of a city down below. There are many restaurants and entertainment outlets here on the peak, which is also where Hong Kong’s rich and famous live.
The long ride to Ocean Park – Hong Kong’s marine life theme park between Aberdeen and Repulse Bay - is best enjoyed on a double decker bus, which gives you an elevated view of the skyscrapers and downtown Hong Kong. Spread over 200 acres, the Ocean Park is one of the largest marine parks in the world. Built on both sides of a mountain, a cable car system links the lowland and headland sections and provides spectacular views of the South China Sea. Ocean Park also has the world’s second longest outdoor escalator, underwater aquariums, sea lion and dolphin shows and a world-class conservation centre.
On Sunday, we decided to explore Central on Hong Kong Island, which is the commercial hub of the city. Almost all the banking establishments – Citibank, HSBC, Standard Chartered and the likes - have their headquarters here. There are many historic buildings here as well, as Central was also the seat of the British. In the morning, we made it to the overflowing pews of the St. John’s Cathedral for the Sung Eucharist. Built in 1847 by the British, the Cathedral has an interesting history and is now a “declared monument”. It was turned into a Shinto shrine during the Japanese occupation in World War II, and was restored after the war. The beautiful Cathedral is now the seat of the Archbishop of Hong Kong's Anglican (Episcopal) Church and weekly services are conducted in English and Mandarin Chinese.
Central and Admiralty have some of the most impressive malls in Hong Kong. Pacific Place, Times Square…just to name a few - all proof of the booming economy of Hong Kong. Almost all the international labels have their showroom here – and you are welcome to window-shop to your heart’s content. Though Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities, it also offers some great shopping and bargains. Clothes, jewellery, watches, antiques, leather goods and of course, Jade – are what Hong Kong is famous for. The night markets at Tsim Sha Tsui and Temple Street, factory outlets on Granville Road, the Stanley Market and Ladies Market are surely places where you can strike a good deal.
The most recent feather in Hong Kong’s cap is its spanking new Disneyland on Lantau Island. Our rendezvous began from the Sunny Bay MTR Station, on the exclusive Disney Resort line. The Disney trains are interestingly furnished with Disney memorabilia, and you are wished a “Magical Day” as you step out. Though Disneyland Hong Kong is much smaller than it’s European or American counterparts, it nevertheless is packed with enough magic to last a whole day.
Disneyland Hong Kong is a fascinating mix of creativity and technology, and is sure to appeal to the child in everyone. The Mickey’s Philarmagic Show deserves a mention, as during the 3-dimensional 10-minute action-packed film, you also get treated to special effects as Goofy splashes water on you and Donald puts a sweet smelling pie under your nose and the wind blows all around you as you take to the skies with Peter Pan. The eventful Jungle River Cruise through Tarzan country, the life-like Tree House, meeting the Disney Princesses, the musical Golden Mickeys Show, a bumpy ride through Winnie the Pooh land on a ‘hunny’ pot, the thrilling Space Mountain (surely not for the faint-hearted), the afternoon parade and of course, the late evening fireworks – the list could go on and on – that’s the magic of Walt Disney Inc.
It was so easy to fall in love with Hong Kong – the weather was so bracing, the city so inviting with so much to see and experience. Soon it was time to pack our bags and get to the airport. And we left Hong Kong behind as the sun played truant and a storm was brewing far away in the Pacific. Lucky we weren’t around to experience Hong Kong’s infamous typhoon, as we flew out with surprisingly sunny memories of Asia’s world city.