Thoughts & Ideas

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Impressions of Hong Kong

I.                   Skyscrapers

If New York (NY) is supposed to be the city of skyscrapers, what is Hongkong (HK) supposed to be? This is the first thought which came to my mind while driving down from HK airport to my friend Santosh’s house, which was virtually at the other end of town and involved crossing virtually the entire city from Lan Tau Island to Kowloon, over the magnificent Tsing Ma Bridge (the seventh longest suspension bridge in the world), before entering HK island through an undersea tunnel. Later I checked out my favourite info website (Wikipedia) to confirm my hunch and found that while HK has as many as 294 buildings which are more than 150 meters tall, NY has only 227 followed by Dubai at a distant third place with 153.

Having visited HK, NY, and Dubai I can say with confidence that in the current and foreseeable future, HK deserves the position of being referred to as “City of Skyscrapers” more than either NY (or Dubai). First, because in NY, by and large skyscrapers are restricted to the Manhattan area, while in HK, which is sandwiched on a narrow coastal strip between the sea and the hills, skyscrapers are all around you. Even the smaller buildings which may not technically qualify to be called as skyscrapers (minimum 150 meters high – say about 50 stories high) are at least 30 to 40 stories high. Second, while Dubai has very many skyscrapers, most of them are lying in various stages of completion (and in my opinion) with little possibility of being completed and becoming habitable in the near future.

A little more research on the net revealed that in the list of cities with buildings taller than 100 meters, HK comes first with 2354 buildings, followed by NY at a distant second place with 794 buildings. Tokyo with 556 and Dubai 403 are left far behind. This further confirmed by impression that in today’s world (and for some more time to come) HK deserves to be known as the City of Skyscrapers more than NY.


The Skyscrapers of Hong Kong

II.                Public Transport

With limited land area, HK seems to have solved its requirement for space through high rise buildings. This in turn means that the city has a very heavy population density, i.e., number of people (say, per square meter) living within its precincts. This would normally have given rise to a number of challenges, say arranging for living conditions in terms of travelling, food, water, and electricity. However, I was struck by the fact that there was very little traffic on the streets. A number of buses, quite a few taxis, but very few private cars and virtually no two-wheelers were playing on the roads. This was mysterious to me, since in my experience with most large cities, the defining impression is the traffic – people moving from home to work, or attending to work, or school children going to school etc. etc. etc.

 The Empty Streets of Hong Kong

The mystery was solved when I encountered the city’s underground rail system. It is known as the Mass Transit Railway and commonly referred to as MTR. Originally opened in 1979, the system now includes 211.6 km (131.5 mi) of rail with 155 stations. MTR covers through its 8 different segments nearly the entire city (including Kowloon and Lan Tau), runs deep underground (in most places) and also below the sea from HK to Kowloon, on a 24 X 7 basis, with services every 1 minute during peak hours.

It is easy to locate the nearest MTR station from where ever you are, by following the ubiquitous MTR sign. Since the MTR trains generally run deep underground, most of the station entries are located in various public buildings.  Travelling by MTR is a breeze even for the newcomer armed with a map with enough sign boards giving directions. On the one occasion where we thought we needed help, we were pleasantly surprised to find a MTR staff member politely enquire whether we needed help, and who then guided us on taking the correct route! Payments have to be made by swiping your Octopus card both at the entrance and the exit stations.

 The MTR Sign indicating the Subway Station

The MTR is supplemented by a bus system, with buses coming in two types. First are the more commonly seen double deckers and the other are the small mini-buses catering to the low density routes. Bus stops are located at the most every half a kilometer, as such, catching a bus does not involve much walking. At the bus-terminus's there are charts which show the starting and ending points and the route that the particular bus number would take. So armed with a HK map, one can easily travel around the city without getting lost. There are no conductors on the buses, and payments are collected on boarding the bus either by depositing the exact fare or by swiping the Octopus card. Buses are frequent, comfortable, and because of relatively empty streets quite fast.

The third much cheaper, though slower and with limited coverage is the tram system. This covers nearly the entire length of HK Island. The Hong Kong Tramways, one of the earliest forms of public transport in Hong Kong, runs between Shau Kei Wan and Kennedy Town, with a branch circulating Happy Valley. Trams in Hong Kong have not only been a form of transport for over 100 years, but also a major tourist attraction and one of the most environmentally friendly ways of travelling in Hong Kong. Here again there are no conductors, but payments have to be made while exiting the bus either by depositing the exact fare or swiping your Octopus card.

Travelling on the upper tier of either the buses or the trams is a good way of getting to see the entire city and getting a feel of the lie of the land.

Our introduction to HK’s taxi service was also a pleasant surprise. As we exited the airport, we were directed by a series of sign boards to the taxi stand from which taxis to HK were available. There was an attendant at the final boarding place who helped us board the taxi and gave us a small card which said on one side “Important Notice to Passengers Going to Downtown from Airport by Taxi”, and the other side “Useful Information”. It was really thoughtfully designed and helpful.

 The small card passengers taking taxis from the Airport are given on boarding the taxi

Taxis are easily available throughout the day and night, with no special charges for night travel. There are a fair number of women taxi drivers. Payments may be made either in cash or by Octopus cards. The taxi driver is willing to give a printed receipt if you ask for one. Though we used taxis to a very limited extent, we found the service courteous, though communicating with the driver was not easy, especially due to difficulty on our part to understand the Chinese accented English!

The few private cars on the roads were invariably high end luxury brands, with Mercedes, Maserati, and Jaguars seeming to rule. We hardly, saw any scooters or motorcycles on the streets, apart from a few pizza delivery boys.

One of the unique features of public transport in HK are the skywalks and escalators, of which the Central–Mid-levels escalators takes pride of place. Most high density roads have foot-overbridges for pedestrians to cross over without either endangering themselves or disturbing the traffic.

The Central–Mid-levels escalators in Hong Kong is the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world. The entire system covers over 800 meters in distance and elevates over 135 metres from bottom to top. It was constructed in 1993 to provide a better commute by linking areas within the Central and Western District on Hong Kong Island. 

A view of the Central–Midlevels Escalator

Sky-walks are elevated pedestrian walkways connecting the side-walks with the buildings and going over the traffic and at places providing access to the MTR stations. At nearly all places, where one requires climbing, there are escalators and elevators, along with stairs. Though there are few restrictions, except for say requests to give preference to elderly and wheel chair bound travellers in the elevators, a sizable majority of the public seemed to prefer taking the steps rather than the escalators or the elevators.

The highest point on HK Island is the Victoria peak which can be reached either by road or taking the special “Peak Tram”. The Peak Tramway is a funicular railway which carries both tourists and residents to the upper levels of Hong Kong Island. Running from Central District to Victoria Peak via the Mid-Levels, it provides the most direct route and offers good views over the harbour and skyscrapers of Hong Kong.
 The Peak Tram Station Entrance

The Peak Tram is owned and operated by the Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels Group (HSH), the owner of Hong Kong's famous Peninsula Hotel along with many other properties. The line, along with HSH's Peak Tower leisure complex at the line's summit, is promoted using the brand - “The Peak”.

The Peak Tram's route from Central district to Victoria Peak covers a distance of about 1.4 kilometers and a height difference of just less than 400 metres. The station comprises a single track, with platforms on both sides. One platform is used for boarding, the other for exiting the tram.

Traveling by the Peak Tramway was also a unique experience with the tram climbing at a 60° slope at places. The effect was that all the surrounding skyscrapers seemed to be slanted. I wish I had been able to take a photograph of that.

Our visit to the peak though interesting, was also a big letdown, since the day was very foggy, and we could not see the spectacular views of HK.

III.             Lan Tau Island

Lan Tau Island is twice as big as Hong Kong Island and is well worth checking out if you want to get away from the bright lights and pollution of the city for a spell. Here you will find open countryside, traditional fishing villages, secluded beaches, monasteries and more. You can hike, camp, fish and mountain bike, amongst other activities. It can be reached from HK either by taking the Tung Chung MTR line, or by ferry.  It’s most famous tourist attractions are the Big Buddha, the Po Lin Monastery, and the Ngong Ping cable car which carries one from the Tung Chung MTR station to the Po Lin Monastery. Unfortunately, the day we went to Lan Tau the cable car operations were closed for repairs.

The Tian Tan Buddha, also known as the Big Buddha, is a large bronze statue of a Buddha Amoghasiddhi, completed in 1993, and located at Ngong Ping, Lan Tau Island, in Hong Kong. The statue is located near the Po Lin Monastery and symbolises the harmonious relationship between man and nature, people and religion. It is a major centre of Buddhism in Hong Kong, and is also a popular tourist attraction.

 Tian Tan Buddha or the Big Buddha

The Buddha is 34 metres (112 ft) tall, weighs 250 metric tons and was the world's tallest outdoor bronze seated Buddha prior to 2007. It reputedly can even be seen from as far away as Macau on a clear day. Visitors have to climb 240 steps in order to reach the Buddha, though the site also features a small winding road for vehicles to accommodate the handicapped.

The Tian Tan Buddha appears serene and dignified. His right hand is raised, representing the removal of affliction while the left hand rests on his lap in a gesture of giving dhana (wealth). The Buddha faces north, which is unique among the great Buddha statues, as all others face south.

The Po Lin Monastery is a Buddhist monastery, located on Ngong Ping Plateau, on Lan Tau Island, Hong Kong which was founded in 1906 by three monks visiting from Jiangsu and was initially known simply as "The Big Hut". It was renamed to its present name in 1924. The main temple houses three bronze statues of the Buddha – representing his past, present and future lives – as well as many Buddhist scriptures. At the Po Line Monastery we had the unique experience of having a 100% vegetarian Chinese lunch (It is next to impossible to get vegetarian food in HK).

 Remnants of a Vegetarian Lunch at the Po Lin Monastery

Another interesting place which is off the usual tourist route but which we visited was a fishing village across the straits reachable by ferry. I forget the name of the place, but we visited the place thanks to Santosh, the friend with whom we stayed. All kinds of live fishes, crabs, lobsters are kept in large sea water tanks in front of the shops and one can order the fish one desires to eat. The live fish is then taken out, killed and cooked fresh for you!

Live Seafood Restaurant

IV.             Moving around HK

For a general tourist armed with the freely available maps at the airport, it is easy to move about and visit all the places without having a guide or asking directions, once the person has got a hang of the MTR and the bus system. There are sign-boards in English and Chinese at all relevant places without being obstructive or leaving one lost with information overload. For example, the guide-books mentioned about the Mid-Level Elevators and indicated that it started from near a place called “Central”. On exiting the Central MTR station, one cannot miss the signs (in pink) indicating direction to the Mid-Levels escalators. One keeps taking a series of escalators (total 11 escalators) and finally reaches a place where right in front of you are directions for going back either on foot or by bus if one is not inclined to walk down nearly 1 km of winding stairs which take you down vertically by about 400 meters. 

Places of tourist interest are easy to locate as they are identifiable by the pink signs as in the photo below:
Tourist Signs in Pink (and I do not mean my wife)

V.                Public Conveniences

One of our concerns while moving around all day long was finding public toilets, since every day we used to leave early and keep gallivanting all day long. It took us a couple of days to figure out the situation. There are generally no public toilets at the MTR stations; however the main public bus depots have public toilets. In addition, all around town one can find public toilets. One just needs to keep eyes open. All the toilets we encountered were clean, non-smelly, and easily accessible. However, on a couple of occasions, we also managed to use the toilets at MacDonald outlets (of which there are plenty across the town). Since, these are meant for their customers, they were commonly crowded. Though not once did any of the attendants object to our using them.

VI.             The Octopus Card

The Octopus Card is a rechargeable contact-less stored value smart card used to transfer electronic payments in online or offline systems in Hong Kong. Launched in September 1997 to collect fares for the territory's mass transit system, the Octopus card system has since grown into a widely used payment system for virtually all public transport in Hong Kong.

The Octopus can also be used for payment at convenience stores, supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, on-street parking meters, car parks, and other point-of-sale applications such as service stations and vending machines.

VII.          Kowloon

Any visit to HK is not complete without visiting Kowloon, which is across a narrow but deep stretch of sea. Kowloon is located on the mainland, while HK is on an island. Most of the main shopping areas are located in Kowloon. A walk across Kowloon is a must for any tourist to enjoy pleasant and unique scenes such as the Flower Market, the Gold Fish Market, the Ladies Market, Avenue of Stars, A Symphony of Lights, and of course the legendary Tsim Sha Tsui.

The Flower Market and the Gold Fish Market are stretches of road in Kowloon where as the name suggests Flowers and Gold Fish (along with other pets) are sold.

  A Shop in the Flower Market

Street scenes from the Goldfish Market

 Entrance to the Street Bird Garden

The Avenue of Stars pays tribute to the names that helped make Hong Kong the ‘Hollywood of the East’, while giving visitors a panoramic view of the city’s most iconic sight: its glorious skyline, dramatically set against The Peak. With commemorative plaques, celebrity handprints, descriptive milestones, movie memorabilia, a life-size statue of kung fu action hero Bruce Lee the Avenue of Stars fittingly sets the glamour of Hong Kong’s film industry against the captivating dazzle of Victoria Harbour.

 Bruce Lee Statue at Avenue of Stars

The Symphony of Lights is a nightly multimedia show, which involves more than 40 buildings on both sides of the harbour. Named as the 'World's Largest Permanent Light and Sound Show' by Guinness World Records, coloured lights, laser beams and searchlights perform in an unforgettable all-round spectacle synchronised to music and narration that celebrates the energy, spirit and diversity of Hong Kong. One can listen to the show's music and English narration nightly live along the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront between the Avenue of Stars and the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

The Ladies Market on Tung Choi Street consists of over 100 stalls of bargain clothing, accessories and souvenirs and provides a one-kilometer stretch on which to practise your haggling skills. It gets its name from the huge amount of clothing and accessories on sale for women of all ages; however, with watches, cosmetics, bags, home furnishings, CDs and trinkets also up for grabs, you don’t need to be just in the market for a pair of nylon stockings to find something within its crowded aisles.

Starting at the colonial-era Clock Tower and stretching all the way to Hung Hom, a stroll along the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade takes one past the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, the Hong Kong Space Museum, the Hong Kong Museum of Art and Avenue of Stars. But like most of the love birds and shutterbugs on the promenade, your gaze will be drawn south to the dramatic topographical and architectural spectacle that is the Hong Kong Island skyline towering over the busy waters of Victoria Harbour.

VIII.       Some Concluding Remarks

The preference for using public transport which per force requires one to do a fair amount of walking, along with a diet which is virtually oil-less and fairly bland seems to be the secret of the trim figures of nearly everyone that we saw on the streets. Conventional wisdom and experience suggests that as societies become more affluent, there is increase in levels of obesity. This is what I have encountered in India, in the Middle East, and in the US. However, HK seems to be an exception. It was difficult to find any obese persons, not even pot-bellies - old and young alike, without exception.

The levels of affluence and the little difference in apparent levels of income and wealth was another striking fact which struck us. There was little to differentiate from dress and demeanor from the senior executive, the doctor, the shop assistant, or the blue collared workers.

The plethora of designs, textures, and colours of clothes worn by the people was another exciting new discovery. If you looked closely, people were not really good looking in the conventional sense. But the way they carried themselves, the neatness and cleanliness, was appreciable.

HK is a nice friendly place to visit and appreciate, and I would suggest that the first time visitor should not budget for less than 8 days to do justice to the trip.


  • At 6:24 PM , Blogger Ashok Basu said...

    Very apt descriptions - my observation is the same as for your paper on training - short on wit - particularly since it is so long - i did not read upto the end shall complete later

  • At 10:54 PM , Blogger basant mallick said...

    You have really given valuluable tips for travelling to Hong Kong by your closely observing the country and the people.It seems you are heading for compilig a Si-u-Ki by Hiuen Tsang,Good one..


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