Hong Kong, a unique phenomenon in Asia where the West meets the East. This harmony, which is on the verge of extinction today due to Chinese aggression, is living its last days of freedom and glory. Although it looks like China, there is no communism here. Here capitalism is in full swing. All the signs are also in English, you can see foreigners everywhere and the locals are aware of all the global news and events. This is one of the few places in China where locals can talk relatively free, where you have access to anything, and sites like Google, Facebook and You Tube are not blocked by the government…yet.
As luck had it, at the end of my 5 month contract at sea, our ship headed towards the Yiu Lian Shipyard in Hong Kong for it’s technical overhaul. A visit to the shipyard is the best thing that can happen to the deck crew due to the relatively low workload onboard during the stay.
To get to the site, the ship’s route takes us very close to land, under several city bridges and among some cute urban islands.
The shipyard is located on a small island in the northern part of the city, and to get to the center we have to take a minibus to the mainland Kowloon. From here we transfer to the main subway network. You can get pretty much anywhere in the city by subway within 30 minutes. I was interested in the direct line to the central station on Hong Kong Island.
The MTR subway is impeccable here, a marvel of modern engineering with suspended and underground sections that creeps through or even straight through skyscrapers, in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Hong Kong is simply massive, a metropolis of eight million people developed vertically, crammed between the mountains and the sea. Although the territory is relatively large, most of it is occupied by mountains and natural parks. Most of the population is crammed in residential 40 floors towers built on narrow strips of land on the coast. Imagine a city the size of Liverpool where 8 million people live.
This former British colony has retained its semi-autonomous status and today, although it belongs to China, it has its own legal system, regional government, its own currency, here they drive on the left side of the road like in England and the city enjoys considerably more freedoms than the rest of China. Of course, it also kept its free port status.
First impression when we come out of the subway? Crowded and overwhelming! Everywhere you look there are millions of people rushing somewhere, tall buildings left and right, crowded streets, huge luminous adds for famous brands, urban chaos. I love it! It reminds me of New York. The atmosphere in such cities you either love it or hate it, there is no middle ground.
The visual impact is further increased by the contrasts of the city. Next to the modern skyscrapers, we have dilapidated blocks of flats. Luxury cars parked in what appears to be a ghetto. One block away is the state-of-the-art headquarters of HSBC. At the same time on the alleys between these towers of wealth we find small stalls and makeshift bars where food and beer cost even ten times less than in the restaurants on the main street. I encourage everyone to make the courage to try these stalls that usually have a lot of local customers, you will not be disappointed!
Due to the geography of the island, almost the entire city is on a slope. On the pedestrian streets that go up the hills, the authorities installed covered escalators. Along these pedestrian corridors that have become a symbol of the city, many areas have sprawled up with shops, cafes, fast food restaurants and small leisure plazas. Walk on them, you will discover many culinary treasures of the city, and beautiful areas. From the top of the escalators, the view is usually beautiful as well.
The next day we went to one of the main attractions of the city, namely the view from Victoria Peak located 500 meters above the city. To get to the top, most tourists choose the scenic route offered by the Peak Funicular that starts at Kennedy station. Unfortunately there was a very large queue of tourists there where we had to wait at least 2 hours. We just didn’t have this time to spare, so we took the taxi. On the way back I discovered that there is also a fast shuttle bus line that connects to the city center. Considering the price difference, I recommend the later option.
As we climb the winding mountain road, the landscape changes from crowded city towers to greenery and chic villas, many of them built in British Victorian style. The upper area was once reserved for the British settlers. We reach the top where the air feels much cooler, and we quickly go to the railing to see the stunning view from the top of Hong Kong city and Victoria Harbor. To our great disappointment, we came across a foggy view and could barely see anything. Well, not much we could do about it unfortunately. I recommend you look up the weather in advance and choose your day carefully to visit the Peak.
We go back downtown and explore a little more. The forest of tall towers seems endless. So is the variety of people, places and shops. In all the hustle and bustle I found after a short ride on the double-decker tram that circles the island, an oasis of peace under the name of Victoria Park.
In the evening, under the guidance of our local ship’s agent, we head to the Lan Kwai Fong area. This is the epicenter of entertainment for foreigners. An entire district full of clubs, restaurants and bars where you are allowed to drink on the street. All the streets vibrate and everyone is outside having a good time. Very nice and lots of points for the atmosphere, but there is however a drawback. A few girls and boys who like to harass you to give them money or to buy them something to drink just because you are a foreigner. This alone seems to imply in their eyes that you are rich. They are not dangerous, but they are annoying due to their persistence. Also, some bars in the area automatically change their prices and menus when they see strangers stepping in their venues. Luckily our agent jumped to our aid and we received the menu with the correct prices. Hong Kong is generally one of the most expensive cities in the world, but if you’re careful where you order from, you can easily get away with paying 25 EUR for a meal at a decent restaurant and 5 Euro for a beer at a bar (50 Hong Kong dollars).
When we catch another free afternoon, we make courage and head towards the giant Buddha Statue attraction. This is located on the island of Lan Tau which is also a national park. On this island we find not only the new International Airport but also the Disneyland amusement park. To get to the statue and the Ngong Ping themed village you can take the huge 5 km cable car, or the bus. Both connect to the subway line that goes to the airport. Unfortunately, we underestimated how long the subway ride will take from the city center to the airport and we came close to closing time. We still went on a cable car ride to admire the city views from above at night.
Somewhat disappointed by the failed visit at the Buddha Statue, we set off for the mainland part of the city, called Kowloon. Here we head to something that is definitely open at night, and that something is called the Night Market on Temple Street. This outdoor shopping district is filled all night with shoppers and tourists. Here you can find everything from electronics to clothes,fine fabrics and spices. The night atmosphere here is simply incredible. The stores sell both original products and very good copies. There is something for every budget here. Street artists also contribute to the atmosphere, just watch your pockets when you are in the crowds. So instead of wasting a day shopping, why not spend a night here?
From here we make our way to the seafront, we have one last stop before returning to the ship. We must see the light show on the seafront! Hong Kong Island is stunning but you can best see its beauty from the opposite shore of Victoria Bay. At night the whole skyline of skyscrapers comes to life and the city puts on a light show for tourists. Well worth the trip!
After a week of work and urban exploring, we also spend a quiet Sunday in the city. The atmosphere is calmer, there are not so many cars and people on the streets, but instead there is a different group of people around. On Sundays, everywhere around the city you can see groups of Filipinos enjoying themselves on improvised picnic sites. Sunday is their only day off, so they take advantage of it and meet in town to socialize. Their picnic blankets can be seen absolutely everywhere, in parks, sidewalks, public squares and pedestrian bridges. Local authorities tolerate them doing so, as recognition of their contribution to the local economy.
The two weeks passed quickly and on the last day it was time to pack and go home. Once again we cross the huge bridge that connects the city with the airport. The same bridge we first crossed below the first time we arrived in Hong Kong. Thus the circle is complete now. I will always have beautiful memories of this city, and I am grateful to have visited it so many times during my voyages. I can only hope that the Chinese authorities will not completely destroy it’s identity.
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