May 16, 2012

Hong Kong Hello - Part I

After years of dreaming, months of planning and a sixteen hour flight, I arrived in Hong Kong, Asia's World City, ready to be dazzled but unprepared for just how cosmopolitan it really is.  I could tell from the express train ride from the airport to the Central Station that this was going to be even more exciting than I had anticipated and I had come with high expectations!

A curious combination of ancient Asian and British Colonial cultures, present day Hong Kong is a dynamic mélange of East and West with old and new co-existing if not in total harmony then with a mutual respect.

Because Hong Kong is such a multi-faceted city, I thought the best place to begin is at the top.  And where better to truly appreciate the full panorama than Victoria Peak - the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island.  At 1,810 feet above sea level, "The Peak" began as a signaling post for incoming cargo and mail ships.  The area later became a retreat from the summer heat and humidity for wealthy Hong Kong residents who were transported up and down the steep Peak paths by sedan chairs carried by two strong coolies.  In 1888 the Peak Tram began operation.  It was the first funicular railway in Asia and it  opened up the area for the residential development than now dots the mountainside in the form of towering apartment buildings.

Today the Peak Tram is primarily a tourist attraction offering a very fun ride up and down the mountain at gradients of between 4 to 27 degrees.  The rather unattractive building at the top, the Sky Terrace 428, features a 360˚ viewing platform and the vistas are incredible.  Looking North and East toward Kowloon and the New Territories you can see downtown Central Hong Kong and the deep water harbour:

Or looking North and West you can see Wan Chai and Causeway Bay:

Or looking South, away from the City, you can see how verdant and lush the undeveloped areas are: 

Although some hardy souls chose to descend from the mountaintop on foot along curving pathways, I took the easy option and returned the same way I had come up, on the Peak Tram and once again marveled at the amazing engineering of the buildings perched on the mountain, the magnificent views and the g-forces of the incline.  

Much like in San Francisco, walking in Hong Kong involves a lot of climbing, but the city planners addressed this issue early on with the construction of the Midlevel Escalators.  This covered escalator system extends from the waterfront at the border of the Western and Central sections midway up to Victoria Peak.  Residents of the so-called "Midlevels" can take this series of moving walkways down to work from 6-10 AM and back up the hill from 10 AM until midnight, free of charge.

This seemed like the perfect way to explore several areas of the city in one fell swoop so I began at the beginning, at the now defunct Central Market, and alternately rode and walked in covered comfort to the terminus of the escalators. 

Hong Kong is almost tropical in climate at this time of year, and according to the locals this May seems to be even hotter than usual, but despite the heat and humidity it was a very pleasant ride and a great way to sightsee.  In fact, because the walkway is elevated, one could look right inside second and third story windows of shops and apartments along the route!

Every block or so I stepped aside to view the streets below, some with chaotic looking signage, and tent-like stalls set up to sell everything from souvenirs to medicinal herbs. As the "travelator" mounted the hill, the residences got progressively more upscale and by the time the ride was over the apartment buildings were luxurious high-rises.

In the next few days I am looking forward to exploring Hong Kong's wonderful food, shopping, architecture and rich culture and I'll be posting several blogs to share my adventures with you.   I hope you'll come back and join me on this Asian sojourn.

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