This place is just too cool to exist. It has all the fabulous density and over-the-top commerce I've come to love from China's big cities, but it's much richer and is aggressively international and set in a jaw-dropping landscape. It's like Manhattan (or more like an extended Times Square without quite so many huge TV screens) in mountainous terrain.
We rode a Cathay Pacific Airbus A-330 over from Taipei (a very pleasant and professional experience made slightly strange because the entire staff called me, and apparently only me, by name: Mr. Stachour) and we were at our hotel by 9:15AM or so. The drive in from the airport went past a massive container ship port facilitiy, all nestled in a series of fairly narrow bays and waterways; these facilities alone could suck up a week of exploration on my part (if I had such a week and if anyone would let me near the facility). Unfortunately for my exploration plans, the weather was low and moist, with a continuous misting that was scheduled to continue all day and into the next. (There are a zillion skyscrapers here, and most had their upper levels in the clouds all day.) But I decided to venture out just the same; who knows when I'd make it back? (I feel like a heel complaining about the weather when I've had an entire week to explore fabulous places without so much as a raindrop.)
Our hotel is on the mainland, Kowloon, on the bustling Nathan St., a three or four block walk to the harbor. The Star Ferry takes one across the couple miles to Hong Kong Island and costs a mere 2.5 HK dollars (about 35 cents American for the more protected upper deck). The ride takes about 15 minutes. The ferries are rugged old double-enders with a control station at each end. You can save a few cents riding down on the mainlevel level--I tried it each way. Just the experience of being on the choppy water among so many boats, and with such spectacular scenery all around, was worth ten times the price.
Waiting for the ferry I met a young fellow from Cleveland who was on a brief stopover on his way to Katmandu for some adventure hiking. He was looking for something to do and offered to accompany me over to the other side of the island to the Stanley Market. Neither he nor I were much interested in shopping, but I was told the bus ride over there was not to be missed and he agreed to give it a whirl. And what a ride! The buses, old London double-deckers, travel along a narrow, twisting road that clings precariously to the sides of the mountains, constantly twisting and climbing and dropping, and from the upper level you feel a hundred times that you'll surely go over the edge to your death. There are often sheer rock walls only inches from one side of the bus, and a low stone "curb" wall and / or passing traffic inches from the other side such that it seems a miracle there are not constant accidents (one pictures the almost Looney-Tunes-like movie special effect where the old bus smashes thru the little curbing and falls for 30 seconds before disintegrating in the sea). Two buses meeting--like happens a hundred times on the 30 minute ride--are a real hail Mary moment; there's not nearly enough room for both vehicles, and yet they squeak past with--it would seem--a couple inches clearance. And in between bouts of panic at your imminent demise you have glimpses of the dense civilization of Hong Kong in the valleys below.
The whole thing was an exercise in extreme sensory overload, but it was almost impossible to get decent pictures of anything. Between the rain on the windows and the very brief openings in the dense foliage it was just too tough to get a good shot. I would have been better to video the whole thing. But the scenery almost strains the mind; I would have taken 500 pictures on this outing.
I decided tonight to follow the advice of a British couple I met on the bus (the woman grew up on the island and was making another return visit to her childhood home) take the ferry back over to the island and ride the little double-decker tram through the city. The couple said this was the most picturesque way to see the island, and it was most spectacular at night when the lights came on. I've tried without much luck finding a good map of the tram route I want (there are six in total), but I'm hoping there's a better map down at the concierge desk.
We'll report on that a bit later!
Now back from that little adventure. The trolleys are fun enough, and quite inexpensive. They're clearly a throwback to a previous era, very small and crude. But while the running gear may be WWII-vintage, the carbodies are new-ish or at least heavily updated. The seats are arrayed 2+1, with clusters at the front and rear on the upper deck. Accommodations are minimal--the dimensions of everything were clearly not laid out with Americans in mind--and the ride is noisy and jerky. The riding experience is very intimate, both inside the cramped cars and outside among the traffic as well. The right of way runs in the median between multi-lane streets, and the little cars are surrounded on both sides--and often front and rear as well--by whizzing traffic and heavy pedestrian traffic. They are advertised as the cheapest way to get around Hong Kong, and clearly a lot of natives use the trams to get to and from work. The whole system was quite busy when I got on about 4:30 or so--though it takes only about 30 people to fill up a car--and I stood near the front on the upper deck the entire duration of my ride--half an hour, I suppose, paying my two dollars (about 30 cents) on the way out. I had intended to get off when the scenery became less interesting and ride back in the other direction, but I ended up making my default decision and walking back. Nothing seems better for soaking up the sights than being on foot.
That being said, the weather really put a damper on how much ambiance a fella could soak up. I tried again and again to get pictures of what struck me, but I never quite managed it. The reality just hugely outstrips the ability of my little iPhone pictures to capture it. I feel these last couple days that my photography skills are just not equal to the subject matter; I have a distinct sense of being in extraordinary places (at least for an American) and being quite unequal to the task of capturing that experience and translating it for others. A bit more time and better weather would doubtless help. Riding a bus or ferry, I think everything rather catches me by surprise, which is not the best way to approach photography, I think. A couple days here and I could seek out what I know from experience to be interesting. A theory, anyway.
Wikipedia says Hong Kong has among the highest population densities in the world, and this is always one of the key contributors to a place's personality. It's the density of New York City, but coupled with very rugged topography and a huge nautical presence. That the dense culture happens to be Chinese also plays its role; if this were a US territory, it would feel very different. The oddity of the architecture, the assault of neon and advertising from shop fronts, the masses of people, the smells--so peculiar to Asia, but with some Buddhist incense mixed in--the odd sounds of language and weird cell phone rings and peculiar warning bells at crosswalks; all these things combine to transport one to an utterly different place. (Which reminds me; Hong Kong is cell phone central. EVERYBODY is on their phones, talking and texting, all the time.)
Maybe my single favorite thing so far here is the Star Ferry. I rode the ferry back and forth twice today, and I think I'm even happier out on the water than I am on foot. The crossing, even if just a few moments long, is bouncy and fragrant, and the vistas of Kowloon on one side and Hong Kong Island on the other give one endless stuff to look and marvel at. I love the workaday aspects of the ferries, old industrial machines that have plied these waters continuously--bobbing like a cork in the chop--for decades, I suspect. And I love the nonchalance of the studied, repetitive tasks of the workers who tether and untether the boats 50 times a day, working in concert with the pilot who positions things just so to enable the metal gangways to be dropped on upper and lower decks for bi-level boarding and disembarkation. All this several times an hour, a zillion times a day, multiplied by a bunch of different ferry routes. I had a look in one of the semi-open engine bays, and the boat runs on a massive six-cylinder marine diesel which appears to have but a single speed (I'd say about 500 rpms). It sounds exactly the same sitting at the dock for boarding and out in the middle running at full steam. There were two other smaller (but still pretty large) diesels in the engine bay as well, one of which was running. I wonder at that.
(The fabulous Star Ferry. One of their promotional posters quotes National Geographic Magazine saying something like "The Star Ferry from Kowloon gives the most perfect aspect of Hong Kong.")
(The operator's view. Actually, we're looking aft on this trip--Hong Kong recedes as we make our way back to Kowloon. The boats go both directions without turning about, and a pilot sits in each end, evidently only working every other leg, or maybe they're both needed at docking.)
(The lower level gangplank. This ferry bobs about a lot in the choppy waters relative to the stationary pier, making boarding a bit of a challenge.)
(Boarding / disembarkation takes place from both levels, which makes the chopping and bobbing even more challenging. The upper deck gangway is directly above these guys.)
We don't depart tomorrow until nearly 3:pm, so there is at least the morning to explore further. There is supposed to be a great high-elevation park called Victoria Peak which is reached by cable car and is meant to give stunning views of the world below. I'd like to go see this, but I'm told it's pointless if the weather is crap, which it's again supposed to be.
We'll see how tomorrow goes. And from here, we fly up to Anchorage with a brief flag stop in Seoul. Spectacular as this has all been, I'm anxious to get back home.