Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Hong Kong Again

(On the water from Kowloon.)

Today's adventure: Victoria Peak.

Last time I was here--my first time--I had a list of must-do things from a buddy who had spent some time here. And the one thing from this list I didn't manage to do was a visit to Victoria Peak (the legendary high ground of Hong Kong Island and home, I'm told, to China's rich & famous). The weather last time was very scuddy, and the hills--indeed, the tops of all the high buildings down at sea level--were in the clouds. So in addition to not having quite enough time there would have been nothing to see.

Today was not lots better, but at least good enough for a stunning view of the city below and across Victoria Bay.

(The city with construction workers who never sleep.)

Getting there, however, was a bit more work than I expected. I didn't really research where I was going before leaving the hotel; I typically don't, rather preferring to spend the day semi-lost and let whatever comes come. Well and good. But I knew that Victoria Peak was, well, up a hill somewhere, and I knew there was a tram that took one up. I figured that I'd just keep working my way uphill while looking for what I assumed was a kind of gondola-style elevated cable car, and I'd pick it up wherever I intercepted it. Why I got this kind of conveyance into my head, and why I assumed there were intermediate stops on its way up the hill, is, well, a mystery. And why I assumed that "up a hill somewhere" was not 5,000 fucking feet of elevation is another.

But friends, I'm here to tell you that Hong Kong is built on the side of a mountain and if you're old and fat and out of shape there are better things than to try and walk unwittingly all the way up. OK, not 5,000 feet, but 1,800 anyway (which is about 1&1/2 times the Empire State Building's height). I didn't walk all that way up, but, well, one doesn't need to go that far to learn the lesson here.

(Click on photo for full-sized picture and the angina effect. And I'd hardly started in this picture.)

I began the day by crossing from Kowloon to the island on the always-fabulous Star Ferry (there is a subway as well) and headed off on foot. It turns out that I instinctively walked the opposite direction from where the tram station was, but that's well and good. I got to explore a part of the city I had not yet seen and I figured I'd find what I wanted to find eventually. There is a pretty extensive network of elevated walkways traversing the lower, business part of the city, reminding me of Minneapolis's Skyway system, except in HK they're covered but open-air. Very cool.

(The open-air skyway.)

But the hills. Jesus. And it was a good 85° and 200% humidity, so after half an hour you'd think I'd been walking with a little portable shower on my back and a trickling sprayer above my forehead. My old baseball cap became so disgusting that I actually threw it in a trashcan. But that was the deal: whenever I came across a stairway headed upward I'd take it. One after another, some of them 10-15 stories' worth in a bound. I was panting so miserably that I'm sure other folks on the stairs were sure I would expire. Except wait; there were no other people on the stairs. (Perhaps there was a hint in this.) I soon expected to see people with portable oxygen and sherpas we seemed so high up.

OK it wasn't ALL torture. Part of my ascent was done with the help of modern technology. Turns out there's a network of covered outdoor escalators to keep people from risking myocardial infarction as I had done. I stumbled upon these after an hour of walking and used them to go a considerable ways further up the hillside. They're called the Central-Mid-Levels escalators, so named for the termini: they begin in the part of town called Central and end in Mid-Levels. (Again Wikipedia shows me that I stumbled upon something noteworthy that I might have studied in advance if I'd been inclined.)

(The upper, or Mid-Levels terminus of the escalator.)

But even with the escalators, by the time I found the tramway I had made it not even halfway up (Wikipedia says that Mid Levels is in fact about halfway up the mountain). And by the time I found the tramway proper, I had probably descended 1/3 of what I had climbed.

The tramway--the Peak Tram--was not what I expected. It is not aerial. It's actually a ground-based train that is powered by a cable the size of my wrist. So, a cable car, but with the cable running above ground (tho at ground level). Actually, it's classified as a funicular railway, meaning it has two trains which attach to opposite ends of the same cable, each acting as the other's counterweight (the two trains thus move in unison--one up and one down the hill--and meet on every trip at exactly the same spot, plus or minus a meter depending on how the temps affect the cable length). And although it looked not terribly old, it too turns out to have a storied history. It was first operated in 1885, and has been upgraded several times. It hauls about 17,000 people a day, mostly tourists though it's also bona fide public transportation for the locals getting up and down that goddamned hill.

(One of the mid-way Peak Tram stops. It looks level-ish, but it ain't.)

(It's as bad as it looks.)

A little placard at the mid-mountain stop I used on my way up said the tram had the steepest grade of any train in the world. It was pretty steep where I got on, and proceeded to get MUCH steeper from there, such that all we tourists made shocked laughing / gasping sounds. I tried to get pictures, which didn't really turn out, but JEBUS it was steep. Any steeper and you'd have to call it an elevator.

(A mock-up of early electric equipment that powered the tram. The first mechanism was steam-powered.)

At the top of the tram, which is about 80% of the way up the mountain, one naturally expects spectacular views. There is a big modern shopping complex built over the tram's terminus, which is designed to extract your money by irritating you until you're willing to pay to make it stop. One gets off the tram into the building--the only exit literally requiring you to run a cramped gauntlet of trinket vendors into the mall proper--only to be directed up an endless series of escalators toward the "viewing platform." The view from the tram promises great things, and one expects the viewing platform to deliver on that promise. And the escalators keep the promise going, with panoramic views as you ascend. But you can't pause or linger on the escalators, and they're not ideal for photographs. And the windows on the little platforms at the top and bottom of each escalator are fully obscured with see-thru plastic advertising for the PROPER viewing platform, which is still X number of escalators above you. Meanwhile, getting to each next escalator requires a tour of the entire shopping floor. Only to get about 2/3 of the way up and learn that an additional fee is required for the viewing platform.

(The tram terminal, shopping center and viewing platform.)

(The view from, erm... Burger King.)

(Inside the mall. See how the one area you'd want to look is obscured? At both ends, on every floor.)

(Lovely walking path by the upper Peak Tram terminal.)

I didn't pay, though the fee wasn't so much ($25HKD, about $3.25), and had to content myself with a little patio outside the mall's Burger King for photo opportunities. Then I walked around some of the trails, deciding I was climbed out. A visit up the rest of the way to the Peak proper will have to wait until tomorrow or the next visit. I had a little Haagen Dazs in an open-air portion of the shopping complex and marveled at the clouds which blew through and past us as we sat. We were right in the cloud bases (which explains the total humidity.)

As I worked my way up and back down again, I noted something peculiar to Hong Kong compared to any other city I've seen. Not only is it hilly, but the hills are craggy, which (unlike, say, San Francisco) prevents any street not on the flats at sea level from moving for very long in a straight line (and there aren't very many of those either, even down at sea level). With the dense foliage at ground-level everywhere, every block--every portion of each street--is its own little self-contained entity. There aren't really any neighborhoods, since each street goes in one direction and there's no 'left' and 'right' on a steep hill; there's just forward and backward. There are almost no crossing streets, since the mountain is too steep. And since the streets don't go straight, there is no vista in front of you, and usually none beside you. There's just right here. A zillion little heres. If there's a break in the trees, you can see a breathtaking vista headed downhill from your position, but it's a view and not your neighborhood. So it's an odd thing. A big city, but very intimate and small-scale for much of it.

I was supposed to be here for just 17 hours or so, but the plan looks to have changed. So I might get a second day to play, which is most excellent, I think.

(The very intriguing HSBC building. What I got a look of inside is just the lowest section, I think.))

(Walking under the building--the ground floor is an open pass-thru--I saw the odd "floor" and decided to investigate.)

(Looking down from inside. A roller door closes around the escalators at night.)

Tomorrow: a harbor tour, perhaps, or maybe a revisit to the rest of the peak.


Jon said...

I got tired just reading the story! The hills look incredible and I wonder how anyone could live anywhere up there unless you flaten off a spot for your house. Still, neat looking. I wonder if you saw much of the locals on the trip up and down the mountain?

wunelle said...

Most of the 'houses' on the hillside are actually huge apartment / condo towers. A spot is flattened and the real estate is just too valuable to waste it on a single residence, I guess. In fact, there aren't many stand-alone houses anywhere in Hong Kong, at least that I've seen. It's almost all apartments.

The locals are everywhere, of course--it's a huge city, like New York. But tourists are everywhere too, mostly concentrated in the center of town around the harbor. The places I saw on this particular day were more tourist-oriented than I sometimes do, so I saw lots of natives and non-natives. My walk today (the next day) was in more non-tourist areas, which felt more like Guangzhou or Shanghai.

Of course, it's not always easy to tell who's local and who's not. The racial Chinese are easy enough to identify, though I can't tell if they're residents of Hong Kong or visitors from adjacent China proper. And then there are lots of Brits and Aussies, and a fair number of Americans as well. Plus the Middle-Eastern contingent and plenty of Indians. No Central / South Americans that I could tell.