Such a flood of thoughts / feelings / impressions from this place. I was supposed to have a 48-hour layover here, but this got truncated to about 15 hours, which, with sleep in there, makes for minimal exploration time. As with Cologne, I've had a taste of this place and I wish I could get more time to explore. Alas, this is much better than nothing.
I made a beeline for the Star Ferry across to Hong Kong island and made my way thru town to the funicular up to Victoria Peak. I've written about the funicular on a previous visit, but it's hardly less astounding the second time. One simply doesn't encounter a public transit ride this steep anywhere else; it's so unnatural that it's humorous! This is ultra-high-dollar real estate (it's said the rich and famous of China live here) and the last time I was up here I lamented not being able to look around more. The problem is, it's hard to figure out where to go to see things. I found no decent map--even at the visitor's center--and there is not great signage. Plus, it's a mountaintop, so roads and walkways are very twisty and steeply inclined, and it's impossible to know without prior experience where any given path ends up. So I picked a likely walkway and had a very nice walk that was clearly not where I was expecting to go. C'est la vie. Eventually, after descending about 500' over a couple miles (which is much better than ASCENDING 500', though there was a bit of that too) the sidewalk ended abruptly and I backtracked to a bus stop and hopped on. (Hey, it's an island; how far wrong could I possibly go?) I got the front seat of the upper deck and had a spectacular views of the island's tight and twisty roads as we made our way back to Central and the ferry to Kowloon.
As for the Star Ferry, I could just ride back and forth for a living. The sturdy old double-ender, double-decker steel boats make the 10-minute journey between Tsim Sha Tsui on Kowloon and Central on Hong Kong Island continuously all day, and there's simply no better way to soak in the natural wonder of the place than this (for a bargain price of $0.26 one-way; $0.32 if you want the luxurious upper deck with its enclosed sections fore and aft).
(The aft wheelhouse, soon to become the forward wheelhouse. The helmsman doesn't change ends; he just gets a break while the other guy drives in the other direction. Love the ancient boat and controls with the little flat screen with four camera feeds.)
So what's so fascinating? Like New York in the US, Hong Kong seems a nexus of urban Chinese cosmopolitan culture. Nowhere is it clearer than here that America is not the center of humanity (though the glory of New York will hold its own, thanks). And the density is very high, like Manhattan and the very opposite, of, say, Los Angeles. When one looks at the square mileage of the region of Hong Kong, I don't know that the population density is so very high--much of Hong Kong island is wooded, for example--but to visit in person is to see how little of the cragged island is habitable, and so people are jammed into the habitable places three to a bed. I'm not sure which came first, but the result is a collection of high-rise residential buildings that I'd venture is not matched anywhere in the world, including high rises where perhaps they are not necessary; that's just the way things are done here.
In our area of Kowloon--Nathan Road--the density and noise are overwhelming. Sidewalks are so crowded that walking around is difficult, and the noise of traffic and especially the visual noise of banners and neon and storefronts are like an assault. Vendors--and especially tailors--bark loudly at you as you pass, sometimes even tugging on your sleeve to get your attention. While I would not call Hong Kong dirty, the detritus of so many people in so little space gives it the grime of any big city. The view out the third-floor window at the pizza parlor I frequent here is grimy and canyon-esque and obstructed. The sidewalks crawl with people like an ant colony and the traffic noise penetrates the windows. Looking out on the scene you know that a million things are happening all around you all the time, and there's something intoxicating about wading into the crush.
And as always, infrastructure things. On the drive to and from the airport--which is a new facility located maybe 20-25 miles from Kowloon--we pass what I believe are the busiest and most extensive port facilities in the world, mile after mile of vast container facilities; cranes and piers and warehouses, with all manner of ocean-going ship bellied up for loading and unloading. (I'd love to know the logistics and various controls and systems they use to keep the whole business organized and running smoothly.) The roadway itself, a multi-lane modern highway, wraps around the mountainous terrain and glides on huge concrete spans suspended over the industry below. The bridges alone are an architect's dream, with all manner of gigantic suspension and cable mechanisms. (The old airport, Kai Tak, is famous for its hair-raising nature with an approach right next to the mountainous terrain which required a tight turn to a short final and required landing on the single-direction runway built on a man-made spit of land out in the water. There was no room for error throughout the procedure, and stories of the place are legendary--as are the many videos and photos on airliners.net. Alas, it's condos now.) All of this--plus the trains and buses and, of course, the airport facility reinforces this sense of everything here in extreme density and proliferation, and most of it scaled for extremely heavy usage.
I'm scheduled to get back here in mid-October for 30 hours. We'll see if that comes to pass.