Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Hong Kong in August

Pictures of today's adventures can be found here.

(Hong Kong. We're flying over Hong Kong Island, looking Northwest. The Northern shore of the island is visible here, separated from Kowloon (on the top) by the ribbon of water that is Victoria Harbor. This is nearly the totality of the city's population. A view like this is pretty rare in this part of the world.)

I always start these travel posts saying I wish I could somehow bottle the experience and bring it back for others to sample; my posts are a feeble attempt to do that. But even as I'm having the experiences--or certainly when I reread the posts later--I'm aware that no combination of description and photographs can really do justice to a place. Especially a terribly complex place like Hong Kong. I find myself wanting to snap photos continuously and to point out every little thing I see. (I exhaust myself!)

I've been doing a bit less of these posts lately as I'm aware that I spend as much time (or more) trying to capture a given experience as I do actually having that experience. There's an underlying assumption there that it's all about the capturing of the experience rather than just being, rather than just having the experience in the first place. But this place is so extraordinary, it's hard to be happy just soaking it in--even if ultimately that's about the best I can manage. So I got up this morning intent on seeing as much as I could whether or not I managed to blog about it later. But the day began at about 6:30, and it's 6:15 PM now and I've been at it all day. So there's time to put down a few words after all.

I have of course been here a number of times in the last five years, and it surely ranks in my top two or three layovers of all time: It's China; it's a huge city; it's mountainous and watery; it's very multi-ethnic and multi-national. And it's tremendously dense--I think that just has so much to do with the places I love best. And even in a country characterized by huge cities, its character is unique in my experience.

We touched down last night (after a brilliant low-altitude flyby of the city under rare clear skies--thanks to the approach controllers) about 11:PM, and made it to the hotel around midnight. Like New York, the city seems not to sleep; everything was humming along at 11:45 as we neared the hotel--restaurants and bars, shopping centers, many businesses on the street. And the sidewalks are continually packed with people. As in, hard-to-walk packed. The bus delivering us to the hotel has to run an obstacle course to get us even close to the hotel, and the last block we're on our own, dragging our bags down the street through a sea of night owls. Alas, we were hours overdue for sleep at that point, so it was straight to bed. But the sun came up on a beautiful day here and I had the whole day to do whatever struck my fancy.

I've been wanting to bring Susan here since the first time I laid eyes on it, as it so perfectly suits our traveling style. We typically head out in the morning with only a vague sense of what we want to do and just let stuff happen as we go. And this place seems all about that. The density means you're never without lots of stuff to look at, and you need only wander for a bit before you run across something extraordinary. It's a very pedestrian-oriented city, with lots of buses and cabs and surface trolleys in addition to the subway. Plus there is the incomparable Star Ferry that connects Kowloon with Hong Kong Island. No visit seems complete without a ferry ride, and other modes of public transit tend to happen in a day as well.

My plan today was to head down to the Star Ferry and head across to the Island and see what I felt like when I got there. I also wanted to wander around Kowloon a bit before the day was done. The Star Ferry, as I say, is worth the trip to Hong Kong all by itself. You can get over to the island by bus or car or train, but the ferry is cheap and utterly atmospheric. The boats seem a thousand years old, lumbering diesel-engined double-end steel vessels that make the trip in about 10 minutes each way. They run continually, and you never need to wait for more than a couple minutes to board the next boat. And the trip costs either 35 or 50 cents depending on whether you want to ride in style upstairs (enclosed and air conditioned!) or ride on the lower level with the locals. (I've done both, but I prefer the lower level.) Victoria Harbor is a natural wonder, and the ferry typically has to weave among the busy traffic traversing the harbor. Especially at night, the views are spectacular with some of the highest concentrations of high-rise construction in the world sprouting from both shorelines.

It's also endlessly entertaining to watch the crews docking and undocking. This is something they do a zillion times a day, so it's not surprising that it's well-greased; but it's still fascinating to watch the choreography. A couple guys on the pier (who sit in a little cubby and read or do crosswords or chat with each other between boats--their reading materials and a sweatshirt and a thermos of coffee or tea sitting next to a plastic lawn chair) collect the lines as the boat nears, with the boat crews adjusting the lines to an exact length. Meanwhile, the helmsman goes through a little dance with the lumbering boat that results in the upper and lower gangways aligned with the platforms on the pier--the big 6-cylinder marine diesel making this low-RPM continuous grumble. Even after berthing the boat is always more or less in motion relative to the pier, which can make getting on and off something between mildly entertaining and actually perilous depending on the condition of the water.

From the ferry terminal on the Island there's an elevated walkway that takes you into the middle of the crush--the city (as you can see in the photo above) runs in a dense ring around the periphery of the mountain that is Hong Kong Island, and the bulk of the island's population is along the Northern shore of the Island facing Kowloon, though there are people pretty much everywhere on the island that it's possible to build. (As I'm sure I've mentioned before, the lion's share of the population of Hong Kong actually resides in Kowloon, which is really the Southern tip of the Chinese mainland.) I stopped a bit to watch the subway construction that's going on just inland of the shoreline. This is a gigantic construction project--as subway-building kind of is by definition--that's been going on for as long as I've been coming here, though the active construction site is gradually moving Westward.

I decided to catch the funicular up to Victoria Peak and walk around up there, as the day promised to be a scorcher--80 degrees already at 6:AM, and forecast to reach the low 90s. The funicular--the Peak Tram, it's called--is quite the entertainment in itself, seeming at times to be ascending at a 45° angle. And we alight high up on the mountain with spectacular views of a spectacular thing. This setting is just something you won't see anywhere else. I think of all the big cities I've visited, and each has its own flavor or personality. But I think the thing that sets Hong Kong apart from other bit cities--especially big, dense Asian cities--is its setting on this jagged, mountainous terrain. The density of New York (or Shanghai) extends for miles in every direction, but the density of Hong Kong exists in strips that run adjacent to the dense woodlands that cover the unbuildable portions of the surrounding mountains. And even with all the high-rise construction, the mountains tower over everything. So it's this really singular combination of massive aggregation of humanity and the unconquerable grandeur of nature. (In New York nature has been almost entirely subsumed by the city and allowed to resurface in the highly-massaged form of Central Park. Not so here.)

There are a bunch of walking trails fanning out from Victoria Peak, and I've sampled most of them over the years. But since they're following the contours of the mountain, it's hard to know where you're going, and each time I try I find another way to get... somewhere I hadn't planned. Today I tried several different paths further up the mountain before deciding to head downward and look for the Central / Mid-levels Escalator. And I learned a couple valuable lessons along the way: 1) there's a hell of a lot of UP still from the Peak Tram terminus; 2) the UP is, well, pretty tiring; 3) and the DOWN, which sounds like it should be much, much easier than the UP, is a HELL OF A LOT OF WORK. Exhausting, even. I walked down the Old Peak Road, which seems hardly suitable for automobiles, and all I could think about is "if my ankle gives out I'll keep rolling / tumbling until I end up in the harbor far below." I never did find the Escalator, though I've ridden it in the past and in any case it was probably going up by the time I would have reached it anyway. So I walked all the way down, and my legs were a couple stalks of jello by the time I found Queen's Road (and my ego was duly bruised by the six-foot, ninety-pound supermodel who passed me running UP the hill and again later running DOWN the hill--I had literally all I could manage not to FALL down the hill. This was the most extraordinary thing I saw all day).

Having reached the city below, I hopped the first tram I came across and rode Eastward along Hennessy Rd. to the terminus at Causeway Bay. It's just such a perfect way to see the city, slow and atmospheric and right in the thick of everything. It's also a grand place to people-watch. After a bit of strolling and shopping I rode another tram in the opposite direction, and then a third back to the center of the island near the ferry terminal. After checking whether the IFC Mall Theaters were playing anything I wanted to see (they weren't), I caught the ferry back across and made my way to the hotel to change shoes and take a couple of Aleve--I'm guessing I had walked a good 10 miles by this point.

Finally, I headed out to Nathan Road and walked North a couple miles, then West to the semi-permanent street market near Mongkok. This place is always a crush of humanity, with the goods on offer moving from grungy mechanical stuff to hideous dried seafood and unidentifiable vegetative matter to electronics and scarves and purses. Interestingly, I did not see a single DVD seller anywhere in the city.

Pizza for dinner, and I'm all in (though I'm tempted to go down and take a harbor cruise). Tomorrow, off to Dubai.


GreenCanary said...

I like the way you travel. I go for the no-plans-let's-look-at-that-because-it's-there-this-cafe-looks-good-take-pictures-of-that-graffiti kind of traveling.

William Stachour said...

It's best not to be too hemmed-in by a plan! Go with le flow!

Jon said...

Great pictures! When you get down at street level, I can see where it might get confusing if you dont have a good sense of direction. SO many people, I dont know how they do it.

William Stachour said...

I think of Kyle as I walk thru the markets. She would have to be carried out of there on a stretcher--possibly in a straight jacket! The people are so thick that you can't walk without bumping and being bumped continuously. Even for me it's a bit much!

dbackdad said...

The nighttime pics from above seem surreal to me. I guess I'm used to seeing the lights of a city, but it's even neater to see the individual large buildings and for all of it to be on islands. Great stuff.