There are some nice things about Hong Kong that get lost in the rhetoric of the tourist brochures. Like the landing at Hong Kong Airport on Chek Lap Kok Island that was reclaimed from the sea especially to construct the airport. As the plane descends, the vast sea, dotted with smaller mounds of lush greenery, appears. You wait for the sea to disappear because aren’t airports found only in urban environs? But the sea, surrounded by verdant hills, remains in view till touchdown and even thereafter!
Or, take the Chi Lin Nunnery and the Nan Lian Garden. Spread over 3.5 hectares in the heart of a densely populated city, here is an oasis of aesthetics and calm. With flowing water, trees, rocks and wooden structures landscaped according to feng shui traditions, the garden validates the fact that 40% of Hong Kong’s area consists of forests and national parks. What is particularly nice is that the structures are held together, not by nails, but by an ingenious interlocking system carved into the wood.
Of course, the attractions from the tourist brochures are nice, too! Like Disneyland, the primary reason why many tourists visit Hong Kong. Disneyland is popular for obvious reasons. Ocean Park is perfect, too, thanks to the giant pandas. The sight of these playful, gentle giants lumbering up and down in an air-conditioned enclosure that mimics their high-altitude habitats melts even the most cynical travellers. Ocean Park also has a cable car, penguins, dolphins and amusement rides.
Ngong Ping Village is another tourist-brochure star. It is accessed by a 25-minute cable-car ride that travels high above the water, offering sweeping views of the endless South China Sea, the Hong Kong Airport, and the lush greenery of Hong Kong’s largest national park. One of the top 10 cable car rides in the world, it is more enjoyable, albeit scary when done in the crystal cabin with a see-through toughened glass floor! You get off the cable car at Ngong Ping village to cows and bulls roaming freely, grazing away, which is a very rare sight in Hong Kong.
Apart from the opulent but serene Po Lin Monastery with a room full of golden bodhisattvas, the other major draw is the 112-foot-high, Beijing-facing ‘Big Buddha’. Made with over 250 tonnes of bronze, the awesome Buddha leaves one feeling small, both on the temporal and spiritual planes. If you can spare a day, Ngong Ping also offers a beautiful sunrise at Lantau Peak, a cultural immersion at a Chinese fishing village, and exquisitely calligraphed Buddhist sutras on the 12 pillars in Wisdom Path.
Then there is Victoria Peak, the erstwhile residence of the British who first came to Hong Kong. It retains the colonial whiff even today, and is the costliest piece of real estate in Hong Kong, housing the uber rich. You can reach the summit of Victoria Peak by riding the oldest funicular in the world, the iconic 108-year-old Peak Tram, or you can take the bus to the peak. While both offer breathtaking views and the illusion of the skyscrapers leaning forward as they ascend, the air-conditioned bus is much cheaper than the tram. But then, there are those that like a ride on a piece of history and even those who trek the scenic 7.5-km trail up to the peak.
The Hong Kong shopping scene is another great crowd-puller. From Times Square to Sogo, the iconic malls of Hong Kong showcase every international label, from Armani, Gucci and Versace to De Beers, Rolex and Cartier. Mall visits are really quite convenient, thanks to an arrangement between the bigger malls and the Hong Kong Metro Rail (MTR); many metro stations are located in the basement of the malls itself. The chic malls eat up your hours, and if you don’t watch out, your savings as well! A smart Alec will window-shops till kingdom come and will then buy identical fare that serves equally well from Ladies Market, Fashion Street, Sneakers Street, Jade Street, Apliu Street and the lanes of Causeway Bay, for a fraction of the price! Bargaining is expected and the initial price quoted is an exponential multiple of what it is finally sold for.
For the scholarly, there is the Hong Kong Museum of History, the Science Museum and the Space Museum. The Hong Kong Museum of History with excellent displays, descriptions and detail is highly recommended. For the gourmands, Hong Kong offers the most authentic of Asian cuisine, from eel fried rice to noodle broth with squid, pork and what have you, both at the swishy, Michelin-starred restaurants and at the numerous eateries lining every street. For vegetarians, there is the newest trend of vegan restaurants that recreate non-vegetarian delicacies with mock meat and purely vegetarian ingredients. For the rest of us, there is Saravana Bhavan, Sangeetha, Sharma’s and Branto.
Hong Kong is the most visited city in the world. It has retained this distinction for the last 10 years, despite being one of the most expensive cities. Excursions, amusement parks, trekking trails, shopping, gastronomic adventures — Hong Kong has them all neatly packaged and efficiently dispensed, both for the moneyed tourist and the backpacker. However, at its heart lies the juxtaposition of urban realities with the beauty of nature, the old with the new, and the uber-rich with the common aggregate, all within 2,974 sq km.