When we arrived in Hong Kong, my expectations were certainly upheld. We stayed in the Mirador Mansion in Kowloon and wandered the shopping district before a stroll along the Victoria Harbour waterfront in the evening. I had expected this extended stopover to be a very urban (and to some extent, urbane) experience, which would serve as a crash course in managing crowded cities (something that has always been a challenge for me). In the hopes of a different perspective, and on the recommendation of a few friends we rose early on our second day in the city and navigated the rail system to Lantau Island. Lantau is the largest island in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong and it the site of two important Hong Kong features; the new airport (which replaced Kai Tak in 1998), and the Tian Tan Buddha. We’d seen the airport on arrival, so our goal was the Buddha.
Once we left the station, we spent an hour or so hiding from the chill (I’d grossly misjudged the weather and assumed that our four days in Hong Kong would be a last bask in southern warmth before the bite of a European winter) in the Citygate Outlets shopping centre in Tung Chung. After a warming breakfast, I stood before the three story windows that looked out towards the airport and the skyway that would take us up to the village where the Tian Tan Buddha could be found and I felt as though I was in a European Ski resort. It may have been the cold, but I’m convinced that the architecture of the area was geared towards an alpine mood. Before long (and without having found any warm clothes) we were settled in the Ngong Ping 360 – a cable car that would take us almost 6km over the hills of Lantau Island.
We elected to pay a little extra to secure a ‘Crystal Car’ which meant we would have the added excitement of a glass bottomed carriage, on the way to Ngong Ping Village and the Po Lin monastery. The trip began with a rapid climb over Tung Chung Bay and a spectacular (albeit hazy) view of the expansive airport. As we climbed we enjoyed the sensation of the city shrinking behind us and the forested mountainside below. It is possible to walk between Tung Chung and Ngong Ping via the 360 Emergency Rescue Trail which follows the cable car route. This trail also meets with the Lantau Trail – a 70km loop of the island.
The transit took about 25 minutes and we were amused along the way at an angle station (where the cable changed direction) by a couple of inquisitive dogs which almost halted our progress by straying into the path of the cable cars. Another interesting (yet also hard to see through the haze) view, was an island in the distance in the Zhujiang River Estuary. It appeared to be reclaimed from the seafloor and we could see pylons from the planned high speed connection between Hong Kong and Beijing (around 1500 kilometres) that is due for completion by 2018. Finally, we turned away from the sea and the Tian Tan Buddha rose from the mountains and we came to a halt at Ngong Ping Village.
Ngong Ping, like Tung Chung felt more like an alpine village than a town within an hour of one of the world’s busiest financial hubs and that was fine by me. We took refuge from the ongoing cold in a charming yet sales-focused tea house before braving the elements again and wandering through the town which offers a number of decidedly non-village like attractions (including a Walking with Buddha Multimedia presentation and a Hong Kong Theatre museum and presentation called Monkey’s Tale Theatre). We bypassed these and a few other fairly touristy shops and headed for the Monastery which was worth a quick look before climbing the stairs to walk around the Buddha.
The 34 metre tall bronze Buddha commands a panoramic view of Lantau Island, or at least it would, if not for the apparently perpetual haze that engulfs Hong Kong. Through the mist it was clear that Hong Kong really did offer more than shopping and a well lit harbour. Unlike Macau, which seemed to me to be an excuse to keep neon lighting manufacturers in business, Lantau Island showcased – even in the short day we spent there – a great deal of the culture of the region without sacrificing the convenience of a world-renowned city.
We returned in the afternoon to look at a different side of the city – the British colonization – when we took a tram ride up to Victoria Peak. These two outings filled the day perfectly and our walk back to the harbour (which is the subject of an earlier post: http://wp.me/p63ErS-jR) capped off a much more interesting and informative outing than I’d expected, and it certainly expanded my impression of Hong Kong.