Friday, 19 November 2010

Hong Kong

We liked Hong Kong immediately. Sure parts of it are a bit scruffy and down at heel, and maybe even a little sleazy, but it has a vibrancy and vitality that, for us, Shanghai lacked and which we found both refreshing and invigorating. It’s also the most cosmopolitan place we’ve been so far, and so felt a little bit like London, being surrounded suddenly by so many different languages and cultures again after nearly four months in pretty ethnically homogenous countries.

We stayed in the hectic commercial area just north of Victoria Harbour, opposite Hong Kong island, amongst a sea of high rise blocks where high end luxury fashion and designer goods stores mix with endless jewellers, watch and electronic shops, and chemists, with the street fronts filled with bright neon signs. Our guesthouse was on the 16th floor of a crumbling and labyrinthine “mansion” with the slowest lifts we’ve ever seen. The bottom two or three floors of the building were filled with Indian and Pakistani traders presiding over mobile phone kiosks, cheap food stalls (a very welcome change after a month of Chinese food) and bureaux des changes, while the upper floors housed multiple cheap guesthouses and apartments.

We spent a couple of days doing the usual tourist things: gawping at the incredibly tall high rise buildings – a mix of modern glass and steel and older, scruffier, concrete blocks; taking a ferry across to the island and climbing Victoria Peak for amazing (if hazy)views back across the bay; enjoying the “Symphony of Lights” show – a nightly neon and lazer extravaganza over the harbour; and enjoying good food and happy hours.

Then, in an effort to escape a city for a few days, we headed a few miles north to walk 100km through the Hong Kong countryside. The route – the Maclehose Trail – is named after a former Governor who established Hong Kong’s national parks and did much to reforest the territory after years of deforestation had left it largely barren. As a result, the route was surprisingly green and also road free, and we were amazed to discover that over 70% of the Hong Kong area is rural, though housing only a tiny fraction of the territory’s population.

The trail was both beautiful and varied. Starting in the east of the New Territories, it curled around Sai Kung Peninsula, taking us past several isolated bays with fine white sand and semi-deserted fishing villages, before meandering west along the densely forested ridge restricting the northward sprawl of urban Kowloon. The ridge had formed the front-line of the defence against the Japanese during WWII, and we saw many war relics: pillboxes, caves excavated by Japanese troops and trenches dug by British soldiers, many labelled with names redolent of home: Shaftesbury Avenue, Regent Street and Charing Cross.

The route was also much hillier and tougher than we’d expected, taking us up (and down) over 4500m in hot and humid conditions, so that it took us four full days of hard walking. Amazingly, this weekend, as part of a charity event, teams are setting out to walk the trail in under 48 hours and in January an ultra-marathon is held on the trail with the winning time usually around 12 hours.

Despite its proximity to the city we felt for the most part incredibly far away from it, with no people or buildings in sight and the only sounds those of insects, birds and monkeys. Every so often though we climbed a ridge to find views in one direction of tree covered hills stretching away uninterrupted to the horizon but in the other of high rise towers and busy roads, with the sounds of the city suddenly wafting our way.

Perhaps because we were walking midweek the trail was pretty empty and other than the first and last couple of hours walking we saw almost no one. This was quite a relief as the few walkers we did see all carried radios spewing out Cantopop, disrupting the rural serenity. At night too we camped alone: for three nights at very basic campsites, and the other night – when we failed to reach the campsite we’d been aiming for by nightfall – we pitched our tent at the top of a tall hill, and ate our supper looking out over a surreal view of the neon lights of the city stretching out in three directions below us.

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