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Monday, February 8, 2016

How Hongkong Stole My Heart

Do you remember how I wrote that January would be the month where I would work on getting back into blogging again? Let’s pretend I never said that! I had a big exam at the end of the month and I was so terrified by that prospect that thinking about anything else seemed both impossible and somewhat irresponsible and as a result blogging just had to fall to the wayside.

But with this weight off my shoulders, February looks a lot better on a creative front and I’m excited to share another post on my travels in Asia with you today!

I hadn’t been sure what to expect of Hongkong. In my mind, Hongkong seemed to be an overwhelmingly chaotic place, the sort of madhouse that would be hard to appreciate for someone more at home in the mountains and fields than in between skyscrapers. But from the moment I peeked out of the window of my plane at the Hongkong International Airport and saw the sky again for the first time after two weeks of grey overcast in Sichuan and Shanghai, I knew that Hongkong and me were going to be great friends.

I arrived in Hongkong on a sunny afternoon and easily made my way into the city from the airport by bus. The hostel I was staying at was located in Tsim Sha Tsui, right in the heart of the Kowloon Peninsula, and after dropping off my bags, I immediately made my way out to the maze of busy streets again.

With flashy billboards gracing the tall looming buildings and masses of people busily flitting along the pavements, it didn’t take me long to realize that Hongkong was most definitely living up to my expectations. Hongkong was exactly the kind of sensory overload that I had thought it would be, but for some reason this chaos seemed to make it easy to find comfort in the concrete jungle and I was surprised just how at ease I felt considering my affinity for quiet places.

Eventually, I found myself down by the water at the Victoria Harbour where I was greeted with an iconic view of the Hongkong skyline. The day had just started to set and against the beginnings of the blue hour, the neon signs gracing the buildings on the other side of the strait seemed especially colorful and vibrant. I didn't know it then, but now I am convinced that this is were I first fell in love with Hongkong: With people promenading along the harbor and evening taking away the bite of the glaring humidity, Hongkong was sure showing off its best side.

The next morning, I set off early to do some proper sightseeing. My plan was to take the Star Ferry to Central – the district on the other side of the harbor – and to visit some of the more iconic Hongkong sights, but on my way to the ferry terminal I was inevitably pulled into the LadurĂ©e store in Ocean Centre, a mall so big that I had actually gotten lost inside on my way back to the hostel the evening prior. But a few macarons and the cheapest public transport ticket I have ever bought later, I sat in an almost empty ferry and took in the view of the skyscrapers that came closer with each passing moment.

Central is Hongkong’s business district and as such had a very different feel compared to Kowloon. The air was heavy with the kind of frenzy that one only ever seems to encounter in a place where fiscal statements and board rooms reign supreme and the people buzzing along the streets exhibited a bustling sense of urgency that made it seem like they were hurrying from one meeting to the next. It only took me a few minutes to step away from the busy main streets and find myself in quiet residential area, though, and I liked this combination of business and regular life.

I know that Hongkong reminds some people of England, but I don’t really find it fitting to compare Hongkong to any European or North American city. All the skyscrapers and the modern architecture may give Hongkong a certain Western appearance, but the large Chinese characters on the signs and the occasional temple popping up next to a large apartment complex could never make you doubt that you are in fact in Asia. Despite its difference from the Mainland, Hongkong felt intrinsically Chinese, rather than English, to me and maybe it was this sense of similarity - I'm half-chinese - that made it easier for me to feel at home.

One of the most famous sights in Hongkong is the Victoria Peak, a mountain at the foot of Central and arguably the most popular viewpoint in the city. Apparently, it’s possible to hike up the Peak – though information on the internet isn’t exactly ample – but the weather in Hongkong was so incredibly humid that any sort of exercise seemed mildly torturous and so I opted to take the iconic Victoria peak tram instead.

The cable car whizzed me up the mountain in minutes and since I hadn’t felt like paying the premium fee that would also have given me access to the official viewing platform, I walked along the shaded paths on top of the peak until I found a nice quiet spot for myself. The view over the city and the harbor was incredible and I loved how miniature Hongkong looked from above, but as a self-proclaimed tree hugger I obviously also appreciated the break from the hustle and bustle of the streets.

Hongkong consists of multiple islands and a tiny bit of the Chinese mainland, but most of the city itself is only located on the Kowloon Peninsula and Hongkong Island. I had heard that the other, less urban, islands made for great day trip destinations from the city and eager to catch a glimpse of the other side of Hongkong, I decided to visit Lantau Island on my last day in the city.

Lantau Island is the biggest island in Hongkong and home to both Disneyland and the airport. With a direct subway link to the city, it is hardly an off the beaten path destination, but a visit does make for an interesting change of scenery, most of which is thanks to Tian Tan Buddha, one of the largest Buddha statues in China. Sitting on top of Ngong Ping Mountain, this giant Buddha statue majestically overlooks the island and thanks to a twenty-five minute cable car ride with lots of stunning views, it is also very easy to reach.

On the day I visited, the Buddha was enveloped in a thick cover of mist. The cooling breeze from the sea was a welcome change after a few days of humidity so strangling that I had felt the need to flee into an air-conditioned store every twenty minutes and it certainly made the steep climb up to the base of the Buddha easier.

Aside from its size, the Buddha itself wasn’t all that exciting – granted, it wasn’t the first giant Buddha statue I had seen on this trip – but once you got away from the tacky touristy bits, the surroundings were beautiful and amidst the clouds, the Buddha had an almost mystical feeling to it.

I found a little path leading away from the tourist village and followed it until the forest opened up to a wide view over the sea. In the quiet that was only interrupted by the occasional person coming my way, the city seemed a hundred miles away and it was hard to connect this calm and serene side of Hongkong with the Hongkong of skyscrapers and neon lights. The view over the bay at the foot of the mountain made me eager to experience more of this side of Hongkong on my next visit, but at the same time I was also sorry to leave the big city life behind again.

I went back to the cable car and the city eventually again, met up with my Middle School friend for dinner one last time and then took the long way home along the harbor for a last look at the skyline. My time in Hongkong had been way too short and there was still so much I wanted to see and do, but I was glad that I had ended up loving despite my expectations. In retrospect, Hongkong really had been the place that had surprised me the most on my Asia trip – but I left knowing that Hongkong was the kind of place that I would want to return to time and time again.

What is the destination that has surprised you the most on your travels?

linking up with Bonnie & Anna


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