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A Trip to Colonial Hong Kong

Prior to arriving in Hong Kong, I was expecting hustle, bustle and the kind of traffic-induced pollution so often found in South-East Asian cities; something similar perhaps to the sense contorting metropolis of Bangkok, where you will get touted and shouted at around every aroma-filled corner.  I anticipated anxiety and confusion; those feelings that so often come hand in hand with visiting an unfamiliar country – the very definition of culture shock itself.  However, it was almost immediately clear that this place was different.  It wasn’t due to a lack of crowds or traffic though – it just, well, it felt like home.  Now, I’ve traveled around quite a bit and it’s rare that I don’t feel any kind of disorientation when visiting an Asian city.  But what was one of the first things I saw upon my arrival?  Double-decker buses! 

If it’s your first time to go to Hong Kong, you might also be wondering what to expect – perhaps you envisage myriad Jackie Chan Statues and a sprawling packed city full of pollution and noodles?  Stereotypes from home can easily invade your perceptions even if you try vehemently to resist.  Thankfully, after spending some time in Hong Kong I can tell you this is not the case.  Hong Kong is in fact one of the cleanest, most modern cities in the world and despite its relatively small size, there is a surprising lot for visitors to do. 

Like many tourists, one of my first stops was the highest point on Hong Kong Island – the place best known as Victoria Peak.  Although you can go up ‘The Peak’ by one of the many distinctive red taxis or even by bus, the most exciting way to get there is by the infamous peak tram.  You can’t stay in Hong Kong for long without hearing about the Peak Tram.  To fill you in on a bit of history, the tram line was built way back in 1888 by Phineas Kyrie and William Kerfoot Hughes.  When they’d first proposed the idea in 1885, everyone had thought that they’d gone insane, but conversely, the tram turned out to be an astounding success and it’s now one of the most memorable landmarks in Hong Kong. 

Going up such a steep slope, and believe me – it is steep; the sky scrapers of the city begin to turn on unusual angles as you begin the ascent and your back presses hard against the wooden seats.  It’s not the most comfortable of rides that is for sure – and there is no business class I’m afraid, even if you do wave your money around at the ticket office! 

Being pulled up the mountain by a thick steel cable, I noticed that some people began to feel a little unsafe during the ride.  However, I felt secure with the knowledge that there have been no accidents during all its years of operation - quite a boast considering how long it has been running and probably making it one of the safest ways to travel in the world. 

Up on the peak, I was stunned by the panoramic views and noticed that it’s a bit cooler than down in the city.  Someone told me that it’s usually about 5 degrees cooler on the peak than down below, which is probably why it has been a popular place to come ever since the British arrived in Hong Kong in the mid-nineteenth century.  British company bosses used to build summer houses up on the peak to get away from the intense summer heat and humidity.  Now, a modern complex has developed - a galleria shopping mall, entertainment (including a great waxworks museum), restaurants, in fact, it is one of the best places in Hong Kong to visit.  I stayed there until it was dark and watched the nightly light show unfold down in the city below.

The next day and back down in the city, I was overwhelmed by how much the regime of colonial Britain had left its mark.  At times, I felt I could have almost been back in London.  Double Decker buses and Soho!  That was a surprise.  But then there is that gorgeous backdrop of the mountain and the skyscrapers that serve as a crisp reality check.  Being there without a plan and armed only with a guidebook, I decided to go and check out Hong Kong Park and take a stroll—

While wandering around the park, I came across Southeast Asia's largest greenhouse - the Forsgate Conservatory - where more than 2,000 rare plant species can be found.  The park also features an aviary; where some 800 exotic birds live in a tropical rain-forest habitat.  On the north side of the park lays the most famous building inside Hong Kong Park and yet more evidence of British Colonialism– the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware.  The reason that the building is so famous is because it happens to be the oldest colonial building in all of Hong Kong!  It was originally built in 1846 for the leader of the colonial forces and I was surprised to see that it still looks brand new.  Inside, I found a ceramics museum housing Chinese tea ware and accessories. 

If you are a lover of parks like I am, you might want to hop over to the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens at the south end of Garden Road, which was opened in 1871.  Since this park is on a slope – the highest point being 100 meters above sea level and the lowest point 62 meters above sea level, it turned out not to be the gentle stroll that I‘d expected.  The hilly nature of this park is typical of the geography of Hong Kong Island; which leads me nicely to my next observation.

An unusually distinctive feature of Hong Kong, which impressed me very much, were the escalators and moving sidewalks.  This smacked very much of futuristic science fictional cityscapes such as Matt Groening’s Futurama or Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel.  Due to the undulating geography of Hong Kong, a system was developed to allow pedestrians to move more quickly and efficiently.  In the city, buildings are connected by glass-covered escalators; allowing people to effectively ‘building hop’ without having to exit and cross any roads.  In the hilliest regions, there are vertical escalators and moving walkways.  The biggest is called the Mid-levels Escalator and it is the longest in the world.  It consists of 20 escalators and 3 moving sidewalks which spans 800 meters in length and 135 vertical meters.  It is an impressive innovation and one which pulled me right out of my previous feeling of being in an oriental parody of London.
Unfortunately, my visit to Hong Kong was a short one and I felt like I left all too soon.  I didn’t even make it onto one of the infamous Star Ferries during my two day stay, but I did, for once, take a trip at a leisurely pace and took time to smell the roses – both figuratively, and literally.  If you’d like a stop-off point on your East Asian travels that is both exotic and with a few of the comforts of home – without too much culture shock; then Hong Kong might very well be the place for you.

By Jason J.R. Gaskell, Msc.

Jason Gaskell, MSc briefly worked in a corporate bank after graduation before putting a few belongings in a bag and deciding, instead, to teach for peanuts in Nigeria (payment also included yam, fish, and a mattress to sleep on). This experience proved to be something of an appetiser for travel and educating and he is currently teaching English in the more lucrative nation of South Korea.

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