Is a short stopover enough time to see some — any — of what the bustling harbour city has to offer without running the risk of missing your connecting flight?
The first time I saw Hong Kong was New Year’s Eve 2008. My boyfriend and I were setting off on a nine- month trip around Europe and the US and we transited through Hong Kong International Airport.
As we took off — the promise of a new year and a new adventure just hours away — I looked down to see the lights of the city, glittering like a jewel box in the dark. I promised myself I’d return one day for a closer look.
And so here I am, 7 1/2 years later, coming into land at Hong Kong, en route to Switzerland. I have a layover of seven hours — it would have been eight but we were delayed in Perth — and it seems like enough time to get out of the airport. I’ll admit, it’s tempting to take the easier option and stay in the terminal, not least because it has plenty to entertain transit passengers. There’s shopping, of course: all the usual suspects, including fashion brands ranging from designer (Balenciaga, Chanel, Prada) to more affordable (Zara). Food options include restaurants serving local specialties, and for entertainment there’s the Aviation Discovery Centre, an IMAX theatre and a golf simulator. There are even art exhibitions — I pass a display of costumes and props for traditional Cantonese opera, and there’s also a Bruce Lee exhibition, among others.
But I’m determined to make good on my promise to myself, at least in a small way. So I’ve planned it all meticulously: how to get into the city, what to do there and how to get back to the airport in plenty of time before my flight. What could possibly go wrong?
After changing into shorts in the bathroom — it’s 32C and humid out there — I arrive at immigration. The line is huge and my resolve wavers a little but the queue moves quickly and I’m through in about five minutes. After clearing customs, there’s a desk to buy my return ticket for the Airport Express train (there are also ticket machines on the platform). Since I’m returning on the same day, my ticket is half price — $HK100 ($17.20).
I find the left luggage desk and deposit my carry-on bag, bringing just a tote with the essentials. I arrive at the platform as a train pulls in and then we’re off at precisely 4.59pm.
The journey into the city takes about 25 minutes. Arriving at Hong Kong Station, I buy a snack and a bottle of water, and set off for the first stop on my planned itinerary: the station for the Peak Tram. This funicular railway — the steepest in the world — will transport me up Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island, for views that promise to be spectacular. It’s one of the city’s most popular attractions. As the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s website says: “If there is only one thing you can do in Hong Kong, go to the Peak.”
My stopover has been progressing pretty smoothly so far but I don’t get a chance to feel too smug: things go south almost as soon as I step outside. I find myself in a stuffy undercroft bus terminal.
As I walk, already too hot and struggling to follow the map I’ve saved on my phone, I find hundreds and hundreds of women — all women — sitting around on mats and pieces of cardboard, eating and chatting and laughing. They are everywhere. I later find out they’re migrant domestic servants, getting together to share their only day off of the week.
Eventually I navigate my way through the mix of modern high-rises and colonial-era buildings to the Peak Tram Lower station. The line is enormous. The Peak receives about seven million visitors a year and a good chunk of them seem to have decided to come today. This is not entirely unexpected — being a Sunday, and about an hour before sunset, it is peak time. I don’t want to miss sunset, so decisive action is needed.
I hop into one of the taxis hanging around to ferry impatient souls such as myself to the top, but the driver doesn’t take cards and I’ve got no cash. I get out and a frantic search for an ATM ensues. I find one in an undercroft beneath a sleekly modern office building, surrounded by yet more crowds of women. The machine rejects two successive cards before I eventually get some cash. I flag a taxi but he won’t take me — the journey is “too long”. I flag another. We struggle briefly with the language barrier but I make myself understood. And finally, we’re off.
The winding taxi ride up the Peak sets me back $HK60. The driver drops me at a shopping centre, which perplexes me until I realise the free Peak viewing platform is on the roof.
I make it up to see the setting sun, a red orb suspended above the dark green foliage of the mountains. People are taking trick photos of themselves seeming to “hold” the sun between thumb and forefinger or, in the case of one little girl I see, trying to bite it.
I find a spot overlooking Victoria Harbour, the buildings of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and beyond softened by a covering of cloud or fog or perhaps pollution. Photographers are jostling for position, everyone from selfie-stick- wielding kids to self-importantly serious types with expensive cameras and tripods, all trying to get the perfect skyline shot.
Beside us looms the Peak Tower, shaped like a huge boat balanced on a glass-sided podium.
It has a 360-degree viewing platform on the roof called the Sky Terrace 428. The view would undoubtedly be superior up there, although I would have paid handsomely to see it ($HK48 per person).
There’s a gentle breeze up here and it’s much cooler and quieter than the streets below. Beside me, a couple are kissing loudly, oblivious to the view or perhaps spurred on to grand expressions of romance by its grandeur.
Gradually, the lights of the city switch on, illuminating apartment windows, high-rise offices, the Ferris wheel on the waterfront and the boats shuttling across the harbour. Eventually the couple stop smooching in favour of taking selfies. And then they just look out over the city, quiet at last.
I’ve made grand and meticulous plans to catch one of the famous Star ferries across the harbour to walk along the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade and the Avenue of Stars on the waterfront then up to the Temple Street Night Market. And I want to be back on the Airport Express no later than 8.30pm. But given the crowds and confusion I had to tackle to get up to the Peak, I’m realising I’ll never fit it all in.
I’ve been hopelessly overoptimistic in my planning, and have hopelessly underestimated just how busy and bustling this metropolis is. And besides, my feet hurt and my lower back aches.
I’ve been up since 4am and I’m in serious need of a shower before the next leg of my journey.
I leave the viewing platform and check out the line for the return journey on the tram. It’s a fraction of what I saw earlier at the lower station but still long enough to be daunting. Another taxi it is, then.
When I get into the cab, I’m greeted by the overwhelmingly sweet smell of bubblegum: the middle-aged driver is enthusiastically chewing popping gum, producing a soundtrack of comically disgusting smacking noises. I ask him to take me to Central Station — a minor mistake; it turns out Central and Hong Kong stations are adjacent but not the same and I should have requested the latter.
More confused wandering amid the crowds of women ensues before I board the Airport Express at 7.40pm.
I arrive at the airport earlier than anticipated but this turns out to be a blessing. I get hopelessly lost — are you sensing a pattern here? — trying to find the left-luggage counter to retrieve my carry-on case, where I’m charged $HK48. Then there are lengthy lines at security and immigration.
But I have plenty of time for a shower (it costs $HK200 at the pay-in Plaza Premium Lounge and is worth every cent) and a snack before I’m due at the boarding gate.
Take-off. I’m happy and relaxed in my seat, feeling pleased with my stopover even if I didn’t accomplish all I’d hoped. It’s been a rush but in just a few hours I’ve got a small sense of the city — of its pace, some of its people, its sights and smells. I’m glad to have experienced some of Hong Kong beyond the airport, to have felt I was actually there for a short while rather than just passing through. And what little I have seen makes me confident there’s plenty more to draw me back.
As we gain altitude, I peek over my seat-mate’s shoulder to see the view over Hong Kong but it’s mostly obscured by cloud. Never mind, I think — there’s always next time.
- For information on visiting The Peak, see thepeak.com.hk.
- For details on the Airport Express, go to mtr.com.hk.
- The Hong Kong Tourism Board’s website is a useful planning tool; see discoverhongkong.com.
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