5 Days in Hong Kong – A lifetime of experiences.
Of the many places I have visited during my travels, Hong Kong is by far my favourite. Truly a must see for anyone with an interest in Asian travel. China holds a special place in Western culture, alien, strange, ancient, crazy, mysterious, Hong Kong is all this with the dial cranked up to 11. Think bustling main streets packed so dense with pedestrians it’s impossible to move, hidden narrow back alleys cluttered with fruit and meat markets thrown together with reckless abandon, neon signs jostling with one another for space, scaling to the tip of Hong Kong’s jaw dropping skyline and advertising everything from tailor made suits to sleazy massage parlours. Tiny unobtrusive restaurants boast Michelin starred food for the price of a Big Mac, backpackers, expats and locals stumble from one crazy bar to the next while the roar of Karaoke and revelry fills the temperate night time air. The city breathes at all hours with the constant bustle of life, every step you take, every corner you turn reveals something new and interesting to do, see and experience. Colours, lights, smells, sounds, it is a complete sensory overload in the best possible way.
Yet for all that I have never before experienced such crazy city living so close to some truly breathtaking and tranquil natural beauty. The thriving hub of Hong Kong Island and neighbouring mainland is set like a jewel within the crown of some of the most stunning mountain vistas, beautifully secluded beaches and monkey infested national parks around. If the pandemonium of city living ever gets too much, you are only a stones throw away from the rejuvenating power of mother nature.
I spent a total of 5 days in Hong Kong as a solo traveller and I found myself overwhelmed by the smorgasbord of experiences on offer, I could’ve easily spent another month here and still barely of scratched the surface of this overwhelmingly bountiful city.
Day 1: Chungking Mansions and Victoria Peak
After a short and pleasant taxi ride into the far edge of Kowloon I found myself confronted by the place I would be calling home for the next 5 days, Chungking Mansions. I could easily commit a full blog post to the insanity that is this place. Set within an ideal location roughly fifteen minutes from the star ferry pier which connects the mainland to Hong Kong Island, Chungking Mansions is a collection of five 17 story high rises chocked to the rafters with independent low budget hostels and hotels catering to the eclectic mix of backpackers and travellers looking to visit the city on a shoe string budget. The five separate buildings are connected at ground level by an indoor maze of stalls looking to capitalise on the 1000’s of of foreigners passing through this space on a daily basis, currency exchanges, sim card stalls and knock off watch outlets all bombard you the second you walk in and before you have managed to properly grasp how much HKD are worth in your native currency. This indoor market is also known to house some of the finest Indian restaurants and African bistros in the whole of the city, as the immense concentration of foreigners have brought with them truly authentic and mouth watering tastes from home in a cosmopolitan concentration of competing spices and flavours. Even if you are not staying here, dropping by for an authentic curry while soaking in the madness of the place is well worth it. With the demolition of Kowloon’s walled city, Chungking Mansion’s has been described as the next closest thing.
After managing to locate my windowless 6 foot by 3 foot box room nestled alongside 3 other hostels on the 3rd floor of block B I decided to make my way to the Star Ferry and cross to the mainland. It’s also possible to use the subway to cross from the mainland to the island but honestly the view of the city as you cross the river is one of the best you can get. Incredible and unique architecture stretches high above the clouds in a more dense concentration than you will ever find anywhere else, while the river is swarmed with the colourful sails of the ancient junk ships so synonymous with Hong Kong’s river crossing. I would take the star ferry at every opportunity throughout my trip and whether coming or going I never grew tired of the sheer scale of it all. The skyline vistas of HK island are framed by the even more imposing outline of Victoria Peak. Now there is an easily accessible tram which will take you straight to the observation area at the top of the hill in a matter of minutes, however feeling adventurous I decided to shun this sensible method of transportation and scale by foot. Three hours later, with the sun long since set, the streetlight portion of the increasingly treacherous, pavement-less winding country road long behind me, and after having to dive into the side-growth for the fourth time to narrowly avoid being struck dead by a tourist bus, with my phone on the verge of death and with it my only means of navigation, I realised I had made a terrible mistake. I would unequivocally recommend the warm, cosy tram over the horror-inducing mouth numbing, panic stricken climb I foolishly opted for instead.
However, once I finally reached the peak all that terror gave away to sheer awe. The observation deck at the summit of Victoria Peak is one of the best ways to take in the sheer magnitude of the Island. They say a picture speaks 1000 words so while sitting in one of the restaurants hanging over the edge of Victoria peak enjoying a cool beer, with words failing me, I will leave the image above to do the talking. This view is one that needs to be experienced both during in the day and at night, unfortunately I didn’t get to return during the day in my brief visit, but it will definitely be one of my first stops if I ever return.
Day 2: Dragon’s Back and Shek O Beach
Having spent my first day soaking up the man-made achievements of Hong Kong, I decided to get out of the city for the second day and experience some of the natural beauty on offer. Dragon’s Back is a moderate difficulty hiking trail located on the south eastern tip of the island and considered one of the best trails in the world. The full hike takes roughly between 2 and 3 hours and it soon becomes apparent why it is considered with such prestige world renown. After emerging from the first stage which is heavily concealed by green overgrowth, you spend the remainder of the walk scaling the dozens of small peaks and troughs, which like the spikes on a dragon’s back, gives the trail its apt name. Walking for so long along the top of the trail allows for uninterrupted views of the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. Even in the middle of December the weather was beautifully warm and the air was completely clear, for anybody who has spent any amount of time in the unfortunate smog of China’s cities, this is a welcome and literal breath of fresh air.
After descending from my climb I found myself in front of a perfectly positioned bus stop, which after a short 10 minute ride dropped me off at Shek O Beach. Getting to the beach from the bus station you will walk through a miniature village which is so much like a European beach side resort town you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Spain or Greece and not China. Open front stores sell everything you could need for a family day out at the beach, towels, buckets and spades, rubber dingy’s, ice creams and slush puppy’s. Once past these shops you will find yourself on a small and secluded beach enclosed on three sides by the curling tail of Dragon’s back and fronted by a surprisingly tranquil sea. At this time of year I found myself almost alone, the silence was beautiful and one of the first times I had heard it during my crazy year in China. I found myself a quiet spot, lay down my new towel, grabbed my kindle and felt the hours pass by in serenity.
Seeing the sun beginning to set but not quite ready to leave this place behind, I took a short walk up the beach to one of the few sea facing bars, grabbed myself a beer and a small side of fresh, caught this morning sea food, and watched the sun set into the sea. As simple as it was this was easily one of my favourite days of the trip. Having spent 10 months in Beijing and travelling through some of the other crazy and sprawling tier 1 cities in China, I had forgotten what it felt like to sit on a beach, surrounded by nature’s beauty, breathing in fresh air and listening to nothing but the soft brush of the tide. I had found a space of incredible tranquillity in one of the most overpopulated hubs on the planet.
Day 3: Big Buddha and Tai O Fishing Village
Day 3 consisted of a trip to Lantau island, namely to see the Tian Tan Buddha (Big Buddha) and as an aside if there was time, Tai O Fishing Village. The fishing village was not on my personal radar prior to arriving in Hong Kong, however at the behest of a fellow expat, who insisted it was the highlight of his own trip, I decided to make time for it if I could. Boy am I glad I did as it is with out a doubt one of the most magical and surreal places I have ever visited, but more on that soon.
Reaching Lantau Island from the mainland is incredibly easy, a short ferry ride from the central pier followed by the number 2 bus which takes you directly to Po Lin Monastery. In fact I found travelling throughout my entire trip to be some of the most painless and stress free I had experienced in China. Make sure to collect and top up an Octopus card, either from the Airport when you arrive or any MTR station and you can easily hop on and off HK’s comprehensive subway, bus and ferry infrastructure with the tap of your card (you can even pay for goods at some stores with the same card). Travelling between the Mainland, Hong Kong Island and the neighbouring smaller islands is a breeze.
Po Lin Monastery is a modest, but typically beautiful, traditionally oriental styled Buddhist monastery, complete with a petite colourful flower garden and secluded within a lush green mountain range. It is well worth a visit in order to soak in the beauty of that synonymous oriental architecture. However the main draw to this island for most tourists can just be spotted peaking through the greenery of a nearby hilltop, the Tian Tan Buddha.
Topping out at just over 110 feet it is an imposing figure even at this distance, but it is only once you begin to ascend the 268 steps leading to its base that you begin to get a true sense of its size. Unfortunately as I begun to climb a light fog which had been lingering over the day since my early morning ferry, grew considerably thicker and reduced visibility to almost zero. This resulted in what I can only imagine are some of the worst photographs ever taken at this site, which I shamefully include here. Nevertheless, the outstretched hand of Buddha cutting through the fog and offering its blessing to all was an imposing sight. Just not one well suited to an amateur photographer such as myself.
Visiting the Big Buddha had taken up far less of my day than I had anticipated and so under increasingly rainy and dreary conditions, I boarded another bus which would carry us approximately 20 minutes to the Tai O Fishing village. While the poor weather had left the first part of my day feeling a little flat, I was immensely grateful for it once I arrived at the village. The atmospheric fog and light drizzle lent the place a mystical quality, it was like something straight out of a H.P Lovecraft novel. Haphazard abodes constructed from metal sheets and rising from the river on precarious looking stilts sat crooked faced almost on top of one another, while rickety rope bridges zigzagged across the water and connected the narrow weather beaten streets. Some of the homes seemed to bleed organically from the inside to the harsh outer world, paths crossed directly through the locals back yards and under tin roofs barely protecting sofas and outside kitchens from the elements.
It was unlike anything I had ever seen before, a completely different and alien way of life. The locals could not have been friendlier, unfortunately due to the decline of the fishing industry in the area and much of the younger generation having vacated long ago for the big city, the few hardy locals who remain in the only home they’ve ever known, are heavily dependent on locals to subsidise their living. As such hearty local delicacies of fresh seafood and fried Cantonese style doughnuts, as well as unique handcrafted souvenirs are on offer aplenty on the main street. You could easily spend half a day browsing these wares and getting lost in the spider web of paths which cut through this otherworldly village. If you find yourself on Lantau Island during your visit to Hong Kong I can not recommend this excursion enough, truly one of Hong Kong’s lesser known gems.
Day 4: Monkey Hill and Roast Goose
Kam Shan Country Park (known locally as Monkey Hill) is located to the north of Kowloon on the mainland. Do you like Monkeys? This is the place for you. If you don’t or are even a little ambivalent, it’s probably a good idea to steer well clear. Free roaming macaque monkeys populate this three square kilometre park in their droves. You are guaranteed to find dozens of them pottering about, particularly in human dense areas such as the bus station or the main road. Be prepared to get up close and personal with our closest ancestors as they are likely to swamp you the second you arrive in search for food, although the government has strongly advised against feeding them in order to deter this behaviour. For a short time I found the company of these monkeys adorable as they pottered by carrying their babies on their chests, picked at each other for fleas and inquisitively came searching for food. However, do be warned monkeys are not renowned for their respect of personal space, they can and will bother you if they smell something to eat and many of them can be seen rifling through bins, making quite a mess.
Don’t be deterred though. Once you’ve had your fill of Macaque mayhem Kam Shan Country Park has miles of beautiful beginners trails and secluded seating spots with a far more manageable monkey presence. Once again, enthralled with the tranquillity of another natural spot so close to the city, I found myself whiling away the hours with a good book and taking in the rare fresh air. For all the madness of Hong Kong this was shaping up to be an incredibly relaxing trip to reset my frazzled city living batteries.
Once back in the city I decided it was about time I sampled one of Hong Kong’s best known local delicacies, Roast goose. On the suggestion of a local friend I opted for the Michelin starred Yat Lok. Trust me this is like no Michelin restaurant you’ve seen before. Instead of ornate decorum and candle lit tables, you will find an extremely modest traditional style canteen, sit on simple benches packed shoulder to shoulder with other patrons, with an open front kitchen dominating the tiny space. It is traditional and unassuming eating without any pretence. Don’t be fooled though, in the incredibly competitive market of Hong Kong style Roast goose, Yat Lok is one of the highest renowned. At peak times the queue snakes 100 deep down the narrow street it fronts, and with good reason. I opted for a straight forward goose leg over rice and was not disappointed. Yat Lok knows it doesn’t need fancy ingredients or an expensive environment, this is straightforward, to the point food, cooked to absolute perfection. The skin was crisped to perfection, the meat succulent and flavoursome and the rice exquisitely boiled. Simple, authentic, delicious. What more could you want?
I capped off my peaceful day with a slightly more hectic trip to Temple Street Night Market, where I found all the usual souvenirs and trinkets you would expect from such a Chinese Market. As always be prepared to haggle a great deal if you don’t want to pay the insanely over-inflated prices they quote, but with a little good humour and back and forth I was able to purchase everything I needed for friends and family back home at very reasonable prices.
Day 5: Nan Lian Garden and Lion Rock
I decided to start my final day with a trip to Chi Lin Nunnery towards the North East of the mainland. I found the nunnery to be an attractive building, although a little underwhelming in comparison with some of the other monumental sights I had seen over the previous 4 days. I was however pleasantly surprised by the Nan Lian gardens which borders it. Like something out of Alice in Wonderland, the gardens are awash with vibrant colours, from the meticulously cared for greenery to the bright yellow pagoda complete with fairy tale red arched bridge, or the hidden stepping stone pathways. This makes for some idyllic photo opportunities.
After spending much of my morning in these gardens, walking the pathways and taking photos, I decided to walk rather aimlessly around the surrounding area until I stumbled by pure chance upon a rather inviting looking trail into the mountains. I would later discover that this trail was up lion rock.
Do not be fooled by the rather modest looking initial incline and paved stairs, this is not an easy hike. This is a 400m climb consisting of some substantially steep inclines and unforgiving terrain. Stumble across it as I did in Jeans, trainers and with barely any water, and you’ll be begging for mercy by the peak. There is not much to see as you climb through the dense foliage, once you reach the top though you will be treated to another iconic view of the city skyline, rivalling that of Victoria Peak. Unlike Victoria Peak however, which has been tamed by cable cars, bars and restaurants, I was struck by the ruggedness of my surroundings. This is not tourist friendly, there are no street lights or roads to help you as you climb and there are no rails to stop you plummeting to your death from the top. Here you can literally dangle your legs over the edge of the world and just take in the view. As the sun set on my time in Hong Kong, I could not have wished for a more perfect place to sit and reflect on my time here. Lion Rock for all its difficulty rewards you with a true sense of accomplishment, of overcoming nature and coming out on top to marvel of the magnificence of this crazy, beautiful, overwhelming place.
So there you have it, five days in Hong Kong and five of the best days of my travelling life thus far. I seriously can not recommend this place enough for city lovers and nature lovers alike. It is truly unique.
What did you think of my article? Have you visited Hong Kong and would like to share some of your own experiences? Or do you have any other travel stories you would like to tell? Let me know in the comments, I always love speaking with fellow world travellers wherever and whoever you may be!
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