After our leisurely stroll through downtown Hong Kong (see Part 2 of our HK trip), we decided to take a ferry to Cheung Chau (長洲), a small island in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. I had fond memories of it from a previous trip there in 1997.

The cliché that the journey is more important than the destination can be quite literally applied to a ferry trip in Hong Kong (though in our case the destination was pretty sweet, too). Although Hong Kong is a terrifically stimulating environment, it can also be stressful, but a leisurely, comfortable ferry ride forces you to relax and smell the figurative roses—roses that in this case happen to be colossal towers of glass and steel, along with the magnificent mountain and ocean scenery that surrounds them. Depending on how hot it is, you might choose to enjoy the view from an indoor seat, where the Asgardian air conditioning system will make you feel like you’re closer to the North Pole than the sweltering South Pacific. Personally, I’d never want to miss the breeze and the sun on the outdoor deck. The only thing that could have possibly made our trip better? A cold six-pack of Tsingtao.

Click on any photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.

A view of the skyscrapers and wharves of downtown Hong Kong from the Cheung Chau ferry A distant view of the Kowloon waterfront and a ship from the Cheung Chau ferry

Left: As you pull away from the ferry terminal, you have a great view of some of the tallest buildings in the world, including 2 International Finance Centre and the Center. You’ll also see a great variety of vessels in the harbor (one of the busiest in the world, of course), some of them pleasantly quaint, such as this tugboat.

Right: In this photo you can see Kowloon’s International Commerce Centre, the tallest building in Hong Kong and #4 in the world, which was still under construction at the time this photo was taken. The ship in the foreground appears to be some kind of naval vessel.

A view of the buildings of downtown Hong Kong from the Cheung Chau ferry A view of Hong Kong Island from the Cheung Chau ferry

From the ferry, you can enjoy constantly varying views of endlessly varied Hong Kong. And as you cruise farther away from Hong Kong Island, a bigger scene unfurls before you—a picturesque combination of city, mountain, sea, and sky.

Right: This is a view of Hong Kong Island from the west; the area on the left is the downtown area (the Central and Western Districts), and the area on the right is Aberdeen, in the southwest part of the island.

A view of boats in Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor from the ferry Sunlight reflects off the surface of the water in Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor

As you enter Cheung Chau Harbor, you can see that the local fishing fleet is still quite robust.

Right: Here, you can see the breakwater protecting the harbor from large waves. The late-afternoon sun glints off the furrowed surface of the water.

The chance to enjoy the scenery while we recovered from hours of walking was itself more than worth the cost of the ticket, let alone the opportunity to relax and eat seafood on Cheung Chau. (video by CIT)

Boats near the ferry pier in Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbour Pedestrians, bicycles, and stores on the waterfront at Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor

Left: This is the view alongside the ferry pier. Both small ferryboats, such as the one pictured here, and much larger ferry ships, serve the people of Cheung Chau. Some of the ferries we saw appeared to be something like “water taxis,” run for the locals by private operators.

The waterfront near the pier shows the influence of the West and the influence of the tourist trade (a Circle K, a 7-Eleven, and a McDonald’s all in a row; small shops selling knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, tchotchkes, curios, trinkets, and souvenirs), but most of the island is charmingly and convincingly local. In fact, I was delighted to find that it seemed as though nothing had changed since my visit 12 years earlier. In the modern world, that kind of reassuring consistency is hard to come by.

Food and beer at a seafood restaurant on the waterfront of Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor Seafood tanks at a restaurant on Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Island

There are a number of restaurants along Cheung Chau’s waterfront, specializing in seafood, of course. We chose one, more or less at random, and in our eager hunger inhaled a bountiful meal (I was so hungry that I forgot to take a photo until these dishes were all that remained). To my wife’s discriminating Shanghainese palate, it was not the best seafood she had ever had but quite enjoyable nonetheless. Surprisingly, I recall the vegetables as being my favorite dish—simply prepared yet intensely flavorful. And there’s nothing like a cold beer in a shady spot with a view of the ocean, except perhaps a cold beer on a Hong Kong ferry.

Right: I’ve always found seafood tanks like these rather cruel, but I suppose their redeeming quality is that they force you to be more aware of where the pleasantly dead food on your plate came from than do most Western-style restaurants that hide the uglier bits of the preparation process—and they have the added virtue of allowing you to confirm that your food is indeed fresh.

Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Beach A distant view of Hong Kong Island from Cheung Chau Beach

All in all, I would describe Cheung Chau as an oasis of relaxation, a refuge from the bustle of the city. The part of the island that best epitomizes that quality is Cheung Chau Beach, a crescent-shaped stretch of sand just a few minutes’ walk across the narrow part of the island from the waterfront.

Right: From the beach, which faces Hong Kong Island to the east, you can admire the distant view of downtown HK while you relax, far away in both mind and body. The visible distance somehow makes it easier to let go of the urban insanity of modern life—which, paradoxically, is only a convenient ferry ride away when you need a little craziness. If I ever suddenly retire from human society to live as a nomad, this is one of the places I’ll go. Call me “the convenient recluse.” Tibetan monasteries are just too darn extreme.

Although my little pocket camcorder doesn’t really do justice to the vividness of Hong Kong, I think this clip does capture the serenity of Cheung Chau Beach on the evening we relaxed there for an all-too-brief time. (video by CIT)

Boats in Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor at dusk Large store billboards and crowds of shoppers near a night market in Hong Kong's Kowloon district

Left: As night began to fall, I took this photo of Cheung Chau Harbor.

Right: After two days chock full of endless walking and flagrant gawking, we didn’t have the energy for much partying by the time we got back to the city, but we did stroll around to do some shopping and take in the impressive bustle.

With stores, clubs, bars, night market stalls, street performers, and restaurants galore, there is never a shortage of nighttime activities in Hong Kong—even a simple stroll along the streets can be entertaining. (video by CIT)

Two of my favorite memories of Hong Kong are things that I unfortunately didn’t capture on film.

One of these memories is passing by the basketball courts on Cheung Chau where I had seen locals playing an intense style of pickup basketball—with one of them even dunking in the short time I watched them—on my first trip there in 1997. As a basketball fan since early childhood, I was deeply impressed. Way back then, when Chinese basketball was not yet on anyone’s radar, I began to realize that it was only a matter of time before Chinese players would begin to emerge on the international scene. This time no one happened to be playing when we passed by, but just the sight of the same courts put a smile on my face.

Later, while strolling along the streets of Kowloon, I watched a small crowd gather outside a media store that was showing a Michael Jackson concert DVD at the entrance. Although I haven’t been a big Michael Jackson fan since I was about ten, I’ve always appreciated his magnetism as a performer, and to see it attract Chinese locals to a little TV on a street in Hong Kong several months after his death was somehow touching—the kind of thing that reminds us of our essential unity. As travelers, we seek the exotic and the new, but ultimately what we want to find, in spite of all our differences, is a deep connection with the people and places we visit, something that transcends the superficial, the local, and the temporal. I felt that in Hong Kong, as I’ve felt it everywhere I’ve gone in China, and it has made those travel experiences both exciting and comforting.

—originally published on our old blog on August 6, 2010

If you’d like to experience Hong Kong yourself with an itinerary that will allow you to do your own independent exploring, sign up for our Hong Kong 3-Day Tour or our China Highlights 11-Day Tour. Please visit our Hong Kong Photo Gallery and Information Page for more photos and information.

On our second full day in HK, we struck out on our own and enjoyed some sights and experiences no less beautiful and stimulating than the more touristy experiences we had had the day before. And of course, we only scratched the nanosurface of all that there is to do and see in Hong Kong.

If you’d like to experience Hong Kong yourself with an itinerary that will allow you to do your own independent exploring, sign up for our Hong Kong 3-Day Tour or our China Highlights 11-Day Tour. Please visit our Hong Kong Photo Gallery and Information Page for more photos and information.

Click on any photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.

A narrow street walled in by buildings in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong The storefront of the Chinese Noodle Restaurant in Hong Kong's Kowloon District

We started off in Kowloon, whose claustrophobic urban canyons, crammed with billboards, have a bit more character than the more modern, sterile, finance-oriented buildings of the downtown area. Just the sight of it is highly suggestive, rich with the possibilities of so many lives in such a small space.

In the morning we each had a tasty bowl of spicy noodles at a little eatery with the almost hilariously unimaginative name “Chinese Noodle Restaurant.” (Its Chinese name, 四川麻辣米綫, which I would translate as “Spicy Sichuan Rice Noodles,” is a bit more descriptive.) When eating at places like this, be careful not to let them make you pay the “foreigner tax.” Sometimes people who are obviously foreign (especially Westerners) are charged extra; this did in fact happen to us at one restaurant, but it wasn’t here.

Sichuan-style rice noodles at a restaurant in Hong Kong's Kowloon District Crowds of transit passengers in the Hong Kong subway

The food in Hong Kong is world renowned, and although as a semi-vegetarian I’m not as crazy about HK’s Cantonese and seafood-oriented cuisine as I am about some of China’s other regional cuisines, even my persnickety palate was pleased by the food we had there. These noodles were an even better morning stimulant than coffee.

Afterward, we took a subway ride from Kowloon to downtown HK, the Central District of Hong Kong Island. Although the subway ride was convenient and comfortable, I don’t want to imagine what it must be like during a sweltering August afternoon rush hour. I just hope it has a massively powerful ventilation system.

The central atrium of the Landmark, an upscale shopping mall in downtown Hong Kong Another view of the central atrium of the Landmark, an upscale shopping mall in downtown Hong Kong

The Landmark in downtown HK is probably one of the finest shopping malls in the world, with many of the most exclusive brands represented. As someone with rather plebian tastes and an utter lack of sartorial style, I felt about as comfortable as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. It was beautiful and impressive, but I don’t think anyone with a philosophical bent can help feeling a bit alienated by the hordes of worshippers at downtown Hong Kong’s altar of Mammon.

After we emerged from the Landmark with our bank account fortunately still more or less intact, we witnessed an impressive phenomenon: the lunch rush amidst the office buildings in the Central District. Every day, tens or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of worker drones descend from their mile-high celestial cubicles simultaneously to swarm the streets and mingle with the crowds of shoppers and tourists. This video clip doesn’t fully capture the intensity of it, but it was quite a sight (and sound).

A human billboard puts a costume on to advertise on the streets of downtown Hong Kong The storefront of the Kosmo Wellness Cafe in downtown Hong Kong's Central District

We also witnessed the amusing sight of this “human billboard” (on the aptly named Theatre Lane) preparing some kind of costume—a sun, a sunflower, a strange mythical creature? I can’t tell. Actually, “costume” doesn’t do it justice. “Promotional siege engine” is a more accurate description.

Soon we took shelter from the crowd in the Kosmo Wellness Cafe, an oasis of calm with tasty (and at least nominallly healthful) beverages and friendly service.

A refreshing fruit smoothie and iced milk tea in downtown Hong Kong's Kosmo Wellness Cafe Skyscrapers (including the Center) rise into a blue sky over a street in downtown Hong Kong

Our beverages: a smoothie and some milk tea. I suppose drinking milk tea in Hong Kong is disappointingly predictable, but it was indeed good.

With all the time I’ve spent in places like San Francisco and Shanghai and New York, you might think I would be fairly gawk-proof at the sight of gleaming skyscrapers, but downtown HK is stimulating even to jaded eyes. As the scads of photos (many more than I’ll inflict on you here) I took there prove, I spent a lot of time gazing upward at the impressive buildings, playing the role of slack-jawed American yokel, to the amusement of the locals around us, no doubt. At one point my wife even offered to buy me a bib. Well, she didn’t say that, but I’m pretty sure she was thinking it.

Hong Kong's 2 International Finance Centre, one of the tallest buildings in the world Glass-sided skyscrapers (the Bank of China Tower and the Cheung Kong Centre) reflect a cloudy sky in downtown Hong Kong

I don’t think you can blame me for gawking, though—by some measures Hong Kong has the best skyline in the world, and it currently boasts five of the the twenty tallest buildings in the world, including Two International Finance Centre (left photo), which comes in at #4.

Right: The Bank of China Tower (left) and the Cheung Kong Center are the 12th and 52nd tallest buildings in the world, respectively.

A busy intersection in the Central District of downtown Hong Kong Trolleys in the Central District of downtown Hong Kong

Despite all of the industrial towers of steel and glass, downtown Hong Kong somehow manages to be rather charming, too, with its many shops, its cultural distinctiveness, and its pedestrian-friendly environment.

The trolleys, in particular, are rather quaint to an American’s eye.

A demonstration against Citibank in downtown Hong Kong An anti-Citibank protester in Hong Kong wearing a t-shirt that reads 'pyscho' and 'God destroys'

One somewhat unexpected sight we came across was this anti-Citibank demonstration. This and some other things we observed on our trip, along with the recent [at the time this post was originally written] news about factory workers in China going on strike and successfully demanding better wages, gives me hope for the “little people” of China who have thus far largely been left behind by China’s remarkable economic success.

Right: This protester is wearing a shirt that reads “psycho” (or “insane”) at the top, and it looks like the bottom part says “God destroys.” At least I’m pretty sure he was a protester, not an actual self-declared psycho. In any case, I didn’t even consider messing with him, and as you can see I waited until his back was turned to take this photo. My experience suggests that it’s best just to take people labeled “psycho” at face value.

Next up: our ferry ride to Cheung Chau and a taste of Kowloon nightlife. I’ll chronicle the rest of our trip next week.

—originally published on our old blog on July 20, 2010

If I had to sum up my perception of Hong Kong in one phrase, it would be “a place of extremes constantly juxtaposed”: the ultramodern and the traditional, the fabulously (or perhaps absurdly) wealthy and the poor, the East and the West, the artificial and the natural. And as fast-paced and intense as it can be, there are even places in HK where you can truly slow down and relax. It is an incredibly dense microcosm of the world, and increasingly of China itself. Obviously, for a tourist or traveler, few places in the world are more fascinating and fun than Hong Kong.

In November 2009 my wife and I had a chance to visit HK; it was her first time and my first time in twelve years. First, we took the half-day tour (it actually ended up being a bit longer, which was fine with us), and then we did some exploring on our own. Here are a few photos and video clips that show the many different sides of Hong Kong that we experienced.

You can see all of these places on our Hong Kong 3-Day Tour or our China Highlights 11-Day Tour. Please visit our Hong Kong Photo Gallery and Information Page for more photos and information.

Click on any photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.

The front of Man Mo Temple, a Taoist temple in downtown Hong Kong High-rise apartments looming over Man Mo Temple in downtown Hong Kong with a tiny moon visible in the sky

The first stop on our tour was Man Mo Temple, a charming old Taoist temple in downtown Hong Kong. It lies sheltered amidst tall apartment buildings, almost as if it were worshiping at the feet of modernity. Let’s hope not—modernity could use a little more Taoism, not the other way around. (And by the way, yes, that is the moon up above in the photo on the right, tiny as it looks.)

A row of Taoist idols with offerings of burning incense in Hong Kong's Man Mo Temple Tourists absorbing the Taoist atmosphere of Man Mo Temple in downtown Hong Kong

Literally, there is a thick Taoist atmosphere in the temple, including a tranquil, sunlight-streaked central area with incense coils suspended in midair that my little digital camera couldn’t do justice to. (You can see a somewhat better attempt here.) This little nook is labeled “Hall of Ten Kings.”

From what I saw, there tend to be more tourists at the temple than regular worshipers, but they are usually quiet and respectful and do not spoil the tranquil, meditative atmosphere.

A gold incense vessel in Hong Kong's Man Mo Temple A closeup of the front gate and roof of Man Mo Temple in Hong Kong

Many visitors to the temple do pray and burn incense, however, regardless of where they may be from.

Right: A closeup of the entrance to the temple, which was built in 1847.

The interior of Man Mo Temple

The ride up to Victoria Peak on the Peak Tram

A view of downtown Hong Kong Island, Victoria Harbour, and Kowloon from the Peak Tram A view of Victoria Harbour and skyscrapers in downtown Hong Kong from a cafe in the Peak Tower

Afterward, we took the Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak, which looms over downtown Hong Kong.

Left: The ride up the peak feels even steeper than it looks in this photo, and it’s a fun trip, especially when the weather is as good as it was on that day. A spectacular view of Hong Kong’s vast cityscape and harbor spreads out beneath you as you climb the mountain.

Right: After you exit the tram, you can sit down at this comfortable cafe and enjoy a drink as you take in the view from the Peak Tower, one of the best city views to be found anywhere in the world.

A view of downtown Hong Kong, Victoria Harbour, and Kowloon from outside the Peak Tower A closeup view of the side of Victoria Peak with Victoria Harbour and Kowloon in the background

Left: I’ve seen a million variations of this photo, but it’s nice to have been able to take a pretty decent one myself, even if it’s not very original.

Right: For those who have time to hang out on the mountain, there’s a pleasant path that circles the mountaintop here, starting near the Peak Tower.

The Peak Tower, at the end of the Peak Tram line on Victoria Peak The main entrance of the Peak Galleria on Victoria Peak

The Peak Tower, where the Peak Tram line ends, is (at least to me) an interesting work of modern architecture that augments the natural beauty of the mountain. Not quite Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps, but I like it.

Right: I guess it was inevitable given all the tourists with time and money who visit Victoria Peak, but yes, there is a shopping mall next to the Peak Tower called the Peak Galleria.

The view to the west-southwest from Victoria Peak, including Cheung Chau and part of Lantau Island The twin summits at the top of Victoria Peak

Left: If you walk around the area near the Peak Tower, you can enjoy some beautiful views of the rest of Hong Kong Island and the surrounding area. Facing approximately southwest, you can see Cheung Chau (長洲) and part of Lantau Island (大嶼山) in the distance.

Right: These peaks lie to the west of the Peak Tower.

This is the breathtaking view that greets you right outside the Peak Tower at the end of your tram ride up the mountainside: an army of skyscrapers, millions of people, and a long view out across one of the busiest harbors in the world to Kowloon.

Boats in Hong Kong's Aberdeen Harbour Hong Kong - Aberdeen - boats - CIT - small - 267 x 200

At Aberdeen, you can take a relaxing boat ride around the harbor and check out the sampans and boathouses of the local fishermen, whose traditional way of life continues today.

Although fewer fishermen and families actually live full-time on the boats at Aberdeen these days, it is aptly described as a “floating community.” I imagine life here must be profoundly intimate, both with other people and with the elements. Even a glimpse of it caught during a brief boat tour is fascinating.

The Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Hong Kong's Aberdeen Harbour

The harbor at Aberdeen also features the internationally famous Jumbo Floating Restaurant, which is exactly what it sounds like: a restaurant on what appears to be a very large boat.

This video clip shows the essence of Hong Kong: that it is a place of extremes. Large yachts and speedboats owned by the fabulously wealthy float beside small junks and sampans owned by poor fishermen.

Hong Kong's Repulse Bay Hong Kong's Repulse Bay

The south side of Hong Kong Island is much less developed than downtown Hong Kong on the north side, and when the weather is good, it is a truly beautiful and relaxing place. These photos show tranquil Repulse Bay.

Some of our favorite moments in Hong Kong came after the tour was over and we had time to explore the area on our own—and on our Hong Kong itineraries we give you time to do the same. I’ll share photos of and thoughts about those experiences in my next blog post!

—originally published on our old blog on June 28, 2010

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