Hong Kong Island
Across Victoria Harbour, lies the urban jungle of Hong Kong Island. One can find many of Hong Kong’s big skyscrapers here, including the angular bamboo-esque Bank of China designed by I.M. Pei. Many of the buildings feature an architectural aspect special to Hong Kong: Dragon Gates.
One of the most fascinating and unique facets of Hong Kong are its Dragon Gates, specifically constructed gaps in buildings, built with thousands of years of Fengshui tradition in mind. Fengshui is an ancient belief system centered around geomancy, the connection to the energy of the Earth, and, among other things, the harmonious relationship between buildings and the natural environment – such as the mountains, the ocean and the sky. In Fengshui, everything from the orientation of a new building, the shape of the building, the position of the entrance and position of furniture within are believed to influence the prosperity of its business or homeowner.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), Fengshui practitioners on the mainland were persecuted in nation-wide attempts to forcibly eradicate “The Four Olds” (Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas) seen as threats to China’s “proletariat progress” at the time. In Hong Kong, Fengshui beliefs persisted with some help from refugees and thrived. Supposedly, there are as many professional practitioners of Fengshui in Hong Kong currently as there are accountants or lawyers.
The natural land formations of Hong Kong are considered highly fortuitous in Fengshui. Hong Kong faces the water and is protected by mountains in front and across. Legend has it that the dragons that live in the mountain hold immense positive and powerful energy, and this energy flows through the city as the dragons fly down to the sea.
As the city proper has expanded through the years, its huge buildings have threatened to “block” the dragons’ passage from the mountains to the ocean, creating bad Fengshui and stunting the natural air flow through the city. To counteract any bad mojo, architects and builders usually hold consultations with experts to create auspicious high rises that adhere to Fengshui principles of harmony.
Thus, many housing and office buildings contain these Dragon Gates, or windows, allowing the dragons to pass through the city unimpeded on their way to the sea. However, not all buildings here are built with the dragons or Fengshui in mind, as there are those (mostly in the West and mainland China) who dismiss Fengshui beliefs as “new age” or superstitious. One such building is the sharp, angular Bank of China Tower built by I.M. Pei ( the same guy who designed the Louvre in Paris).
Pei’s bamboo-inspired Bank of China Tower is a sore point for local Fengshui believers and nearby businesses. Failing to consult experts in its design, the Tower’s sharp-edges have been thought to be “cutting” the good fortune of adjacent buildings and is blamed for many misfortunes such as bouts of bad luck and surrounding companies going out of business. Even many of the Tower’s own floors still remain unused and empty.
Longest Outdoor Covered Escalator System in the World
I accidentally found my way onto this escalator just as I was huffing and puffing up my way up steep steps trying to find Man Mo Temple.
Hong Kong in general is full of staircases and inclines. On a map, everything on HK Island looks to be within relatively easy walking distance. This is deceptive. The land is incredibly hilly, with lots of hiking up and down as I found out. I had caught a cold two days before, and it was beginning to slow me down.
Like a shining beacon, the escalator beckoned my tired, aching body, and I happily rode up the hill I was attempting to climb. At 800 meters (2,600ft) long with a vertical climb of 135 meters (443 ft), this escalator is the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world! I’ve ridden an escalator in the longest underwater tunnel in the world in Shanghai, so this was a neat random thing check off my accidental list.
Man Mo Temple
I really wanted to visit this temple, not just for unique curly coils of incense hanging from the ceiling, but for the good it does for the local community. Proceeds from the temple and 12 other temples in Hong Kong go towards subsidizing expenses for the public such as medical, educational and community services in 223 centers around the city. The Tung Wa group that manages the temple started HK’s first free school in 1880, which has expanded to 52 schools today offering free education to underprivileged students. Built in the 19th century, the temple is dedicated to the Gods of literature (man) and war (mo). Students used to flock here to pray for help with passing the Imperial examinations. Frustrating, finding the building on foot from the metro took much longer than I had planned due to said hills. I got there JUST as the temple gates were closing for the day, and had barely a glance inside before I was ushered out.
Victoria Peak, Sky Terrace 428 and a Tram Ride
One could take a forty-five minute or so bus ride to Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island, and walk a little ways for a free viewing platform, but I wanted to get the full experience of riding the famous 125 year-old “gravity defying” Victoria Peak funicular up it’s nearly vertical path. Even though at this time of year the National Week crowds were gigantic and oppressive, I decided that I would just tough it out. After all, I was traveling mostly solo on this trip, and, after having lived in both Washington, DC and mainland China, I can now say my tolerance for waiting is pretty high. Which is good, considering it took four hours to finally get on the trolley and up The Peak (99 hkd/$12 for entrance to the 428 Sky Terrace – 428 meters above sea level – and a return trip down the tram).
The 360 degree view of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers and Victoria Harbour was spectacular, as was the souvenir photo I splurged on!
More pictures from walking around Hong Kong Island’s financial district:
Nicknamed the “Lung’s of Hong Kong,” Lantau Island is the largest of Hong Kong’s outlying islands. Full of lush forests and few residential developments, Lantau provided a nice escape from the crowds in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. On the northern side of the island lies HK Disneyland, the airport, and the Tung Chung residential and shopping complex. The rest of the island is mainly rural with traditional fishing villages and nature parks.
My cousin, Jen, and I rode the Ngong Ping 360 gondola lift up to the Ngong Ping Plateau to see the giant Tian Tan Sakyamuni statue. The cable car ride was really fun! For about 25 minutes, we glided over the waters of Tung Chung Bay, and flew over steep mountain paths and a small waterfall. From high above, we could see from afar the Hong Kong International Airport, the long bridge from Hong Kong to Zhuhai, and various fishing vessels and trading ships. On the way back, we rode the special (and pricier) “crystal cablin,” a gondola with a glass floor that offered vertigo-inducing views of the depths below.
Ngong Ping Village
The cable cars dropped us off at Ngong Ping Village, a touristy shopping area with a few expensive restaurants offering “authentic” Chinese and Western Cuisine.” One had to walk through here to reach the Po Lin Monastery and statue.
There were lots of gimmicks: scheduled tea tastings and martial arts demos, staff hawking VR experiences and a 4d theater that followed Indian Prince Siddhartha Gautama’s journey to enlightenment and becoming Sakyamuni.
Vendors along the one main road sold various trinkets and snacks.
Jen and I waited for one of the free “blooming” tea ceremonies, teas made with special dried flowers that “blossom” or unfurl attractively when steeped in hot water.
Po Lin Monastery
A short walk down the “wisdom path” lies the “Buddhist World of the South.” Po Lin, founded in 1906 by three monks visiting from Jiangsu Province, is a big Buddhist monastery and temple complex.
The monastery houses three bronze statues of the past, present and future Buddhas (Dipamkara, Sakyamuni, and Maitreya) along with holy scriptures. It was pretty active when we visited, with many visitors kowtowing and burning giant sticks of incense.
Tian tan 天壇大佛
Majestically towering over Po Lin sits the Tian Tan Buddha statue, the largest seated outdoor bronze state of Sakyamuni at about 85 feet (26 meters). Climbing the 268 steps wasn’t too strenuous, I thought, even though we had to take a few breaks to get to the top. There is a small winding road for those with disabilities to make the journey up.
Tian Tan Buddha was absolutely gorgeous up close. It’s flanked by six beautiful smaller bronze statues, “The Offering of the Six Devas,” that each hold an offering – incense, lamp, fruit, flowers, music and medicinal ointment – to the Buddha.
Inside Tian Tan Buddha are three floors – one of which contains a relic of Sakyamuni’s cremated remains, but you need to pay a fee to see it. We went inside the free museum on the first floor and learned about the commissioning and building of the Buddha. I vaguely thought Tian Tan looked like the Sakyamuni I had visited in maybe middle school or late elementary at Kamakura in Japan, and it turns out that was one of the Buddha statues the monks at Po Lin had visited for inspiration! Apparently it took about 12 years and was completed in 1993 on the day that the Chinese believe was the day of Buddha’s enlightenment (Dec 29).
Final thoughts on Hong Kong
I really liked it here! I can definitely see why people say it’s shopping heaven as there were stores everywhere – even in the metro! Being here felt like a cross between Malaysia and Japan, where people would have High Tea and you’d find random churches even in the dingiest of places. Surprisingly (or maybe not so much) I was even stopped by Jehovah’s Witnesses!
It was neat to see people walking and driving on the left side again. I love how there’s so much history to explore and things to do and see overall. I just wish the city wasn’t so gosh darn expensive. A regular boba tea is almost three times the price it is for me back in Lishui!!
Definitely bring walking shoes if you plan to visit. I averaged over 20,000 steps each day I was here just going around to different sites. The weather was sunny and beautiful the week I was here, albeit a bit humid. I hear that it rains a lot, so that’d be something to prepare for (along with battling droves of people).
I’m really going to miss the food, especially the dimsum and eggwaffles with my favorite coconut jam from southeast Asia -kaya!
It was funny having others actually adhere to the concept of personal space again, unlike on the mainland. I was unused to and amused to watch people shying away from each other on the metro. Mainlanders wouldn’t give a second thought to having to dealing with being in a packed car and having to squish up against other people. In Hong Kong, I saw most locals retreat as much as they can away to keep whatever centimeter between themselves and strangers that they could.
There’s still a lot I didn’t get to do in this city that I wanted due to the time constraints, but I just will have to be save them for next time I’m in the area.
For now, I feel like I’ve had a pretty good introduction to the city!
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Bright sunlight sparkled on the water amidst the bobbing solar panels scattered about the ocean. The Shenzhen skyline faded in the distance as my friend, Carol, and I rode a crowded double-decker bus early in the morning across the bridge to the palm tree-lined coast of Hong Kong (HK). Sounds of Cantonese had washed over…