The last thing I need as I doggedly heave my out-of-shape physique up 400-odd steps is to be thumped by a monk. But he goes ahead and hits me anyway. The palm of his hand thwacks my sweat-soaked forehead – not gently – three times, and I finally understand that he’s not going to let me pass without a donation.
Before starting my punishing climb to the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery in Sha Tin – out in Hong Kong’s New Territories – I’d read that entry is free, but to expect a few wily monks who would try to solicit an ‘entry fee’. I had not, however, been warned that some would go so far as to beat a donation out of me. (I later consulted the oracles of Facebook, with a post asking whether I should take this monk-on-tourist violence as a blessing or a curse. Replies ranged from the comforting – “If you got thumped on your head in the eastern part of the world it’s a blessing” – to the not so – “Sounds like foreigners tricking tourists into thinking unpleasant experiences are a good thing”). Either way, I give in and hand over a few crumpled notes.
Hong Kong might be one of the most densely populated areas in the world – there are apparently 6480 people for every square kilometre – but I’d also argue that it offers up the most diverse range of experiences within one compact space. Out here in the woods, wrapped in silence and humidity – and getting thumped by a monk – you wouldn’t think the commercial neon pulse of Hong Kong Island beats barely more than 10 miles away.
This is my favourite aspect of the island-state anomaly, which is on the one hand a part of China’s great empire, and on the other its more liberal, funky cousin – thanks to the guiding principle of ‘one country, two systems’. (Along with Macau and Taiwan, Hong Kong is permitted its own capitalist economic and political system, independent of China’s socialist ideology.) Within just a few paces, I can go from a shiny shopping centre to a chaotic, old-world street market; get hassled for a black market handbag among the blinding lights of Nathan Road in Kowloon, then stroll peacefully in car-free, hippy haven Lamma.
But for now, I’m battling up this hill in Sha Tin. Sweaty work though it is, I’d thoroughly recommend it. Hundreds of golden Buddha statues adorn my climb, and not one like the other. Some are fat, some are thin; one has a gaggle of golden children climbing about him, another – somewhat disturbingly – has arms coming out of his eyes. And all the way, silence, infusing the air with a serene sense of spirituality. (The actual monastery, after more than 400 steps, turns out to be less impressive than the climb. About 13,000 little gold Buddhas line the temple walls, but I’m still more mesmerised by those that guided me in.)
The plan is to return to Hong Kong’s urban throb in the evening, but first I want to check out nearby Sai Kung, which I’m told is the place to go for seafood. I catch a bus from Sha Tin metro station and enjoy unprecedented views of thick, recklessly growing greenery and ramshackle huts. This more resembles rural South-East Asia than one of the world’s foremost financial centres.
The town of Sai Kung itself is a pleasantly sleepy affair. Worn-looking seafood restaurants line the pretty waterfront, and myriad tanks teeming with all manner of sea life guarantee a fresh meal. I had been planning on a hike across one of the many trails on the Sai Kung Peninsula, but the slow pace here is infectious, and I spend much longer than anticipated lingering over cheap beer and shrimp noodles. That, and eyeing the elephantine fish in nearby tanks, some the size of a two-seater sofa.
On reflection, I should have snoozed off my lunch at one of Sai Kung’s secret beaches. You can catch a small boat (or kaido) from the waterfront to the islands just off the town, and find your own tucked-away stretch of sand to enjoy undisturbed.
Instead, I set off in pursuit of the Peninsula’s Country Park, 7500 hectares of hiking trails that promise great views over Hong Kong’s eclectic landscape.
But it’s another bus ride to the park (closest to Sai Kung town is the west park, the east is further off), and by the time I get there it’s way too late to start a hike. I set off stubbornly anyway, and within minutes come across a sign that reads: ‘WARNING: A python has been spotted in this area.’ That’s enough to drain the last shred of intrepidity from me. And thank god for Hong Kong’s spectrum of experiences: when things get too wild, city life is close by, offering the comfortingly urban embrace of neon and concrete. I turn on my heel and bound emphatically towards it. (Please note that hiking along the trails of Sai Kung should not be taken lightly. Pack lots of water and supplies. Unprepared tourists – like me – are helicoptered out of here all the time.)
A short metro ride later and I’m in Kowloon, the packed peninsula that holds 48 per cent of Hong Kong’s population. Hong Kong in its entirety – the eponymous island, Kowloon Peninsula, the New Territories and more than 200 Outlying Islands – measures 407 square miles, and is home to about seven million people. Because the vast majority live on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, it is known as the world’s most vertical city. How to pack all these people in? Build upwards, not outwards.
As a result, Kowloon comes off as the mutant offspring of Times Square and Piccadilly Circus, a relentlessly lit concentration of crowded streets and skyscrapers. A holiday in Hong Kong owes its diversity to the varied terrain, and ticking off Kowloon’s touristy must-dos couldn’t feel any further removed from my more subdued day in the New Territories.
First up is the Avenue of Stars, Hong Kong’s answer to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. After the obligatory snaps with a bronze Bruce Lee statue and Jackie Chan’s hand prints, I stick around to see the Symphony of Light. No doubt cynics will find this lame, but I quietly enjoy the display. The skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island, lined up on the opposite side of Victoria Harbour, light up in time to music blasting from the Avenue’s speakers, performing something of a synchronised dance routine. It happens at 8pm every night, provided it’s not raining. If you can get up early enough, there’s also a free tai chi session on the Avenue of Stars every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 8am.
Earlier on my trip, I get talking to a Glaswegian expat, Paul. Having lived in Hong Kong for seven years, he tells me: “The best thing about this place is that you can walk into any building at any time of day, and there’ll be something crazy going on.”
I think Paul’s got that half right. It’s not necessarily always crazy, but there is always something going on. And often it’s unexpected, a complete leap from whatever came last. To demonstrate, a short cab ride from this tourist hub, I alight upon my favourite find, the unassuming-looking Tim Ho Wan. On appearance alone, you’d think this your average dim sum canteen, just another with a sign bearing Cantonese characters in Kowloon’s Mong Kok district. But I have it on good authority that this is the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant.
Started by Mak Pui Gor, a former chef at a three-Michelin-starred eatery in Hong Kong’s Four Seasons, you can fill up on exemplary dim sum at Tim Ho Wan for the equivalent of a tenner between two. The only problem is that this low-key little place – and it is little, so seats are limited – is that everyone wants a piece of it, and a three-hour queue for dinner is not uncommon.
I pull off a risky trick in arriving half an hour before closing. There is one vacant table, and I’m hurried straight in, no waiting. The challenge now is to eat my fill of high-calibre cuisine within the next 30 minutes. Thankfully, the staff is not going to tolerate any dithering, and orders everything for me (not so much giving recommendations as instructions). Every dish is amazing, and I leave thoroughly stuffed. There are now two more branches of Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong – one at Sham Shui Po, and another under the IFC mall in Central on Hong Kong Island. Only a fool would fail to drop by.
Hong Kong’s tourist staples – taking the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour, riding the tram up Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island, and making the pilgrimage (albeit by cable car) to the giant bronze Buddha on the largest Outlying Island of Lantau – are all worth ticking off.
But there’s one more little gem I’d recommend. Take a ferry to Lamma – another Outlying Island – for the starkest case of contrast between ‘bright-lights’ and ‘laidback’ Hong Kong. It’s just 30 minutes from commercial Central, but a world away from Hong Kong Island. Here, there are no cars or buses, no metro stations or malls, or buildings taller than two storeys.
I follow a narrow path – stepping aside for the odd cyclist – that leads me from one side of the island to the other in just over an hour. It’s not a challenging walk, but the sea views, lush greenery, beaches and all-pervading peace make it worth my while. I can see why Lamma is popular with many an ageing hippy expat. The community of the village, the contented quiet of island life – hell, the windsurfing at Kwun Yam Wan beach – is understandably appealing. And if you were to get bored, the city buzz is just a half-hour ferry ride away.
Because in Hong Kong, the very opposite of where you’re standing is always just around the corner.
Best food in Hong Kong
There’s no shortage of great meals in Hong Kong. Here’s one must-do for every budget.
CHEAP AND CHEERFUL
Head to Temple Street in Kowloon. Though best known for its lively night market, filled with cheap sex toys and fortune tellers, the street food is a must-do, too. Pull up
a plastic chair at an al-fresco table, temper the thick night air with a cold one, and order up a feast of cheap seafood. Sitting among the throng, bathed in neon, you can’t beat that holiday feeling.
Dim sum at Maxim’s Palace in Hong Kong’s City Hall is something of a ‘Big Smog’ rite of passage. Dishes are served from traditional dim sum carts – dangerous, because you’ll keep pointing at the innumerable yummy things passing by your table, and end up with a pile of food that reaches the summit of Victoria Peak. Worth it, though.
Hutong at One Peking Road is an achingly classy affair, seating diners in front of a panoramic view of Victoria Harbour. Watch the junks sail by the city’s iconic skyscrapers as you elicit increasingly dirty-sounding moans of culinary pleasure. If you only order one thing, make it the dreamy boneless pork ribs, and wash them down with a pot of hot rice wine.
WHEN TO GO: Hong Kong is a year-round destination, but the most popular time to visit is mid-September to late February as the weather is cooler. Rain is heaviest May to September.
CURRENCY: £1 = HK$12
ACCOMMODATION: Chungking Mansions is the place for budget accommodation. The building is full of independent hostels, some of which are cleaner than others. (The AC unit blew dirt at us in one.) It enjoys a great location on Kowloon’s buzzing Nathan Road. HK also has a wealth of ritzy hotels.
GETTING THERE: Return flights from London to Hong Kong, with a stop-off in Beijing, cost from £536 with Air China (airchina.com).