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  11. Hong Kong: Victoria Peak,...

Taking the tram ride to the summit of Victoria Peak and afternoon boat taxi tour of the incredible Aberdeen Harbour

When we decided to take a nap at 3 p.m. in the afternoon we fully expected to sleep for a couple hours and then head out to further explore Hong Kong. Incredibly, having turned off our alarm, when I finally woke and decided to get up it was 4 a.m. We had been sleeping for over 12 hours, which is totally unheard of!

Being awake at this time was not totally unexpected, but we had two and half hours to kill before the restaurant opened for breakfast. So I decided to do some writing and watch TV. The only bearable thing I could watch was Bear Grylls guiding a group of UK B list celebrities through some fairly harsh terrain in South Africa. It reminded my why I watch so little television nowadays – even when I have nothing better to do.

Finally, the time rolled around to 6:30 a.m. and we were queued up outside the restaurant (well there was only one other family there). We did find plenty to eat that worked for us and the coffee tasted especially good.

Back in our room we prepared for the day ahead. The weather forecast looked set for more rain but that was not going to hold us back. It was getting lighter outside despite the gloom and as I drew back the curtains I was pleasantly surprised by the spectacular view we had from the 20th floor of the Dorsett Wan Chai of the grave yard below. To be fair as grave yards go it was one of the more picturesque I have seen. The Dorsett is not only well placed for visiting the graveyard it is across the street from the famous Happy Valley race course and the Hong Kong Cricket Club, which holds the honour of being the oldest cricket club in Asia.

Our view of the graveyard from the Dorsett

Our first objective of the day was to travel to the top of Victoria Peak (known also as Mount Austin and to the locals simply as “the Peak”), which provides unequaled views across the city and Victoria harbour. Although on a day with inclement weather forecast we were not too sure how much we’d actually see.

Standing at 552 metres it is the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island. Having spent the last week in Colorado at over 3000 metres the rarefied atmosphere was not too challenging.

For the last 200 years, Victoria Peak has been the home to rich and wealthy. Originally wealthy residents were carried up the steep paths to the summit on sedan chairs, but the introduction of a tram to the summit created the environment for further development of the area and the growth of the Peak as a tourist attraction. Prior to being a “dezrez”, the Peak was occupied by a notorious pirate Cheung Po Tsai, who used the lofty mountain to spy on ships coming into the harbour and plan his nefarious crimes to capture their goods.

Today we planned to use the tram to get to the top of the mountain. It is only a short hop, skip and jump from the Central Station of the MRT to the lower tram station, but the weather was not playing ball and we had to take cover as the heavens opened once again. Luckily it was only a few minutes before we could move on. The good thing about the weather was that it had deterred all but the hardiest from taking the tram ride.

Greeted by a torrential downpour
Hong Kong has its fair share of skyscrapers – which are nonetheless impressive on a rainy day
Karen waiting for the tram
And here it comes

It is some thirty-plus years since I last to this tram ride. Somethings have not changed – well probably only the rails. Commercialism has really taken its loathsome grip on what was once a quaint experience. This is minimally evident at the lower station with ticket office for Madame Tussaud’s exhibit, fronted by a rather unimpressive wax figure of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson.

The ride itself is short. A single cable hoists the tram up the steep incline of the Peak. To me, this doesn’t feel quite as safe a funicular or cog rail system, but I guess it has worked for a 100 plus years. Anyway, when you get the top you see the impact of commercialism, with the six-storey high building that houses the summit terminus. The actual station part is small, the rest of the building is made up of tacky gift shops, over-priced restaurants and cafes, the Madam Tussaud exhibits and other such gaudy distractions. As you go outside you can see the construction work of even more things going up, including an aquarium. Why put an aquarium on top of a mountain when you have a perfectly good bay and marina 500 metres below?

Anyway, we decided against paying extra to go up to the viewing platform on top of the terminus building and instead walked a couple of hundred feet to the Lions Pavilion, which is free, which gives a great view of the bay and city. That said, today the weather was not making for the best viewing conditions.

The view from Victoria Peak

Wanting to further escape the tourists we decided to carry on walking to the top of the Peak and visit the Victoria Peak Garden, a formal style garden that sits atop of the mountain and offers views all around Hong Kong Island. It was a bit of an uphill slog, and it was not too long before we were totally drenched in sweat (a lovely image I know!). Partway we took a rest at the Mount Austin Playground, a pretty formal garden with children’s play area. On a warm spring day this would be lovely, but less so on a cloudy, damp, humid summer’s day. Although our mood was lifted by the passing of some spectacularly beautiful butterflies.

Mount Austin Playground

A little way further on we entered the Victoria Peak Gardens, and were a little freaked out with the signs, complete with blown-up gigantic images of mosquitoes, warning of Dengue fever and Japanese Encephalitis. We quickly move on hoping our speed might protect us from any passing “mossies”. At the very top of the hill there is a covered shelter and patio with wonderful views of the other side of Hong Kong Island from the city. Karen’s attention is caught by a group of people who seemingly are taking part in ceremony which looks very like a Christian communion. Without really asking she joins in, and only later feels a bit guilty that this might have been a private family celebration.

The view from the top of the Peak
The Pavilion on Victoria Peak

Karen takes communion
A brief peek of the sun – a rare visitor on our trip so far!

By now we felt it was time to move on and scurried on down back to the tram station. Going downhill felt good, and was further improved with a cooling wind that had picked up.

The day’s second destination for the day was to be Aberdeen Harbour. This is situated on the far side of the island from the city of Hong Kong. Getting there is a little more problematic as the metro system doesn’t run there, so we decided to expand our experience of the Hong Kong transit system to the buses. As we walked to the central bus station we noticed hundreds of people, mainly women and children just sitting around the streets using any possible shelter to protect themselves from the weather. They were using cardboard boxes as makeshift groundsheets and were having picnics. We wondered what going on, and we’re told this is the one day of the year where all the domestic workers in Hong Kong take time off work and spend time socialising together. I suspect these people have extremely hard lives but it was warming to see them seemingly enjoy the opportunity to collectively share some valuable time together. Of course, this also presented the opportunity for some street vendors to peddle their wares.

Catching the bus proved to be timely as once again mother nature played with us. We don’t often use buses, and as this was a double-decker we went straight to the top deck and nabbed the front seats. Prime viewing for our journey, even though our view was somewhat obscured by the torrents of rain running down the windows.

Frenetic selling at Central in Hong Kong

The journey to Aberdeen took about 30 minutes and when we arrived the rain had not abated and didn’t look like it was about to stop anytime soon. So, we made a run for it and jumped onto the first sampan boat we could find. It was a smaller boat and navigated by an older lady with very little English. She handed us a card with the trip options of a half-hour or hour trip around the harbour. We decided on a longer trip.

I had been to Aberdeen thirty years prior and was struck by the poverty of the families who lived in a floating village. The boats they called home were hardly water-worthy and they warmed themselves on open fires lit on the decks of the boats. Today Aberdeen is more “gentrified” and whilst the ramshackle houseboats are still to be found there are a lot less of them. Additionally, there are a lot of large, expensive yachts in the harbour which itself is now bounded by upscale, high rise apartment blocks.

The sampan we are on is a working boat, and when we join it there are already some passengers aboard. They laughed as we joined and paid our fare of $200HK – we suspect the laughing was at our expense and the amount we had relinquished. Our captain skillfully navigated among the tightly parked fishing trawlers and houseboats to drop these people off. For the next hour, we went from one end of the harbour, where the expensive yachts were parked to the other end where the poorer houseboats were moored aside old, rickety fishing trawlers. Along the route, we passed the famous Jumbo Floating Restaurant. It was an interesting journey and kept us dry through the rainstorm.

Aberdeen Harbour in the rain
Typical houseboat

Jumbo floating restaurant

From Aberdeen we returned back the city, jumping off the bus a mile or so from our hotel. Walking back we passed some very exclusive car showrooms selling Maserati, Rolls Royce and other top brand vehicles and from there into a market where there were shops selling an incredible array of foods; from fruits and vegetables to baked goods to meat and fish. The only thing that saddened us was to see the fish, who we still alive, jumping around in the plastic trays gasping in the air rather than water.

Ducks heads – doesn’t look to appetizing to me!

After a brief afternoon snooze, we headed out to Kowloon to the Temple Street Night Market. We decided to walk to the nearest MRT station to our hotel, getting lost on the way. Eventually, we ended up at Times Square, somewhat reminiscent of its New York namesake with a host of upscale shops. From here we took the MRT to the area of Jordan where the Temple Street Market is located.

Outside the Happy Valley Racetrack museum
Karen @ Times Square

The market runs down a long street, with a large number of vendors selling what can largely be described as crap for the benefit of the tourists. There was no comparison to the beautiful bazaars we had seen in India. On the sides of the streets beyond the temporarily erected stalls were shops selling “knock-off” brand clothing and electronic, pornographic photos and other more unusual items like wigs. Beyond the physical goods there were also several young women offering more personal services. Having disparaged everything about it was an interesting excursion and we did get to eat some more delicious food.

Temple Street night market
A stall selling everything you don’t really need!

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