‘The fragrant harbour’, I wondered as I craned my neck, searching for a glimpse of the sky in the midst of towering skyscrapers. Moments earlier, a smartphone search on why Hong Kong was named so had revealed that ‘Hong Kong’ was derived from two Chinese characters, ‘Heung’ and ‘Gong’ meaning ‘fragrant harbour’.
The harbour was known for its export of incense sticks (made from the native Agarwood tree) to places as far away as the Arabian Peninsula. Today, fragrance has given way to finance. Hong Kong is now the third most important financial centre in the world after New York and London.
And here’s how my days in the city were spent.
All packed up
Wanting to experience the local culture, I decided to set up base in Kowloon instead of the more popular mainland. Home to many street markets and neighbourhood eateries, Kowloon is far more congested, and has a lot more character.
While I had heard many a version of how cramped houses in Hong Kong were, I was still taken aback when I entered the flat I had booked. Nothing had really prepared me for a bathroom with only as much space as to accommodate a shower head almost over the water closet!
In a kaleidoscope
Walking through the streets of Kowloon at night felt like I had entered a kaleidoscope. Bright neon signs overhead, on building facades, and on shop boards come alive at dusk in flickering streams of reds, blues, greens, yellows… almost all colours.
Like a Lilliputian
Buildings in Hong Kong are tall… so tall that more people in Hong Kong live or work above the fourteenth floor than anywhere else on earth. The towers seem to occupy every inch of land and sky, their gleaming glass exteriors reflecting each other and the buzz of the life beneath. If someone had told me I was no more than six inches in height, I would have believed it.
Top tip: take a ride aboard the tram up Victoria Peak to experience the Peak Tram Illusion – a visual illusion that makes the skyscrapers appear as if they are tilting.
Ding Ding bell
After scrambling through the milling crowds, I enjoyed the rides in shiny street-cars as they ambled through the busy roads of Hong Kong mainland. As old as 1904, these are the only double decker trams in the world. The locals affectionately christened them as Ding Ding because of the sound of the double bell that warns pedestrians to keep a safe distance.
The street markets
Hong Kong does have an eclectic collection of street markets, famous for the category of products they sell and specialise in. There are streets exclusively selling Chinese medicine, bird nest, dried seafood, sneakers, flowers, antiques and even goldfish! My pick was definitely the goldfish market in Kowloon; packets and tanks carrying goldfish stacked up, down the entire length of the street.
Through the mist of Lantau
The famed Tian Tan Buddha was still nowhere in sight as the cable car reached the mid-point of its journey from Tung Chung. A blanket of mist had overtaken the island, settling on the green valley below, enveloping the distant Lantau Peak and offering a hazy view of the planes parked in the Chek Lap Kok international airport which could be now seen from the cable car. After reaching Ngong Ping, I had to climb up 268 steps to reach the statue. Only on the last stretch, the mist relented and the distinct outline of the intricately sculpted bronze statue seated on a lotus throne emerged. The Tian Tan was once the world’s tallest bronze outdoor seated Buddha.
Top Tip: the shops in Ngong Ping village complex are great for value for money souvenir shopping.
The Pearl of the Orient
Hong Kong was one of the few jewels left in the British crown in the 20th century, until it was handed over to China in 1997. Today, the city still lives up to that moniker as its skyline glitters and comes alive at 8 pm each evening. ‘A symphony of lights’ – a dazzling array of lasers – is the world’s largest permanent light and sound show listed in the Guinness World Records.
Given it has been a decade since the show was inaugurated, I was a bit surprised by the number of people that descended upon the Tsim Sha Shui promenade in Kowloon to enjoy the sights. Over thirteen long minutes, as the skyscrapers shot laser bursts across the sky, the waters of the Victoria Harbour that separate Kowloon from Hong Kong mainland, took on technicolour hues, the stillness only broken by the jets of water trailing the plying ferries.
The grace of Tai Chi
On a Sunday morning walk in Kowloon Park, I came across a small group practicing Tai Chi. Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art form known to build the skill of self-defence. The motions of the limbs were so fluid; it seemed as if the body was moving in one continuous flow. Tai Chi seemed a slow simple melody, in no particular hurry or need to reach a crescendo.
How to get there: Cathay Pacific and Jet Airways offer direct connections from India.
Top Tip: pick up an Octopus card at the airport, a value smart card widely used in public transport, convenience stores, supermarkets et al.
For more inspiration, grab a copy of our Hong Kong travel guide.