Hong Kong

5 Days in Hong Kong

I’ve always wanted to travel east, but as I don’t know anyone else who shares the same enthusiasm (and I’ve never been brave enough to go alone) I ended up going to the USA 12 times in the past decade or so! No complaints as we love the US and particularly New York, but an opportunity came up to go away for a few days alone, so rather than dwell on it I just booked flights and a hotel in Hong Kong with British Airways and decided to worry about actually doing it later.

Why Hong Kong? I’m anxious in new places at the best of times, so I figured somewhere with widespread English and that appeared to be easy to get around would be a good start. It was also, handily, pretty cheap compared to the other options I had looked at (Tokyo, Kyoto, Singapore), less than £700 for Saturday to Saturday with a pretty decent hotel (the City View). November/December is apparently a good time to go, with mild sunny conditions and no typhoons to worry about, so I booked for the end of November.

That good weather I mentioned? Nope! I arrived to some fairly biblical rain, oh and I forgot to bring a coat. After dropping my bags off at the hotel I headed out onto Nathan Road to find a coat (and tea bags!), probably the most surreal evening of my life as I wandered around trying to take everything in. After a few hours out, and soaked to the bone, I headed back to the hotel to reconsider my carefully planned week, the weather was not due to improve for several days and as it was to be cooler than expected I decided to research some walks…

Tung Chung to Tai O

I’d always planned to go to Tai O via the Ngong Ping 360 on my first day, but as the weather was kinda awful the cable car didn’t seem a wise idea. I happened to google ‘things to do on a rainy day in Hong Kong’ and a 15km trail walk to Tai O popped up. So, rather than take the easy option of the bus from Tung Chung to Tai O (around £1.80!) I thought I’d walk it instead. The walk took me 3 hours and was basically fool-proof once I’d followed the simple directions to the start of the trail from Tung Chung MTR station, as you could basically only go one way for 99% of it.

After walking through a lovely little village early on you head up into lush vegetation and it pretty much stays that way for the next 9 miles. The path vaguely hugs the coastline, with the Ngong Ping 360 high up to the left and Hong Kong International Airport just across the water to the right. The Ngong Ping 360 quickly heads off in another direction but you continue tracking the runway all the way to its end. The path is paved and in excellent condition for a good 7 miles or so, there is even the occasional well maintained public toilet seemingly in the middle of nowhere, quite the culture shock when even finding one in a major town is a challenge in the UK. I passed through a few small settlements, many which seem at least partially abandoned, but at least early on a Monday morning, few signs of life. The paved track eventually becomes an actual off-road trail and descends down to the coastline again as Tai O begins to appear in the distance.

So far, so good, but then the path abruptly ends with a large sign warning you to continue at your own risk due to the dangerous condition of the path (or something along those lines). The only alternative is a steep off-road trail heading inland. I tentatively continue pass the sign towards Tai O and discover a perfectly usable off-road trail all the way to the outskirts of Tai O, it’s a bit overgrown and narrow in places (so a fairly standard footpath in the UK) but never dangerous and still easy to follow, I guess they have much higher standards in Hong Kong!

Whilst it’s maybe not the most picturesque trail you’ll find in Hong Kong it was a fantastic introduction to getting out of the city for me and set the tone for the rest of my trip. After the first village (which is only a short walk from the extremely busy Tung Chung MTR station and bus terminal) all the way to arriving in Tai O I didn’t see a single person, which for my first morning in Hong Kong was a very strange experience.

As for Tai O itself, as I headed into the village I had an instant ‘should I really be here?’ feeling, not because I felt unwelcome but because it was so quiet and walking in from the trail you head down many narrow alleyways which are made up of the front and back of residential properties. It literally feels like you are walking through people’s homes. I reached the centre of the village itself which was just beginning to wake up and enjoyed many hours just taking it all in, it’s a fascinating place unlike anywhere I’ve ever visited. I did the standard tourist boat trip (which was fun, and cheap, it was so quiet there were only two of us on the boat) and then caught the bus back to Tung Chung in the early afternoon.

Victoria Peak

The iconic image from Victoria Peak was pretty much the reason I chose Hong Kong, so I couldn’t not visit despite the inevitable crowds. On the Monday the tram was closed, so I figured this might mean the peak was a bit quieter than usual (I’d seen the tram queues on previous days, they were intimidating!) I hopped on a bus from central an hour or so before sunset and enjoyed an amazing (if rather packed) trip up to the peak. The immediate area around the observation tower was rammed, but a minute in either direction the crowds tailed off significantly. I walked around 15 minutes down Lugard Road as I’d read that’s where I’d find the best views, it didn’t disappoint in that regard and was lovely and quiet. After a stop off in the Galleria to enjoy a toasted cheese sandwich at KALA Toast (which I can’t recommend enough) I thought it would be fun to walk back to Central via Old Peak Road. As unforgettable experiences go, walking down Old Peak Road in the dark on my own was up there. It’s comically steep to the point where I couldn’t help but run at times, it was also oddly serene, clearly nobody else thought it was a good idea. It was just 15 minutes before I was back in the heart of Central, so I felt my decision was justified given the bus queues were apparently 30-40 minutes to get back down.

Trip 2 was planned for a clear morning, I headed to the tram station at 8am to find nobody else there. The tram arrived and I hopped on with just the driver and two Madame Tussauds employees for company, which meant I had a prime seat at the front on the right hand side. I found myself pretty much alone at the peak aside from a few runners and dog walkers, I again headed down Lugard Road and enjoyed the most beautiful morning light before heading back down to Central on yet another almost empty tram. 

Whilst the tram is clearly a ‘must do’, if you are planning to head up twice I’d highly recommend the bus. The views are better and it’s far more entertaining. Hop on at the Central Bus Terminal rather than an intermediate stop though if you want to make sure you reach the peak in good time.

Dragon’s Back

The Dragon’s Back trail was the only trail I’d really planned as a definite day outside of the city as it’s the main walk all the guide books suggest doing. I headed out early on the MTR to Shau Kei Wan Station and hopped on the number 9 bus which has a stop directly at the trail start. Apparently it’s a busy trail, but as I was to discover, not at 8am on a Tuesday! It’s an easy trail to follow, if you’re doing the short loop you can go either way when you reach the fork early on as it’s literally just one big circuit. As I had planned to do the long route I headed what would be anti-clockwise (a right turn at the fork which basically goes up and up!) along to Shek O peak. It’s quite an exposed route with lovely views but the trail itself isn’t too challenging, with lots of places to stop and take a breather along the way. As I descended back down there is a t-junction, left to head back to the start or right to continue on towards Big Wave Bay. I headed right and for a mile or so this was by far my favourite section of the whole trail, meandering through thick vegetation with frequent waterfalls and occasional views out over the water. Unfortunately that trail ends and turns in to what seems to be a service road before what feels like a never ending descent to Big Wave Bay.

I actually found both of the other trails I did on this trip far more interesting than this one and at least as accessible. Big Wave Bay itself was a major anti-climax (although to be fair I think the typhoon damage has knocked the life out of the place a bit), so after a brief break in a café I walked on to Shek O (not recommended, it’s just a long road with no pavement!) which had a much nicer beach and an interesting little village. After a brief look around the bus from Shek O took me straight back to MTR.

Lamma Island (Sok Kwu Wan Loop)

With the weather still damp and overcast I decided on a third day of walking, having already covered over 30 miles during the previous two days. A bit of research over breakfast dug up an interesting loop on the southern part of Lamma Island. A quick MTR trip down to Central and I was on the (infrequent) ferry to Sok Kwu Wan rather than the more popular starting point for Lamma Island walks of Yung Shue Wan. 40 minutes later the ferry dropped everyone, including what appeared to be a funeral procession, off at Sok Kwu Wan, an interesting little fishing village which as far as I can tell consisted of a row of seafood restaurants and nothing else. After walking through the village there is an obvious trail to the right that everyone who got off the ferry (including the funeral procession) headed for, but I was looking for a small, fairly well hidden set of steps to the left. The steps lead steeply up through what seemed to be an ad-hoc cemetery set amongst thick vegetation before opening out to a 3 way junction. Left and straight on were the beginning and end of the loop I was about to set off on, right led up to a nice viewpoint overlooking the ocean.

After a quick trip up to the viewpoint I headed left on the trail, which is basically a relentless climb towards what appeared to be a broadcasting tower in the distance, as with the other trails I had completed it was mostly paved and in excellent condition. At this point I hadn’t seen anyone since Sok Kwu Wan and when I reached the peak it was clear that nobody else was on the trail, as I could see all the ground I had already covered and the next mile or so of what was to come. After passing through a narrow passageway between the broadcast tower buildings it was steps pretty much all the way down to sea level, descending into lots of lush vegetation.

At this point the T-Junction caused me some confusion, as I discovered later that was mainly because both directions will eventually lead back to Sok Kwu Wan, so the signposts pointing left were also showing me my final destination. My notes said right, so I went right away from Mo Tat Wan and happened across another well maintained public loo in the middle of nowhere. The path eventually leads into Yung Shue Ha , which as far as I could tell was a completely abandoned beach village and fascinating to explore. The typhoon damage then did its best to throw me off track (literally) as the path around the beach was all but destroyed, but it eventually became obvious where I could head back inland (and through yet more abandoned settlements) for the steep climb up back to the fork in the path to complete the loop. 

Fortunately my walk finished half an hour before the next ferry, so I had a wander around the village before jumping back on the ferry, 40 minutes later I was back in the thick of it in Central.

Fish, Bird and Flower Markets

This trio of famous markets were just a 10 minute walk from my hotel, all 3 were unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The goldfish market is a cluster of small shops spread around a cross-road that are literally packed floor to ceiling with goldfish and various other creatures suitable for aquariums. The shops themselves are just full of large tanks, but the fish are all out on display in their thousands, tightly packed in clear bags. There are then shops just selling pumps, or aquarium ornaments, or fish food. Just beyond the goldfish shops were a cluster of general pet and pet supply stores, as somebody from the UK it was pretty uncomfortable seeing cats and dogs for sale in shop windows, although I appreciate that’s just a cultural difference.

Next up, and on the way to the Bird Market, was the Flower Market. Much like the Goldfish Market this was essentially shop after shop after shop selling flowers, however it expanded across several streets (and onto the pavements) and must have been 100s of stores in total. After the bustle of the Flower Market (which was so, so busy) it was nice to escape into the relative tranquillity of the Bird Market. Like the other two areas this was essentially a cluster of shops selling birds, cages, feed and so on, but it was in a garden setting and was far more relaxed, it seemed to be more of a community than a marketplace. 

Man Mo Temple, Shi Lin Monastery and Nan Lian Garden

Man Mo Temple was a ‘must see’ in most guide books, and as the journey involved the Mid-Levels Escalators it seemed like a good opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. It was a hot day so I assumed the escalator would be a bit of welcome relief rather than trekking up a hill. Something the books didn’t tell me: the escalator switches direction every twenty minutes (or at least it did whilst I was there). Typically as I heading up the escalator was coming down, and when I was heading down the escalator was going up. Man Mo Temple itself was interesting and a nice quiet relief from the city, but it may have had more of an impact had I not already spent days in lovely quiet areas. It’s also really small, so it was only a 10 minute visit.

Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden were everything I’d hoped Man Mo Temple would be. It’s directly outside of Diamond Hill MTR station in a really built up area, but the moment you step in to the garden it feels like a different world and was a real highlight of my trip. The garden itself is stunning and easily worth spending an hour or so wandering around. No photography is allowed in the nunnery itself but you’ll have to take my word that it’s absolutely stunning.

Ngong Ping 360 & Tian Tan Buddha

My first planned day became my last, as the weather had finally improved. I booked a crystal cabin (which is a glass bottom cable car, a first for me) return via Klook and headed out to Tung Chung, arriving just before 9.30. I headed straight over to the Ngong Ping 360 where a queue was already forming (thankfully the Klook line was much shorter than the general entry line). After heading through the ticket check everyone merges together, but thankfully again the Crystal Cabin queue was much shorter than the general queue. By 10am I was heading towards Ngong Ping, looking down through glass at the trail I had followed on day one and enjoying the ride. The Buddha comes into view later on in the journey and it’s a pretty spectacular moment seeing the vast structure appear in the distance. 

Ngong Ping itself was probably the most disappointing element of my entire trip. Imagine a fake town in a theme park with the buildings full of gift shops, Starbucks, Subway etc. The views from the top of the Buddha were pretty spectacular and Po Lin Monastery was worth a look around (although nowhere near as spectacular as Chi Lun Nunnery), but within an hour I was back at the cable car stop ready to head back.

The best bit about heading back so early? Nobody else doing so! I jumped on the first Crystal Cabin that appeared and journeyed back to Tung Chung in my own private cabin, something that would cost an eye watering if booked specifically. My decision to start the day early was further justified when I arrived back at Tung Chung to see massive queues waiting to board the cable cars. The round trip was less than 3 hours in total and although it felt like something I needed to tick off the list, I wouldn’t rush back to do it again.

Tsim Sha Tsui

For a city break I spent remarkably little time in the built up city areas, it was full-on even in ways extremely busy areas of Manhattan don’t come close to, so I found it was best in small doses. That said, I was based in Tsim Sha Tsui right off of Nathan Road, so it was hard to avoid at times! The waterfront is the obvious focal point and a really nice place to spend an evening. There are lots of big open pedestrian areas so it never felt too crowded, and it goes without saying that it’s great for photography.

So, a city break that turned into an amazing walking holiday. The weather forced my hand a bit but for the best I think, the city was incredibly overwhelming so I think 5 days of that would have been too much. As it happens Hong Kong is also one of the most accessible places in the world to hit a variety of trails via public transport.

In terms of practicalities, everything was so straightforward I didn’t really give it any thought after the first day. The MTR (subway) is insanely efficient and easy to follow, right down to lights on the maps showing where you are and where you can interchange to at each stop (simple yet so clever). It was also cheap enough that I never priced up each journey, I just put £60 or so on an Octopus card at the start of the trip and used that for all transport (including buses and ferries) and never gave it any thought. The people are also polite to a fault, and somehow despite the crowds and everyone being buried in their phone screens everything is just so efficient. Coming back into London after was a culture shock!

Would I go back and do more? Absolutely.

The full gallery of images can be found here: https://chrisharrisonphotography.pixieset.com/g/hongkong/