The advice in this article is distilled from many visits to Hong Kong, one of the most exciting cities in the world. I first came here when Britain was in charge, watched the handover to China in 1997, and still return whenever I get the chance
“Do take a conducted tour by car or coach,” says the Hong Kong Association of Travel Agents. “There’s too much to see to attempt sightseeing by public transport.”
I have never heard such nonsense in my life. You can’t blame operators of such tours for trying to peddle their services, but to take their advice would be to miss the best – not to say the cheapest – way of exploring Hong Kong. You would fail to see one of the most awesome cityscapes in the world from the Star Ferry, where even the daily commuters find it hard to bury their noses in a newspaper. You would miss the Peak Tram, which is not just for tourists: people from Mid-Levels use it to get to work. And you would not get to take the No 6 bus to Stanley, the closest public transport ever comes to a roller-coaster ride.
Sadly, the initial thrill of landing at Kai Tak airport is now off the menu. Nobody ever forgot their first descent into Hong Kong, the jumbo sinking lower and lower into the tower blocks of Kowloon until it appeared that a wingtip was going to catch on the laundry fluttering from every balcony. Just when you were cringing in anticipation of disaster, the plane would bank sharply as the pilot lined up the runway, which projects into the harbour. Suddenly, you could see nothing but water; only the bump of the wheels would confirm that there was anything solid beneath.
Now they hold rock concerts on Kai Tak’s runway, and instead you arrive undramatically at the ultra-modern but soulless Chek Lap Kok airport, built on reclaimed land to the north of Lantau Island. A high-speed train with interactive screens in every seat-back whisks you to Kowloon and central Hong Kong for HK$45 (£4.20) in just over 20 minutes. But if you take it both ways you miss one of Hong Kong’s latest wonders, the Tsing Ma suspension bridge, built to link Lantau to the mainland. Take a bus or taxi at least one way to experience the feeling of being on a tightrope hundreds of feet above the ground.
On my latest visit I was lucky enough to have a living panorama available at the press of a button. The curtains of my hotel suite would sweep aside to reveal Hong Kong harbour, a scene that can keep you engrossed for hours, day or night. Against the backdrop of Hong Kong island’s futuristic skyscrapers and jagged green slopes, which itself changes constantly as the light shifts and fades, cruise liners, patrol boats, sampans, tugs and rusty scows swim past in a never-ceasing parade. Like terriers scurrying across a motorway, the Star ferries dodge through the traffic, linking Central to Tsim Sha Tsui, Tsim Sha Tsui to Wanchai, Wanchai to Hung Hom.
For all the shortness of the passage, the briskness with which the Chinese crewmen, in traditional sailor suits, tie up and cast off the heaving vessels and shunt hundreds of thousands of travellers through a day, there is still an air of romance about the ferries. At night on the lower deck – a bargain HK1.70 (17p) compared with the HK$2.20 the toffs and tourists pay for the upper deck – you can feel positively Conradian amid the reek of fumes, the dim lighting and the thrash of water.
Take one of the ferries to the outlying islands, and it is a rare chance to see vast ocean-going vessels at close quarters, lining up to discharge their freight. As the hydrofoils to Macau rocket past in clouds of spray, and you wonder how your pilot is going to avoid a collision with all the craft on intersecting courses, you need no reminding that Hong Kong is one of the world’s busiest ports.
Yet it is surprisingly easy to find quiet spots away from all the frenzy. I went to Sok Kwu Wan on Lamma island, essentially a village of seafood restaurants, and struck off into the interior (on a concrete path with regular “comfort stops” for dogs – most Hong Kongers like their nature pretty tame) until I reached Lo So Shing beach. At certain times of year it is quite possible to have the place to yourself, apart from squadrons of dragonflies and butterflies.
It is the same on the Peak Tram (HK$ 30 return), closer to a funicular than its name suggests, which climbs so steeply from the central district that it appears to be scaling the tower blocks beside the track, then deposits you in a tacky “shopping experience” at the top. Walk a few yards out of the upper terminal in any direction, however, and your views of the city are framed by greenery.
In an hour or so you can make the circuit of Victoria Peak, looking past the penthouses of the tallest buildings to the throbbing Kowloon peninsula in one direction, and over the island-spattered South China Sea in the other. Come here straight after you reach Hong Kong; I find it an infallible cure for jet-lag.
Sufferers from vertigo or seasickness might not relish these journeys, especially since land reclamation keeps making the harbour narrower and rougher. But they all pale beside the HK$7.90 bus ride to Stanley Market, the bargain-hunters’ playground on the filthy-rich south side of Hong Kong island. Sit upstairs at the front of the No 6 bus – not the 6A or 6X, which go through the prosaic Aberdeen Tunnel – and you will never forget the experience.
The No 6 climbs up and up, past the pencil-thin apartment buildings of Happy Valley – two flats per floor, to a height of 30 or more storeys – till you can see the entire circumference of the famed racecourse below. At the top it plunges with breath-taking abruptness down to the southern coast. Pressed back into your seat one moment, gripping the bar in front for dear life the next, you shoot down twisting, narrow roads though tunnels of subtropical vegetation, barely missing oncoming traffic and trying to glimpse the millionaires’ palaces whipping past, with their security cameras and gold Rolls-Royces.
You reach sea level at the plutocratic ghetto of Repulse Bay, where one of the main apartment blocks has a giant hole in the middle for feng shui reasons, then mount the Chung Hom Kok headland for the final descent into Stanley. The stallholders in the market there must owe much of their income to customers who overspend out of sheer relief at being alive.
There are gentler ways of seeing Hong Kong, however. How about the world’s longest escalator? Actually a series of moving pavements, walkways and escalators, it carries commuters down from Mid-Levels to Central until 10.20am, then reverses upwards until midnight.
It is a bit like a trail through people’s back gardens, only a couple of storeys in the air. While the creation of the escalator has spawned a clutch of trendy cafes and art galleries, you also glide over street markets and schools, looking into damp-stained tenements, restaurant kitchens, second-floor hairdressing salons and establishments such as Big Boss Thai Food and Lounge. Disembark at Hollywood Road to see Ming vases and huge stone lions in the windows of the expensive antiques showrooms, and a couple of tattier shops which sell Maoist kitsch, (allegedly) old Buddhist temple carvings and vintage postcards, including some of 1920s Wanchai prostitutes displaying their charms.
And even the queasiest traveller can take one of the city’s trams, which have lumbered along the north shore for nearly a century. I paid the HK$20 flat fare to go to the terminus at Kennedy Town, not for its picturesque qualities, but to see a more typical and less cosmopolitan side of Hong Kong.
Here everyone is Chinese and lives in cramped high-rise flats, while the shops sell marine engine parts and dried fish rather than high fashion. But although Hong Kong may have gone back to China, traces of British administration linger even here: in no other Chinese city would you pass a troop of Girl Guides.
Wandering down to the quayside, I saw a man in a pristine white tracksuit hook a fish among the grimy coasters lined up a few yards offshore. A friend bustled up with a net; people rushed across the road from a repair shop to inspect his catch. Just as he reeled it in, however, the mobile phone clipped to his waistband rang, and in his struggle to answer the call he lost the fish.
Only in Hong Kong, I thought, but a backward glance showed him talking animatedly to the onlookers and holding his hands a couple of feet apart, in a gesture that was universal.