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How NOT to do Hong Kong

Not wanting to rush around Hong Kong, we chose two things to do: a trip on the Star Ferry and the Peak Tram.

Have I become blasé about the places we visit? Am I lazy?

We didn’t go to the famous Happy Valley races. We didn’t go to the Tian Tan Buddha. We didn’t have high tea. We didn’t shop ‘til we dropped. We didn’t touch the sides of the ‘20 Ultimate Things To Do’ in Hong Kong and we didn’t attempt to.

On our first afternoon we explored Kowloon Park, a concrete oasis filled with palm trees and walkways that lead the boys in frenetic excitement through its delights and spat us back out onto the crazy, crowded streets of Kowloon.

Human traffic

When I say crazy and crowded, think Oxford Street in the week before Christmas. Then halve the width of the pavement, add gaudy flashing lights, chuck grime in every crevice, mix the whiff of rotting trash with weird Asian cooking smells, throw in loud luxury sports cars and make 99% of the people not give two hoots about the flow of human traffic and their position within it. Oh, and don’t forget to look up because there’s more above you, stacked in high-rise flats.

We found ourselves at the harbour at dusk. The iconic view of Hong Kong at night was shining at us from across the water. I’d seen it in magazines before, but there I was. Seeing it for myself.

How NOT to do Hong Kong - by Ruth McAllister Kemp
On the streets of Kowloon we’d often get whispered at by smart young men selling us knock-off watches, suits and handbags
How NOT to do Hong Kong - by Ruth McAllister Kemp
The view to Hong Kong island from Kowloon was impressive
How NOT to do Hong Kong - by Ruth McAllister Kemp
Hong Kong’s population is dense and intense
Tricky to appreciate where you are

When you’re travelling from country to country, big sights can get a bit so-so. But I had to buck up, this was Hong Kong! And there were my boys, hanging off the railings and gazing at the metropolis before them.

We hopped on the Star Ferry. Used as a water taxi by locals and a cheap cruiser by tourists, it was 85p for the four of us to go from Kowloon to Central. We tracked the crimson sails of a tourist junk and watched the Hong Kong towers get ever taller on the approach. I’d like to say we were overcome with awe but, in reality, Thomas and Robert had a punch up and I had to separate them. They were cast to either side of the boat and I spent the trip wondering what kind of family we were.

We reconciled just in time to fare dodge on the return trip. We slunk underneath the boatman’s watchful eye, even though the boys threatened to give us away with squeals of dismay at their parents’ outrageous behaviour.

Running into the tail end of the night before

When I got up for my early morning run the next day, the sky was the same milky grey as the night before, neon lights were still flashing, cars were still hooting, people were still on the streets below. I wondered if I’d slept through 24 hours, but the sun was just rising. The city had not slept. I wove my way around youngsters stumbling home and splatterings of sick, back through Kowloon Park, three times around the meditative box-hedge maze where a man in the middle was saying prayers into his mobile phone, out along the Ocean Pier past older people doing tai chi, along the promenade, up to the Gallery of Stars and a brass Bruce Lee then twice up Signal Hill for hill repeats where I thought the women arriving there might be prostitutes, and back to our tiny AirBnB in Kimberly Mansions.

Later, we headed out to the Hong Kong must-do, the Peak Tram.

Getting good at getting lost

We rely on Google Maps to get us around, but it doesn’t understand the density of Hong Kong where a simple walking route is disrupted by road barriers, subway crossings and multi-level walkways between malls. It was Sunday and the frustrating diversions lead us to witness the Filipino maids’ weekly gathering on their only day off. Hundreds of women hang out on every bench, step, bit of grass and clearing available. Some danced in the street around the HSBC building. In an underpass, they lined every inch of floor with cardboard so they could sit and eat together.

When the queue for the tram turned out to be 2.5 hours long, the trip up Victoria Peak became a will-not-do.

Instead, we ducked into Hong Kong Park, another highly-contrived green space that defuses the city, if only for a while. We ate Triple O’s takeout sitting by a babbling, man-made brook and it was divine.

Shunning expectations

With 58 Michelin-starred restaurants and great cheap eats, Hong Kong is a foodie’s dream. But we ate in that night. Fraser rustled up an exquisite pasta dish with tomato sauce, tinned tuna and olives, and I followed with a sophisticated fusion of peach yogurt and chocolate swiss roll, all deftly prepared with one electric hob and half a metre of kitchen surface.

You might think it’s all skyscrapers and shopping, but Hong Kong actually comprises three geographical regions: Hong Kong island, Kowloon and the New Territories and Outlying Islands. To escape the city, we took a ferry to the outlying island of Lamma, south of Hong Kong. With no roads or cars, it was the perfect antidote. We stayed at the beach all day and swam in the calm, warm sea.

How NOT to do Hong Kong - by Ruth McAllister Kemp
Beach day on Lamma Island. Perfectly clean and calm, even with a power station just around the corner

Our day out revived the kids into (nearly) normal functioning members of society so we took a second attempt at the Peak Tram. This time, we navigated the slick malls of Hong Kong like pros and waited just a short while to board the world’s steepest funicular tram. It parallels the incline of the hill to 1,805 metres above sea level and it’s a strain to keep your head upright. It’s also a struggle not to imagine the steel cords snapping and hurtling to our deaths below (yet another doom scenario that taunts me on this world-wide trip).

How NOT to do Hong Kong - by Ruth McAllister Kemp
An impressive view from the top of Victoria Peak, but I found myself hiding from all the people up there

On our last day, we explored Soho and had dim sum for lunch. (I never want to eat it again.) Fraser made me happy by taking us to the only thing I really wanted to do in Hong Kong… the Central to Mid-Levels escalator network. The longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world was built to ease the commute between the lower streets of Central and the higher streets of Mid-Level. The network is 2.6km long, runs downhill from 6-10am and uphill from 10am to midnight. 85,000 people use it daily and it’s rejuvenated the area, with many shops and restaurants opening on the second and third floors of buildings seen easily from the moving stairs. The escalators don’t feature on many must-do lists and that’s why I loved them!

Ignoring iconic stuff is kinda hard to do

Experience tells me some tourist destinations are overpriced, overrun and underwhelming. But missing them can cause guilt to kick in. Sometimes, tourist destinations are unmissable because they are good! Even so, it’s the pay-through-the-nose and exit-through-the-giftshop places that leave me cold. I’d much rather do everyday things among everyday people or get out to nature. What about you?

November 25, 2016


I am intrigued: whenever I go to London, I try to get to Chinatown to have dim sum (and Water Sky and Dynasty in Bristol don’t do too badly either): what was so awful about the ones you had?

Also yes I felt like a bad parent for not queuing for hours to take the children up the Eiffel Tower: but I did it once before and it was cold, wobbling in the wind and the view was pretty overrated. I may be weird but I don’t usually get the point of a city view…

Maybe I’m not eating it right? Perhaps I’ve got a malfunctioning palate? I had dim sum in San Francisco many years ago and didn’t like it then either. I don’t like the gloopy, cold chewiness or the strange flavouring.

I’m glad I’m not the only one to shy away from the big destination draws.

Love your honesty and humour in your blogs , no rose coloured glasses on .
I admire the way you take every detail in whilst you are either running or walking with the family , it feels almost like we are with you l can visualise it .
Take care on your next part of your journey .
Happy Christmas and a fabulous 2017

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