Hong Kong :From the Central Midlevels to the Peak

21/3/2014

Hello Misadventurists. Part II of the Hong Kong highlights. 

HONG KONG – FROM THE CENTRAL MIDLEVELS TO THE PEAK

It’s basically one giant, mile long outdoor escalator.

That’s what we discover when we set foot on the Central Mid-Levels,  which carries vertical commuters straight up (and down) one of the steepest hills in Central Hong Kong. The altitude gain is nearly 500 feet, starting on Queens Road Central and ending on Conduit Drive just below the Peak Road, and it takes around 20 minutes to ride.

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The Central Mid-Levels from Elgin Road. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All along the route are some of the best coffee shops and restaurants Hong Kong has on offer, as it passes directly through the touristy hillside SoHo District, cut through with narrow alleys and punctuated by green, peaceful public atriums.

In SoHo, one can find a Mexican cantina serving up fresh tacos right next to a Lithuanian or Turkish joint and a five story, unbelievably blinged-out Abercrombie and Fitch store with massive crystal chandeliers next to a street market full of eel. Hong Kong beats even Manhattan for gaudy excess – and that’s saying something.

Of course with our limited funds we can’t possibly avail ourselves of all the dining options, so we settle for the cheapest – which happens to be a Subway (!). The joys of budget travel.

After our fine dining experience, we exit the Subway and climb back on the escalator, which carries us the rest of the way up to Conduit Drive, one of the coolest streets either of us have ever seen.

Hornsey Drive, from the top of the Central Mid-Levels. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Hornsey Drive, from the top of the Central Mid-Levels. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

 

Tree growing out of the sidewall, Conduit Drive
Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

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To the Peak. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

 

From here, we climb. And climb, and climb some more. The Central Midlevels have only brought us about halfway up to the summit of Victoria peak. We’ll have to hike about 2.5 kilometers more up the Old Peak Road, an unbelievably steep, windy lane that is unrelenting on our legs.

It is so steep, in fact, that we resort to alternating between hiking backward and forward up the hill just to save our muscles and tendons But the views of Central Hong Kong and the waterfront along the way can’t be beat.

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Stax on the Old Peak Road. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Almost to the Peak. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Almost to the Peak. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

Finally we are atop Victoria Peak. The views are tremendous – and so are the crowds, and the giant shopping mall (complete with huge McCafe!)

Happy Color Pants at the Peak Mall. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto
Happy Color Pants at the Peak Mall. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

There’s also a  bus station, and a three story silver and steel tram depot that welcomes the lazy-bones who have decided to ride the Peak tram up rather than walk.

But this is Hong Kong and you cannot avoid these spectacles. We decide to focus on the incredible view of the city on the south side

Mid and Central Hong Kong from The Peak. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Mid and Central Hong Kong from The Peak. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

and the unspoiled jungle-covered peaks down to the ocean on the north side.

Other peaks of Hong Kong Island. From Victoria Peak. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Other peaks of Hong Kong Island. From Victoria Peak. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

 

Then – should we admit this? – we eat ice cream sundaes at (where else?) McCafe. Not out of some fidelity to the corporate behemoth, of course, but because it’s by far the most affordable option for ice cream (and it’s not half bad, either). Plus, the outdoor seating area overlooking the peaks and valleys of the island makes this perhaps the most scenic McDonald’s in existence (I don’t count Times Square!).

Finally it’s about dark and time to head back down. Rather than walk, we board a minibus that rockets down the zigzagging road pell-mell, barely missing oncoming traffic and pedestrians.

After exiting the minibus and checking all our vital organs for damage, we end our day by taking the stairway up to the vast Hong Kong Botanical Park – which is kind of like Hong Kong’s version of Central Park – and sit on a bench in front of a fountain ogling a stunning 180 degree view of the high rise residential towers of the Midlevels above us.

It’s too bad we don’t have more time – and more importantly, money – to spend in Hong Kong. It is a beguiling city packed with great food, transportation and tons of energy. Surprisingly,  given it’s repuation as a paradise of no-holds-barred capitalist materialism, it also seems like a great place for families, with some of the nicest parks and picnic areas we’ve seen in a city.

Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto
Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto
HK  residents are very into selfies. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto
HK residents are very into selfies. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto
...And photography in general. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto
…And photography in general. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

Pretty sure we’ll be back.

Hong Kong – Saved By Ronald McDonald

March 20-21, 2014

Fellow Misadventurists,

As we busy ourselves editing the hours and hours of footage we captured during our first project in Phnom Penh, we will be posting a series of updates from the first several weeks of our trip throughout Southeast Asia.

The two weeks after our arrival in Lantau involved one flight, three long bus rides, tons of hiking, and a whirlwind of Asian hotspots – Hong Kong, of course, then Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), then Da Lat, Vietnam, then back to Saigon again…

But finally it was time to tear ourselves away from Vietnam, take the sleeper bus overland across the Cambodian border to Phnom Penh, and begin the first leg of our project.

First, though, here is the next highlights of the first two weeks:

1. HONG KONG: SAVED BY RONALD MCDONALD 

SAVED BY RONALD MCDONALD

McDonalds: The Misadventurists are "lovin' it". Image courtesy mail.mcdonalds.com.hk
The Misadventurists are “lovin’ it”. Image courtesy mail.mcdonalds.com.hk

The slow ferry from Lantau to Hong Kong Island isn’t so slow; in little over a half hour our boat has picked its way through a dense bank of fog and chugged into Victoria Harbour.

Banks of slender skyscrapers materialize suddenly 500 feet high on either side of us, clinging to a crescent of massive green jungle-clad hills whose peaks are lost in the early afternoon mist.

Pulling into Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong. Photo (c) Stacy Libokmeto
Pulling into Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong. Photo (c) Stacy Libokmeto

Before we know it we’re stepping off the boat on a pier three stories high. We lug our bags through some glass skybridges and exit an elevator at street level, plunging into the manic energy of the waterfront.

Just a fraction of Central Hong Kong. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Just a fraction of Central Hong Kong. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

Hong Kong starts at the water level and never looks down from there. The nerve center of the city is Central which surrounds the waterfront and then abruptly ascends the hills, followed by the mainly residential skyscrapers of Midlevels hafway up, with Victoria Peak (“The Peak”, to locals) looming over it all at the top.

The hills are numerous and are among the steepest I’ve ever seen a city situated upon, scattered with clusters of steel and glass skyscrapers and crisscrossed with switchbacking freeways that twist bizarrely upward like masses of vines up a tree.

Stax wandering through Central. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Stax wandering through Central. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
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The highways are insane here. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

As modern as Central Hong Kong feels in places, there is a strong architectural nod to the city’s prior heydays as well, especially the 1960s and 1970s, when the city was blowing up globally as a center of finance, industry and entertainment. We run across this mostly Filipino Catholic Church that looks like something straight out of a classic James Bond flick.

A Filipino Catholic church strongly reminiscent of the 1960s, Pan-Am era of Hong Kong. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto
A Filipino Catholic church strongly reminiscent of the 1960s, Pan-Am era of Hong Kong. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

 

Unfortunately there’s no time to explore right now. We have to get on the metro train and meet our AirBnB hosts by 3 pm in the Kowloon district across the harbour, and it doesn’t look like we’ll make it in time.

Worse, we can’t find any wi-fi network that will allow us to log on without a paid subscription – there’s a monopoly by one company, it seems, and this also extends to wifi calls and texting, which won’t work on our T-Mobile phones without a Chinese SIM card – all which leaves us with no way to warn them we’ll be late to the rendezvous point.

The superfast metro trains get us there in no time, but still we exit the Prince Edward station in Kowloon over half an hour late and circle the block several times, trying to spot a person or couple who looks like they’re waiting for someone.

After 45 minutes of fruitless wandering, we resort to simply approaching the address our hosts listed, lurking as as unobtrusively at the entrance as it is possible for two foreigners with giant bags festooning their bodies, and occasionally accosting random old ladies who are going into the building to ask if they know the couple. No luck. Nobody seems to know who they are.

Another half an hour inches by this way, and I am about to just give up and find a guesthouse, thereby giving up the deposit and three days paid in advance on the apartment.

Then Stax has a revelation. She remembers we had passed a McCafe, Hong Kong’s substitute for full McDonalds restaurants, on the street across from the station.

The bags, which have begun to feel like just another part of my body, fly behind us as we run to the McCafe and run down the stairs of the underground restaurant.

A surprisingly delicious McCappuccino (hint hint Mickey-D's throw a little grant money our way? JK) Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
A surprisingly delicious McCappuccino (hint hint Mickey-D’s throw a little grant money our way? JK) Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

And then there it is. Faint, feeble, so slow it’s practically non-existent, but undeniably there – a wi-fi signal! I stand by the bathroom door, the only way to avoid getting in the way of the afternoon crowds who fill every available table, and quickly fire out a text to Eve, who is the host we had been scheduled to meet.

She must have been in the area, because less then three minutes later, as I’m heading to the stairs to wait outside, I run into a tiny girl who looks at me curiously. “Are you Ben??” she inquires.

“Eve?” I respond, and just like that our AirBnB reservation is saved. And to abandon it would have been a shame. The apartment is a block from the station in a quiet building, it’s close to great food and markets, it’s a sixth floor walkup with tremendous views of the street and buildings of Kowloon, and it’s dirt cheap.

God Bless You, McCafe.

Watch for the next exciting Misadventure soon: “The Central Midlevels”!