(#18 in the Annie series)
So on this trip, in two-and-a-half weeks, we have experienced more forms of transportation than I have ridden on during any other fortnight in my life. By its end we will have traveled by:
- (big ol’) jet airliner (nearly 14,000 air miles round trip)
- trains (from the 200 mph super-fast to the not-so-fast)
- subway (the world-class MTR in Hong Kong, aboveground and under Victoria Harbour)
- taxis (cars and vans)
- historic ferry (the Star in HK)
- double-decker bus (up Victoria Peak)
- historic tram (down Victoria Peak in a funicular tram)
So, consequently, has Annie, who had, as far as we know, never ridden in anything motorized other than a car or van. We think she is a pretty good sport to be enduring all these modes of travel. And, it turns out, she loves them. This kid likes being on the move.
On our second-to-the-last (penultimate) day in Hong Kong, we played tourist, Nikki, Annie and I, taking four methods of transport in a single afternoon. Annie and Nikki swam in Liberté’s pools in the morning (thanks, John for getting us in!), then we had lunch and Annie had a brief nap, and then Nikki wanted to show me some of Hong Kong’s best stuff.
Anne and John had to work, unfortunately for us, so we three set out on foot (and in chair) to the MTR station near the Macphersons’.
Apparently, some of that best stuff is seen from on high, accessed by one of the oldest ferry systems and tramways in the world. I didn’t realize before coming to this part of the world that Hong Kong is made up of islands and part of mainland China. Hong Kong Island was the original British holding beginning in 1841, after the Brits invaded China in 1839 in what is called the First Opium War and took over HKI. The new colony flourished as an East-West trading center.
In 1898 Britain was granted a 99-year lease over Hong Kong, including territory on mainland China. All that, including HKI, was returned to China in 1997. Since then Hong Kong has existed as “one country, two systems, preserving HK’s role as a principal capitalist center in Asia,” according to history.com.
So when you stand on the Kowloon side looking across Victoria Harbour to HKI, it’s hard in the 21st century to imagine people crossing that harbour (we’ll spell it the British way because that’s how it’s done in HK) in sampans. But they did for centuries. In 1871 a British-built steamship, the Morning Star, began ferrying folks across the harbor, and the Star Ferry line was born.
Every since there has been a series of Star ferries with names like Evening, Rising, Guiding, Morning, Northern, Southern, Golden, Shining and, after one of Annie’s favorite songs, Twinkling—all bearing the word “Star” after their first names. It’s the quaint way to get to Hong Kong Island, which can be accessed by the MTR subway, too, traveling in a tube underwater.
The company’s name has a literary origin, according to (yep) Wikipedia. An Indian man named Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala (is that a great name or what?) founded the Kowloon Ferry Company in 1888 and renamed it the Star Ferry ten years later because he loved Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Crossing the Bar.” The first line reads, “Sunset and evening star, and one clear call for me!” From that nearly 120 years of ferry names was born.
We took the MTR to Tsim Sha Tsui (known in HK as TST) where the ferry docks on the Kowloon side. Nikki got Annie a mango icy treat before we took the ride, and we stood on the dock looking at the stunningly clear day before us—Hong Kong Island rising not far away at all.
“See that dip in the mountain up there?” Nikki asked me as we took turns spooning orangey slush into Annie, who quite liked it.
“That’s Victoria Peak,” she said. “That’s where we’ll ride the tram.”
It’s not the tallest peak on HKI—that was obvious—but the tram is also a historic mode of transport in Hong Kong and a “must do” on the tourist list.
“On a day like today we should have great views from up there,” Nikki predicted.
But first we got to have sparkling views from the water aboard a classically painted green and white ferry. I love ferries of all shapes and sizes—from the small ones that cross sloughs in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the huge Black Ball Ferry that moves people and cars from Victoria, B.C., to Port Angeles, Washington. The Washington ferry system and the B.C. one, too, are amazing, so I am always up for a ferry ride—especially on a beautifully clear (though still hot and humid) sunny day on such a historic craft.
We boarded by walking/wheeling down an old-fashioned wooden gangplank with raised cross pieces of wood every few feet (bump, bump, bump went Annie’s chair), and we settled on wooden benches with backs that folded down on either side of the benches, so you could position the backs depending on which direction the boat was headed. Annie had a good view of the water and the world going by, and we set off.
I moved around the boat, taking photos, wondering how many millions of people had taken this short journey in the last 100-plus years, imagining the different clothes and hats people must have worn. And I looked back to see a new mother with her daughter, pointing out things that surely must have been new to that daughter—riding across an expanse of water, which, I imagined, was new for her. I had to smile to see them so peaceful and happy after such an ordeal to get here.
Even the method of ferry docking is historic. A staff member with a billhook (a long pole with a hook on it) reaches for the large hank of rope tossed by the deckhand, as the ferries have done since their inception.
No modern chains or cleats—old fashioned rope ties the wooden ferry to the dock on each side of the harbour.
When we got to HKI and disembarked (a word I love), we were hot and thirsty, so Nikki found a convenience store on the dock and bought us some water. I noticed a fish and chips place and decided that we could use a snack, so I ordered (lots of people speak English in HK) a bit of the classic English pub grub for us. We sat at outdoor tables looking at the water, watching the ferries come and go.
Then a brilliant move on Nikki’s part—rather than walking to the base of The Peak, she decided that we should take a double-decker bus UP the mountain and ride the tram DOWN the mountain. We didn’t have to wait long for the #15 bus, and the kind bus driver used some hydraulics magic to lower the bus so Nikki could easily get Annie’s chair aboard. Once on, the driver seatbelted Annie’s chair in place. She looked delighted.
“You should go sit up top,” Nikki said. “You’ll like the view.”
So, for the first time since I was in London many years ago, I rode on top of a double-decker bus, which, given the twists and turns up the peak was a bit of a whoopee ride. That driver clearly had the route embedded in his DNA, but it was new to us. I wondered how Annie was faring down below.
But oh, the views from up there as the bus circled up The Peak—HKI highrises rising as we did, passing a large cemetery that sprawled for miles over the hillside, seeing the tram itself on the way down. When we got to the top, the driver unstrapped Annie and with a little finagling to find the lift (aka “elevator), we went out to The Peak’s observation deck.
The view did not disappoint. There stretched Hong Kong—the island and Kowloon behind it in front of us under fluffy clouds. We could have gone up in another observation tower locals call The Anvil because of its shape, but we were content to see the city from the outdoor area.
“This is an incredible day,” Nikki said, adding that she’d been up there a number of times, some of them when the clouds hung over the city.
And I could see that it was. It is monsoon season in this part of the world, but we’ve had so little rain and mostly blue-sky or semi-cloudy days that, despite the heat and humidity, make tourists like me think it must look like this all the time. Again, thanks to the weather gods for giving us such a spate of pleasant conditions for this time of year.
When we’d soaked up as much view as we could stand, we made our way down (doing a little shopping on the way—every public structure has shops and more shops in HK, it seems) to The Peak tram station. The route is a little less than a mile and feels sharply angled up or down, depending on how you ride it, and climbs or descends about 1,300 feet.
The Peak Tram was the brainchild of Scotsman Alexander Findlay Smith (another fine name) and has been running on these tracks (and their newer descendants) since 1888, first as a coal-fired, steam-powered line and as of 1926 by electricity. It’s gone from carrying folks in wooden cars to lightweight metal cars in the mid-1950s to the modern trams built by a Swiss company and put into use in 1989. According to The Peak website, the tram carries 4 million passengers a year, an average of more than 11,000 a day.
What I love about both of these modes of transport—all three, actually, counting the MTR—is that we could use our Octopus card for all of them. It’s so powerful it can be read through a purse or pack at the entrance turnstile at each station, and boom—paid for, please get on board. So very easy and efficient, the Octopus.
Once again, Annie got special treatment at the tram. We stood in a line to ourselves, nicely apart from the dozens of people waiting to board. Three crew members lifted her chair onto the tram car and one strapped her chair in place. We sat right behind her, but Annie had a great window view and chortled as we went downdowndown the hill backward (they don’t turn the cars around) at a fairly steep angle.
At the bottom we waited till everyone got off the tram, and again, nice staff people got Annie and her chair out and then walked us through a mob of people to get out of the station. That’s when I realized how brilliant Nikki was not to try to get us on the tram from the bottom of the mountain—that’s what everyone does. We had a cool, uncrowded bus trip on the way up and an escort on the way out. “You are awesome!” I hollered at her as we made our way through the crowd. “The bus up and the tram down!” She laughed at me.
Then we had to find our way to the MTR, which proved to be more difficult. We walked and walked, looking for an entrance with a lift, but all we could find were stairs—lots of stairs. “I know there’s one entrance with a lift somewhere,” Nikki said. So we kept walking and walking until (whew!) a lift appeared to take us below ground where we boarded the subway for the trip underwater. We crossed the harbour in a tube through water this time, as opposed to the ferry. I would’ve loved another ferry ride, but this was more efficient to get us back to Anne and John’s at dinner time.
We arrived at Liberté about an hour after we got off the tram, pooped and hot, to find that John had made us dinner—a good tomato/meat sauce with pasta that really hit the spot. It was so good to spend time with Anne and John, talking about our day, soaking up the kindness of these old friends of Nikki’s. It made all the difference in the end of our trip, being in their home. We will always be grateful for that.
After dinner, Anne offered to take me to the Temple Street Night Market, which, Nikki had told me, was a not-to-be-missed HK experience. Anne had worked all day, and this would involve another hot walk and some time on the MTR, but she very kindly said, “Oh, you’ll like this,” so off we went.
I wasn’t sure what to expect in a night market—stalls with fruits and vegetables like the outdoor market we’d walked through in Changsha? It turns out that it is situated in the Jordan area of Kowloon and has more than a hundred stalls selling everything from trinkets and food to watches and clothing, T-shirts, lighters, jewelry, magnets, handbags, tea and teaware, flash drives and all kinds of electronics.
If you inquire about a price, the haggling begins. The seller would say, “35,” and Anne would shake her head and offer 20. “No! No!” the seller would shout in English. “30!” And on it would go. We walked away from most of the sellers, though I did buy a few ornaments and Anne bought a flash drive that didn’t turn out to work very well. But the sounds and smells, the people jammed in there were certainly a sight to see. It feels like a street bazaar in a movie, and indeed, the Temple Street Night Market has been used as a backdrop in films.
It gave me a taste of HK that made me want to explore more, and for the first time I thought about what it might be like to return one day.
As we got ready to leave the market, Anne said, “We have two choices here: We can walk by the karaoke or go through the porn.”
I laughed. “Really?”
She nodded, a big grin crossing her face.
“The karaoke, I think,” I said.
Anne nodded. “Yeah, the porn’s not anything special now that you can get so much of it online,” she said.
That made me laugh as we walked through a section of side-by-side karaoke places with a wall of sound that made it impossible to really hear anything—each place with a person belting into a microphone American pop songs. This amused me, to hear Cantonese versions of “American Pie” and “Margaritaville” powered out by small-framed Asian women.
The karaoke vendors occupied one side of the street; on the other were the fortune tellers with their small tent-like covering set up to do business. If I’d have understood them, I would’ve been tempted just for the amusement to see what a Hong Kong fortune teller might have to reveal.
Instead, Anne and I headed home on the MTR after a long day for each of us, ready for sleep. Because—speaking of peak experiences—the next day, our last full day, Nikki was treating us all to high tea at the Ritz Carlton at the top of the tallest building in Hong Kong.