Kowloon and Victoria Peak

Yesterday I promised I’d be taking to the MTR. The MTR is Hong Kong’s underground railway system and a couple of people had strongly recommended that I give it a whirl.

Well I’m glad I took their advice, because the MTR is a fantastic way to get around both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon: quick, cheap, clean and very easy to use. For just HKD$55 (about £5.50) I bought a ‘Tourist Day Pass’ which allowed me to travel pretty much anywhere on the MTR network. It’s active for 24 hours, so it should still be OK for some trips tomorrow morning.

I bought my pass from my local MTR station only a couple of minutes away at Causeway Bay. They’re apparently available from all stations, though you sometimes have to travel inside the station and down an escalator or two before you find the desk. They don’t seem to be available from the automatic vending machines used to top up Oyster cards or buy standard one-way or return tickets.

I’ve used the London Undergound countless times for work and I can say, without doubt, that the MTR is better all round:

  • All the signs are in English as well as Chinese. Maps are dotted around all over the place, certainly as frequently as the London Underground (perhaps more).
  • All the announcements are in English as well as Chinese–and unlike the London Underground, it’s English you can actually hear and understand! Hearing one of these announcements saved me from wasting a lot of time today (see below with my planned trip to Lantau).
  • The few staff that I needed to speak to spoke pretty good English. Enough to ask some complex questions and receive an answer (and their English is obviously a lot better than my handful of Mandarin stock phrases).
  • The whole system is colour-coded, just like the London Underground, but it seemed a lot clearer, especially when it came to moving from one line to another and there wasn’t any confusing ‘line splitting’ like you get on the London Underground Northern Line.
  • Each station exit is lettered A-B-C- and so on. There are signs on the walls indicating which letter you need for half a dozen locations outside the station. Most of the time the destination I was after was on the sign. This saved on exiting the station on the wrong side. Furthermore, my guide map (not sure whether this applies to all of them?) had the letters displayed as well, so even if your destination wasn’t mentioned on a sign I could quickly figure out which letter I needed. Whoever thought this up is a genius!
  • Cheap. As already mentioned, I bought a Tourist Day Pass for just HKD$55 (£5.50).
  • When I bought my pass I also got a small fold-out map of the MTR network. I kept this in my pocket and it was used throughout the day.
  • I’m pretty sure that a seasoned London Underground traveller will find the MTR incredibly easy to use (and possibly come away, like me, wondering why ours isn’t any better). I’d suggest that even a novice rail traveller will find the MTR the easiest method for navigating around Hong Kong without spending a fortune on taxis.

So where did I end up?

Well my original plan was to head out west to the Big Buddha at Lantau Island, but as I arrived at Central station to switch lines from the Island Line (blue) to the Tung Chung Line (orange) I heard an announcement that the cable car at Lantau (which you need to take to get to the monastery) was out of action. A little annoying, but straight away I considered how useful it was that they announced this to save people like me the trouble of travelling out to Lantau. I just can’t imagine this kind of announcement being made in the UK. (Not that I’d understand what was being said on the London Underground anyway…)

So, I instead headed aboveground and started to make my way on foot towards the tram station for Victoria Peak. I following a slightly indirect route using the Central to Mid-Level escalators (longest in the world apparently). This was more to experience the elevators than anything else. For the whole journey I kept checking out the sky, because several people (and my guidebook–a present from my wife) had mentioned that  it was pointless to go up to the Peak when there was low cloud–which is exactly what it looked like…

By the time I arrived at the tram station I’d decided against it. Great. Already midday and nothing done.

So I headed back down towards Central and pondered what to do. With a quick look at my guidebook I decided to head up to Kowloon. The MRT passes straight under the bay and comparing this to my experience of taking a taxi from Temple Street market via the bay tunnel to my hotel in Causeway this was much quicker and a hell of a lot cheaper.

Taking the Tseun Wan Line (red) from Central, I got off at Prince Edward station to have a look at Boundary Street

Well if you just clicked on that link you now know all about it now. Boundary Street marks the dividing line between the lands held by the Chinese Qing (pronounced ‘ching’) Dynasty and the British prior to 1860. At the end of the Second Opium War the British were ‘awarded’ more land, extending their borders to encompass what now makes up the New Territories.

When most people think of Hong Kong they think of just the island, but this is actually a very small part of the land that makes up the whole of ‘Hong Kong and the New Territories’.

I walked east along Boundary Street and then south along Sai Yee Street and east again along Flower Market Road (full of florists; air full of scent) until I reached the Bird Garden. As my guide book says: “[this] is where local folk, mostly elderly, take their birds to sing and get some fresh air.”

As you can hear it was a rather noisy experience! Also slightly odd given some peculiar looking frogs and a couple of boxes of bugs. Plus several men who seemed to be making a business out of removing the legs and/or wings from grasshoppers and bagging up the still-wriggling bugs to sell to the bird-owners. The birds are apparently sometimes fed through the bars of their cages using chopsticks, so I imagine there is a line of business in bagging up lunches for them like this.

After that I headed back to the MTR, switching over to the Kwun Tong Line (green) to get off at Wong Tai Sin station and head over to the Wong Tai Sin temple. I took way too many photos to list on this blog (perhaps I should sort out Tumblr?). But I managed to grab a quick video, though I didn’t want to dwell too long on those praying…

I grabbed a little food. Just some fruit I’d brought with me from the hotel, before I headed back to the MTR, switch lines at Prince Edward for the Tsuen Wan (red) again. I jumped off at Tsim Sha Tsui and headed for the Avenue of Stars. Well I got a few photos of stars bearing some familiar names: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat and of course this statue of a rather well-known chap…

After that I grabbed a trip on the Star Ferry back over to Hong Kong Island. A bargain at just HKD$25. Yes that’s just 25 pence, precisely half as much as it cost me to text Jo to say “I’m on the Star Ferry!”

There’s so much more: a house with grass on the roof (and sprinklers), Occupy HK tents, dozens of close-up shots of the Central skyscrapers.

But the highlight for today and perhaps for the whole week, drawing with Guangzhou, has to be a trip up to the Peak. The clouds cleared, I found the tram station much easier having dropped by earlier in the day, and I headed on up.

Here’s a video of the ascent. It does go on a bit–6 minutes to be precise!–but check out those crazy angles. The tram is literally dragged up the hillside by a steel cable…

And I decided to hang around until the sun went down for a simply breath-taking view of Hong Kong…

Tomorrow: Lantau Island and the Big Buddha

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