Article by Thabo Jaffe
48 Hours or Less is a column dedicated to travel and to getting the most out of your measly two days off a week.
It’s early morning. The plane’s overhead lights are back on, you’ve had your eggs or congee, stretched your legs in the bathroom queue and you’re approaching the runway at Hong Kong International airport. Orange gleams on the horizon. The passengers heave a heavy sigh of relief, while taking in an expectant breath. It’s unfortunate that you’re only here on a layover. The closest you’ll get to the outside world is the air slipping in between the vacuum that just took you halfway around the world and the seemingly flimsy raised corridor connecting it to the arrivals hall.
Hong Kong International Airport grants runway and parking space to more than 100 international airlines. The mammoth corridors, spotless around the clock, have nearly 12,000 public seats. It’s designed to make layovers bearable, but every person has their limit of artificial light and recycled air. So, why not walk beyond no man’s land?
Without overstepping any laws, most passport holders can walk through customs and spend their layover discovering the city. Your check-in luggage is already booked through to your final destination, so you can tick some attractions off your list while you’re supposed to be in transit. Here are two ways to truly enjoy your layover.
Time needed: 4-6 hours
Hong Kong needn’t revolve around neon billboards and crowded pavements. On Lantau Island, which lies outside the city among a series of thickly vegetated mountains, is the Ngong Ping plateau on which the Po Lin Monastery, the first development in this area, can be found. Built in 1906, it could originally only be reached by the winding, broken footpath that scaled many peaks and dipped through the valleys. As part of the monastery, the Tian Tan Buddha (fondly known as the Big Buddha) was built and completed in 1993. It’s caught the attention of many faiths and non-believers. Made entirely of bronze, this serene figure is a massive 34 meters high and weighs more than 200 tons. Perched atop a hill, on a lotus flower, the Buddha is considered a pilgrimage destination throughout Asia. There are 260 steps leading up to it. Take them slowly. Raising your head to stare through the morning fog, notice how your view seems to zoom in as you ascend. Savour the trip up and take many pictures, but ensure you don’t disturb those who are here for their faith, bowing and whispering on every step. From the top you’ll see the Po Lin Monastery. It features an almost playful design along the roofs of its many buildings. Wander around the courtyard, have a bite at the restaurant beside it or do some shopping in the strangely modern Tian Tan Village on the way back.
Take the MTR Airport Express train (HK$60 one way) to Tung Chung or take the S1 bus(HK$3.50). From Tung Chung, you have to take the Ngong Ping 360 cable car (HK$185 round trip or HK$130 one way) across the beautiful scenery or take Bus 23 (HK$17.20 one way) from the bus terminal beside the cable car. While the cable car’s views are incomparable (albeit nerve-wracking if you’re afraid of heights with its glass floor), the bus gives a glimpse of local village life as it climbs a narrow mountain road. The cable car opens at 10am. To beat the crowds, take an earlier bus up and the cable car down.
Hong Kong island
Time needed: at least 6 hours
The alluring haze of Hong Kong may be the result of stupendous amounts of pollution, but its rippling towers, glistening windows, chattering sidewalks, and commotion of footsteps beguile one to engage with it. From the airport it takes an hour to reach the periphery of the action by bus. From here, your feet need to find the city’s rhythm before you can truly say you’ve experienced it.
From the airport take the A21 bus. Sit back while you drive through the outskirts and observe window-studded buildings transforming from cheap-looking apartments to gleaming office towers. When you hear the names of stations in Nathan Road, you’ve reached the bustling main strip of Kowloon in North Hong Kong, geographically part of the mainland. Get off at Kimberly station. Drink in the cityscapes, but don’t be overwhelmed by the persistent tailor salesmen – if you’re a shopper, you’re right at home. Now cross the road into Kowloon Park, where footsteps suddenly slow down, bodies are spread further apart and the skyscrapers give way to trees, lawns and winding paths. Nature may have been granted a clearing, but the metropolis looms in concrete, peaking higher than the trees.
If you exit Kowloon Park at Canton Road, you’ll see another shopping strip with monstrous stores of high-end fashion and beauty brands. Stroll along it until you reach Star Ferry Pier, but before you get your ticket to cross to Hong Kong Island, walk up to the viewing platform with its Victorian clock tower and take in one of the world’s best-recognised skylines, framing the water’s edge (and get a very useful map from the info centre here!). The Star Ferry is more than a century old and an icon of the city. Tourists, locals, and expats take this efficient 10-minute commute (HK$2.5 one way) to the island. Get off, walk through one mall and you’re in the very heart of Hong Kong. Now stroll, look, eat, drink, or take a bus/taxi to climb the nearby Victoria Peak, which offers the most AMAZING views of Victoria Harbour. It’s 40-60 minutes to the peak taking the double-decker Bus 15(not 15C) at just HK$9.80 directly outside the Star Ferry Pier, which goes up an unbelievably narrow road at an almost white-knuckle pace.
Once at the top, ask for a map at the train car info centre and make your way, about an hour to walk around the entire peak at a decent trot. Be prepared though, it’s ridiculously humid here, and if you’re overdressed your fellow passengers might ask for a change of seats.
Lastly, don’t forget to spare some time for your trip back to the airport!
Thabo is an avid explorer and less-than-worldly South African, always in search of new experiences. Stopping just short of suicidal, he’s a true Yes Man. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org