There we were, frozen and shivering on a long line that snaked around a lonely bus stop in a cold mountain spot in Hong Kong, and there was no bus. A digital sign gave a countdown of the 15-minute interval before the next one comes. It was an eternity of waiting.
A thick fog had descended on everything at the Po Lin Monastery in Lantau Island’s Ngong Ping Plateau. It had worsened to the point that you couldn’t make out anything beyond a few meters.
The trees and vegetation, monastery temples, cafes and tea house, Big Buddha, and just about everything else were shrouded in a heavy mist. I could hear people talking nearby but I couldn’t see them. It took us a good 10 minutes to look for the bus stop when it was only around a hundred or so meters away from where we exited Po Lin.
At the long line for the bus that extended way beyond the waiting shed, the rain had changed from a drizzle to a torrent. The wintry chill had numbed my gloved hands and feet encased in socks and boots, and my nose felt like a hard slab on my face. It was so bitterly cold, we could see our every breath.
Chilly Ngong Ping
A German husband, with two kids in tow, was letting off steam at the bus stop. I didn’t understand his words but knew enough from his expression, side glances at his wife, and the reference to “Big Buddha” that he wasn’t pleased by the decision to go there. It was a painful trip even for people used to harsh winters.
Despite the agony of the numbing cold, I consider the Ngong Ping visit one of the highlights of our recent Hong Kong trip. The Po Lin Monastery is a common enough attraction in Hong Kong but the cold surge turned a humdrum experience into an extraordinary one.
As we went from temple to temple at Po Lin, stopped for hot tea and pastries and corn, checked out the shops at Ngong Ping village, climbed 268 steps to the Big Buddha, and stood at the long queue for the bus going down, with the harsh chill spreading on my skin and squeezing flesh and bone, there were times I feared my ability to withstand the cold.
But it is the experiences that bring us the greatest challenge that are also the most unforgettable. Still, the sight of the Citygate Outlets in Tung Chung, where we started the long trip by bus all the way up to Ngong Ping, provided me not just a little bit of relief.
Hong Kong street markets
The rest of Hong Kong was tame by comparison. We didn’t follow a set itinerary but let the whim take us where it would.
Exploring Harbour City, Hong Kong’s largest mall, was a natural consequence of our stay at the Gateway Hotel of the Marco Polo chain of hotels in Hong Kong. From there, we stumbled upon the Clock Tower and Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade by accident.
We made the short ferry crossing between Tsim Sha Tsui and Hong Kong Island once or twice, got lost a few times until we were able to work out the mass transit railway (MTR) system, and sampled restaurant and street food along the way. Tried the Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan and Mido Cafe in Yau Ma Tei because they came highly recommended but we stumbled upon other local establishments that served tastier fare.
Transferring to Dorsett in Mongkok brought us nearer to the famous Temple Street Night Market, Ladies’ Market, and electronics bargains on Ap Liu Street.
We didn’t always follow the natural order of tours. So many people lining up for the tram to Victoria Peak? We used the bus and just tried the Peak Tram on our way down.
Place of contradictions
Taking out the rigid preparations from the equation made our trip much more flexible. Getting lost was not always a bad thing.
It was out on the streets, on foot, that we discovered Hong Kong, and it wasn’t always the spotlessly clean and modern Admiralty, Central, and Soho or the Canton Road littered with global brands like Hermes and Prada. It wasn’t just Causeway Bay with its ode to retail heaven.
Hong Kong was also about streets in Kowloon lined with stalls where whole pigs and roasted ducks hung on hooks while wonton or noodle soup simmered in pots. It was an avalanche of people rushing along Nathan Road or the railway stations.
Sometimes, it was a quiet corner made up of two or three old people sharing a friendly moment or a back alley turned momentarily into a soup kitchen.
A place is also about the people you experience it with. Our Hong Kong, that is Max’s and mine, was a contradiction of sorts: immaculate and stained, prosperous and broken, but always a hotbed of vigor and purpose.