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Nick Jenkins : The Opinionated Traveller

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Hong Kong and Lantau

07 Dec 1998 02:26:27

I'm in HK now. The weather's not bad, the 'hotel' is adequate and HK is bizarre. People are nice and friendly but the mindset is decidedly alien. Unless you want to buy something or you have something to sell you're probably out of place in HK. You also shouldn't come here if you're a) claustrophobic or b) don't like neon.

Internet access seems to be free to HK residents but hard to find for visitors. In order to get mine I've had to buy a cup of very bad coffee in this cafe. It tastes something like warm dirt. Still it is coffee and the email is free. As I sit here writing two Germans are having an animated discussion about the economy or possibly their girlfriends (their hand gestures suggest the former rather than the latter) and a large group of HK Chinese huddle over the table talking not to each other, but to their mobile phones.

Who said Hong Kong is British?

The food is Chinese, the signs are Chinese, the people are largely Chinese and you could go a week without hearing a word spoken in anything but Cantonese. It's a frantic meat market of commerce and industry that never sleeps.

It's easy to be overwhelmed by Hong Kong. Even the landscape. In its expansion, HK has crept away from the bay and up the lush green hillsides which overlook it. Shiny new towers interspersed with not very shiny and startlingly decrepit buildings perch on the precipitous hillside, many clad in a patchwork of bamboo scaffolding.

Part of Hong Kong's dynamism probably comes from the fact that the city clings to the hills with a tenacity which suggests that a moment's lapse in concentration will see it slide into the harbour. The nervous energy which infects its inhabitants drives them to extract as much money from their fellow man before they are obliterated in the next big landslide.

I needed a break from all this.

One of the more pleasant trips you can take is to the outlying islands around the bay. The biggest island in the Hong Kong group is rugged, green Lantau. Lantau is adjacent to the new airport (Chep Lap Kok) and you can reach it on the MTR via the station at Tung Ching. The island has some small towns and hosts a number of monasteries including the "big Bhudda" monastery at Po Lin which features a 38m tall bronze Bhudda. I decided a days excursion to the monastery and the mountains of Lantau would be a soothing retreat.

Disembarking from the train and wending your way out into the daylight brings you to a rather barren little town, dominated by the towers of new apartment blocks. Tung Ching is a sleepy outpost in Hong Kong suburbia, but it is obvious from the phalanx of red and yellow cranes advancing on the horizon that it will not remain so for long. Behind the town rises the green and sweaty bulk of the island.

After a happy half-an-hour meandering through the shopping mall wondering about the viability of businesses which sell nothing but brightly coloured, injection moulded plastic - I caught a bus to the Po-Lin monastery. The bus runs from outside the super market, up over the hills to the other side of the island and climbs back into the hills once more to reach the monastery. The roads are narrow and winding and the bus drivers approach passing as an enthusiastic variation on the game of ‘chicken’.

From the heights of the monastery you can see out over the islands and you can even vaguely make out the silhouette of the Hong Kong cityscape through the chemical smog.

. After Hong Kong, which is like an explosion in a fireworks factory, the monastery is an island of serenity. As you approach the temple you pass a number of braziers where you are encouraged to burn incense for your good fortune. Purchasing some from a helpful monk nearby you thrust them into the brazier to light, bow three times briskly in the direction of the temple and then thrust them back in the appropriate brazier. A monk explained to me that the various braziers represented different blessings you might seek. You could aim for knowledge, or perhaps wealth and power, good luck or peace. I resisted the temptation to hedge my bets and settled on lots of good luck.

Wandering through the dense white smoke created by the burning dreams of pilgrims you enter the main courtyard. There is a cluster of smaller buildings around the larger main temple which has gilded door frames and a red capped roof . The murky depths of the temple contain gold statues of Bhudda in various aspects and other more minor religious figures. The halls also usually contain a large number of tourists, some rudely ignoring the posted signs requesting they not take pictures inside the temples.

Leaving the temples you can wander around the tranquil courtyards and observe monks at work washing dishes, herding tourists or hanging out washing. Down one side of the courtyard runs a glassed in cafeteria and a kitchen in which you can sample vegetarian Bhuddist food.

Before I left Australia I talked with various people about the delights of vegetarian foods. One monastery in particular has a reputation for producing vegetarian food which consists of the usual tofu style ingredients but can be made to look and taste like anything your heart desires.

Unless I was there on the chef’s day off, Po-Lin is not that monastery.

It is possible of course that the monks were intending to make the meal look and taste just like elephant snot but I think it unlikely. If you managed to get past the consistency of the ingredients, the meal wasn't bad and seemed a cut above normal vegetarian food to my untrained and definitely carnivorous eye. All in all however, I found that I preferred the wasabi flavoured crisps I found in the Tung Ching supermarket than the vegetarian delights of Po-Lin.

Regaining my composure I staggered uncertainly from the cafeteria and out of the temple to the Big Bhudda. The Big Bhudda sits opposite the temple atop a hill that can be ascended by a stone stairway. The Bhudda is 38m tall and flanked by smaller statues of four princesses holding aloft gifts to the guru. Although the statue is impressive enough, the bhudda does have a slightly glazed look on his face, as if he's bored of the scenery and is secretly hoping that someone will turn him around so he can see what lies behind him.

From there a two hour walk down hill to Tung Chung through what feels like deepest darkest rural China back to the train.