I had a few initial ideas as to what my 10 day trip to Hong Kong would bring - a glowing skyline, bustling markets, a contrasting culture of tradition vs innovation. Reviews from friends and family had somewhat confirmed these expectations but their inability to fully explain the world they had discovered hinted that there was much more to experience.
Location: Hong Kong | Words & Photography: Steph Bradshaw
It was the taxi ride from the airport that first established this. As I passed through rows and rows of towering skyscrapers, surrounded by a thick border of mountain range the contrast of the landscape silenced me.
When I arrived at City University in Kowloon Tong, where I would be staying with my childhood friend, Laura, her boyfriend and her parents (current Hong Kong residents) I opted for a 'quieter day' to get into the flow of the city and also to try and combat the looming jetlag.
This 'quiet' day, like the taxi journey, offered up more of an insight into the varied city then I could have imagined. We started by throwing ourselves into the pulse of the city; the busy underground system. Arriving at Mong Kok, otherwise known as 'Busy Corner' (for good reason) we explored the local bird and flower markets. The bird market is not only a place to purchase ornate bird cages, kilo bags of crickets or a matching pair of cockatoo, it is also a socialising arena for man and bird - basically, an incredibly glamorous pet creche. Elderly Chinese gentlemen lined the street to hang their beautiful bird cages up in the surrounding trees, leaving them there for the day to let their pets 'chat'. One single branch could see 3-4 cages side by side, birds chirping as the owners sat separately, catching up on the week that had passed. A sight that although busy, had a tranquil nature to it compared to its raucous city backdrop.
Just around the corner, we wandered through the busy flower market and into an indoor grocery market, where vendors slopped barrels of fresh seafood through the tight corridors (and occasionally on to the feet of unsuspecting visitors) - a myriad of chaos that felt so distant to what I'd witnessed only half an hour ago.
From Mong Kok, we headed to Hong Kong Island, the business centre of the city. We opted to take the 'Star Ferry' instead of the underground which takes you over the Victoria Harbour estuary and offers incredible views of the city. From Hong Kong Island we hopped on another ferry to one of the smaller islands, Peng Chau.
Peng Chau was like another world altogether. After a busy morning both physically and sensorily, walking the markets of Mong Kok and taking in the business district skyline of Hong Kong Island, this quaint island offered a calming atmosphere. We walked the coast of the island in just under an hour, stopping occasionally on the small sandy bays and amongst the lush forest areas to watch local farmers tend to their banana crops.
It felt like a world away from what I'd experienced earlier the same day and this would be a running theme throughout my trip to Hong Kong. From browsing through tiny market streets stacked high with cheap ceramics and haggling in backstreet tailors, to whispering prayers to the Big Buddha on the hill and basking in the sunshine on the secluded beaches of Lamma Island. Taking in the highrises, broken up with miniature temples of worship, petrol smells laced with the hint of incense, every corner fed a new insight into both the history as well as the future of Hong Kong.
One day as we stood on top of Lions Rock (the highest peak in the Lions Rock National Park), gazing out across the dizzying heights of Kowloon and over to Hong Kong Island, I noticed a smaller hillside in the distance with man-made ledges etched into the side facing the water. I soon found out this was a huge graveyard and that in some Chinese culture they believe you should be buried with your head facing the hills and your feet to the ocean. Details like this, including the fact that some of the larger skyscrapers across Hong Kong are built with 'dragon holes' (large cut-out squares through the centre of buildings to allow ancient dragons to access the sea from the hills), added a layer of magic and heritage to this ever expanding and innovative city that suddenly made the metropolis a lot less intimidating.
As with most places I've travelled to, I value the feeling of getting to know a place personally, of discovering those elements that make somewhere slightly more familiar. Hong Kong had just begun to let down its walls to me in that sense and I'd love to go back again to further understand its rhythms.