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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Lamma and the Peak

Ellie, Amber, Vivienne and Mia on the busy streets of Central


Hong Kong 香港 is a densely-populated place, no surprise as there are 7.2 million people crammed into about 6500 square kilometers of space, which if you do the math works out to a figure of roughly 17,000 people for each km². And yet, surprisingly, it isn't too hard to get away from the masses and find some fresh air, greenery and open spaces. There are several lengthy hiking trails in the New Territories, for example, and even Hong Kong Island itself has the 78 kilometer-long Wilson Trail (though parts include some city sections). Speaking of islands, there are several in the Special Autonomous Region that provide getaways for residents and visitors alike. On my previous visit in 1993, I spent several hours exploring Cheung Chau 長洲. This time, it came down to a choice between Lamma 南丫島 and Lantau 大嶼山. The latter being home to a large Buddha statue, Hong Kong Disneyland and the international airport made it easier to decide on an excursion to the smaller and less-hurried Lamma, population 6000. Shih-Ling and the girls accompanied Amber, Pamela and me down to the Outlying Islands ferry terminals, where they then decided to take us up on our invitation to join us, despite having suffered from serious bouts of seasickness the first time they went to Lamma. No one got ill this time on the ride over, and we soon found ourselves in the village of Yung Shue Wan 榕樹灣, where we had a seafood lunch at the Sampan Seafood Restaurant, passing on the eatery's signature pigeon dishes.

Though small, the village is crammed full of restaurants, guesthouses and curio shops. There seemed to be a relatively large expat population on the island, judging from the Banana Pancake refugees I observed working in the shops and walking around on the streets. 

At the southern end of the village sits a Tin Hau Temple, dedicated to the goddess Mazu, who is also an extremely popular deity in Taiwan. This particular temple dates from the late 19th century, making it ancient by Hong Kong standards. 

From Yung Shue Wan, a popular four kilometer-long trail makes it way to another village, Sok Kwu Wan 索罟灣. The crumbling concrete houses we passed along the way recalled to mind those in Taiwan, as did the food stand selling douhua 豆花, though the girls preferred ice cream from the freezer of a small grocery store. 

After about 30 minutes, we arrived at the pleasant surprise known as Hung Shing Yeh Beach. When you think of Hong Kong, sandy beaches and clear water aren't the first two images that come to mind, yet that's we found on Lamma. The water was warm enough to make me wish I'd brought swimming trunks on this trip, but the girls at least got to wade in the surf and collect seashells along the shore. The only thing taking away any ambiance from the atmosphere was the large power station looming nearby, but having been in Asia as long as I have, you learn to frame your field of vision so that the distractions don't get in the way. 

Once the girls had found enough shells (and after the two Taiwanese adult females in our group had decided they had been in the sun long enough), it was time to move along. The trail made its way uphill to several lookout points. The walk could hardly be described as a "trek", and the views looking out over the water were entrancing. You don't think of hilly grassland and large boulders when visualizing Hong Kong, yet the scenery on Lamma, the third-largest island in the former British colony, is hardly unique.

The trail wound its way toward the village of Sok Kwu Wan, which reminded me of many seaside settlements I'd encountered on my travels throughout Japan, right down to the Asano cement plant. The outlines of Ocean Park could be made out in the distance.

On the way down into the village, we passed what was called a "kamikaze cave", supposedly built by the Japanese during World War II to house motorboats wired with explosives and designed to sink Allied ships (they were never used). There was also another, albeit smaller and less attractive, beach where the girls hunted for more shells. For me, the local flora brought to mind memories of Okinawa 沖縄.

Approaching Sok Kwu Wan, we came across another Tin Hau Temple. This one dates from the 1820's, but it was closed for the day by the time we walked into the village.

Though small, the village's one street is lined with more seafood restaurants and souvenir shops. It's also the termini of two ferry lines, one going to Aberdeen, the other returning to Central. We caught the latter for an uneventful ride back in which nobody got sick, mainly because Amber and I were the only ones able to stay awake during the short ride. Were I ever to become an expat working in Hong Kong, I could see myself living on one of these outlying islands like Cheung Chau or Lamma and commuting into Central by ferry, enjoying the excitement and convenience of Hong Kong Island while retreating at the end of each day to a quiet retreat close to the sea.

The Peak

Victoria Peak 太平山 is arguably Hong Kong's most famous sight. On my first visit 21 years ago, I went up to the peak by the famous Peak Tram no less than three times during my week-long stay - once in the daytime (where I walked around the peak itself, then descended to the other side of the island, returning to Central by bus via Aberdeen and Stanley); one time at night; and the last time during the late afternoon/early evening, in order to watch the sun go down and the lights of the (then) colony come on. It seemed much quieter back then - I don't recall ever having to wait in a line to get on the tram going up or down, and there were only a couple of restaurants to distract your attention from the viewing platforms. Now, the peak is home to the Peak Galleria and Peak Tower shopping malls, and long lines of people wait to get on the tram. Fortunately, thanks to our gracious host Steven, Pamela and I didn't have to put up with the crowds. While Amber and the other girls went to bed after dinner, tuckered out after the long afternoon of shell collecting and walking, the three of us drove up to the peak in Steven's car, just a short distance from his and Shih-Ling's apartment building located in the Mid-Levels. Following a dim sum meal outside the Galleria, we took in the view, the first time doing so for my wife. Suffice it to say, despite the new developments (for me, at least), the views were just as spectacular now as they were back in 1993.

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