During my relatively short tenure as a flight attendant, I’ve had the opportunity of visiting some of the world’s greatest cities on five different continents.
For someone as travel-obsessed as me, it may seem like the perfect job. But in an industry where everything is driven by seniority, the reality is that my day-to-day life rarely includes trips to exotic and faraway locales. As a junior flight attendant with only two years of experience under my belt, I’ve come to expect the undesirable trips that nobody else wants–domestic trips with multiple flights a day, short layovers and early sign-ins.
So when crew scheduling’s automated notification system informed me that I would have to make it to the airport in four hours for rotation 1080, I hardly thought twice about where I was going.
It was only after I’d already jumped out of bed, tripped over my half-packed suitcase and hobbled toward the shower, that I logged online to see the details of my trip.
When I clicked on my schedule, I let out a squeal of disbelief. “I’m going to Hong Kong!” I shrieked, shaking Dan out of his sleep to share the good news. “I have a 35 hour Hong Kong layover!”
Hong Kong is, with out a doubt, one of the world’s most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities. Its modern architecture rivals that of New York, while its culture is deeply rooted in Buddhist tradition. To add to its appeal, Hong Kong houses world-class restaurants, renowned tourist attractions and a vibrant mix of people from all corners of the globe.
When I visited Hong Kong as part of a larger trip to China with my family in 2005, I remember being struck by the sheer size of the city, its towering skyscrapers and its futuristic architecture. Yet, what fascinated me even more about Hong Kong, is that buried between the maze of high-rises are shrines, temples and large city parks. It is a city replete with natural, historical and modern treasures.
I started my Hong Kong layover adventure with a trip back in time, to the fishing village of Tai O. Tai O is a small community on Lantau Island that is sometimes referred to as the Venice of Hong Kong.
In truth, I found there to be very few similarities between Venice and Tai O. Sure, both cities have economies that center around tourism, both prohibit vehicle traffic and both rely on a network of murky waterways instead of roads. But the similarities essentially end there.
Tai O is home to the Tanka people–a community of fishermen who have built stilt homes above the Lantau Island tidal flats for generations. There are no neon signs or multi-story office buildings rising form the surrounding waters. Just fisherman cruising up and down the rivers, local residents selling dried fish from their shop windows and visitors looking to escape the chaos of nearby Hong Kong.
I spent about two hours exploring the narrow streets and markets of Tai O and walking around the harbor to the historical Heritage Hotel. Wandering amongst the patchwork of houses made me feel as though I had stepped back in time–to a time when Hong Kong itself was nothing more than a small fishing village on the shores of the South China Sea. It was hard to believe that one of the world’s largest cities was just around the corner.
In recent years, economic hardship has plagued Tai O, causing younger generations to flee to Hong Kong in search of opportunity. As a result, the fisherman lifestyle is slowly dying out. As I walked through the community, I wondered how long it would be before high-rises and office buildings replaced the charming stilt houses.
From Tai O, I took the local bus across Lantau Island to Tung Chung, the launching pad for visits to the famous Tian Tan Buddha.
Though the Tian Tan Buddha and adjacent Po Lin Monastery can be reached by bus, many tourists prefer riding the Ngong Ping 360 cable car to the mountain’s summit.
The gondola runs nearly four miles from Tung Chung to Ngong Ping Village and provides stunning aerial views of the mountains and harbors below. Had it not been for a thick layer of fog that drenched my surroundings in a grayish light, I suppose I would have been able to see the Hong Kong mainland in the distance.
It took more than twenty minutes to reach Ngong Ping Village by cable car. From the cabin, I could see fisherman along the coastline, planes taking off and landing at the Hong Kong International Airport and waterfalls amongst the lush green hills. In the distance, the towering Tian Tan Buddha rose above the surrounding mountains.
Sitting 34 metres high and overlooking the people of Hong Kong, the majestic bronze Buddha draws pilgrims from all over Asia. There are larger Buddha statues elsewhere–notably the 71 meter-high Grand Buddha in Leshan, China. However, though only constructed in 1993, there is no doubt that the Tian Tan Buddha is one of the most visited and revered on Earth.
After paying homage to the Giant Buddha and failing miserably to photograph it against the hazy yellowish light of the late afternoon, I headed back down the mountain, toward Victoria Peak.
Victoria Peak is Hong Kong’s premier tourist attraction. From its summit, one can enjoy unparalleled views of the city’s skyline and architecture. My initial intention was to reach the mountaintop before sundown, so that I could enjoy the city views both during the day and at night.
However, it turns out that most other tourists had my same idea. The line for the Victoria Peak tram wrapped around the block and hardly moved. To no avail, I kept looking at my watch and willing the minute hand to stop so that I wouldn’t lose the precious few moments of remaining daylight.
But time kept ticking and the sun kept setting and it was nearly two hours before I made it to the front of the line and onto the tram.
When I finally reached the top of Victoria Peak, a blanket of black replaced the grey haze of the city and the skyline began to come to life. Buildings glowed with greens, yellows and purples. I walked up to the Sky Terrace 248 observation deck and was rewarded with a 360 degree panorama of the skyline.
The Sky Terrace was packed with tour groups, photographers and young couples waving their selfie sticks in order to get pictures in front of the postcard-worthy backdrop. I tried to wiggle my way to the front of the mob for unobstructed views of the cityscape. It took a while, but eventually I planted myself in the corner of the observation deck and looked out at the sea of skyscrapers–letting my senses become completely overwhelmed by the towering buildings and dazzling display of lights. The view was truly magnificent.
After absorbing the views of Hong Kong’s skyline from Victoria Peak, I took the tram down the mountain and walked back to the crew hotel.
There is so much more I would have liked to do in Hong Kong that I will have to save for next time. I wanted to go hiking along the Dragon’s Back. I wanted to explore the some of Hong Kong’s best beaches. I wanted to stay enjoy the lively vibe of the night markets.
And yet, I simply did not have the time to fit all I would have liked to do in my 24 hour Hong Kong layover.
Besides, I knew I had to catch up on sleep before my long flight home.
For, on the following day, not only did I have to work a 14 hour flight back to Seattle, but I also planned to repack my bags, collect school supplies for my former students and board a flight to Ondangwa, Namibia via Atlanta, Windhoek and Johannesburg.
I was exhausted just thinking about it.
Note: I recommend checking out Nomadic Matt’s guide to Hong Kong before planning your trip to the Pearl of the Orient. The guide includes suggested itineraries, accommodation recommendations and expert tips.
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