Hong Kong was a little bit of a shock. Especially when I got trapped in a shopping centre in Kowloon and genuinely couldn’t find an exit for about half an hour.
Hong Kong has a population of 7.2 million while Sydney, my previous stop, has a population of 4.3 million. To be fair, neither are as big as London which has 8.7 million people, but let me put it a different way.
Australia has three people per square kilometre, the United Kingdom has 268, but Hong Kong sprints ahead and takes the gold with 6,644 people per square kilometre. So yeah, there were a lot of people. And it was Chinese New Year. And I don’t always do well with crowds. (I almost typed ‘crows’ there. That would have been funny. But generally I get on fine with crows.)
Chinese New Year in Hong Kong was incredible. On the main day of the celebration, which this year was Saturday 28th January, I went to the Lam Tseun Wishing Tree and made my wishes for the future (I would tell you, but then I’d have to kill you it wouldn’t come true). Forget wishing on candles or fallen eyelashes, try throwing a fake mandarin with a wish tied to it into a life-size plastic banyan tree. The real one had been so weighed down by wishes that it was in danger of collapsing.
Then, in the evening, I had a seat in a prime location for the Chinese New Year Parade. Seriously, if you’re ever considering going to the parade, buy a ticket for a seat. It’s so worth it. You don’t have to go hours earlier to find a good standing spot, you aren’t crushed amongst thousands of other people but you get the same celebratory atmosphere, and you’re guaranteed to be in a spot where each passing float or group gives its performance. I really enjoyed the parade. There were acrobatic and martial art performances, dancing dragons as well as dancing humans, cheerleaders, incredible feats on bicycles and with skipping ropes (although not at the same time), Ironman showed up, and it was all brought to a close by the cast of the Lego Movie in their rousing rendition of ‘Everything is Awesome’. Gong Hey Fat Choy (Happy New Year) and welcome to the Year of the Rooster!
The next day was undoubtedly my favourite in Hong Kong. I spent the day on Lantau Island and saw the awe-inspiring Tian Tan Buddha for myself. It was erected in 1993, sitting 34m high in bronze, and guarded by the Twelve Divine Generals, symbolising the animals of the Zodiac.
I ascended the 268 steps to the base of the Buddha (I actually did this twice because I didn’t realise you needed a ticket to go inside the statue…). I think I had the perfect weather for it: it was cloudy and a bit foggy – not so much that you couldn’t see the view and just enough that tendrils of mist floated about the Buddha’s head, adding an air of mystery and peace to the whole experience.
The Po Lin Monastery next door was also stunning, but was extraordinarily colourful and ornate where the Buddha, though still grand, was muted and simple. Po Lin means ‘Precious Lotus’, and the lotus flower is a special symbol in Buddhism signifying purity. By the time I’d descended from the Buddha a second time and made my way over to the temple, the cloud had come in a bit more, but the ensuing rain just meant that I could loiter under some of the gorgeously carved overhangs and watch the rain fall.
I spent ages wandering round – you really need a day for Lantau, especially if you want to visit Tai O fishing village as well. The monastery complex includes a shrine hall, the Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas (which was very, very gold), an exhibition hall for Buddhist relics, a meditation hall, an abbot’s chamber, a scripture library and plenty of other buildings and rooms. It’s still a functioning temple so there were plenty of people there for worship, offering incense and prayer, especially for Chinese New Year. And I, of course, took the opportunity to be munched on by a ravenous dragon.
Hong Kong was sometimes a bit lonely, which was ironic amongst so many people, but I was travelling alone and the many people who seemed to be passing through my hostel room like a train station spoke very little English, and I speak zero Mandarin or Cantonese. Actually, that’s not quite fair, I know ‘hello’, ‘how are you?’, and ‘put your pen down’ in Mandarin. Regardless, at one of my low points, after trying and failing yet again to find some dim sum (I had to wait until I was back in London before I eventually got any), after continuing to struggle with the crowds and abandoning my plan to take the Peak Tram because of a three hour plus queue, and it being the day before my first birthday away from home, I was incredibly, overwhelmingly grateful when the couple sitting next to me at dinner decided to take me under their wing. This lovely couple from the States had just retired and were visiting family in Hong Kong. We struck up a conversation and they took pity on me when the waiters forgot to bring me my food, using their far superior knowledge of Cantonese to ensure I was adequately fed and watered. And to top it all off, when I told them it was my birthday the next day, they offered to take me out for dessert and wouldn’t take no for an answer. They were the first to wish me a happy birthday and to give me a birthday hug. It just demonstrates the kindness you can discover while travelling and, forgive the soppiness, how the simple act of striking up a conversation with someone can turn that person’s day around.
One time when I didn’t mind the solitary life was the morning of my last day in Hong Kong. I got up extra early to have breakfast and check out, and then I made my way over to the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden. These were probably my favourite places after the Tian Tan Buddha.
As I made my way over there, Hong Kong was still experiencing one of its rare lull moments and the only people who were around were the ones setting up for the morning fish market. I pretty much had the nunnery to myself and the garden I shared with only a few dedicated elderly early birds. The nunnery is an amazing feat of engineering: it was constructed in the 1990s and is made entirely of cypress wood without the use of a single nail. It is still the world’s largest handmade wooden building. I was also amused by the sign forbidding the playing of Pokemon Go within the complex walls (which I felt was fair enough!). It was a wonderfully peaceful way to start my birthday and a beautiful way to end my eleven months of travelling.
From there it was a pretty uneventful, but long, journey home. Emirates made a bit of a fuss of me on the first flight: bringing me a special dessert, singing me happy birthday and taking a polaroid to immortalise the moment forever, and they invited me to meet the pilots. And eventually, on Wednesday 1st February 2017 at 6.37am, I landed to grey skies and drizzle in Heathrow. There’s no place like home.