You don't need to visit Hong Kong to know that it's home to wheeler-dealers who buy and sell everything under the sun. But even I was surprised by the sign at an amusement park that stated - How much do you cost? Intrigued, I stepped into the booth, pressed a few buttons, and was evaluated in Hong Kong dollars on how much the bones, minerals and other constituent elements in my body would go for if sold at market price. The answer: 320 dollars. I dropped back, and watched a 10-year-old Chinese boy go through the same motions, only to be valued at 319 dollars. Just great.
It's a kind of magic...
So apparently, I am a bargain, which, strictly speaking, is no bad thing to be in Hong Kong. That's actually the image the city is aiming to have in the hearts and minds of Indians - a fun family destination, with affordable shopping and entertainment options - something that the Hong Kong Tourism Board capably demonstrated on my recent trip there. Our first evening was spent at Hong Kong Disneyland. This is the smallest of all the parks, but it's also the one closest to India. Situated on Lantau Island, this features four zones - Main Street USA, Adventureland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland - home to the park's premier attraction - Space Mountain. Sadly, we didn't have as much time to explore all the rides as the paying customers, so I wandered down Main Street, walking through the stores, admiring the decorations and craning my neck to see the enormous Christmas tree. After the rides, Disneyland's greatest attraction, and the one I liked best, was the fireworks show. As showers of sparks lit up the sky, the crowds oohed, aahed and gasped. And then it was all over - or so I thought - but it wasn't over yet. As we walked out, snow, or soapy bubbles masquerading as snow, streamed down on us. Very appropriate, as Disneyland definitely snowed me under.
On a high
Day 2: After a hearty breakfast at our hotel in Kowloon, we headed back to Lantau to Ngong Ping - a 5.7 km long ropeway to the top of a mountain on which is located the world's largest seated outdoor bronze Buddha statue. You can take a regular cable car, or the Crystal Cabin, which we rode. This glass-bottomed ride allows you to peer out - and down - at the landscapes you traverse - a stunning bird's-eye view of the airport, mountains, skyline and the sea. After the high of the cable car, we touched bottom - rock bottom prices, that is - at the Citygates outlet mall near the cable car exit. This mall, filled with outlet and regular stores of brands like Mango, Timberland, Lafuma, Armani Exchange and others is not to be missed.
From there, it was on to another family destination - Noah's Ark, a perfect 1:1 replica of the original ark. This has many things, a garden with 67 pairs of animal sculptures, 15 fun and educative galleries, a hotel, hostel, beach, nature garden - all of which are mildly exciting, but not really worth the long journey there.
We ended the day with more shopping at Times Square, dinner at an Indian restaurant - Aladin Mess - predictably run by a Pakistani, and a round of clubbing in Lan Kwai Fong. The high of the Azure bar (34 stories!), was matched only by the Cosmopolitan served by the bartender, who heard our Hindi and told us he was from Darjeeling. Cheers to that!
No matter where you live in India (and especially if you live in the metros), you'll find resonances of your city in Hong Kong. British colonial history? Check. Bustling streets? Check. Seaside promenades and beaches? Check. Wintry weather and fog? Check. Trams and Metro Rail? Check. But even so, the Peak Tram remains a unique HK experience. It opened in 1888, as a means of enabling residents to settle on the Peak - then and now, the city's most desirable area. Today, two tramcars operate on Asia's first funicular railway, pulling up passengers to Victoria Gap, from where you can get a spectacular view of Hong Kong harbour from the Peak Tower. From here, you can peer down on to the residences of millionaires and celebrities, like Jackie Chan. The Peak also offers you a guaranteed sighting of Mr Chan, at Madame Tussauds. Inside this attraction, you can also snuggle up to Johnny Depp, measure your height against President Obama, and be Michael Jackson's dance partner. The flash of cameras going off all around was probably the closest we'd come to feeling like celebrities.
Next on our schedule was the organised chaos of Mong Kok, bargain central for 'Made in China' goods. The Ladies and other markets in the area filled up with tourists participating in Hong Kong's favourite leisure activity - shopping. Although locals are also swayed by the charms of Mong Kok, they shun the street stalls for malls like Langham Place, filled to the brim with H&M, Marks & Spencer, Body Shop, French Connection, Guess and much more.
After wearing out my feet, I was happy to sit down on the Open Bus Tour - an open double-decker bus that wended its way through Kowloon, allowing us to check out the regular street signs - Chanel! Prada! Louis Vuitton! Zegna! - and some of the Christmas-themed lights. This hour long ride then deposits you back at the Avenue of Stars, from where you can simultaneously gasp at Hong Kong harbour and the 12-minute laser show entitled 'Symphony of Light'.
Making a Splash
Another day, another amusement park. Ocean Park, located in Aberdeen (Hong Kongers, unlike us, have retained all old British names but razed most old buildings), has something for everyone - pandas and a fabulous dolphin show for animal lovers, rollercoasters for thrill seekers, and souvenir shops for those who feel their suitcases aren't full enough already. I lost my heart to An An, the 100 kg male panda who didn't live up to his character description of agile and active - all he did, as a succession of tourists snapped pictures, was placidly chew his way through a mini forest of bamboo shoots.
I'm not as excited by bamboo as a meal, so I was happy to head to the floating Jumbo Kingdom restaurant for lunch. After an enormous dim sum spread, we headed to the airport, after first stopping en route at the Man Mo temple, where devout Chinese head to pray that their kids will do well in exams. Sound familiar? That's exactly the appeal of Hong Kong - just when you start feeling strange, there's something recognisable around the corner. The writer was a guest of the Hong Kong Tourism Board.