For whatever reason, sitting in the airport and reading during my 9 hour transit in Hong Kong wasn’t as appealing as hiking up Lantau Peak and racing back against the clock to make my connecting flight.
“Morning ladies and gents, this is Captain Joshua from the flight deck. I hope you’ve enjoyed your flight so far and have managed to get some rest. As you might have noticed, we’ve just begun our descent into Hong Kong International Airport. It’s a pretty cloudy morning in Hong Kong, but the temperature is a warm 20 degrees Celsius with light easterly winds. For those of you who’d like to reset your watches, Hong Kong is 8 hours ahead of London and the local time is 11AM. Subject to air traffic control, we should be on ground well-ahead of schedule in the next 30 minutes or so. On behalf of the entire crew, thank you for choosing to fly with Cathay Pacific, and we hope to see you again soon. Cabin crew, 30 minutes to landing.”
I downed the last few drops of my post-breakfast coffee. Trying to forget it was 3AM in London, I raised the window shade. The blinding sunlight soon helped force my eyelids open. I studiously reset my watch and began putting my shoes on. Staring out of the window, I couldn’t wait to land. Hong Kong is a city I’ve been to many times, and one I always love coming back to. This time however, it was only for a 9 hour transit (my next flight was at 8.30PM).
I had two options ahead of me: sit in the airport and read OR hike up a mountain and race back in time for my connecting flight. I laughed as I thought about the possibilities – in my case, there was no debate. I was going to hike up Lantau Peak and given Lantau Island was close to the airport, I could easily make it back in time. Let the adventure begin.
11:30AM – Touch down in Hong Kong. Despite having a coffee on the plane, I needed another caffeine boost at the airport before I set out. I could feel the adrenaline beginning to kick-in. T-9 hours until my next flight’s departure. Plenty of time to hike up Lantau Peak and enjoy the forested hillsides.
12:30PM – Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) epitomises efficiency. In no other airport would I (with a South Asian passport) have been able to clear immigration, collect my bags, freshen up, change, top up my Octopus card by HK$200 (US$26) and drop off my suitcase in left luggage all in under an hour. I made a beeline to Tsui Wah – a large chain that’s a 21st century version of Hong Kong’s famous cha chaan tengs. Literally translated to mean “tea restaurant”, these Hong Kong-style cafés originally sprung up in the 1950s when British influence permeated into the local palate, making (a strange fusion of) western food affordable to the working class. They still provide among the cheapest food to the public and are known for their snappy waiters, speed and wide-ranging, affordable menus featuring many Canto-Western dishes. The signature item in these institutions is their Hong Kong-style milk tea. Usually made from ground black tea leaves and evaporated milk, this strong, silky, fragrant concoction if done right can have people queuing up religiously for a cuppa.
Some might weep when I mention Tsui Wah is my source of comfort food in Hong Kong (a city where eating all day on holiday would be a perfectly acceptable activity), but I am not ashamed to admit it. My order is always the same: a prawn wonton noodle soup followed by condensed milk buns and a Hong Kong-style milk tea. Despite its simplicity, there’s something deeply warming about biting into the freshly toasted pillowy buns generously drizzled with condensed milk and a thick wad of butter.
1:10PM – I inhaled my breakfast. The no-nonsense staff at Tsui Wah don’t dilly-dally. Thankfully I’ve navigated both the menu and the efficient etiquette this place demands. I still remember the first time I went to a cha chaan teng. The chattering of people packed together, with steaming plates clanging on tables and staff shouting to be heard was a lot to take in, let alone the exasperated waiter who couldn’t for the life of him understand why I had questions about the menu. What an unheard of concept.
My routine is well-oiled now, though. Forty seconds after I sat down, a waitress appeared – no effusive greetings, straight down to business. I was used to the protocol. I didn’t plan on giving her a moment to tap her pen impatiently (I’ve learnt over the course of many visits). I clearly parroted out my order, without looking at any menu. Five minutes later, the food magically appeared. Fifteen minutes later, I tapped my Octopus card at the cashier and was done. I even had time to pop into a supermarket in the Arrivals Hall to buy some snacks and Milo (if you’ve never had this chocolate malt drink, you’re missing out).
I briefly stopped at the Hong Kong Tourism stand to grab a map, in case my phone died. “Are you sure you want to go hiking today? It’s a bit cloudy,” the lady tried telling me. “I don’t have a choice,” I chuckled, as I took the map. “My next flight is in 7.5 hours. Gotta run if I’m going to make it. Thanks!” I left the lady mid-sentence; she thought I was completely mad.
1:30PM – The S1 bus brought me straight to Tung Chung. Making my way to the correct stand at Tung Chung Bus Terminal, I waited in line for Bus #23 towards Ngong Ping. The fairly long queue made me doubt my ambitious timeline. But luck was on my side – I was the penultimate passenger to board the bus due to leave in 10 minutes time. Phew. T-7 hours until my flight departs.
2:00PM – I got off the bus on the side of an empty Tung Chung Road at Pak Kung Au. I spotted a sign that loftily claimed it was just a 2.5hr trail to Ngong Ping via Lantau Peak. “Fat chance of that happening,” I thought, especially with the significant changes in elevation. As I set off, I made a mental note to keep the pace up and not stop for too long.
3:00PM – I was trailing the mountain ridge. Whenever the ocean of clouds parted a little, I had sweeping views of the South China Sea. While my college rowing drills echoed in my head (“Power 10, keep going, in the legs, push it away…”), I powered on further into the clouds. The cheeky breaks for a cold Milo helped (they were as delicious as I remembered). The sweat was definitely worth the satisfaction after reaching Lantau Peak – at 934 metres it’s the second highest point in Hong Kong.
Most people think of Hong Kong just as a city of designer brands, neon nightscapes, nonstop activity and glittering skyscrapers. But the forested, fog-covered hillsides are equally a part of Hong Kong. Surprising fact: three-quarters of Hong Kong land is countryside – sandy beaches, forested mountains or open grassland. Thanks to government conservation efforts from the 1970s, 40 per cent of Hong Kong’s land is protected in country parks – home to a surprising number of species from sea eagles to Burmese pythons. T-5.5 hours to departure.
4:45PM – I was glad the clouds cleared up. I stopped briefly to steal a glance of the Shek Pik Reservoir glistening in the evening sun before I continued inward towards Ngong Ping Village. “Time to pick up the pace,” I told myself.
5:00PM – I passed the Wisdom Path (a series of wooden columns inscribed with verses from the Heart Sutra – a religious text revered from Taoists to Buddhists) and entered Ngong Ping Village. Thanks to the cloudy weather, the crowds visiting the Big Buddha statue weren’t enormous. I sprinted to get in line for Bus #23 back to Tung Chung. T-3.5 hours to departure.
6:15PM – Now came the startling realisation that I had just over 2 hours left to make my flight. After impatiently waiting for the bus door to open in Tung Chung, I dashed into a nearby bakery to grab some buns with red bean paste (another of my favourites) and ran back to catch the airport bus. Almost by magic, it was on stand waiting to depart as I arrived.
6:45PM – Every minute was going to count. Thankfully my previous visits to this airport meant I knew where everything was, so wasted no time getting lost. I went straight to the left luggage counter and picked up my suitcase. Since the Arrivals Lounge was 2 minutes away, I made a split decision. I knew there would be no queue to enter or wait for a shower (everything in Hong Kong is impressively efficient). I also had a change of clothes ready in the front pocket of my suitcase. I paid, set my phone timer to beep loudly in 20 minutes to avoid getting late and jumped into the shower.
7:20PM – Clean and refreshed, I zoomed up in the lift to the check-in counter (luckily the airport is designed for fast movement). With just 2 people ahead of me, I made it 65 minutes before departure. Time to breathe a temporary sigh of relief.
8:20PM – Safely in my seat with my heart rate beginning to reach normal levels, I was ever grateful for HKIA’s efficient operations. Within 30 minutes I was through security and immigration and racing to the gate. As we pushed back from our stand and taxied out to the runway, I smiled thinking about the lady at the Tourism Office that morning. She was clearly flabbergasted at the idea of me going hiking, let alone going up Lantau Peak during a 9 hour transit. I have to admit – it was tight, but I made it in one piece. Until next time, Hong Kong.
Lantau Peak Hike (Pak Kung Au – Ngong Ping)
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