It may be famous for its skyline, its double-decker trams, its shopping and its fabulous Asian food – but the real attraction of Hong Kong is a mountain escalator made for commuters
Standing on the cramped 7.44 to Birmingham New Street on a drizzly Tuesday morning, approaching the eyesores of England's second city, I started daydreaming about Hong Kong. Not content with having the world's best skyline, locals there have bagged the world’s best commute to work as well (if such a thing can exist).
Hong Kong Island is the business and commerce centre of the former British colony, with some stupendously sexy skyscrapers. With ground rent on the island extortionate for all but the likes of HSBC and Bank of China, many of the locals and expats who have traditionally worked in these offices live in the tower blocks of the Mid-Levels – a residential area halfway up Victoria Peak, the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island.
Until 1994, getting to and from work was more of a chore than the actual nine-to-five grind of office life. Roads were continually clogged with cars, taxis and buses, while walking was not an option either, given the near-vertical gradient and the legendary heat, humidity and rainfall of Hong Kong.
Now, no such problems exist, thanks to the construction of the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator and Walkway System – the longest covered escalator in the world. Its 800m length of moving staircase runs downhill in the mornings and uphill from 10am until midnight, and the complete journey from the Mid-Levels to the offices of Central takes about 20 minutes.
You might think there is nothing for the tourist here, but you would be wrong. The walkway system provides all kinds of opportunities for alternative sightseeing and people-watching – the kind of thing you would never get on any organised tour. I would say a ride on the escalator is Hong Kong’s number one highlight – and it won’t cost you a penny.
Unfortunately, my plan to take the walkway down to Central one morning – along with all the suited-and-booted commuters – was scuppered by my inability to get up before 10am (for which I blame Hong Kong’s number two highlight, the karaoke bars of Lan Kwai Fong). However, I did enjoy the journey uphill from Central, peering into people’s kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms – because, at times, the walkway is just inches away from windows of the flats.
Five minutes uphill from Central, you will pass through SoHo – a good stop-off point for a meal and a quick Tsingtao beer. In fact, bars line this part of the escalator, making it ideal pub-crawl territory – and there is no need to worry about a designated driver or finding a taxi home at the end of the night. Reaching journey’s end at the Mid-Levels is a bit of an anti-climax, so it’s best to run back down the steps to Central and have another go on Hong Kong's magical stairway to heaven.
There's only one place to stay if you want to experience the high life in HK - The Peninsula (Salisbury Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong). Make sure you book a room with a harbour view overlooking Victoria Harbour and the skyscrapers of Central. If your wallet stretches, book a Rolls Royce transfer from the airport.
A perfect mid-price choice is the Stanford Hillview Hotel on Observatory Road in Tsim Sha Tsui – an ideal base for the shops, bars and restaurants, and within easy walking distance of the Star Ferry terminal. Doubles cost from HK$1400
At the other end of the scale is Lee Garden Guest House at 34-36 Cameron Road in Kowloon. Doubles here cost just HK$400 and are clean, basic and small, but above all slap bang in the middle of Tsim Sha Tsui.
There's no reason why you can't split your trip to HK between these three hotels.