Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hong Kong

Two International Financial Centre. This prosaically named building was being built when i was last in Hong Kong in 2002. It became the third highest building in the world, but has since been overtaken by several others, not least the Burj Dubai which, incredibly, will (when completed) be twice as tall.

It's been 5 years since I first visited Hong Kong, and I wondered how much this stellar city would have changed in that time, and whether my high expectations from that first visit would be met.

I had three days in the former British colony and as well as testing my previous experience, I planned to see some of the sights I’d missed, first time around.

Sculpture in downtown Hong Kong.

Hong Kong may be the fastest changing city on earth. When I was last there it had been 5 years since Britain’s 99 year lease had expired and the general consensus was that Hong Kong’s economic and social transformation had been unchecked by Chinese stewardship. A further 5 years down the line and I can personally confirm that Hong Kong is still a whirlwind of development.

For example, when I was last there, they were busy building the third highest building in the world. That building was finished a few months after I left. But, impressive as it is, its already in danger of being forgotten, as already a taller building is under construction in Kowloon and several still-taller buildings are in the planning stages.

The largest seated Buddha in the world on Lantau Island, HK.

The transport system is also something that never stands still. The new airport is the product of one of the largest land-reclamation schemes ever. Having been to the even-newer Bangkok International airport, I feel that Hong Kong’s is no longer the world’s most impressive (in my limited experience). However, HK’s public transport system is something Bangkok can only dream of. The MTR seems to operate perfectly and effortlessly with stacks of spare capacity whenever I used it. And officials in Hong Kong have a greater appetite for public works even than those in Japan. The latest plan is for an extension to the train system to link Kowloon with Macau. At present Macau is an hour’s journey away by speedboat. This would be the largest bridge of its type in the world.

This development comes at a cost though. China’s environmental record has come under considerable scrutiny in the last 18 months as record growth has resulted in record levels of pollution and a move towards some unenviable records. In particular, climate-change sceptics in the US point to China’s progress towards the title of greatest contributor to global warming as an excuse for foot-dragging on reducing domestic carbon emissions (China will still be well behind the US on emissions per head).

Despite its low levels of industrial activity, Hong Kong is a significant contributor to China’s environmental footprint. In addition, the colony also has a significant environmental impact at the local level. This was something I would see myself on my second day in Hong Kong.

The Chinese White Dolphin is one of the most endangered dolphin species in the world. I took a trip out into the harbour on a dolphin spotting tour to try to see these beautiful animals, which - in spite of the name - are actually tinged pink. You can see from the pics that we got very close to the dolphins and it was a really exciting trip, although we had to wait an eye-straining 90 minutes before we spotted the first one. The dolphins played around the boat, usually at distance but sometimes swimming close. Given the huge volume of ferry, freight and sight-seeing craft in the harbour, its amazing that the animals survive at all, and that they will come so close to boats.

The other highlight of Hong Kong for me was the horse-racing. HK is famous for Happy Valley racecourse, a track squeezed into the built-up area of Hong Kong island. However, while I was in HK there were no meetings at that track. But such is the popularity of horse-racing in a place where it is the only legal form of gambling, that there is another venue for horse racing just a few miles away on the Kowloon peninsula. Sha Tin racecourse is an amazing stadium with capacity for 85000 people and over 1000 horses! Even the parade ring has seating for several hundred people and its own stadium-style all-weather roof.

Liking the odd small gamble, I loved the place and had a great afternoon there. In the first race, I backed a rank outsider at about 35-1. It led right the way round the course and was still in the lead coming down the final stretch! Of course, it was seventh by the end, but it did get me excited.

This fella would have had about as much chance as my pick in the second race of the day.

After two races, my small petty cash fund had run out, so I make a withdrawal from the ATM and put a slightly less modest bet on the third race. The picture below is off the closing stages of that race. And what a cracker it was! I backed a one-two-three and raked in over HK$1000!!! This paid for my accommodation for my whole stay in Hong Kong... which was nice!

Come on Dover - Move yer bloomin' arse!!!

So my second day in HK was a cracker. Unfortunately I spent the whole of the third day in bed with food poisoning! I guess I'd used up all my luck at the racecourse. Even so, it was great to go back to Hong Kong. The dolphin spotting, horseracing and the island hopping I did on the first day made for a great few days. And quite different to my first visit into the bargain. Next stop Sydney.

Attractive sandy swimming beach on Cheung Chau island, 30 minutes from HK by ferry. HK's mass of people and activity has an impact on the environment for some distance around.

Coincidentally, I watched the Al Gore film "An Inconvenient Truth" on the flight to Hong Kong. If you haven't seen it, I'd implore you to make every effort to watch it. Though it has come in for some criticism for a few of the things it claims, it is an incredibly compelling film and hopefully one that will have a significant impact on the way politicians in particular view the environment and their moral responsibilities. It just so happens that, as I write this, there are only 24 hours before Australians go to the polls in the national elections. Surveys suggest that the former global warming sceptic and enivronmentalists nightmare John Howard will be defeated by the more left-leaning (but still quite right wing compared to UK politics) Kevin Rudd. But more on that in another update.

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