Channel hopping

Frank Partridge takes a fast ferry tour around Hong Kong's main group of islands
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The Independent Travel

Until I went there, I had never studied a map of Hong Kong. I was aware that the city lay on an island off the South-east coast of China, and that the pressure of space and the threat of long-range gunnery had led to the acquisition of Kowloon and the New Territories on the Chinese mainland, in effect pushing the border back a few miles. Once I saw a photograph of a highrise housing development in the New Territories. It wasn’t so much an estate as an entire city of identical 30-storey blocks, lined up beside each other as far as the eye could see, like gravestones in a war cemetery. I resolved never to visit the New Territories.

The high-rise blocks are still there – and more are being built to accommodate Hong Kong’s population of nearly seven million – but the essential fact that escaped me is that the peninsula’s land mass is big enough to contain a city twice or three times that size. Nearly half of the New Territories is unoccupied, and Hong Kong Island itself is merely one of 260 islands sprinkled across the peninsula – most of them uninhabited and only accessible by private boat.

Nor is Hong Kong the largest of the islands. Lantau is nearly twice its size, and despite being the home of the international airport and Hong Kong Disneyland, most of it is undeveloped too. Twin, imposing peaks form its spine, and there are wide expanses of forest and near-wilderness that look much as they did when the island was leased from China, along with the New Territories, in 1898.

Apart from two necessary visits to the airport (and possibly an excursion to see Mickey Mouse) the reason most international visitors are drawn to Lantau is to climb the stairway to the extraordinary bronze Buddha statue set high in the hills in the centre of the island, near the sacred monastery of Po Lin. Even in India, there are few larger Buddhas than the 110ft (34m) structure, which was completed in 1993 and sits at the top of 268 steps. At close quarters the Buddha seems disproportionately large and self-regarding, but when viewed from a distance and framed by the mountains it’s quite in keeping with the dramatic, green landscape that is often compared – especially on damp, misty days – with the Scottish Highlands. On a warm, sunny day, however, climbing to the summit can be exhausting, and no visit is complete without the vegetarian food and refreshing soft drinks prepared by the monks at the monastery.

The most enjoyable way of getting to Lantau is by fast ferry from the Central ferry pier, followed by a bus or taxi inland. Another ferry hop gives access to an entirely different proposition, tucked away on the far west of the island. Tai O is the region’s last remaining fishing village constructed on stilts. Both the Hong Kong fishing industry and the population of this remote settlement have declined sharply in modern times: less than an hour away, after all, the streets are said to be paved with gold, and most of the young generation appear to have bought a one-way ferry ticket. But Tai O hangs on, mostly for the benefit of day-trippers photographing the rickety wooden water-houses or stocking up on supplies of pungent dried fish and seafood at the market on the main street. Actually, until a decade ago the “main street” was the soupy estuary with its tangle of boats, and you got from one side to the other by rope ferry. A small bridge now spans the waterway, but there are still fish and red crabs to be caught, and the locals enhance their income by taking visitors down-river to see the dolphins. Schools of Chinese white dolphins (which turn pink in adulthood) make frequent appearances all year round, attracted by the rich marine life of the estuary waters, which are freshened and oxygenated by the mangrove swamps.

Two other islands of note to the west of Hong Kong are Cheung Chau and Peng Chau. About a millennium ago, Cheung Chau’s dumb-bell shape was formed when two separate islands joined. All these years later, the narrow handle in the middle is still less than a quarter of a mile wide – room enough to contain an excellent sandy beach. The island’s other big attraction is that cars are forbidden, which doesn’t mean to say the roads are quiet. In fact they teem with noisy, miniature five-wheeled “lorries” transporting goods to and from the busy harbour. While I was there a fire alarm went off, and miniature fire engines came hurtling down the road in search of the flames, providing a slightly alarming spectacle.

Unlike the ageing fishing community of Tai O, this island’s fishing community is thriving. At any one time up to 100 craft skitter about the harbour, somehow avoiding each other as they bring in their catch. These are dried in the sun, salted, and sold in great mounds at the market. Processing takes a week, but it’s said that the brightly-coloured remains are edible for up to 10 years. The smell seemed to hang around me for the rest of the day. “People who like them call it ‘fragrant’, said Bruce, my guide, “but people who don’t say ‘fishy’.”

Set back from the shore, a live fish shop stands next to a restaurant. You select your lunch from the collection of bubbling plastic tanks and take it next door for the chef to cook it. I didn’t care to ask whether it was the fishmonger or the chef who acted as final executioner.

A small, colourful temple further inland is dedicated to Pak Tai, a Taoist god who is believed to have saved half the population from bubonic plague in the mid- 1800s. Worshippers bring gifts of fruit, meat and vegetables to the altar, and burn coils or sticks of incense, believing that the smoke rises to heaven with their wishes in tow. Sceptical scientists say that it may have been the incense fumes that cured the plague.

The final hop is to the tiny island of Peng Chau. Near the pier, alleyways lead to a scattering of shops and more temples. It’s a peaceful way to spend a few hours, and you can do a complete circuit in half an hour, but the peace and quiet is heavenly as you contemplate the boat trip back to the maelstrom.

Hong Kong’s other main group of islands lies east of the New Territories, jutting out into the South China Sea. The cruise boat leaves from a mainland pier only 45 minutes by train from the city centre, but immediately out to sea it becomes clear that this stretch of coastline is dramatically different to the south. Prehistoric movements of land have produced curious rock formations, and the action of the sea and wind have further indented the shore. It’s as if you’ve been transported from Norfolk to Norway in the blink of an eye.

There’s an ecological edge to this cruise. Among the passengers may be Chong Dee Hwa, who studies the movement of fish around Hong Kong, and worries about man’s impact on the environment. Amid such resplendent scenery, with scarcely any human settlement in this protected marine area, our impact appears nonexistent, but below the waves, it seems, the fish are changing their migrating patterns. Chong’s colleague, David Man, despairs of the young generation, most of whom rarely make use of Hong Kong’s wide open spaces.

The boat heads up the narrow Tolo Channel, passing a Chinese customs launch in the middle of the waterway. The first stop is on the mainland, at the traditional, walled village of Lai Chi Wo, one of nine that remain in the New Territories. These days it’s inhabited by a mainly elderly population and their somnolent dogs. The trunk of an ancient tree has been virtually hollowed out, but careful husbandry has ensured its survival. These people care about their silent, wooded environment.

Out to sea again, three of the larger islands in the group shelter an entrancing basin of still, glassy water known in English as Double Haven. We pass rocky headlands, sandflats and deep green mangrove swamps along the shore. At Crooked Island, we stop to visit a temple dedicated to the goddess, Tin Hau, the protector of all sea-farers, to whom the local womenfolk sent up prayers and incense for the safe return of their fishermen husbands. At Grass Island, we follow a wooded path to a pavilion on high grassland overlooking a wide, deserted bay and the South China Sea beyond. One member of our party is Celine, a young newspaper reporter from the city, who heard about the cruise only recently and has brought her notebook to write about it. In half a day she has encountered people and places in her own backyard that she never dreamed existed. She has her story.

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