Shadows of the Queen

“How much farther?” she asks me, her breath already starting to sound heavy. The air is thinner up here, and the cars less. A few pedestrians pace on the sidewalk, while a gentle evening breeze comes on, racing through the shadows of skyscrapers.

“I can see it, up there,” or at least I think I see the building. In truth, there are so many trees and buildings blocking the view, it’s hard to tell if the building up ahead is actually the tram center for Victoria Peak. We decided to take the Mid-Levels tour, a staggering 800 meter-long escalator that runs up the belly of Victoria Peak from the sea. It was mostly because last time we were in Hong Kong we wanted to go on the legendary stairway, but we failed to find the entrance.

However, this trip didn’t turn out much better. I look up to the mountain and see the giant square building that looks out on the horizon from the summit, and wonder if we will ever get there before the sun sets. We are wandering in the upper levels of the city, a dizzying blur of restaurants, rising streets, and apartment buildings that rise like dirks into the murky sky.

At least we managed to find the entrance. Located squarely at Central Station, one need only follow the elevated platform towards the mountain and then… walk up.

 

The island of Cheung Chau is a dream. We sit at a seaside restaurant, listening to the sounds of the waves lap against the anchored boats. The ferry that goes from Central Station to the island is setting out, leaving a wide wake that causes several of the neighboring boats to dangerous teeter to one side. It was an inexpensive and relaxing ride, taking about a half-hour. I spent a long time just sitting quietly and listening to the sound of the waves.

Cheung Chau is an island steeped in mystery and intrigue. Home to the famous Cheung Po Tsai pirate cave, it once was the Tortuga of Asia, being a safe bastion for hundreds of ships, and about 20,000 pirates. They were under the command of a warlord named “The Kid,” who harassed Qing dynasty officials for years until he was offered a position in the government, when he relented of his ways and became an enforcer against piracy. The unique shape of the island provided that the pirates could anchor their boats on the opposite side, and the heavy mist that often cloaks the area provided for an almost unstoppable army.

The island is also famous to having an enormous number of dogs, many of them wild. When we took our walk to the Cheung Po Tsai cave later that afternoon, we passed by a group of dogs that were hiding out in a local cemetery. They approached us, and we froze, feeling like wolf meat. However, they merely crossed the road and disappeared into the jungle, and we continued on our way.

 

The sun has nearly set; we are now climbing. Somewhere down the road we missed the tram, and every now and then we can see it climbing the green hills toward the Peak. The road has risen to about a thirty degree angle, and we are putting everything into just staying balanced. The roads in Cheung Chau were much nicer; as we scaled the hills of the island, we were walking through a fairyland of luxurious abodes, a literal amalgamation of British architectural styles reminiscent of Tianjin. Here, finally on the Mid-Levels, the multi-million dollar apartments rise high above our heads and disappear into the mist, the tops covered by gray fog and burning electric lights.

“There!” I proclaim, and then with a sinking feeling realize what is ahead.

She looks at me, sweet as anything. I’m not sure she knows what I’m putting her through. This was supposed to be a romantic outing, but it’s turning out to be worse than a high school P.E. Class.

As the road ends, a trail begins. We step over the chain and find ourselves looking at an even steeper incline.

“Is this ok?” I am exasperated. Such an ordeal, but what seems like just a simple request: see the top of Victoria Peak, but rather than going on the usual tourist buses, find our own way there. Such idealism seems to have gotten us into a bit of trouble.

She smiles. “Let’s go!” I admire her optimism.

As we scale the mountain, the barking of dogs echo across the hills. The Mid-Levels are home to some of the most expensive homes in the world, at least for their miniature size. Millionaires are lucky to own a single flat. Much of the upper-class Hong Kong citizens employ workers from the Philippines as maids, and own a dog or two. We didn’t know it at the time, but discovered later that this was a secret trail known to the owners of those dogs and their dog-walkers, as they were the only hikers we met on the trail. That, and the sound of our feet.

 

Two days before we were scaling a different kind of mountain. Located in the furthest south you can go in Hong Kong near the city of Aberdeen, Ocean Park is an amusement park known for two things: an endangered species zoo/aquarium, as well as roller coasters that not only have awesome speeds and hills, but are built in Hong Kong-style: into the hills.

Riding on a 1.5 kilometer gondola cable-car system takes fun-goers from one end of the park to the other, scaling a high mountain with an unprecedented view, and letting people off near the summit, where they must climb down to either the rides portion of the park (which also houses a number of aquariums) or make their way through a series of labyrinthine escalators to the lower parking lot.

The top of the park gives a great view of Aberdeen, as well as the vast sea that spreads out to the south. At the low price of about 240 Hong Kong dollars (that’s about 31 US dollars) the trip was one of our most memorable, viewing giant pandas, riding roller coasters, and taking in the sights of one of the most beautiful panoramas on the island.

 

The sun has set. As we climbed through verdant woods, the sun set into the horizon and fell below the sea. We climbed high enough to across the tops of the Mid-Level apartments, witnessing light fall on their side and turn into a kaleidoscope of steel and glass.

It’s windy on the peak, but we’ve found shelter at the top of the mall, where the only sound is the air whistling through our jackets. It’s beautiful here; the night sky has made it clear it will not be held back by modern technologies, with stars glimmering above our heads, shining through sparse clouds.

The horizon of Hong Kong is glorious, and it’s no wonder why it is memorable. We hold hands and look out across a sea of lights, until they are swallowed up in darkness.

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