Lantau, Guangzhou, and Macau, China

Over the next few days, I would be leaving the downtown portion of Hong Kong to explore different attractions in the surrounding regions. My first destination would be Lantau Island, the largest island in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR). I planned to spend some time hiking on the mountainous island and visiting the Buddhist temples along the way. The following day would take me into China proper for the only time on this trip, crossing out of the Hong Kong SAR at Shenzhen and then visiting the nearby city of Guangzhou. This was my one opportunity to see a completely Chinese city instead of the Chinese-British hybrid embodied by Hong Kong. Finally, I would be traveling by boat to the unique location known as Macau, a tiny former Portuguese colony situated across the mouth of the Pearl / Zhujiang River from Hong Kong. These days were a bit of a hodgepodge of different locales, ranging from a bustling metropolis packed with people to the mostly-empty hills of an offshore island.

Here's a quick overview of where these places were located in relation to one another. The city of Hong Kong is situated on the northern side of Hong Kong Island, with Kowloon across the narrow waters of Victoria Harbor on the mainland to the north. I would be traveling first to the larger island of Lantau to the west, which also fell within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. On the following day I would cross the border into China proper at Shenzhen, then ride by rail up to the city of Guangzhou in the northwest. Finally, I would travel by ferry a couple days later to the island city of Macau, located further to the west beyond Lantau Island across a narrow portion of the South China Sea. This whole region is one of the most densely populated areas on earth, and everywhere other than Lantau Island would be packed with local people going about their daily routine.

The Monday morning of my trip to Lantau dawned under cloudy skies. It was unusually cold and wet for January in Hong Kong, and I hadn't packed much in the way of jackets or long pants for this trip given that I expected the weather to be mostly tropical. I ended up purchasing a light jacket on Lantau because of how cold it was outside. Anyway, Lantau Island is about twice the size of Hong Kong Island and located a few miles to the west across the harbor. Lantau holds the main airport for Hong Kong and is also the location of Hong Kong Disneyland, but otherwise the island is mostly forested and only sparsely populated. While there are roughly 1.3 million people living on Hong Kong Island, Lantau holds only a little over 100,000 residents despite its greater size. I took the underground subway system over to Lantau's Tung Chung station, then hopped onto an overhead cable car that took me over to the western side of the island. The name for this gondola setup was the Ngong Ping 360 and the dangling cars did indeed offer 360 degree views as they carried me approximately 4 miles / 6 kilometers over the forests below. I had a good view of the airport through the rain-streaked glass as I drew closer to the village of Ngong Ping at the far side.

The main attraction in Ngong Ping village is a towering statue that is locally known as the "Big Buddha" and is officially listed as the Tian Tan Buddha. I was able to see this coming from a good distance away on the cable cars, and this figure dominated the small collection of buildings at its base. These are some of the pictures taken in the village of Ngong Ping; it's a tourist attraction for sure, but there weren't a lot of people present on this weekday morning outside of the main tourist season. I particularly liked the turtle statue which was shockingly similar to the Testudo statues at my University of Maryland. It even had a backdrop of red flowers behind it - did I somehow stumble onto the College Park campus without realizing it?

These are pictures taken from the Po Lin monastery, the reason why a village exists in the hills of Lantau Island at all. This is a Buddhist monastery founded in 1906 by a group of monks visiting from the Chinese mainland. If I'd needed confirmation of that fact, the eight-spoked wheels and the colorful prayer flags would have been dead giveaways that this was a Buddhist place of prayer. The exterior of the monastery was beautifully decorated in a traditional Chinese design, and the interior contained three bronze statues of the Buddha representing his past, present, and future lives. The giant stone Buddha is also an extension of the monastery, although I wasn't able to discover the specific rationale behind why it was constructed. If the goal was seclusion from the rest of the outside world, constructing the huge statue and building a cable car would seem to be counterproductive.

These are some pictures of the Tian Tan Buddha as well as the view from the top looking down at Ngong Ping village below. The statue stands 35 meters / 110 feet in height and was constructed in 1993 out of bronze. Visitors to the Buddha must climb 268 steps to reach the top, where they are greeted by six smaller bronze statues known as "The Offering of the Six Devas" that are posed offering flowers, incense, lamp, ointment, fruit, and music to the main seated Buddha. This is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Hong Kong, and the statue is one of the largest depictions of the Buddha in the world. It was still overcast by the time that I made it up to the top of the Buddha's platform, and the foggy outlook gave this area somewhat of a mystical cast. Here I was up in the hills, surrounded by fog, on an offshore island in China, standing next to a gigantic bronze Buddha. It was a memorable and slightly surreal spot to visit.

At this point I set off to do some hiking into the hills surrounding Ngong Ping. The local trail was named the Wisdom Path in reference to the Buddha, and it passed by an outdoor sculpture intended to represent some aspect of the Eightfold Path. I have no more than a basic knowledge of Buddhism and I can't read Chinese so I'm afraid that I don't know the symbolism behind those stone pillars. The trail was as mountainous as once would expect and quickly wound its way up into the surrounding hills. When it needed to gain elevation, the path turned into a series of crumbling stone staircases that looked as if they could use some maintenance work. I glanced back at one point and caught a view of the big Buddha far off in the distance perched atop his platform. It was a nice way of measuring how far I'd traveled since departing Ngong Ping.

The trail headed uphill until reaching the summit of Lantau Peak, the tallest point on Lantau Island at an elevation of 934 meters / 3065 feet. From this high vantage point, I could look out through the haze towards the east, where the trail headed towards Tung Chung Road down in a valley, then ascended upwards again to another peak. This was where my path would be taking me next as I continued my walk, with the goal of reaching the ferry station on the eastern edge of the island. There were only a handful of other people out on the trail with me, roughly two dozen or so encountered over the course of several hours of hiking. Most of the photographs that I took captured a series of empty vistas, just the narrow line of the trail running through the heights of these hills. There were no trees to be found here, with the soil covered instead by different types of grass. This was a tiring hike due to all of the elevation changes, not helped by the fact that I'd brought no food and only one small bottle of water.

Eventually I made my way down into the valley between the two peaks, then began another climb upwards towards the second one that I'd glimpsed earlier in the day. This was Sunset Peak and the trail was considerably more rugged here, with fewer visitors making their way to the top. One thing that I noticed right away was the fact that "Sunset Peak" had a different name in Chinese; even with my limited knowledge of those characters, I knew that 大東山 translates as "Big East Mountain" and has nothing to do with the sunset at all. This is one place where the shared characters used by Japanese and Chinese came in handy. (The word "sunset" is rendered as 日没; I knew the character for "sun" was missing from this sign.) Anyway, the scenery up here was quite pretty in a rugged way, and I particularly liked the image of the solitary trail sign standing by itself along a cliff's edge where two paths met together. I'd been hiking at this point for close to seven hours and I was starting to get very tired indeed. I didn't want to find myself stuck out in the wilderness when darkness fell. Fortunately I wandered into the outskirts of Mui Wo village as the sun was setting, literally into the back side of the village where the trail dead-ended in the middle of an apartment complex. I was able to catch a ferry back to Hong Kong's Central district from there, completely exhausted and worn out from the long day. I had walked about 10 miles / 16 kilometers on the Lantau Trail, which wouldn't have been that bad except I was going up and down small mountains the whole time.

There was no time to rest though, as I was traveling the next day into China proper by visiting the city of Guangzhou. Hong Kong Island and a small section of the mainland immediately across the harbor are designed as a Special Administrative Region, or SAR, which has its own laws separate from the rest of China. This is due to Hong Kong's former status as a British colony, and there's been a good deal of political tension between Hong Kong and the rest of mainland China over how the region should be treated politically moving forward. While I did not need a visa to enter Hong Kong, I did need one for the rest of China, and I'd gone to the Chinese embassy in Washington DC prior to this trip for permission to cross the border. I rode the local mass transit to the border and crossed into China at Shenzhen, formerly a small village at the edge of colonial Hong Kong now transformed into a massive metropolis. Shenzhen is a hub of industrial production as well as financial investment, and it was one of the fastest growing cities in the world at this time of writing. Unfortunately I took zero pictures of my brief stopover in Shenzhen, nor did I take any pictures of the bullet train that I rode towards my next destination in Guangzhou. It carried me the 80 miles / 130 kilometers from Shenzhen to Guangzhou in less than an hour's travel time.

I was met at the Chinese border by a local English-speaking guide that my brother had hired to take me sightseeing around Guangzhou for the day. Unfortunately it's been more than ten years since this trip and I do not remember his name. We started out at the Guangzhou train station, then headed first to the red-colored building above known as the Zhenhai Tower. Perched on top of Yuexiu Hill, this five story pagoda dated back to the Ming Dynasty and had been turned into a museum tracing the local history of the city. I was able to look down from here at the stadium below and the long expanse of highrise buildings stretching off into the distance. Guangzhou is the capital and largest city of Guangdong province in southern China, with more than 25 million people living in the greater metropolitan area.

Nearby in the same park centered around Yuexiu Hill was this memorial tower. There was a staircase inside that wound up to the top but unfortunately it was fenced off and closed to the public. The park that surrounds Yuexiu Hill is often considered to be the prettiest location in the city of Guangzhou, and it was indeed showing its best face on this sunny day outside. There were plenty of green spaces where visitors could sit down and relax outdoors, and the walking paths lined with red-painted Chinese lanterns added an exotic touch to the place, at least from my perspective. This was a pleasant area to walk around outside.

The same park contained Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall down at the base of the hill. This is a hall used mostly for theatre performances dedicated to the memory of Sun Yat-sen, the political leader who helped overthrow the Qing dynasty and briefly served as the first president of China in 1912. Sun Yat-sen is the rare politician to be revered both by the Chinese government (for his role as a revolutionary) and the Taiwanese government (for his commitment to democratic principles). This memorial hall was constructed in 1931 in an octogonal shape and seats a little over 3000 people inside for live performances. My guide had no special permission to access the hall but was able to talk his way inside the building, where my poor camera once again let me down in terms of picture quality. There was a woman practicing some kind of wire act on the stage when we were inside, floating about 20 feet up in the air on a series of ropes. This building may have been built in the 20th century but it felt very traditionally Chinese in its aesthetic.

A few blocks away from the memorial hall was this tall vertical pagoda, a religious venue known as the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. This Buddhist temple was originally built in 537 AD, although the buildings seen today are more recent in origin due to a series of different fires that have broken out over the centuries. The main pagoda is known as the Flower Pagoda and was first built in 1373 before undergoing a thorough restoration in the 20th century to produce the structure seen today. The Temple of the Six Banyan Trees was more than just the one tall pagoda though, and it contained several smaller surrounding buildings where visitors were saying prayers. The religious architecture was completely different than what I was used to seeing in Western countries, not just in terms of building exteriors but also on the inside where visitors were sitting on low padded seats in an open room. This was an experience outside of what I was familiar with.

I discovered on my visit that the Flower Pagoda wasn't just a decorative prop: it was possible to enter the structure and climb a series of staircases up to the top. This was excellent news as it allowed me to take in some views of the surrounding city of Guangzhou, with the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees situated right in the middle of a residential neighborhood. What I spotted from the top of the pagoda was ramshackle apartment buildings stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction. This was a densely packed part of the city and it was obvious that there were millions of people living in conditions of poverty. I tried my best to imagine myself in the shoes of these people, thinking about how my life would be completely different if I had been born to one of these families. I don't think that life under these conditions would necessarily be terrible, but it certainly would be very different and lacking in many of the material comforts that I take for granted. Americans would do well to remember that this is how most of the world lives on a daily basis.

These pictures were taken from another nearby temple in downtown Guangzhou known as the Guangxiao Temple. This complex of buildings has an even older founding date all the way back during the Han Dynasty in 233 AD. Unfortunately, almost all of the buildings here are recreations of earlier structures since the original versions were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. This place seemed to have more statues of the Buddha on display than I can recall seeing elsewhere, and it stood out for having colorfully painted larger-than-life angry statues flanking the main entrance. I don't know enough about Buddhism to guess what they were supposed to represent. The inner courtyard was a peaceful place in contrast to the busy streets outside.

We had to take the local bus to our next tourist stopover since it wasn't close to the other places that I'd visited thus far. This was the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, a series of academic buildings on the western side of Guangzhou famed for the intricate carvings located along their roofs. As the story goes, the Chen family decided to build a temple both for the worship of their ancestors and to serve as an academy to train their clansmen for the imperial examination during the late Qing Dynasty. The main hall was completed in 1894, and the buldings continued to be used as a private school after the overthrow of the Qin Dynasty and the end of the imperial examination. The intricate rooftop carvings were slated for demolition during the Cultural Revolution, only to be saved when quick-thinking locals installed a printshop for publishing works by Mao Zedong. The ridge crest designs are therefore originals and have survived to the present day. The carvings stretch for 27 meters / 90 feet and contain a total of 224 figures draw from traditional Chinese mythology. Although it was a little bit difficult to see the finer details from the ground, these buildings reflected an impressive amount of craftsmanship.

My guide finished up my trip to Guangzhou by taking me to the waterfront area. This was formerly known as the Pearl River back when the city went by the name Canton, and it was a de facto British colony for much of the 19th century. This was ground zero for the Opium War conflict, as unscrupulous British traders forcibly opened up the Chinese market to outside goods. Today the river is known by its Chinese name of Zhujiang just as the city goes by its Chinese name of Guangzhou. Signs of the past are still present for anyone looking closely, however, such as this cannon that I found along the waterfront bearing a date of 1841, or the old British building with the clock tower now surrounded by newer Chinese construction. Guangzhou was a thriving city looking forward into the future even as it still retained these ties to the past.

From the riverside, I returned back to the Guangzhou train station and said farewell to my guide, riding a series of trains back to Hong Kong again for the night. After two long and busy days of sightseeing, I took things a lot easier the next day, sleeping in on this Wednesday and using the time to do some local exploring on the eastern side of Hong Kong. I hadn't been over to this part of the city before and I did some lighter exploration of the attractions in the area. Some of these pictures were taken from the waterfront area near the convention center, where I was able to look across the water at the skyscrapers in the Central district as well as catch the Peak in the background. I also spent a fair amount of time exploring the huge Hong Kong Central Library and the nearby sports grounds outside. Basketball was clearly the most popular sport being played in Hong Kong, and there never seemed to be a shortage of young people out on the courts. On the same sports note, I also wandered past the stadium where the equestrian events would be held for the 2008 Olympics later that year. The venue was still under construction at the time, tucked into the eastern portion of the city near the pre-existing horse track.

I was meeting my brother that night at the horse track to catch some of the races. This track is known as Happy Valley and it holds horse races every Wednesday night, or at least it did at the time that I visisted. I payed a slightly higher price to be able to sit in one of the reserved boxes as opposed to be in the general admission area, and this provided an excellent view of the track itself. Unfortunately it also meant sitting in an enclosed area with a bunch of serious Chinese gamblers, most of whom were smoking up a storm and filling the area with cigarette smoke. It was bad enough that the two of us only stayed for a couple of races before heading out to get some dinner. I was struck here by the differences from the few times that I've been to a horse track in the United States. The setup in Hong Kong used all of the British conventions, such as the horses racing in a clockwise as opposed to a counterclockwise direction that looked backwards to my eyes. The track also used a grass surface instead of the dirt more typically used in the USA. I am not a gambler and this didn't hold my attention for too long, but at the same time I'm also glad that I had this opportunity to see a local sporting event in person.

For the following day, I had scheduled a trip over to the island city of Macau. A ferry runs each day from Hong Kong's Central district over to Macau, a trip that took about 90 minutes to complete. This was another day of poor weather and I spotted relatively few other passengers on deck as I boarded the much larger and sleeker craft. This boat was a lot faster than the Star Ferries that carry passengers across Victoria Harbor to Kowloon. I spent the ferry trip looking out through the rain-soaked windows at the many islands located in the waters beyond Hong Kong's harbor. While Lantau was the largest of these by far, there were dozens of smaller islands that the ferry passed along the way, some of them inhabited and some of them not. Eventually the ferry reached the Outer Harbour Ferry Terminal in Macau, or the Terminal Marítimo do Porto Exterior in the local Portuguese.

Macau is a place that by all rights should not exist. It was formerly a Portuguese colony, established as a trading post after the island was loaned by the Ming Dynasty in 1557, and the tiny territory remained under Portuguese rule until 1999 when it was handed back to China. Today Macau is a Special Administrative Region in the same vein as Hong Kong, with its own separate government system. Unlike the international finance center of Hong Kong, Macau developed in a different direction and instead became synonymous with casino gambling. Thanks to the influx of wealthy Chinese businesses, Macau developed rapidly after transferring over to Chinese control and has become one of the largest gambling centers in the world. The gaming industry here is seven times larger than Las Vegas, for example. This has made Macau both an incredibly wealthy city and also one suffering from severe income inequality, with its money concentrated in relatively few hands while the great masses of the population live in poverty. I took these pictures while walking around the ritsy casino district, where the outdoor streets were strangely deserted due to the poor weather, including passing by a statue of local sea goddess Kun Iam that I found along the way. I also made sure to capture at least one picture of what the apartments looked like outside of the casino area, in an attempt to highlight where most people in the city actually lived.

Walking through one of the more expensive residential districts in Macau was a disorienting experience. The buildings that I came across were brightly painted and designed with Mediterranean-style architecture, complete with open public plazas lined with cobblestone bricks. Catholic churches were a common sight and the signs on the buildings were written in a Romance language using Latin characters. Even the climate wasn't too far different from what I would have expected to find in Italy or Portugal, although it continued to be uncommonly cold for this locale. But Macau was of course not part of southern Europe, and the vast majority of the people walking the streets of the city were ethnic Chinese. The whole place was a bizarre mixture of Portugal + China + Las Vegas that I couldn't compare to anything else.

The oldest parts of Macau include the Ruins of St. Paul's Church and the Fortaleza do Monte fortifications, both of them located near the center of the modern city up on the highest elevation. The Ruins of St. Paul (Ruínas de São Paulo) are the remains of a 17th century church constructed by Jesuit missionaries between 1602 and 1640. This was one of the largest churches in Asia at one point in time, and it stood for almost two centuries before being destroyed by a typhoon in 1835. The southern stone facade was the only part of the building that survived, and it was preserved due to its carvings of Jesuit images mixed together with Oriental themes. The Ruins of St. Paul are probably the most famous image associated with Macau today, and I saw this building depicted on all sorts of tourist merchandise when I visted. It sits next to the Fortaleza do Monte, the military fort also constructed in the 17th century to defend the Portuguese colony. Today this military fort has been converted over to a museum tracing the history of Macau, and the views from the top of the hill looking out over the rest of the city remain excellent.

I finished up my trip to Macau by walking back through the casino district again. There were at least a dozen casinos in this area, ranging from the Grand Lisboa to the MGM Macau to the Sands, and this seemed to be where most of the activity was taking place. I went into the Grand Lisboa and spent some time walking around, although of course they did not allow pictures to be taken inside. It was pretty much the usual sight for a casino, lots of people using slot machines or playing different types of table games. The place was also full of heavy smoking, with cigarettes being far more common in China than in the United States and without the more recent laws that prohibit smoking indoors. My understanding is that gambling is very popular in Chinese culture, and that certainly seemed to be the case here. The whole vibe of the casino district felt artificial to me, whether it was the fake Roman Colosseum or the fake medieval castle or the fake Tudor-style houses used as decorative props. Obviously this is the same vibe present in Las Vegas, but I don't particularly care for Vegas either. While I'm glad that I had the chance to visit Macau and see this crazy blending of different cultures, I'm not interested in gambling and therefore this wasn't the place for me.

Taken as a group, this had certainly been an unusual collection of side trips from Hong Kong. I went from the empty hills of Lantau Island, with its isolated Buddhist monastery, to the crowded metropolis of Guangzhou in mainland China, and then to the strange Portuguese-Chinese gambling den of Macau. All of these places were worth seeing as day trips, and I'm pleased that I had the opportunity to experience some of the different locales. To close out this trip, my brother and I would fly across the South China Sea to the city of Bangkok, Thailand where we spent a three day weekend exploring another new city. That's the subject of the next page.