Here it is: my last day in Hong Kong. After indulging in the lavish breakfast buffet at my hotel (everything from waffles to eggrolls), I left Disney property and rode the metro out to the end of the line at Tung Chung. From there, it’s a short walk to the terminal for the Ngong Ping 360 skyway.
The skyway is brand new, only about 5 months old and a real marvel of engineering. Where the Ocean Park skyway was a rickety, rusting open-air nightmare, the NP360 is about as sleek and modern (not to mention enclosed and air-conditioned) as you can get. I shared a compartment with four women, some local, some visiting friends. Rising dramatically from the station, we pass by Hong Kong International Airport, then over a huge bay toward the mountains of Lantau Island.
The amazing thing about this part of the journey is that there are no support structures anywhere over the water. It feels a bit like a magic trick, like your levitating, floating along a cable that appears to be held up by nothing. It’s also a bit disconcerting. You count 10, 12, 14 cabins on the wire, and wonder just how many cabins can this stretch of cable hold before it snaps and sends us all plummeting into the water below?
Pretty soon, the cables begin climbing up the side of the mountian, and before you have a chance to think about it, your cabin is plunged into a dense white fog. It’s a weird feeling. There’s no motor noise and nothing to see except blank whiteness all around you. It’s impossible to tell how high you are or if you’re even still moving.
About this time, my cabin-mates strike up a conversation. “Pretty amazing, huh?” “Yeah,” I replied. “Of course, you must ride these all the time where you’re from.” Huh? This seemed to make no sense. “You mean in America?” I ask. “Oh, you’re American? We thought you were from Europe.” Upon learning I was American, they launched into a spiel about how most folks hate George W. Bush, but they love him because his foreign trade policies have been so good for China. I confessed that I didn’t know much about international economics, but that Dubya wasn’t one of my favorite presidents. They seemed surprised and a little embarrased, having assumed that I as an American would naturally be a big Bush-backer. They also asked me if I’d had any trouble with the language barrier. “Everyone speaks English,” I said. One of the other women spoke up, “Yes. My husband made me learn Cantonese, and since we moved here, I haven’t used it once!” For what it’s worth, I tried to learn a few phrases but gave up after discovering that I had no ear for tones.
In an instant, we emerged from the clouds on the other side of the mountain, and in the distance, perched on a hilltop, sat the famous Big Buddha of Lantau Island. “Isn’t he beautiful?” one of the ladies asked rhetorically. “He’s so peaceful.” I looked at the statue and realized she was right. And, suddenly I gained a new appreciation for religious iconography.
After a lifetime spent looking at the crucuifed Jesus, painfully dying for my sins, the idea of looking at a religious icon and sensing nothing but peace and relaxation was kind of novel. And, it struck me that this kind of “calm down, everything’s going to be okay” feeling was exactly what you should be getting from your religion. Even as we crossed the last giant chasm, looking at the Big Buddha, I lost all apprehension about the cable snapping and plumetting to my death.
The skyway lets you off in the “village” of Ngong Ping. I put that word in quotes because what lay between the station and the statue was a completely artificial, rather Disney-esque, fake “village” composed of trinket shops and (yes, indeed) a Starbucks, and a little further along, the 700th 7-Eleven store in Hong Kong.
Also in Ngong Ping are two attractions that were included in the price of my tram ticket. (I sprung for the package.) These too are straight out of the Disney design guide. The first was the Monkey’s Tale Theatre, which was an animated film shown in a theatre made up to resemble a jungle ruin. The film (without any dialogue) tells the story of three wacky cartoon monkeys, one of whom tries to be greedy and take the fruit left on a Bhudda-as-monkey statue as an offering. He keeps getting zapped with lightning as he tries ever more complex ways (think Wile E. Coyote) of getting the “forbidden” fruit. Only when he agrees to stop being greedy and share the fruit with his friends is he allowed to eat it, and all the monkeys are rewarded with more fruit for having learned the lesson.
The second attraction, “Walking With Buddha” was more elaborate. You get headphones so each person can hear the narration in his/her own language; mine had a British accent. First stop was a lanai that looked suspiciously like the one at the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland, complete with artificial mist and an audio-animatronic tree-spirit. Next was another animated movie that told the Cliff’s Notes version of the life of Siddhartha. Then, there was a walk through an indoor forest which reminded me of the queue area for the old E.T. ride at Universal Studios. Finally, there was another short film about how the lessons Siddhartha learned can be used in everyday life today. After the film, you were lead into a long temple-like chamber with a giant “crystal” (probably clear plastic though) Buddha statue at the end. Along the walls of the chamber were wooden bowls filled with “leaves” made from paper, printed with great Buddha quotes. We were encouraged to take a leaf at random and insert it into an ATM-like slot at the base of the statue. My leaf said something like, “The richest man is he who has nothing.” I insterted into the slot, and watched in amusement as a light-projection image of my leaf swirled around the inside of the “crystal” statue before shooting heavenward in a beam of white light.
Visually impressive, yes, but ultimately leaving you with the same feeling you get by tossing a penny over your shoulder into a wishing well. Amusingly, after being treated to two films, a mechanical tree and a video-projected leaf telling you that greed is bad and helping the needy is good, the tour lets out into… a tacky giftshop, where you can buy all manner of crass commercial knicknacks at vastly inflated tourist prices. So much for lessons learned.
Leaving the “village”, it’s a short walk up the road to the Big Buddha itself. There’s a small suggested donation to see it up close, but your ticket also entitles you to a free lunch at the nearby Po Lin Monastery. Trudging up the stairs (I lost count of how many there were.) starts easily enough, but ends up knocking the wind out of you. All along the ascent, I passed elderly tourists ready to give up on the challenge. I persevered though, and I have to say that the view from the top is worth it. Not only is there a magnificent view of the monastery and the village below, but seeing the statue close up (and even going inside, where there’s a sort of crypt) was breathtaking. The bronze statue (supposedly the largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha in the world) is surprisingly modern, dating from only 1993. It looks like it’s been there forever.
Working my way back down to earth, I headed over to the monastery for lunch. The setting wasn’t as exotic as you might think; it pretty much felt like your typical hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant. Lunch was a vegetarian set-menu, and I appeared to be the only white person eating there. First up was a bowl of mushroom soup that was clear and disturbingly gelatinous. It dripped from my spoon like thick, lumpy corn syrup. Next, was some mushroom tempura. Then, a mushroom-and-veggie stir-fry. About this time, I was really, really getting sick of mushrooms. The next course was sort of meaty, probably a giant slice of Portobello mushroom, but I couldn’t tell for sure. All I remember was that my initial response to learning the meal was vegetarian was, “that’s too bad, I was hoping for something meaty”, and now it was, “thank God, at least I know that whatever this is I’m about to eat never had legs.” Eventually, after five courses of Jello-y, rubbery, mushroomy mystery “meat”, I must confess I skipped out. Hey, it was free anyway. And, at least I can say I had lunch at a Buddhist monastery.
And, there you have it: my trip to Hong Kong. After the monastery, I checked out of my Disney hotel and caught the plane home. The only other weird thing that happened was that I was accosted by two seperate survey people in the airport while I was waiting for my flight. The first asked me about the “dining service” in the airport, which, since my “dining” experience consisted entirely of a single cup of Starbucks coffee, wasn’t much of a survey. “So, did the chef do a good job in preparing your [coffee]?” “Was the presentation of your [coffee] too elaborate, not elaborate enough, or just right?” Hey, it’s just a cup of coffee! The second survey was for the Hong Kong tourist board, and checking off the list of all the things I’d seen and done on this trip made me realize for the first time how much I managed to pack into a week. Seeing all the other un-checked boxes made me realize how much more there was to see, and how much I wanted to come back, before I’d even left.