Hong Kong equals shopping equals urban crush, right? Not necessarily so. There are lovely oases of rustic peace to be had if you know where to look.
Hong Kong, with its anthill of skyscrapers, bustling harbour and seven million people rushing helter-skelter along narrow footpaths, is not the first place you’d think of as being green.
Most visitors indulge in retail therapy in Kowloon, but this is only a tiny part of the 235 islands that make up Hong Kong’s archipelago. If you search them out, there are some quiet, restful havens where you can escape the brouhaha.
One of the easiest to get to is the Nan Liang Garden. This is an opulent, 35,000sq m reconstruction of a garden in the Tang Dynasty style, which cost a cool US$100mil to build. Garden lovers will also be able to detect traces of the Japanese Zen garden style, for instance, in the collection of ancient bonsai trees and in the cliff-like rocks set on gravel raked into curved patterns.
Most of these rocks were specially imported from mainland China, and each one is from a famous mountain or rock formation. The whole area is landscaped with winding paths, lakes, hillocks and waterfalls so that it resembles a Chinese scroll painting.
In the background, reached by a bridge leading to the other side of the road, there is an impressive Buddhist temple complex. It is built on different levels, climbing up the hill towards the teeming high-rise office buildings of the modern city. These form a vivid contrast to the peaceful garden.
The most striking building in the garden is a gilded pavilion, set on an island in a lake. This has caused controversy among antiquarians, some of whom consider it garish. Other visitors think it is the highlight of the garden. You can either admire it or sneer at it from the path across the curved scarlet bridge that leads to it.
An outstanding architectural feature in the garden is that, like buildings of the Tang Dynasty, the buildings here are constructed entirely without nails. The superb craftsmanship is the work of a team of carpenters and joiners from Japan who specialise in restoring historical buildings and who came to Hong Kong just to work on this garden.
Further along the lake you can see a pagoda-like bridge. After this is a high waterfall and then, discreetly hidden behind that, is the Long Men Lou Restaurant. The food here is vegetarian, prepared by the Buddhist nuns of Chu Lin convent nearby. It is guaranteed totally free of MSG and is highly prized by gourmets for its subtle and delicate flavours — such dishes as Pickled Mushroom Appetizers, Sautéed Asparagus with Mushrooms and Crispy Tofu Rolls. The service is stylish and professional.
If you can find a table near the picture window, you will get the impression that you’re eating behind a curtain of water, a unique and calming sensation designed to aid digestion.
After lunch, you can either take the MTR or stroll to the Wong Tai Sin Temple. This is popular with three religions — Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism — because they believe that praying here brings good fortune. What is more appealing to other visitors is the traditional Chinese garden behind the temple.
This has such a peaceful atmosphere, in contrast to the frenetic activity at the temple, that all the visitors look relaxed and happy. The garden also includes a sculptured wall of nine dragons, which is what kowloon means in Cantonese.
High on a hill directly above the central part of the city, stand the Hong Kong Zoo and Botanical Gardens. They are a 20-minute walk from the mid-level escalator, but well worth it when you get there. The 5.6ha are one of the few examples left in Hong Kong of public works from the earliest days of the colonial period and it still retains the dignity and charm of that era.
It was started in 1860 and took 11 years to complete.
The pride of the zoo is its collection of exotic birds, 600 altogether. They have everything from haughty red-crested cranes to peacock. Vivid pink flamingoes spread their magnificent wings, displaying the red and black feathers beneath, in the hope of attracting a mate. Although the zoo is too small to hold elephants or giraffes, it has more than 70 mammals.
Rivalling the birds for attention are the monkeys, who like to show off their acrobatic skills. There’s also a colony of ring-tailed lemurs, an endangered species from Madagascar, who have an unusual sex life. The females are dominant and are attracted by a scent gland which is clicked open by a spur on the male’s wrist.
There are more than 1,000 species of rare plants in the gardens, including some that produce flowers throughout the year, like the Hong Kong orchid tree. In the conservatory, which is air-conditioned, there is a small but exquisite display of orchids, as well as the insect-eating pitcher plant.
For those hardy spirits who wish to explore the more remote regions of the peninsula, the forest walk to the Sheung Yiu Folk Museum ought to be interesting. Getting there is complicated, involving two train and two bus rides, but the views that reward you at the end are stunning.
You approach the forest through Sai Kung, which used to be a simple fishing village, like Hong Kong itself. Some remnants of Sai Kung’s origin remain, notably the fishermen selling their catch from the deck of their boats to customers leaning over the jetty above.
Both sides shout their bargaining, which is treated as an amusing game by onlookers. Then the fisherman pokes up a plastic bag on a long pole for the customer’s money. After stowing the cash safely away, he replaces it with the fish, which he then holds up for the customer to grab.
Sai Kung now boasts several expensive fish restaurants. It’s fascinating to see the staff sorting out the different grades of seafood in their tanks.
From Sai Kung, you take a minibus to the forest and walk along a well-marked path to the folk museum. The museum itself is based on a deserted Hakka village.
It used to be the home of an extended family called Wong, who ran lime and brick kilns. At their peak, the kilns employed over 100 people, but with the increasing use of concrete in the 1950s, the demand for their products disappeared.
The village is self-contained, with a 6m-high gate-tower against enemies, a pig-pen, cowsheds, a row of semi-detached houses, one for each family unit, and a long courtyard, mostly used for drying clothes and occasionally for weddings. Especially touching is the little entrance for the pet cat beside the main door.
The walking path forms a loop going to the top of the hill, from where the views over the bay to smaller islands are spectacular.
There are other outdoor attractions around Hong Kong, such as the beach at Repulse Bay, the circle track around The Peak and the walking tracks on Lanna Island. Like those I have suggested, all offer a chance to escape the hurly-burly of the city.
o Discover Hong Kong.com. There is also a booklet, called Hong Kong Walks available from the Visitors Centres at the International Airport & the Star Ferry Terminal.
Malaysia Airlines flies twice daily to Hong Kong.
* Nan Liang Garden
60, Fung Tak Rd
o MTR to Diamond Hill, exit at C2. Open: 7am-9pm. Admission: Free
*Wong Tai Sin Temple Good Wish Garden
o MTR to Wong Tai Sin, exit B2. Open: 9am-4pm daily, closed Mondays. Admission: HK$2 (80 sen)
*Hong Kong Zoo & Botanical Gardens
Tel: 852 2350 0154
o From Central take the Mid-Level Escalator to Mosque Street. The escalator only goes upwards after noon. It is twenty minutes along Mosque Street to the zoo. The main entrance is in Upper Albert Rd, or take a bus from Central: 3B, 12 or 13. Admission: Free. Has clean and free toilets.
Sheung Yiu Folk Museum & Forest Walk