Small Island, Big Buddha: Lantau Island in Hong Kong

Traveling from Taiwan to China used to be a hassle due to the strained diplomatic relations between the two places.It was mostly Taiwan being a little brat, unwilling to acknowledge that it had anything to do with China and thus, to make things as terribly inconvenient as possible for its own people, insisted on travelers first flying an hour south to Hong Kong where they would while away another hour or two just to fly another two and a half hours to Shanghai. Thus a one and a half hour journey became, thanks to idiot governance, an day of flying, waiting and flying.

But a new president was elected in 2008 and he had the good sense to say, “Hey, all that unnecessary transferring seems like a waste of time. Not to mention it’s extremely bad for the environment.” (I may have added that last sentence) He talked it over with his team and smiled warmly at the Chinese government. Voila, the transfer-free flight from TPE to Shanghai was created and now it is nearly impossible to get a ticket.

So had I been on top of things and planned ahead and gotten my Chinese visa in the United States, I too, could have saved some money and enjoyed the new direct flight to Shanghai to see my brother, who recently started working there. But I spent the better part of January twiddling my thumbs and by the time I left for Taiwan, there was no Chinese Visa to be found in my passport. “Just do it in Hong Kong,” my aunt advised me, “Your brother did so last time and it was quite convenient.”

So I did. But it was not convenient. My flight into Hong Kong left at 6:30 AM which meant I had to wake up at 3:45 AM, leave the house by 4:30 AM and arrive at the airport by 5:30 AM. Let me tell you, it is no way to travel, with your brain still half stuck in the fog of sleep. I arrived in Hong Kong at 8:15 AM and found my way to the express visa counter (Counter A04, Arrivals Hall, Terminal 1) prepared with cash, extra passport photos, and a warm smile, hoping that they would speed up the process if I was nice. I was nice. But they were not.

“Can you pick this up tomorrow?”

“No,” I said, “I need it by 7pm by the latest. My flight’s at 7:30pm.”

“Ha.” The man said, then, noticing the extremely worried look that had just taken over my face, sighed and said, “I can’t guarantee anything. But come back at 6:30 this evening and see what the status is. Now, that’ll be $2,350 HKD.”

I hurriedly paid the fee, being too bleary minded to do the calculations (later, I discovered that with the current exchange rate, my Visa cost as much as my flight) and pushed out of my mind the possibility that I might miss my flight. Then I hauled my duffel bag to the other end of the airport in Terminal B and left my luggage at the luggage leave. When all that was settled, it was 9:30 AM and I had nearly an entire day to spend in Hong Kong.

Where to go, where to go? I wanted desperately to lie down somewhere and sleep, but it seemed a waste not to go out and see the sights. I had heard that the Hong Kong Airport Express could take me into the Central in less than 25 minutes, but after checking the ticket prices ($180 HKD round trip to Hong Kong Station) I wondered if there was a cheaper alternative.

The taxis in Hong Kong are color coded: Red or Urban Taxis go to Hong Kong Island and Kowloon; Green or New Territories Taxis go to the New Territories and Blue or Lantau Island Taxis take you all around Lantau Island. They charge extra for baggage and animals, but wheelchairs and crutches are free. Anyway, the taxi to Lantau Island was cheap compared to those going to Central ($35-45 HKD), so I went outside and waited for one. And waited. And waited. I thought perhaps that the blue taxis didn’t come this early.

Finally I saw a large, double decker bus pull up across the street with a sign flashing “Tung Chung” which is a metro station on Lantau Island that connects to Hong Kong Island. I thought, “Why not?” and hopped on, climbing to the second level where the front seats were blissfully unoccupied, offering me a fantastic view. It brought me to Lantau Island in less than 15 minutes for $3.50 HKD. The moral of the story is, when traveling and suddenly poor (because of exorbitant Visa fees), take the bus.

En route to Lantau with lovely misty mountains in the background. The weather was wonderful that day.
How do you fit nearly 8 million people on a handful of teeny tiny islands? By housing them thus.
Lantau Island is most famous for the Po Lin Monastery and the Tian Tan Buddha, which is 112 ft. tall and can be seen, purportedly, from Macao on a clear day. According to a trusted source, the Tian Tan Buddha is special because it faces north – all other Giant Buddha statues face south. I had originally planned on taking the Ngong Ping Cable Car Gondola up to the Buddha, but it was under construction that day, and thank God, because the Cable Car costs $115 HKD and the bus day pass I ended up getting, which takes you all over Lantau Island, was $35 HKD. The bus ride was 45 minutes and took us all around and up and down the island – not recommended for those who get car sick, but for those who don’t it’s a pleasant ride with amazing views. Once there, I climbed the 268 steps to reach the Buddha so I could take this photo:
I’d like to see Rocky run up those steps and take such a photo.

And before coming down, I walked beneath the Buddha to one of three circular levels to find a sort of memorial hall, not unlike the temple in Taipei where my ancestors names are placed.

The walls of the memorial hall, with flowers and fruit placed before them in offering. Each tile is a name. Some of them have photographs on them.

Then I came back down and made my way to Po Lin Monastery, where several small women were using very big incense sticks to place in even larger incense pots. 
The entrance to the monastery, which was decked out in all types of pretty flowers. It’s currently under construction and dreaming of future, donated grandeur.

It’s all in HKD, but still. Those (small) Buddha statues for Worship are quite expensive!
A pretty peony, outside the monastery.
A nice place to sit and read and eat vegetarian food. Seriously. No meat allowed in this sitting area.

For tomorrow: Central, Hong Kong aka “I walk into an HSBC commercial.”

Guy on left: “How much money are you making?” Guy on right, after some thinking, “A lot.”
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