Before the pandemic, Hong Kong was a highly popular tourist destination in Asia, ranked among the top cities in the world for the number of international visitors. Just like many tourist cities around the globe, tourism in Hong Kong has suffered enormously during the pandemic. The numbers of foreign visitors have plummeted, and the once crowded sights across the city have been largely tourist free. Despite the loss of tourist activities, this situation is prompting the return of Hongkongers to places they would normally avoid before the pandemic. Apart from popular museums, beaches, amusement parks, and shopping centres, waterfront promenades along Victoria Harbour, especially in Tsim Sha Tsui at the tip of Kowloon Peninsula, has always been packed with tourists before the Covid. Just like our childhood years, today we can once again wander freely on the Avenue of Stars or linger in the shadow of the Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower without bumping into aggressive tourist groups. At night, the undulating reflections of neon lights, LED billboards, and glittering building facades in the water provides the perfect foreground for the skyline of Central, backed upon the silhouette of Victoria Peak. For decades, this postcard perfect Harbour panorama has served as the impeccable visual representation of Hong Kong’s prosperity and vibrancy, illuminating the legend of a city that never sleeps. Beyond the charming skyline on both sides of the water, the busy Victoria Harbour has much more to offer than just its visual glamour.
In Feng Shui, the traditional Chinese practice that harnesses the energy of surrounding environment, the element “water” is often associated with wealth and fortune. For Hong Kong, this water element can be definitely identified as the Victoria Harbour. From founding of the trading port, to the establishment of Far East’s finance and servicing hub, Victoria Harbour, the 41.88 km2 stretch of sea between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula, has always played a vital role. The Harbour is indeed where the story of Hong Kong begins. Known for its deep and sheltered water, the natural landform of the Harbour was one of the main reasons why Hong Kong was chosen by the British in 1841. Since the mid-19th century, the British put a great deal of effort to establish Hong Kong as their subtropical metropolis in the Far East and commercial gateway into China. The Harbour and its waterfront developments have been at the centre stage of Hong Kong’s evolution every since. To sustain population and economic growth, major land reclamation projects have never ceased to transform the urban extent of the city ever since 1840’s. More office towers, residential complexes, hotels, shopping centres, government buildings, museums, convention centre, stadiums, cruise terminals, promenades, piers, etc. would be erected after each reclamation scheme, redrawing the urban coastline at least once in every generation.
For many neighborhoods in the city, Victoria Harbour is always just a few blocks away. Exploring the everchanging waterfront areas is an interesting way to understand the past, present and future of Hong Kong. Our next series of posts will do exactly that.
In 1888, the same year when Peak Tram began operating up the slope of Victoria Peak, “Kowloon Ferry Company” was also established for managing the first regular steamboat services between Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island. Soon, the company expanded to a fleet of four ferries, and was renamed to “Star Ferry Co Ltd” (天星小輪), the name that is still in use today. Named by National Geographic Traveler as one of the “50 Places of a Lifetime” and topping the list of “Top Ten Most Exciting Ferry Rides” by the Society of American Travel Writers, it is no doubt that Hong Kong’s Star Ferry has been on the radar of international travelers for quite some time. For about HK$4 (US$ 0.50), anyone can enjoy a moment of peace crossing Victoria Harbour. In the past century, as a series of land reclamations have shortened the distance between Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island, piers in Central and Wanchai have been moved numerous times, and ferry rides across the Harbour have become shorter. No matter how short the ride has become, the star ferry experience still offers some of the most rewarding views of Hong Kong’s skyline. To have a moment of relaxation, we always prefer taking the ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side when time allows. The ride is particular lovely at sunset and night.
In 1888, Indian Parsee businessman Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala established Kowloon Ferry Company and operated the first regular ferry service between Hong Kong and Kowloon, taking bread, cargo and passengers with his steamboat Morning Star. In 1890, three more boats, Evening Star, Guiding Star and Rising Star joined the service. Upon retirement, Mithaiwala sold his ferries and company to another British-Indian businessman Sir Paul Chater’s (遮打), one of the first business mogul who was responsible and involved in establishing many large corporations in Hong Kong, including Hongkong Land (置地), Hongkong Electric (港燈), Dairy Farm (牛奶公司), Kowloon Wharf (九龍倉), etc. In the 20th century, the fleet of Star Ferry continued to grow as different generations of ferry piers were erected in Central, Wanchai and Tsim Sha Tsui. Today, the Star Ferry has eight boats in total, with an average age of 58 years old. Since the completion of Cross-Harbour Tunnel in 1972 and the Harbour crossing Mass Transit Railway (MTR) in February 1980, Star Ferry is no longer the main means of public transportation between Hong Kong and Kowloon. It does, however, carry a sense of history and collective memory of the bygone era. For both locals and tourists, the ferry also offers arguably the best way to enjoy the skyline of Hong Kong. Taking the MTR or driving through the Cross Harbour Tunnel, one can hardly notice the famous harbour.
After an isolated retreat at Siwa Oasis, I once again headed back onto the road. This time, the destination was my home in Toronto. The journey from the Egypt’s Western Desert to Canada took me first to Alexandria and Cairo by land, and then Athens and Zurich by air before touching down on the North American soil. I took an 8-hour night bus leaving Siwa at 22:00, and arriving Alexandria in early morning the next day. I sat beside a friendly old lady who kept on offering me peanuts. After some snacks and chat, I felt asleep with my headphone music. When I get up, Alexandria was just minutes away.
Founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great, Alexandria is the largest city by the Mediterranean and the second largest city in Egypt. In the Classical era, the city was well known for the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and its Great Library, the largest library in the Classical World with 400,000 scrolls. The city itself was once the largest city in the western world before overtaken by Rome. Alexandria remained as the capital of Egypt for a thousand years from Ptolemaic Egypt, throughout much of the Roman and Byzantine era until the Muslim conquest in 641 AD, when the political centre of Egypt was shifted to Cairo. By that time, the magnificent city that once rivaled Rome and Constantinople was already largely plundered and destroyed. In the modern age, Alexandria regained a part of its former glory as an important port of international trading, connecting Egypt and its products (such as Egyptian cotton) to the outside world.
Another day of snorkeling. I rented the snorkel and flippers at Big Blue, and headed to a dive site called the Eel Garden. I snorkeled in several lagoons at Eel Garden. Apparently the reefs at Dahab was significantly better than the ones in Aqaba. At a depth of 3-5m, I saw an abundance of marine life including fish, sea urchins, and of course, coral of different colours. In the afternoon we snorkeled at another dive site called the Islands. The reefs and marine wildlife there were equally beautiful. At one point, I passed by an area of open water towards the beautiful coral mounts. The coral mounts were spectacular. Perhaps those mounts could be what the locals consider as the underwater “islands”.
After the “Islands”, we went to the southern tip of Dahab to do some more snorkeling. There was not much corals in the area, and the water was a lot deeper and colder, despite it was 40 to 45 degrees Celsius above water. On our way to the south beaches, we passed by dozens of resort hotels facing the sea. Perhaps due to the recently terrorist bombing, all resorts seemed extremely quiet. We didn’t see any foreign guests, but only local staff killing time with card games and gossips under the shade. In the evening we returned to Bishibishi for dinner and took some rest before departing for our tour to Mount Sinai.
After the legendary lost city of Petra and epic desert of Wadi Rum, we finally arrived in Aqaba, Jordan’s only coastal city right by the Gulf of Aqaba at the northern end of the Red Sea. Serving as an essential port for the Middle East, Aqaba is also popular among tourists, thanks to its regular ferry services to Egypt and the world famous Red Sea coral reefs in the area. Before heading over to the land of pharaohs, we decided to spend a relaxing day in Aqaba.
In the morning, we took a shuttle bus from Crystal Hotel to the Royal Diving Centre. After paying a 10 JD entrance fee, my friend and I, who had never dived before, went for an introductory session. Then we spent the afternoon snorkeling with a disposable underwater camera. We saw some nice corals and a lot of colourful fish. We snorkeled for a few hours and returned to the diving centre. Upon leaving we tried to get the refund of the entrance fee. Their policy was that whoever diving at the centre would not require to pay the admission. The staff hesitated for a while and told us the cashier was closed for the day. We had no choice but to return the next morning. The next morning we returned to the Royal Diving Centre for our refund. The staff tried to avoid us. We expressed our discontent and at last a manager came out with a big smile and gave us the refund. Leaving the diving club behind, our hired taxi took us to the passenger ferry terminal. It took us over an hour to go through the customs and deal with the departure tax. At last we were led to board a shuttle bus that drove onto the ferry along with the passengers.
Once on board, we found the Egyptian custom officer to stamp our passports. The ferry didn’t leave the dock until way over 11:30, over two hours since we got to the terminal. At last, the ferry sailed slowly southwest towards the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, with Saudi Arabia to our east. At around 14:30 we arrived at the Egyptian port of Nuweiba. The hectic scene of Nuweiba was our first impression on Egypt. At the minbus station we met three Australians. The six of us hired a minivan to Dahab, the popular backpacker resort at the Egyptian side of the Gulf of Aqaba.
Dahab seemed pretty quiet to us, probably because of the recent terrorist bombing a month ago on April 24th, which claimed 23 lives in total. The town looked very young and causal. At the station we met Alex, a staff from Bishibishi Garden Village, a relatively new hotel in Dahab. We met Jimmy the owner and decided to stay at one of their air conditioned triple rooms. After dinner, we strolled around Dahab, dropped by an internet cafe, and bought another disposable underwater camera for the following day.
In a foggy afternoon of December 2016, gunfire broke the silence at the remnants of Kerak Castle. Following a series of attacks on police patrols and station in Al-Karak, five ISIS terrorists seek refuge at the 12th century Crusader castle as the Jordanian force was closing in. The government force besieged the castle and eventually killed all terrorists. 14 people were killed in the shootout, including one Canadian tourist. Terrorist attacks are not common in Jordan, but the 2016 siege of the Kerak Castle and the unstable conditions in Syria have hampered tourism of Jordan in recent years. Built in the 12th century, the former Crusader stronghold Kerak Castle was not stranger to military siege in history, with the siege of Saladin’s force in 1183 being the most famous. The siege by Saladin, the Muslim leader from Damascus, coincided with the royal wedding inside the castle between Humphrey IV of Toron and Isabella of Jerusalem. The siege ended when the force of Baldwin IV, the King of Jerusalem, came for rescue. The historical incident serves as the background for the 2005 movie Kingdom of Heaven.
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It was Friday, 19th of May in 2006, a weekend holiday for the Muslims. At Wahadat Station in Amman, buses were running on holiday schedule. It took us sometime to find a bus bounded for Kerak Castle. Our goal for the day was to make our way on the King’s Highway from Amman to Wadi Musa, the popular base for tourists visiting the splendid lost city of Petra. It was a two hour bus ride from Amman to the town of Al-Karak. When we got off the bus, the driver told us that there would not be any public transportation from Karak to Tafila on Fridays. Our original plan was to visit Kerak Castle, take a bus to Tafila, and then hire a taxi onwards to Shobak and Wadi Musa. Without public transportation, we had to settle with hiring a taxi driver for the day at 40 Jordanian Dinar, taking us uphill to Kerak Castle, and then to Shobak Castle and Wadi Musa.
Kerak Castle is one of the largest castles in the region. Compared to Krak des Chevaliers, Kerak has a simpler design and rougher craftsmanship. Kerak Castle has a nice little museum. I enjoyed reading a little about the history of the castle, the Crusades and the Muslim conqueror Saladin at the bookshop.
We were lucky to find a bus going to Kerak Castle that was running on the Friday holiday schedule.
The castle looked spectacular from the town of Al-Karak.
The scale of Kerak Castle is enormous when viewed from the town below.
The castle was empty, but a large portion of the structure remains intact for over 800 years.
Due to the large size, tourists dispersed all over the castle once inside the complex.
Kerak Castle contains many covered passages protected with thick defensive walls. During the 2016 terrorist attack, most tourists were hiding in a separate part of the castle to avoid contact with the attackers.
Al-Karak lies 140 km south of Amman, on a hilltop 1000m above sea level. The Dead Sea is visible from the castle. Beyond the Dead Sea, the Holy city of Jerusalem is just a short car journey away.