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Peaks of Desire

 Life could not get much better than this.  Sitting in the shade of a stunted Chinese Pine, a Bombay Sapphire and Indian tonic in my hand, its beads of condensation cooling any exposed skin they may touch, I could look down from my perch, atop Hong Kong’s illustrious Victoria Peak. 

Below me a green leaf valley runs all the way down the mountain to the turquoise South China Sea and the archipelago of islands that makes up most of what we know as Hong Kong. 

Sitting here in the shady beer garden of the famous Peak Lookout restaurant, I feel as if all my grandmother’s stories of living on the Peak were coming to life around me. 

It is not so hard to imagine the ‘coolie’ workers with their rickshaws, heaving colonial cartage up from Central or Wan Chi, under the savage Asian sun or the drenching monsoon deluges.

In fact the Peak Lookout, a beautiful glass and deeply varnished timber restaurant that sits in a cleft below the mountains summit, was once their home. 

Originally constructed as a stone shack, it protected the many private and local ‘sedan cars’ that drew the Peak’s wealthy residents up the steep incline before the Peak Tram was constructed in 1888.

The original Peak residents were usually colonial fixtures, governors, diplomats or the CEO’s of the powerful financial establishments that were accumulating property and reputations in the new fiscal epi-centre of Hong Kong, the leading force in a pack of emerging economic tigers.

So it remains today.  If you wander down the silent Harlech or Lugard Streets which run away from the Peak Tower, up the spine of the mountain, you will see massive mansions and modern apartment blocks secluded away behind clumps of jungle, or perched on the top of cliff faces, strong, proud, defiant.

Victoria Peak’s original inaccessibility was changed with the construction of the Peak Tram. 

A legend in its own right, it originated as a simple carriage powered by a steam engine which cut straight up through bush and roads to the lookout, some 150ft from the summit.

That was back in 1888 and even through the tram moved to electric power in 1926, it still follows the same route, straight up the side of Tai Ping Shan, the local name for Victoria Peak.

A trip on the Peak Tram costs HKD$30 (NZ$7.50) and is one of the fundamental attractions of the city, a Hong Kong must.

Leaving every 15mins, the tram runs from 7am till midnight, seven days a week and the duel-carriage tram is boarded from a modern subway-style station at the base of the mountain. 

Climbing into your seat, which, with the rest of the station and carriage, is on a slight angle, a scratchy intercom announces a safety briefing and gives a running commentary in both English and Cantonese, the two official languages of Hong Kong.

Slowly the tram begins to tug its way up two 44mm-thick cables, each of which can sustain weights of 139 tonnes each, as it begins a seven minute ride to the top, covering 1,365 meters of track.

The tram moves faster than I expect, gliding up at angles ranging from 4-27°, which is far more than it sounds. 

This is real ‘push you back in your chair where you belong’ travel, I think to myself, pressed into my seat as we glide past May Road and other famous laneways and streets which curl up to residential areas higher and higher on the peak.

Sitting back and watching the diverse colours pass you by, it is easy to imagine yourself in a rainforest, perhaps as a famous botanist filming a documentary; “we are surrounded on all sides by a thick, impenetrable jungle of vines, hibiscus and a particular species well-known in Asia, the towerentus apartmentus”.

As can be expected, the view from the tram is amazing, and ranges from sneaking a passing glance into million-dollar apartment blocks which are stacked up the slopes of the mountain, to the majestic harbour with the skyscrapers of Hong Kong island looking close enough to touch.

In the distance, across the water highway that is Victoria Harbour, lies Kowloon, dense, intense, and fascinating, ringed by the nine hills that gave it its name, the place of the nine mountains.

Seven minutes have never seemed to last as long or go so fast, as the carriage arrives at the Peak terminal, with its ultra-modern wok-shaped lookout.

This location boosts 112,000 square feet of shopping and entertainment facilities, in a building that was designed to compliment the natural features of the mountain and which has become a landmark in a territory of attractions.

Inside there is a range of dining facilities, from the Asian themed Movenpick restaurant, with its you-get-it-we-cook-it Mongolian barbecue style, to Eat Noodles, Grappa’s Italian, Pacific Coffee Company and a first for me, a Japanese pancake house called Ice Queen.

For the kids and the kids-at-heart there is an Asian version of Madam Tussand’s Wax Museum and a Ripley’s Believe it or Not (don’t act like you don’t remember the series) which will make you laugh, cry, and just generally freak you out.

For the self-confessed tourists there are plenty of souvenirs stores selling Chinese silk garments, and general arts and crafts.  Although their wares are exquisite, be prepared to pay “Peak prices”.

There are more shops on the peak, or you can take a trip down the south side and visit Staley Bay markets where the real deals are found.

Looking out across the bay from the shade of the beer garden, I can imagine what it must have been for my family as they grew up in Hong Kong, calling the peak home. 

My Grandmother described wall to wall French windows that looked out across the bay, and a huge terrace for entertaining. 

These windows would take a battering during the massive typhoons that occasionally snarl at the city, coming in from the warm waters of the Pacific and the South China Sea.

A small army of servants would barricade the front rooms, moving what they could away from the windows, covering the grand piano with mattresses in preparation. 

Windows and doors would be opened on the opposite side of the apartment facing the storm so that the windows would (hopefully) not burst inside due to the immense pressure change. 

And then after the silence of the eye, where everyone took the dog outside for nature calls, the servants would open the reverse windows and the cycle would start again.

Far below the junks, whose image became quintessential with Victoria Harbour would seek refuge from storm surges in the protected waters of Aberdeen harbour.

Now, as always, the view from the peak is exquisite, a collage of colours and shapes by day, a mirage of lights cascading across the harbour by night.

Few cities can boast such a famous natural landscape as Victoria Peak.  To the people of Hong Kong it is their strength, and the turmoil, a place of myth and modern day legend, of colonialism and a city that is truly cosmopolitan.

No visit to Hong Kong is truly justified without climbing the dense, leafy and historic Tai Ping Shan.

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