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Hong Kong, PRC  |  February 12, 2000

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Hong Kong's Myriad Levels
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Map of where we are.

Giant red and yellow dragons drawn in light illuminated the building facades. The proud and bright displays illustrated the Chinese New Year and the dawn of the new millennium. Flying towards Chep Lok, the new Hong Kong airport, these skyscrapers presented Will and I with our first glimpse of the varied architectural and cultural levels of Hong Kong.

Honk Kong Levels 1
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To get a sense of Hong Kong Island on our first morning I took Will to Central. Central is the financial and business hot spot that fuels the economy of the region. Citibank, Standard-Chartered, all the big name financial services have their offices on Queens or Des Veoux Road. Clutching a cell phone, switching between Mandarin, Cantonese and English, people dart in and out of buildings and cabs. To escape the frenetic pace, we decided to take the Escalator.

The Hong Kong Escalator ascends from Central to the Mid Levels. Built in 1993, the Escalator is the largest in the world, shuttling commuters over a half-a-mile. In the mornings the moving stairs go down; the rest of the day they ascend. It is the Yuppie expressway from their jobs on Queens road to the trendy restaurants in SoHo (South of Hollywood street) and finally to 30-floor apartment buildings in the Mid Levels. Like a lighted lime green snake it winds up through the increasingly high-priced neighborhoods.

Honk Kong Levels 2
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We exited to window shop antiques on Hollywood road and the last remaining porcelain shops. We hopped back on and went to the end of the escalator, half way to Victoria Peak, and then began to wonder our way back down.

Like Edinburgh, stairs and paths connect streets that appear to be stacked on top of each other. Unlike Edinburgh, skinny skyscrapers sprout 23, 30, even 40 floors up. With the most expensive real estate in the world, space, picture windows and decks are at a premium.

Honk Kong Levels 3
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We continued our wondering through labyrinthine stairs and concrete pathways; we ended up at a terraced path cut along the mountainside. Trees hung on to the cliffs as we winded along the walkway. It led us to the Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Established in the 1860's, the gardens showcase sub-tropical flowers, animals, and birds, unfortunately still in early 19th century cages. Hundreds of species of bamboo: fat stalks, skinny stalks, and stalks that pandas like were planted along winding paths. Paths led to an open-air plaza decorated with space-age daffodil puffs fountains. From the zoo plaza, we had our first magnificent day light view of the island. Victoria Peak and the green lush hills were looming behind us; concrete, steel and glass skyscrapers shot up in front of us; Hong Kong bay, swarming with boats, spread out below us.

A hawk circled overhead motioning towards the peak. We decided to follow. Hiking down the sculptured botanical gardens we headed towards the Peak Tram.

Honk Kong Levels 4
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The Peak Tram is a funicular railway, in operation since 1888, which climbs 373 meters straight up to Victoria Peak. On the way, the cable pulling the Tram lurches and halts while the Tram approaches a 45-degree angle. More like an amusement park ride than a tram (I had a little trouble with vertigo), there are some great views of the island on the way. Small laundry shops tucked into alleys. Hong Kong Harbor peaking through crammed-together buildings. Finally lush green forests as we reach the summit.

Honk Kong Levels 5
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The Peak Tram terminates at a futuristic building resembling an ark with a Ripley's Believe it or Not, multiple restaurants and a coffee shop-come-internet café. We kept walking. A 20-minute-long uphill hike led us to Victoria Peak Park. Students playing hacky sack, families picnicking, older ladies doing Tai Chi, and people just relaxing.

More than a park though, Victoria Peak park offers a 360-degree view of Hong Kong, the sea and the outlying islands. Away from any sort of traffic and with a cool wind brushing by, we gazed out at China and the open sea. We could almost imagine the days when Jardine and Matheson arrived to set up the first trading arrangements with China, turning a small fishing village into what eventually became the Asian financial center of Hong Kong.

Honk Kong Levels 6
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With skyscrapers to lush gardens creating our first impressions of Hong Kong, on our next day we sought out the nooks and crannies, old Hong Kong. We found it still alive and thriving.

A short turn down Wellington, just above Queens Road, and into the Western District seems like a step into old China. Alleys lead into paths teeming with vendors. Chinese broccoli, unknown squashes, and live crabs fight for space. Dried fish, sweet scented fruit, five spice, and sewer smells all mix together. Clothes, locksmiths and noodle vendors haggle with customers.

Honk Kong Levels 7
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At the end of the market, like a 21st century smack in the face, we looked up to see the massive Bank of Hong Kong Building. Giant reflective glass and steel monsters claw towards the sky. The Hang Seng, the Dow and Nasdaq results flash on a giant Sony screen above.

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