ON THE WAY UP, YOU’LL BE A VOYEUR. ON THE WAY DOWN, YOU’LL SEE ORANGUTANS.
Bruce Lee. Steaming bamboo baskets of dim sum. Stroboscopic neon signs.
That amazing skyline.
Hong Kong’s iconic images may be easily imagined, even by people who’ve never set foot here, but there’s one icon bigger than them all: the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator, a mechanical beast that stretches half a mile up the city’s steep slopes from Central, the city’s oldest market and historic district, to the tony residential district known as Mid-Levels.
Dubbed the “world’s longest outdoor covered escalator system,” the hillside escalator may be the most desperate attempt by city officials to bag a world record, matched only by another local icon: the “world’s second-tallest outdoor seated bronze Buddha statue.” But in my view, the escalator is also Hong Kong’s greatest unsung attraction: free, flexible and compact, it provides greater insight into a cross-section of life in Hong Kong than any tour bus would–minus the exhaust fumes.
The escalator is actually 18 escalators, plus three inclined “travelators,” or moving walkways, joined end to end to form the escalator system. It’s an engineering marvel, transporting commuters, shoppers, tourists and drunks–probably close to 100,000 passenger journeys a day–picking them up and depositing them 135 meters closer to the clouds than when they got on (if they ride the whole way).
There’s a lot of required walking in this hilly city, so escalators come in handy as a means of getting around, spared from the summer heat and inconvenience of waiting to cross the roads. Sure, you can also use the quaint trams, the efficient cabs, the immaculate subway system or punctual buses. But if you want a quick overview–literally–of Asia’s world city, the escalator offers the best 20 minutes of DIY sightseeing through a heady mix of art galleries, restaurants, Gucci and Hermes stores, fitness gyms, private residences, offices, massage parlors (legit ones), and late-night bars frequented by salty Filipino ladies in tightly-wrapped dresses.
I lived right on top of the escalator for my first two years in Hong Kong. I would gaze at it from my living room window, mesmerized by the methodical progress of its travelers, rapt by the unfolding miniature stories of daily life: the anxious dog that refused to step on the escalator, was entreated, coerced, yanked and finally made the leap. The 3 a.m. drunk who stumbled on, leaned, got off, turned the wrong way, down the hill instead of up, back to his starting point and repeated. The escalator became a reliable friend, offering up a lively anecdote whenever I needed such diversion.
Today, I recommend riding right to the top then turning left and ambling back down the streets, steps and walkways of the Mid-Levels. On the way up, you’ll be a voyeur into everyday city life, if you take the chance to peer into the doors and windows that lie either side.
Whenever my friends visit, I insist on taking them to one of Hong Kong’s dai pai dongs, typical (but increasingly scarce) no-frills eateries where locals drop in for good, fast food with no expectation of sociable service–in and out, like a New York deli. And while every city seems to have its share of nail salons, there’s no place quite like Hong Kong, where you can find seriously swank designs for your digits–luxe nail services, with professional artists who specialize in embedding nails with intricate colors or decorations–and if you want, match them to your cell phone.
On the way down the escalator, you can then follow the signs to some quality attractions, including the zoological gardens, with orangutans, lemurs, giant tortoises and other exotic animals and birds.
Since it opened in 1993 the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator may not quite have achieved its original goal of reducing traffic congestion on the roads. But it’s added a whole lot more life to this already effervescent city, becoming more of an artery that pumps humanity around and about, rather than a purely mechanical tool for commuters. The proof of its success: The Legislative Council plans to build 18 more escalator systems across the city, allowing thousands more people to comfortably float above the urban life below.
Good to know: The escalator travels downwards from 6 a.m.-10 a.m. and upwards from 10 a.m. to midnight.
James Durston is a writer and editor living in Hong Kong, via India, the UK and East Africa. He has written about finance, food & drink, and previously was homepage editor for CNNTravel. Read more about him at www.jamesdurston.com.