Panting Around Lantau

On Lantau Island, you can trek. Or you can sightsee the lazy way.

Thankfully, I don’t trek. It involves far too much hard work. So if you are waiting for me to wax eloquent about how my eyes filled with tears when I saw the sunrise, painting the misty blue skies, as I conquered Lantau Peak, forget it.

Me? I wake up with the malls.

“Trekkers actually get up at 2 in the morning, and stumble up the hill with flashlights,” hoots my Chinese tour guide, as we set out to explore Lantau, from the environs of a plush tourist bus. Yeah. I managed to get the one tour guide who thinks like me.

But to be fair to the trekkers, and I know there are a lot of you out there, Lantau’s so gorgeous it almost makes me want to lace up my Reeboks. In fact, the Hong Kong Tourism Board encourages visitors to trek to explore Lantau, which has an enviable area of healthy natural woodland, bustling with gossipy streams along the mountain paths and tougher mountain trails, all marked out for hikers. There are rare trees and flowers, and, if you watch the surrounding waters carefully, you are likely to spot the island’s pink dolphins, which swim offshore.

The largest island in Hong Kong, Lantau now houses the city’s main airport and the newly opened Disney Land. But once you’re away from the swanky designer-crammed duty free airport mall and merchandising Mickey Mouse, Lantau is not just a world away from Hong Kong city. It’s almost a world away from this century.

The fact that more than 50 per cent of the island has been designated Country Park area, is probably the reason why booming, bustling Hong Kong has so little influence. Because, over here, there isn’t a Giordano in sight, and the island’s most prominent inhabitants are monks.

In the late 1970s, in fact, there were more than 500 monks living in 135 Buddhist monasteries, and Lantau was sometimes called the island of prayer.

So, appropriately enough, we begin by driving to the Po Lin monastery. Founded in 1927, Po Lin is set in picture postcard scenery, and the monastery itself looks like something out of an `exotic east’ movie. Incense sticks, lit by devotees, burn in the courtyard, perfuming the air. It’s a delicious slice of exotica, if you can tune out the “Pass me another film roll,” shouts from Nike-sporting, Nikon toting gangs of American tourists.

The monks seem to do it effectively enough, gliding past gracefully in flowing robes, oblivious to the hourly busloads of mayhem. In one starkly simple hall, the table is being laid out for lunch. Three bowls and one set of chopsticks are set for each person. “Soup, rice and tofu. Or a vegetable,” whispers the guide, “Their only meal for the day.”

Besides the monastery, there’s a hill on top of which rests the Tian Tan, or Giant Buddha. At 112 feet, and weighing 250 tonnes, the sculpture is the world’s largest seated outdoor bronze statue of the Buddha. You can climb 268 steps to see it.

I don’t.

Neither does the guide. We offload the one tourist who does want to climb, and take the lazy man’s route, a sneaky road behind the hill that leads right up the top. The view’s nicer if you’re not panting. Besides, we have to save our strength for the Wisdom Path: A set of starkly awe-inspiring scriptures set on a silent hill.

“You have to climb this. For wisdom,” said the guide woefully as we started struggling up the hill. “It’s the heart sutra. You’re supposed to read each one and ponder.” Although our pondering was more an excuse to take deep breaths, the wisdom path is indeed supposed to enlighten. The large wooden columns each contain a verse from the heart sutra, a text revered by the Confucians, Buddhists and Taoists, which has formed part of daily worship of cleric and devotees in East Asia for over 1,000 years.

The columns are set in the form of 8, representing infinity. And the one on the highest point of the hill is blank. “Which means you’ve understood everything. And now, there’s emptiness,” gasped my guide, as we both held on to it for support.

Tourists, and not just the ones wielding flashlights and sporty headbands are increasingly discovering Lantau. Surrounded by tiny islands, many owned by millionaires, the island’s a great place to marinate in sun and suntan lotion. You can even take boats to the smaller uninhabited islands.

And if you still haven’t figured out how deliciously quirky Lantau is, here’s another interesting fact. Besides being the home of the Hong Kong’s swanky new airport, Disney Land, a fishing village on stilts called Tai O, a still-under construction cultural theme village and the starting point of the bizarrely named `Ngong Ping 360′ a 5.7 km cable car journey, the island is also host to Hong Kong’s maximum security prison, set amid rolling hills, grazing areas punctuated by demure cattle and tumbling streams.

“Look,” grinned the guide as we drove past the swish prison complex. “In Hong Kong city, if you want a view like that you pay millions. In Lantau, you just kill someone!”


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