hkwide

Central Hong Kong and Kowloon from Victoria Peak. I had always wanted to explore that forest of slender highrises in the foreground.

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Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm not fond of crowds and congestion, and that I often complain of "too many &*@#!! people" when driving the main drag in my Missouri town of 77,000 people. Hah! The thought of me being in Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated places in the world, is more than amusing.

With so many people squeezed onto linear strips of land between the coastline and the mountains, Hong Kong is very much a vertical city, thick with stands of 20, 30 and 40-story apartment buildings that march off into the distance in every direction. I've read that more people here live and work above the 14th floor than anywhere else in the world.

In keeping with our tall building theme, Hong Kong has a breathtaking skyline with five "supertall" buildings over 1000 feet/305 meters:

The waterfront skyline of Central HK is made truly world class by Two International Finance Center (2IFC), a Cesar Pelli creation that stands 1352 feet/412 meters high. 2IFC is a beautiful building that, by all rights, should be standing in Chicago in the form of the Miglin-Beitler Skyneedle, a 2000 foot/610 meter project announced in 1990, only to be cancelled later that year because of economic conditions. Each time I looked at 2IFC, I thought wistfully about what might have been. (see the first image in the Photo Wall below.)

Across Victoria Harbor on the Kowloon side and only 1-1/4 air miles (2 km) away is International Commerce Center (ICC) designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), Hong Kong's tallest building at 1588 feet/484m and 118 floors.

The Bank of China Tower, designed by I.M. Pei & Partners, reaches 1205 feet/367 meters. It appears on Hong Kong's currency.

The Center, at 1135 feet/346m, is lit at night with a brilliantly colored, coruscating LED display.

Central Plaza at 1227 feet/374m was Hong Kong's first supertall building and for a time, its tallest.

Sleep? I'll sleep next month.

Having gone to bed around 2 a.m. after a late arrival from Shanghai, I was up at 7 to prepare for my one full day in Hong Kong.

First stop of the day: Two International Finance Center and a trip to the building's roof, a huge privilege.

Up we went by elevator to the 88th floor, then up a few flights of stairs and through a steel door into the humid morning air. It was especially fun to walk the parapets among the teeth of the comb-like crown that finishes the building's vertical profile and conceals mechanical and window cleaning systems on the roof. The 25 minutes we spent here went all too quickly.

I discovered later our rooftop trip was even more special because there is no public observatory at 2IFC. The information center of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority on 55 is as high as the public can go. This is a terrible shame because the views of Central HK, the mountains and the waterfront from 2IFC are magnificent.

After coming back down to earth, we took a walking tour of about two miles, guided by Dr. Peter Cookson Smith, a noted British architect, planner and urban designer who has practiced in Hong Kong for more than 35 years. In true Brit fashion, he navigated the sidewalks, stairways, heat and high humidity with ease, leaving a few of us desk jockeys wheezing for air. Mad dogs and Englishmen. When it was over, I jokingly told him I finally understood how Britain built an empire.

At one point during the walk, one of our guides told me that we were about to see Hong Kong's "world famous" escalators. "World famous," I said? "What's world famous about escalators?"

Much to my couch-potato delight, there is a system of covered escalators and walkways in the Soho District called the Central Mid-levels escalators, the world's longest set of covered escalators. They will carry pedestrians as far as half a mile/800 meters up (or from 6-10 am, down) the winding, steeply-hilled streets, saving an elevation climb of as much as 135 meters/443 feet. This means you can more freely get to and tour the narrow streets and shops of the district without need for oxygen and defibrillation.

World famous? Oh, yeah, sign me up. I very quickly became a big fan.

I have often looked at photos of Hong Kong's skyline, wondering as much about the thick forest of slender high-rises as I did about the supertall buildings. The walking tour took me through a kaleidoscope of environs, each one interesting and exotic. Now I know.

What a beautiful, incredible, lively, FUN city. I want to go back.