Slick System

Star Ferry Hong Kong has the best public transportation system in the world; I use it daily.

To describe it, I'll begin with buses.

Three sizes of buses run the roads: double-decker, regular, and mini (also called a maxicab). Double-deckers are the best as they have the most headroom. I can almost stand up straight. Regular buses are made for anyone under six feet tall and the seats are designed for maximum capacity in the smallest amount of space. Think cramped.

"... I catch the exit sign in the forehead."

Signs warn you to watch your head at the exit doors. If I don't duck, I catch the exit sign in the forehead.

Minibuses hold 16 people and are great for short trips, but standing up straight is not an option unless you're five feet tall.

Many bus drivers are certified maniacs. They take corners harder than Indy 500 racers, drive fast and brake hard. Buses are equipped with rails and hand straps so passengers can avoid ping-ponging through the cabin. Those seated sometimes still have to use the rails and straps or they might fall out.

Taxi drivers can be maniacs as well, but the ride is more comfortable. Most taxis are Toyota Crowns or Crown Comforts, with a few Nissans thrown in for good measure. The Comfort has more legroom. For short trips, taxis are cheap. Most drivers try to outrun other vehicles. Cutting in to a lane? No problem! Buses have brakes; they'll use them. If the driver is successful, he'll get you to your destination intact.

People drive on the wrong side of the road, like the folks who built the city's infrastructure. It takes getting used to; the first time a driver took a corner at high speed into the left lane, I thought: My God, I'm going to die.

Next are trains.

The Kowloon-Canton Railway, or KCR [Operated by the MTR as of December 2007; ed.], runs from inside China through the New Territories and Kowloon to Victoria Harbour. The trains run every one to six minutes, depending on the time of day. It provides reliable service, except when someone decides to end it all and jumps onto the tracks, like some guy did at our station not 10 days after I arrived.

"The air-con is cold enough to hang meat."

KCR trains are equipped with one First Class car, which means a cushier seat and fewer people — for a premium. It's great during rush hour, when the rest of the cars are jammed so tight with bodies one had better not be claustrophobic. The air-con is cold enough to hang meat. One day, two Brits were sitting close by; when they stood up at their stop, I heard one say: Let's get out of this refrigerator.

The main rail system is the Mass Transit Railway, or MTR. The key word being mass. Should one wish to see a good chunk of Hong Kong's millions, take the MTR. No matter whether one uses the KCR or MTR, people sprint to catch the train; few stroll or walk, most run, even if they're loaded down with shopping bags or briefcases.

People will try to squeeze into a six-inch gap between me and the escalator to get ahead, and some are so skinny, they can! Those not in a hurry must stand on the right of the escalator, so that everyone else can run up the left. Hong Kong has bred hundreds of thousands of type-A personalities who can't stand to wait. Sprinters queue at the edge of the platform, trying to jam into the train at the same time people inside are trying to get out, because if there's an empty seat, they want it. Never mind an elderly person or a mother with a baby might need it; nah, they can stand like everyone else. If I'm sitting, I'll wait until I see someone in need, then offer my seat before I stand up, otherwise some jerk will zip into the space faster than I can blink.

The MTR is clean: no graffiti, no garbage, no smoking, food or drinks, and no beggars (they must do so outside stations). It's fast, cheap, safe and easy to use. Instead of having to use coins or buy a ticket for each trip, one can get a credit-card sized Octopus card, which can electronically store cash-value. Turnstile scanners track the journey and deduct the appropriate amount. When the card gets low on cash, it can be topped it up at an Add-Value machine, the ticket counter or even at 7-11.

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Hong Kong trams Hong Kong Island has electric trams — an institution — part of the city's heritage. They're small and standing won't do, as the ceilings are low. Almost everyone sits unless they are well under six feet tall. Trams are the cheapest form of transit on the island, a paltry two Hong Kong dollars. It's a nice way to travel; the ride is slower and provides a good look at the city. I used the upper deck to learn my way about the Hong Kong side.

The Star Ferry is another venerable Hong Kong institution. It's cheap and takes about five to seven minutes to cross the harbour. It's spectacular at night, when the city is lit with neon and bright lights.

"At first I felt like my feet would fall off ..."

The last method of transport is feet; one will do a lot of walking.

At first I felt like my feet would fall off, but that was okay, because I wanted new ones.

When walking, one must watch where one is going, because most others don't. Some walk like their asses are on fire, others like they're in a coma. No happy medium exists; people either walk fast or move like they have no will to live.

Forget traffic rules; when the light says don't walk, people do anyway. However this is inadvisable on major thoroughfares, you might pay the price for crossing against the light. But on smaller streets jaywalking is a way of life.

One term that would describe Hong Kong is effective transportation. I've yet to encounter a city with a system as slick as this.

November, 1998

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