Sunday, July 22

Gliding to enlightenment

I’ve been visiting Hong Kong regularly for more than a decade.  Over the years, I’ve progressively made the rounds of its popular tourist attractions – with one exception.  For numerous reasons I’d never made it to the giant Tian Tan Buddha sitting above Po Lin Monastery on the southern flank of Lantau Island.   The colossal 34-metre bronze statue was erected in 1993 on small hill overlooking the monastery.  It could only reached by taking ferry to the island, then transferring onto bus that wound its way up a perilously steep hillside.  The trip took an entire day and was best avoided during inclement weather.

In 2006 the monastery was linked to Tung Chung, a township near Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport, by a 5.7 km cable car.  This immediately made the trek to Po Lin effortless.  Visitors could now catch a local high-speed train from Central to Tung Chung, transfer to the Ngong Ping 360 cable car and spend 25 minutes gliding comfortably over Lantau Island.  Unfortunately the cable car cannot operate in windy conditions which means seasonal typhoons can shut it down for days at a time.

My next attempt to catch the new cable car was foiled in 2007 when the service was suspended for six months.  Service had been suspended in June after an empty car fell from the cable during an annual brake test.  In 2008, intent on catching the cable car, Garry and I scheduled a quick 12-hour Hong Kong stopover.  However, our plans were foiled once again by Tropical Storm Kammuri as it swept through the area on August 4. 

I’m pleased to report that I finally made it to Po Lin Monastery in June this year.  While returning from work in Beijing I found myself with a few hours to spare in Hong Kong.  The weather was sunny and the air quality, remarkably clear.  I decided to chance it one last time.  I’m glad I did.  I arrived in Tung Chung to find the cable car operating, with only a short queue waiting to board.  Even better, it’s begun operating glass-bottom cabins, called Crystal Cabins, that offer a stomach churning view of the ground below.  Naturally I purchase a ticket for one of these cabins.

I can honestly say the ride was worth every penny.  The cable glides over picturesque Tung Chung Bay, up the steep slopes of Lantau North Country Park before descending a over cascading waterfall to the Ngong Ping terminal.  The views were spectacular.  From the cable’s summit you’re treated to unrivaled views of the airport, the Pearl Delta and Tian Tan Buddha, boldly silhouetted against the skyline.

The colossal Buddha didn’t disappoint either.  It can only be reached by climbing more than 240 steps to circular, granite pedestal.  The statue was constructed from 202 bronze plates clamped onto a steel frame.  This is the same construction method used to create the copper-clad Statue of Liberty in New York.  The entire structure weighs an impressive 250 metric tons.

The Buddha’s right hand is raised, in a gesture associated with removal of affliction.  His left hand rests on his lap in the position of dhana, or contemplative meditation.  Curiously the statue faces north.  All other great Buddha statues elsewhere face south.   A southern aspect symbolizes his historic resolve to resist young maidens sent to tempt him, thereby gain supreme enlightenment.

The day’s only disappointment was Ngong Ping village, a rather crass commercial mall built between the cable car station and the monastery’s main entrance.  The cable car offers a package tour that includes tickets to two attractions in the village.  I tried a short interactive film about the life of Buddha, but passed on a Monkey movie clearly designed to appeal to children. 

The film proved a handy introduction to Buddha and his teachings.  However, the experience is somewhat spoilt by a tacky prayer ritual visitors are encouraged to join at the end of the film.  You’re asked to take an artificial leaf, insert it into a mechanical slot at the base of a large translucent Buddha statue, then watch a glowing green light trace its way up to his head.

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