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Hong Kong Diaries 9: Ticket to Ride

17 August 16 words: Ben Zabulis
"Shatin is what's known as a new town development and thereby highly populated; size-wise think of Mansfield but unvandalised, safe and with a million people"

Although there are many good things about Hong Kong, one of the greatest is public transport; the best in the world, they say. It's not only the best in terms of network expanse; the cost is relatively low, and they've got that all-important quirk which systems elsewhere oddly fail to achieve: joined-up thinking, or connectivity.

Transport here comprises several modes operated by a number of different companies who, back in the nineties, joined up magically to instigate a smart card option valid throughout. So, no more faffing about buying new tickets at each change; marvellous or what?

And as buses, boats and trams offered a single fare only, regardless of distance travelled, it also meant quicker boarding; you didn’t drown in the middle of a tropical downpour while waiting on Mrs Wong’s enquiry as to how much dosh was needed to get her and her two whinging progeny – half-fare, hopefully – to Tai Koo Shing. Now, that is marvellous!

The Octopus card, they called it. Think eight lucky tentacles reaching in every imaginable direction and you get the idea. Fast and furious was needed, and when you realise Hong Kong is half the area of Nottinghamshire but with seven times the population you’ll appreciate why. The Octopus has since gained a few more tentacles, typically a host of additional payment options including special cards for children and the elderly – with concessions – and fully-refundable cards for tourists (bear in mind!).
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As an example, one of the longest journeys we can do is from our house in the northeast New Territories to Tai O on the western flank of Lantau Island; Tai O being an attractive, waterside village on stilts. I’ll take you there one day. It’s about the same distance incidentally as Arnold to Tamworth and, taking the scenic route, would need two buses, two ferries and another bus to finish.

Of course we could do it less convolutedly, but that would spoil our fun and argument that said card will guide us effortlessly upon several modes of transport without recourse to either cash or ticket. It does a whole lot more too – imagine being able to use an NCT Easyrider not only on Trent Barton and trains but taxis too; not to mention payment at supermarkets (to Mrs Wong’s delight), cinemas, swimming pools (to Mrs Wong’s kids’ delight), hospitals, libraries, shops, restaurants, and even as an access control for children at school (not to Mrs Wong’s kids’ delight).

One card only, now that’s what I call joined-up thinking. You’re right by the way; the Octopus has evolved from a humble travel card to one with a cash debit function. Unbelievably, there are now 31 million cards out there.
Critical to that joined-up thinking thingy, public transport needs to be affordable and plentiful; a 20km bus journey here will cost only 80p. We have a fascinating array of transport modes, some (the Star Ferry, Hong Kong Tramways, Peak Tram) have their origins in history and are themselves tourist attractions.

To bolster this, there’s a modern metro and umpteen ferries and buses. Certainly not short of those, according to Alexander Dennis we have 4,200 of their double-deck wonders serving 4 million folks daily. Unlike the UK’s, these are three-axle jobs, hooligan-free and often pass through Notts during export. I know this because one day, while discussing Corgi’s die-cast Hong Kong bus range, the proprietor of Sherwood Models mentioned it as I zipped up my anorak to leave.

I never saw them. It was 1997 and I may well have been getting bladdered in Kowloon, or following that other most critical of Brexits.
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Nowadays, however, we’re good users of the public mini-bus system; sixteen-seat Hondas of which over 4000 operate. One such plies between our village, a cluster of houses amidst camphor trees, bamboo and tumbling streams, to Shatin (civilisation) 11km over a hill.

Shatin is what’s known as a new town development and thereby highly populated; size-wise think of Mansfield but unvandalised, safe and with a million people. Begun in the seventies, it’s essentially a modern precinct interspersed with parks and a river, nicely done too. The mini-bus is low key, our stop is located by a banana tree which provides effective shade (an exotic departure from Nottingham’s desolate windswept poles) while chairs and stools, discarded by locals, benefit waiting passengers.

Needless to say, neighbourly chat ensues until the bus arrives. The drivers are lovely; children greet them with ‘Hello uncle!’ and receive biscuits in exchange (this is called paedophilia in the UK). All very neighbourly, everybody knows everybody. Octopus payment of course!

The journey is very pleasant as we wind our way through sun-mottled palm, over the hill, to the radio’s soporific twangs of Chinese music; it adds a pleasure-trip feel to a simple shopping jaunt. If you want to alight you just yell out. The drivers are conscientious enough to seek you out at the bus stop downtown in case you miss them and, if needed, will offer you the loan of an umbrella; that’s service alright!
So, public transport stuck in the dark ages? No joined-up thinking? Well, there are some things money can’t buy. For everything else there’s Octopus!
Ben Zabulis is the author of Chartered Territory An Engineer Abroad

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