HONG KONG — The passengers on the sleek motor coach are excited. I’m excited. Even the bus driver seems excited. Then again, who wouldn’t be excited to be crossing the new Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge (HZMB), the $20 billion (U.S.) engineering marvel that some are calling the newest man-made “Wonder of the World.”
The driver starts the engine, closes the door and guides the bus from the bowels of the posh Elements shopping mall onto the traffic-clogged streets of Kowloon — the buses leaving from this Hong Kong district offer the easiest and most direct links to Macau via the HZMB.
Previously, Hong Kong residents wishing to travel to Macau to spend their money in that city’s glitzy new Las Vegas-style casinos relied on high speed ferries to get them there — a trip that takes about an hour; sometimes over rough water.
The new bridge, which took nine years to complete, cuts the travelling time to Macau by half — 30 minutes, most days.
Above: Buses pass Hong Kong airport, left, before crossing bridge and new immigration facility, right.
Lively chatter fills the coach as the driver weaves through a web of highway ramps leading to Hong Kong Port, close to the city’s famed international airport, where the entrance to the 55-km-long bridge/tunnel system is located.
It’s there we must disembark and clear customs in the state-of-the-art Hong Kong Boundary Crossing Facility, built specifically to process those exiting the former British colony via the bridge.
Passing through customs takes just a few minutes on this lazy mid-week morning but a chatty Hong Kong officer advises “it’s much busier on the weekends when the mainland (Chinese) tourists from (nearby) Gungzhou and Shenzhen come through here by the thousands.”
Finally, we’re on the bridge — the longest fixed link on the planet, which is built with 420,000 tonnes of steel (enough to construct 60 Eiffel Towers) and is designed to withstand earthquakes and typhoons over its 120-year lifespan.
The road ahead is clear — traffic on the HZMB is limited to motor coaches and a few private vehicles for now. The freshly-laid pavement looks like a long black ribbon that stretches out into the Pearl River Estuary, which separates Hong Kong and Macau. The new white traffic markings still look wet.
Above: From your bus seat you can see some iconic Hong Kong islands and landmarks like Lantau Island, right.
Overhead, there’s lots of advanced electronic devices that monitor traffic flow and even a driver’s heart rate, blood pressure and performance. If a bus driver yawns more than once while on the bridge, police are alerted and the bus is pulled over. This is one place you don’t want accidents.
As the bridge sweeps across Lingdingyang Channel, the jagged peaks of Lantau Island disappear behind us. Tiny boats from nearby Tai O, the legendary fishing village that’s famous for its colourful stilted riverside homes, dot the water under the bridge.
Suddenly, without warning, the coach is swallowed by the yawning entrance of the 6.7km-long undersea tunnel, which makes up part of the amazing HZMB project.
“Yikes! Were we just eaten by Moby Dick?” a wisecracking Aussie shouts out.
We emerge a few minutes later from the tunneland back on the bridge, which is supported at this point by one of several artificial islands that were constructed as part of this project. This is the longest stretch and it’s an eerie feeling to look out from my seat and see only water as far as the eye can see.
While the bridge system has been hailed as an engineering masterpiece by some, others, especially environmentalists, opposed the project because they fear it will disrupt the feeding habits of the already endangered pink dolphins, which populate the waters of the Pearl River Estuary.
“Let’s face it,” says my American seat mate, “this thing was built so more Chinese will go to Macau and gamble.”
Above: While buses will get you to Macau faster, high-speed ferries remain a more relaxing alternative.
It’s a cynical comment that many others echo, but that doesn’t take away from the feat accomplished by bridging the gap between Hong Kong and Macau.
We finally reach dry land about 25 minutes later and again we’re ushered off the bus to pass through Chinese customs this time — another quick process. Passengers then disperse — some board buses for the mainland seaport city of Zhuhai, which is well known for its seafood restaurants, while I and others board a coach that takes us to Macau.
After a day of sightseeing in the former Portugese outpost, I elect to take a high-speed ferry back to Hong Kong to compare the experience with my bus ride on the bridge.
While the bridge is faster, the ferry does offer guests more room to move about during the one-hour crossing. And when we reach Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour, the neon light show I witness from my seat makes me appreciate the longer ride a bit more.
However, if you’re in a hurry to gamble in Macau, the HZMB truly is your best bet.
JUST THE FACTS
• A one-way bus ticket to Macau from Hong Kong via the bridge starts around HK$120 ($20 CDN). A high speed ferry boat ticket costs about HK$170.
• Check out these websites: http://onebus.hk/en or http://trans-island.com.hk for prices and times.
• You can also hire a private car to make the bridge crossing. Point-to-point services start at HK$200 per person. Go to
http://trans-island.com.hk for more information.
• For travel information on Macau or Hong Kong, go to http://www.discoverhongkong.com/ca/