Hello Hong Kong, among the most crowded places on earth and suffering from pollution that causes the government to regularly warn residents not to exercise outdoors. Yet the city is still surrounded by green hillsides, 200 islands and 60 national parks. In a place famed for its urban landscapes, who would have thought that hiking would turn out to be Hong Kong’s secret pastime?
Wiping the sweat off my face with a cooling splash of water from a fern-covered waterfall, I peer through thick trees and foliage at the distant view of the tropical ocean. I am of, course, on Hong Kong Island. Wait a minute! Isn’t Hong Kong all skyscrapers and urban sprawl, among the most crowded places on earth with seven million people jammed into every available space? Am I enjoying some sort of heightened reality video game in one of its neon-bright arcades?
“People think Hong Kong is just one big city but it is far from that” says my friend, businessman Terry Chung, as we wait to board the Star Ferry across Hong Kong harbor. “It is 70 per cent rural, with more than 200 islands, many uninhabited. You can completely get away from the crowds and find yourself alone on a mountaintop or deserted beach.”
I have a mental picture of Terry, arms outstretched on a Hong Kong hill, singing “The Sound of Music” but the densely populated landscape snaps me back to reality. The packed streets buzz with hawkers, pedestrians and exhaust-spewing vehicles while the sights and jackhammer sounds of building and rebuilding are all around. It has been a surprise to discover Terry’s hobby is hiking but he is not alone. Even my tailor, the sprightly Charlie Chau, turns out to be an outdoorsman. “We have a lot of beaches, mountains and walking trails in Hong Kong,” he says. “I hike in winter, swim in summer and I play golf.” He is in his 60s but looks about 20 years younger.
Hong Kong’s name means “Fragrant Harbor” and the panoramic night-time view where the tourist area of Tsim Sha Tsu at the tip of the Kowloon peninsula meets Victoria Island in one of the world’s most photographed settings. Victoria, called Hong Kong Island by locals, was the original site of the harbor and so it is fitting to arrive there by boat, despite the road tunnels that now link it to the mainland.
The harbor’s waters have been criss-crossed by the Star Ferry since 1888, with many of its 12 snub-nosed, twin-deck boats dating to the 1950s, a clinging to old ways that is welcome in a city famous for continually reinventing itself. The bang as the seatbacks of the worn iron and wood benches are flipped by boarding passengers to face the direction of travel is one of the most evocative sounds of this Asian wonderland. The view of Hong Kong island may be better up top in first class, but I now always choose the lower deck, where people-watching is just as entertaining.
The modern buildings hide the past
The crossing is one of the cheapest ferry rides in the world and surely the most scenic and interesting. The only problem is that it is too short: eight minutes after I board in Kowloon, docking releases a pent-up flood of impatient locals, followed by a tail-end of visitors, as I land on Victoria’s skyscraper-lined waterfront. The modern buildings hide the past but I still always feel a thrill from setting foot on this, the original Hong Kong colony with its fascinating history.
We are on our way to Victoria Peak, known just as “The Peak”, the mountain that dominates Hong Kong island and sees millions of sightseers every year as the city’s #1 tourist attraction. Cool breezes on its slopes provided respite from the humid climate before the days of sub-zero air-conditioning and made it a popular place for the rich to build homes. The Peak Reservation Ordinance of 1904 was passed by the former British colonial powers to ban Chinese people from living in the area, supposedly after an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed more than 20,000 people.
A similar zoning encouraged non-Chinese to build in the military and administrative district around the harbor, with its colonial-era buildings, now known as Central after its MTR station and still the focal point of government and business. The Chinese laborers and dock workers settled in neighboring Wan Chai which soon developed a reputation for seediness that it retains to this day, as Hong Kong’s red light and bar area.
The Peak is still an exclusive enclave, with some of the world’s most expensive property. “Low mortgage rates, a lack of new houses and an influx of buyers from the rest of China are to blame,” says Terry. “I’d really need to win big on Mark Six [the Hong Kong Lottery] to afford to live on The Peak.”
The tram survives almost unchanged from colonial times
The colonial elite were once carried up the mountain by sedan chairs. Indeed, the Peak Lookout café for which we are heading for a Sunday brunch was originally built in 1901 as what British legislators of the time called “a chair shelter for the coolies” after the Peak Tram opened in 1888. More progressives times did away with that language and with sedan chairs, and later rickshaws, but the tram survives almost unchanged as another reminder of colonial Hong Kong.
Packed in, we pass our cabin’s twin on its way down, and I peer into the windows of apartment blocks and offices as they appear and then drop away below. Roads and footpaths are layered on top of each other as every precious bit of land is made use of and I can see both walkers and runners testing their stamina on the climb alongside the track. Twelve minutes after leaving Central’s concrete canyons of skyscrapers bedecked with the logos of jet- setting banks and multinational corporations, I am taking in the panorama high above.
We are looking down on Central and out to Kowloon, a view that is like peering into a blazing volcano at night. In the daylight, hazy in the polluted air, I can see the green hills beyond of the New Territories. This vast stretch was leased from China for 99 years to expand the elbow room of the tiny British colony, a deal the Chinese government refused to renew when it came towards its end in 1997.
It was obvious that with the loss of all of its water reservoirs and the container port, not to mention the problem of rehousing vast numbers of New Territory residents, this original rump would be no longer viable on its own. Mustering what dignity it could, Britain lowered its Union Flag in June 1997 and metaphorically sailed off into the sunset of imperialism.
It has a constant ‘Wow!’ factor
Fighting our way through the crowds shooting endless photos of the view, themselves and each other, we find a table at the café for brunch and Terry brings out a map. You can walk around The Peak on trails that have in places been built out on concrete sky paths and it is one of the easiest and most scenic introductions to Hong Kong hikes. “Visitors are always surprised by this quieter side of The Peak,” says Jackie Peers of walkhongkong.com. “It has a constant ‘Wow!’ factor. I love looking back down on Kowloon and the range of hills behind. The Chinese say Shan Shui – ‘mountains, water’ – and that is a very good description of the landscape.”
I am aiming for something a bit more ambitious than this gentle Peak stroll and Terry has an emailed guide from a friend in one of the countless hiking clubs. The route to Wan Chai, where we plan to eat an early dinner, is one of the most popular. It looks very simple on his smartphone but our first problem is finding where to begin. A few false starts have us pushing our way through the sightseeing crowds several times, going in circles, until we find the right road. Minutes later, incredibly, we are on our own.
The first part of the route circles The Peak on steep residential roads, a chance to glimpse the lifestyle of Hong Kong’s rich and famous, although most is hidden behind high walls or private driveways. After the density of Kowloon and Central, it is fascinating to see how much space there is between homes here, although many cling to impossible slopes, on terraces blasted out of the rock.
The Peak tram station straddles Victoria Gap and the actual summit is high overhead, with sprawling mansions or blocks of upmarket apartments on its slopes. “There must be an amazing view,” says Terry. Expensive cars can be glimpsed through gateways, a chauffeur washing one, gardeners at work in the noontime heat. The road becomes steeper and we lose height fast, my toes digging into the front of my walking shoes.
I have underestimated the challenge ahead
We see a sign for the trail to Wan Chai Gap and follow a rough asphalt pathway cut into a sheer hillside, shaded by dense woodland on either side. It’s hot and humid out of the breeze and I realize I have brought enough water with me – one bottle is not going to be enough. I have underestimated the challenge ahead. The slope here falls away less steeply and I can hear, but not see, lots of birdlife. A wooden marker post tells me we have come 2km.
In a park, an elderly man and woman practise t’ai chi, their graceful movements belying the age of their bodies. She tells us she lives nearby with her son and comes here most mornings and weekend afternoons. “I was born in the countryside, on a farm in Guangdong Province, and I like doing qigong surrounded by nature,” she says. The bedlam of the city already seems a million miles away. There is no traffic noise, only the sound of crickets and birds.
We have come quite far down the mountain but breaks in the trees show glimpses of the sea still far below. Glistening in the distance are the towering blocks of Aberdeen with its typhoon sheltered harbor on the south side of the island. This is the original Hong Kong, as the first foreigners landing here thought this fishing village’s Chinese name was the name of the whole island. Its Chinese name now translates as Hong Kong Minor, to avoid any confusion. A path down offers an escape route for a shorter walk but we keep on. As the ground becomes rougher, the path narrows plunging down into valleys bisected by small streams, then rising again.
We meet a trio of Chinese walkers climbing up. Just as we think that puts our efforts in the shade, two European runners come sprinting past, casually chatting to each other. The path changes to bare earth which I imagine must be treacherous in one of summer’s sudden downpours. Typhoon weather and the threat of erosion from heavy rains explain why many of these hillside paths are paved in concrete.
Who would think you could die while hiking here?
“I got caught in a big rainstorm when I walking on Lantau Island,” says Terry. “Lots of lightning and high wind. I had to cross a stream where the water flood to thigh-level and I ended up getting back well after dark, soaked to the skin and very cold. It was a nasty experience and I learned to be better prepared in future. Who would think you could die while hiking in Hong Kong?”
Talking of dangers, I ask him about snakes. “We don’t have many,” he says. “Bamboo snakes and cobras, of course, which are poisonous, as well as boa constrictors and pythons. If you stick to the path, it’s rare to see one. The commonest are the red-necked keelback. They grow to about a meter long and are venomous but not usually fatal.”
Strangely, I don’t find that “usually” as reassuring as perhaps I should. “Listen, the biggest danger is pollution,” says Terry. “Some days you can barely see across the harbor because of the haze. It has become a real problem, causing lots of respiratory problems and premature deaths, despite attempts to clean it up. Making all the taxis run on LPG helps, but most of it blows in from the power stations and factories in Guangdong and there is not much we can do about that. You could even say it actually blows in from Europe and North America because so much of their manufacturing has been displaced to China.”
This tiny city-state ranks in the world’s top ten for deaths from roadside pollution. In 2010, the air pollution index hit the worst levels since records began in 1995, 12 to 14 times the amount recommended by the World Health Organization. “All the more reason to get out in nature when you are in Hong Kong,” says Terry.
Trees and ferns, mosses and orchids
As we walk on, Terry starts pointing out some of the plants and trees around us. There are a bewildering variety of trees and ferns, mosses and orchids. I do wonder if he is making some names up: “Wild asparagus. Buddha bamboo – the bulging stems look like Buddha’s big belly! False pineapple. Fire-cracker vine. Goat horns. Wright’s abacus plant – the roots are a Chinese herbal medicine for dysentery.” A pair of black kites swoop overhead, their eagle-like outline thrilling to behold. A waterfall gives me a chance to splash my face and rest, cooled even more by the sound of running water.
Hard though it may be to believe now, Hong Kong once had even bigger predators: tigers. The last one to be shot was in 1915 and its head is still in the Hong Kong Police Museum, having hung over the entrance lobby of the former Central Police Station for decades.
To the south-east, the rest of the island spreads out, with the beaches of Deep Water Bay, Hong Kong’s surfing hangout, and exclusive Repulse Bay, lined with the homes of celebrities such as Jackie Chan. Above it are The Twins, two peaks that on another day are the starting climb for the challenging Wilson Trail that crosses the island from south to north before continuing on for another 60km or more into the New Territories.
Seeing the skyscrapers of Central, so tall when you are at their foot, looking so tiny in the distance below gives a soaring sense of accomplishment. Like any city, Hong Kong can sweep you up in its pace, but being on a mountain with the wind blowing puts life back into perspective. And our own daily struggles also pale into insignificance when the remnants of concrete fortifications recall those who fought and died in the World War II Battle of Hong Kong when the Japanese invaders swept through these mountain passes in a matter of days.
Scratching a living here means work never stops
As our weary feet take us down the last stretch to Wan Chai, I leave such thoughts behind me in the wilderness of The Peak. We find a busy restaurant where a fierce Szechuan hotpot, red with peppers, brings even more sweat to my brow but is the perfect tonic for the day’s exertions. We have walked at least 12 km and it feels like being back in the city after a day in the country. We drink endless tiny cups of tea to rehydrate tired bodies and linger over the remnants of our meal until the wait staff’s welcome runs out.
Terry leaves me at the MTR station but I decide to walk back to Central to complete my loop around The Peak. A sharp shower of rain has cleared the air and I plunge into streets thronging with markets and lined with shops and restaurants. Stallholders splash water over fish to keep them fresh. Scratching a living here means work never stops. A businessman in a perfect suit picks his way across the road, littered with food refuse and cardboard boxes, as laborers in singlets and plastic shoes shout at each other, the everyday conversational tone. Mahjong tiles are banged down in a game that looks as if it has been going on since time began.
A radio blares Cantonese pop, strange odors come from a traditional medicine shop, overwhelming the background smell that is a mix of fish balls, char siu (barbecued pork) and exhaust fumes. Tiny trucks smoke past, their drivers glued to mobile phones. Water drips from air conditioners lining the endless windows of the apartments blocks on each side. Generators thrum into life, powering flickering neon bulbs that light up gaudy plastic awnings. High overhead, I can see the green hillsides from where I have just come, dark and mysterious in the fading light of dusk.