Hidden Hong Kong
Hiking the Urban Jungle
Despite being one of the world’s busiest commercial centers, Hong Kong suprises me in its larger regions of countryside, virgin islands and its vast well-protected national parks
Photo by CFP
"You need to get out there!” said my friend Bianca, imploring me to take advantage of the clear summer weather. “You’ll regret it if you don’t.” I hadn’t packed any gear, nor was I dressed appropriately. Yet a few hours later, there I was - hiking. In Hong Kong. Wow.
This pastime is among Hong Kong’s best kept secrets, and shamefully so. It sounds outlandish, but minutes away from the cocktail bars and high rises you can be hauling yourself up a steep mountain trail, out in the middle of nowhere. It surprises a lot of people to discover that Hong Kong is mostly wilderness. Don’t get the idea that hikers in the most densely populated location on earth are pitching tents on slabs of Kowloon concrete: the views of pristine, lush jungle on the city’s hiking trails are nothing short of spectacular.
I didn’t have a guide, only a little blue book with a list of hiking posts and a general idea where I was headed. I was unaccompanied, as well, but luckily, in Hong Kong, you’re never far from a landmark. The only difficulty I had was choosing my trail from the myriad on offer. There are more “cultural” cities in Asia, like Beijing, exotic ones, like Bangkok, or high-rolling glitzy ones, like Shanghai, but what Hong Kong has is a stunning natural landscape right at its heart. A short bus ride from downtown will take you to the foot of the Dragon’s Back Trail, smack dab in the center of Hong Kong Island and yet rated one of the best urban hikes in the world by Time. You lumber past snappily-dressed commuters as you progress towards the rugged spiny ridges of Shek O Country Park, looking out over the breathtaking South China Sea.
Alternatively, one could venture northward towards the unspoiled wilderness of Sai Kung. Once past the unsightly industrial shipping zones you are suddenly plunged into serene bamboo forests and deserted beaches frequented only by local fishermen lugging the catch of the day back to the city. This is the wonder of Hong Kong – despite being one of the world’s busiest commercial centers, 70 percent of the territory is countryside, most of which is protected national park.
Per my friend’s recommendation, I hopped on the subway and ended up on Lantau, the largest of the territory’s outlying islands. Most travelers only come here to depart: Lantau is host to Hong Kong International Airport. Others come for the plastic-wrapped enchantments of the new Disneyland, and fewer still see the Big Buddha, a colossal bronze statue gazing over a gaudy tourist trap.
In between these sanitized attractions are vast virgin fields, tiny fishing villages, and Lantau Peak, Hong Kong’s second-highest mountain, a vertical slog combined with postcard-worthy views of the island. There’s a trail that snakes around the entire island, requiring more than a day of your time but also accessible in segments for those on a limited schedule. The transition between urban beehive and absolute silence is disorientating – you start off in Central, get off at the end of the line, and you’re on a bus, gripping the seat ahead of you as it swerves around Jurassic Park hills above seemingly bottomless chasms. Buses regularly stop to allow wild cattle to cross the road.
The Lantau trail is well marked, but it’s tempting to off-road. The toughest thing about the trek is keeping your camera battery charged, as every turn around the bend seems to be a new vista that must be preserved. Passing undulating streams, jagged hills, and stopping to smell an abundance of wildflowers only a botanist would be able to name, it became a chore to remind myself that I was only about an hour away from civilization. While my guidebook was pretty clear on what path I should be taking, I ended up on an unknown side-route, where I stumbled upon an abandoned house that probably dated back to the 1980s. After snapping the shrine, the dusty chests of drawers, and cracked stairs, I hoofed it to avoid a different kind of snapping courtesy from some rather unpleasant-looking dogs.
I didn’t complete the trail, stopping instead at Tai O, a little fishing village nestled in the coast. It’s in all the tourist literature for the houses on stilts. The scenery is charmingly quaint, but I didn’t take up a local boatman’s offer of a tour – despite promises of endangered pink dolphins. I decided instead to endanger some other sea life, and munched happily on fish-on-a-stick purchased from a roadside vendor.
The next day I was on the Lamma Island ferry, on my way to the rocky outpost located thirty minutes from the office towers of Central. Nobody warned me I’d be traveling thirty years back into the past - no cars are allowed on Lamma’s roads, everyone travels by bike, and fences are plastered with “Philosophy Talk” adverts and promotions for yoga classes.
Hiking on Lamma is relatively easy: you jump off the ferry, walk from one end of the island to the other, and take a boat back to where you started from. The first thing you see is a large, graffito welcome to tourists, a feature which seemed to have kicked off a trend for goofy scrawlings which now cover most surfaces in the island’s inhabited areas. Once you pass a hideous coastal power plant, you’re alone, following footprints along a quiet trail throughout a rugged landscape. Rugged cliffs give way to powder-soft beaches, which in the off season are absolutely deserted. If you’ve brought trunks, there are spotless changing areas and bathrooms nearby if you wish to take a dip.
As I came to the end of the trail, sitting and waiting for the ferry to take me back to the mainland, I came across a couple Swedes on a business holiday. I talked with them about their experience, and they made more recommendations for places to hike that I hadn’t even heard of, adding to my swelling catalog of jungle-fronded jaunts.
Yet as our ferry plunged through the black waters dotted with the starlike bright lights of Victoria Harbor, returning me back to the crowded dock heaving with commuters, it seemed that the real jungle lay in front of me.
Also In This Issue
Sign-Up for the News China Email Update
Every month you"ll receive the latest stories from the most recent issue of News China.
Badeling Pass | Beijing
Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
Or send photos to firstname.lastname@example.org
Please include your name, location and date of photo