Out for a stroll

I haven’t been hiking for a few months now. A combination of weekend working, poor weather, and (let’s be candid here) laziness has seen me spending a lot more time indoors than out on the trail. So when I received an e-mail, out of the blue, from a Couchsurfer telling me that she was just passing through HK and was desperate to see some of the New Territories, and asking whether I had any hikes planned, it was an opportunity to be seized.

We arranged to hike around Sai Kung, and met up at Choi Hung at noon to get the minibus out to the village. The HKO had threatened horrible weather for today so I’d packed waterproofs, spare clothes, and was wearing my treasured Hong Kong Service cap that my father found in the British Legion. Imelda (for that was her name) and I had a pre-hike coffee to get our hearts started and then walked north out of Sai Kung and took a side-trail up through some of the posh houses in those parts, onto the Maclehose Trail itself.

The trail, up there, is fairly difficult walking – rocks and mud made slippery by the rain. I slipped a few times even in proper walking shoes. We found a chunky and iridescent toad on the footpath. And to our delight, the rain held off, and there were even a few tantalising flashes of blue sky as we reached the summit of Pyramid Hill. I had brought my excellent HK Government trail maps, so we were in good hands cartographically speaking. At the ridge of Pyramid Hill, with the clouds wisping in over the peak and the view down to Sha Tin miraculously clear, we took in the amazing views. It was the first time I’d hiked this bit of Maclehose, but I’d do it again tomorrow – the ridge across the summit of the mountain was breathtaking.

From there we slid and stumbled down the other side, through a nest of badly-signposted villages and back into Sai Kung by road, where I fell upon a pint of Hoegaarden with enthusiasm, and I reflected on how much I’d missed the post-hike beer, sore feet, pongy sweat-soaked t-shirts and feeling of achievement. I must do this more often.

So it was a great day out, the weather was perfect (no rain, no heat, no sunburn), the company was splendid, and it was a thousand times better than staying indoors and fiddling with my Linux box.

Hillfire and damnation

This Thursday is Ching Ming – a public holiday for the locals to go and sweep the graves of their ancestors and make appropriate offerings. Although Thursday is the official grave-sweeping festival, people were out in force at the weekend clearing the accumulated muck from grave markers and burning hell-money and paper BMWs. There are a number of burial sites on the wild hill over the road from Tung Chung Crescent, and just looking out of my window I could see the plumes of smoke rising from the hill’s undergrowth.

Anyway, Sunday was a beautiful day so I decided to hike a few miles. I’m still a bit phlegmy from my bout of bronchitis so I wasn’t planning on anything strenuous and I decided to take the well-trodden path from Tung Chung to Tai O. The warm weather had brought people out in droves and the path (apart from the last two miles or so) was positively crowded with hikers, bikers, and families out for a stroll.

Rounding the last headland before Tai O, I got a face full of dense smoke. The hill outside Tai O is covered in graves and there are signs begging and entreating the grave worshippers to burn their offerings in metal containers and ensure that all fires are properly extinguished before they leave. Some selfish individual decided that fire precautions were for other people, and set the hill on fire. The flames were dangerously close to the footpath. Just outside Tai O the trail runs very close to some eroded cliffs, and at that point signs encourage walkers to take the higher, safer path. It certainly wasn’t the safer route that day, by dint of its being on fire.

I took my chances with the erosion, jogging past the burning, crackling undergrowth, and stubbing my toe heavily on a half-buried rock, as flakes of black ash rained off the hill and stuck to my skin. Small panicked animals were scurrying across the footpath. When I’d reached safety at the other side of the conflagration I watched as the hill burnt upwards as well as downwards, and the local fire brigade and their volunteer helpers beat at the blaze around the burning perimeter. Tai O is justifiably sensitive about fires, because the entire village burned down back in 2000.

On Monday the weather changed to rain, so hopefully the hills will be drenched enough by Thursday to prevent the usual major Ching Ming conflagrations.

Hardcore Hiking

trailsm.jpgTung Chung to Ngong Ping using the rescue trail under the cable car. Only 4 miles or so but allow three hours.

This hike was a total whim. It was an overcast day and rain had been threatened, but I had bad cabin fever and needed to stretch my legs and get away from the Internet for a few hours so I decided to take a chance with the precipitation and take my usual stroll over to Tai O (which I can now do non-stop in a little under two hours). As usual I walked past Yat Tung and out towards the temple, then over the bridge and into the wilds of Lantau.

Directly after the bridge and the zig-zag concrete path, branching off the footpath to the left, a flight of stone steps ascends mysteriously into the woods. I’d seen them before but never really taken any notice. There was a sign, announcing that this was the cable car rescue trail. The map it showed was thick with contour lines. This seemed like an interesting alternative to Tai O, so on impulse I set off up the steps. The cable car is new, and the rescue trail likewise: the steps were very well made, and in solid condition.

There must be well over a thousand steps before one reaches the first angle station at the top of the mountain, and after several stops to get my breath back and to admire the view, I wobbled into the shadow of the cable car’s ironmongery, sat down, and rested. The view from up there is truly awesome: you can see the whole of Tung Chung town, but also the village, the colleges, and the Tung Chung road winding away into the distance towards Lantau Peak. In the opposite direction the view of the airport is unobstructed, and this would be an excellent place for some telephoto plane spotting.

Decision time. I could see that the trail continued towards Ngong Ping, and that the walk involved a great deal more ascending and descending. Did I press on? Or did I give myself kudos for climbing all the way up the mountain, head down again, and go for a beer?

trailsm.jpgOnward! The path runs directly under the route of the cable car, and at the towers the cabins are close enough that you can hear the occupants screaming. Some parts of the path are stone and concrete, but the steepest parts are wooden steps – and some of these sections are steep enough to be ladders. Sometimes the walk took me through wooded areas but in the higher parts of the trail the surroundings were more like moors. At one point the trail – at this point a mere wooden deck – appeared to be affixed precariously to the side of the mountain with nothing beneath. And the trail continues to climb and descend for a couple of miles and three more cable car towers. The only constant is the view, which is stunning no matter where you are on the trail. Then suddenly the path flattens out and swerves away from the overhead wires. This is around the point that the silhouette of the big bronze Buddha hoves into view.

This last section of the walk is by far the easiest, and covering the final third of the distance takes only a tenth of the total walking time. Quite suddenly the trail ends and spits you out just behind the main drag of the Ngong Ping tourist village and, to be honest, it’s rather a shock. For several hours the intrepid hiker is walking alone through wilderness and, suddenly, thousands of tourists appear, waddling about with ice creams. I wanted to shout at them to go away, but instead I walked to the bus stop and rode straight back to Tung Chung. The Buddha himself is the only thing worth seeing at Ngong Ping, and I’ve seen him several times before. All the new attractions are plastic worthless tat.

Overall, it’s a challenging and interesting walk, and a good source of aerobic exercise. It’s vital to take shade and enough liquids because there’s absolutely nothing available on the trail. There’s also no way off the trail, short of turning back. For the less crazy hiker a much easier option is to ride the bus up to Ngong Ping and walk the trail back down to Tung Chung. But where’s the fun in that?

Hiking Hong Kong 1-and-a-half: Lantau Trail section 7 (aborted)

yiopath.jpgHiking guides always contain a section on “safety”, most of which is common-sense: take enough water, dress correctly, stick to the paths etc. They also tend to advise hikers always to travel in groups; hiking alone is considered to be a bad idea. That’s great in theory, but it’s not always possible to get a group of people together. And anyway, the paths around here are well-trodden and safe. Or so I thought.

My plan for the day was to hike Lantau Trail sections 7 and 8, starting from Tai O and walking around the western corner of Lantau down to the Shek Pik reservoir. There’s ancient stone circles around there, and a ruined fort. It’s about ten miles – mostly on the flat – so nothing too strenuous. You have to do both sections at once, as there is no way off the trail where the two meet! I caught the bus from Tung Chung to Tai O, which takes an inordinate amount of time to arrive (over an hour), and had little trouble finding the start of the trail. The path is wide, concrete and follows the coastline. I saw nobody as I was walking, apart from a couple of old Chinese men eating rice at a tiny temple at the side of the path in the middle of nowhere.

Shortly after that, the path led me out across a bay – shown in the picture above – and then suddenly and with no warning, stopped dead. It took me a few moments to realise that I had to turn left into some very overgrown woodland. I did so, and found myself following a new, narrow, barely visible trail through deep woods. It was extremely overgrown and I found myself ducking and twisting just to make progress. A loud buzzing alerted me to the presence of a swarm of bees busily disporting themselves in a couple of flowery bushes very close to the footpath.

I considered the situation. I had no idea how long the path would be so difficult; I was in the middle of woods that would be full of bees, snakes, those nasty black-and-yellow spiders that abound in Hong Kong’s jungle… I wasn’t enjoying the walk any more. I turned back to the concrete path, and walked back to Tai O. This part of the Lantau Trail must definitely be tackled with one or more companions.

Anyway, it wasn’t a totally wasted day. I got some good mileage – from Tai O to the end of the path was about 4km, so the return journey was still a nice amble. Then I walked around Tai O for a while, exploring some of the side-streets that I had not seen before. I found some 1914 Shanghainese bank notes in very good condition (and oddly, printed by the “American Bank Note company” of New York), and was able to buy three of them for only HK$50.

I was also privileged to see the latest piece of Chinese pirated Disney Merchandise: a local tourist was shading herself from the sun with an umbrella covered in Mickey Mouse images; under the pictures – in exactly the same wonky and blocky font used by Disney’s “Mickey Mouse” trademark – were the words “Lovely Rat”.

I got the ferry back to Tung Chung; I’d had enough of buses for the day. Pictures from the hike are in the usual place in the photo gallery.

So, my next job is to find one or more hiking buddies; I’m determined to complete the Lantau Trail and at least one of the other main trails this autumn and winter, so they’ll have to be enthusiastic!

Hiking Hong Kong 1 – Tung Chung to Tai O

Saturday 21st October – About 6 miles; 3 hours; moderately hard work
Lantau mapIt was a good day for walking – not too hot, but with no suggestion of rain, so I decided to take a stroll along the coastal footpath to Tai O. It’s a nice route – concrete paths most of the way, some steps, lots of gradients, no traffic, and fantastic views of the airport and South China Sea.

The walk starts through the middle of Tung Chung town, out towards the Yat Tung public housing estate, and then into the countryside where the last vestiges of civilsation are marked by the Hau Wong temple and its adjoining tennis courts. The footpath then veers off across a bridge, and then you have to walk some distance on a narrow, raised concrete path before reaching the edge of the forest.

This part of the path is easy; there are slight gradients, but it is mostly in shade as you walk around Tung Chung Bay. There are good views of the town, and of the cable cars sliding silently overhead. After the Bay you reach the first little village, which has a tiny ramshackle shrine at the entrance, and a handwritten sign pointing out the path to Tai O. And it’s after this little village that the hills really start. The views over the airport are very good from here, but the traffic was departing to the east so I didn’t get to enjoy much plane-spotting.

The forest closes in here, and the walking is quite hard; there are a couple more small villages, and some excellent viewing places, but very few people. A couple of other hikers and a small party of cyclists. It’s vital to bring enough to drink because there is nowhere to buy water for at least the first three-quarters of this trail. Towards the end of this section there is a challenging and frustrating hill; it’s steep, it’s long, and the descent is immediate so you’re left exhausted and with the feeling of having expended all that energy for no net gain. Luckily, almost right after that there’s a village large enough to have a couple of eating houses. Old Chinese women, who are used to the hikers passing through, will shout “Coke?” at you as soon as you arrive.

Right after this village, the path to Tai O veers off to the right into the forest again. There’s a long series of steps that will wear you out, but it’s worth it for the lookout vantage point at the top. Straight after that the concrete path breaks up into sand, rocks and grass, but it’s a good feeling to reach that point – it marks the last mile of the walk. I chatted to an Austrian mountain biker for a bit while drinking some Pocari and waiting to get my energy back.

The last stage is hard work; there’s no shade, and the sun was beating down by this time. The path is uneven, rocky, and involves lots of gradients. The very last bit, with Tai O in clear view, is overgrown and covered in “Erosion warning” signs. But it’s only 200 yards or so, and then the path suddenly deposits you on the Tai O quayside; you have to walk through all the tiny little huts on stilts where most of the Tai O residents live. Rewards abound, then – Tai O is a good place to get some fried rice, fishballs, and some freshly chilled drinks. And then, because I’m lazy, I jumped on the number 11 bus back to Tung Chung.

There are some pictures of the path and of Tai O in the photo gallery.