Beyond the concrete jungle, Hong Kong.
When I first returned to Hong Kong both my immediate and extended family members were quick to point out a drastic change in my outward appearance.
After a month of eating my way through Madrid, Brussels and finally Scotland, I was going to have to do something to kick-start my very own battle of the bulge. Enlisting the help of my friend Phil, an experienced hiker, we set a date for a 3-4 hour hike with the promise that it wouldn’t be too strenuous.
And so it was on a hot Sunday morning that I found myself on a near-empty MTR carriage, heading towards Kowloon’s Wong Tai Sin Station. There I met up with Phil and another old high school classmate, before hopping onto a minibus to our starting point further up the hill.
We were going to hike to the summit of Lion Rock, one of Hong Kong’s most recognisable mountain peaks. So named because its craggy profile resembles that of a crouching lion, it has become a well-loved symbol for the 7 million city-dwellers who live at its feet.
The first half an hour or so is spent navigating the tarmac of Sha Tin Pass Road, formerly one of the main routes out of town. It is a fairly wide but empty road, having been replaced by tunnels in the late 60s and 70s. Perhaps what makes it special is the water that constantly trickles down its side. The source? A series of piped outlets for fresh mountain water, popular with local residents who come collecting it in tubs.
I stop at one of the outlets and run my fingers under the water. In the humid 30+ degree heat it is wonderfully cold. At Phil’s suggestion I soak a small towel and wrap it around the back of my neck. I didn’t know it then, but in the next few hours of intense subtropical heat, this wet towel was going to be something of a lifesaver.
Before long we turn off a bend onto a path leading through the vegetation. This is where the real hiking begins.
For the next who knows how long we are confronted by a series of endless concrete steps trailing into the distance. After the hard tarmac of Sha Tin Pass Road, I was hoping for a surface that was a little softer on the feet. Thankfully it didn’t take long for a great vista to emerge – at one of our brief rest stops we were treated to a grandstand view over the teeming streets below.
Soon enough we found ourselves winding our way around the back of the mountain. The trail at this stage was relatively flat, and we were joined by groups of older hikers who spoke a kind “good morning” whenever they walked past. It’s not something you would expect in a hard-nosed city of 7 million people.
After another half an hour or so, we spotted a fork in the road with an arrow pointing to the summit. It read, “Lion Rock Peak, 0.5 km”. However our joy was short-lived – not far away another sign warned us that the trail was tough, and that only experienced hikers were advised to continue. Ever the encourager, Phil turned to us and spoke. “Well, it’s just 5 minutes of hell, and then afterwards you are basically at the top.”
The problem was that it wasn’t quite 5 minutes – it felt much more like 10. This was the steepest part of the trail and the never-ending concrete steps were proving to be brutal. Not to mention that it was just past 12 noon on a hot August day. But the important thing was, we made it to the top.
Huffing and puffing from the climb, I sat myself on a large boulder to take a rest. Perhaps it wasn’t a wise move as the rock had been baking under the midday sun. For a moment I contemplated sitting somewhere else, but then I felt a bout of oncoming nausea wash over me. There was no choice but to stay put.
Staving it off with frequent gulps of water and my trusty wet towel, the nausea eventually cleared and I stood up to survey the scene. For the next 5-10 minutes we paused, enjoying the panoramic view of the city sprawled beneath us. I could only imagine how beautiful it would be at nightfall with its galaxy of twinkling lights.
We may have conquered the hardest part of the trail, but the hike itself was far from over. Passing the occasional sign warning of steep cliffs, we scrambled up and down the undulating terrain in the direction of the “lion’s head”, a sheer rock face marking the far end of the mountain.
Fortunately for us, the view only got better with each peak we climbed. Each vantage point had its unique qualities and I ended up getting a lot of repeat pictures. Perhaps a big part of treasuring the view was the fact that we had to earn it – getting here was rather more difficult than taking a tram and a couple of escalators (as at Victoria Peak).
Perhaps it’s strange that some of the easiest sections were at the top of the mountain – here the trail was quite flat, and in a typical Hong Kong fashion lined with thick concrete railings masquerading as woodwork. It was an interesting contrast to the rock formations that were so predominant on that part of the ridge.
With the hilarious danger signs the concrete railing lent something of an urban quality to an otherwise natural scene. Natural, that is, if you disregard the view to your left. In truth that’s part of the allure of Hong Kong; this dynamic interplay between the concrete jungle and the forested mountain slopes is found in few other major cities around the world.
Our last stop before heading down the mountain was a towering rock formation inscribed with words and smiley faces in tippex. Here we found a telltale gap framing a view of the city below – an interesting photo composition too obvious to miss.
At second glance I realised that there was something uniquely Chinese about the scene. Perhaps the rock’s striations were reminiscent of traditional landscape painting, or maybe it was down to the view frame, which was practically a negative of a standing rock in a Suzhou garden.
After a long downward climb, we finally made it to an old wooden pavilion for a bit of a rest. Nearby we spotted a wire strung between two trees, with several hooks attached. As it swayed gently in the breeze I became convinced of a certain poetic quality; it was something that said “camping with friends” or simply “summer”. And so the three of us hung our hats there and took a few more pictures, for memory’s sake.