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A hike on Dragon’s Back – and life after travel

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Running along a windswept ridge on the southeast arm of Hong Kong Island, Dragon’s Back might just be the most famous hiking trail in the territory. In recent years it has also become a major draw for tourists, especially since TIME magazine named it the ‘Best Urban Hike in Asia’ back in 2004. I had long known of its existence, but it took Bama’s third trip to Hong Kong, and a sudden spell of clear weather, for me to revisit the trail after a hiatus of six or seven years.

It was a combination of work, journalism school, and other priorities that had kept me away for so long. Whenever I went hiking I invariably chose the landscapes of Tai Long Wan, on the Sai Kung peninsula, and then I’d book occasional trips to Indonesia to have my fill of volcanoes. But sometimes we are so attached to the idea of going abroad that we fail to appreciate the wonders in our own backyard.

I consider this as Bama and I tackle the meandering steps that will take us up to the ridge. The trail here is unexpectedly empty – largely because it is the middle of the working week – and our only company is a man in a nearby clearing, testing his gleaming white drone. There are groups of local students farther along the path, but it is nothing like the crowds my father had alluded to before we went. Sooner than I remember, we emerge through a gap between two peaks, where the foliage clears to reveal a familiar backdrop stretching out to the endless sea. It is even more beautiful than I recall.

This view, overlooking the beach and village of Shek O, was my desktop background for a very long time. While studying in England, it was a constant reminder of my hometown and its quiet subtropical beauty. That background remained with me as I moved to Spain, and also when I returned to Hong Kong for the next four years. It was only in November, towards the end of our six-month Spice Odyssey, that I swapped it out for a photo from the Banda Islands.

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First view through the trees

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Pointing the way

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A reward for our efforts

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The lonely lighthouse on Waglan Island

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Shek O from above

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Houses by the sea

Bama’s time in Hong Kong had been hectic enough, meeting my friends and family over lunch, dinner and afternoon tea. A few days before he left, he requested to go somewhere quiet so we could reflect on the past six months. Dragon’s Back was the eventual answer, and although I imagined Bama wanted an actual discussion, nothing needed to be said.

We continue along the ridge, past people taking selfies, past a troupe of exchange students who are not sure they want to go on. 190 days sounds like a long time to be on the road, but I wished we had another 60 to spare. After two weeks in Sri Lanka, Bama and I left knowing that we had merely scratched the surface. We owed the country a second trip to delve into Colombo’s multi-ethnic culinary heritage, before heading north to Jaffna by train. In Nepal we didn’t get the chance to cook Dal Bhat and momo, or test our mettle on a Himalayan trek.

Still, I am confronted with the reality that it is over – this momentous journey we had dreamed of and worked towards since the middle of 2012. Now I am faced with questions about the immediate future: would I go back to the familiarity of my old job, or look for a new one? Would I stay in Hong Kong for my family’s sake, or chase after bigger opportunities in Southeast Asia?

At the end of the trail, we turn down a concrete road that loops around the far side of the hill, making a mad dash through the forest towards the beach at Big Wave Bay. The afternoon light is beginning to fade, and I have promised Bama we will visit an ancient rock carving above the sea. It is protected from the elements by a wooden roof, and would-be vandals by a cage. Despite several millennia of constant erosion, the geometric patterns are clear to see.

Turning around to survey the empty horizon, I listen to the sound of the untamed surf crashing against the rocks. Off in the distance, the gleaming lamp of a lighthouse flashes twice in quick succession. Perhaps it is telling me something. For I know my future is not here, but out there, far beyond the shoals of the South China Sea.

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The eastern approach to Victoria Harbour

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Taking the high road

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Tai Tam Bay, with the upscale residential area of Redhill

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The other Hong Kong

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A near-empty trail

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The secluded beach at Big Wave Bay

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Folds of the landscape

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A last look at Shek O

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On the city’s doorstep

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Skyscraper jungle

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Marks of the Bronze Age, Big Wave Bay

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Shelter for ancient art

57 Comments Post a comment
  1. Just beautiful. Was lucky enough to go to Hong Kong last year and can’t wait to go back. It had so much more natural beauty than I was expecting. Thanks for sharing through your blog.

    January 15, 2016
    • You’re most welcome. Hong Kong’s natural beauty is truly underrated – I think most people come here expecting to see skyscrapers, theme parks and shopping malls.

      January 16, 2016
      • Wishing you the best of luck – whether you stay in Hong Kong or move on.

        January 16, 2016
      • Thank you!

        January 16, 2016
  2. Thanks for sharing a part of Hong Kong I never knew existed. Beautiful! Good luck with your decisions.

    January 15, 2016
    • Thank you, Caroline. It isn’t great to start the New Year with so much uncertainty, but we will see where it all leads!

      January 16, 2016
  3. My husband and I just returned from Hong Kong, and we also hiked on the Dragon’s Back Trail. The views truly are absolutely stunning! I probably will be writing a blog post about it as well! Great photos.

    January 16, 2016
    • I’m glad you also went and saw the same views! We were so lucky to go when the weather was at its absolute best. A lot of the time you won’t see very far because of the pervasive smog.

      January 16, 2016
      • Yes, we watched the weather/sky conditions closely since we wanted to make sure that we went on a clear day. Hong Kong is such a beautiful city — it’s a shame that there is so much smog! I probably will be posting a blog post about our hike as well. We also went to Lugard Road on Victoria Peak one evening to try to grab some great photos. Unfortunately, the smog was pretty thick that evening. Our photos are still impressive, but obviously would be better if captured on a clear night….

        January 19, 2016
      • Well, great minds think alike! I was also monitoring the visibility and weather for days before the hike. There was really no point going if it was overcast and/or smoggy. Funny that you should mention Lugard Road… I thought of going there straight after Dragon’s Back for night photos but we had a dinner appointment in town.

        January 19, 2016
  4. Absolutely stunning! We’ll definitely put that on our “must see” list 🙂

    January 16, 2016
    • It definitely shouldn’t be missed. I’d skip any of the major theme parks in Hong Kong to come here instead. 🙂

      January 16, 2016
  5. Lael #

    So stunning. Hong Kong looks like an even more beautiful Vancouver, BC. My old stomping grounds. That trail is on my list 🙂

    January 16, 2016
    • Oh, I don’t think I would put Hong Kong and Vancouver in the same league! We don’t have snowy mountains and ski slopes on our doorstep… and I love how Vancouver looks like a city in a forest, especially when you land at the airport. 🙂

      January 16, 2016
      • Lael #

        🙂 We shall agree to disagree then,lol

        January 19, 2016
  6. I’m so glad that one day the clouds cleared up so we could go to this place, just two days before I left Hong Kong. Apart from the view, my favorite part of the hike was the ancient rock carving, for obvious reason. 🙂 It’s amazing to think that the stone — and a few others in the territory — was carved some 3,000 years ago.

    As for your decision, just have faith and take that step! Things will sort themselves out along the way.

    January 16, 2016
    • Thanks for the encouragement, Bama. 🙂 I’m very thankful that I could take you here just last week. If only we had better weather at Christmas, we might have gone to see some of the other rock carvings around Hong Kong. Next time!

      January 16, 2016
  7. One day we will come to Hong Kong and hike that trail with you! I hope we get there before you’ve decided to live elsewhere! Lovely post James.

    January 16, 2016
    • Much appreciated, Alison! And yes, do come so I can take you there too – I also have a few other places in mind. I’ll try not to speedwalk as I did with Jeff and Kristi. 😉

      January 16, 2016
      • Lol. I read what Jeff had to say about that!

        January 16, 2016
  8. What an amazing hike. Hope you came to your decision for the future by the end of the hike.

    January 16, 2016
    • Thank you. I’m pretty sure I belong in Southeast Asia – the past six months of travel only confirmed it.

      January 16, 2016
  9. Amazing shots! Don’t know how you managed to limit to only these! 🙂

    January 16, 2016
    • Choosing the photos took a while… especially because there were so many repeats! 🙂

      January 16, 2016
  10. You write so beautifully! This was such a pleasure to read and your photos really illuminate your description of the views. Good luck with your decision and remember that this is one more step in your life and far from the final one.

    January 16, 2016
    • Thank you so much! I guess I have an incurable case of restlessness or itchy feet – staying put in Hong Kong is not something I really want to do.

      January 17, 2016
  11. Returning from a trip always puts me in the mood to assess my life. I know you’ve been wanting to move to Indonesia and I am sure there are great reasons to go and to stay. Being on the road for half a year can really be hard on a person mentally.

    Those are stunning views. We think of Hong Kong as this towering, fast, bright city, which it is, but it has one of the most dramatic locations of any big city on Earth. I am thinking of Cape Town and Rio as the only two cities with a natural setting as spectacular, but maybe there are others I’m not thinking of.

    January 16, 2016
    • Coming back to a world of responsibilities has not been easy. It’s been a pretty crazy week with so much to take care of – our family dog had to undergo surgery, and workmen have been replacing our A/C units so we had to go on staycation for a couple of days.

      From a purely logical point of view, Hong Kong is not the kind of place a normal person would want to build a city. The lack of flat land is an issue, but at least we have some pretty amazing scenery to compensate. And I love having the great outdoors right there on my doorstep.

      January 17, 2016
  12. I have a friend who lived in Hong Kong for a long time and she always talked about this hike. I’d love to do it! Such suspense you have created regarding your future! I will be watching closely to see what you decide. We have been on the cusp of a big change since last June (getting a little long for a cusp – haha!) and the unknown future is both exciting and terrifying. Best of luck making a decision and moving forward with it.

    January 16, 2016
    • Lex, I think this hike would be ridiculously easy for you. Especially if you come when the heat and humidity levels are still manageable! At the risk of sounding a bit selfish and narcissistic, I think it boils down to how (and where) I can live a life true to myself. Living in Hong Kong would be so convenient but also very limiting – I’m up for a new adventure somewhere else.

      January 17, 2016
  13. I didn’t expect Hong Kong to have beautiful views like this. Thanks for sharing this!

    January 17, 2016
    • You’re welcome, Michelle! Hong Kong is full of surprises.

      January 17, 2016
  14. What spectacular views! The perfect setting to reflect on your epic journey. I can imagine the excitement and the uncertainties of approaching a crossroad. But I know you will choose with your heart and that it will be for the best. Good luck James, wherever life takes you. I do hope our paths cross again. I better hurry up with those plans to return to Hong Kong as well 🙂

    January 17, 2016
    • Thank you, Madhu. I wish for the same – it was such a pleasure meeting you in person and spending those last few days in India with you and Ravi. I have a feeling I will end up in Indonesia so if we don’t cross paths in Hong Kong, Bama and I would love to join you two on a trip to the major (or even lesser-known) islands. 🙂

      January 17, 2016
      • Wouldn’t that be lovely! 🙂

        January 18, 2016
  15. It’s a great view from up there, you captured it very well. 🙂 HK is full of surprises. I could be moving to HK later this year to teach. 😮 At least that way, I can travel on my days/weeks off 😉 Good luck in your future endeavours James!

    January 17, 2016
    • Cheers, Lee – and good luck to you too! I thought you’d be moving to Singapore since it’s your favourite country so far. 😉

      January 17, 2016
  16. Wow, wonderful ! 🙂

    January 18, 2016
    • Dragon’s Back is an absolute must-see in Hong Kong – and a very easy hike! 🙂

      January 19, 2016
  17. Great post, James. I find that travel is sometimes such a contradiction… ending a long journey always reminds me of how much I haven’t seen yet, how many places I have yet to go. And when you’re gone for weeks or months with all of your destinations laid out ahead of you, it can be hard at the end of the journey to find yourself without a clear path. I think I’m feeling a little of this right now, having just returned from Japan and the whole new year ahead. Looks like a great hike. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and photos. ~K.

    January 21, 2016
    • Thank you, Kelly. What you wrote really speaks to my current situation. I am so used to being a planner and it is strange (and deflating) to come back with nothing concrete in the future. On the bright side, this is a good time to scope out new opportunities in Southeast Asia. I’d love to relocate to Singapore or Indonesia for work.

      January 21, 2016
  18. Beautiful post James! I have traveled a lot and lived abroad twice years ago but have never done a long travel jaunt. I can imagine it is very hard coming back to reality and life. Life working and doing the same thing every day can get hard and unexciting at times. But then again that is why we travel to spice it up! Good luck with your next steps!

    January 27, 2016
    • Thanks Nicole! It almost feels like I’m grounded in a way – I would love to plan my next trip but there are so many other things to take care of first (such as finding a job).

      January 28, 2016
  19. Love the photos, and as always your words. You have such a mature voice…and now I can see why…journalism school. Will be interesting to see where you land physically?! So your Spice Islands trip is finished? That was a cool trip, eh? Too bad we aren’t getting paid by “someone” for each post!

    January 29, 2016
    • I’d be blogging like no tomorrow if we were getting paid for it! Journalism school has shaped me in certain ways, although it was travel blogging that led me there and not the other way round! It’s been a challenge re-adjusting to normal life – the spice trip came to an end just before Christmas.

      January 29, 2016
      • Well, cool. Good luck with your very next step, where ever your foot lands!

        January 30, 2016
      • Thank you, Badfish! Fingers crossed I’ll find something in Indonesia. I’d love to try living there long-term!

        January 30, 2016
      • Cool…good luck with that. I’m most likely leaving here next January, and one of my options for where I go next to live is Bali!

        January 30, 2016
      • Can’t say I’m not jealous! Swapping Abu Dhabi for Bali sounds like an excellent plan.

        January 30, 2016
      • Well, we’ll wait and see just exactly does happen. Bali is definitely one option.

        January 31, 2016
  20. somewhereibelong2016 #

    Seems to be a very beautiful place.Will visit someday for sure 🙂

    February 4, 2016
    • I hope you do. It is so much more beautiful and inspiring than a glitzy shopping mall. Hong Kong isn’t just about shopping and eating! 🙂

      February 6, 2016
  21. ” … sometimes we are so attached to the idea of going abroad that we fail to appreciate the wonders in our own backyard.” <— It quite true James, sometimes I feel the same thing like you. Our proverb in Bahasa will say: "Semut di seberang lautan terlihat, gajah di depan mata tak terlihat"

    I am wondering now, do you experience something like post-long-traveling-syndrome? Some feeling that you miss the road most than your own home?

    February 8, 2016
    • I do miss the act of travelling and the freedom of the open road, but more than that I miss being in Indonesia. If I manage to get a job offer in Jakarta I would move in a heartbeat!

      February 8, 2016
      • Amiin, semoga dapat kerja di Jakarta ya James 🙂

        February 9, 2016

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