By Fiona Murray
September 29, 2008
When I arrived in Hong Kong for a six month student exchange, my first weekends were filled with seemingly compulsory tourist activities. Like every other visitor I trudged up the steps to the ‘Big Buddha,’ and waited in line for what seemed like eternity to ride the tram to ‘The Peak.’ Then I discovered the extensive networks of hiking trails that give an alternative view of Hong Kong.
While of course the mention of Hong Kong conjures up images of skyscrapers and overpopulation, it is a surprising fact that 70% of Hong Kong is designated national park. The Hong Kong trail covers the bottom section of Hong Kong Island, with the famous commercial skyline towering in the background. On Kowloon peninsula and in the New Territories the MacLehose trail and the Wilson trail cover a diverse range of terrain. There are also hiking trails on the many islands dotted around the major land masses of Hong Kong.
All hiking trails are accessible by the MTR (Mass Transit Railway) network and in typical Hong Kong style the hiking trails are well marked and orderly. For some outdoor enthusiasts, this structure may seem too manicured or artificial. However, for backpackers, and the hordes of locals who head out every weekend, it is ideal to take advantage of the convenient access to the trails.
But just because the trails are convenient to access doesn’t mean they are easy. It is possible to choose grueling eight hours of hills, or multi day treks, as well as pleasant day strolls.
The ‘Dragons Back’ walk on Hong Kong Island is one of the best known and most spectacular day hikes in Hong Kong. I recently made the trip with some friends of varying levels of fitness. In the morning we stocked up on food from one of the tempting local bakeries on the way to the MTR station. From Shau Kei Wan station it we took a mini bus ride to the trail head. Looking out the window of the bus it was amazing to realize it took only twenty minutes to escape from the intensity of Central Hong Kong.
The beginning of the track took us uphill for around 30 minutes, until it emerged onto a narrow ridge from where ‘Tai Tam Bay’ and ‘Island Bay’ are both visible. As we stopped to take photos of the spectacular view we were passed by the many local walkers, some with traditional music playing on their radios, others chanting with meditation beads as they struggled up the final hill. There we appreciated the development of the trails, as we sat on benches and enjoyed our lunches and the cool sea breeze.
From the ridge the track wound down into sheltered woodland and a change of vegetation from sparse bushes into heavier scrub and taller trees that provided comfortable shade. As the trail continued to descend we began to see our reward in the distance: Shek O Beach. What looked like a tiny patch of sand from the ridge now looked a lot more reachable. We walked straight onto the beach and removed our shoes. On a good day you can even find some surf, at least that’s what the huts hiring surfboards seem to imply.
Whether the surf’s up or not, the end of the trail is a good time to relax with a beer and a meal in the café just by the beach. After a beer and a nap we eventually picked ourselves up and took the minibus back to the MTR for the trip back to Kowloon.
While the Dragon’s Back Trail is a fairly easy walk, taking 3 hours, there are plenty of other challenges waiting for the willing. ‘Shing Mun Country Park’ is a completely different Hong Kong hiking experience. I recently took the challenging 7 hour trek up to the reclamation monument (it seems China wants to leave its stamp everywhere, even in remote hills) followed by the highest peak in Hong Kong. Allegedly ferocious monkeys stalk around the park, and for me this is the most exciting part of the experience. As I have come to expect, the government provides guidance on how to interact with the monkeys. The sign commands ‘Do not make loud noises, loud noises disturb and confuse monkeys,’ and my favorite, ‘Do not stare at monkeys.’
If your visit is very short, or you prefer good food to good hikes, another of my favorite trails is the family trail on Lamma Island. Just 30 minutes ferry from Central, this tiny island is another stark contrast to the bustle of most of Hong Kong. A popular escape for expatriates as well as locals, Lamma Island is famous for its seafood which attracts locals every weekend.
A great day trip is to start at ‘Yung Shue Wan‘ with a snack at one of the boutique coffee shops, then take the meandering and easy paved path through the middle of the island, being sure to stop for the island’s famous sweet tofu, and for a break at the beach. The trip across only takes 1.5 hrs, and the final reward is the spectacular seafood from one of the many restaurants lining the streets. Last time I did the walk we sat watching the small boats bob up and down whilst feasting on mussels, prawns and calamari for around HK$30 each.
From my time spent in Hong Kong, I’ve learnt that the city has more to offer than buildings and pollution. At least one day hiking should be on the itinerary of any backpacker.
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