Hong Kong has innumerable hiking trails right on its doorstep. Take a walk on the city’s wild side and you’ll discover some astonishing parallel worlds.
Pete Spurrier sits in a small office on a narrow street in northern Hong Kong surrounded by piles of paper and stacks of books. The blind rattles, the air smells like fish sauce and oranges. Spurrier is an office worker, one of many in Hong Kong, and he is here six days a week. But on the seventh he goes hiking.
Spurrier is Hong Kong’s hiking guru. He has written several books about hiking in and around the city. “I have to get out to let my lungs and my spirit breathe,” he says. That’s easy to believe since Hong Kong is an urban jungle, especially in the minds of those who have never been there. It’s a city of banks, traffic jams, skyscrapers, and crammed with malls and glass tower blocks; elevators sail right up to the clouds, and neon signs proclaim consumerism wherever you look.
But Spurrier’s is a different Hong Kong. “Wilderness and beauty come together here. There are more butterflies in Hong Kong than in the British Isles. We have monkeys, wild pigs and snakes right on our doorstep.”
I have to get out to let my lungs and my spirit breathe
A claim like this calls for verification, so off we go. Which way, please? Take the Metro to Wong Tai Sin Station, Exit C1; that’s where the Hong Kong Hikers meet. There are 20 of them, mostly older Asians and Westerners united in their love of hiking.
We set off at a brisk pace, climbing up steep steps and through undergrowth until we pierce the first cloud. Colorful jacket collars bob up ahead as, gasping with unwonted exertion, we learn their owners’ biographies. There’s a French businessman who’s brought along some chocolate bars to keep his energy up, an Irish missionary and a Filipina housekeeper, who has taken a day off. Many come for the company, to escape the loneliness of city life. Others are here for the scenery, for the view that is blurred by some last swathes of mist. Or is it smog? Above the clouds is also above the smog.
We walk along Suicide Cliff, a promontory that rises dramatically above the ocean of high-rise buildings, hence the photogenic name. We finally arrive at Lion Rock, which isn’t marked on any hiking map. It was discovered by Steve Pheby on one of his famous cross-country outings. The Welshman co-founded the Hong Kong Hikers and he’s leading our group today. Selfie break with an incredible panoramic view.
After Lion Rock, Pheby switches to an official path that’s part of the 100-kilometer Mac-Lehose Trail, one of the world’s most beautiful hiking routes. Stalls are just being set up for tomorrow’s trail-running event. Trail running is the latest fad in Hong Kong, Pheby tells us. Even nighttime markets are selling hiking sticks these days. Pheby grins: “The 50-kilometer run is enough for me.” He explains the sports and health boom that has overrun the city like this: “Since the SARS pandemic, which had everyone in Hong Kong wearing breathing masks for six months, people have developed a longing for fresh air.” The highly contagious disease of 2003 triggered the trend? At any rate, more than 19 000 participants have registered on the Hong Kong Hikers website, and there are 200 hiking groups taking the measure of the metropolis in all directions as well as exploring its environs.
New day, new route, new destination. We’re off to Lai Chi Wo, an old Hakka village in Plover Cove Country Park. To start with, the path is peopled mostly by locals as it’s a standard walk for people with dogs. The dog owners are often ABC, BBC or CBC, in other words, American-, British- or Canadian-born Chinese. Later on, it gets lonesome. Spurrier talks of ghost towns he has discovered on walks, derelict houses with the good china still on the shelves and wedding photos on the wall. “People thought they were just going off to work in the city or to America or some place else for a short time, but then never came back.”
Cows graze on a green field, living relics of a time gone by. The farmers went off to the factories or banks to earn money. The livestock remained. The only signs of former rice plantations are the old drainage systems. The paths people now hike were actually created by farmers bringing in their crop. Hong Kong imports all of its fruit and vegetables today. There were once plans to put up malls and hotels on the plain, but now it belongs to runners and Nature. Bamboo forests, gnarled trees, mauve and orange-colored blossoms now dominate the scene.
After a couple of hours on the trail, we arrive at Lai Chi Wo, a 400-year-old village belonging to the Hakka people. A Feng Shui forest towers skyward at the entrance to the village. It was planted by the inhabitants with the intention of appeasing nature spirits. At the same time, the trees provide protection from landslides and floods. An HSBC banner on the wall of the old school building flutters in the breeze. The bank is supporting a University of Hong Kong project to revive and keep agriculture going in the region. For this, it dispatches migrant workers to the old village to work the stony, acidic soil. They are helped by the last remaining villagers, one of whom is Susan Leung. She lived in Great Britain for some years, but then returned to look after her parents – and also to save the village and find out what the ground could produce. “First we grew sweet potatoes and rice, but the wild pigs came and devoured everything,” she tells us. Then she points to a bamboo basket: “The only things they don’t like are ginger and tamarind.”
Another hike goes down to the water’s edge, to Tai O village on Lantau Island. There are more than 200 islands to Hong Kong, and they give us an idea of how things must have looked in the olden days. Carts selling dried fish and octopus rumble through the village. Everywhere, there’s the acrid smell of the shrimp paste that is also produced here. But there’s no future in the fishing industry and the shores are emptying. Fok Fong Koon, 83, has spent his entire life in Tai O. He gets up every morning at 3:30 am, swims one kilometer and tends his garden. He grows melons, carrots and ginger, and lovingly prunes the Bonsai trees he grows in large tubs. His children have moved to Europe; one of his sons is an executive, and he has a married daughter in Switzerland. “I didn’t want them to stay and become fishermen like me – it’s much too hard a life.” The old man only ever uses his fishing net to pick star fruit these days.
Many hikers end up in Tai O after climbing up to Lantau Peak. Up there, you can see the airport, the red ferry boats chugging out to Macau, and the Tsing Ma suspension bridge. You stand there, spellbound by this juxtaposition of nature and urban environment, and by the realization that just half an hour separates the metropolis and the leafy forest, the honking of car horns and the confusion of bird calls.
Our final hike takes us back up into the hills of Hong Kong – to Hong Kong island this time, and in the evening, for a change. At Tai Koo metro station we meet Tom Fathy, 37, a surveyor by vocation and a hiker by avocation. He and half a dozen coworkers often set off for the hills right after work, but today, only one person has joined him. They battle their way through rush-hour traffic for a quarter of an hour, surrounded by all the other office workers on their way home, but very easy to spot in their hiking garb. As they head up toward Quarry Pass they enter a completely different world in which the sounds of the city are muted.
After a half-hour’s trek they reach a clearing. “Elderly people practice tai chi here in the mornings,” Fathy explains. But first, they have to walk all the way up the trail? “Exactly,” says Fathy, “it’s what keeps them fit and young.”
Darkness slowly descends and the men switch on their headlamps. Glow worms flit through the night, and the lights of the city twinkle between the banana trees lining the trail. The city of Hong Kong glitters beneath us in myriad colors. The hectic cookshops, the fortune tellers’ booths, the lines outside the restaurants, the briefcase carriers – up here in the darkness, it all seems very far away.
Fabian Weiss is a freelance photographer and a member of the photo agency LAIF. In his photo essays, Fabian explores the cultural changes taking place in our turbulent times, his intimate pictures and perceptive observations creating nuanced portraits of life within each individual culture. While on a teaching assignment with the international workshop series Publish Yourself! he produced entire magazines in record time. Fabian lives in Estonia and Germany, and works in the Baltic states, Eastern Europe and further east.
Our photographer was surprised to find dense jungle, broad bays and rugged cliffs right on the doorstep of Hong Kong. And no matter which nature trail he took, it always ended at an inviting food stand.