Walks 11: Up the Peak

Victoria Peak is to Hong Kong what Mayfair is to London, or what the Upper East Side is to New York, or what the most expensive bit of Paris is to Paris. Lots of big houses, nay mansions, with big fences, driveways and, most incredibly of all considering this is Hong Kong, space!

As soon as Hong Kong island was colonised, said colonisers realised that it was a fairly sweaty place to be down at ground level and decided that they needed somewhere breezy to escape to. They looked up and, lo, there was a hill rising into the clouds behind them. And up they went.

For the first few decades, the only way up the Peak was by sedan chair, hauled by coolies, which must have taken hours and wasn’t much fun for the coolies. This arduous business of getting up and down, coupled with the need to then build a house when you got to the top, gave the Peak an air of exclusivity, a world of gently swaying fans and mint juleps on the veranda. Then, in 1888, the Peak Tram was opened and the journey time was cut to mere minutes.

Today, as you start the walk up from the Peak Tram terminus, you follow the track’s seemingly vertical ascent (apparently its only 27 degrees, but looks much more) along tree lined embankments and under roads named after former Governors of Hong Kong: MacDonnell, Bowen, Kennedy. The original intermediary stations still stand, but are now often empty as tourists speed straight from Central to the top.

The original Peak-ites clearly detested the tram and the way it dragged plebs from the bowels of the city to their freshly clipped lawns, because they banned anyone who didn’t live on the hill from riding it (at ‘peak’ times, pardon the pun). But, worse than any newly made opium trader coming up with his brats of a weekend, the tram also brought Chinese people, who were promptly banned from owning any property there between 1904 and 1930. Ah, the golden days of Empire.

Traditionally the best way to walk up the Peak is on the Old Peak Road, but I read online that it was better to follow the Central Green Trail and when has anything you read online ever been wrong? So, just as the tram passed under May Road, we veered off in to dense jungle and began winding our way into the clouds. At first there were plenty of views of the city below but as we neared the top the undergrowth – and the overgrowth for that matter – grew thicker and thicker until we could see nothing but green. Its one of those things that Hong Kong does so well: providing a place in which to escape forget that you’re slap in the middle of the most populated place on earth.

Eventually you come out onto Barker Road, and a huge building that now houses apartments but was once a hospital. A large moss covered stone stands by a car park, dated June 1897. Considering that a 10 year old apartment block in Hong Kong can be considered dated and ripe for ‘redevelopment’, finding something from the 19th Century here is akin to unearthing Viking gold. But then this walk does have more than a hint of old Hong Kong about it.

Luckily there are no restrictions to living up the Peak these days. You just have to be obscenely rich. Hong Kong being the most expensive place to live in the world, the Peak being the most expensive location in Hong Kong, Barker Road being the most expensive street on the Peak… You get the idea. You’re walking among the most expensive houses on the planet, houses that go for 70,000HKD per square foot.

But eventually the mansions fade away and you rejoin the tram as it arrives at the Peak Terminus, with its tourist-tat shops, and its viewpoints, and its Starbucks and its Haagen-Daz, and its crowds. Oh, the crowds. For a moment you long for the days when the plebs were banned, and only civilised souls were allowed on the airy slopes, but then you remember that you are yourself a pleb, and that Starbucks and Haagen-Daz and hordes of tourists are the price we pay for views like this: