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:

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Walks 10: Wilson Trail Stage 1 – The Twins and Violet Hill

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‘The Twins’… Don’t they sound like a lighthearted comedy duo, perfect for hosting a children’s birthday party perhaps? The Ha-Ha Twins, or The Giggle Twins, maybe…? Or so I found myself thinking, whimsically, as I set out one sunny March morning to walk Stage 1 of the Wilson Trail, AKA ‘The Twins’. And yet I discovered, like my synonymous comedy duo, that this trail has very little to laugh about, and is definitely something I would discourage children from going anywhere near.

The alarm bells sounded as I began the trail and immediately started going up, and up, and up… I was already in a bad mood as I had taken the wrong bus from Central and missed the starting point (Hint: if attempting this hike, take the 6, or the 6A, or the 260, to Stanley, and the relevant stop will be clearly announced. Don’t take the 6X – ‘X’ presumably stands for ‘X-actly the same route as the other buses, barring the tiny stretch of road that you actually want’.) Anyway, I eventually found the trail and, as I said, started to go up, and up… Soon the Stanley peninsula, which had been spread out gloriously below, was disappearing in the clouds. Various people had described this hike to me and ‘it’s a bitch’ had been the most flattering account. This came into sharp focus as, after twenty minutes, I was still ascending. And sweating a lot. Although the experience of being deep inside a cloud is strangely relaxing: sounds are muffled and hillsides plunge in to the slate-grey void.

IMG_2775 IMG_2776 Finally, after an age of going up, the trail started to go down, and down, and down… Almost the same distance again in descent. My calves were taking a pounding. Suddenly, though, I left the clouds above and was presented with a view of Tai Tam Reservoir to my right and the uber-swanky apartments of Repulse Bay to my left. I got a cramp in my stomach from all the stepping and had to, pathetically, sprawl out on the trail to catch my breath at the bottom. And then, joy of joys, the path began to go up again, to the summit of Violet Hill. Which, for some reason, I remembered was a Coldplay song. So, to cap it all off there I was, amid a punishing hike, with Coldplay stuck in my head.

IMG_2777  IMG_2779 From the top of Violet Hill, the northern side of Hong Kong Island became visible, and the skyscrapers and harbour flitted in and out from between the clouds. From then on the trail flattened out and I wound my way down to Parkview: the end of Stage 1. I had intended to do Stage 2 as well, finishing at the MTR station in Quarry Bay. But if you are doing this hike like me and, I am ashamed to say, admit defeat, you can slink off down the road to Wong Nei Chung Gap. From here you can get any number of buses back to Central.

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Walks 9: Maclehose Trail Stage 8 – Tai Mo Shan

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Slap bang in the middle of Hong Kong stands the territory’s highest peak: Tai Mo Shan. ‘Big Hat Mountain’ is the literal translation from Cantonese, although it looks absolutely nothing like any kind of headwear to me… On a clear day, standing astride the summit, you can have a 360 degree view of Hong Kong: north to south, east to west – you got it.

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It’s a dormant volcano (aren’t all mountains, really) and evidence of it’s temperamental past can be seen in all the massive rocks and boulders dotted around the hillside in odd clusters and weird angles. The landscape of the mountain is different to the rest of Hong Kong’s country parks in that, after half an hour of pushing through the usual sub-tropical forest full of dripping water and chirruping beasties, you emerge onto clear, windswept grassy plains, where cows graze and it’s all very European. You’ll know the top by the white weather-station dome perched on it.

If I were you, I’d do Stage 8 in reverse, starting at the end on Route Twisk. It’s the easiest to get to by public transport – take the 51 bus from Tsuen Wan MTR station. Otherwise you need an additional hike just to reach the official ‘start’ of the trail, at Leadmine Pass. If you are me, this ‘hike’ will involve wandering in circles through Tai Po Kau nature reserve thinking ‘this looked easy on the map’, adding an hour of trekking and sweating to your day. It’s a fairly medium level hike, with a slight but persistent and twisting incline up to the top. It took me about three and a half hours to complete the stage.

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Once you’re up and over the mountain, and have arrived at Leadmine Pass, you can either turn north along the Wilson trail to Tai Po, where an abundance of transport options are at your fingertips (bus, train, taxi – whatever your sweaty post-hike self feels most comfortable in), or if you’re feeling particularly sprightly you can continue along the Maclehose trail to Needle Hill, Lion Rock, or south along the Wilson to Shing Mun reservoir – Hong Kong’s your oyster. See elsewhere in this blog for more details on these picturesque routes.

Walks 8: Hong Kong Trail Stage 8 – Dragon’s Back

It’s a rite of passage for the freshly arrived expatriate in Hong Kong – doing the Dragon’s Back. Despite sounding like a Medieval euphemism for something saucy (“‘Tis true, Sir Beaumont, I espied them in the master’s chambers, attempting the Dragon’s Back…”), it’s actually a hike. And not just any old hike: a hike once voted by Time Magazine as the best urban hike in Asia… That’s right. Asia.

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Despite claims to the contrary, it’s an easy hike. Many locals will claim that it’s a tough one but… it’s really not. I’m sure that the two main reasons for this common misconception are that a) it’s called the ‘Dragon’s Back’, which just sounds like an ordeal and b) it’s so famous that beginners rush there to pop their hiking cherry in heels and chinos. This fame also guarantees that if you come here on a weekend you will find yourself amongst hundreds of extended families, great-grandparents and all, trudging single file along the ridge.

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The best way to start is to take the Shek O bound bus from Shau Kei Wan at the eastern end of Hong Kong island – the stop you want is somewhere innocuous-looking along the winding road but you won’t be the only ones getting off, don’t worry. It’s only really the first half of the hike that’s earned its reputation, as you scale a ridge overlooking the village of Shek O on one side and the southern coast of Hong Kong island on the other. In the distance you can perhaps see as far as Clear Water Bay in the New Territories. After that, you descend in to forest and wander down to Big Wave Bay. From there you can take a minibus back to Shau Kei Wan. In all, if you’re not stuck behind half of Hong Kong, it should take a couple of hours.

Walks 7: Maclehose Trail Section 5, Lion Rock

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Today’s walk takes us high in to the hills overlooking downtown Hong Kong. In Cantonese, Kowloon means ‘Nine Dragons’ – one dragon for every hill in this range. And the most striking dragon is, um, a lion.

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From most angles, Lion Rock doesn’t look much more than a sharp cliff face poking from the top of a thick, green slope. But at a certain position, from the side, when the late afternoon sun strikes, it does look  a bit like a lion proudly gazing out over his domain.

It’s not actually part of the Maclehose Trail, but a short, steep detour around midway along stage 5 will take you up. Go on a clear day (good luck finding one) but not in the height of summer or you’ll turn in to a walking sweat-shop. Then you can pose, like me, looking as if you own Hong Kong.

The quickest way to get there is to taxi to Sha Tin Pass, and from there it’s a 30 minute slog to the top. The whole of stage 5 is much longer, and if you continue to the end you’ll arrive at Tai Po Road, where you can have lunch with the monkeys or catch a bus back to the city.

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There are trails criss-crossing the whole of Lion Rock Country park, though, and you could walk north to Sha Tin via Amah Rock. This is basically the Lion Rock training course and is named after the fact that, with a good bit of squinting, this particular rock resembles a woman – Amah meaning maid, or helper in Chinese. Story goes that this young woman sat looking out waiting for her sailor husband, who drowned at sea, and waited so long that she turned in to a rock. I’ve also heard, in a slightly less romantic vein, that some people believe they the rocks actually take the shape of a, well, dick. People see what they wanna see…

Walks 6: Hong Kong Trail Section 6

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This particular stroll (and it is a stroll, not one of Hong Kong’s more testing walks) should take a couple of hours: from Quarry Bay on the north of Hong Kong Island to Tai Tam Reservoir in the south. At first, you take section two of the Wilson Trail, away from the hubbub and traffic of Quarry Bay and head up the steep incline of Mount Butler. This section is paved, and usually quite busy, and may well give you the opportunity to witness phenomena unique to hiking trails in Hong Kong: old dears tai chi-ing, young couples dressed for anything but a hike, and old men with transistor radios in their back pockets blasting out Cantonese opera. The Wilson Trail is one of the big cross-territory trails (the Maclehose being the other) reaching right up to the border with China. It’s also one of the world’s few hiking trails to involve a trip on the underground… Only in Hong Kong.

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One you reach this totem-pole type thing it means you are at Quarry Gap, and now on the 50 km Hong Kong trail. From here it’s a bit more off-road: around pretty little Tai Tam reservoir. It does end a bit abruptly. Eventually you’ll emerge from the trees like a latter-day Livingstone, on to the road, and realise that you’re done. You can strike on to Section 7, if you’re of the persuasion, or you can catch a bus to Stanley and undo all your good calorie burning with beers by the water.

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Walks 5, Maclehose Trail Sections 6 & 7 – Needle Hill

As my summer holidays wound down, I felt an urge to do something worthwhile and outdoorsy. So I got up early one Monday morning and made for Kam Shan country park. The first section of the walk I’d completed several times, (https://stmckay.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/walks-1-kowloon-hills/) and it’s easy peasy – graded a 1* star difficulty rating by the Department of Difficult Hikes, or a similar body.

After reaching Shing Mun reservoir (and walking bravely right through the middle of what appeared to be a migrating herd of monkeys) I started on Stage 7 of the trail. There were lovely views of Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest peak, and the almost tropical waters of the former ‘largest fresh water reservoir in Asia’:

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Then the fun began… Stage 7 is a 2** difficulty hike, but you climb up and up roughly cut steps for the best part of half an hour. This is Needle Hill, left hand side of the photo below, and I was hitting it right on midday. The sun throbbed. My t-shirt was wet through. This was 3*** surely! The views were beautiful, though: a panorama of Hong Kong Island, the harbour, Tsuen Wan to the west and Sha Tin to the east. Planes floating in to the airport felt close enough to touch. This is bang in the centre of Hong Kong, and as I slogged up it felt like I could look from one side of the territory to another:

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By the time I clambered to the summit of Needle Hill I was in no state to take a picture. I took on lots of water, gasped, and descended down the other side. Thinking about it now, I don’t know what I expected from ‘Needle Hill’ – the name doesn’t instantly conjure up images of gentle, Sunday promenades. But I was surprised that the rest of the walk was shaded and flat with occasional glimpses of the valley on one side or Sha Tin town on the other. And very relaxing. When I reached Lead Mine Pass I took the Wilson Trail down to Tai Po (seen through the trees in the picture below):

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And that was it. 3 parts bucolic stroll; 1 part Navy Seals training. And this being Hong Kong, as soon as I reached the first signs of civilization (some pretty plush village houses) a minibus turned up as if on cue and whisked me back to the MTR and home.