“The Chinese expression for ‘landscape’ is shan shui or ‘mountains water.’The image suits Hong Kong perfectly. In few other parts of China are hills and sea blended in such dramatic grandeur. Indeed, in very few places around the world is there natural beauty so close to a dynamic city.” - Edward Stokes: Exploring Hong Kong’s Countryside
Hiking in Hong Kong seems a preposterous notion... after all, the country is usually synonymous with the world of trade, high finance... and shopping.
So when we heard that we could go on a hiking holiday in Hong Kong we were openly skeptical. Even when statistics taught us that country parks comprise 40% of Hong Kong’s landmass, somehow we just couldn’t believe it. In 1984, we’d enjoyed the invigorating hustle and bustle of Kowloon but ridge-walks, secluded sandy beaches, and exotic birdlife didn’t remotely enter into our personal recollections of the country.
But after spending six days hiking in Hong Kong this April, we can tell you that the mountains and water... shan shui... are easily accessible and afford spectacular views of wooded, grassed countryside. Deserted villages, intriguing family shrines, blossoms and birdlife abound.
How do you manage the hikes? There are several options. You can go on a guided walk with a large group of say 30 people. Or, you can hire a private guide and head off on a solitary, spiritually uplifting hike of many hours through to several days. Or, you can strike off on your own, using the inexpensive public transportation system of bus and subway to get to the trailhead and back.
We experimented with all three. Plus we visited the Mai Po Nature Reserve where we were lucky enough to see the endangered black-faced spoonbill. Sadly, the 72 individuals we saw represent 25% of the entire world’s population of this bird.
And if you are up for high-class accommodation that is dizzyingly out-of-this world, splurge and stay at The Regent, surely Hong Kong’s finest hotel. Our room was luxurious with a commanding view of the harbour where boats incessantly ply the waters. After six days of energetic hiking the combination shiatsu and Swedish massage we had at their spa was, well, blissful. Afterwards, we strolled to the Gaylord, a nearby Indian restaurant for a sumptuous meal, walked among the streetstalls at the Temple Street Night Market, and returned to the Regent’s lounge for a martini.
Sipping our martinis while overlooking the busiest harbour in the world and watching animated neon signs illuminate the night sky underscored the astonishing, beautiful contradiction that is Hong Kong. As we looked out at the 50+ storey high-rise apartments and towering spires of the city, the notion of hiking and country parks seemed unreal.
But that’s the undeniable attraction of opposites, isn’t it?
Here’s what we recommend you try.
Yorkshire born Hong Kong resident and guide Paul Etherington picked us up at our hotel and whisked us through the city traffic in his comfortable, air-conditioned van. Within an hour we were parked at the trailhead located on the Sai Kung Peninsula at a little fishing village named Wong Shek. We immediately started to ascend the hills on a footpath towards Sharp Peak, an aptly named 485 metre mountain with a rocky scramble for the final 150 metres or so to the peak. Though we found the hiking humid in April, the views of Tai Tan Hoi (Long Harbour) and the beaches at Tai Long Wan (Big Wave Bay) where surfers like to hang out, were ample reward for the effort.
Although the hike is do-able on your own, we recommend you contact Paul. He’s easy-going, hikes to your pace, and knows the routes, local prices and stories very well. Paul was able to inform us about the shrines we saw (including the burial pots) and his insights on life after the handover (when the People’s Republic of China took Hong Kong back from the Brits) were insightful.
This hike is 12 km, covers extreme terrain, and took us 7 hours (including a one-hour stop for lunch). Unbelievably, we only saw two hikers the entire day.
Picturesque Lantau is the largest of Hong Kong’s outer islands, being home to Po Lin (Precious Lotus) Monastery and its Tiantau Buddha, the largest seated outdoor Buddha in the world. Seated on a lotus, the 34m high statue towers above the monastery precinct at the top of a giant stone staircase. Surrounded by 6 bronze Bodhisattva statues, it’s worth climbing the 268 steps to look at the views of the surrounding countryside. Although the Lonely Planet guide to Hong Kong advises travellers to avoid going to the monastery on weekends, we didn’t experience crowds.
We took the ferry from Kowloon, disembarked on Lantau at Discovery Bay, hopped on a bus and easily found the start to our trail at the turquoise-blue waters of the Shek Pik reservoir. What a picturesque journey it was, walking up the easy trail to the monastery, through shaded woods and cascading creeks. We passed only 3 other mountain bikers on this trail, even though we were hiking on a Sunday. Returning was simple: by bus to Tung Chung, then back to Kowloon via the airport railway branch of the subway system.
The Mai Po Marsh Nature Reserve is located in the northwest sector of Hong Kong’s New Territories. Wetlands are amongst the most critical wildlife habitats in the world and Mai Po provides essential resting and feeding grounds for migrating wetland species. In 1984 the World Wildlife Fund established this site as a preserve and eleven years later, it was declared a wetlands of international significance under the Ramsar Convention of 1995.
An extensive network of walking trails surround several inter-tidal shrimp ponds built in the 1940s. Today the 1,500 hectare site houses an educational centre, several “hides” or large blinds from which you can observe the birds, and a raised wooden boardwalk through a mangrove swamp. Because of the spring migration, April offers superb sitings of species like the black-faced spoonbill that feed and rest here prior to flying to their Korean nesting grounds. September is also a good time for birds due to the autumn migration.
We enjoyed several other hikes, including a second day with guide Paul Etherington to Plover Cove, north of the Sai Kung Peninsula in the New Territories. Another walk to Amah Rock and Lion Rock led by Dutch Hong Kong guide Kaarlo Schepel and about twenty German tourists rewarded us with excellent views over the city. On our last day, we hiked the Dragon’s Back, a ridge walk with fabulous ocean views and breezes. Again, we only met one other group of hikers: four Australian women.
Of course, we had a wee bit of energy left to explore some of Hong Kong’s restaurants and vibrant street life. Between dim sum, perhaps our best-ever Chinese meal at Luk-Yu Teahouse, and sampling produce at the markets (like the hot pink and emerald green dragon fruit) we had an intriguing, fun time in Hong Kong.
You will too. But do plan to stay longer than the average 3.8 days North Americans usually give to this spot. Although often regarded as a connection point en route to another Asian destination, rather improbably, Hong Kong should be an outdoor vacationer’s destination of choice.
It gets humid in April and we wouldn’t recommend you go any later in the year for hiking. September through March are ideal... but it depends on what you want to see. For instance, May is a good time to witness celebrations of Buddha’s birthday at monasteries like Po Lin.
English is spoken and understood at all major hotels. English is “everywhere,” on menus, signs, in the public transport systems. However, if you take a taxi, ensure the name of your destination is written in Chinese just in case the driver cannot understand you.
Finally: this is Asia. Explore this fascinating, rich culture and be patient with the crowds in the city.
The Hong Kong Tourist Association in Toronto is extremely helpful and have many useful brochures such as Guided Nature Walks, The Official Hotel Guide, and Heritage and Architectural Walks of the New Territories. Contact: HKTA, 9 Temperance Street, 3rd Floor, Toronto ON M5H 1Y6, Tel (416) 366-2389; www.hkta.org
Paul Etherington operates Natural Excursion Ideals featuring “The Other Side of Hong Kong” through hiking and/or kayaking, and even sightseeing small-group or individual tours. He owns an air-conditioned van and will pick you up at your hotel. Contact: Paul Etherington, tel: (852) 2486 2112; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Kaarlo Scheppel, author of several guidebooks, takes groups out on hikes via the public transport system. Contact: Kaarlo Scheppel, tel: (852) 2577 6319; email: email@example.com
Birdwatchers: We had a wonderful tour of Mai Po with Samson So, who works at the reserve. An enthusiastic birder, Samson took us through this wetlands park as well as nearby Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve on his day off. Contact him c/o Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, GPO Box 12460, Hong Kong; website: www.hkbws.org.hk; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mai Po Nature Reserve: tourists must book ahead whether in groups or as individuals. Contact: World Wildlife Fund Hong Kong, GPO Box 12721, Hong Kong.
Coastal Guide Series: The Sai Kung Peninsula, ISBN 962-8119-08-07 is one of the Friends of the Earth series of booklets and maps on Hong Kong trails. Contact: Friends of the Earth, 2/F, 53-55 Lockhart Rd., Wanchai, Hong Kong.
Exploring Hong Kong’s Countryside, Edward Stokes, ISBN 962-7534-03-X. An excellent guidebook full of photos that, well, shatter your concepts of Hong Kong being full of 50+ story apartment buildings!