Other side of Hong Kong

Shikha Tripathi | Updated on November 23, 2018

Serenity in order: An aerial view of the trail that leads to the Po Lin Temple.   -  SHIKHA TRIPATHI

The island’s great outdoors deserve as much attention as its glitzy urban attractions

“What would you possibly find in Hong Kong,” I had asked my friend, an outdoor educator, who had moved there a year ago. My scepticism couldn’t have been more off the mark — a recent visit to Hong Kong introduced me to its great outdoors, a world that has by and large been swept under the island’s glitzy carpet of shopping and skyscrapers. There’s no denying the extravagance (and fun) the urban indulgences the country has to offer, but it also has a budding outdoor community and some fabulous experiences that showcase the natural beauty of the place.

A massive lunch welcomes me to the city when it is only time for my morning coffee back home. I dig through the feast anyway; it would be criminal to refuse a Jiangnan meal at Old Bailey just because it’s “too early”. After brunch, Vivian, my sprightly guide, walks me out of the restaurant through the recently restored heritage section of Tai Kwun, a police station complex, and the district of Old Town Central. But even in the swirl of gigantic street art caricatures, art deco stores and egg tart vendors, I haven’t forgotten the glimpse of green hills peeking through the mist that I saw on the drive from the airport. I don’t have to wait too long though for my rendezvous with the outdoor world. Early next morning, I lace up my boots to hit the MacLehose trail, Hong Kong’s longest hiking route.

A barely 40-minute drive from the city, the 100-km MacLehose trail is divided into four sections for the ease of hikers who can choose to cover sections of it, if a multi-day hike is not on the cards. Only a couple of years ago, the trail, named after Hong Kong’s longest serving governor, was part of National Geographic’s “20 dream trails” from around the world, carefully picked by outdoor icons — from trail runners to authors. It stood out proud amongst its mountainous counterparts as the only trail from East Asia, and that too in a thriving metropolis. Eagerly, I get off at the trail head in Sai Kung, where the climb is gradual and easy. I pass sections of the famed Unesco-listed rhyolite formations, volcanic rocks with six-sided crystals that create hexagonal columns of rock. Spiralling higher up in the afternoon sun, the jade of the Tai Tam Tuk reservoir is left behind and overshadowed by the turquoise of the South China Sea that opens up in a grandiose view from the top. I find it hard to believe that this, too, is Hong Kong, but a brief hello and exchange of smiles with fellow hikers reassure me of its reality.

The initial astonishment of seeing elderly people on the trail dissolves as I bump into some youngsters lugging suitcases all the way to the beach. I’m in for more surprises though — it’s only on a cable car ride to the Po Lin temple, floating over a stunning canopy of green, that I learn that 40 per cent of Hong Kong is forest cover. While one can hike up through the forest to this temple that houses one of the world’s largest outdoor bronze Buddha statues, it is the aerial ride that gives a perspective of the extent of the dense foliage.

Tall claim: Po Lin has one of the world’s largest bronze Buddha statues   -  SHIKHA TRIPATHI


It is also spots like the Cheung Po Tsai Cave on the “pedestrian and cyclists only” Cheung Island, that reinforce the surprise factor even in the midst of the clamour of seafood joints and souvenir shops that tourists come to the island for.

Even on popular hikes such as the Dragon’s Back trail, it’s easy to savour a slice of outdoor living in a day’s getaway. Victoria Peak, or simply The Peak, offers some of the best views of the city skyline. My outdoor escapades, in fact, are interspersed with city doses that include dining at historic eateries such as Jimmy’s Kitchen, 1935 and Paper Moon, a fabulous tea tasting and making class at the award-winning MingCha Tea House, and an afternoon with Mak Kwai-Pui, founder of Tim Ho Van, the dim sum chain where you can have one of the world’s cheapest Michelin-star meals.

Before turning around on the MacLehose hike, as I stand with Vivian on the tranquil white sands of Long Ke and watch the jagged, grey rhyolite columns on its distinct coastline, I look around at the fallen trees ravaged by Typhoon Mangkhut. “It was terrible but I got to spend time with my family,” she says and flashes her radiant smile. Vivian’s hectic job keeps her from being able to spend much time with her aged parents. Like its resilient people, the city was back on its feet in no time, to prep for the annual Tai Hang fire dragon dance.

Despite the destruction, the beach is beautiful and serene, and it’s hard to imagine a busy capital close by. In Hong Kong, there is always the comforting world of Wong Kar-wai films, video-game arcades and street-side dumpling stalls to return to. But there is greater comfort in knowing that when the city lights fade into oblivion, soul-stirring beauty is not far away.

Shikha Tripathi is a writer and photographer based in Binsar

Published on November 23, 2018

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