Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 17, 2017

© Margo Pfeiff

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Hiking the Dragon's Back

Far from the glittering highrises, Hong Kong is lush, hilly and dotted with great trails

The sunshine barely managed to twinkle through the dense stand of bamboo, elephant-ear plants and rubber trees adorned with tiaras of orchids. I crushed magenta hibiscus blossoms with every step. When I reached a clearing where the remnant of a WWII gun emplacement was half buried in greenery, a startling and expansive view opened before me — I was looking down onto the tops of hundreds of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers.

Less than an hour earlier, I had left the throngs in the city’s downtown by hopping the tram to Victoria Peak, the green top of mountainous Hong Kong Island. There, a network of narrow byways like Old Peak Road encircle the summit, breaking out of the foliage in places for stunning views of this city of seven million. In a small park en route, a group of elderly locals silently welcomed the new day, as they do every morning with a tai chi session after having hiked up the steep hill.

The wild side

It seems remarkable that in a relentless metropolis like Hong Kong it is so easy to find accessible walking and hiking paths. But there are plenty, from easy to challenging, along hundreds of kilometres of trails within the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong which covers more than 1000 square kilometres. Beyond Hong Kong island, more than 70 percent of the SAR is rural, with farmland, rolling hills and mountains, untouched coastline and 264 outlying islands offering up everything to the avid walker, from monasteries and fishing villages to camping and beaches.

Locals in the former British colony are increasingly embracing nature and the Hong Kong Tourist Board is making it easier for visitors to get out there as well with an annual festival called Great Outdoors Hong Kong! It runs from November 13 to December 11, coinciding with the cooler, less humid season from October to May when hiking is most comfortable.

One of the highlights during the 2010 festival was the year-old Hong Kong Geopark was accredited at a national level. This eight-part preserve showcases some of the region’s strange rock formations, including volcanic sea stacks and hexagonal columns.

While some of the park is accessible on existing trails, much of it is only reached by sea. So I jumped on a guided boat ride to hop-scotch the New Territories section, getting off along the way to take short hikes through remote villages and along beaches with huge eroded arches.

Peak experience

I was in Hong Kong for a week exploring the outdoors, and first on my list was the Peak. As I stood at the summit lookout I could almost see the route of my next excursion which had, as its reward, a beach destination. I could simply hike down the “back” of the Peak via the 50 kilometre-long Hong Kong Trail that ambles up and down through five parks before it reaches the coast. But that was a considerably bigger adventure than I had in mind. So I took a shortcut to the most scenic stretch by catching Bus #9 that afternoon to the trailhead since almost all hiking trails — even the most far-flung — can easily be reached by bus or taxi, subway or ferry.

Dubbed the Dragon’s Back, the route follows a high, narrow ridge with views towards seaside villages like the expat enclave of Stanley, the surfer’s paradise of Big Wave and plenty of jagged coastline. The well-worn, 4.5-kilometre trail is hilly and moderately difficult and finishes in the little fishing village of Shek O with its string of family-run, open-air restaurants along the shore. I settled into a spicy seafood meal, then strolled the beach and napped in the sun on the white sand.

When I used to visit Hong Kong many years ago, one of my favourites places to get away from it all was Lantau Island, a subway and short ferry ride from downtown. At that time, a bus made the trip to a hilltop Buddhist monastery which offered the public a great vegetarian feast. Then I’d walk the long route down and catch the ferry home.

Since then, Lantau has expanded with reclaimed land where the city’s new airport stands and a comfy 7.5-kilometre cable car ride now zips visitors to the top. There were only a couple of hikers on the beautifully maintained Lantau Trail through the brush below, but I found that commercialization had mushroomed at the foot of the 25-metre bronze sitting Buddha that crowns the hill. Now you can grab a Starbucks coffee to fuel you up the steep stone steps to Buddha’s feet.

But there was still plenty of solitude and meditation within Po Lin Monastery where monks mingled amid worshippers lighting incense. And once you stepped onto the flagstone trail that winds back down with its views across the South China Sea, you'll have a pristine landscape all to yourself on the three- to four-hour hike back to civilization.

48-hour hike?

Throughout the week, whenever I mentioned the challenging MacLehose Trail with which I was planning on taking on, I encountered an underground culture of urban über-hikers. A petite public relations manager in black stilettos and other pin-striped types would excitedly ramble on, to my surprise, about having “done the MacLehose.” “All 100 kilometres of it,” they would tell me. “In 48 hours.”

They spoke of wearing headlamps and clambering on their hands and knees up the steep stretches, eating on the go and telling stories and jokes to keep themselves awake through the two days and nights during the annual Oxfam Trailwalker. The fundraiser is one of the biggest sporting events in Hong Kong and has been raising money since 1986 to support the charity’s various poverty alleviation and emergency relief projects in Africa and Asia.

I was only doing one section of the route that traverses the New Territory, the bit of Hong Kong that bumps up against the rest of the Chinese mainland. It’s divided into 10 sections and it’s a wild area with the trail passing over some of Hong Kong’s highest peaks and where you can run across remote temples, weird eroded sea caves or remnants of Second World War bunkers and trenches.

Stairway to hell

Every year during the Great Outdoors Hong Kong! festival, over 3000 locals sign up to volunteer on free guided weekend outings to a number of popular trails. It’s a great way to get to know the terrain and outdoorsy Hong Kong-ites at the same time. My group was to follow a pack of neon-orange T-shirt-clad guides, including a tiny teen named Jasmine with a too-big fluorescent ball cap that proclaimed “Finger Lickin’ Good!” The section scheduled for that day was #4. It was 12.7 kilometres long and, by far, the most challenging. When I saw it was rated “extremely difficult,” I scoffed. How hard could it be? This was Hong Kong, after all…

The trail was well signposted throughout and began as a leisurely climb, then quite suddenly changed its mind. I wasn’t quite ready for this stairway to heaven etched into the hillside. As I gasped for breath on the tidy path lined in lush green shrubs and bright tropical flowers, I looked across the South China Sea.

There was wilderness, but also the outline of a massive housing project and dam — hikes in Hong Kong often offer up distant vistas of power projects complete with smoke stacks, giant windmills or one of the world’s biggest cargo ports. When I reached the final ridge and the trail turned horizontal for awhile, I was humbled. Little Jasmine appeared to be barely breathing hard. She couldn’t remember how many times she’d done this section before, she said. When I finished up, I was limping across the sparkling tiles of a futuristic subway station to zip back to the Central district where I walked into the first Chinese foot massage clinic I came across. I fell asleep as my aching feet were kneaded back to life.

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