Hong Kong defines the word “anomaly.” I say this because it constantly deviates from the expected. The city may be one of the most densely populated in the world (although not as jam-packed as Macau), but even HK Island and Kowloon still have surprising swathes of green space. One of the biggest surprises of this city, is that it’s one of the best places on earth to hike, with several hundred miles of trails traversing it’s rocky edges and mountainous spines.
Many tourists will only visit Victoria Peak (“The Peak”). Although it’s a pretty modest height (1800 feet), about a third of Mt. Marcy in the Adirondacks, Victoria basically rises up right from sea-level, and gives a pretty spectacular view. There is a funicular railroad, appropriately enough a gift from Queen Victoria, still running, so there is no hiking required. But there are much higher mountains within city limits.
I started with a hike on Lantau, which is the largest island by far, almost a mountainous world of its own. It’s mostly a wooded mass of dormant volcanoes. There is one major developed area, Tung Chung, perched along the rocky coast, and HK’s new airport is on a manmade island just offshore.
You can travel to Tung Chung’s super modern train stop, and then by cable car to see the world’s biggest Buddha. I visited the Buddha several times, and although I am not a religious person, each time I felt an indescribable sense of spirituality. And in tropical Hong Kong, where rain and storms are a constant occurrence, it seemed like more than coincidence that the Buddha was the only part of the island that was always in sunshine.
Apart from the colossal Buddha, Lantau is home to some serious hikes, including “Sunset Peak” which is the optimal place for a romantic evening, and “Lantau Peak” the baddest of the bad boy mountains. I climbed this peak with a team of Filipino hikers during the nicest weather I experienced Hong Kong. We climbed up the trail to the peak, and could stare directly down on both the airport and the Buddha. But, perhaps trying to impress their American guest, my Filipino guides decided we weren’t taking the trail back down, so we just descended straight down the beast. I’ve always loved hiking and rock climbing, and this day combined both on a hair-raising, elbow-bruising descent, going through dense jungle vegetation, sparsely vegetated rocky crags, and plains of grasses in unbelievable hues.
We ended up in the valley of the Giant Buddha. It was truly an amazing experience. There is much writing out there about the magic and beauty of nature, and I won’t try to outdo the words of Wordsworth or Thoreau, but on this day, their writings felt absolutely right. The day was a respite from the constant buzz of the city, and yet conveyed an equal amount of vitality and life in an environment just as extreme as the urban one.
This is part of why I love Hong Kong. When you imagine a super city, you think of public squares and park, but they don’t contain miles of pristine wilderness. Hong Kong does
This trail is on Hong Kong Island. To get there, you take a bus from one of the most crowded districts of Hong Kong, Wan Chai, and wade through a sea of people with climbing gear. Then you drive up over a ridge and immediately the city fades away as if it was never there. You cannot hear it, and you see only fleeting glimpses of it. There you are, in the mountains, walking along the sleeping volcanic dragon’s back. You look in one direction and for a minute, there is Hong Kong in all its manmade might. You look the other way and you feel like you’re on the edge of the world, as the spiny mountain fades off into the azure sea below.
You end the hike at Shek O, a beach community forgotten by time, with seasonal houses that hasn’t changed much since 1950. It struck me that you might almost mistake it for a slice of Cuba, minus the vintage cars.