by Cameron Burns
A few months ago, if you’d asked me where Hong Kong was and what it was like, I would’ve guessed: “Big City in Asia.” The most I knew about the place was Jackie Chan, Jackie Chan and Jackie Chan. Pretty lame for a well-traveled adventurer.
The opportunity to alter my understanding of the place recently arose, when a part-business-part-fun trip came together in December. While I was inquiring about visas (none needed), Diana Budiman of the Hong Kong Tourist Board, and I chatted.
“You like outdoor stuff? She asked.
“Yeah. A lot.”
What do you like?” she asked.
“All of it.”
“You’ll do fine in Hong Kong then.”
Adventure activities? Outdoors? Seriously? She had to be kidding.
Ever since Hong Kong was created and inhabited, there has likely been no more than a few dozen articles and maybe a few books written about its outdoors. The city is better known as a glittering, fast-paced, commercial hub-Las Vegas meets Rodeo Drive or Times Square on steroids. But honestly, this city-state has two completely different faces: the dense, urban, adrenaline-filled speed of pure urbanity; and the quiet, lush, and totally compelling outdoors. Hong Kong, if you will, is really two places. The human, and the non-human.
In recent years Hong Kong has been in the news because of the colony’s plight under China. Before the 1997 handover occurred, political analysts, journalists and much of the general public expected the proposed Sino-British Joint Declaration (which called for the Chinese government to employ a “hands-off” approach to ruling Hong Kong) to be nothing more than lip service. It was feared the people of Hong Kong were about to be muzzled, both socially and politically. Some businesses relocated to Singapore and other Pacific Rim cities, many Westerners moved out, and East Asia prepared for a jolt.
Of course, after a round of fireworks over Victoria Harbour on June 30, 1997, and some tearful speeches by Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor, the expectations fueled by Tiannemen Square and the Chinese-Tibetan situation fizzled.
The dire predictions about the Chinese rule did not come true and, from an historical perspective, were probably questionable to begin with. “Some of the worst fears about heavy-handed Chinese rule over Hong Kong have so far not come to pass,” reported the New York Times on Jan. 17 (2001). “Just last weekend some 1,200 members of the Falun Gong sect (a group that practices a form of exercise, similar to Tai Chi), which has been heavily persecuted on the mainland, were allowed to hold a mass gathering in a concert hall owned by the Hong Kong government.
The British handover coincided loosely with the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. The day after Hong Kong went back under Chinese rule, Thailand devalued its currency, the bhat, causing the entire Eastern Hemisphere to quickly slide into a tough economic slump. Hong Kong made headlines again, but mostly because it is the Western financial center for the Eastern world and its economy-like Tokyo’s-was an icon of Asian prosperity.
Hong Kong has never made headlines because of its outdoor activities. For the past 30 years, the city of 7 million has been famous either as Asia’s top industrial trade hub, or because of its dynamic, fast-paced retail life. People think of electronics, clothes, shoes and jewelry when the topic of Hong Kong comes up; not trail running, rock climbing and sea kayaking.
Luckily, for me, I hadn’t seen Hong Kong “back-in-the-good-old-days” before the Chinese takeover, and I wasn’t a connoisseur of the art of shopping. I’d seen a photo of someone rock climbing on Kowloon Peak, and that’s I wanted to do-go rock climbing.
Rock climbing at Shek-O
Ironically, when I started at the University of Colorado as an undergraduate in 1983, the first book I ever encountered in Norlin Library’s “Rare Books” collection, was a rock-climbing guide to Hong Kong. It was a book dated to the mid-1950s. My closest companion of the period, Benny Bach, and I used to break up our studying with trips into Rare Books to examine and ponder this gem. “Rock Climbs of Hong Kong”? Was the author serious? Who knew?
Nearly 20 years later, on my first day in Hong Kong, Benny and I have reunited in Kowloon and he’s brought along his girlfriend Angie Moquin. We descend into the Tsim Sha Tsui MTR (Mass Transit Railway) station, and work our way onto a train for Central, the sort of “downtown” part of Hong Kong. Angie studies the latest rock climbing guide to Hong Kong, which has been published and is thick with routes. As thick, in fact, as the 1983 guide to climbing in Boulder, Colo., America’s climbing town.
We climb onto the subway train, and the doors mechanically “swoosh” closed. Never once, in 20 years of climbing, have I taken a bus or subway for a “mountain experience.” But as I’m about to learn, Hong Kong is unique in every aspect-including its outdoors. At Central (downtown), we switch trains and take the subway out to Chai Wan, and wander below clusters of skyscrapers to the bus station. Our backpacks and ropes are oddly out of place among the fish vendors and silk merchants. We climb onto a European-style double-decker, and head for the beach.
The subsequent sea cliff climbing at Shek-O, a beach town just a stone’s through from Central, is superb. The orange-brown granite crags of Shek-O are some of best I’ve ever touched. The rock is coarse-but-compact, just like California’s Joshua Tree or Wyoming’s Vedavoo.
Sea cliff climbing is rare in the Americas; decent ocean-side cliffs simply don’t exist. It is a much more European tradition, especially for the British, who’s small but varied island is rimmed by a three-dimensional coast. Since Hong Kong has been British for so long, and it’s geographically similar to the Mother Isle in terms of its rocky coast, it’s no surprise that the coastline cliffs have been well developed for climbing. Several of the best crags are over the water, making for atmospheric and inspiring climbing. Just be sure to watch the tide!
Over the course of my visit, I get to climb at several crags, including the 500-foot tall Kowloon Peak; sea kayak for many miles through the clear blue waters around the Sai Kung Peninsula, and trail run on Lantau Island’s 3,000 foot Phoenix Peak (popular with peak-baggers). These are parts of Hong Kong most people-except a few diehard Westerners-don’t ever see, or even have the desire to see. From my perspective, they are missing the best part of thing strange little Chinese sub-nation. I’ve never been so impressed with a “major city’s” great outdoors.
Hong Kong’s Physical Urbanity
To understand Hong Kong’s vast outdoors, the city and its physical surroundings first need a little explanation. Hong Kong is not just one big city, perched on the edge of Asia against the South China Sea. Hong Kong is, for all intents and purposes, a small geographically diverse nation (the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region or “SAR”). This nation occupies a peninsula attached to Mainland China, as well as an archipelago of some 235 islands of various sizes scattered around the peninsula. The total land area is 1070 square kilometers. The city part of Hong Kong – the part we all know about – lies mostly on two sides of a small harbor, Victoria Harbour, on the southern edge of the archipelago.
More important than the physical layout of Hong Kong is the manner in which the built environment has evolved, or rather, not evolved. In Hong Kong, there are absolutely no suburbs. The built up parts of Hong Kong are as built up as any place on earth, 50, 60, 70 stories and more. Yet meanwhile, you can step across a street and literally be in temperate jungle wilderness. There are no Colorado-style 35-acre ranchettes or sprawling subdivisions cluttering up the surface of the earth. It’s all huge buildings or wilderness. Even Hong Kong Island, a 78 square-kilometer island where downtown is located, is mostly natural land.
According to government figures, about 40 percent of Hong Kong’s entire land area has been formally set aside for conservation in 23 “Country” and Marine Parks. Most of the rest of the land area of the Hong Kong SAR remains undeveloped too, and having seen a lot of it from many angles, I would venture to guess perhaps as much as 75 percent, of the land remains in a natural state.
Hong Kong’s outdoors are so impressive that by the fourth chapter of Damian Harper and Robert Storey’s Lonely Planet Guide to Hong Kong, they’re talking about the region’s wilds: “Hong Kong has surprising natural retreats for lovers of the big outdoors. A short ferry ride away is Lamma Island, an overgrown idyll that nature enthusiasts will find hard to resist,” they write. “The New Territories cuts a huge swath to the North, offering bracing walks among dramatic and spectacular countryside.”
Biologically, Hong Kong is more diverse than all of the Western U.S. states combined. Until almost a decade ago, Hong Kong’s native flora and fauna was little documented. Then, in the early 1990s, the World Wide Fund for Nature helped fund a study that among other things: revealed 210 types of seaweed, 175 types of fern, 1900 flowering plants (including 120 orchid species), 2000 moth species, 225 butterflies, 107 dragonflies, 96 freshwater fish species, 23 amphibians, 78 reptiles, 445 birds, and 57 mammals (including civets and macaques). Not bad for a place regarded thought of as Asia’s biggest a shopping center.
What I-a Western U.S. resident and enthusiastic outdoor adventure type find bizarre-is that the local Chinese residents seem to have little interest in any outdoor activities. Hiking undulating ridges on the peaks above Choi Hung (a neighborhood) we have the place to ourselves; rock climbing-on any of Hong Kong’s main cliffs-there’s no one else around; sea kayaking for two full days around Sai Kung we see a few fishermen, certainly no other kayakers; trail running on Lantau it’s just me and birds. The Japanese and Koreans are nutty about skiing and running and climbing. Japan boasts the biggest indoor ski slopes on earth, and last time I was big-walling on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, there were several Korean teams slaving away.
But the Chinese seem uninterested. Taiwan, I was told is similar. A large island covered with some of Asia’s most beautiful outdoors, it boasts great hiking, climbing, camping, kayaking…whatever you like. There, I know of a man-a friend of a friend-who owns an outdoors shop. He has no competition, yet sales are so small he has trouble staying in the black.
That’s not to say southeastern Asia’s people are backward or uninspired-to the contrary. I found Hong Kong’s Chinese population some of the most polite, considerate, hard-working and orderly folks on earth. In fact, they are-in most ways-far in advance of us Westerners.
Transportation as A Symbol
The city’s transportation infrastructure (a strange thing to write about, perhaps) is a good example and for me, a great symbol of Asia’s progress. Because of Hong Kong’s development (urbanity stacked tightly together, with open spaces surrounding it) the city has a dimensionality that even America’s biggest urban areas lack. There are the skyscrapers, there are the subways, and there are the streets. But in Hong Kong, there are sidewalks built above the streets (so human traffic doesn’t snarl in vehicular) and below the streets but above the subways are underground walkways. At every level, there’s a viable, active part of the city’s transportation system. As with some European cities, when you want to check your luggage to fly home, you can do so in a downtown subway station. (When you actually get on the train, you can read the latest news, stock quotes, airline departure info, and check you email on a small screen on the back of the seat in front of you.)
Taxis in Hong Kong don’t rip you off. They’re heavily regulated by the government, and all must use functioning (and accurate) meters. The subways are cheap, but more importantly, user friendly. You can be the biggest Meathead in All the Family and get around with most amazing ease. I went across town one day. The ferries are the same: Hop on, toss any kind of card, coins or bills into a machine, and leave your brain in the hotel. Even the buses are dead easy to use.
Hong Kong’s streets are kept spotless by teams of government cleaners, who pick up absolutely every scrap of rubbish. Road cuts are sealed with sculptured concrete and drainage systems to offset excessive water. Every sign appears in at least English and Cantonese, and sometimes Mandarin, Spanish and German as well. And everywhere, everything has a phone number on it (even the road cuts and garbage cans), so you can call and complain if you don’t like what you see.
Even the way Asians approach cell phones is different to good old backward America. In America, phone companies manufacturer cell phones then ask themselves: “What else can we make this cell phone do?” And, you get a few features like voicemail and email and stock quotes. In Asia, engineers don’t even call it a phone to start with (a phone is a cumbersome, 20th century ideal); the attitude is “we’re going to make a handheld device and see what it can do.” And the functions come fast and furious-global position readouts, online games, digital photo albums, and digital imaging technology (stilt and video cameras) are all packed into a tiny device that in America, we’d call a cell phone. “Scarcely a week goes by with another innovation,” wrote technology journalist David Wade, in a recent issue of Hemispheres Magazine. More importantly still, in Asia, you can have those hand held gadgets customized to match your nail polish, your faux fur, or your leather shoes. Pretty handy when you want to be seen, as well as heard.
So, maybe that’s what makes Hong Kong so unique. The built, human, urban side of Hong Kong, is amazing-outdistancing most western urban areas in terms of civility and functionality by leaps and bounds. Yet, on the other hand, Hong Kong’s pristine, rugged, untrammeled outdoors are among some of the finest I’ve ever experienced anywhere. It’s a combination that’s hard to fathom, yet easy to experience. Step off a subway, and within a few steps you can be hiking; hop out a taxi door and you can be next to a seriously good cragging cliff; get off the bus and across the street you squeeze into a sea kayak. It’s a great mix, easily worth shaking up your senses and every preconceived notion you’ve ever had about Hong Kong. After all, Hong Kong is really two places. The human, and the non-human.
If you go
The best season for visiting Hong Kong is October through December, when the weather is generally sunny and warm. Several airlines fly direct from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago to Hong Kong, including United. Once in Hong Kong, there is no need to rent a car. Mass transit can easily get you to almost any place or island within the SAR. The best advice is to find a hotel you like, then find the nearest MTR (subway) station, as this is by far the easiest way to get around. Visas are not required for Hong Kong for Americans if staying a month or less.
“Rock Climbs in Hong Kong” by Brian J. Heard (Cicerone Press,) is an excellent reference. “Exploring Hong Kong’s Outdoors” by Edward Stokes (available through the Hong Kong Tourist Board-www.hkta.org).
It’s possible to get public transportation to every major crag in Hong Kong, and backpacks are fine on the subways and buses. The best thing to do it find the nearest MTR (Mass Transit Railway) station, go in, and take a short ride to the next station. You’ll quickly learn that mass transit in Hong Kong is about the easiest, most sensibly designed and most-efficient mass transit system anywhere in the world. Once you’ve taken the MTR close to the crag you’re headed to, there be both taxis and local buses that will get you the rest of the way. (See “Rock Climbs in Hong Kong” for specific instructions.) Taxis are cheap; they’re heavily regulated by the government. Gear: There are plenty of bolts (especially fixed rap-belay stations) on the major crags, but a set or two of cams, TCUs, and stoppers are a good idea on many routes.
Sea kayaking is a pretty new activity in Hong Kong and there are no rental shops as far as I know. Longtime local Paul Etherington runs Natural Excursion Ideals in Hong Kong, and offers a range of kayaks and programs.
“Rock Climbs in Hong Kong,” published by Cicerone Press is available at several Front Range climbing shops, including Neptune Mountaineering in Table Mesa shopping center in Boulder. There are no climbing shops in Hong Kong, however, knowledgeable local climbers can be found at the Salisbury YMCA in Kowloon, where there are two indoor climbing walls.
Hiking and Trail Running are the easiest activity to do in Hong Kong as there are hundreds of trails. The best hikes are well described in Lonely Planet’s Hong Kong guide. Another helpful book, “Exploring Hong Kong’s Countryside: A Visitor’s Companion” is available from the Hong Kong Tourist Board, which has offices around the city. Paul Etherington’s Natural Excursion Ideals also guides hiking in Hong Kong’s Country Parks.
Temple Street Night Market: This place is wild. The hottest products here are the Mao Tse Tung trinkets. Everyone in Hong Kong is nutty for Chairman Mao souvenirs. I bought up two tea mugs with Mao’s portrait on the side and several cigarette lighters with Mao’s face on them-they play traditional Chinese music when you flip the tops. If Mao were around today, he’d be bigger than Brad Pitt as a porn star!