HONG KONG — Most first-time visitors to Hong Kong spend their days in this city of skyscrapers looking up and dodging the crush of people.
But local residents and anyone shopped out and stressed out by city life have an easy out. Look past the pointy high-rises and sharp elbows in gritty street markets and visitors can see the unique geography that one of the world’s busiest and most modern of cities has going for it.
Sometimes forgotten in the shadow of jaw-dropping buildings like the 56-storey Island Shangri-La hotel which houses the largest Chinese landscape in the world at 60 metres high, is the potental to look downwards.
Within the 1,000 square kilometres that is Hong Kong, about 70 per cent of that is rural and the city has hundreds of hiking trails, most easily accessible by public transit.
One of the easiest to get to is Victoria Peak, known simply, and always with a capital T as The Peak. A quick subway ride from the Central MTR takes you to the funicular railway Peak Tram which pulls passengers up 368 metres at a steepness as sharp as 48 per cent.
There at the top, don’t just snap some pictures and head back down as many do. Take Lugard Road at the Peak Tower for a 3.5-kilometre trail walk that ends at Harlech Road past a waterfall. The path is flat and walkable.
Slightly more strenuous but with a greater reward in the end is Shek O Country Park, which a few years ago was voted Asia’s best urban trail. The 4.5-kilometre trail up Mount Collinson is of moderate difficulty and takes about 2½ hours, straddling city life and nature. Some houses are spectacularly grand here, while others in shabby villages are tiny and open to peer inside.
On one side, rows of white flats stagger the side of a cliff which look to me like jagged teeth with cavities as windows. Down below are surfers, paragliders and even golfers. Head down along Shek O Road to Shek O beach and keep going towards Tai Long Wan where surfers are in action year round. The beaches here are popular with locals and not overly crowded. The seaside restaurants range from simple noodle shops were customers perch on worn stools on sandy floors to open air rooftop places where crispy calamari and slightly cooked shrimp garnished with slices of garlic are served fresh on ice beds.
Bird watchers often head to Shek O to view rare sightings, but the best place to see them are at the Mai Po Wetlands in the northwestern New Territories where more than 300 species of migrating birds rest and feed before taking off again.
The nature reserve is so close to the border that visitors may be asked to produce passports. Guide Andy Leung of the World Wildlife Fund explains that until recently migrants from the mainland often used the vast area as a place to sneak into Hong Kong.
“This area is needed. We are a buffer zone in a very important area. If we don’t control and keep this area for nature, it will be just another residential area,” Leung said.
But it wasn’t illegal migrants that had long lenses focused in the marshlands during a recent visit.
A flock of wild bean goose from Siberia, never before spotted in Hong Kong, had arrived in the wetland reserve and drew hundreds of visitors and photographers hoping to catch a rare glimpse of the mottled grey birds with distinctive orange tipped beaks.
The winter migration brings in breeds from northeast China that settle in the Pearl River Estuary at this time of year. It’s also the best time for hiking in usually humid sub-tropical Hong Kong with temperatures manageable at around 25 C.
November is hiking month in Hong Kong with both recreational and hard-core hikers taking advantage of the clear and dry skies for short hikes or multi-day ones.
The mountains are busy during this season but never crowded. The biggest hiking event is the Oxfam Trailwalker, one of Hong Kong’s biggest fundraising events, which has since 1986 raised millions for projects in Africa and Asia.
It takes place on the rigorous 100-kilometre MacLehose Trail, made easier in chunks. On Section 4, ranked extremely difficult, the hikers included the hearty and the not-so-hearty who still managed fine. Among those who hike the MacLehose regularly are soldiers from the Chinese army.
One woman in kitten heels and an elaborate concoction of scarves over her face, hummed a song, as fellow hikers, including me, huffed and puffed around her.
Herrick Cheung of Ottawa, doing the hike with his daughter Megan, said he used to hike the Hong Kong trails as a Boy Scout.
“This is the Hong Kong I remember,” says Cheung. “Not just the city but nature and discovering that we are surrounded by mountains and trails.”
The five-hour, nearly 13-kilometre long trail in Section 4 takes hikers through vistas that include majestic rock formations in the ocean below and a view of the Sha Tin horse racing track.
At the top of one peak Janice To and Matthew Lui, regular hikers, stopped to look around them.
“We can look all around here, 360 degrees,” said To. “When you’re in Hong Kong, all you’re doing is looking up.”
The Hong Kong of glass and concrete is never out of sight but from above, this city looks almost small and inconsequential against the ocean and mountains around it.
JUST THE FACTS
ARRIVING Cathay Pacific flies two flights daily non-stop to Hong Kong from both Toronto and Vancouver.
SLEEPING The Harbour has two elegant hotels worth checking out, the Plaza 8 Degrees on the Kowloon side and the Harbour Grand in Hong Kong. Prices in November range from $288 and upwards. The Island Shangri-La in Hong Kong is the ultimate in luxury with some of the best restaurants in the city. Prices there start at $500.
DINING Lei Garden at 121 Sai Yee Street in Mong Kok is a Michelin star-rated restaurant, as is the Tim Ho Wan at G/F, 9-11 Fuk Wing St., Sham Shui Po. The Tim Ho Wan (no website, no ordering a Coke there) is known as the world’s most affordable Michelin one-star restaurant; dim sum for six people came to less than $100.
This article was originally published in The Toronto Star’s travel section