Day 1: All Boys Leave Home Some Day
Last year around this time, I decided to resign from my position at the Collegiate Starleague. It had been a very large part of my life. I founded the organization in 2008, made dear friends and five years of memories, and in 2013, realized that it was time for me to move on.
So when I left on a trip to Hong Kong last October, I left not knowing what was next. In the first few mornings, jet lag led me to explore the pre-dawn hills of Central. The streets were quiet and steep, and it was all I could do to remember to breathe and keep walking.
As I explored those streets, it became easier to answer “What was next?” with a breath, a step, a thought. I walked my way through the city and my worries. I watched butterflies come down from the mountains and color the greyness of the city. I looked to higher hills and decided to go hiking next.
I had never gone hiking before.
It was, I thought, an amusingly cliché way to search for answers: find a misty mountain, ascend to its peak, and receive an answer from the hermit at the top.
Back then, my hiking gear consisted of a cap, an umbrella from the Mandarin Oriental that doubled as a walking stick, and a pair of thin-soled Puma shoes. I didn’t have a working cell phone or map. My navigation consisted of a few scribbled directions on a piece of paper.
Still, I managed to climb stone staircases in Wong Nai Chung and wonder who built them, and to wonder in the quiet of the wilderness if it was just me and the mountain. I climbed and I breathed and I thought about conquering muscles and lungs with thoughts alone.
There was never a hermit at the top.
In fact, there was never really a top. Yes, there are always physical peaks to mountains. But you don’t really feel them once you’re up there. All you feel is the climb, the sun, the sweat. Peaks aren’t as important as they seem from below.
So if it isn’t about the peak, the hermit, or the answer, what is it about?
You guessed it.
I’ve given you some analogies and lessons learned while hiking, but let’s get into the breathing and walking of it all.
I’ve decided that I want to hike all the trails in Hong Kong one day, and Dragon’s Back topped the lists of all the Hong Kong tourism sites and hiking blogs.
Today was my first day back in Hong Kong.
Today, I chose to tackle Dragon’s Back.
I was slightly better prepared than last year. I now have a cell phone with Google Maps that I can use in emergencies. Google also seems to be able to locate my phone by GPS and caching magic (Wi-Fi and data were turned off).
All the Hong Kong hiking blogs seemed to be in agreement on one thing: go to Chai Wan MTR station and find your way up the cemetery. Existing literature on the subject of Dragon’s Back isn’t very detailed. In fact, existing hiker’s blogs in general aren’t very detailed. This might be because the bloggers figure out you’ll figure out which way is up sooner or later, or because blogs about hiking aren’t meant to be recipes.
My original plan was to catch the MTR to Chai Wan, find the cemetery, and get to Dragon’s Back. From there, I would hike south through Dragon’s Back, reach Shek O on the Eastern coastline, walk up to Big Wave Bay, grab some seafood and lounge around at the beach, and return to Chai Wan through Pottinger Peak Country Trail. I wrote down a few directions:
Blue Island Line to Chai Wan
Exit A through cemetery
Shek O Road
Big Wave Bay Road
Cape Collinson to Pottinger
This is roughly what it was supposed to look like:
So I set off at 8am with upgraded sneakers, a lucky cap, two bottles of water, and five scribbled lines. I arrived in Chai Wan at 8:30 and took Exit A, which led me to Youth Square and a supermarket where I purchased the only sunscreen they had: a small 4oz tube of 77 HKD sunscreen imported from Japan (“It’s out of season”, the cashier said).
I was directed by the cashier towards the hills. “Go that way and up,” she said. Her directions led me to a few staircases in Wan Tsui Estate Park, so I started the climb, hoping to get to the cemetery.
It’s always lovely at this stage of the hike — you see the city through the trees, and realize how far removed you are from the hustle and bustle. I reached the cemetery, and walked up to a woman and man sitting in the shade at the base of the steps. Which way was Shek O?
“It’s still far. Turn around and follow the main road.”
I turned to follow the main road. The blogs might have been wrong about the cemetery. The road was an easy climb, and in the general direction of Dragon’s Back. I eventually came to a trail map, which I’ve come to love and respect. There aren’t many trail maps on the actual trail, so every signpost you see is precious.
The signpost proclaimed:
“This is the start of Pottinger Peak Country Trail.”
I had intended to end my day with this trail.
Like all things in life, my hikes weren’t going according to plan. But that was okay. Finishing something by starting backwards isn’t always a bad thing. I learned much of long division that way, and I was okay with hiking backwards.
I reached the peak after five hundred steps. From there it was a descent into cerulean and white and emerald: Big Wave Bay Beach, a little cove where waves relentlessly crashed into the rocks.
From the mountain descent, you could see little surfers bobbing in the water below, riding and falling into waves. If you looked to the left, all you could see was an expanse of cerulean blue. It had been a while since I saw colors so close to Crayola perfection.
I had initially intended to stop by the beach for a quick lunch and beach-time read, but it was only 10am. I changed into a bikini, walked into the waves, and walked out to collect my backpack where it lay on the shore. All in all it was a 10 minute break before I moved on. I was hoping to make it south to the start of Shek O and back north to Chai Wan through the forest. All I had written down was to follow Big Wave Bay Road up along the coast, so I reversed the directions and followed it down.
You always end up in a part of the hike where you’re not sure if you’re doing anything right.
This was that part. I knew that I was going south towards what I hoped was the Shek O trail. I came across a few landmarks that confirmed my direction (on the left here, and on my left as I traveled south, was the very posh Shek O country club).
But there was no trail and no sidewalk, and I shared the road with fellow drivers and motorcyclists who drove exceedingly well for the narrow mountain conditions. This entire section of my hike was an ad lib.
What do you do when you don’t know if what you’re doing is right?
The road forked into two: Shek O Road and Big Wave Bay Road. I had written down “Big Wave Bay Road” on my original directions. I didn’t know if Shek O was the right road. But it bore towards the southwest, and it was enough information for me to make a decision. I followed Shek O.
I wasn’t happy with my decision.
Cars zoomed past me and I trusted to their judgment in passing. Construction narrowed the mountain pass to one lane and I was forced to join the alternating cars on the side of the road. And then I saw this:
Hikers. A bus stop. Validation that all the decisions that I had made until now had, in the end, brought me to the right place. It was the beginning of Dragon’s Back, the trail I had been hoping to start on.
From here on it was a simple hike up and down and up again, through the ridges of what might seem like a dragon’s back.
I spent a lot of the hike staring at my feet. I’m not sure if it’s hiking proper to do so, but I wanted to make sure of my footing. The stones underfoot were either dusty pink or moss green.
When I managed to look up from my feet, I saw white cities, red roofs, and checkered emerald fields, lined by the white of waves breaking against the coast.
It was enchanting every step of the way—at least, every step that I had stopped to look up.
That’s another important part of a hike. Look up. Once in a while, at least.
There’s certainly something rewarding about getting to see the city you missed while walking along its highways. It’s much prettier. There aren’t cars threatening your life. Just you, the sun, and the mountain.
The rest of the trip led me into shaded forest, undergrowth, and a few rocky bridges. Nothing was unconquerable, but a bit of unfortunate signage at the end of the trail led me down a questionable side staircase and opened up to a familiar sight:
I ended where I had hoped to begin: the cemetery.
I was happy to finally find the cemetery.
There were staircases in the cemetery.
But getting into the cemetery proper was the tricky part. It didn’t feel right to hop off the trail and land behind some gravestones. So I followed the trail until its end, which looked suspiciously more and more like a construction site. The trail became an elevated concrete platform.
It didn’t looking promising.
It was even less promising when a pair of hikers were idling on the trail ahead of me. When I got closer, one of them hailed me down.
“Do you speak English?”
“Yep,” I replied. “Something wrong?”
“We don’t know how to get down,” the hiker in the blue shirt said. They had asked a construction worker up ahead if there was a beach nearby. He had responded by waving and pointing back to where they came from.
I caught up with the construction worker at the construction site, where there was bamboo scaffolding and a dead end to the elevated platform.
I asked if there was a way down.
“Sure, there’s a way down. We use this way down all the time. It could be…difficult for you.
“Or,” he said suddenly, “There’s a staircase at the end of this trail.”
The platform, as far as I could tell, was broken. I told the construction worker this.
“Use the storm drain,” he replied.
To the right, there was a storm drain. By now, the guys from Switzerland had caught up. I explained the situation to them, and then I jumped into a storm drain. Life lesson: sometimes you’ll find that you need to use a storm drain, and when that happens, you should use the storm drain. Your feet will be wet but at least you won’t be stuck in a cemetery.
I followed this path for a while, Switzerland hikers in tow. I was rewarded by a staircase at the end of the trail.
It was followed by more staircase.
Staircases aren’t so bad, but most of these staircases led to dead ends. As we found our way down through trial and error, I learned about my newfound hiking friends, Leon and Alex. They were visiting a best friend in Hong Kong, and decided to go on a hike. They were even less prepared than I was, with no water and no food.
So when we spotted this from above, it was a welcome sight. “Christmas time!” Alex had proclaimed.
Alex bought a drink from the vending machine and made a toast.
There I parted ways from my hiking friends, glad to have saved them a few hours of stumbling around in the graves. I ended Day 1 with egg and fish sausage to celebrate.
All in all, it was a successful hike. 14 kilometers plus or minus some wanderings in a cemetery, two new friends, and a sight of the city from above.