Light relief

Escaping the dazzle of high-rise Hong Kong, William Gray takes a shine to the city's wilder corners

4 mins

A chill breeze whipped up the slopes from Victoria Harbour, carrying with it the muffled sounds of the city below, and herding the sightseers on the Peak into tight, huddled groups. I stood with them and waited.

Slowly, as low clouds smudged out the remains of dusk, Hong Kong began to paint its own supernatural sky – a neon glow of lurid fluorescence. Cameras flashed around me, their brief sparks paying homage to the light spectacular emerging below. Each skyscraper was seized by a different kind of electric ecstasy. Some pulsed through several colours, while others stood pure and white like vast crystals of luminous quartz. Trickling through the city’s steel-and-glass canyons I could just make out dwindling streams of rush-hour traffic, winking red and yellow. Out in the harbour, ferries and cruise ships spattered the restless water with their bright reflections, while overhead laser beams stroked the clouds or reached out towards Kowloon where yet more light and colour bloomed in defiance of the night.

It seemed perverse, irreverent even, to seek out the dark, empty patches beyond such a dazzling cityscape, but that’s exactly what I did. I had come to Hong Kong not for shopping and nightlife (as many of its 15 million annual visitors do), but to shun the glare of the city in search of traditional villages, rare wildlife and pristine scenery. Taking the tram up the Peak to watch the city lights come on would be my first and last concession to the traditional Hong Kong stopover.

The great escape

The following morning I escaped the city by ferry. Backing away from the pier we were soon swept into a chaotic mêlée of hydrofoils, jet-powered catamarans, container ships, trawlers, tugs and dredging barges – all weaving haphazard paths like confused termites beneath the towers of their nest. From the stern of the ferry I watched the IFC building (the city’s tallest skyscraper at 420m) dissolve into the blue smog of another busy Hong Kong morning.

I was heading west towards Lantau. This hilly island, an hour’s ferry ride from central Hong Kong, promised calm respite from the city. At 144 sq km, Lantau is twice the size of Hong Kong Island, yet its population is tiny by comparison – 45,000 inhabitants as opposed to 1.4 million. Over half of Lantau is also set aside as country park; if I was going to find an ‘alternative Hong Kong’ this would surely be it.

The ferry docked at Silvermine Bay on Lantau’s east coast. There was a bus terminal nearby and soon I was skirting Cheung Sha Beach and climbing through thickly wooded slopes en route to Tai O.

Crowding a narrow creek, this once-thriving fishing village now totters on frail, oyster-encrusted stilts, a hotchpotch of wooden and corrugated iron shacks with all the uncertainty of a house of cards. I immediately liked the place. Tai O had a defiant quirkiness that snubbed the sleek and solid modernity of Hong Kong city.

Back in the early 1900s, Tai O was an important trading centre exporting salted fish to China, and the pungent odour of sun-dried fish still pervades the village. I passed open-fronted shops draped in grisly garlands of brittle swim bladders and shark fins. There were baskets filled with dried fish, their scales sparkling like glitter when a light breeze dislodged them. Olfactory relief was found in a shrine dedicated to Hung Shing, patron of fisherfolk, which exuded the heady scent of sandalwood that you’d expect from a well-tended Chinese temple.

But the bustling harbour that once earned Tai O the nickname ‘the Venice of Hong Kong’ is now little more than a memory. Even when I searched out the place where its celebrated shrimp paste was made, all I found were empty barrels and a lingering waft of forgotten shellfish.

In what could have been a tragic ending, Tai O was swept by fire in 2000. Many of its stilted houses were destroyed, but when the government tried to resettle residents in modern housing it met huge resistance. The new concrete tower blocks that loom nearby stand as stark icons of progress – a future, perhaps, of improved living conditions, but one deprived of tradition.

Not far from the madding crowd

Sentimentality rarely gets in the way of development, particularly in Hong Kong where convenience and efficiency are paramount. People in Kowloon and Hong Kong city, for example, can now take the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) direct to Tung Chung, from where a 5.7km cable car will soon be able to whisk them to Po Lin, a Buddhist monastery perched in the western hills of Lantau. Nearby is the magnificent Tian Tan Buddha which, at 26m high, is the world’s largest seated, outdoor bronze statue of its kind. Climbing the flight of 260 steps that lead to the great Buddha I was suddenly struck by a premonition of it all being torn down and replaced by escalators.

Fortunately, thanks to a 4km hiking trail through the Tung Chung Valley, there will always be a good old-fashioned way of getting to and from Po Lin. The path provides a wonderful opportunity to immerse yourself in Lantau’s native woodland and impressive mountain scenery. Along the way, I kept an eye open for some of Hong Kong’s rarest wildlife, such as the Hainan blue flycatcher and three-banded box terrapin. Both can be found on the flanks of 934m-high Lantau Peak which rears above the valley.

However, it’s the extraordinary juxtaposition on this walk that is the real eye-opener. Pausing at a serene monastery called Po Lam, I watched nuns tilling soil and planting vegetables. But I only had to glance down to the coast below to see Boeing 747s lining up for take-off at Hong Kong International Airport. Even more surreal was that it was to the patch of sea directly under the flight path that I next planned to venture in search of alternative Hong Kong.

Tickled pink

“Welcome aboard for whalewatching, Hong Kong-style!” Our guide, Miki Wong, had an easy smile, fuelled by irrepressible enthusiasm. She was just what the pink dolphins of Hong Kong needed – a determined and passionate ambassador.

“Few people living in the city know about these dolphins,” she explained as we cruised out of Tung Chung.

Behind us, Lantau Peak flirted with the early morning haze. The sea was smooth and languid, a pale silver in colour and caressed by a fine layer of mist. It made even the power station on the nearby mainland seem harmonious and sedate. But nothing could distract from the fast ferries and freight-laden barges that crowded this busy sea lane. Nothing, that is, except the brief sighting of a pink dolphin.

It took an hour of waiting, but when a bubblegum-pink Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin surfaced 100m off our bow I felt a surge of emotion. I wasn’t sure whether it was out of pity for a beleaguered animal robbed of its pure habitat, or of profound admiration for its ability to endure against the odds. Either way, the sad fact remains that, faced with such explosive economic development, Hong Kong’s 100 or so pink dolphins face a distinctly non-rosy future.

As we returned to Tung Chung, Miki had a simple message for us. “I hope you will come back soon to Hong Kong,” she said. “I hope I will still be here. I hope the dolphins will still be here.”

I desperately hoped so too, but wasn’t so sure. As I sat in the carriage of a high-speed MTR bound for the city I read the fact sheet she had handed out. On one page it read: ‘Hong Kong flushes about two million tonnes of sewage into the sea every day, one quarter of it treated.’ Disembarking at Hong Kong Central, a sign near the carriage door caught my eye. It warned of a HK$1,000 fine for littering.

Paradise and power stations

Making my way to the pier I caught the first ferry to Cheung Chau, a small island lying 10km to the south-west. The first thing I noticed when stepping ashore was a McDonald’s – but it looked strangely out of place on the atmospheric waterfront where any number of local stalls could whip up tasty dim sum before you could utter the words “Big Mac and fries”.

Cheung Chau reminded me of a Greek island. Tables and chairs were set out along the harbour wall. The waterfront was crowded with locals perusing the seafood restaurants or relaxing with a drink as the sun sank behind the tangle of trawlers, junks and sampans in the harbour. Apart from an electric ambulance, the streets were traffic-free. Cheung Chau was about as far removed from Hong Kong city as anything I’d found.

Even more laid back was Lamma Island, a short distance to the east. First impressions were hardly promising – a monstrous power station squats on reclaimed land on the island’s west coast. But walking briskly from the pier at Yung Shue Wan I was soon surrounded by dramatic, unspoilt views of boulder-strewn headlands, sheltered inlets and sandy bays.

The track scaled Lamma’s spine before descending through woodland thick with ferns and banyan trees to the fish farm and seafood restaurants of Sok Kwu Wan. Climbing another hill to reach the southern tip of Lamma, I gazed down on Sham Wan. This tiny bay, held in the tight grasp of rocky promontories, has yielded human artefacts dating back almost 7,000 years. Today it is a sanctuary for nesting green turtles.

Walking in this remote corner of Lamma I felt a strong sense of the past – from the unruly plantations of banana and ginger to the old tile-roofed houses in Mo Tat Wan. And yet, even here, it was almost impossible to contemplate a view without the backdrop of high-rise apartment blocks bristling along the southern shore of Hong Kong Island.

Small is beautiful

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about alternative Hong Kong is that an alternative exists at all. I was beginning to marvel at the way this metropolis was able to find any space, let alone 40% of its land area, to set aside as country park. There was something precocious, yet oddly reassuring, in seeing a dolphin cavorting with heavy shipping, or a child building sandcastles a stone’s throw from a power station. It proved that, for the time being at least, nature and quality of life had not succumbed entirely to Hong Kong’s concrete revolution.

Nevertheless, I still yearned to find a part of Hong Kong that was truly wild – and on my final day I found it. Barely 20km from Kowloon, the rugged Sai Kung Peninsula is fringed by a maze of islands and inlets that are inaccessible to all but the smallest craft.

“The idea here is strictly no high rises!” Paul Etherington yelled over the roar of his boat’s motors as we cruised east from the coastal town of Sai Kung. Thirty minutes later we were launching sea kayaks and riding the tidal surges that pulsed through dramatic sea arches. This was indeed a world away from Hong Kong city. The closest thing resembling tower blocks on the Sai Kung Peninsula were the uniform columns of basalt in its imposing sea cliffs.

We stopped for lunch at a quiet fishing village. An old woman was spreading out tiny silver fish on the wharf to dry in the sun. Nearby stood a temple with lazy tendrils of smoke rising from its cauldrons of burning incense. The village had a peaceful yet slightly forlorn air about it. There was a sense of abandonment, of a place left behind and slowly decaying in its own bubble of time. P

eering into a derelict building on the waterfront, I noticed a traditional wooden merchant’s chest with all its drawers and the paraphernalia of a once-thriving business broken and scattered across the floor. I wondered what had made the owners leave. No doubt the bright lights of Hong Kong city had proved an irresistible lure.

When to go: Late September to early December is the best time to visit. Temperatures are a comfortable 18-28˚C, summer humidity has dropped and days are mostly clear and sunny. Typhoon season is roughly May to November. Some of the major events to look out for are Chinese New Year (late January/early February), the Hong Kong Arts Festival (February) and the Dragon Boat Festival (June).

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