A walk on the wildlife side
THINK OF MAINLAND tourists in Hong Kong and images of flag-wielding chaperones leading groups into gold shops and designer-label boutiques spring to mind.
Since last July, when individual mainland tourists were granted access to Hong Kong, more have been flocking across the border. In January, 1,115,151 mainlanders visited, compared with 750,929 in the same month last year.
But, little known to the average Hongkonger, other groups of mainland tourists - more interested in the rare black-faced spoonbill than a rare Hermes Birkin bag - are taking to the hills. Rather than lining the pockets of local merchants (the average mainland tourist spends $5,600), they prefer to hitch a ride on the Dragon's Back, straddle Horse Saddle Mountain or roar over Lion Rock.
One Sunday a month, Richy Luk Kwok-choi puts on his hiking boots and shows mainland tourists an alternative to money-hungry Hong Kong. 'A lot of mainlanders think Hong Kong is just a financial and commercial city,' says the 35-year-old technical officer with the Housing Authority. 'I want to show them the other side of Hong Kong.'
Luk takes his groups into the great outdoors of Hong Kong's walking trails, and increasing numbers are enthusiastically embracing the free service he offers. 'I didn't know we could hike in Hong Kong,' says Danny Xue, a female manager of a Shenzhen logistics company. 'I used to come here to shop, but after a few visits I got bored. The walking tours are great, and offer us something other than shopping.'
A male companion, Jedy Woo Hai-zhong, who works in marketing at a Shenzhen chemical company, agrees. He marvels at the facilities and information the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department provides for hikers. 'The management of Hong Kong country parks is great,' he says. 'They provide barbecue places for free. You have public toilets, and places for camping.' The two were part of a 60-strong group that turned up for last Sunday's eight-hour walk, starting from Tai Wai KCR station in Sha Tin and taking in the Shing Mun Reservoir and Lion Rock on the way to Tze Wan Shan in Kowloon. Although a few wore jeans and sandals, others donned the attire of professional hikers: boots, backpacks, waterproof hats, jackets and trousers, sunglasses and walking sticks.
Although many didn't know each other, they soon became friendly and joked with each other along the route, while taking in the spectacular scenery. Afterwards, Luk took them into the city - but only to see a light show on the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade and to dine at a Shanghainese restaurant, before it was time to return across the border. The amount spent at local emporiums? Zero.
Born in a Tuen Mun village, Luk started hiking as a child. 'I followed my father to get herbs from the mountains,' he says. 'I also picked up wood for fuel.' At 14, he started hiking with classmates. As an adult, Luk - who now lives in Yuen Long - continued his interest, but mainly on his own. Now, the mainland hikers have become his companions, he says.
Luk's inspiration for the tours started last year, when he tapped into a Shenzhen-based website that organises weekly hiking trips. He discovered a section in which visitors exchange information about outdoor activities in Hong Kong. In October, a few months after the individual visas were permitted for residents in a limited number of mainland cities, inquiries about Hong Kong trail walking started to appear, including a request for information about how to get to Tai Mo Shan. 'I replied and pasted a map and pictures. Then, they asked if I could take them there.' Luk didn't think twice.
It wasn't long before he was waiting outside the Sheung Shui KCR station for his new mainland friends. 'I wasn't nervous,' he says. 'I just treated it as taking my friends for a hike.' Later, Woo and He Jun, a 43-year-old Shenzhen shop salesman who was on his first eco-tour, as Luk calls them, volunteered to escort people from the Shenzhen border building to various walking trails.
Today, interest in Luk's tours is growing, with about 70 to 80 inquiries for each outing, and at least 50 turning up each month. The hikers are mostly office workers in their 20s. There are IT technicians, computer engineers, office clerks, insurance agents and shop assistants. Luk says the greatest interest so far has been from people from Shenzhen, with one hiker travelling from Guangzhou. But his tours also attract mainlanders working and studying at Hong Kong universities.
Several Hong Kong hikers have also joined the tours, and there's even interest emerging the other way. Local accountant Bill Wong Sin-yung says he'd like to meet someone who'll help him explore walks in rural Shenzhen, known more as the home of fake brands than mountain streams.
Xue might be able to help him. She used to drive for about two hours to reach good walks along Shenzhen's coast or in its rural areas. But now she's happier popping into Hong Kong to hit the trails. 'The hills in Shenzhen are high and dangerous, but Hong Kong hills are lower. And with one linking another, there are more scenes to see, and the sea view is beautiful.'
Beautiful landscapes are one attraction of Hong Kong trails. Safety is another. Despite a series of recent muggings and robberies on some of Hong Kong's hiking tails, mainland hikers still say Hong Kong is safer. 'Shenzhen hikers were robbed at times,' Woo says. 'When we camp, we have to get one to two men to guard our camp throughout the night.'
Human resources manager Christine Ru is a newcomer to Hong Kong mountain hiking. 'I've been visiting Hong Kong since 1997 and usually shop for clothes with friends. Sometimes, I go the movies. I'm not tired of this yet, but I want to try something different,' the 33-year-old says.
While local walkers usually carry bread, biscuits and water, mainlanders often eat differently. Luk recalls one hiker who took a whole salty preserved duck and shared it.
Despite not charging for his services ('If I charge, the nature will turn bad,' he says), Luk does a thorough job preparing the hikes, walking the trail and taking photographs of it to check the environment, reminding people via the Do You Hike website what they need to bring. He puts details, including photos, a map, dates and times on the site a month in advance. Before setting out on the day, he divides hikers into three small groups, with himself, Woo and He in charge.
'Twice along the way, I check names against a list to make sure we haven't lost anyone,' he says. 'Some people walk so fast, much faster than me, so I have to make sure everyone travels at the same pace.'
So far, he has taken six tours to places such as Tai Po, the Peak, and Lantau Island, and more locations are on the cards. He makes sure the routes have attractions, so visitors can learn more about local life and culture. He introduces them to the interesting flora and fauna and discusses Hong Kong and Shenzhen current affairs and social life.
During the Peak hike, he took his group to the doorway of Chief Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's home, walked to Government House, Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, St John's Cathedral and the Court of Final Appeal, before reaching Lan Kwai Fong for a drink. At Tai Po, hikers visited the Fung Shui Tree (fortune tree) in Lam Tsuen, Kadoorie Farm and a People's Liberation Army camp. Of course, the Lantau hike centred on the Big Buddha.
With the warmer weather, Luk is changing his eco-tour tactics. Last month, for the first time, he took mainland visitors snorkelling in Sai Kung. To protect the environment from pollution and damage, he asked the visitors to promise not to tell others where they had snorkelled, so as not to encourage irresponsible divers. And he made sure they didn't litter and didn't smoke.
The experience has opened his eyes. 'I have learnt mainland slang and culture. This has broadened my eyes,' he says.
His guide friend, He, is full of praise for the walking tours, saying they've pushed the cultural exchange between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. And already others are following in Luk's footsteps.
'Recently, a mainland female migrant who joined one of my tours brought people to Cheung Chau, too,' says Luk. 'More people may follow suit.'
If you want to join a Luk tour, got to www.doyouhike.com.