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Feat made for walking

Doing what comes naturally to a Norwegian, Cecilie Gamst Berg undertakes an exploration of Hong Kong Island. As she soon discovers, however, hiking all the way around is easier said than done

 


If my fellow Norwegians Amundsen and Nansen hadn't beaten me to the "get to, then ski [or walk] across the North and South poles" thing all those years ago, I would have definitely conquered them myself. With baying Huskies and dressed in fur I had personally ripped off passing reindeer, I would have sashayed across those poles, casually strangling polar bears with my, well, bare hands.

Except … I really hate the cold. And I can't stand sleeping in a tent.

Nonetheless, I have always admired explorers. Who doesn't? Armed only with non-reliable maps, going into wildernesses where no man has gone before - I simply had to find somewhere to explore. It was just … everything had been explored already. All the deserts, all the mountains, the entire length of the Yangtze; all have been done and reported on in tedious detail.

Then it struck me; one journey of exploration remained untaken: a walk around Hong Kong Island in its entirety.

Unlike the brave explorers of former, more idealistic, times, I would have no sponsors and no adoring public to cheer me on. I would also have to go to work every afternoon. I therefore would have to do the walk in instalments, starting each new section from the spot in which I had left off, or rather caved in, previously. I would follow the coastline of the Island the whole way and I would record this hitherto unrecorded wilderness on video. I also thought that, unlike said explorers, I would not have to stare death in the face. How wrong I was.

SO OFF I SET ONE FINE DAY in March from the tram stop in Sheung Wan with my Danish friend, Jon. I have decided to walk the long way around to Shau Kei Wan and then get the tram back to Sheung Wan; the northern shore is hardly an unknown world. I thought of bringing my Siberian Huskies - Donner, Blitzen, Drizzle, Fog and Moderate Wind - but decided against it, as Hong Kong Island probably hates dogs as much as the other islands of the SAR do.

The northwestern part of the Island is one I've only seen from a ferry. The high-rises peter out just west of Kennedy Town and it looks green and enticing; a lovely coastal track crying out to be strolled. The map shows a road going along the water's edge, but reality will turn out to be a bit different, as reality inevitably does.

Sheung Wan and the west retain a whiff of old Hong Kong, with their deer antler-and-spice shops, stinky shark fins, semi-naked guys with trolleys shouting for you to get out of their way and trams clanking through winding streets. In the parks, old geezers sit around playing board games or cards, walk their birds and shoot the breeze with other geezers. Segregation is strict for the over-65s; some old women sit around, too, but if they talk to anyone, it's only other old women.

At the Sheung Wan Sports Centre, a one-player basketball match is in full swing, while an old sun-worshipper stands baking his prune-like skin in the afternoon glare.

It is impossible to get near the water once you've passed beyond Central. Instead of winding along the harbour as indicated on the map, the road takes a sharp turn upwards, away from the urban jungle and into a real one: an ambush of banyan.

On steps outside a tiny temple, we meet a woman walking her dog. It seems to be covered in a kind of carpet - vaguely mini-old English sheepdog - and suddenly I go all Michael Palin-esque on her: "I can't tell the difference between your dog's head and its tail!" (In Cantonese, obviously.) But unlike Palin's subjects, this one is helpful: "Oh, you see, this is the head, and this is the tail"... Ah.

On we trudge, up and up the hill, and, away from the high-rises and workshops of Kennedy Town, a new side of the Island reveals itself: the houses of ultra-rich people perched on the cliff-face, masterpieces of engineering dug into rock. Here is Villa D'Oro, the house of Brenda and the late Kai-bong Chau, famous (for those who have lived in Hong Kong for a while) for their extreme taste in Rolls-Royces - one pink, one white and one gold - and, of course, for their toilet made of gold.

I had the privilege of visiting their house in 1997, when I was working for Norway's TV 2, covering the handover. At that time the couple were on top of their game, appearing almost daily in the newspapers dressed in matching Liberace-style clothes lovingly sewn by Brenda, and attending the openings of envelopes all over town.

Their mansion, rather than dripping with gold, as many newspaper articles suggested, was, I was disappointed to find, rather dark, dank and cramped inside, with no work apparently having been done to it since circa 1972. But the toilet seat, highlight of any visit to that fabled abode, was the real deal: hundreds of gold coins encased in - plastic.

Here, on the lower slopes of Pok Fu Lam, with spectacular views of the West Lamma Channel, verily it must be good to dwell - if you're into that kind of thing. A few private free-standing houses are holding their ground, remnants of colonial times, when the inhabitants were carried about in sedan chairs. But most of the buildings are rather grim and utilitarian high-rises, which would, if they were in Denmark, be on housing estates for the seriously dispossessed, remarks Jon.

We see no other pedestrians. However, below three criss-crossing flyovers, we encounter a woebegone 100 sq ft playground: a slide put down on some foam. A little boy, too young to play on the slide, crawls listlessly around, egged on half-heartedly by a bored domestic helper. Jon and I, having grown up climbing trees, stealing apples and having the run of the neighbourhood with our peers, agree that childhood in Hong Kong must suck.

It's been a while since we were anywhere near the water. Instead of lovely promenades along the fabulous coastline of the most famous harbour in the world, we see only water-treatment plants and other government facilities hogging the water's edge. It's pretty depressing.

Up on the hillside there is a large cemetery with orderly graves lined up like terraced paddy fields. Ching Ming Festival is only days away, and I decide to let this cemetery be the starting point for my next leg. The cooking of suckling pig and the burning of paper-everything - from tennis rackets to clothes to iPads - seems like a fitting send-off for the second section.

CHING MING ARRIVES AND IT IS A typically lovely Hong Kong day: a greyish-brown soup with zero visibility - but no rain. I walk around the cemetery looking for smoke and grave-sweeping hordes. But where is everybody?

There are maybe 200 people in the whole cemetery, and all they are doing is laying small bouquets of flowers on the graves. Then it dawns on me: this is a Christian cemetery. But really, how was I to know? The cross perched on the hillside and visible from miles around is only the height of a ten-storey building …

Soon we - I have a different companion this time, Leigh - find ourselves in Cyberport, and finally we can walk along the water's edge for a few brief moments, although off the actual road. Here is a large area of open (concreted and tree-less, naturally) space, where people are allowed to, oh glory, walk their dogs. Many Koreans and Japanese have sought refuge here, in rises so high and of such spectacular nondescript-ness that I'm sure Jon would struggle to place them anywhere at all in his homeland.

As is common in many areas of Hong Kong, the rich rub shoulders with the not-so-rich. The government must be kicking itself for having thoughtlessly, during colonial times, built prisons, car parks and housing estates on prime locations with unparalleled views of the harbour and South China Sea.

At the public-housing Wah Kwai Estate - large swathes of which are, in my opinion, much better looking than the ghastly cyber monstrosities - dense foliage covers a winding seaside promenade, which culminates in an interesting spectacle: a tiny temple surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of little porcelain figurines of all descriptions. All the gods in the Chinese pantheon are richly represented - but none more so than Kwan Yin, goddess of mercy - as are Santa Claus' reindeer, quite a few elves and Hello Kitty. A few naked dolls are half-submerged in concrete.

A swimmer in a black wetsuit and carrying a yellow lifebuoy sets out to swim in the greyish-brown sludge, but soon thinks better of it, and paddles back to shore.

NEAR THE LARGE FISH MARKET in Aberdeen, I find - as I set out again a few weeks later - The Fish Market Souvenir Shop, a must-see for all Hongkongers. It sells objects made by handicapped people and contains such gems as ergonomically correct pens shaped as shiny fish. I buy several of these pens, knowing they will be the envy of my friends and clients.

Aberdeen is more or less fenced in. There are plastic fences, metal fences and the odd temporary concrete wall. Not only is Aberdeen preparing for the arrival of an MTR station, it is also "improving the waterfront for your convenience and pleasure". I fear the worst: another icon of Hong Kong going down in a blaze of concrete, pink tiles and metal railings. At least the fish market will remain - right?

To catch this market at its busiest you have to get there early. "Come back tomorrow morning at 4am if you want to buy a fish, or, better, a ton of fish," is the advice I get from a guy who is chuckling a little at my inquiry as to how I might buy just one. I have my fish pens, though, so I pay no heed.

One thing I am beginning to notice on this walk is that the signposting isn't great. Although I carry a map when I remember to, I prefer to follow signs, as I'm a woman and therefore can't read maps.

Past Aberdeen and heading up the hill towards Repulse Bay, I wander off-track a couple of times, adding useless hours to my trek. After what seems like days in an industrial nightmare, I finally glimpse the sea again. Ah, an open vista! Let me get my camera … But the dream is short-lived because the view is shut off by Ocean Park. With metal fences.

Back to Aberdeen I trudge; another two hours wasted. At least I can, for the first time in my life, visit the Jumbo Restaurant. Wildly overpriced, its ha gau (shrimp dumplings) are, at least, spectacular.

MY NEXT WALK SEES BEACH after snow-white beach strung out like a pearl necklace, with views of seemingly sparkling blue sea, people waterskiing and mainlanders with rolled-up golf shirts showing sub-white bellies.

I don't know when the road between Deep Water Bay and Shek O was built, but it must surely have been in a time when few people had their own car. So why is there no pavement?

"Do it for art, don't forget your art," I mumble as I run from one semi-safe spot to the next, with trucks and buses passing so close they burn off my arm-hair.

On the hill down towards Stanley I fall into step behind another walker. I let him walk in front of me on the premise that the murderous buses can hit only one pedestrian at a time.

Another friend, Alex, joins me on the next segment, from Stanley to Shek O. We're putting away the miles and they are glorious; here I see a Hong Kong I never knew existed (but I've only lived here for 22 years): Tai Tam Country Park.

Alex suggests following the water; the country park map clearly shows there is a path. And a path going back to the road. Except ... it is a disused water pipe, going up a steep slope covered in brambles.

I've always shaken my head incredulously at stories of walkers getting lost, even perishing, on Hong Kong Island, but here we are in a thicket of such density that we might as well be fighting our way through a remote jungle.

We can hear cars from above; never has the phrase "so near and yet so far" rung more true. This is ridiculous!

I'm carrying a rucksack full of film equipment and suddenly it is as if all the blood to my head has been cut off by the heavy load digging into my shoulders. I can't move at all. Alex, God bless her soul forever, takes my rucksack, and we stumble on - being sucked on by mosquitoes that are thrilled at their first taste of human blood - one excruciating metre at a time.

It has taken us three hours (and one phone call to have the search dogs prepared) scrambling up what is probably no more than 200 metres of immensely steep thicket, the upper and worst part of which is covered in concrete with no trees to hang on to. But here we are, at last, on a road! Civilisation!

A minibus immediately appears and we stagger towards it, jubilant at being alive. Oh, glorious, glorious Shau Kei Wan, with its buildings, shops and - water, food!

Like a man who has survived an air crash and immediately takes a trip around the world on one of the less-airworthy airlines to keep the fear alive, I return by minibus to the spot I was rescued from for the last couple of legs of my walk. This minibus is doing a steady 75 km/h around the hairpin bends, with the driver looking genuinely surprised when he has to slam on the brakes for a car that pulls out of a side road. Who could have seen that coming?

I get off where I think the water pipe of death is - but of course it's three kilometres further down the pavement-less road. This stretch is the scariest yet, with hulking double-deckers tearing strips off my skin as I run from one sanctuary - a small opening in the stone wall - to the next. Again I wonder if the road builders or town planners ever thought a person might one day walk here.

Unlike by the thicket where we got lost, there is no charming seaside walk here, no hidden path far from the madding cars - just the thundering, screaming, filled-to-capacity road.

When I reach D'Aguilar Point, all is (almost) forgiven. Far, far below me I can see every detail of charming Shek (pronounced "Sek") O, or "rocky bay". The rolling hills are smooth yellow stone. Fair-weather clouds play in the sky above and the South China Sea disappears so far into the distance, I swear I can see the earth curve.

Shek O looks like a fantastic place to live if you didn't have to take a death ride in a minibus or a thorough shaking in a double-decker to get there. It would be a hairy journey even by private car, I imagine.

Winding village roads host numerous bars and restaurants, bougainvillea hang pinkly over white picket fences and there are so many establishments catering to surfers, I feel as though I've been transported to Bondi Beach.

The wedding-photo set are out in force: photographers, stylists and brides in various states of undress crowd every footpath and the bridge beyond Shek O Headland. The odd bridegroom is reluctantly allowed into some of the shots, gamely holding the bouquet. Brides and grooms alike wear trainers; it's the "stare lovingly into one another's eyes" shot that matters here. Actual weddings are four months away.

WHEN I GET ON THAT RATTLING tram in Shau Kei Wan after the last six-hour stretch, I feel I have done my bit. The tram has to stop for so many red lights, walking would probably have been quicker.

And to my semi-eternal shame, I cheat. Instead of returning to Sheung Wan, where my journey started all those months - seemingly years - ago, I get off in Central outside the former Legislative Council building (it seems that and the venerable tram are the only two things in Hong Kong that haven't changed since I arrived here more than 20 years ago) and sprint down to the ferry pier, needing to go home.

I have more or less walked around Hong Kong Island. Amundsen would probably not have been impressed, but I have explored something! And unlike the explorers of yore, I didn't do it for charity, to prove to myself that I could do it or even to cheat death (although I did that many times).

No, I just wanted to see what it looks like.

 

 

 

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This article is now closed to comments

wkszeto
I think the author has made a mistake on our Chinese festivals. Ching Ming (清明節) is on spring whereas Chong Yang (重陽節) is at autumn. Both are for worshipping of our ancestors. The festival the author mentioned in this article should be Chong Yang, not Ching Ming as it is now autumn.
wang.feng
(Posting on behalf of Mark Footer, deputy culture editor)
Dear reader,
The author attempted her circumnavigation in several legs, at different times of the year. The leg that began at the Christian cemetery began in early April, on the day of the Ching Ming festival.
Mark Footer; deputy culture editor (Post Magazine)
p.rennat
She could have tried the old "blue dots" trails

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