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Wild Hong Kong: fans of country parks oppose concreting of trails, taking land for homes

Country parks make up 40 per cent of Hong Kong’s area, but the threat of development is never far away; avid hikers are campaigning to highlight and safeguard the city’s green heart as interest in the countryside grows

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 January, 2018, 3:46pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 January, 2018, 6:20pm

Wooded hillsides, craggy ridges and wheeling birds of prey are a world away from Hong Kong’s skyscrapers – but the city’s country parks are a necessary balm for its stressed out residents.

With some of the world’s highest property prices, Hong Kong’s fast-paced lifestyle and long working hours also take their toll.

Fortunately, within easy reach of the densely packed tower blocks and traffic, there is an extensive network of hiking trails which snake over hundreds of peaks and along coastlines.

Forty per cent of Hong Kong is protected country park and nature reserves, amounting to 443 square kilometres, and draw hikers, runners and campers all year round.

For 29-year-old Cheung Dai-yu, those natural landscapes changed his life.

Upturn in hiking in Hong Kong has a downside, as solitude becomes increasingly hard to find

As a keen amateur photographer he decided to document some of the city’s remoter areas. His discoveries led him to cut down his spending and reduce his working hours as a graphic designer, during which he had developed a bad back, and go part-time as he sought a healthier, happier existence.

Cheung often goes hiking with friends.

“When we go hiking, we feel free, relax and forget our troubles,” he says, picking up litter as he walks through tall grass to a rocky outcrop in the northern New Territories.

He and his friend AM Renault, 29, also a keen hiker, have set up Facebook and Instagram pages under the name Yamanaka Yuko, sharing photos and video of their treks in Hong Kong and abroad. They describe themselves as artists inspired by nature.

Posts from @yamanaka_ yuko on Instagram

 

今天 招風雨

A post shared by 山中遊子 (@yamanaka_yuko) on Nov 26, 2016 at 4:08am PST

 

Hiking day

A post shared by 山中遊子 (@yamanaka_yuko) on Nov 16, 2013 at 1:56am PST

 

月半彎 椅於深宵 晚風輕飄

A post shared by 山中遊子 (@yamanaka_yuko) on Aug 14, 2012 at 3:58am PDT

With a growing band of followers, the pair are now regularly asked for tips about routes by local walkers and have teamed up for campaigns with environmental NGOs and outdoor clothing brands.

“Our message is about protecting nature and the environment,” says Renault, a freelance photographer.

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He worries about the future of Hong Kong’s trails – the housing shortage has sparked government proposals to build on the outskirts of the country parks. But with hiking becoming more popular, particularly with young people, he hopes those plans will fail.

“More and more people like hiking and go out and do it. Because of that, there’s more resistance to development than in the past,” he says.

On a cool sunny morning, Stone Tsang skips sure-footed along a shady path beneath Hong Kong’s highest peak, Tai Mo Shan.

Tsang, 39, regularly wins long-distance competitions and recently completed a gruelling local trail race which saw him cover 298 kilometres in 54 hours, snatching naps when he could no longer keep his eyes open.

As a paramedic and father of two, he says getting out into these wide open spaces is a vital form of stress relief.

“When I come to the mountains it’s like therapy for me,” he says. “It’s healing for my soul.”

Concreting Hong Kong trails harms runners’ joints, even if it’s done for environment and safety, says expert

Hitting a dirt trail, rough with gnarled tree roots and scattered boulders, is part of the Hong Kong hill experience. But over the years, many paths have been covered with concrete in an attempt to make them safer, something which Tsang is leading a popular Facebook campaign to stop.

Not only is the concrete alien to the natural environment, it also becomes slippery and causes soil erosion, says Tsang, who is lobbying the government to stop pouring any new concrete and has introduced them to international experts who are showing workers and members of the public how to refurbish paths naturally.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department says it will use natural materials “as far as possible”.

Tsang now wants to bring hiking tours into the country parks to foster a love of the mountains in the face of the threat of development.

“The country parks are a very valuable asset for Hong Kong, not just for us, but for future generations,” he says. “This kind of thing you cannot just see – you have to go out and feel it.”