There’s more to Hong Kong than shopping and food. There are actually some natural wonders, and they’re close to the airport.
THE name Hong Kong conjures up images of gleaming modern high-rise buildings, smog, sampan dodging ferries, red double-decker buses and, literally, millions of people all busy doing their nine-to-five in one of the world’s most active commercial centres.
However, if, like most overseas visitors, you arrive in Hong Kong by air, you will already have visited Lantau, because the city’s breathtakingly modern international airport stands on reclaimed land just offshore from the Special Administrative Region’s largest island.
Here, you get a glimpse of another side of life that exemplifies the juxtaposition of intensive urbanisation and unspoilt countryside that makes Hong Kong so compelling and unique.
Imagine wide open, windswept spaces high above the clouds, punctuated by craggy mountain peaks and deep forested valleys that plunge down to bays fringed by dazzling white beaches lapped by the deep blue South China Sea. Lush, green and more than double the size of Hong Kong Island, Lantau has much to offer as an outdoors destination.
It was a few years ago on a transit stop through the international airport that I first gazed out in stunned surprise at an amazing mountain vista. I had no idea that Hong Kong was anything more than a highly commercial island city, and yet here were several beautiful mountainous islands.
I’d come back, I decided then and there, and hike across those wondrous peaks.
“We could be walking through the highlands of Scotland,” I say to my friend two years later as we clamber up Lantau Peak. Except, of course, we wouldn’t be gazing out over the South China Sea from Aonach Eagach.
Wild, exhilarating space is the foremost sensation up here. Granite studded ridges and peaks protrude like islands from the clouds and windswept pastures. The ever-diminishing high-rise buildings of the new airport city Tung Chung way below only heightens the sense of floating above the world.
We are on the 70km circular Lantau Trail, which takes in all of the magnificent Ngong Ping Plateau, a region sparsely, populated, save for a few isolated buildings. The trail is situated in the Lantau Country Park, which covers much of the glorious southern coastline of the island, encompassing kilometres of deserted sand and traditional fishing villages, rocky peninsulas and magnificent camping grounds.
The most famous landmark on Lantau is the 34m high Tian Tan Buddha, which was the world’s tallest outdoor bronze seated Buddha prior to 2007. As we finally wind our way up the last torturous bend in the track and crest Lantau Peak, we are rewarded with a sweeping view below of the statue surrounded by the red-tiled buildings of the Po Lin Monastery.
Within moments, a thick cloud moves in on us, obliterating the view, and we hastened down the path, eager to arrive at the SG Davis Hostel where a warm bed awaits us. In the early light of our second day, the Buddha is infused with the rosy glow of the sun rising above the opposite hill while clouds still linger around the peak of Lantau.
As we enter the plaza, cleaning women wearing traditional coolie hats are busy sweeping the stone paving while the first busload of tourists arrive to form a stream of camera-clickers heading towards the 271 steps that climb to the Buddha.
Three giant incense pots front the adjacent temple of the Po Lin Monastery, splendidly colourful and covered with gold calligraphy. Even at this hour, they are full of giant pollen yellow incense sticks that drift wafts of scented sandalwood our way.
After a bowl of noodles in a nearby vendor’s tent, we climb the steps to the Buddha, which is all the more impressive up close. Then it’s time to hit the trail again.
The Lantau Trail skirts the upper banks of the picturesque Shek Pik Reservoir before crossing the Sham Wat Road and once again climbing into the wilderness of craggy peaks, past the tranquil Lung Tsai Ng lotus gardens before finally descending on a horrifically steep concrete path into Tai O. Weak-kneed walkers, beware!
Tai O, a centuries old fishing village, is famous for its old traditional stilt homes built on the water. Narrow laneways dissect the village thronging with vendors selling dried seafood of every imaginable kind. But the afternoon light is failing and we head out of town quickly on the coastal pathway that follows the shoreline to our first Lantau Trail camp ground, where a cold running stream provides water and a bucket bath.
The coastal views are glorious as the trail skirts along the rocky Fan Lau Peninsula. People have inhabited this area of the island since the Neolithic and Bronze ages, and the headland has a number of historical points of interest.
On the headland past the traditional Fan Lau village stands the remains of Fan Lau Fort, built in 1729 to guard the channel between Lantau and the Pearl River Estuary from pirates. Further on lies a small Bronze Age stone circle. From the old stone walls of Fan Lau Fort, we gaze awhile down the coast before us, across broad bays flanked by dazzling white sands and dotted by fishing vessels. There are numerous villages along the south coast leg and lots of shops for tasty treats.
After two days, we eagerly climb once more into the clouds; this time headed for the 869m Sunset Peak, the second highest and our last leg.
“You’re doing the whole thing too?” call two English hikers close to the peak.
“Well, we’re just finishing it actually. You’re lucky, you’ve got it all ahead,” we reply.
Below us the trail winds down towards Tung Chung Road and our bus back to the airport.
“Who’d have thought it, hey?” the big burly bloke quips sweeping an expressive arm out across the view. “Hong Kong and so much wild beauty, you could be in Scotland!”
We couldn’t agree more and wish we were just beginning the trail all over again, too.
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