If you’re like me, when you think Hong Kong, you think glittering cityscapes and swoonworthy harbors. Hot throngs of people, crowded sidewalks. You might not immediately think, “Ah, a place to get away from it all. A good old solitary walk in the woods!”
Just one of the many ways in which Hong Kong can surprise you. The place is loaded with greenery and hiking trails that offer quiet heights where you can look down on the bay and the city and feel a clean breeze on your cheek all at the same time. Sign me up.
Last time I was here, around New Year’s, Sarah, Luke, and I hiked Shek O, the famous Dragon’s Back whose curvy hills are equal parts strenuous and rewarding.
This time, I had one day to myself, and I wanted solitude. True to form, I did no research before arriving in Hong Kong, and so late Friday morning I found myself lounging in the hotel bed, scrolling through hiking blogs on my phone.
I was torn between Lantau Peak and the MacLehose Trail, the former offering sweeping views (but, as the second highest peak in Hong Kong, at a cost to your calves) and the latter secluded beaches.
In the end, I opted for the MacLehose Trail, simply because Lantau Peak seemed harder to reach – a subway journey to Tung Chung and then a 25-minute cable car ride up. I thought back to the jam-packed Peak Tram experience a few years back where old women and men were clawing each other for seats, and decided I’d give that a miss.
From my hotel in SoHo, the MacLehose Trail would be a small journey. I’d take the subway to Central, switch to the red line to Mong Kok, and then take the green line to Diamond Hill. From there, according to the blog, I could get the 96 bus that would deposit me exactly at Pak Tam Chung, where I would begin my hike.
The blog mentioned something about transport being more difficult on days that weren’t Sunday, but there was no explanation so I didn’t think much of it.
As I deftly navigated my subway stops, I wondered a number of things. First, what condition would I be in the next time I rode the subway? It was close to 1pm when I set off for my hike, despite the directions insisting that, to complete sections 1 and 2 of the MacLehose Trail, it’s important to set out in the morning. Would I even make it back to the hotel in time to meet Judson?
Where was I going exactly? Would the hike be well-marked? What if I couldn’t complete the entire hike? How would I make it back? Was there cell service? Would I have enough water? (The answer to that question is always no.)
Oh well, I thought, getting out at Diamond Hill. Crystal knew where I was. Life’s an adventure, right?
Finding the 96 bus was not hard — it was parked and dark in its marked spot, beside a sign which told me the bus only ran on Sundays.
So that’s what the bloggers meant.
The question now was, turn back and have an afternoon in the city, or keep going? With nothing but a screen shot of the Pak Tam Chung bus station, and a screen shot of the hiking trail, I flagged a cab outside the stop and showed him the pictures.
“Pak Tam Chung?” he said.
“Pak Tam Chung,” I replied, pointing at the phone. He nodded and we set off. “Is it far?” I asked him.
He did not reply. He shrugged.
As we followed the road out of town, around the harbor, toward the mountains, I wondered absently if maybe this was a bad idea. It was 1:30, and I had no clue where the trail even began. As the cab fare clicked its way up, I began to feel the slight anxiety of being conveyed via taxi by a stranger to the middle of nowhere. Overpowering that feeling, though, was the sense that I could handle it. I could find my way back.
Near 2, we reached Pak Tam Chung, but the road continued onward. According to my screenshot map, we needed to follow the road farther, but it didn’t seem to make sense. We followed it anyway, until we passed a sports center, then turned around. Time was running out. My driver pointed to a bus stop and I looked to see a white woman standing there. He pulled up alongside her and I showed her my phone map.
“Let me get my glasses,” she chuckled. Her soft British accent suddenly made everything feel better. “Ah, MacLehose Trail. Yes, you take the road all the way down and you’ll see a big sign at the trailhead.”
“Is it easy to get cabs back to Diamond Hill from there?”
She assured me there were lots of cabs.
“Hope you’ve brought enough water!” she called as we pulled away.
We finally reached the trailhead and I paid my cab driver. As I watched him disappear, I felt a faint whisper of uncertainty, paused, then plodded on.
MacLehose 1 is a road. According to the blog I read, M1 would take me 2-3 hours, though the bloggers did it in 2 and I figured I could also.
Starting at 2:11, that would get me into the thick of the hike by about 4:11. MacLehose 2, which was arguably more beautiful and dotted with pristine, isolated beaches, would take about 3.5-5 hours. If my assessment was correct and I was as fit as the hikers, it would take me nearly 6 hours to complete the hike.
I checked the sunset: 6:15pm. That gave me 4 hours.
I didn’t want to be wandering around trying to hail a cab after dark, so as I followed the trail in — serious kudos to the bloggers over at hikehongkong.blogspot.hk for the handy photos and arrows showing where to go — I decided I’d walk in until about 4:15, then turn around and walk back out to catch a cab.
This would have been sensible enough, and I would have done just that, if it hadn’t been for the photo of the beach.
Picture a charming, secluded white sand beach with soft waves every shade of blue. To top it off, the hiker-bloggers had given the beach top praise: “Long Ke Beach really, really nice”.
I had to go. I didn’t care that it wasn’t feasible. As I power walked down the road, I worked out the logic.
“The hikers walked the first leg in 2 hours,” I told myself — out loud, because nary a soul was around — , “but I bet I could do it in less if I walk/jog. I can do that.”
I readied myself. Cap, sunscreen (applied earlier, but with spare in my purse [I’d forgotten to pack a backpack]), bug spray, water bottle with lucky carabiner, and my Chacos. I was off.
I don’t know if you’ve ever run in Chacos, but I don’t recommend it. I’d broken them in this summer in a slew of rivers across America, but now, thudding along on a steaming Hong Kong road, I felt that maybe I could have chosen more suitable footwear.
The other issue with running the trail was that there are so many things to stop and look at. No sooner had I begun to jog, I spotted a gigantic spiderweb with an equally gigantic spider, dangling between two tropical tree branches. Beyond it, the sapphire blue of the bay. I had to take a photo.
Then, in front of me, two butterflies danced across the path, hovered in the air, then fluttered down to a nearby flower — which was also beautiful. No wonder it had taken 2 hours. What fun is a hike when you’re not stopping to look at all the beauty?
I ran-walked up the gently sloping hills, sweat pouring down my face. Soon, I came out of the small valley the first part had wound through and found myself on a dam, with the bay on my left and stunning green mountains and reservoirs on my right.
It was 3pm. According to my map, I still had 1.5 hours to go before I hit MacLehose 2. I ran along the dam, the sea breeze in my hair. There are worse places to sweat and run. Every breath I drew was clean and briny. No Jeepney fumes, no burning garbage. I saw three other humans at this point, each walking in solitude, offering a smile or a wave as I passed.
It was the kind of beauty and peace that makes you believe the world is redeemable and people are inherently good.
As I cleared the dam and the road curved, I heard the sound of a taxi approaching from behind me. I quickly did the math. If he could get me the next few miles to the beach, I could see it, then have a 3-hour walk back out — which I could totally run.
At this point, my left foot was ragged from the chafing of my Chaco straps. I had at least 3 blisters, plus one on the sole of my right foot. I decided to cheat and hail the cab.
My driver had a ponytail and good English.
“Long Ke! Yeah, that’s a long way ahead! A long walk!”
He sped furiously down the road, swinging dangerously around bends.
“Is it easy to get cabs back from the beach?” I asked him, just in case.
“Sure! You can call them,” he said, taking one hand off the wheel to hand me a taxi company card. I had no cell service, but I figured I could ask a stranger if need be.
“I can’t take you directly to the beach,” he told me. “You have to walk to it from the road.”
“About 30 minutes.”
Dismay. The logical voice in my head was screaming, “Turn around! You’ve had a nice hike, get back to the city safely!” The other voice said, “Beach. Beach. Beach. Secret beach.”
We reached the trailhead for Long Ke beach. I wish I had taken a photo, because I am certain it also said it would take about 30 minutes to get down to the beach. As I ran/jogged down the steps, I wondered if I was crazy. Why was I doing this?
It was 3:20. I’d get down by 3:50, frolic for 10 minutes, then get back up by 4:20, and run out. The entire way.
Or, I could find a nice place on the steps to take a photo of the beach, and then run back up.
Also, was I physically capable of climbing up an entire mountain of stairs? I’d find out.
I glimpsed the beach and all thoughts of turning back vanished. It was unreal.
I picked up my pace and ran down the steps, past people hanging their laundry, past sleeping dogs. When I finally felt the uneven sand beneath my feet, I rejoiced.
It had taken me 10 minutes to get to it.
There was one person on the beach, at the other end. A boat lolled in the waves. I dropped my purse and water and galumphed into the sea. The water was warm and salty. Two of my blisters popped.
It was worth it. I swam, rolled around, wiped my sweaty face, took in the view. If only I’d left earlier! If only I’d planned better — you can apparently camp on this beach. Insane. But, it was a healthy dose of gorgeous, so I took it in, wrung out my shirt, and began the long journey back up the mountain.
I did think for a few breathless seconds I might die, but eventually I made it back to the road.
There, I limp-ran along past random, feral cows (which I spoke to coddlingly, as you might a bear), and felt the mixture of adrenaline, excitement, and searing pain from my blisters. Life was good.
It was even better when a cab came along. The driver laughed at my sweaty, gross figure in his backseat. He drove me all the way to the edge of town — green cabs can’t go into the city, but red cabs can — where he told me to get on a public microbus 1A. I ran into a 711, bought water and Gatorade (my water had run out way early, as you might have guessed), and jumped on the bus without asking where it was going. I sat in the back between two kind older men who talked over me.
Life was still good.
The bus dropped me at Diamond Hill. This shocked me. Never have I had things work out so well with such little planning. This adventure could’ve gone a totally different way, I thought, riding the subway back into the city. I was a wet, sandy mess among crisp business folk, but I didn’t care.
I made it back to my hotel at 6:15, just as the sun was setting. By 8, I realized I was famished, and met Andrea at The Lot on Possession for the best burger and beer I had tasted ever. In life.
I spent the weekend hobbling around on the outsides of my blistered feet. At one point, over breakfast, Judson looked down at my wounded feet and said, “Uh, your blisters are weeping.” He bought me Disney princess Band-Aids from the 711 across the street and helped me tape them up.
My dirty Chacos spent the weekend beside the hotel door, proud and filthy, and finally broken in.
Now, two weeks later, I can assure you that my speedy, 3-hour hike was worth every scab. I miss nature. Nature is worth it.