Despite its popular image as an urban jungle, Hong Kong is essentially a peninsula surrounded by a large collection of islands, all dominated by steep hills. Since one is never really that far away from the nearest hill, walkers in Hong Kong are spoilt for choice when it comes to easily accessible, yet rewarding – even technical, routes.
During our most recent visit to Hong Kong, we based ourselves in Tseung Kwan O (將軍澳), a new town in Kowloon East. Known locally as TKO, it is a typical new town in Hong Kong, with dozens of residential tower blocks rising out of reclaimed land along the shoreline. Before the town came into existence (and the landfill began), TKO was a bay sheltering a group of small fishing villages clinging to the bottom of the nearby hills, battered by the Pacific waves. Today, our hotel sits just hundreds of metres away from the foot of one such hill; the urban hills – mere lumps of granite – sit quietly in the background, observing but barely interfering with the daily grind of millions of Hong Kongers. However, for those of us visiting, TKO and its surrounding hills aroused much curiosity. After a bit of googling, we came across a 4-mile walking route that would enable us to explore the area. Starting from the nearby town, Yau Tong (油塘), the route would take us up and down several peaks before descending back into TKO. Coincidentally, it covers part of section 3 of the Wilson Trail, one of Hong Kong’s best known long-distance walking trails.
From TKO, we took the metro (MTR) to Yau Tong, and reached the start of the trail literally just minutes after exiting a shopping centre. While this experience may seem strange to many hill lovers, such an “urban” start (or end) point does have its benefits: easy access to toilets and plenty of eateries! Following a Wilson Trail sign, we began our walk by ascending a series of steep concrete steps – not unusual for many Hong Kong hill routes – beside a Chinese temple and a few shrines. A few hundred steps later, we reached a high-level concrete path contouring the hillside, below which is the Chinese Permanent Cemetery. From there on, we were on the Wilson Trail. It remained pretty flat for some time. We encountered a few people exercising along the way. From a distance, we heard someone singing a rather mournful/ghostly sounding traditional Chinese song, which somewhat sent shivers down spines (considering how close we were to the cemetery at the time!). We caught a glimpse of the singer, concealed by the trees, as we turned a corner. Hurriedly, we carried on.
After a mile or so of following the path (and up/down some steep stairs that led to a view point here and there), we came out on to O King Road (a road for cars, very quiet on the day). On the opposite side, the Wilson Trail continues, where we passed a group of middle-aged men and women relaxing/exercising/discussing politics under a Chinese-style pavilion beside the path (note: these pavilions are a ubiquitous feature of walking trails and country parks in Hong Kong). This next section was more exposed and the concrete path gave way to dirt track and rock. As we made the climb up to the top of Black Hill (五桂山), the trees lining the path offered less and less protection from the relentless midday sun, while at the same time the level of humidity increased thanks to the dense tropical vegetation on either side of the path. This was a reminder of the potential peril of hill-walking in Hong Kong: while one is never that far from civilisation, the heat, humidity and the mountainous terrain can sometimes catch out the unwary walker. We paused at a couple of the pavilions dotted along the route to hydrate ourselves and re-apply sunscreen before continuing our climb up to the first peak.
After a slight dip and a rise, we reached our second peak, where a couple of strange massive concrete monolithic structures (assumed to be microwave reflectors) loomed above our heads.
A little further on, we were awarded with the most amazing panoramic view of Kowloon. One could clearly see the distinctive High Junk Peak to the east and the uncompromising Kowloon Peak to the north west. Sitting solemnly in a distance, the old-faithful Lion Rock – an everlasting symbol of Hong Kong – guarded this legendary city.
We continued for just under a mile before leaving Wilson Trail and making a right turn heading eastward for Mau Wu Shan (茅湖山). From this point onward, the route began to descend to the northern part of TKO. The gradient was gentle to begin with, and the path, though not marked, was quite distinct. Along the way, we passed a number of handwritten signs saying “Stone Castle this way” and “welcome to the Stone Castle”; we knew we were on the right track as the path was now taking us to our next point of interest. After a while, the descent got steeper and we were almost level with the top of the residential tower blocks which spread from the foot of the hill all the way to the shoreline, all jostling for space over this reclaimed land.
After some steep steps, we heard old traditional Chinese music coming from around the corner, and a circular stone structure revealed itself. The (now abandoned and crumbling) Stone Castle is actually a hillside observation post built by the British some point in the late 19th century to guard the bay of TKO (known as Junk Bay historically). The monument now sits behind a fence, and the music we heard was coming from a radio perched on the window ledge of an adjacent stone building. There, a man, presumably the owner of the radio, could be seen crouched down busy smearing some kind of paste along the base of the structure. He was either a trespasser who had turned the site into his own little castle, or was actually employed to fix the crumbling building. As the Stone Castle was supposed to be a listed monument, we guessed the latter was more likely. The man took a brief look at us across the fence, showed little interest and got on with his work. It was all a bit surreal.
From the Stone Castle, we carried on downhill to reach the Tiu Keng Leng Old Police Station along Po Lam Road South. It was built in the 1960s and seemed architecturally quite interesting from the online images we had previously seen. Unfortunately, this is now a restricted building site: it is apparently being turned into an information centre as part of the Tseung Kwan O heritage trail project, to be opened in 2018.
From the police station, we followed a road to the Haven of Hope Hospital. We walked through the hospital grounds before finally reaching TKO. The Hong Kong Velodrome was a welcoming sight, as we stopped for a late lunch before walking back to the hotel.
To summarise: While the climbing was relentless at times, this particular walk would probably not satisfy walkers longing for solitude and tranquillity. (If you want a sense of remoteness and quietness, it would be better to go hiking in Pat Sin Leng in the New Territories.) While the panoramic view of Kowloon was amazing, this part of the Wilson Trail from Yau Tong to TKO was unashamedly urban. (If you want to see a more rural and natural side to Hong Kong, head to Sai Kung.) However, this walk does reflect what Hong Kong means to us. We saw a city where the boundary separating urban development and countryside is often blurred. We saw a city whose colonial history and old Chinese tradition are still in abundance. Moreover, what we saw was an ever-expanding city in need of more land for housing development, often at the expense of ignoring and even destroying its own heritage (but hopefully this attitude is changing). Just like the walk itself, outwardly, life in Hong Kong is defined by convenience, but underneath, it can be hard-going.