Friday, 24 March 2017

detour de force

My purpose in riding a bike has never been about getting from A to B by the shortest possible route. My intention is always to find the most interesting option, regardless of distance. Sometimes, though, a potentially interesting diversion is overlooked because the bike ride of which it might become part is already a daunting length. A good example is the cluster of villages between Fanling and Taipo.

When we moved to Fanling in 2008, we used to cycle south to visit our friend Tom in Sham Chung every Saturday morning. Between Fanling and Taipo, this entailed following a narrow path along the east side of the main railway line, starting at the first of six footbridges that crossed the line. There was a road between the third and fifth footbridges, and we would cross the line via the sixth bridge. There is only a narrow gap between the mountains east and west of the line where it leaves Fanling, but between the third and sixth footbridges, the mountains fall back to reveal an extensive area of flat land on both sides of the railway that is obvious to train passengers, if they’re paying attention.

At the bottom of what is the first footbridge when coming north, I’d often noticed a path that meandered off to the east in addition to the continuation path we followed north from this point. The only problem in those early days was that the ride to Sham Chung was a 72km round trip, and I never felt like exploring at this point on the way back (and exploring on the outward journey wasn’t an option if we wanted to avoid the crowds on the main cycle tracks after about 12.30).

Then, following a bike accident in 2011, we didn’t come this way again until 2015, when Paula started working at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and could cycle to work occasionally. By this time, the government had completed the construction of a cycle track between Taipo and Fanling, most of which lies west of the railway. However, the section between the first and fourth footbridges is on the east, and I began to wonder whether I could find a route between these footbridges that didn’t involve following the cycle track. I almost succeeded a few weeks ago, ending up back on the road 200 metres or so short of the fourth footbridge, although I told Paula that I doubted whether I could remember the route I’d followed. It was that complex!

Anyway, I was back three days ago for another attempt, and this time I did get it right. I even did the route twice to try to fix it in my memory. And I did it again twice yesterday to take a few more photos. It would probably take a hundred photos to illustrate all the twists and turns, but I hope the following collection conveys something of the fun, and fun is what this is all about.

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We begin with a view from the first footbridge, which clearly shows the start of the path:

The next two photos were taken from positions a short distance beyond where the path disappears in the first photo. Note the very narrow path turning off the main path in the second photo and running in front of the plastic ‘greenhouses’. That is the way to go:

The previous narrow path leads to an area of rough tracks, muddy in wet weather, that is likely to change in the future as it is developed, but look out for this path, which leads up and right towards the first village houses encountered on the route:

At the end of this path, my aim was to keep as high as possible when choosing between possible continuation paths, and if you’re trying to follow the route, I’ve included the next photo because it is sufficiently unusual that you will be reassured immediately that you’re on the right track. Well, an abnormally tall and slender palm growing up through a flame tree is a bit odd, I think you’ll agree:

The path in the previous photo quickly becomes rather overgrown:

The house on the left in the previous photo is in a style that was common in the middle decades of the last century. It was common practice to include the date of construction, and the earliest date I’ve seen on such a house is ‘1938’ (our friend Tom’s house in Sham Chung).

However, the route now climbs to the right of the right-hand house seen in the previous photo:

I know that on my first exploration, I continued straight ahead from the top of the hill, but on my first subsequent foray, I noticed a road with a speed bump on the right. I had better check it out, I thought:

It turned out to be a dead end, leading only to what would once have been the village school (I can’t imagine that it’s still in use). However, from the top of the hill, I could see what looked like an alternative exit from the car park just below the top:

Mind you, this ‘alternative exit’ is not for the faint-hearted. The next photo was taken looking back up the path, the gradient of which is probably around 40 percent:

I did think that I would have to ride back up this path, or attempt to, but to my surprise, the path at the bottom seemed to be leading somewhere:

There’s a T-junction ahead:

…and the natural choice is to turn right, away from the cycle track:

This leads to quite a good road, although you aren’t likely to encounter much traffic:

It is some distance before there is a viable right turn off this road, but here it is:

The next part of the route involves a series of paths and narrow alleyways, and because the photos were taken on different days, I’m not sure if the sequence is correct, but this is the kind of territory you will have to negotiate here:

Emerging from one alleyway, you spot a possible continuation on the other side of the road:

This one really is a tight fit if, like me, you ride a bike with an usually wide handlebar.

I rode past the archway in the next photo before thinking that it would make a good clue that you were still on the right track, which is why my bike is in the shot:

The archway is the entrance to some traditional village houses, and the next alleyway also has old on the right, modern on the left (turn left at the end of the alley; straight on is a dead end):

I took the next two photos not to illustrate the route but to show how ridiculous some of the walls are that I come across around these parts. I hadn’t originally planned to follow the path that runs past them. First, there is a single-thickness brick wall; then there is a wall of roughly hewn granite blocks stuck together with a bit of cement. I wouldn’t want to stake my life on their structural integrity!

The next photo is not part of the route. It is a T-junction to the left, but you should ignore the blandishments of what is the easy option and continue straight on:

No! This hill is not the hard option, although you will probably need bottom gear:

After a steep descent, you will find yourself at the start of another narrow path. The beginning of the concrete wall in the second photograph can be seen behind the central palm in the first:

Look closely at the previous photo and you will see another path doubling back to the right. This is the real hard option:

This is one of the tightest U-turns you will ever have to negotiate, and there are awkward factors that aren’t obvious from the photo, like the 30cm drop if you decide to attempt the short way around the bend, or the downslope out to the left (right on the photo) if you opt to swing wide, which will cause you to accelerate just when that’s the last thing you would want to do. There is also a rounded little drop on the left of the path that forces you to make a tighter turn than you expected. I failed on my first attempt, but now that I know what’s required, I’ve succeeded on my last three attempts. In case you hadn’t guessed, the easy option approaches this junction from the direction of the camera.

Finally, here are two photos from the latter part of the route. Nothing difficult, just an attempt to show more of the atmosphere of this interesting detour.

A couple of statistics: the section of cycle track that this detour avoids is 1.4km long (and not remotely interesting). The detour is 4.1km, almost three times as long, but it’s a lot more fun. Which one would you choose?

Friday, 17 March 2017

a blaze of glory

I like trees, and Hong Kong does boast some pretty spectacular species, from ancient banyans, with their incredible aerial roots that thicken and become woody once they’ve reached the ground:

…to the huge spread of cinnamomums, known colloquially as camphor trees:

A characteristic of both species is that it is almost impossible to get far enough away to be able to photograph the entire tree—in both the above photos, what you see is a single tree. And both species have been extensively planted in and around villages in the New Territories, where the purpose has been to enhance the fung shui.

However, while I do like banyans and camphor trees, they are blown out of the water at this time of year by the cotton trees, which have been flowering violently for the past few weeks. And, as I hope the following photos demonstrate, ‘violently’ is an appropriate adverb to use in this context.

Cotton trees have two unusual characteristics, especially for broadleaf species. First, like many conifers, they have several branches sprouting from the trunk at the same height. Second, having shed their leaves during the winter, they produce flowers before they produce any new leaves. This second feature is what makes cotton trees so impressive, because there is nothing to obscure the flowers, which are the colour of arterial blood.

Unfortunately, this feature also makes the flowers difficult to photograph, because most have just the sky for background, and the sky is usually far too bright to allow the correct exposure for the flowers. This first photo was taken with a mountain in the background, although this tree is nowhere near as impressive as many others:

I took the next two photos last Sunday during my weekly bike ride around ‘the final frontier’. The first shows a group of cotton trees on Sha Tau Kok Road—it’s common for cotton trees to be planted along the sides of major roads. The second was taken along a quiet lane near Ping Che. The image doesn’t do justice to the reality, which was right in front of me as I was cycling along.

The next photo is of a group of misshapen, mutilated cotton trees that I pass every time I walk into Fanling for shopping or go with Paula for early morning tea (yam char) at our local restaurant. They are misshapen because the local power company has run a power line over the top and has therefore cut off the tops of the trees, which have grown sideways in response.

The next three photographs were taken yesterday while out cycling west of Fanling. The first photo is of a cotton tree alongside the cycle track that I need to follow to get out of the urban area (via a U-turn into the subway on the right). Notice that the flowers here have a slightly orangey hue. The red flowers in the darker area on the left of the picture are bougainvillea.

The next photo was taken in an industrial area just off Ho Sheung Heung Road. While I can understand the planting of ornamental trees alongside major roads, it seems rather odd to find a specimen next to a rough track. But notice that there are two cotton trees, and the one on the left is actually inside the industrial premises. Somebody else must also like these trees.

The third photo is of a small cotton tree next to the Drainage Services access road that runs alongside the Sheung Yiu River. I was particularly pleased to be able to position myself for this shot so that there was a dark background to accentuate the colour of the flowers. The main railway line into China is in the background.

Several years ago, Paula commented how beautiful the cotton trees were at the time to a fellow minibus passenger. When she told me the story, I couldn’t believe the reply:

“Yes! But they leave a mess on the ground.”

The phrase ‘mess on the ground’ has since become a running joke between us, so when we saw this fantastic ‘mess’ last weekend near the beginning of ‘the long and winding road’, I just had to take a photo:

There are two other observations that I should make about cotton trees. I believe that the flowers have some medicinal properties—I’ve seen old ladies collecting them, then spreading them out to dry—and when they fall, the flowers hit the ground with a thud, especially if they land on tarmac or concrete.

Finally, in keeping with the spirit of ‘a mess on the ground’, I’ve included the following picture, which in my opinion illustrates how beautiful cotton tree flowers are, even when they’re no longer on the tree.

Monday, 13 March 2017

nature trail

When I wrote about the zoological garden last November, I included a photograph of the entrance to an alleyway that I also cycle past every Sunday. It is close to the entrance to ghost alley, and I ventured down the alleyway back in November because I thought that it might contain some interesting artwork. I didn’t have time for a comprehensive survey of the alley, but I made a mental note to return, having noted some interesting paintings on display.

The sign on the right states that this is the domain of a group that provides guided tours of nature in the area for children. Anyway, having ridden past week after week, I decided to take a closer look yesterday, and I was surprised (and delighted) to find a lot of new artwork on the footpath. I’d just found somewhere to park my bike so that it wouldn’t block the way and had taken out my camera when a local man, who identified himself as Michael, appeared and asked me what I was doing.

In the course of our conversation, I learned that the new artwork had been painted only two days previously, and Michael thought that the group responsible wasn’t finished. He believed it to be the same group who had created ghost alley—he didn’t use this name, I hasten to add—and he asked me if I was aware of that location. Of course, I replied, I’ve even written about it! Twice!

Anyway, here are some of the older images from this site. It’s impossible to photograph the entire image painted on this power pole:

I’m not sure if this slightly garbled Charles Dickens quotation has any significance:

This is probably the most elaborately painted image here. I believe it to be a koi carp:

And here are two floral patterns. The first appears to feature two lovebirds, and I’ve included the second mainly because it’s the only image that is dated:

The remaining photos were taken yesterday and are almost exclusively leaf or flower motifs. They tend to be quite crude, but for me the only disappointment is that there is none of the anthropomorphism that characterizes many of the best images in ghost alley.

Finally, here is a general view of part of the path. The bamboo structure on the left is a homemade set of wind chimes, although to get the best effect, you need to rattle your fingers across the suspended lengths of bamboo:

I will be back here a few weeks later to see if Michael was correct, that the work here is unfinished. I do hope so.