12 December, 2014

the eastern descent

If you’ve been reading any of my other cycling posts, you’ll know that I have a particular fondness for what I usually refer to as ‘twisty paths’ (see Journey to the West: Part 4; Journey to the West: Part 5; The Long and Winding Road). This post documents such a path, one of my favourites and one that is within walking distance of my house. It starts near the walled village of Tung Kok Wai and goes down to the Sha Tau Kok Road, a major freight route into and out of China. It is the shortest route from Tung Kok Wai to the main road for pedestrians and cyclists, but it’s not for the faint-hearted, with severe drops off the side of the path at several points along the way.

Although this path is close to my home, I follow it only when returning from afternoon tea at Sun Ming Yuen Restaurant, which is located next to Fanling railway station. There is a more direct route, following cycle tracks that run alongside Sha Tau Kok Road, but this involves crossing two major junctions on the level, so I decided to see whether there were any alternatives. There were, and this path forms part of one such option.

The following sequence of photographs gives a flavour of the route. The drop off the side may be intimidating, but unlike some of the other twisty paths that I negotiate regularly, there are no technically challenging sections (tight bends, etc.) here. The photos are arranged in sequence, starting at the top.

If you do find yourself cycling on this or any other similar path, you should remember the golden rule: always defer to pedestrians; these are, after all, footpaths.

21 November, 2014

good idea, poor execution

What is the Hong Kong government’s policy on cycling? At first glance, it would seem to be extremely positive; this extract is from a government website:
Cycling is a great way to enjoy Hong Kong – you will become fit and healthy. As a bonus, you will get to see the natural beauty all around us.
Unfortunately, if you were to dig a little deeper, you would find that the policy is deeply flawed. It seems to me that the government is anxious to segregate cyclists in their own little universe, even to the extent of squandering vast sums of money in the process.

This may seem an outrageous statement to make, so I should elaborate. The government is in the process of constructing a dedicated cycle track from Sheung Shui to Yuen Long. Work started during the summer, and if there was a consultation period beforehand, I missed it, because I was in the UK. As a regular cyclist, I would have objected.

The work that is currently underway follows the west bank of the river northwards from Sheung Shui, as shown on the following map, which I obtained from the website of the Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD). The section in question has been circled and labelled A (the grey sections indicate where work is in progress, while the parts of the proposed route where work hasn’t yet started are coloured pink).
The project forms part of the NT Cycle Track Network which connects local cycle track networks in various new towns and is mainly for recreation purpose. The works under this project comprise the construction of new cycle tracks of approximately 11 km long from Yuen Long to Sheung Shui together with the provision of supporting facilities.
CEDD website (italics added).

I have two questions. Why is the Drainage Services Department (DSD) access road being duplicated here? And why did work start with this section in the first place, when there is already a perfectly good DSD access road, which carries only local motor traffic and has regular speed bumps to deter speeding, while there are no safe options for cycling at present along the middle section of the proposed route? This is the basis of my contention that the government wants to keep recreational cycling apart from all other vehicular traffic. In fact, I can foresee a day when cycling on the access road instead of the new cycle track results in a ticket for the rider.

The following photographs show part of the access road, with the adjoining construction work. Note the big concrete retaining wall, the size of which can be measured by the worker in the second photo. I do wonder why this is needed, unless the plan is for the cycle track to go under Beas River, which the access road crosses via a perfectly adequate bridge (behind the camera in the second photo). And what neither photo shows is the large number of trees that have been removed to make way for the cycle track.

Because work on this section is already underway, it will be completed before the section beyond the DSD access road, which means that recreational cyclists who were not already aware of cycling possibilities in this area will come here, reach the end and then be forced to turn back, which seems like a pointless exercise to me. Unless we’re careful, we could end up with the kind of mayhem that exists on the wide cycleway between Shatin and Taipo at weekends and on public holidays, when the system is clogged up by weekend cyclists who hire their bikes for the day but have no idea how to ride them. Perhaps such anarchic conditions already prevail in this area on Sundays, but I never go out cycling on Sundays, so I cannot confirm this possibility.

And what about my earlier comment about squandering vast sums of money? According to the CEDD website, the estimated cost of this project is HK$536 million (£44 million; US$69 million), which I would have taken to be the cost of the entire section but for the appearance of ‘7259RS’ on the map. This number also appears on the webpage detailing the project and is clearly a project number applying to the whole of the route shown on the map, yet the obvious inference from the map is that the cost estimate applies only to the part of the project between the green arrows.

I should emphasize that I’m not against the government spending money to improve the territory’s cycling facilities, but I consider that spending this amount of money without an accompanying, hard-hitting campaign to improve the standard of proficiency of the cyclists who use these facilities is not money well spent. I have yet to see any public information films on cycling safety, and I can’t help wondering whether many regular cyclists have read the safety tips provided on the Cycling Information Centre’s website.

I make these comments because I frequently see examples of poor cycling practice when out on my bike. Earlier this week, I was riding along the cycle track marked with a solid grey line in the bottom left-hand corner of the map when I spotted a lone cyclist coming towards me on the adjacent road, which is a dual carriageway that carries high-speed traffic.

However, the most egregious example of poor practice that I’ve witnessed this year occurred as Paula and I began the climb over Saddle Pass from the west, where we encountered the stragglers in a group that we both estimated to contain at least forty riders. I thought that they didn’t seem very confident, but Paula told me later that some of them didn’t even know how to change gear! This on a hill where I go from ninth gear at the bottom to second gear at the top. And when I reached the top section, which has a gradient of around 35 percent, the members of the group who had reached this point were all over the place as they pushed their bikes up the hill. I wonder what they’d have done if a big truck had suddenly appeared over the brow of the hill from the opposite direction—this road does carry some motor traffic, although it isn’t busy—given that their entire focus was on what they were doing while ignoring whatever was happening around them. And I wonder whose idea it was to take so many beginners over such a demanding route in the first place.

The proposed cycle track should keep inexperienced cyclists happy and away from the hills, but I can’t see either myself or Paula using it. Our preferred route may even be safer, albeit for cyclists who know what they’re doing. Meanwhile, I repeat my earlier question: why wasn’t work on the central section of the proposed route, from Kwu Tung to Fairview Park, started first?

Sod’s law in action! I took the photos on Wednesday and wrote the post on Friday, but by Saturday the situation on the ground had changed. Earth had been dumped all the way to the top of the concrete retaining wall in some places, so my surmise that the plan is for the track to go under Beas River is clearly incorrect. My excuse is that the material at the base of the wall was being rolled, which suggested that it wasn’t too far below the eventual level of the track. And I do wonder how adequately the newly dumped material will be compacted.

13 November, 2014

journey to the west: part 5

When I originally worked out the ‘journey to the west’, it involved returning along the same route as that taken on the outward journey. However, in Part 3, I described two alternative return sections, and in Part 4, I provided details of yet another alternative, the notorious ‘snake path’. This post provides details of the only other locations where such an alternative route home is possible.

*  *  *

For many months, I believed that the tunnel under the railway described in Across the Tracks and The Hill was the only point where it was possible to cross the main line north of Sheung Shui station, which is the last stop before the border with the rest of China. However, one day I arrived at the tunnel only to find that access had been blocked by the railway company, which was engaged in repairs to the track’s overhead power lines. I had no option but to seek an alternative, believing at first that no such alternative existed.

Nevertheless, it turns out that there is a second crossing point, following a dedicated cycle track that runs alongside a major road, Po Shek Wu Road. This cycle track is reached by turning right just before Beas River flows into the Shum Chun River and following the latter upstream until it is possible to cross the river at a footbridge. The road reached by this route has a cycle track running along the far side that leads into the local network.

This network is the principal means of access to the roads around the Shum Chun River catchment for recreational cyclists from the city, who take the train to Sheung Shui. However, my destination is not Sheung Shui station, so it is necessary to abandon the cycle track network at some point. This involves yet another twisting path, one that has some extremely tricky sections.

I’m being deliberately vague about the location of this path, because quite a lot of people live here, and a large cycling group following it would be a serious nuisance to them, and to the other locals who use it, especially if some members lacked the close control that is essential on such paths. I probably wouldn’t use it myself, except that, living only a mile or so upriver, I regard myself as a local. I took the following photographs, which have been arranged in sequence, yesterday after walking from my house.

The start of the path.

A closer look at the bend seen in the previous photo, which is extremely tricky to negotiate.

Having successfully negotiated the bend seen in the previous photo, the task now is to maintain a straight line and thus avoid the sharp drop on each side of the path.

Further along, this brown dog can usually be seen asleep on the path. It used to move when I first came this way, but it appears to recognize me now and thus pays no attention.

This is one of the few places where it’s possible to overtake a slow cyclist.

It isn’t obvious from this photo, but this is the apex of a 180-degree bend, with the ubiquitous drop-off on each side of the path. From this and the next photo, it is obvious that the path has been widened here, presumably because people found the bend impossible to negotiate safely.

No sooner has the path straightened out from the previous bend than it sweeps away in the opposite direction.

Nearing the end of the path.

*  *  *

The ‘posh street’ mentioned in Part 2 backs onto the same tributary that we follow later in the journey to reach the Kam Tin River, but there is a Drainage Services Department (DSD) access road on the other side that carries almost no traffic. We’ve been following this access road on the return journey for several months now, crossing the river at a footbridge opposite the bottom entrance to Tam Mei Camp, the second of the PLA bases described in Part 2, to rejoin the original route.

However, the access road continues up the valley and thence out of sight, and according to Google Maps it should be possible to add an additional 3km loop to the route. I’ve just checked this out in the last couple of weeks, armed with a printout of the following map:

The line of red dots marks the route I planned to follow, if possible, in an anticlockwise direction, although previous experience suggested that some at least of the roads might turn out to be mere footpaths and thus difficult or even impossible to ride along. I was delighted to discover that apart from a short section following the initial turn off Chun Shin Road (the access road), which is an untypically flat-surfaced dirt road (see the first photo below), the rest of the loop is along quiet lanes with very little traffic, making this a worthwhile addition to the overall route.

If you look closely at the first photo, you might just be able to make out two large tower cranes camouflaged against the forested hillside. Hong Kong’s connection to China’s high-speed rail network will eventually pass through this mountain. The remaining photos give a flavour of the riding conditions along the loop, which turned out to be something of a switchback ride.

31 October, 2014

the three immortals

You don’t have to go far, in places where the Chinese have a significant presence, before you encounter a group of three ceramic figurines of venerable Chinese gentlemen. These are Fuk, Luk and Sau (the Cantonese names for these characters), collectively known as the three immortals. They are found in temples, in restaurants, in shops and in many Chinese homes, and they have huge symbolic cultural significance.

The first thing to note about the figures in the above photograph, which was taken at the same place as the first photograph in A Baker’s Dozen, is that they aren’t placed in the traditional order. Tradition requires that Fuk stand on the left, but here he stands on the right, while Sau, who should be on the right, stands in the centre. These three figurines were not there when the first picture was taken earlier this year, and it is certainly odd to see them standing atop a pile of junk.

Fuk, Luk and Sau represent what the Chinese consider to be the three most desirable characteristics of an ideal life: good luck, prosperity and longevity.

Fuk is a scholar who is usually depicted holding a scroll in one hand and a small child in the other. He is regarded as the personification of good fortune, although it would make more sense for him to represent knowledge or wisdom.

Luk translates as the salary paid to a government official, and he was often seen as the tutelary deity of candidates for the imperial civil service examinations. He wears the winged hat of a court official, and nowadays he represents prosperity.

Sau, the old man with the domed forehead, obviously represents longevity. He always carries a peach, which in Chinese folklore is the symbol of a long life. One of the best-known exploits of the monkey king, the central character in Journey to the West and one of the most popular characters in Chinese folklore, is his theft of the peaches of immortality from the heavenly peach orchard (and scoffing the lot). The following picture is a still from Havoc in Heaven, a feature-length animated movie that was produced by the Shanghai Animation Studio in the 1950s, that shows this incident.

Peach blossom is also a symbol of longevity, and small peach trees are bought by many Chinese families as part of their new year celebrations. The following photograph shows a plantation of such trees a couple of kilometres south of Fanling. Like the European Christmas tree, these peach trees are sawn off close to the base and therefore cannot be reused the following year. Note that some of the trees are much bigger than the others, which means that they weren’t sold the previous year. However, bigger trees always fetch higher prices, so the grower can’t lose.

Of course, all this is mere superstition, although in saying so it is not my intention to denigrate Chinese folk beliefs, because I’m only too aware of the dozens of irrational notions that are native to my own country. However, the number of people there who touch wood for luck, who believe that it is unlucky to walk under a ladder or who deem it prudent to stay in bed whenever the thirteenth day of a month falls on a Friday has probably declined steadily in recent decades, while belief in the efficacy of the three immortals does not appear to have dimmed in the forty years I’ve been associated with Hong Kong.