Tuesday, 31 December 2013

all greek to me

If you’re stuck at home on your own on New Year’s Eve, or you are nursing a hangover after a night of excess and would prefer to stay at home on New Year’s Day, I have a little puzzle to give you an even bigger headache. I did consider providing a clue to help with this one, because I don’t think it’s at all easy, but that would spoil the fun. So here it is:
What’s the connection between the following four, four-letter words: LAKE • SACK • SOIL • TUNE?
The usual rules apply.

spoiler alert
Correct solution submitted below.

Friday, 27 December 2013


I hadn’t planned to do any cycling today, having been out every day this week, including two ‘journeys to the west’. However, I failed on ‘the hill’ on Christmas Day, breaking a successful sequence of twelve in a row, and compounded that by failing again on Boxing Day, so I wanted to rectify that as soon as possible. In any case, I needed to stock up on beer, and I prefer to cycle to the supermarket rather than walk, so as I’d taken my bike out—the operation involves taking it down two flights of stairs—I thought that I might as well take a short ride along the frontier road.

Things started well: I snapped my losing sequence on ‘the hill’ at two before heading off down Fai King Road towards the former closed area. I hadn’t gone far though before I spotted a hill fire to my left (south) and stopped to take a photo, although I was too far away to capture anything of the drama.

However, I was nearing the top of the first of three category 3 hills along this road when I suddenly came much closer to the fire—it had burned right down to the road—and this time I got a much better picture:

I continued on my way, and within a couple of hundred metres I was flagged down by a policeman, who wanted to know from whence I’d come. He appeared to think I was in grave danger and was concerned that I might turn left at the upcoming junction (Ma Tso Lung Road). I hadn’t intended to, but before I reached the junction I came to a police roadblock. They were obviously not allowing traffic through in the opposite direction, but I did wonder why there hadn’t also been a roadblock at the other side of the danger zone.

My original intention had been to turn round at the end of the road and go back the way I’d come, but recent exploration in this area meant that I did have an alternative, which was a rough cut-across to Ma Tso Lung Road. Once on this latter road, I decided to see if I could get close to the fire from that side and possibly take a few more pictures. These are the best:

I did contemplate trying to go down Liu Pok Road, but there was an ambulance parked at the junction, and fire crews going about their business, and I didn’t want to become a nuisance, so I came back via the Shum Chun River, where a helicopter was collecting water to drop on the fire:

It is unlikely that this fire was started deliberately, but it is very likely that is was the result of carelessness: a cigarette discarded from a passing car (a strong possibility given the proximity of the blaze to a road); or the burning of paper money or joss sticks next to one of the many graves that adorn the hillsides around these parts. Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens far too often, and I’m sure that I’m not the only person who finds such stupidity extremely annoying.

A map of the frontier area showing the roads named above. The red ellipse marks the approximate area of the fire, and where it touches the road is the location of the first photograph.

update: 30/12/2013
I was cycling in the same area today and took the following photos, which show the extent of the destruction. The first was taken in approximately the same location as the first one above, while the second can be seen to match the vantage point from which the other photos were taken.

The fire burned right down to Liu Pok Road but didn’t cross it. The road turned out to be an effective firebreak.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

journey to the west: part 4

In Part 3 of what is slowly becoming the modern equivalent of a Norse saga, I wrote about some alterations to the original ‘journey to the west’ that made the outing more interesting, and although in that post I suggested that I was satisfied with the revised version of the route, I’ve since made further improvements, which I describe here.

By far the most technically challenging section of the route we now follow is a series of footpaths through an area that is still farmed, which I discovered as part of my attempts to bypass the PLA barracks described in Part 2, but first I will chronicle my efforts to improve that section of the route that is furthest from home.

The original route followed a dedicated cycle track alongside what is marked on the map as Kam Tin Road and the Kam Tin bypass, but extensive excavations by one of the local utility companies that are unlikely to be completed anytime soon have made this section tedious to follow, and there was a pressing need for a more interesting alternative.

The first option I tried was a Drainage Services Department (DSD) access road along the southwest bank of the Kam Tin River. A similar road along the northeast bank forms part of the return journey and links easily to the main highway where that road crosses the river. However, when I followed a turning down a road that I thought would lead to the DSD access road, I was immediately set upon by a pack of dogs that was guarding a quasi-industrial unit, one of the many scattered across the northern New Territories.

I encounter scores of dogs on my meanderings, and I imagine that all of them perform some kind of security function, but the vast majority seem put out to be disturbed by a passing cyclist and would prefer to go back to what they were doing before I came along, sleeping in other words. The occasional hound will bark or even snarl at me from behind the security of a wire-mesh fence, but attacks are uncommon.

I have a standard procedure when attacked by a dog on my travels: I get away as quickly as possible. However, once I’m satisfied that I’m no longer being pursued, I turn around and ride straight at my attacker. The dog soon realizes that it is being targeted and tries to get away, but I keep after it until it is pissing itself, involuntarily, in fright. That dog never attacks me again, although it might still bark when I pass that way in future, just as long as there is a fence between us. I’ve had to deal with two dogs in this way on this particular route.

However, having half a dozen dogs go for me at once called for a slight modification in my tactics. Although my standard procedure may seem brutal, I never actually make contact with the dog. My sole purpose is to demonstrate that attacking me isn’t a good idea, but when I’m facing half a dozen sizeable dogs intent on taking lumps out of my ankles, the no-contact rule goes out of the window, especially given that the brutes had me cornered in what had turned out to be a cul-de-sac. Obviously, I will not be passing that way again, but I did ensure that I escaped with my ankles intact, while most of my attackers will have been nursing minor injuries for a day or two thereafter.

The road I was trying to reach isn’t accessible, as it turns out, but I had better luck with my next try, which was to follow a series of roads and dirt tracks some distance from the northeast bank of the river. There is only one flaw with this option: the ‘rocky road’:

As you can see from the photograph, the ‘rocky road’ is not a conventional dirt track; it consists of large, angular pieces of volcanic rock, and although it is no more than 120–150 metres long, it is exceptionally tedious to ride over. So you can imagine what I often do when riding the ‘rocky road’: that’s right, I scream. For the record, I promise that I will not be slipping in any more teeth-grindingly atrocious puns, so you can continue to read, safe in the knowledge that I’m not trying to outdo I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

I have since found an alternative that avoids the ‘rocky road’, but it carries far too much construction traffic for my liking. It seems bizarre to see a cluster of massive tower cranes in the midst of what was until recently open countryside, but this is where Hong Kong’s connection to China’s high-speed rail network will pass in a few years.

Once back onto a proper road, I soon had to decide whether to turn left or right. I chose to turn right, mainly because that would bring me back towards the river. However, this option took me through a concentration of modern village houses, a kind of suburban sprawl in which there is no technical difficulty to make it interesting, and the traffic, although it is constrained by regular speed bumps and is not heavy, and the prevalence of pedestrians, make it impossible to rattle along at a decent speed.

On my next ride out west, I therefore decided to turn left, and I was quickly faced with another left/right choice. The left-hand option turned out to be a dead end, albeit an interesting one, and I include the following photo of what I met before I was forced to turn back.

There were others of his ilk in the undergrowth behind him, but I would have had to climb a barbed-wire fence in order to photograph them, so I left them to it.

After following the right-hand option for several hundred metres, I came to a section that took me completely by surprise: a ‘yellow brick road’:

It is a very pale shade of yellow, admittedly, but it is made out of bricks. It doesn’t lead to Oz though. In fact, it leads to an extensive open, grassy area with many small hillocks that reminds me of the kind of heathland one often finds in northern Europe. This isn’t a formal cemetery, but there are many graves and clusters of bone jars, and the ‘yellow brick road’ may once have been some kind of formal ‘avenue of the dead’. It is certainly another dead end, or so it seems, although a rough, sandy track continues for a couple of hundred metres from the end of the bricks. Such a road will have been expensive to construct, but the local villages will have been sufficiently prosperous if the existence of at least two ancestral halls and three study halls in the fertile valley below are anything to go by.

This track, which leads around the corner to the left in the following photograph, is the obvious way to go, but it doesn’t lead anywhere else, and I was beginning to think that I would need to give up entirely on this line of enquiry when I spotted a man emerging from the bushes about 30 metres away. When I checked, I discovered a very rough track, almost invisible among the undergrowth (and not easy to spot in the photo). It was my only option, so it had to be worth a try:

Fortunately, the going soon improved, and I found myself riding along a crunchy gravel track running between two fields that were obviously used for various sporting activities. And it wasn’t long before I reached a typical concrete country footpath:

This led almost immediately to a T-junction with a wider than usual concrete path, and by turning left I gave myself the chance to extend the overall route, although I had no idea where it might lead:

Almost immediately, I faced another decision:

I chose the right-hand option the first time I came this way, but out of curiosity I have since checked out the left-hand path. It comes quickly to a dead end. Incidentally, I’m not an expert on Chinese superstitions, but the white-splashed rock on the left, with the red cup in front containing spent joss sticks, suggests to me that the locals may regard this fork in the road as being haunted by evil spirits, although Paula thinks that it’s a grave.

Disconcertingly, the path narrowed and began to meander about, and the condition of the concrete became rougher and more broken. I began to wonder if I was heading inexorably down another blind alley:

However, the condition of the path never deteriorated to anything like that of the ‘link path’ described in Part 1 and turned out to be one of the most enjoyable sections of the entire route, although on paths this narrow it isn’t possible to relax completely. And I still had no idea where I might end up:

Eventually, I spotted a van parked in a fenced-off enclosure ahead and realized that I must be approaching a road. What’s more, when I reached it, I recognized the road as one I’d already checked out when following the route described above through the cluster of modern houses. This is the same road that marked the turning point on the original route, with the return down the northern bank of one of two tributaries of the Kam Tin River.

Instead of making the turn here, however, I’d followed this road to see whether it might be possible to extend the route further upstream. There was a DSD access road along the southern bank, but it was a one-way road, and although in Part 2 I described ignoring such restrictions on the access roads around Fairview Park, mainly because they weren’t accessible to motor traffic, here the access road is frequently used as a rat run by local drivers heading west who are seeking to avoid the traffic on the Kam Tin bypass and is therefore intrinsically dangerous for cyclists. However, I have found a way to reach this road and ride down it in the correct direction, which is much less hazardous because I can then dictate when a vehicle behind gets to overtake.

avoiding the army base
In Part 2 of this story, I related my first contact with the sentries at San Tin Barracks, how everything seemed robotic and impersonal, but two weeks ago, when I said “ni hau” (‘hello’) to the soldier who marched up to take my ID card for recording, he said “ni hau” in return. Then, when he returned my ID card and I said “hsieh hsieh” (‘thank you’), he said “you’re welcome”. Leaving aside the observation that this interchange exhausted my entire stock of Putonghua phrases, it was by far the nearest I’d come to any kind of personal interaction with the PLA soldiery.

However, the following Saturday was in marked contrast. For the first time ever, I was subjected to a metal-detector scan (as was Paula), and needless to say the scanner went ‘beep!’ (twice) on me. Nothing was done, though, but Paula was worried that I might get into difficulty if I tried to pass through the barracks on my own, given my severely limited language skills, although the only question I was asked on this occasion was to ascertain whether we were together. Consequently, on my next ride out west, I set about the task of finding a way to bypass the barracks. I succeeded, but not before I’d investigated more than a dozen promising leads that led only to yet another dead end.

The map below shows the details. The red dots mark the line of the original route, while the blue dots mark the route I found that avoids San Tin Barracks. The line of red dots towards the eastern side of the map that do not follow a road indicate the approximate position of the ‘link path’ described in Part 1, while the line of blue dots to the north mark the line of the alternative detailed in Part 3.

You might expect the point where the two routes rejoin in the southwestern corner of the map to be obvious, but there is a huge pile of used car tyres and other junk that partially obscures the alternative route, so whenever I passed this way on the original route, I automatically assumed that it was a dirt track leading to more of the ubiquitous quasi-industrial units. It was only when I explored this option from the northern end that I discovered it is in fact a good metalled road.

The hardest part of this section is an area of farmland around the prominent stream at the top of the map, which I originally explored when travelling from east to west. There is an extensive network of paths separating lotus ponds, fields of vegetables and even tents in which flowers are being grown commercially. I followed all of the paths that looked like they might lead somewhere—the clue was the streetlights—but every single one led nowhere. I was on the point of giving up when I spotted a path that snaked away down the side of a prominent stream, and I could reach it easily.

As can be seen from the photos below, it was the not very obvious paths that provided the key to the maze, and on my return journey I had no trouble finding my way through. On reflection, it seemed a pity to cut out the trip through the barracks completely, if only because the interactions with the PLA’s soldiers do provide a few talking points. I would suggest, for example, that none of the sentries I’ve dealt with would be served drink in a British pub—most of them look as though they should still be in school—and I wonder whether they are conscripts or have enlisted. And then there is the small matter that by taking the bypass westbound I’d also be avoiding a tough category 2 hill, so the standard route now includes the barracks through route westbound and the bypass on the return journey.

It’s worth taking a close look at this bypass route, because the difficulties involve more than mere route-finding. The road is straightforward, but it gets more interesting when the expressway is reached. When I showed the route to Paula, she was flabbergasted to see me cycle up one access ramp to the footbridge, only to then cycle down the other ramp without crossing the bridge, but this is the only way to reach the start of the ‘snake path’. The following photograph looks down from the footbridge to the start of this path, and the first of no less than six dodgy bridges that need to be crossed. This one involves a tight turn both onto and off the bridge, with nothing to stop you going over the edge if your close control isn’t up to scratch.

The next photo was also taken from the footbridge. The red arrow shows l’arĂȘte de mort, which is a very narrow ridge of concrete with a drop on both sides. The usable width is only about 40–50cm, and the surface is distinctly lumpy, so any lapse of concentration is likely to have dire consequences. The second photo is a view of the same section taken from ground level, with the next dodgy bridge in the foreground.

After 200 metres or so, the farmland is reached. The third dodgy bridge is the only one of the six to be constructed of wood, so its structural soundness cannot be guaranteed. The route then crosses the stream via the bridge in the middle distance, recrosses the stream after another 20 metres and passes to the right of the white house.

Shortly after rounding the white house, a sharp left turn leads onto this path:

The route then follows the far bank of the lotus pond on the right, and as the next photo shows, it is far from obvious:

It really does go through these trees:

This path looks wide, but the right-hand side has sunk quite considerably and looks as if it is about to subside completely into the pond:

There are no further difficulties, and the route soon emerges onto a road. Whenever we do this route, once we’ve made it home and had a cold beer, we treat ourselves to tea at Sun Ming Yuen Restaurant, which is only a couple of minutes walk from Fanling railway station (but an extra 7km round trip from our home). During the week, I take advantage of the restaurant’s dim sum combination basket, which is an excellent choice for anyone who is on their own:

update: 26/12/2015
When we did the journey to the west for the first time after I returned to Hong Kong in October, we included the ‘snake path’ as usual, and one of the farmers said “Long time, no see” to Paula. He’d always been quite friendly. However, he also said that other cyclists had been coming through on Sundays, and judging by the measures being taken to block parts of the path, I suspect that these cyclists have been making a nuisance of themselves, possibly by turning up in large numbers.

Although I did the journey to the west eleven times in November, I was slow to realize that the path shown in the sixth photo in the sequence above on the snake path was being blocked deliberately, mainly by barrows but also with enamel basins filled with sawdust, which were set alight and allowed to smoulder. I somewhat naively thought that he was trying to create some fertilizer for his crops, but in retrospect it was clearly an attempt to discourage people from passing through.

Anyway, we’ve decided to omit the snake path in future, even though such an omission will diminish the overall quality of the ride. And even though the first dodgy bridge has been replaced, so the exit is now considerably harder than it had been (I failed miserably on my first attempt, just made it on my second, and worked out how to do it only on my third) and thus more interesting. In fact, the snake path is the most tense section of the entire route, with the likelihood that you will hurt yourself if you misjudge any of the turns.

The following photo is of that new first dodgy bridge. The route comes in from the bottom left before turning onto the bridge. There is a 10–12cm drop off the far end of the bridge, ameliorated by a concrete ramp, and the secret is to start the turn before exiting the bridge. Note that it is no longer possible to disappear over the side of the bridge and into the stream below.

Another change to the snake path, which I mentioned in Outrageous, has been the construction of a large bridge across the stream to link two quasi-industrial sites. This completely blocks the second dodgy bridge, but up and down ramps have been provided. There is just one small problem: the down ramp debouches directly onto the ‘ridge of death’. The new bridge across the stream can be seen in the following photo:

Monday, 16 December 2013

after the rains

The bauhinia is Hong Kong’s ‘national flower’, appearing, for example, on the territory’s coins and official documents in a stylized image that functions well as a design but fails miserably to capture the spectacular reality of these stunningly beautiful flowers. Unlike the English rose, the Dutch tulip and the Welsh daffodil, which are ornamental garden flowers, or the Scottish thistle, which is a weed, the bauhinia is an ornamental tree. It is a tree that is planted widely in Hong Kong—there are several in the village where I live.

Unfortunately, these flowers are extremely fragile and are easily dislodged by heavy rain. We have had 36 hours of continuous rain here, and the bauhinias in my village have been almost completely denuded of their flowers, leaving a pink carpet that prompted me to rush back home for my camera before the over-zealous local street sweepers have cleared up the ‘mess’, which they do every year far too quickly for my liking. This is the first time I’ve beaten them to it.

Monday, 9 December 2013

saturday morning adventure

I like an adventure. Note the indefinite article. Most people would consider that I’ve led an adventurous life, having worked in places like the Sahara Desert and the Australian Outback (I spent six months continuously in ‘the Bush’, leading a 15-man prospecting team in scrub and semi-desert), but this is adventure, a continuous state where boredom is more common than excitement, where the routine overshadows the unexpected. However, I’m talking here about a self-contained experience of relatively short duration where you can never be quite sure of the outcome, but you can expect to spend that night in your own bed.
Although I started to write this post in December 2011 (the quote above is the original first paragraph), the serious accident that I suffered at the end of that month meant that I was unable to cycle to Sham Chung during 2012, so it seemed inappropriate to finish it off until I’d recovered sufficiently to make the journey again, which I was able to do before Chinese New Year in 2013.

For the three years leading up to the accident, the highlight of our week had been the Saturday morning bike ride to Sham Chung, a round trip of 72km (see map; click to enlarge. The red asterisk marks the approximate location of our house, and the purple asterisk, towards the right-hand edge of the map, our destination). Of course, the principal reason for the trip was our friend Tom’s pan-fried noodles, but the ride itself never failed to deliver on excitement, courtesy of the infinite variety of human obstacles that we encountered en route.

We always started early, before 8am if possible, for reasons that will become apparent in due course. The first obstacle is the Sha Tau Kok Road, a major freight route into and out of China, but we can take advantage of the traffic lights here, so it isn’t a problem. We then follow a riverside path, where we usually encounter a very old lady who is out for an early-morning walk.

Cho san [good morning],” I say as I pass.

Cho san, Ah Paw [good morning old woman],” says Paula as the old lady waves cheerily to us.

The opening scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail always springs to mind when I hear this, even though I know my wife’s greeting is a term of endearment, not condescension, in Cantonese. Paula tells me that when I’m in the UK, the old lady always asks where I am.

Leaving the river, we follow a chopstick road and a narrow path to an area where new houses are being built on the southern edge of Fanling. Just before we reach the MTR’s East Rail line, there is an awkward manoeuvre to execute, although the construction work in the area means that it is easier than it once was.

It used to be that this section was along a narrow concrete path that was tilted about 30 degrees to the left because the underlying earth had been washed away, followed by a short downslope and a short upslope onto another narrow path, running at right angles to the first path. This is the kind of move that I know in advance is tricky, so I’m fully focused on its execution, which is sensible for one very obvious reason: the new path has a six-foot drop-off on the right (the inside of the bend) and a three-foot drop on the left.

Paula once misjudged this, and the first thing I was aware of was a great clatter-up behind me. She had fallen down the high side, but, fortunately, she wasn’t hurt (it was a reasonably soft landing). I wouldn’t want anyone to form the impression that this is any kind of competition between us, but Paula currently leads 8–6 in total falls from grace and 3–0 in collisions with other cyclists. I lead 3–0 in falls requiring a 999 call to be made.

We reach the railway at a footbridge, which I mention only because it throws up an interesting difference in the way we think. Further along our route, we have to use another footbridge to cross the railway, and I once asked Paula how many footbridges we pass before we reach the one we cross. She couldn’t answer. I could, because I can replay the entire route in my mind’s eye. A question about the number of footbridges that cross the river as we cycle through Taipo elicited the same response. However, I don’t generalize this to postulate a difference in the way men and women think, given the small sample size.

The entry to the final footbridge, to which I have given the not very imaginative name the ‘footbridge hairpin’, is technically the second-hardest manoeuvre on the entire journey (the exit on the return journey is even harder, mainly because there is a three-foot drop into a very wet former paddy field as penalty if you fail to make the turn; see photo below).

The footbridge itself, with its alternating steep and gentle sections, is awkward to ride up, and most cyclists get off and push here. There is a second hairpin halfway up, and I came off here once while descending and ‘scabbled my kneeclappers’ (to quote Professor Stanley Unwin) because I hadn’t quite straightened out my front wheel before hitting the first steepening.

Soon after crossing the footbridge, our route reaches Taipo, a large population centre where we first encounter dedicated cycle tracks. While this should mean that progress is easier, in practice it means only that the type of hazard we encounter is different. It is time to remember a crucial rule: your bell is your friend; use it wisely.

Many cyclists have bells that are barely audible, unless you are listening out for them in the first place, but Paula and I bought the loudest bells in the shop. This has the advantage that a variety of sounds can be produced. A gentle ‘ting!’ lets someone ahead who is facing away from you know that you’re there, but there is no need to change course or get out of the way. That’s the theory anyway, because there is still no guarantee that the person will interpret the sound in the way you intended.

Then there is ‘ding! dong!’, used whenever we are approaching blind corners, or when overtaking another cyclist, to warn them that it wouldn’t be a good idea to change course. ‘Ding-a-ling! ding-a-ling!’ is used for pedestrians who are about to cross your path without looking where they are going. Finally, ‘clang!’ is the only possible response to an idiot who stops without warning in a choke point.

A word about choke points: these are designated places where a pedestrian can cross a cycle track, although that doesn’t stop most pedestrians from crossing wherever they like, usually without looking for approaching cycle traffic first. The crossings used to be protected by tubular steel railings, with only a narrow gap in each direction for cyclists—hence the term ‘choke point’. Cyclists with limited skills tend to slow down here, which isn’t a good idea, because there is a greater tendency to wobble when moving slowly, with the inevitable consequence that they stop suddenly because they have been unable to control their bikes properly. Fortunately, most tubular steel has been removed over the last couple of years, to be replaced by plastic bollards that collapse on impact.

Anyway, we follow the river that runs through Taipo as far as its mouth, at which point, because we are still heading south, we need to turn off the cycle track onto a short link to a second track. I don’t know whose bright idea it was to install five speed bumps in the space of 20 metres on this link, but the upshot is that most cyclists use the equivalent pedestrian path instead.

The second cycle track leads to what I call the ‘Big Road’. I surmise that it was a road once; two double-decker buses travelling in opposite directions could pass without either having to slow down. However, it is now used only by bikes; even when the road is being dug up by a utility company, all waste material has to be removed on tricycle barrows.

The ‘Big Road’ south of Taipo under quieter than normal conditions. Our route remains close to the sea until we reach Ma On Shan.

The Big Road connects Taipo with the Hong Kong Science Park, a few kilometres to the south, and, under normal conditions, it is possible to cover this section at a brisk pace. However, ‘normal conditions’ do not apply on Saturday afternoons, Sundays and public holidays, when the entire route is best avoided; this is when hordes of weekend cyclists, having hired bikes for the day with no demonstration of competence required in advance, set off on their own adventures with little or no awareness of other road users, thus presenting dangerous moving hazards for everyone else.

South of the Science Park, the cycle track shrinks back to a standard width and passes through a tunnel about 100 metres in length. Other cyclists frequently begin to freewheel from the top of the entry ramp, and they continue to freewheel along the bottom, only starting to pedal again when confronted by the steep exit ramp. I find this odd, because pedalling while it is easy to do so means that it is possible to build up enough momentum to get up the exit ramp without having to change to a lower gear.

We have had some dangerous encounters in this tunnel, the most common being with joggers, who for some unfathomable reason seem to think that they belong on the cycle tracks rather than on the accompanying footpath, despite frequent police notices that warn pedestrians not to stray onto the cycle tracks. There is a slight dogleg at the bottom of the entry ramps in both directions, and this means that any potential hazards are not seen until the bottom of the ramp is reached.

One such hazard turned out to be a jogger running down the centre line, and I remember wondering at the time how anyone could be so stupid. Not only had he ignored the warning sign at the entrance to the tunnel, he must also have been aware that what he was doing wasn’t a good idea, given the speed with which bikes were whizzing past in both directions. Most joggers do at least have the sense to keep close to the sidewall of the tunnel. During a recent trip to Sham Chung (January 2013), I noticed that more joggers than usual were running on the footpath, and I wondered if the police had been clamping down on those who had habitually run on the cycle tracks.

Another common hazard, usually created by weekend cyclists, is a group that has decided to stop in the middle of the tunnel, presumably for a rest but apparently unaware that they are blocking a minimum of half the tunnel. However, the prize for gross stupidity must go to the cyclist who decided to bring his pet dog with him—feasible, perhaps, if the dog responds immediately to voice commands, but this one didn’t.

From the tunnel, the route follows conventional cycle tracks, crossing the Shing Mun River at the first bridge then turning north through the new town of Ma On Shan. The following photo shows Paula leaving Ma On Shan behind. The cycle track network comes to an end shortly afterwards, and our route follows the only road in the area (Sai Sha Road) for the next couple of kilometres.

It is in fact an offence to cycle on this road at weekends and on public holidays, probably because of the congestion it would cause, so we are obliged to ride on the adjoining footpath until we reach the turn-off for the village of Sai Keng, where we lived until 2008. Sai Keng is the third village in Shap Sze Heung (‘fourteen villages’), and we follow a sinuous path through the second and first villages to the head of Kei Ling Ha Hoi (Three Fathoms Cove).

By the way, I’ve appended the European name for this bay in parentheses only because it is marked as such on the map, but this name is arbitrary, devised by Admiralty surveyors as they charted these waters in the nineteenth century. The next two photos show parts of this section of the route, first where it crosses the former paddy fields of Sai Keng, then where it meanders through the forest.

At the head of the inlet, we join a Water Supplies Department access road for the two miles or so to the village of Yung Shue O. This road has a large water channel running alongside it and follows the contours, so it is almost completely flat, but the final section to Sham Chung is much more testing. Three photographs of this part of the route are included in Rise and Fall, but I add one more here because it relates to the first time I cycled to Sham Chung.

The path includes a stiff climb over a prominent spur, and when I had reached the top, I assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that it was now all downhill to the public pier that serves Sham Chung. I coasted down the hill and turned a sharp blind corner, to be confronted by a 30+ percent slope (it doesn’t look that steep in the photo) and no time to get into the right gear. It wouldn’t be the last time I failed to make this hill. Incidentally, the complementary hill on the other side is much steeper, and even though it is possible to take a good run at it, sheer brute strength is the only thing that will get you up the last few feet.

I’ve had some interesting encounters over the years on the path from Yung Shue O to Sham Chung, three of which I relate here. Take a look at this herd of feral cows resting at the head of Kei Ling Ha Hoi, in particular the brute in the middle with the pointed horns.

I met him one day face to face on this path. If I have to, I will put my foot down, but I see it as a technical challenge not to do so unless it is absolutely necessary. A combination of bell-ringing, shouting and threats to turn him into Bovril meant that I was able to get him out of the way before I lost my balance.

Then there was the American man who was clearly annoyed to encounter a cyclist on what he must have perceived to be a country path. I couldn’t resist this one. I stopped as soon as we’d passed each other.

“Excuse me,” I said. “You appear to be annoyed by my presence on this path.”

“You’re damned right!” he replied.

“Did you know that this path is part of a designated mountain bike trail?” I asked.

Timing is everything. I waited a few seconds.

“…and I have a permit from the Country Parks Authority to use it.”

Another strategic pause.

“Would you like to see it?”

I think it is fair to say that he departed even more disgruntled than when he first saw me.

Finally, I relate an encounter with a group of walkers as we returned from Sham Chung. It was early autumn, and ground creepers covered half the path (it would be cleared by the following weekend). There wouldn’t have been a problem had the walkers used the overgrown part of the path, which would not have been an inconvenience, but they seemed to think that only the exposed part of the path was usable.

“Shit!” I thought. “They aren’t giving me any room.”

I decided to stop and put my foot down, but there was a problem. I was right on the edge of a four- or five-foot drop onto a rocky shoreline. And I was slowly toppling over, with nowhere to put my foot.

“Shit!” I thought. “I’m going to hurt myself here.”

This all happened in slow motion, but I landed in a mangrove bush and emerged completely unhurt. Phew!

“Perhaps we should have given him more room,” said one walker to another.

And this is the final destination:

And this our reward:

Prawns, shredded pork, sliced Chinese mushrooms, choi sum, bean sprouts and the best pan-fried noodles in Hong Kong. Well worth the ride.

It is now December, and we haven’t been to Sham Chung since January. You may wonder why this is the case. The 72km round trip is easy enough, but when Paula and I cycled to Sham Chung in January, we were hassled on the Water Supplies Department road on both occasions by someone whom I assumed to be a country park warden in a car (he tried to force me to stop, which incidentally is a criminal offence), but we had no trouble evading him.

I’d be the first to admit that at the start of this road there is a prominent sign forbidding access; however, I used to ride along this road every day when we lived in Sai Keng, and I never experienced any problems. I’m guessing that in 2012, while I was out of action, large cycling groups had been making a nuisance of themselves along this road, so the authorities decided on a clampdown.

Anyway, I thought that it would be sensible to legitimize our position, so I wrote to the director of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, who is responsible for country parks, requesting permission to use the waterworks road, pointing out that this was the only way we could visit an old friend. This is an extract from the reply I received:
…please note that the area between Sai Sha Road and Yung Shue O is not a designated mountain bike trail. You may consider taking taxi for transit of the bicycle and start cycling journey from Yung Shue O to Sham Chung.
I regard this as a bad joke. For a start, a taxi on the waterworks road is more of a nuisance than a couple of bikes. However, we now have the ‘journey to the west’, which from a cycling perspective is both more exciting and more taxing. On the other hand, I plan to cycle to Sham Chung by myself in the next few days. And if by any chance I’m prosecuted for using the waterworks road, I state publicly now that I will not be paying any fine that is imposed.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

close encounters

A few days ago, I was cycling through the former ‘closed area’, which was featured in The Final Frontier. Traffic here is light, and because the area is both flat and open, it is easy to spot oncoming vehicles, so I wasn’t paying much attention to the road. However, as I rounded a sharp left-hand bend, I encountered something that immediately had my full attention.

At first, I thought that the object directly in front of me was a harmless rat snake, about 1.3 metres in length, but as I closed to within a metre or so, the snake reared up, and I saw immediately that it was a cobra. I don’t think I have ever swerved more violently to avoid a potential hazard, but my first move once I’d got myself out of harm’s way was to get out my camera.

Unfortunately, snakes are as afraid of humans as we humans are of snakes, so it was in retreat by the time I was ready to take a picture. It had probably been warming itself in the sun, and I’d been rude to interrupt. However, I include the following photographs as the only evidence of my close encounter.

Afterwards, I began to think about other life-threatening close encounters with nature’s creatures, and one in particular stands out in my memory, even though it occurred more than 43 years ago.

In 1970, I was the geologist in charge of a 15-man prospecting party operating around the town of Laverton in Western Australia. The climate of this area is semi-arid—the town lies on the western fringe of the Great Victoria Desert—so most of the vegetation is hardy scrub. Laverton was established in the late nineteenth century as a mining town, but the gold that originally drew prospectors there had long since run out by the time I arrived in the area.

Surprisingly, a few optimistic sheep farmers settled in the area surrounding the town, although the maximum stocking density possible was very low, partly because of the meagreness of the vegetation and partly because the scrub also supported kangaroos and a sizeable population of feral goats. This agricultural background is relevant to the story because the area was divided into huge ‘paddocks’ by rudimentary fences, which consisted of four lines of horizontal wire.

These fence lines often had tracks running along one side, and these were frequently the only way to get from one place to another, because the scrubby vegetation was usually surprisingly dense. It was quite common to find the carcasses of emus that had become trapped in the fences: I was warned that were I to come across a bird that was still alive, I should leave it, because it would not be grateful for being rescued. It would be more likely to kick me, and I didn’t fancy being kicked by a bird that is almost the size of an ostrich.

Because we had staked out several mineral claims scattered over a wide area, I used a Suzuki trail bike to get around to oversee the work being done. One day, I was riding along a fence line when an emu burst out of the scrub on my right, only inches in front of my front wheel. It cannoned into the fence with considerable force—these birds can reach 30mph—and rebounded, missing my rear wheel by a similar margin.

You could say that this was an example of perfect timing. Had I been travelling slightly slower, or slightly quicker, the emu would have hit me, either directly or on the rebound. But when I look back on this incident, I don’t dwell on this kind of ‘what if’. Nowadays, I take dozens of photographs every week, but when I worked in Australia all those years ago, I didn’t have a camera. This may explain why the memory of a chance encounter with a galloping bird remains so vivid that it might have happened just yesterday.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

the dragon king

Ao Guang, the dragon king of the east sea, is one of the most enduring figures in Chinese mythology. He is the most powerful of the four dragon kings, each of whom rules one of the four seas. He is a bitter, brooding character who resents what he perceives to be his lowly position in the hierarchy. He controls the waves and tides in his domain and can summon up a tempest at will from his palace on the seabed, where he lives with his eight sons.

He plays a minor role in Journey to the West, in which he is visited by Sun Wukong, the self-proclaimed Great Sage and Equal of Heaven, otherwise known as the Monkey King. Monkey visits Ao Guang because he needs a weapon, and he has been advised that the dragon king can help him. Ao Guang is not impressed and instructs one of his soldiers to bring Monkey a spear. It is Monkey’s turn to be unimpressed, as he contemptuously discards the proffered weapon, saying that he needs something heavier.

“Bring him the 3,600-jin halberd,” orders Ao Guang [a jin is approximately equal to 500 grams].

“Too light!” exclaims Monkey, as he tosses the halberd into the air.

“Bring him the 7,200-jin pike,” Ao Guang instructs his soldiers.

The pike requires an entire platoon of soldiers to carry it, but Monkey is able to use it to perform an astounding demonstration of his martial prowess. However, he still thinks the weapon is too light.

“Then I can’t help you,” says the dragon king.

However, Ao Guang’s chief adviser has a bright idea. Why not offer Monkey the needle that stabilizes the sea? This weighs 36,000 jin, and Ao Guang offers this to Monkey, if he can lift it. He clearly believes that this will be impossible, but Monkey discovers that the needle can be instructed to reduce in size and, presumably, weight. He insists that Ao Guang honour his promise.

Following the loss of such a treasure, Ao Guang petitions the Jade Emperor, the ruler of Heaven, for redress, after which he bows out of the story. Other Chinese myths recount Ao Guang’s humiliation in battles with Prince Nezha, son of Li, the Pagoda King, but I’ve mentioned Ao Guang here mainly to introduce this wonderful ceramic panel in a recently restored temple in Ho Sheung Heung (the ‘village above the river’).

There are no captions or other information, so my identification of its central figure as Ao Guang may not be correct, but there are eight other dragons in the picture. Note the stylized waves and clouds. I do not know the identity of the mounted figure in the top centre of the picture, although it is unlikely to be Prince Nezha, who is usually portrayed as a child.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

journey to the west: part 3

No sooner had I established the ‘journey to the west’ back in March than it was destined to become our regular Saturday morning bike ride. I also did it by myself midweek while Paula was at work. However, I was always on the lookout for improvements to the route, because in its original form the second half of the trip was merely backtracking the first half. But first, a couple of photos.

This is the ramp where I encountered the elderly Chinese gentleman who called me his friend in Part 1. It isn’t as steep as ‘the hill’, but you do need to be in the right gear, and there is an abrupt and awkward left turn at the top.

And this is Paula nearing the top of Saddle Pass on the return leg. This is the longest and toughest hill on the entire route, and the steepest section is near the top. Note the gouts of concrete along the left-hand side of the road, which are dribblings from the occasional concrete trucks that pass this way. They make for some awkward moments on a bike if there is something coming the other way.

I didn’t give this pass a name in my original account, because I didn’t know it had one. However, I found the name ‘Saddle Pass’ in an old Hong Kong A–Z that I have back in the UK. Not much use there, you might conclude, but it is 30+ years out of date, after all. Anyway, Paula is always complaining that I go too fast for her, especially on the hills—this is how I have time to take photographs like this one—but she also knows that I’m not about to show any mercy to a former Olympic athlete, so she has to keep up.

At the bottom of the first hill after crossing Saddle Pass, there is a road junction, shown in the following photo:

The outward part of the journey comes down the hill on the left, so it made sense to see whether it was possible to find an alternative way back, at least as far as the expressway. After 200 metres or so, there is another choice to make:

I’ve only recently explored the right-hand option, which will be the subject of another post in due course, but the left-hand route does go in the right direction:

Unfortunately, this road does finally come to an end:

However, there is a footpath. The yellow tubular-steel railings may be an eyesore, but you can be sure that were they not there, it would not be long before some incompetent cyclist had gone over the edge. The drop is 7–8 metres in most places:

The path continues for some distance before reaching a footbridge:

Male cyclists are advised to stand on the pedals as they hit the end of the footbridge. Those male cyclists who have ignored this admonition can testify to the soundness of this advice. The route turns sharp left at the top of the short ramp before returning to the river for a short section:

The other modification to the route involves a replacement for the ‘link path’ described in Part 1. It isn’t half as exciting as the original link path, which we still follow on the outward journey, but it does offer the clear benefit of avoiding a category 2 hill on the return. That’s right! I’ve started grading the hills for difficulty, and the climb over Saddle Pass from the west is the toughest of only three category 1 hills in the area. I had been wondering why, on a Saturday morning, Paula and I never encountered any cyclists on the original link path, but it seems that this easier option is the reason. The following sequence of photos shows how straightforward this section is:

The final photograph looks back as the path emerges onto the banks of a constructed drainage channel. The horizontal line leading left from the base of the lamp-post in the fourth photo is a telltale sign that the background was once a paddy field. Paula found this alternative link during the summer, and the odd thing is that the turns from the main (metalled) road that lead to the two link paths are no more than 10–12 metres apart:

How did I miss the second one on my original explorations of the route?