Journey to the West is the title of one of the classics of Chinese literature. It tells the story of how the Buddhist scriptures came to China but is not what this post is about, although the odd malevolent escapee from Heaven, of the type that menaced the Tang priest and his entourage in the original novel, may be encountered.
In Across the Tracks, I referred to an ‘unnamed tributary’, which I’ve since identified as Beas River, and included several photos, although I didn’t mention that at the end of the Drainage Services Department access road that runs alongside the river I turned around and went back the way I had come. However, I was told recently that a route existed to Yuen Long, a town in the northwestern New Territories, which involved not turning around at the end of the access road.
This route turned out to be extremely tricky to establish, with a number of false starts and blind alleys, so I’ve been spending a lot of time during the last two months trying various options, some of which involved things I don’t like doing, such as cycling on a pedestrian path running alongside a busy road, which is a slightly better option than cycling among fast-moving traffic but should be avoided if possible.
Last Wednesday, I finally completed a 55km round trip for the first time without getting lost. What follows is a composite account of that trip and a second, on Saturday, with Paula, although most of the photographs were taken on earlier, exploratory forays. The first few kilometres of the route are already familiar territory, but this part of the ride nevertheless includes the first technical challenge, a short ramp on the far side of the tunnel under the railway, which I described in Across the Tracks as ‘the only hill I’ve found in Hong Kong where I have to get off and push’.
What I should have written is that I was meekly dismounting at the bottom of the ramp, using as an excuse my injured knee. However, the ramp is difficult, not because it’s steep (about 35 percent) but because it has a series of evenly spaced, shallow concrete bosses on each side, which makes me think that this was once a flight of steps. However, since posting this account, I’ve received an email from a friend with many years of experience constructing and repairing roads. He pointed out that the ramp was indeed constructed this way; the bosses enable people pulling small carts to gain some purchase on the incline. For cyclists, the fairway up the middle is no more than 60cm wide, and failure to hold a straight line guarantees failure for any attempt to ride up the ramp, given an almost complete loss of momentum once you hit one of the bosses. It would be easier if a straight approach were possible, or if the dirt floor of the tunnel wasn’t so badly rutted:
The original reason for not continuing beyond the end of the access road had been the presence of a six-lane expressway that cut across the river and seemed to present an impassable barrier, but there is a footbridge across the expressway about 80 metres to the right of the end of the access road. Judging by the sheer number of skidmarks at the bottom of the access ramps and before the 180-degree bends halfway down each side, a lot of inexperienced cyclists pass this way, although I’ve yet to encounter any. In fact, even pedestrians are a rarity on the bridge.
On the far side of the expressway, the footbridge touches down on the perimeter of an upmarket, low-rise housing development, but as is common in Hong Kong, a footpath around that perimeter is provided (see photo below). Although the concept of a ‘right of way’ is not enshrined in Hong Kong law, it appears that this type of perimeter path is provided by developers where a development blocks a popular footpath, and the way I’ve come is the shortest route to Sheung Shui and the nearest railway station.
There is quite a steep ramp at the end of the perimeter path, and the only time I’ve met anyone on the path has been on this ramp, which is narrow and has a fence on the left. The right-hand side is a solid concrete wall that would be impossible to damage with a bike. I turned the right-angle corner at the bottom of the ramp and spotted an old man about halfway down. Ordinarily, I would have dismounted in such a situation, but before I could do so the old man had spreadeagled himself against the fence.
“Pang yau [friend],” he shouted. “How are you?”
“Ho yeh [excellent],” I replied as I cycled past him. “M’goi sai [thank you very much].”
The way ahead lies directly across the road reached at the top of the ramp and is another perimeter path:
This path skirts around the second housing complex, continuing with a series of twists and turns before eventually reaching a road so narrow that on most sections there isn’t room for a bike and anything larger than a car to pass. Fortunately, traffic here is light, although a regular minibus service exists. There is an interesting experiment that could be performed at this point: I reckon that I can get to the nearest railway station by bike from here faster than can a passenger on that minibus, which must take an extremely circuitous route. There is also a strange presence at the start of the road, but you won’t notice it on the outward journey, so I’ve decided not to identify it yet.
After following the river for a short distance, the road begins to climb slowly across the side of the valley towards the ridge that runs north from Kai Kung Leng (see map). The next two photographs show sections of this road and provide an indication of just how remote and undeveloped this area is. It’s almost as if you’re back in the 1970s.
After a reasonably gentle, undulating section, I was confronted by a steep but thankfully short hill, from the top of which I could see another hill ahead:
This turned out to be even steeper, and longer. The white blossom on the tree on the right is highly aromatic, which makes this section of the route a delight at this time of year, because it is a common species. The hill is still quite short though, so I don’t pause to catch my breath unless I can hear a motor vehicle labouring up the hill behind me, because it’s downhill for the next kilometre or so, and there is plenty of time to recover without having to stop:
It probably won’t register on the outward leg of the journey, but the hill is considerably longer on the far side, although only the last section to the summit is as steep as the hill on the other side. This part of the road has my nomination as the worst-maintained public road in Hong Kong. There are huge potholes everywhere, which can be avoided only if there is nothing coming the other way. There are times when you might imagine yourself in the English countryside. Only the vegetation gives the game away. And the streetlights. And the smog.
Sod’s law in action: I wrote the previous paragraph on Friday, and the potholes were as big as ever when Paula and I passed this way on Saturday, but they had all been filled in by the time we returned a couple of hours later. However, I haven’t modified my opinion of the road’s condition—all the fills are amateurish jobs that stand proud of the general road surface by at least 2cm.
After a while, the road sweeps round to the north (around what is reputed to be the largest grave in Hong Kong—the last resting place of an illustrious member of the ubiquitous Tang clan), which didn’t seem like where I wanted to go, but there was an open dirt track opposite the grave, which offered a possible alternative. There were a few navigational difficulties here, because there were many opportunities to be sidetracked:
On my first solo foray this far, I eventually came to a dead end:
The only other option was a steep chopstick road that twisted away to the right and out of sight. That really was a dead end. With hindsight, my error seemed obvious:
And this is where it starts to get ‘interesting’. This ‘link path’, as I shall henceforth refer to it, is probably no more than 200 metres in length, but there’s a lot to pay attention to. The following two photographs show the first tricky moves: a bump up a lip, followed by a turn onto quite a narrow ‘bridge’; and a section of path that has disintegrated, so that each piece moves independently:
The path curves around the building in the background of the second photo and reaches a concrete footbridge over a small stream, accessed by a bump up a kerb, followed by a right turn and an S-shaped section marked out by pieces of ragged, rapidly decomposing plywood. I suspect that this part of the link path is impassable in summer, because the ground here will be waterlogged during the wet season—hence the plywood. A wider concrete path follows the plywood section, but it’s canted about 30 degrees to the right, and the final hazard is a piece of sheet steel that has been laid across a gap in the path on a sharp bend, which could be lethal when wet.
The link path eventually emerges onto a narrow metalled road with many small quasi-industrial sites similar to the one seen in the photo of the ‘dead end’ above, but within quite a short distance the first two-way road on the journey is reached. The choice of whether to turn left or to turn right isn’t straightforward, but turning right would mean turning north, so I always turned left at this point in my explorations. However, I soon faced a problem. This road leads to a prominent open gate, which is guarded by soldiers. It is the entrance to a PLA base, and I hadn’t been aware of any military installations in the area. It seemed like another dead end.