09 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.

4 comments:

  1. what a marathon and no serious injuries!

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    1. You haven’t been keeping up Peter. Following my last visit of 2011, I fractured my patella when I came off my bike north of Taipo on the way back home.

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  2. I wish I could have seen the look on the Yank's face :)

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    1. I wish I could have photographed it Keith, but....

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