Friday, 15 March 2013

journey to the west: part 2

The Chinese army base appeared to be an impassable obstacle to westward progress, so I went back home to ponder my next move. I did have a few clues: I noted that there was quite a lot of what appeared to be civilian traffic entering and leaving the base; I found out the name of the road leading to the base; and according to Google maps, which does not show the army base, this road would take me where I wanted to go.

I decided to co-opt Paula to provide moral support for a cunning plan that I’d come up with: perhaps there was a right of way through the base, and all we would need to do would be to turn up at the gate and we would be allowed through. A few days later, we rode up to the gate to see what would happen.

We dismounted about five metres from the gate, where we were immediately spotted by one of the sentries. He marched towards us, although I should point out that a Chinese ‘march’ is considerably more robotic than you would expect from either an American or a European soldier. I readied my Hong Kong ID card, having noted on a large sign that I would be subjected to a ‘security check’ before being allowed in. The sentry stopped in front of me.

Ni hau [hello],” I said.

Did I detect a human reaction beneath the robotic fa├žade? I handed him my ID card, using both hands, which is the Asian custom. He took the card, turned sharply on his heels and marched towards a small kiosk alongside the entrance, where he handed my ID card to someone I couldn’t see. I followed, a few steps behind, and waited to see what would happen next.

After a few moments, my ID card was returned and we were waved through. However, on other occasions since, the procedure has been different. In particular, when I tried a complete route on Wednesday last week, I thought that the sentry hadn’t seen me, so I went to the kiosk myself.

“Oh! shit,” I thought. “He’s asleep.”

Ni hau,” I said.

“Sorry!” he replied, obviously startled.

I really must boost my stock of Putonghua phrases, because I don’t think he understood my Cantonese reply. The soldier behind the desk made a note of the details on my Hong Kong ID card—thankfully, he wasn’t required to pronounce my surname, which most locals have considerable difficulty with—and handed it back.

Before continuing my narrative, perhaps I should mention one of the other signs at the gate. China has a deserved reputation for mangling the English language, but the type of sign that is common in the rest of China is a rarity in Hong Kong. I didn’t dare photograph it, in case I provoked an international incident, but I record it here:

“Over Speed Will Be Accuse”.

At least the intended meaning is not in doubt, although on a bike I don’t expect to go ‘over’ whatever speed is allowed. The ride through the base, which I’ve subsequently learned is known as San Tin Barracks, is uneventful, although on our first venture we missed the right turn before the exit, despite the gate being clearly visible (if only we’d looked).

I wasn’t sure what to expect at the exit, so we dismounted, but we were quickly waved through without any further checks. The road beyond meanders for a few kilometres, but soon after leaving the army base we passed what appeared to be a British military cemetery. It was inside the base, but it looked as if it was well looked after. I’ve since spotted a gate nearby that proclaims it to be a Gurkha cemetery, and it seems to be accessible from the outside, so I shall have to stop and take a closer look. I’m curious to find out if the soldiers buried there died in battle somewhere or merely succumbed to what are euphemistically called ‘natural causes’.

Meanwhile, opposite the cemetery is a magnificent cotton tree, almost 20 metres high. The cotton trees have been nothing short of majestic this year. They have been flowering since the beginning of February, a whole month earlier than normal, and the flower density is the tightest I’ve ever seen, so the intense, ethereal red is visible from a great distance.

After the cemetery, there is another ridge to climb, but it is nothing compared with the ridge described in Part 1. And then, another surprise, another army base. However, despite the sign—“Get off your car and accept security check”—there were no sentries, and the road through was fenced off, so even if we had wanted to, it wasn’t possible to detour, accidentally, from the through route.

At the bottom of the hill shown in the previous photograph, we were surprised to find ourselves somewhere that can only be described as ‘posh’. There was the China Bible Seminary, an imposing building set in its own grounds, and upmarket residential units with well-tended gardens. At the end of this leafy suburban street, we reached a T-junction. It was obvious which way to turn, but on our first visit we simply turned left and kept going, which turned out to be a gross error of judgement.

What we should have done, and we now do, is to turn left onto the pedestrian path. Within 15 metres, there is a not very obvious turn into an underpass, which allows pedestrians and bikes to cross the expressway alongside which the road we have just reached runs. Last Saturday, we had a reminder of why I don’t like large cycling groups. The approach to the underpass spirals downwards through 180 degrees, and because I can’t see too far ahead, I keep tight to the left-hand side. As I straightened out into the underpass itself, I suddenly found myself facing two cyclists riding abreast, oblivious to the danger that they posed to other users of the underpass. The remainder of the group, several of whom were also riding irresponsibly, had time to get into single file.

The underpass emerges alongside another road that runs parallel to the expressway, but directly across there is another road, which runs along the bank of one of the smaller tributaries of the river system here. Ignoring the ‘no entry’ signs—there is nowhere on the road that motor vehicles can access, so the only traffic is bikes—we follow the river to the entrance to Fairview Park (see map) and then onto a sequence of roads that run along the banks of the various rivers in the area.

Where the river we started following joins the main river, Paula and I startled a group of eight cormorants last Saturday. These birds are easily spooked, so I was unable to take a photograph, but they are common hereabouts and a spectacular sight as they take off from the water. However, a couple of weeks ago we saw a black-faced spoonbill, the first time I’ve ever seen an ‘endangered species’. We stopped to watch it swishing about for food in the shallow water.

The entire area is a typical estuarine environment, and it teems with birds. We regularly see herons, egrets, ducks, cormorants, avocets and many other species that we haven’t yet identified. Cormorants occasionally appear in our local river, and I’ve been trying to identify them for months. They look like ducks when on the water, and they dive under in the same way that ducks do, but they are far too big to be ducks, with a wingspan that is close to a metre. I’d taken to referring to those I saw as the ‘mystery goose’, although they didn’t match the description of any goose that has been recorded in Hong Kong.

Most of the river channels have single-track roads running along their banks, so before we head off home we follow a circuit around them. It is a particular delight to ride along with a visual panorama on one side and a chorus of bird calls on the other to provide an auditory counterpoint. I remember chuckling to myself recently as I heard a ‘squeaky’ koel. I’ve become convinced that these birds are trying to out-shout any potential rivals in the vicinity, which accounts for the steady increase in volume with each iteration of the call. Unfortunately, there are times when the strain is too much and the note cracks, hence the ‘squeak’.

Before describing the return journey, here are a few photos that I’ve taken in this area. The first two are of the MTR’s West Rail line across the Kam Tin River. The second was taken from an almost exactly opposite location to the first. The bird in the first picture is a grey heron. The third is of the expressway across the same river; it also features a grey heron. Finally, I include a photo taken in the Lik Wing Tong Study Hall, one of a cluster of historic buildings that are an easy detour from our main route; note the door gods.

Following the climb through and out of the first army camp on the return journey, I frequently exceed 40km/hr on the subsequent downhill section, even though I’m just freewheeling. The passage through San Tin Barracks usually holds no surprises, but on my first solo venture I was motioned to stop by one of the sentries at the exit. What’s this? Some kind of arcane ritual was taking place. That was it: changing the guard at Buckingham Palace had nothing on this. I smiled inwardly as I watched this rigmarole being carried out with the utmost seriousness. They should promote it as a tourist attraction.

The link path is slightly trickier in this direction, mainly because there are a couple of short inclines, although this ‘bridge’ is a worry in both directions. It appears to be a piece of sheet steel with large rust holes, hence the overlays:

After the link path and before reaching the metalled road, there is another cotton tree, a picture of which I couldn’t resist including. The rocky hill in the background proved to be an extremely useful landmark in my early explorations of the area.

I described the aromatic blossoms that are common at this time of year in Part 1, and I include the following photo, of the metalled road before it begins the long climb over the ridge, to show just how common they are. Some of the pothole repairs that I mentioned in Part 1 can also be seen in the picture.

There is one more challenge, and that is the return over the ridge. The hill is a lot longer on this side, and although the first three-quarters of the ascent are reasonably easy, the last section to the summit is steeper than the hills on the opposite side. However, there is a consolation: it is possible to freewheel, brakes off, down both hills. Just don’t ask me how fast I go, because I don’t dare to take my eyes off the road ahead to check.

Finally, in Part 1 I referred to a ‘strange presence’ at the end of the road, and here it is. This Hansel-and-Gretel witch’s house is very bizarre, and I can’t begin to guess at the motivation of the owner in creating it. Our route passes to the right of the house.

Since completing the route as described here, I’ve made several improvements, which I have described in Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Fish Pond Alley.

Most people who know me are aware of my hostility to mobile phones, but I’ve always said that I would get one if I could see a use for one. I decided that it would be prudent to carry one when out on my own, in case either my bike or my knee breaks down. The remoteness of much of the route would make extrication difficult should either of these occur. Just don’t ask me for my number, because you won’t get it. The phone remains switched off at all other times.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

journey to the west

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.