Thursday, 31 December 2015

an elementary problem

It has not escaped my notice that nobody submitted the correct answer to the puzzle that I posted on New Year’s Eve last year, so I’ve decided to set a much easier problem this year:
What do the following have in common?
Alabama • Arkansas • California • Colorado • Georgia • Indiana • Louisiana • Minnesota • Missouri • Nebraska • Pennsylvania • South Carolina
By the way, I may have neglected to mention it, but this list is complete.

spoiler alert
Despite an error in the original puzzle, since corrected, Siegfried has submitted the correct solution (below).

Monday, 28 December 2015


Blog posts are supposed to be self-contained, but occasionally something happens to negate what I’ve written, or there is a development that I hadn’t foreseen when I first covered a particular subject. I have recently updated the following four posts to take account of such developments. Skullduggery, in particular, remains a ‘live’ story, and I expect further developments. Hyperlinks to these posts are provided in case you haven’t read them previously.

The Hong Kong Observatory declared an El Niño event more than a year ago, which should mean that things are getting back to normal now. But they aren’t. Last month was the warmest November since records began in 1884, with an average 2.5 degrees Celsius above the long-term average. This may not seem much, but we are comparing averages, so 2.5 degrees represents a considerable deviation from the norm. And the mean temperature for the month was 24 degrees, which would be a hot afternoon in a normal November.

El Niño usually lasts only one year, so I was surprised to learn, a couple of months ago, that droughts in some parts of Africa, and floods in others, were being linked to this phenomenon. However, this has already been one of the strongest El Niños on record, so I shouldn’t be surprised if it lasts well into a second year. Here in Hong Kong, the situation has developed from strange to bizarre. Several tree species have been flowering in recent weeks, including the acacia in front of my house, which would normally be flowering in April:

The flowers in this picture represent much less than 5 percent of the normal flower load, but any flowers at this time of year are not to be expected.

A similar situation exists with respect to flame trees, which usually flower in June. The following photo was taken in early November, and once again it represents only a tiny fraction of the normal flower load:

The next photo was taken around the same time and shows a cluster of paper-bark trees in flower. Trees of this species can flower at any time between late spring and the start of autumn, but these trees are significantly late.

Perhaps the most bizarre event of all happened on 8th December. Magpie robins are around all year, but they usually sing only in spring, and all you will usually hear at this time of year are threat calls. However, on this day I heard a full-on, this-is-my-territory song from an obviously confident individual, and a few hours later I spotted three males chasing each other through the branches of the acacia, pausing occasionally for short bursts of song. This turned out not to be a one-off event, because on 27th December I returned from shopping to be greeted by another virtuoso performance, almost certainly not by the same individual.

Shortly after I posted this account, the gate blocking the road was torn down, almost certainly not by the person who had erected it. The road remained open until last Saturday, when we were surprised to find it blocked by a locked gate again—with the ride-around no longer accessible. Just as we arrived at the gate, a man appeared through the gap on the side to inform us that this was private property. I insisted that it wasn’t, which probably wasn’t a smart move, because he accused me of being rude. However, after a few minutes negotiating, he relented and allowed us through. He did mention that someone had called the police after finding the road blocked, but the man boasted that all the local coppers knew him and therefore took no notice of the complaint.

I took the following photos six days after this encounter, and it looks as if somebody is in the process of constructing some kind of bypass. The first photo was taken as we arrived at the locked gate (compare this photo with the one illustrating the original post; the bypass had not been started when we encountered the ‘owner’), while the second shows what is happening on the other side. I remain convinced that there are some dodgy goings-on around these parts.

Journey to the West: Part 4
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 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 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 bridge across the stream can be seen in the following photo:

The Cat Man’s Hut
The hut was demolished some time ago, probably by agents of Uncle Four, although the door on which the cat was painted is still on display nearby. However, further paintings of a dog and a cat have appeared recently on the concrete footpath that runs beside where the hut used to stand. It will probably be a long time before the cat man is forgotten.

Friday, 25 December 2015

christmas flowers

The weather forecast wasn’t good—cloudy with light rain—but we always go for a bike ride on Christmas morning, and we weren’t about to allow a little rain to spoil the fun. As usual, we did the journey to the west, and we were on our way back home when we came to a T-junction. As we pulled onto the other road, I noticed a couple of oil stains, which I stopped to photograph:

To my surprise, as I glanced along the road to check for traffic, I saw a long sequence of similar stains stretching away into the distance. The car that created them must have been in a serious state of disrepair to leak so much. Anyway, I photographed them all, and here are the best ones:

If you liked these images, you may also like…
Colour Field Analysis
The Lighter Side of Pollution

Monday, 21 December 2015

nightmare story

I’ve written previously of how I was originally attracted to Hong Kong in 1974 by the following statement in a job advert:
There are miles and miles of unclimbed sea cliffs.
This statement turned out to be true, but most of these sea cliffs were unclimbed for a reason: the rock was so friable that we named one area that we explored Weetabix Zawn to reflect the obvious danger of climbing such vertical rubbish. ‘Zawn’ is an old Cornish word that describes a sea cave at the back of a narrow inlet (Cornwall was the first place in the UK where climbing on sea cliffs became popular).

However, one area that I investigated with my colleague Keith Hazelaar was explored in the mid-1950s by two captains in the Green Howards, James Ward and John Bunnell. This was Promontory Rocks, which is located in the southeast of the New Territories. It is the obvious promontory linked to the mainland by a narrow isthmus shown on the following map, which I drew in 1974:

After Ward was killed in a motorcycle accident, Bunnell produced a guidebook to the climbs that the pair had pioneered together, in which it was suggested that the climbs they had done at Promontory Rocks were to be accessed by swimming (“spice is added to the approach”). I don’t think any of these climbs were ever repeated.

Another, more comprehensive, guidebook to climbing in Hong Kong was produced in 1968, but the section it contained on Promontory Rocks was repeated verbatim from Bunnell’s guide, so it is safe to assume that the author of the second guide never visited this area.

The situation began to change in the early 1970s, when Promontory Rocks came to the attention of noted alpinist Dick Isherwood, who was attracted to the massive slab of rock shown in the following photograph of Great Zawn (for an idea of scale, the hill had a spot height of 441 feet on maps of the period):

Isherwood pioneered two good climbs up the left-hand side of this big slab, although the best adjective to describe the approach, down the slope on the left of the photo, would be ‘dangerous’. Isherwood also attempted the obvious groove in the slab behind the inlet on the right, having reached the base of the climb by swimming across the zawn, but his attempt was repulsed by a difficult section near the top. Note that this inlet is referred to as ‘No. 1 Zawn’ in the above map, but when I finally started climbing on this section of the cliff in the 1980s, I decided to rename it the Devil’s Cauldron, because the noise level created by the ebb and flow of the swell in this zawn is almost overwhelming—it made communication with your climbing partner difficult, and it created a most intimidating atmosphere.

There are two reasons for wanting to attempt a rock climb that nobody has done before: the rather vain thought that you might be establishing a climb that everyone wants to do once a description has been circulated; and the desire to experience the tension created by uncertainty (is this climb actually possible?). Most of the climbs that I did with Keith Hazelaar between 1974 and 1976 failed to meet either criterion, but there is one route, which we climbed at the end of 1976, that would certainly justify a visit to this area (see below).

There is just one tiny problem: the above map has long been out of date, because since the late 1980s the area south and east of the fishing village of Po Toi O has been a golf course, and the last time I applied to the Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club for permission to cross its land to access the climbing areas, I received a peremptory refusal. The fact that I was climbing here more than a decade before the club came into existence does not seem to have been considered a reason to grant such permission.

I imagine that it may be possible to hire a sampan in Po Toi O to reach the climbing—it was how we reached Promontory Rocks in the 1970s, when it was a two-hour walk from the nearest road, and a sampan across Clearwater Bay was the preferred choice. Mind you, some of the crossings were quite scary, given the relentless swell rolling in from the South China Sea. I remember that on one occasion we spotted a larger than usual wave coming towards us. The elderly man piloting the sampan, instead of pointing the boat into the wave, turned so that we were broadside on. We must have been very close to capsizing.

The photograph above shows the main climbing area; however, there is a lower, steeper section of cliff on the other side of the hill, facing in the opposite direction. This is the East Face, which is separated by a spectacular zawn from Cannonball Buttress. This latter feature was named by Bunnell and Ward, who called the climb they did Jolly Roger. Needless to say, Keith and I followed the nautical/piratical theme when naming the climbs we did on the East Face (Mainbrace, Black Spot, etc.), which at least made a change from the names we gave climbs on the main cliff. Keith was keen to name our climbs after characters and places in The Lord of the Rings, while I preferred names that reflected something of the nature of the climb.

On the edge of the spectacular zawn, at right angles to the rest of the East Face, is a narrow wall of rock that I thought might just be possible. However, I couldn’t reach the base of the wall at sea level, so instead I climbed the face directly above until it began to overhang. At this point, a line of handholds led round the corner onto the narrow wall. This is where the real difficulties started. First, the rock was caked with salt; it also felt surprisingly hot, being directly in the sun, so I kept leaving wet palm prints wherever I placed my hands. Second, the handholds were tiny, and I didn’t fancy trying to use them to make upward progress given the slimy feel engendered by the wet salt. Gymnastic chalk was not then in widespread use by climbers.

There was only one thing I could do. Wait. I’ve no idea how long I waited, but eventually the sun disappeared behind Cannonball Buttress, and the rock began to cool down. This made progress easier, but not easy. ‘Precarious’ springs to mind as an appropriate word to describe the rest of the climb.

“What are you trying to do? Give me bloody nightmares?” was Keith’s first comment on reaching the top.

And Nightmare was the only name I would accept for this climb, which is easily the best at Promontory Rocks. For anyone wishing to repeat it, the grade is E1 5b. I lost my best photographs of the climb many years ago, but here are two of Pete Hamer seconding the route in 1984 during an Outward Bound staff training session. The steepness is obvious. To spare him any possible embarrassment, I haven’t used the photo that was taken just as he reached the top. His eyes are bulging.

Although it isn’t possible to reach the base of the cliff in the Devil’s Cauldron by either scrambling or climbing, in 1983 it finally occurred to me that with a spare rope we could abseil (rappel) to the bottom. Consequently, I paid a visit with Pete Hamer and did three climbs: the groove that had defeated Isherwood, which we named Demon’s Groove (VS); The Alchemist (HVS 5a), which takes a parallel corner to the right; and Sultans of Swing (E1 5c). The following three photographs are of two unknown Chinese climbers on The Alchemist, taken during a visit I organized in the mid-1980s to let local climbers know about recent developments here.

Sultans of Swing takes the smooth slab right of the climber, while the diagonal crack to the left of the climber in the third photo is the line of Our Father (E1 5c), a climb that I did on a subsequent visit. If you do this climb, you will understand immediately why I gave it this name.

Keith Hazelaar and I explored Promontory Rocks fairly systematically in the 1970s, but we missed a few obvious lines, so I will conclude this post with three photographs of those missed opportunities. The first is of Pete Hamer seconding Pieces of Eight, on the East Face, on the first ascent. The second is of me climbing Autobahn, which is located on the section of cliff directly above Cannonball Buttress, while the third is of me on Rainmaker, an undercut groove at the outer end of Great Zawn.

Pieces of Eight (MVS).

Autobahn (HVS 5a).

Rainmaker (HVS 5a).

I have used the British grading system, which is the only one I’m familiar with. ‘VS’ is short for ‘very severe’, with prefixes ‘M’ for ‘mild’ and ‘H’ for ‘hard’. ‘E1’ is the easiest in what used to be the ‘extremely severe’ category (it now extends to E12, which is well beyond the ability of almost all climbers). The numbers are a technical grade for the hardest move on the climb.

Another guidebook to climbing in Hong Kong was produced in the late 1990s. I wasn’t in the territory at the time, but several local climbers told me subsequently that they had suggested to the authors that they contact me for information on climbs in this area. They never did, so the climbs referred to here remain undocumented, even though I had written (and typeset) a complete guide to the area in the 1980s, which also included the sea cliffs at the far end of the Sai Kung peninsula. It was never published.

Monday, 7 December 2015


Village houses in the New Territories come in a bewildering array of shapes, but not such a range of sizes, because this is set by regulation: a maximum area of 700 square feet; and a maximum height of three storeys. Buildings are usually rectangular in plan, and whether balconies are constructed on the short or long side depends on a house’s alignment with respect to nearby houses. The regulations stipulate that balconies can be built on only one side of a house.

I don’t know if it is possible to confirm this statement, but I would guess that several hundred such houses are under construction at any one time. Most, if not all, of these houses are being built under a system known as ding, which was introduced originally by the British to halt depopulation of the New Territories. It conveyed the right of any indigenous villager to build a house in their home village. It may have been intended as a measure to encourage villagers to stay put, but nowadays the only reason to build a village house is to sell it. And at upwards of HK$10 million for a three-storey modern house, the incentive is obvious. Ding is probably the biggest mistake the British made in their administration of Hong Kong.

Where space is in short supply, it is common to see new houses being built that adjoin other houses, resulting in a kind of de facto terrace. The following photograph, taken in the village of Shek Wu Wai, which we pass through on the return leg of our ‘journey to the west’ bike ride, is entirely typical of this mode of development. Note that the ‘fourth storey’ of the house second from the right is an illegal structure.

The next photo, taken in the village of Siu Hang, which marks the beginning of the Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail, also shows the same kind of haphazard development. Again, the structures on the rooftops are illegal. The house third from the left carries the date ‘1975’: this was a common practice for houses built in the 1950s and 1960s, but later dates are unusual. Our friend Tom’s store in Sham Chung is dated ‘1938’, which is even more unusual.

Some designs are more practical than others: excessively large windows require a lot of curtains, for example. The next photo shows a house, also in Shek Wu Wai, that appears to be designed so that all three floors form part of the same dwelling (it is a double block with slightly different features on each half). The phrase ‘delusions of grandeur’ springs immediately to mind, and I can imagine that the bill for curtains for these houses will be nothing short of eye-watering, which may explain why neither house appears to be occupied.

One point to make about the construction of village houses is that there is no division of labour, unlike in the West, where a plumber handles the plumbing, an electrician deals with the electrics, a joiner does the joinery, and a bricklayer does the brickwork. Here, all these specialist jobs are handled by the same people, which probably explains why the washbasin in my bathroom doesn’t have cold water plumbed in, and the light on the staircase leading up to the roof can only be switched on once you’ve reached the top of the stairs. However, it is probably unfair to blame the cowboys who build village houses for the notoriously poor mobile phone coverage in such houses, although I’ve often been puzzled by this common phenomenon.

So what is the most outlandish village house I’ve seen? A few weeks ago, I was exploring an area at the far end of the ‘journey to the west’ with a view to adding something extra to what is already quite a long bike ride. I didn’t succeed, and I’m not sure that I could find this house again, although I would know when I was getting warm. The house in the following photo is partly hidden behind a high wall, but enough of it is visible to confirm its outlandishness.

It reminds me of the story of Hansel and Gretel, and the wicked witch (there were a lot of wicked witches in the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales). My German is extremely limited, but I believe the inscription over the door leading to the top-floor balcony (‘Himmel Burg’) translates as ‘Heaven Town’. I wonder why. I had originally translated it as ‘Hell Town’, which somehow seems more appropriate.