Sunday, 30 June 2019


I first cycled along Ma Tso Lung Road several years ago, shortly after the closed-area status of the frontier road was rescinded. I cycled the full length of the road as far as its junction with Ho Sheung Heung Road, where I turned left onto the latter on my way to the village of Ho Sheung Heung. There was a very obvious problem.

Both roads carry a lot of industrial traffic to and from premises on each road, and I did not like having to mix it with big trucks, even though their average speeds are not high. However, it didn’t take me long to find a suitable alternative. The northern part of Ma Tso Lung Road has few industrial premises, and where these sites begin to proliferate, I found an unnamed road that led to Ho Sheung Heung Road beyond the point where one might encounter trucks and other industrial traffic on the latter road.

However, on one occasion last year, this road was blocked by a large truck unloading something or other. I had no idea how long I might have to wait, so I wondered whether I could find an alternative. I could. I discovered the alleyway that I originally described in Serendipity #1. Although I started my original exploration from Ma Tso Lung Road, we now tackle this section starting from Ho Sheung Heung Road (this starting point is directly opposite the exit from heart of darkness).

There are a number of paths branching off #1, not least serendipity #3, which we rarely did simply because it meant missing out the best part of #1 (the hill), but shortly before returning to the UK earlier this month, I worked out a way to do both, together with a few other variations. I set out to shoot a video of this reworked route through the alleys, and what follows is a series of video stills of the route. I haven’t uploaded the video to YouTube though, for reasons that I will explain when I come to it.

The start of #1 is straightforward:

The next two images show a path that branches off to the right and is followed later in the sequence:

Straight ahead appears to be the better option here, but it’s a dead end:

The next image shows the start of the hill, with the start of #3 to the left:

A short distance up the hill, a path comes in from the right and is accessed via the path that I referred to above:

There is another path at the top of the hill:

It actually leads all the way back down to Ho Sheung Heung Road, which would be fairly pointless, but as you will see, there are other options. I decided to assign #4 to this alley.

The path starts by passing a row of squatter houses. The second image shows that one occupant has decorated the outside of their house with crude but colourful artwork:

The left-hand option in the next image leads to the grave with bas-relief panels that I described in Photographic Highlights: 2018–19, so turning right is the way to go:

It leads to a steep and narrow path:

Turning left here leads eventually to Ho Sheung Heung Road, while turning right takes one back to the start of #1:

There are quite a few twists and turns:

…before rejoining #1:

The next image shows exactly why the video didn’t come out as planned:

I would eventually reach #1 again, but I knew that I would do so before the cyclist in the wide-brimmed hat, and I would therefore have to stop to allow him to pass.

This next sequence shows what the new path looks like:

The turn shown in the last picture leads to quite a rough section:

Having been forced to stop, Paula was slow to restart, so the following sequence of #3 shows me as a mere speck in the distance:

Serendipity #3 emerges onto Ma Tso Lung Road directly opposite the start of #2 (not shown in this final image):

I don’t think there are any more options hereabouts to explore, but shooting a video of the combined serendipity alleyways (sequence: #1, #4, #3, #2) is a high priority for the coming winter.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

ignoble hill

Although I’m currently in the UK and won’t return to Hong Kong until October, I’ve been thinking about cycling projects to work on next winter. Probably the project with the greatest potential is the one I shall be calling ‘ignoble hill’.

Noble Hill is an upmarket housing estate on the northern side of Ma Sik Road, which marks the northern boundary of Fanling:

You can tell that it’s an upmarket estate by the height of the blocks—and by the grand entrance to the estate.

The other side of the road is considerably less salubrious. There is an extensive squatter area with several alleyways up and down the hill and other alleys that run horizontally across the hillside. The aim, as always with this kind of development, is to construct a circuit that takes in as many of these alleyways as possible. What follows is an account of the progress to date. I’d cycled through the area several years ago, turning off the dedicated cycle track that runs alongside the south side of Ma Sik Road to see what I could find.

I didn’t follow up this initial exploration because I had many other areas to explore, and ignoble hill isn’t on the way to anywhere else. However, at the beginning of April, the day before I was due to go to Nethersole Hospital for an operation, I was returning from the final frontier and decided that I wanted to extend the ride, which I did by following the cycle track that runs alongside Jockey Club Road.

On this occasion, I then followed a rough road that starts next to the temple on the corner of Ma Sik Road and Jockey Club Road. Where that road bends around to the right, I found an alleyway that leads back down the hill, and I couldn’t help but notice the admittedly primitive artwork painted on a couple of squatter houses:

I was unable to do any cycling for several weeks, so I decided to take a look around the area on foot. This is where any route that I establish through the area will start and finish:

The right turn is the way to go. It leads up a hill that is not especially arduous:

Although I’ve described this area as a squatter area, this does not imply that the houses here are slums, only that there are specific legal restrictions on buying and selling them. Not only do all the houses have piped water and mains electricity; each house also has its own postbox, which is in a central location:

I also followed the road that I described above as bending around to the right for a short distance. This road to the left looked to be worth checking out:

In fact, it’s a dead end for motor vehicles:

…although there is an alleyway starting in the corner next to the wrought iron gate:

By following this, I found myself on the path that eventually returns to the start/finish point in the photo above. However, before reaching this point, I came to the junction with a path that leads back into the built-up area:

I wanted to see whether this would be a better option:

And I did find what I was looking for:

I dare say that I could continue around the corner to the left, and the turn to the right does look to be quite tricky. But that’s the point of the exercise! Whatever ride through the area I eventually come up with, the more technically difficult twists and turns the better.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

four play

Once again, I’m about to head off to the UK for the summer, and as usual I have a puzzle that I hope someone will have solved by the time I get back online. However, also as usual, you should expect it to tax your brain cells quite severely (it wouldn’t be worth posing otherwise). Here it is:
What connects the following:
• a football team playing in Italy’s Serie A;
• a nineteenth-century battle;
• an African city;
• an ornamental tree of the subtropics with purplish blue flowers; and
• a Bond villain?
This is an example of an ‘open’ question, meaning that there are more entities that meet the connection criterion. Obviously, there is more than one ‘answer’ to each of these clues, so it will be necessary to identify which of these is ‘correct’.

As usual, I will acknowledge all correct answers, but I won’t actually publish the solution at all unless I’ve received at least one correct answer, and that answer will be flagged up with a ‘spoiler alert’ to give later readers a chance to work it out for themselves.

currently unsolved puzzles
A Hard Question
An English Question
A Rotten English Question
A Light-hearted Question
…French and

Thursday, 30 May 2019

photographic highlights: 2018–19

I will be heading off to the UK for the summer in a few days, and as I’ve done for several years now, I’ve compiled a collection of what I consider the ‘best’ photos from the more than 2,000 that I’ve taken over the past few months. I don’t claim any particular expertise as a photographer; these images merely reflect what I’ve been up to and what I’ve found interesting.

As usual, I haven’t included any photos that I’ve used to illustrate other blog posts, with one exception, indicated below, that happens to be my favourite of those I’ve taken this winter. Also as usual, I’ve missed a couple of opportunities for what could have been sensational photographs because I didn’t have my camera with me (it was dark): (1) Paula and I had a close encounter recently with a porcupine on the Drainage Services access road that runs alongside our local river; and (2) while following the direct path between Fanling and our village, I spotted a centipede about 12cm long ahead. It didn’t scurry off, as we might have expected, because it was in the process of attacking a snail about 4cm in diameter. Naturally, we stopped to watch, and the centipede eventually dragged the unfortunate snail off into the undergrowth, where I imagine a gruesome fate awaited it.

All the following photographs are presented in the order in which they were taken. Don’t forget that clicking on a photo will bring up an enlarged version.

My first photo was taken near the start of the ‘detour de force’ and shows a flame tree that was damaged in Typhoon Mangkhut last September:

Unbelievably, I can still ride underneath the fallen branch, although the clearance must be tight.

This year’s goat photo was also taken on the detour de force, towards the end:

The next photo has an indirect connection with the detour de force, which is located between Taipo and Fanling. My friend Vlad had never cycled along the detour before, and we were on our way to rectify that omission when he spotted this imperial stormtrooper in the front yard of a house in Tong Hang, a village on the southern edge of Fanling:

I doubt whether anyone can interpret the next photo, so here’s the explanation: I’ve been trying to get a picture of cormorants taking off from water for several years, and this is my first success:

Unlike ducks and swans, cormorants don’t swim on top of the water. Only their heads and necks protrude above the surface, so it takes considerable effort to get airborne, which includes up to ten slaps by the wings on the surface. The problem is that these birds are easily spooked, and once they’ve started to take off, it’s much too late to take a picture. This photo is of the only fish pond along the frontier road that is located south of the road. I spotted the cormorants before they spotted me, and I sneaked up with my camera at the ready!

As you will discover as you read on, the frontier road is fertile ground for photography. The next image is of a fish pond directly opposite the junction of the frontier road with Ma Tso Lung Road. The two men in the photo appear to be in the process of installing a new aerating machine, which is why the pond has been drained, leaving what I imagine to be easy pickings for dozens of egrets. The high-rise buildings in the background are in Shenzhen.

Most Saturdays, we ride along the new cycle track that follows the Shek Sheung River. To the left is an environmentally sensitive area known as ‘the long valley’. Several times, we’ve seen large groups of photographers that appear to be in position just waiting for something to happen:

But what?

Whenever I’ve seen Buffalo Bill in the Shek Sheung River over the past few years, I’ve stopped to take a picture. The next photo isn’t particularly good, but it was taken the last time we saw him. We haven’t seen him for almost six months, and it’s likely that he is no longer alive. Gone but not forgotten.

I posted a photo similar to the next one two years ago, but I think that this one is better:

In case you hadn’t guessed, the birds on the powerline are cormorants, and the buildings in the background are in Shenzhen.

The frontier road comes to an end at a junction with Ha Wan Tsuen East Road. Part of the way along this latter road, I’d noticed what struck me as an unusual looking grave, so it was inevitable that I would eventually want to take a closer look:

The form of this grave is conventional, but I cannot recall seeing another grave that has been built with ceramic tiles. This appears to be three graves in one, which is also unusual.

One of the commonest names for Chinese restaurants in the UK is ‘Lotus Garden’, which I always find slightly amusing. Does this look like a garden?

Although these flowers are pink, you do occasionally see white lotus flowers among the pink:

I wonder whether this is an aberration, a form of albinism. When I lived in London between 1978 and 1981, I had a pass to the reading room of the British Museum, where Marx and Lenin did their research, and I spent quite a lot of time researching Chinese secret societies. One such society was the ‘White Lotus’, and I now wonder whether the name reflected something unusually distinctive about white lotus flowers.

I took the next photo in the village of Kwan Tei, a couple of kilometres east of Fanling, I have no idea what these two huge devices are used for, although I suspect they are for cooking (on an industrial scale). Oddly enough, I came across them in a public area rather than in the grounds of someone’s house.

If I were to suggest a caption for this photo, it would be ‘Mr and Mrs’.

The next photo has to take this year’s surrealism prize. It was taken from the Drainage Services access road running along the Ng Tung River and shows a two-storey house with a footprint so small that the staircase must take up a significant proportion of the floor area—unless, that is, a ladder is used to reach the upper floor.

And what about that gate? It is clearly a sturdy gate, well able to keep out intruders, or it would if it wasn’t possible to simply walk around it!

When I posted Brick-a-Brac in January, I didn’t include the following photograph in my account for the simple reason that it lacked context. However, as an abstract image, it is probably the best that I took at that location, which is why I’ve included it here. Unless I tell you though—or you have read the earlier post—you would probably never guess that this is a small section of a vertical wall:

…with almost no mortar! I’m not aware of the remains of any brick kilns anywhere in the vicinity of this wall, although I can’t imagine that these bricks, obviously handmade, were transported any great distance. I’m also unable to say whether the clay used came from different sources, or whether different additives are responsible for the variations in colour.

I encounter hundreds of dogs as I explore the New Territories, and almost all of them perform some kind of security function. However, the next photo was taken in my own neighbourhood, where I encountered four dogs that had come rushing out to confront an intruder (me):

The problem, for the dogs, is that this kind of behaviour doesn’t scare me. I just stood there and took a photograph, while the dogs looked utterly nonplussed. Incidentally, I suspect that all four came from the same litter.

Abrupt contrasts between rural and urban are a common sight in Hong Kong. The next photo shows land being cultivated in the foreground, with high-rise residential blocks in the background. The three towers on the left are part of Regentville, while the three on the right comprise Green Code, the newest residential estate on the eastern edge of Fanling.

The next photo was also taken in my neighbourhood. I’m not sure why this apparently brand new sofa has been left outside what is probably a squatter dwelling, or what the teddy bear is doing loafing about, but I thought that it made an amusing juxtaposition:

Bonsai may be thought of as quintessentially Japanese, but I suspect that the idea came originally from the Chinese. I took the following photograph in Wun Chuen Sin Koon, a Taoist monastery several kilometres east of Fanling:

Every Japanese dwarfed tree that I’ve seen has been an evergreen such as pine or juniper, but this is a banyan, which I assume is considerably more difficult to miniaturize.

I don’t often venture west of the main railway line in Fanling, but when my cousin Dave was visiting in February, one of the places that I showed him around was the Fung Ying Seen Koon temple complex just west of Fanling station. I took the following photograph as we returned to the station:

It shows the steps leading down to the subway under the expressway, which runs parallel to the railway at this point. I just like the symmetry.

The only remarkable thing about the next image is the strangeness of its subject:

The path on the right leads to the Shuen Wan Temples, which I featured in More Door Gods #3. Notice the stubs of spent joss sticks; I suspect that this is connected to animist beliefs about evil spirits, which people have been attempting to propitiate.

The next photo is of a footbridge over the Shing Mun River in Shatin. I rarely come this way, so I don’t think I could ever be there to capture the moment when the surface of the river is mirror-smooth, but this is another image that I’ve included because I like the symmetry:

Since discovering the serendipity alleyways last winter, I’ve been trying to improve the options available for cycling through the area. As part of this exploration, I came across this grave:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen another grave with bas-relief panels. I don’t intend to offer an interpretation, but this is a closer look at the right-hand panel:

Whoever is interred here was obviously important! And it’s possible that the panel depicts scenes from that person’s life.

I pass this statue of Farmer Catt, which is located at the start of the path from Fanling to the village where I live, almost every day, but I’ve only just got around to taking a photo:

The significance of the various feline motifs in this area, of which this is by far the best, is explained in The Cat Man’s Hut. They are all the work of the same group that was responsible for the artwork that I featured in Art Promenade.

I’ve included the next photo because, although I used it in Year of the (Wild) Pig, it is one that I was particularly pleased to capture. Although I have seen wild pigs in Hong Kong on many occasions, I’d never previously managed to photograph them:

The frontier road isn’t the only place in Hong Kong where you can see egrets. The next photo is of a small artificial island next to the cycle road between Taipo and Shatin:

Although I cycle through the village of Chau Tau regularly, I’ve never done so when the fish pond there has been mirror-smooth. This is the best I could manage:

The colours are provided by bougainvillea.

The village of Ho Sheung Heung (‘village above the river’) clearly has some heritage. For a start, there is an ancestral hall that is a declared monument. It also has a local festival in which a principal attraction is an itinerant Cantonese opera troupe. Performances take place in a temporary theatre that can accommodate an audience of several hundred and is constructed from flexible metal sheets on a bamboo frame:

This structure can be built and dismantled in just a few days! In this photo, not everything has been completed, because the ramp you can see is the main entrance, and it will be covered by a red carpet.

Lions are frequently employed on guard duties for doors and gates. Elephants are also given the job occasionally (see the grave above), but asking a fierce tortoise to take on this task does seem far-fetched. This one was photographed guarding a grave just off the Hok Tau Country Trails:

There are a lot of quasi-industrial premises, of questionable legality, east of Fanling. I took the next photo outside one such site:

Despite the Christmas-style baubles, I don’t think this display has any Christian connotations, although the silvery animals might just be meant to be reindeer. The significance of the large clock next to the right-hand reindeer, if there is any, escapes me.

I photographed this exotic bird on the same day as the previous photo in the village of Ping Che Yuen Ha, several kilometres east of Fanling:

Actually, it’s an equally exotic flower!

We’re back on the frontier road for the final photo in this collection. There is a general water flow at one point from the south side of the road to the north, and there is usually a build-up of scum where the stream flows into the marshy area on the north side:

You might wonder why I spotted this instead of focusing on the road ahead! Quite simply, there is almost no motor traffic, which is why the frontier road is so popular with cyclists.

previous highlights collections
Photographic Highlights: 2015–16
Photographic Highlights: 2016–17
Photographic Highlights: 2017–18