Sunday, 16 December 2012

across the tracks

Before my accident, if I wanted to do any cycling I would head south. For the first three or four miles, the only route is a series of country paths and back roads, where it usually isn’t possible to cycle at speed, but once south of Taipo the main cycleway is the width of an ordinary road (two double-decker buses travelling in opposite directions could pass each other without either having to slow down), so in ordinary conditions it is possible to go as fast as I like. I should note that ‘ordinary conditions’ do not apply at weekends (Cycling in Hong Kong).

However, when I started cycling again after the accident, I didn’t want to go too far, so I opted to cycle along the local river, following the concrete access road provided by the Drainage Services Department. I pointed out in Owt Fresh? that technically this is not permitted, although so many locals use the road, which cannot be accessed by motor vehicles, that there is no enforcement. The only drawback is that the accessible stretch of river is only about 3km in length, which doesn’t justify getting the bike out in the first place.

Back in May, I started looking for a different option, and I was able to find a way to cross the main railway line into China via an extremely cramped tunnel:

The main difficulty cannot be seen in this picture. Immediately the track emerges from the tunnel, it turns left and up an extremely steep ramp, the only hill I’ve found in Hong Kong where I have to get off and push, although it might be feasible if it were possible to take a run at it.

Once I’d emerged through the obstacle course (there are other difficulties, see below), I found myself on the banks of a much larger river, the Shum Chun River (‘Shum Chun’ is the Cantonese rendition of the large metropolis on the other side of the border that is now universally known as Shenzhen), of which our local river is a tributary:

Hong Kong

This photo was taken from a road bridge over the river, looking upstream. There are no fewer than five grey herons in the picture, and the rail crossing is behind the trees on the left. Further downstream, this river forms the border between Hong Kong and the rest of China west of Shenzhen.

The access road alongside the river continues past the bridge, but it enters the so-called ‘closed area’, a measure that was put in place by the British colonial administration to deter illegal immigrants but maintained since the handover in 1997, so it is necessary to cross the bridge. This leads to a quiet road that climbs past a modern prison, the Lo Wu Correctional Institution.

During my initial explorations, I then took a road that drops down into the village of Ho Sheung Heung (literally, ‘village above the river’), where I was delighted to find the Hau Ku Shek Ancestral Hall:

Hong Kong

This ancestral hall was built in the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and was extensively renovated in 1762. As can be seen in this photo, it follows the standard three-hall, two-courtyard design for ancestral halls and features red sandstone corner pillars and bases for the alcoves on each side of the main entrance. These are drum platforms. The red sandstone is a highly prized material for important buildings, and it must have been transported a considerable distance, because there are no sources close to the village.

Hong Kong

The hall will feature in a more detailed post eventually, but this photo shows some of the intricate plaster mouldings that are typical of ancestral halls, and a large ceramic lion in the corner of the roof. Don’t worry that it doesn’t look like a lion. There are no lions in China, and if you’ve ever seen a lion dance you’ll be aware that a Chinese ‘lion’ looks nothing like the real thing.

There is an open space in front of the ancestral hall that functions as the terminus of a minibus route from the nearest railway station. Naturally, most of the passengers are local villagers, but the minibus also brings in a lot of wildlife photographers armed with tripods and 1,000mm telephoto lenses. I assume that the photos that they take are a lot better than mine, which were shot with a cheap digital camera. On the other hand, I get to see a lot more because I’m constantly on the move, and over the past few weeks I’ve seen a number of interesting sights.

There was the time when a heron grabbed a fish just as I was passing, and the vision of the sun glinting on the fish has stuck in my memory. On another occasion, a black-capped kingfisher burst from the trees in front of me in a riot of blue and orange. A few days ago, I saw what I confidently identified as a crested kingfisher, only to discover that Wikipedia claims this species to be 41cm long, which strikes me as being too big for any species of kingfisher. This bird too was in the process of grabbing a fish as I rode past, and I saw a second individual 100m or so further along.

The best area to see the local birdlife is along a tributary of the Shum Chun River, the mouth of which is visible in the second picture above. The following three photographs are of this tributary.

The first picture shows the mouth of the tributary; the bridge carries the access road along the bank of the main river. The second picture was taken from this bridge, looking upstream, and it shows, inter alia, a herd of feral cows, which occasionally represent a hazard on the roads. The ferality of cows seems like an odd concept, but there is an even bigger feral herd in the Sai Kung area, and it roams across a large territory. The third picture was taken from a point about a kilometre upstream, looking downstream.

I managed to cobble together a 25km route that covers the access roads along the banks of the main river and the tributary and that I could do regularly. It involves covering most of the route twice. If I see something that interests me, I’ll stop to take a photo, but otherwise I don’t bother stopping for anything as mundane as a rest. However, last week I decided to see where the road leading past the prison went, so instead of following the side road down to Ho Sheung Heung, I kept going straight ahead. My reward, although this probably isn’t the best way to describe it, was a pig of a hill and an alternative way into the village. This adds 2km to the overall route and has Paula’s approval (she likes long hills).

I’ll end with three photographs that I’ve taken recently. They don’t show the detail that would be visible if I’d had a telephoto lens, but they do give a good idea of what I see as I ride alongside the various rivers. Egrets are extremely common here, and on one recent occasion I counted no less than seventeen grey herons (plus or minus one—I may have counted up to two twice).

The first photo is of a grey heron perched on a partly submerged tree branch in the main river. The second shows a greater egret (left) and a grey heron in the tributary, and the third shows a buffalo on a mud bank in the main river. These beasts were used regularly for ploughing at one time in Hong Kong, but the few people who farm in Hong Kong use mechanical aids nowadays, so I speculate that the erstwhile ‘owner’ has simply turned the animal loose to fend for itself.

Anyway, it’s time to head off home, and the railway crossing is much easier this way, but I still flatten myself on the crossbar to pass under this gigantic pipe, which is Hong Kong’s water supply (there are actually three pipes, all the same size). It isn’t too obvious from the photo, but you need to pedal out of the depression under the pipe: you cannot rely on momentum to get you through.

The cycling itself is fairly uneventful. The access roads along the riverbanks are flat, and the only hills are therefore those described above, where my route moves away from the river. Unlike the access road that runs alongside our local river, there is some (limited) motor traffic here—mainly local villagers—but the access roads are quite wide, so this presents no problems. However, the area is popular with cyclists and is to be avoided at weekends, when large (dis)organized groups of up to thirty cyclists can be encountered. I’ll stick to mid-afternoon, midweek. It’s very quiet then, although I did encounter up to 200 policemen and women on an organized run last week, which forced me to alter my usual route.

update: 21/2/2013
The description “the only hill I’ve found in Hong Kong where I have to get off and push” is no longer valid, although it is probably accurate to say that this hill is too tricky to guarantee success every time, especially if there is a puddle of water at the bottom.


  1. That's some beautiful country there.

    1. It certainly is Bryan. Great countryside for cycling.

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  3. Wow, you sure do have a fair bit of wildlife in your neck of the woods Dennis. Heron's, buffalo and kingfishers etc. When you mentioned the word 'feral cows' I had to smile because we usually use the word 'feral' in regards to wild cats going crazy, so I imagined a bunch of cows playing havoc with the people, ha ha.

    I love the way you like to explore the areas around where you live and take photos along the route. This way you always get to see things that most people don't, in their own neigbourhoods. The biking route looks a bit too much for me though, I can just see myself ending up headless trying to ride under that water tank! Or squeezing through that bridge in the first picture and still having to struggle or get off and push. Too challenging for me. I can just about ride on a straight road. Cycling is fun though.

    I also really loved the detail on the roof of the ancestral halls. It's always amazing to see first hand what others before us did, and how much time and effort went into making something. And the fact that they didn't have all the mechanics that we have today, so I appreciate it even more.

    1. I would say that ‘feral’ tends to be used rather vaguely nowadays Rum. Strictly speaking, it refers to any domestic animal that has gone wild (I can still remember encountering feral goats in the Australian Outback in 1970).

      Cycling is certainly fun though. And you can stay on the riverbanks and avoid the hills here. I think that there is more headroom than there appears to be, but I still duck as far as I can when passing under the water pipe.

      As I mentioned above, I’ll be featuring the ancestral hall in a future post, and I still haven’t written more about the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall, which is much closer to my house. Look out for a comparison of door god representations in various halls and temples in the area, which I will probably post to coincide with Chinese New Year.

  4. what a discovery! a beautiful river, serene and peaceful. i guess its water must be way cleaner hundreds years ago. what i miss china is those mountains, with distinguished shape lay lazily in not so distant views, and beneath them usually are open plains.
    the ancestral hall you found is quite "ancient", for what i know we can hardly see any architectures dated that old in china now. despite that china is one of the oldest civilization, i wonder where we could see some classical architectures as old as we see in rome italy (if we don't count "the great wall")? i ascribe this to the historical phenomenon happens in an enclosed culture: people build, and destroy, build again, and destroy again, a repetitive cycle runs all the way till today.
    i am probably just too cynic toward chinese culture.

    1. I don’t know whether you’re aware of this Yunyi, but permission from the emperor was required before a clan could build an ancestral hall, so they were seen as elitist by the likes of Mao Zedong, and for this reason many in China were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

      Even though the river may not be as clean as it was in earlier centuries, it still supports a lot of wildlife, because it continues to teem with fish. Definitely a great area for cycling (and I was back there yesterday, exactly one week after my latest accident).


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