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 façade? 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.


  1. Are you going to do a post to follow up your comments regarding the military base? Is HK going to retain the 'free' society that it has enjoyed for so long?

    1. I’m not sure what else I could say about the Chinese military presence in Hong Kong Matteo. I don’t think it poses a threat to ‘freedom’ in HK, although of course there are no guarantees. However, the British also maintained an extensive military presence here, and I don’t think anyone ever saw that as a threat.

      Incidentally, my house overlooks another army base (Gallipoli Lines in British times), and my only complaint is that they make a lot of noise.

  2. Very interesting Dennis. Another eye-opener!

    Sounds like a tricky route though, especially with the military. I reckon you may be able to crack North Korea next.

    btw, what a spectacular tree.

    Cheers, ic

    1. I think I’ll give North Korea a miss Ian. I might not get out again.

      Cotton trees are always spectacular, but this year has been exceptional. They are very common around these parts.

  3. Dennis, this is precisely the kind of adventure I'd love. You describe everything so well I feel I'm right there with you. Now I'm looking forward even more than ever for the onset of spring so I can start doing some journeying myself.

    1. “Onset of spring” Marty? We’ve had the mildest winter here I can remember, and spring has been going full throttle for at least six weeks: I heard the first koel on 2nd February, the cotton trees started flowering around the same time, and swallows have been diving about for several weeks. I even saw a few dragonflies a couple of days ago; these are usually one of the last signs of spring to appear.

      If you’re ever in Hong Kong do get in touch. I’m sure we could fix you up with a bike.

  4. You always seem to have so much fun when you venture out to these wonderful areas Dennis. I just love the scenery too. Some places look absolutely spotless and the picture with the bridge using sheet metal as flooring, I can just see an accident waiting to happen (especially if I was on it).

    The cotton tree against the hill and greenery looks absolutely amazing. I love the shocking contrast of deep red all alone surrounded by dark green.

    Yes, I totally agree that you should have a mobile in case of emergencies. Because you're not use to having one yet, my tips are (as I've been caught out myself) is to make sure that it is fully charged before you go out (even if a phone is off most of the time it still loses battery power). Assign any emergency numbers to 'speed dial' - this stops you having to punch in every digit manually as you just press one number for a second or two and it automatically dials the number you require. Keep the mobile personally on you and not in a bag because you could lose it on the way, or if you fall off the bike at least the phone is securely attached to your body and not 5 meters away in a bag.

    Anyway, continue to have a good time and share your experiences with us all. Just had my coffee but I'm going for a second cup now :)

    1. I don’t know if you followed the link about cotton trees Rum, but their unusual feature is that the flowers appear before the leaves! They’re called cotton trees because their seeds are enclosed in large balls of fluff, which local villagers used to use to stuff pillows. The flowers are often harvested, after they crash to the ground, for use in Chinese medicine.

      Thanks for the tips on mobile use. I don’t have pockets, but I do have a good waist belt with room for my camera, wallet, phone and a small first aid kit.

    2. Wow, that is different - flowers before the leaves and I can imagine just how soft their pillows must feel. It also seems like they don't let anything go to waste.
      Ah Dennis, just scrolled back up to see the link about the cotton trees. Since I've already mis-laid a previous link of yours, I will make sure I put this one in my computer to read later, maybe with a nice glass of cool wine.

    3. I think you understand why the sight of a cotton tree provides such an uplift to the spirits Rum.

  5. I enjoyed that. Fun to read and lovely pics.

    1. Thank you Big D. Your reaction is what I hoped for when writing this post.

  6. Loved the red cotton trees and the Hansel-and-Gretel witch house...hard to believe someone can live in such tiny quarters! I'm glad to hear you're carrying a cell phone on these long excursions. I was worried you were going to get in some kind of trouble at the military base, but it sounds as if that all went smoothly. Great post!

    1. If you were impressed by the cotton trees Kris, then just wait for the flame trees. Unfortunately, they don’t flower until June, although they will probably be early this year. This post includes a picture of a small specimen.

      The ‘witch's cottage’ is much larger than it appears in the photo, and what you see is merely a façade, so when passing it on the outward journey you wouldn’t notice anything unusual. I haven’t seen any of its inhabitants, but it would make my day if when I do they’re wearing pointed black hats.

      Carrying a cellphone was an easy choice given how remote some parts of the route are.

  7. I loved the first post and also loved this one! Great photos and interesting information. I was right there with you on every turn of the pedal.
    Is the average Chinese soldier as rigid as the western media presents them to us? Or are they less formal in day to day life?
    The beautiful photo of that awesome Cotton tree made me think about the first post. I went back and looked at the tree with the aromatic white flowers. I'm not very good with tree names, but it kind of looks like Crepe Myrtle.
    One more thing...
    Over here most regular cyclists now carry whistles. When riding through tunnels and going around blind curves, they blow the whistle. Some mountain bike trails actually have a box at both ends of the trail with "loaner" whistles. Pick one up when you start and drop it off at the other end. I won't comment on the potential health issues involved, but I've never "borrowed" one and never will...

    1. I can’t answer your question about Chinese soldiers Pat, because I never see any in off-duty moments, even though my house overlooks another military base, and I often see (and hear) them training. They can be noisy though.

      Thanks for the suggested identity of the white blossoms. I’m still looking for confirmation, but your suggestion does sound right.

      Using a whistle on a bike strikes me as rather odd. I bought the loudest bell in the shop when I started cycling here. I always use it when approaching a blind choke point, but in the incident described above I made the unwarranted assumption that because the way was wide enough for two bikes to pass, its use would not be necessary. The main problem with cyclists in large groups is that they tend to ignore bells anyway, so they can be difficult to overtake as they block the entire road. And it’s a sure bet that they would ignore a whistle, even if they knew what it signified.


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