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 the Sheung Yue 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 left 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.


  1. An enlightening post for me Dennis; having only been to Hong Kong airport. I'm sure there would be many like me, who expect something more developed from anything Hong Kong.

    I have to say also, I'm impressed with the level of fitness you've maintained.

    Cheers, ic

    1. There is a lot of Hong Kong that doesn’t fit the stereotype Ian. As for the fitness, I’m just pleased that my knee hasn’t been complaining. My legs felt tired after last Wednesday’s ride, but not after Saturday’s, which included an extra 5km around Kam Tin and an additional 6km to go for yam char at our favourite restaurant after the main ride was over.

  2. Looking forward to the continuation of your journey, Dennis. What is the name of those aromatic white blossoms? Your photos of the countryside, with the trees and little mountains, are really beautiful.

    1. Would you believe it Kris! My Hong Kong Trees reference book is in the UK, but I will find out the answer to your question and let you know. As you’ve already noticed, this is an exceptionally scenic ride, and I like to look around when not required to focus all my attention on the road ahead.

  3. That was a pictorial journey. A lot of those descriptions and pictures are quiet like India. Loved the way you narrate.

    1. I have very little experience of India Umashankar, so it never occurred to me that there might be such similarities as you mention, but given that both India and China are huge countries perhaps it isn’t surprising.

  4. You are a true explorer Dennis. Some of those pathways looked like a nice long ride but some of the others looked like a death trap to me, especially the last couple of photos. I can just see some amateur rider getting themselves into real hot water riding at speed not realising that some of those roads have twists, turns and sudden changes, so it's good that you have years of experience. It's also good to know that you are keeping well fit too.

    Like Helena stated, the scenery looks really beautiful, and the smell of those blossoms must have made your day.

    1. There is certainly potential for serious injury on some parts of the route Rum, and I would say that it isn’t suitable for inexperienced riders. Unfortunately, that won’t stop those with limited skills. On the fitness theme, I have to say how delighted I am with my progress after last year’s unavoidable decline.

      The tree with the white flowers reminds me of the hawthorns back home, although the scent is considerably more powerful. On some parts of the route, there are dozens of these trees.

  5. You might be destined to meet Sam Chu at some point. He is very involved with the Hong Kong Vintage Cycling Club. I met him and rode my old Dahon folding bike with him and his friends for about 25 miles through the NT in March 2011, making our way from Tai Po through Fanling to Sheung Shui before I departed and took the trains back to Wan Chai. I saw elements of HK I never would have seen. I think he also teaches history at one of the colleges. He is very interested in the role the bicycle has played in the historical economic development of Hong Kong.

    1. I might well have encountered your friend already Matteo, but I tend not to stop to talk to other cyclists that I meet, so I wouldn’t really know. The route from Taipo to Fanling is quite an interesting one, and, as you say, there are elements of Hong Kong that you wouldn’t see unless you were cycling around this area.

  6. Not just a pleasant ride through the countryside, this was an adventure! I trust you were riding a sturdy bike. I would have loved to been on that ride with you. I'm betting that many of the folks who saw you on the small rural part of your route were surprised at who they saw. Isn't it rewarding and interesting to get off the main roads?

    These are my favorite types of blog posts. Photo and word tours of places I'll likely never see myself. Thanks for that! Great post...

    1. Sturdy bike Pat? Mine is built like a tank. Nothing fancy; in fact, it was the cheapest bike in the shop, a Raleigh (a long-established British maker) made in China. It has survived three fairly horrendous crashes in the last couple of years, crashes that inflicted a fair amount of damage on me, without so much as a scratch. Incidentally, mention of Raleigh reminds me of a piece of doggerel from my childhood:

      Ride a Raleigh, ride a wreck,
      Ride it into Thacka Beck.

      Thacka Beck is an artificial watercourse that runs through my home town in the UK. It was dug in the fourteenth century to provide the town with a water supply.

      People I meet on the route may be surprised to see a gweilo Pat, but they’re even more surprised when I speak to them in Cantonese!

      ...and getting off the main roads was my chief motivation in finding this route.

    2. Ride a herc
      And brek your neck.

  7. I've only just read this, but what a fascinating insight into such a beautiful country. Reading this makes me want to jump on my own (sadly defunct) bike and ride into the countryside - though whilst the British countryside is certainly marvellous, it cannot compete with rural China.

    But alas, I think I'm just going to read the second part instead.

    1. A beautiful country indeed IC, but sadly blighted by hordes of those quasi-industrial sites I referred to. Still, it’s a lot of fun. Cycling in the British countryside doesn’t require the same level of technical skill that this route does, but you can go faster.


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