Friday, 25 October 2013

the hill

…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.
When we moved to Fanling in 2008, we quickly discovered that the only place north of Sheung Shui—the last station before the border—where it was possible to cross the main railway line safely on a bike came with a vicious little hill on the far side of the tunnel under the tracks that wasn’t visible until the last minute. On my first attempt, I came out of the tunnel, turned the right-angle corner and probably didn’t even get my back wheel onto the slope before grinding to a premature halt. I therefore concluded that it was impossible, although at the time we weren’t doing any cycling in that direction, and it was only in the autumn of 2012 that I started exploring ‘across the tracks’.

On these explorations, I dismounted while still in the tunnel and pushed my bike up the ramp, which although short is very steep. However, earlier this year, I was with Paula, and as I reached the top of the ramp I turned round to see her hit the bottom and keep on going. This won’t do, I thought. My wife can do something that I can’t, and I need to do something about that.

Well, it took seven attempts before I finally succeeded, although I did make it halfway on one occasion, and one failure was occasioned by the appearance of a cyclist at the top of the ramp, who hadn’t checked that the ramp was clear before starting down. Another couple of failures, then I not only succeeded for the second time but also found it easy!

The obvious next step seemed to be to go there with the express intention of practising, which I did (it’s only about 4km from our house). I immediately registered my third success, again finding it easy. However, I should have remembered that the gods punish hubris. I succeeded only in making a complete pig’s ear of my next two attempts and went home thoroughly demoralized.

Shortly thereafter, the rainy season started, and a semi-permanent pool of water on the floor of the tunnel that is impossible to avoid meant that I couldn’t get any traction on the slope with wet tyres. The state of play when I left for the UK in May was thus three for sixteen, an 18.75 percent success rate, which is fairly dismal, I think everyone will agree.

The incline starts immediately and requires precise control for there to be any chance of success.

When I came back to Hong Kong earlier this month, I expected the tunnel to still be wet, so perhaps I wasn’t properly psyched up, but whatever excuses I might put forward cannot disguise the fact that both my first two attempts were utterly pathetic. However, I’ve since been successful in four out of five attempts, and I think I now have a method. It’s a method that probably won’t guarantee success on every occasion, but if I can maintain a success rate of 70–80 percent then I will consider that satisfactory.

I would expect even so redoubtable a cyclist as Sir Bradley Wiggins to fail on this from time to time, given that the margin for error is extremely small, although I would expect him to better my success ratio. Mind you, I wouldn’t allow him one of those multi-thousand-dollar lightweight bikes that most of the recreational cyclists in Hong Kong ride. He can borrow mine, which is built like a tank and is almost as heavy.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

too much monkey business

I don’t pay a lot of attention to football, but I couldn’t fail to notice the furore that erupted over England manager Roy Hodgson’s (no relation) half-time team talk in a must-win World Cup qualifier against Poland, during which he is alleged to have told a ‘racist’ joke as a way of making a particular point, that the rest of the team needed to get the ball to winger Andros Townsend more often. Townsend happens to be black.

That this was essentially a non-story can be gauged by the reaction of the Guardian, a newspaper that is usually quick to pounce on the politically incorrect. It printed the joke in full:
NASA decides that it will finally send a man up in a capsule after sending only monkeys on earlier missions. It fires the man and the monkey into space.
The intercom crackles: ‘Monkey, fire the retros.’ A little later: ‘Monkey, check the solid fuel supply.’ Later still: ‘Monkey, check the life support systems for the man.’
The astronaut takes umbrage and radios NASA: ‘When do I get to do something?’ NASA replies: ‘In 15 minutes, feed the monkey.’
Yes, I know, it isn’t a particularly funny joke, but apparently Townsend wasn’t offended. In fact, he saw it as a compliment that the manager thought it important that he got the ball as often as possible.

The problem is that for some people, mentioning black people and monkeys in the same sentence is ipso facto a racial slur. However, after talking to all members of the England team, the Football Association (FA), Hodgson’s employer, decided that no action need be taken. The matter was, effectively, closed.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t good enough for Peter Herbert, head of the Society of Black Lawyers, who sent a four-page letter of complaint to the FA demanding that Hodgson be made to attend a ‘race appreciation’ training course and stating that the FA was wrong to declare the matter closed.

It should not escape notice that in order to be a member of Mr Herbert’s organization, it is necessary not only to be a lawyer but also to be black. Imagine the outcry if a similar organization were to be set up with membership restricted to white people. Mr Herbert needs to shut up. He should remember that you don’t have to be white to be a racist.

Friday, 18 October 2013

rigor mortis

Between 1974 and 1976, I spent almost all my free time exploring the ‘miles and miles of unclimbed sea cliffs’ that had lured me to Hong Kong (the quoted phrase formed part of a job advert for instructors at the local Outward Bound school). Most of this exploration was carried out with a colleague at the school, Keith Hazelaar, and we soon discovered that most cliffs were composed of loose, rotten, dangerous rubbish. This is because at the latitude of Hong Kong, chemical weathering predominates (mechanical weathering, which is the dominant type of erosion in more temperate latitudes, tends to produce cliffs that are more solid and more stable).

However, we did find some exciting climbs, and this is the story of one of them.

The island of Wang Chau is one of a group of four islands in the east of Hong Kong that forms part of the territory’s National Geopark (so designated in 2009). As an instructor at Outward Bound, I had had a chance, from the deck of the school’s motor launch, to reconnoitre possible climbing opportunities along the entire east coast of the Sai Kung peninsula. Most of these had been accessible overland, but in order to climb on Wang Chau, we would need logistical backup.

In March 1976, I persuaded one of the school’s seamanship instructors to give us a ‘lift’ to Wang Chau. This could be only an exploratory visit, to see if climbing there was even possible, and the section of the island we chose to investigate more closely is shown on the map above, on which the red asterisk marks the approximate position of the section of coastline shown in the following photograph.

The most obvious line is the huge chimney on the left of the photo, which we climbed on a subsequent visit, but I was immediately attracted to the slanting corner in the centre of the picture. It certainly didn’t look easy, but it did look possible.

The first problem was getting from the rescue inflatable onto dry land, although on this occasion it was easier than it usually is, given that out to the right of the photo it’s next stop America, and a big swell is usually running. We quickly scrambled up 6–7 metres to the top of a projecting beak of rock, which we immediately christened ‘the pulpit’ and where we could contemplate the corner at closer range.

There is a huge difference between consulting a guidebook, which provides a description and a grade of difficulty for any intended climb, and tackling a route that may turn out to be impossible. The eventual difficulty can only be guessed at in advance. However, the first few feet looked straightforward enough, as illustrated by the photo on the right, which was taken by Keith with a miniature camera that we used on such occasions.

The delusion that this might turn out to be easier than we’d originally anticipated lasted only as far as the first overhang, which I overcame by stepping up to the left then back right above the overhang. Retreat would now be more difficult, and the last move was only the start of the serious difficulties. The next photo, taken by our seaman colleague from the school’s inflatable, merely hints at just how difficult this section turned out to be.

Almost 40 years on, I can remember few details, except that upward movement became more and more difficult, until I reached the position shown in the photo, at which point I became stuck. I couldn’t work out what to do next, and I spent 45 minutes in that one position. Finally, by a series of precarious balance moves, I was able to reach the point shown in the next photo.

Although I had clearly overcome the crux of the climb, progress still wasn’t easy, and yet another problem began to impress itself on my mind. We were using 45-metre ropes, and on a long runout it’s customary for the second to shout out estimates of how much rope is left when it looks to be running out. I reached a suitable ledge with less than two metres to spare. The rest of the climb was easy.

I’ve written before of how it is the prerogative of the first climber to do a route to assign a name to that route. So what should I call it? I may not have felt that rigor mortis was about to set in after spending three-quarters of an hour in the same position, unable to move, but Rigor Mortis seemed an appropriate name nevertheless. We assigned a grade of extremely severe (E1), with a technical grade of 5c, and it is a fair bet that it has never been repeated.

There is a reason for that. In the 1990s, two expats put together a guidebook to climbing in Hong Kong, and several local climbers told them that they should speak to me. They never did, so to this day very few of the dozens of new climbs that I pioneered between 1974 and 1989 are known about. This one is certainly worth a visit. It wasn’t the best of the climbs that Keith and I did together—that was Nightmare, which is another story entirely.

Monday, 14 October 2013

the new frontier

I had planned to get out on my bike on Saturday, but I drank too much gin on my way back to Hong Kong the previous day to be in a fit state to do anything other than go to our local restaurant for yam char. However, Monday was a public holiday, and Paula mentioned that during the summer, the government had relaxed the access restrictions on what had formerly been the ‘closed area’, a buffer zone running along the frontier between Hong Kong and the rest of China that had been established by the British to deter illegal immigrants. Why not take a look around?

We didn’t get off to an auspicious start. I made a pig’s ear of the ramp that forms part of the crossing under the railway (Across the Tracks) and received a severe whack on the shin from a pedal as reward for my incompetence. Paula gave up without really trying, possibly because she’d heard my cry of pain. Once we’d crossed the Shum Chun River, we turned right at the point where Journey to the West turns left, and we soon found ourselves in an extensive area of farmland:

After a few kilometres, we passed a sign by the roadside. Having been out of Hong Kong for almost five months, my brain wasn’t programmed to read Chinese immediately, and Paula said nothing, but some 20–30 metres further down the road, it suddenly dawned on me what it said: “ice-cold soft drinks”.

Naturally, I developed a sudden thirst, so we turned back.

Stores like this are common in the New Territories, but this one had a couple of unusual features. The first was the pig, which, incredibly, turned out to be a family pet, although it didn’t have a name, unless Chu Tsai (‘Little Pig’) counts.

Behind the store, a small lagoon was being used to cultivate lotus, the roots of which are widely used in Cantonese cooking. Incidentally, in the end I didn’t fancy a soft drink and chose a can of cold beer instead.

Moving on, we could see what appeared to be an important building across the fields to our left. Possibly some kind of ancestral hall, I thought, although it didn’t seem to be in a particularly good state of repair. A closer approach confirmed my initial impression.

I would like to think that the Hong Kong government can find the money and skilled craftsmen to restore this building. It should not be allowed to decay further. We didn’t venture any further on this initial foray, because we had reached a busy road that I deemed unsuitable for cycling, but you can be sure that we’ll be back. Soon.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

out of order

Long-distance air travel cannot be described as a pleasant experience, unless, that is, you have the wherewithal to travel first class. The cramped conditions at the back of the plane are to be endured, not enjoyed. I have several strategies for mitigating the tedium of spending hour after hour in such an uncomfortable environment, one of which is the consumption of rather more alcohol than the medical profession deems is good for me.

A second is to listen to my own music selections. In-flight entertainment has improved in recent years, but bringing my own guarantees that I will like everything I hear. However, flying is the only time I listen to my MP3 player. I would not, for example, listen to music while cycling; I may not actually wish to see someone splattered by a speeding car that they hadn’t heard approaching, but it is hard to imagine any freely chosen action that is more dangerous, and thus more stupid. Cycling blindfold might qualify.

A third stratagem is the solving or devising of some complex and devious puzzle. On my recent journey from Manchester to Hong Kong, I devised the following puzzle, which I present now for your delectation (or annoyance):
What do the following seven words have in common, bearing in mind that it isn’t possible to add any more words to the list, and that each word is in the wrong position in the sequence?

wildflower • melancholy • communist • dye • cowardly • fruit • inexperienced?
As usual, I have no idea whether this is hard or easy, but I’d like to think that it presents an interesting challenge. If you spot the connection, you will have no problem arranging the words in the correct order.

This will be the last puzzle for a while. Normal service will now resume, although I’m not sure what I will be writing about next. Stay tuned to find out.

spoiler alert
The correct solution has been submitted below.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

what’s the connection?

I will shortly be heading off back to Hong Kong, and as a result I will be offline for the next few days. As I often do on these occasions, I offer a devious and convoluted puzzle for interested readers to fret over. Actually, I think that this one is easier than A Hard Question, which provides more information about the background of such questions, although it’s difficult for me to make that assessment, given that I devised both puzzles in the first place. So, without further ado, I pose the following question:
What connects the following?
• a London theatre;
• a standard American coin;
• a Roman god;
• a domestic electrical appliance; and
• a police officer.
Of course, you’re not looking for just any London theatre, coin, etc., but if you choose the right ones, the connection should be obvious. You should bear in mind that each of the five ‘answers’ is different (see comment by Rob K. below). If you think you have the answer, you can post it in a comment. If you are correct, I will acknowledge that fact immediately, but I will not post your comment until the end of the month, so that later readers can also try to answer the question.

spoiler alert
The correct solution has been submitted below.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

photographic abstraction #8

With this latest collection of abstract photographs, I find that I’ve nothing new to say. Although when I started this series the only manipulation of the original photos was a small amount of cropping, I’ve subsequently discovered that by increasing the colour saturation, altering the tonal balance and cranking up the contrast, I can also increase the dramatic impact of the images.

As usual, I welcome suggestions for alternative titles, and if you prefer not to see what names I’ve given the pictures, click on the first one to start a slideshow, which conceals my titles. I’m also interested in hearing what you think these are actually photographs of, because the original subject matter isn’t always obvious. In this collection, Blooming is probably the most difficult to identify.

other posts in this series
Photographic Abstraction
Photographic Abstraction #2
Photographic Abstraction #3
Photographic Abstraction #4
Photographic Abstraction #5
Photographic Abstraction #6
Photographic Abstraction #7




hot pursuit