Tuesday, 24 December 2013

journey to the west: part 4

In Part 3 of what is slowly becoming the modern equivalent of a Norse saga, I wrote about some alterations to the original ‘journey to the west’ that made the outing more interesting, and although in that post I suggested that I was satisfied with the revised version of the route, I’ve since made further improvements, which I describe here.

By far the most technically challenging section of the route we now follow is a series of footpaths through an area that is still farmed, which I discovered as part of my attempts to bypass the PLA barracks described in Part 2, but first I will chronicle my efforts to improve that section of the route that is furthest from home.

The original route followed a dedicated cycle track alongside what is marked on the map as Kam Tin Road and the Kam Tin bypass, but extensive excavations by one of the local utility companies that are unlikely to be completed anytime soon have made this section tedious to follow, and there was a pressing need for a more interesting alternative.

The first option I tried was a Drainage Services Department (DSD) access road along the southwest bank of the Kam Tin River. A similar road along the northeast bank forms part of the return journey and links easily to the main highway where that road crosses the river. However, when I followed a turning down a road that I thought would lead to the DSD access road, I was immediately set upon by a pack of dogs that was guarding a quasi-industrial unit, one of the many scattered across the northern New Territories.

I encounter scores of dogs on my meanderings, and I imagine that all of them perform some kind of security function, but the vast majority seem put out to be disturbed by a passing cyclist and would prefer to go back to what they were doing before I came along, sleeping in other words. The occasional hound will bark or even snarl at me from behind the security of a wire-mesh fence, but attacks are uncommon.

I have a standard procedure when attacked by a dog on my travels: I get away as quickly as possible. However, once I’m satisfied that I’m no longer being pursued, I turn around and ride straight at my attacker. The dog soon realizes that it is being targeted and tries to get away, but I keep after it until it is pissing itself, involuntarily, in fright. That dog never attacks me again, although it might still bark when I pass that way in future, just as long as there is a fence between us. I’ve had to deal with two dogs in this way on this particular route.

However, having half a dozen dogs go for me at once called for a slight modification in my tactics. Although my standard procedure may seem brutal, I never actually make contact with the dog. My sole purpose is to demonstrate that attacking me isn’t a good idea, but when I’m facing half a dozen sizeable dogs intent on taking lumps out of my ankles, the no-contact rule goes out of the window, especially given that the brutes had me cornered in what had turned out to be a cul-de-sac. Obviously, I will not be passing that way again, but I did ensure that I escaped with my ankles intact, while most of my attackers will have been nursing minor injuries for a day or two thereafter.

The road I was trying to reach isn’t accessible, as it turns out, but I had better luck with my next try, which was to follow a series of roads and dirt tracks some distance from the northeast bank of the river. There is only one flaw with this option: the ‘rocky road’:

As you can see from the photograph, the ‘rocky road’ is not a conventional dirt track; it consists of large, angular pieces of volcanic rock, and although it is no more than 120–150 metres long, it is exceptionally tedious to ride over. So you can imagine what I often do when riding the ‘rocky road’: that’s right, I scream. For the record, I promise that I will not be slipping in any more teeth-grindingly atrocious puns, so you can continue to read, safe in the knowledge that I’m not trying to outdo I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

I have since found an alternative that avoids the ‘rocky road’, but it carries far too much construction traffic for my liking. It seems bizarre to see a cluster of massive tower cranes in the midst of what was until recently open countryside, but this is where Hong Kong’s connection to China’s high-speed rail network will pass in a few years.

Once back onto a proper road, I soon had to decide whether to turn left or right. I chose to turn right, mainly because that would bring me back towards the river. However, this option took me through a concentration of modern village houses, a kind of suburban sprawl in which there is no technical difficulty to make it interesting, and the traffic, although it is constrained by regular speed bumps and is not heavy, and the prevalence of pedestrians, make it impossible to rattle along at a decent speed.

On my next ride out west, I therefore decided to turn left, and I was quickly faced with another left/right choice. The left-hand option turned out to be a dead end, albeit an interesting one, and I include the following photo of what I met before I was forced to turn back.

There were others of his ilk in the undergrowth behind him, but I would have had to climb a barbed-wire fence in order to photograph them, so I left them to it.

After following the right-hand option for several hundred metres, I came to a section that took me completely by surprise: a ‘yellow brick road’:

It is a very pale shade of yellow, admittedly, but it is made out of bricks. It doesn’t lead to Oz though. In fact, it leads to an extensive open, grassy area with many small hillocks that reminds me of the kind of heathland one often finds in northern Europe. This isn’t a formal cemetery, but there are many graves and clusters of bone jars, and the ‘yellow brick road’ may once have been some kind of formal ‘avenue of the dead’. It is certainly another dead end, or so it seems, although a rough, sandy track continues for a couple of hundred metres from the end of the bricks. Such a road will have been expensive to construct, but the local villages will have been sufficiently prosperous if the existence of at least two ancestral halls and three study halls in the fertile valley below are anything to go by.

This track, which leads around the corner to the left in the following photograph, is the obvious way to go, but it doesn’t lead anywhere else, and I was beginning to think that I would need to give up entirely on this line of enquiry when I spotted a man emerging from the bushes about 30 metres away. When I checked, I discovered a very rough track, almost invisible among the undergrowth (and not easy to spot in the photo). It was my only option, so it had to be worth a try:

Fortunately, the going soon improved, and I found myself riding along a crunchy gravel track running between two fields that were obviously used for various sporting activities. And it wasn’t long before I reached a typical concrete country footpath:

This led almost immediately to a T-junction with a wider than usual concrete path, and by turning left I gave myself the chance to extend the overall route, although I had no idea where it might lead:

Almost immediately, I faced another decision:

I chose the right-hand option the first time I came this way, but out of curiosity I have since checked out the left-hand path. It comes quickly to a dead end. Incidentally, I’m not an expert on Chinese superstitions, but the white-splashed rock on the left, with the red cup in front containing spent joss sticks, suggests to me that the locals may regard this fork in the road as being haunted by evil spirits, although Paula thinks that it’s a grave.

Disconcertingly, the path narrowed and began to meander about, and the condition of the concrete became rougher and more broken. I began to wonder if I was heading inexorably down another blind alley:

However, the condition of the path never deteriorated to anything like that of the ‘link path’ described in Part 1 and turned out to be one of the most enjoyable sections of the entire route, although on paths this narrow it isn’t possible to relax completely. And I still had no idea where I might end up:

Eventually, I spotted a van parked in a fenced-off enclosure ahead and realized that I must be approaching a road. What’s more, when I reached it, I recognized the road as one I’d already checked out when following the route described above through the cluster of modern houses. This is the same road that marked the turning point on the original route, with the return down the northern bank of one of two tributaries of the Kam Tin River.

Instead of making the turn here, however, I’d followed this road to see whether it might be possible to extend the route further upstream. There was a DSD access road along the southern bank, but it was a one-way road, and although in Part 2 I described ignoring such restrictions on the access roads around Fairview Park, mainly because they weren’t accessible to motor traffic, here the access road is frequently used as a rat run by local drivers heading west who are seeking to avoid the traffic on the Kam Tin bypass and is therefore intrinsically dangerous for cyclists. However, I have found a way to reach this road and ride down it in the correct direction, which is much less hazardous because I can then dictate when a vehicle behind gets to overtake.

avoiding the army base
In Part 2 of this story, I related my first contact with the sentries at San Tin Barracks, how everything seemed robotic and impersonal, but two weeks ago, when I said “ni hau” (‘hello’) to the soldier who marched up to take my ID card for recording, he said “ni hau” in return. Then, when he returned my ID card and I said “hsieh hsieh” (‘thank you’), he said “you’re welcome”. Leaving aside the observation that this interchange exhausted my entire stock of Putonghua phrases, it was by far the nearest I’d come to any kind of personal interaction with the PLA soldiery.

However, the following Saturday was in marked contrast. For the first time ever, I was subjected to a metal-detector scan (as was Paula), and needless to say the scanner went ‘beep!’ (twice) on me. Nothing was done, though, but Paula was worried that I might get into difficulty if I tried to pass through the barracks on my own, given my severely limited language skills, although the only question I was asked on this occasion was to ascertain whether we were together. Consequently, on my next ride out west, I set about the task of finding a way to bypass the barracks. I succeeded, but not before I’d investigated more than a dozen promising leads that led only to yet another dead end.

The map below shows the details. The red dots mark the line of the original route, while the blue dots mark the route I found that avoids San Tin Barracks. The line of red dots towards the eastern side of the map that do not follow a road indicate the approximate position of the ‘link path’ described in Part 1, while the line of blue dots to the north mark the line of the alternative detailed in Part 3.

You might expect the point where the two routes rejoin in the southwestern corner of the map to be obvious, but there is a huge pile of used car tyres and other junk that partially obscures the alternative route, so whenever I passed this way on the original route, I automatically assumed that it was a dirt track leading to more of the ubiquitous quasi-industrial units. It was only when I explored this option from the northern end that I discovered it is in fact a good metalled road.

The hardest part of this section is an area of farmland around the prominent stream at the top of the map, which I originally explored when travelling from east to west. There is an extensive network of paths separating lotus ponds, fields of vegetables and even tents in which flowers are being grown commercially. I followed all of the paths that looked like they might lead somewhere—the clue was the streetlights—but every single one led nowhere. I was on the point of giving up when I spotted a path that snaked away down the side of a prominent stream, and I could reach it easily.

As can be seen from the photos below, it was the not very obvious paths that provided the key to the maze, and on my return journey I had no trouble finding my way through. On reflection, it seemed a pity to cut out the trip through the barracks completely, if only because the interactions with the PLA’s soldiers do provide a few talking points. I would suggest, for example, that none of the sentries I’ve dealt with would be served drink in a British pub—most of them look as though they should still be in school—and I wonder whether they are conscripts or have enlisted. And then there is the small matter that by taking the bypass westbound I’d also be avoiding a tough category 2 hill, so the standard route now includes the barracks through route westbound and the bypass on the return journey.

It’s worth taking a close look at this bypass route, because the difficulties involve more than mere route-finding. The road is straightforward, but it gets more interesting when the expressway is reached. When I showed the route to Paula, she was flabbergasted to see me cycle up one access ramp to the footbridge, only to then cycle down the other ramp without crossing the bridge, but this is the only way to reach the start of the ‘snake path’. The following photograph looks down from the footbridge to the start of this path, and the first of no less than six dodgy bridges that need to be crossed. This one involves a tight turn both onto and off the bridge, with nothing to stop you going over the edge if your close control isn’t up to scratch.

The next photo was also taken from the footbridge. The red arrow shows l’arête de mort, which is a very narrow ridge of concrete with a drop on both sides. The usable width is only about 40–50cm, and the surface is distinctly lumpy, so any lapse of concentration is likely to have dire consequences. The second photo is a view of the same section taken from ground level, with the next dodgy bridge in the foreground.

After 200 metres or so, the farmland is reached. The third dodgy bridge is the only one of the six to be constructed of wood, so its structural soundness cannot be guaranteed. The route then crosses the stream via the bridge in the middle distance, recrosses the stream after another 20 metres and passes to the right of the white house.

Shortly after rounding the white house, a sharp left turn leads onto this path:

The route then follows the far bank of the lotus pond on the right, and as the next photo shows, it is far from obvious:

It really does go through these trees:

This path looks wide, but the right-hand side has sunk quite considerably and looks as if it is about to subside completely into the pond:

There are no further difficulties, and the route soon emerges onto a road. Whenever we do this route, once we’ve made it home and had a cold beer, we treat ourselves to tea at Sun Ming Yuen Restaurant, which is only a couple of minutes walk from Fanling railway station (but an extra 7km round trip from our home). During the week, I take advantage of the restaurant’s dim sum combination basket, which is an excellent choice for anyone who is on their own:

update: 26/12/2015
When we did the journey to the west for the first time after I returned to Hong Kong in October, we included the ‘snake path’ as usual, and one of the farmers said “Long time, no see” to Paula. He’d always been quite friendly. However, he also said that other cyclists had been coming through on Sundays, and judging by the measures being taken to block parts of the path, I suspect that these cyclists have been making a nuisance of themselves, possibly by turning up in large numbers.

Although I did the journey to the west eleven times in November, I was slow to realize that the path shown in the sixth photo in the sequence above on the snake path was being blocked deliberately, mainly by barrows but also with enamel basins filled with sawdust, which were set alight and allowed to smoulder. I somewhat naively thought that he was trying to create some fertilizer for his crops, but in retrospect it was clearly an attempt to discourage people from passing through.

Anyway, we’ve decided to omit the snake path in future, even though such an omission will diminish the overall quality of the ride. And even though the first dodgy bridge has been replaced, so the exit is now considerably harder than it had been (I failed miserably on my first attempt, just made it on my second, and worked out how to do it only on my third) and thus more interesting. In fact, the snake path is the most tense section of the entire route, with the likelihood that you will hurt yourself if you misjudge any of the turns.

The following photo is of that new first dodgy bridge. The route comes in from the bottom left before turning onto the bridge. There is a 10–12cm drop off the far end of the bridge, ameliorated by a concrete ramp, and the secret is to start the turn before exiting the bridge. Note that it is no longer possible to disappear over the side of the bridge and into the stream below.

Another change to the snake path, which I mentioned in Outrageous, has been the construction of a large bridge across the stream to link two quasi-industrial sites. This completely blocks the second dodgy bridge, but up and down ramps have been provided. There is just one small problem: the down ramp debouches directly onto the ‘ridge of death’. The new bridge across the stream can be seen in the following photo:


  1. Ha, ha ha. I like the first part of your 'standard dog procedure' Dennis, but the second part is too much for me, just in case something goes badly wrong in the chase. And it's a good idea to not pass that way again. I wouldn't for sure.

    Wow, the first picture is a real rocky road and I can't imagine you screaming, ha ha ha. You have to have good tyre's or be a professional at fixing them should anything happen.

    Now, the second photo would have had me running like the clappers. I could just see myself being picked up and flung around as if I was in a bull-ring. No way mate.

    I think it best that you also bypass the barracks bleeps. I really don't fancy seeing you on our news due to limited language skills. Some countries don't mess about when those bleeps go off.

    Oh my days. I would not cross that footbridge even if you paid me. I know I'd end up having to call out the coast-guard. My focus would be not to fall in, which would lead me to fall in, if you know what I mean. And did I hear you say one of the dodgy bridges is constructed of wood? Lord have mercy.

    After reading this post, I know I'll need more than a cold beer with a dim sum combination basked!

    What a great read Dennis.

    1. The ‘rocky road’ remains something that I’m trying to find a way around Rum, although it’s uncomfortable rather than difficult. Don’t worry about the bull: it looked fairly harmless to me, although I didn’t get closer than I needed to get a decent photo.

      As for avoiding the army barracks: our new routine restricts the ‘journey’ to Saturdays, when Paula comes along, and we can compare impressions of how friendly the individual sentry is. Meanwhile, I now do the ‘long and winding road’ combined with the ‘frontier road’ during the week. I'll be reporting on this route in due course.

      By the way, Paula didn’t like the route via the dodgy bridges on first acquaintance, but she’s getting used to it now. A good test of bike-handling skills.


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