Monday, 20 June 2016

the year of the monkey

I’ve been reflecting on my recent sojourn in Hong Kong—unusual events and things I’d never seen or done before. Of course, the biggest impression was made by the weather: the warmest November since records began in the 1880s; the lowest temperature recorded by the Hong Kong Observatory for 59 years (Brrr!); and the longest and most intense El Niño event since 1950.

A major difference with previous years was Paula starting a new job in September at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which meant that she could now cycle to work, a mere 16km in each direction. And I could accompany her before doing a circuit around Ma On Shan (the town not the mountain), which would add a further 16km to the ride. After the first week, it occurred to me that if we left home early enough, Paula could also do this additional 16km, although she did panic the first time because we seemed to be going further and further away from her workplace, and she had forgotten about the second cycle track, which allowed us to complete the circuit.

Then, in November, despite the heat, I set out to improve on my best daily, weekly and monthly mileage totals. Accordingly, on my first ride of the month, having accompanied Paula to work, I set out to do the journey to the west with 50km on the clock before I’d even started. This turned out to be a tough assignment, with the climb over Saddle Pass (30 percent gradient) coming around the 105km mark. However, at 114.7km, it meant that the first target had been reached. I eventually racked up 1341km for the month, improving my weekly total three times in the process.

Unfortunately, the weather turned decidedly grim in December, and I did less cycling in December, January and February combined than I’d done in November. However, for reasons clearly linked to the weather, magpie robins started singing regularly around Christmas—I had heard one as early as 8th December, although they don’t usually start until mid-March—apart from a few days in January when the unexpectedly cold weather shut them up for a few days.

I see monitor lizards quite regularly when I’m out cycling, but sightings of snakes are a comparatively rare occurrence. However, I did see a particularly large one (about 1.5m in length) slithering across the road in front of me once. It was probably a rat snake (a small constrictor), but because I’d misidentified a cobra as this species on a previous occasion (Close Encounters), I wasn’t about to take a closer look. On the subject of nature, I also saw a squirrel on three separate occasions in three widely separated locations—and until I saw the first one, I was unaware that there were squirrels in Hong Kong! I do remember that a few years ago Paula had looked out of the window of our house and shouted “Look! A squirrel”, but that was a mongoose.

Another new experience came when Paula and I attended a wedding banquet in May. At such events, it’s traditional to serve shark’s fin soup, but on this occasion we were served bird’s nest soup, which I’d never tried before. All the other dishes were standard fare for this kind of occasion (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner).

However, easily the most noteworthy experience of the winter came on the second day of Chinese New Year, the year of the monkey. Paula and I were doing the journey to the west; we’d just crossed the expressway and were following the perimeter path around an upmarket housing development shown in the photograph below when we encountered an old man sitting on the ground and an old lady trying, unsuccessfully, to help him to his feet. I estimate that both were in their late 80s. I believe that the old man had lost his balance while attempting to pick up something from the ground, although whether this was a found object or something he’d dropped I am unable to say.

I realized immediately that these people needed help. Paula, who was a short distance behind me, reached the same conclusion, and together we were able to get the old man back on his feet. I believe that any reasonable person would have done the same, so I was surprised to see the old lady press a small red packet into Paula’s hand (see above). It would have been rude to refuse it, but I said immediately that I didn’t want to know what was in it. It would have been money, of course, because the Chinese always give money in red packets at Chinese New Year. This money is regarded as ‘lucky’, and while I don’t believe in such superstitious nonsense, I do wonder if there is a connection between helping two people in dire need and the help that I received on my way home when confronted by a daunting flight of steps while lugging a 25kg suitcase (The Long Haul). That was certainly a huge stroke of luck.


  1. One more adventure that we climbed up a good distance up next to a new MTR station under construction and was stopped at a gate with guards as we explored an alternative path near Ngau Tam Mei

    1. That was definitely an interesting incident, but you didn’t mention that it all happened by mistake. I’d previously explored this road in one direction, but when we tried to follow the same road in the opposite direction, I missed a crucial junction. As a result, we ended up on a long, gruelling hill. I remember taking one look ahead and dropping immediately to the small chainring. I only continued because I thought we might be able to complete a circuit around the valley, but after a long descent, we found our way blocked by a security gate that marked the entrance to a water treatment works. We had to climb back up that long descent!


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