Wednesday, 31 January 2018

the heart of darkness

The title of this post may be a recognizable phrase, deriving from the title of the novel by Joseph Conrad, but you may wonder what it can possibly have to do with cycling. Allow me to explain.

For the past few months, whenever I’ve been cycling west of Fanling, I’ve been avoiding the Drainage Services access road along the Sheung Yue River because of construction work—the government is spending millions of dollars here on an entirely pointless cycle track. A couple of months ago, I was idly cycling along Ho Sheung Heung Pai Fung Road, the main road out of the village of Ho Sheung Heung, when I happened to spot an alleyway on my left:

This was completely fortuitous, because on almost every occasion since, there have been two cars parked in front of the entrance, although they don’t actually block access to the alley. Anyway, I’m sure you know the script by now: I wanted to find out whether it led anywhere interesting.

 Within a short distance, the route passes between two large industrial sheds:

As you can see, the passage between the sheds gradually narrows, until the clearance on each side is only about 5cm. It also becomes quite dark, and on a couple of subsequent occasions I’ve had to stop because I couldn’t see the sides. The glare in front was playing havoc with both my sense of balance and my sense of direction!

Paula has told me that this section is so disorienting that she feels anxious cycling across the tiny bridge seen in the next two photos, which is just a few metres beyond the exit from the dark section, despite routinely riding along paths with far greater drops off the edge with no worries whatsoever.

The rest of this short path is straightforward:

The light in the distance marks the end of this alleyway as it emerges onto Ho Sheung Heung Road. Until a couple of weeks ago, I turned left here and cycled along the road to the start of ‘long tall sally’, but that was because I was so focused on traffic that I failed to notice the start of another interesting alley on the far side of the road:

I actually explored this alley originally from the opposite direction, and only because my usual route was blocked by a stationary truck and I wondered whether there was a viable alternative. There is, and I’ll be reporting on this path in due course.

As far as ‘the heart of darkness’ is concerned, it’s easy to avoid by simply following the road, so I do this if it’s sunny and only take on the dark passage when the sky is dull and overcast. The disorientation that one experiences can be almost hallucinatory on bright days.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

fearsome beasts

I was exploring the area between Shatin and Taipo recently when I came across a small temple:

Don’t ask me the name of the village where this temple is located. There is only one sure way to obtain this information, and that is to locate the village’s public toilet, on which the name is always recorded, but so far I haven’t been able to do that. And Google Maps is of no use here—villages are routinely named or located incorrectly on these maps.

The temple itself is not especially noteworthy, but I couldn’t help but notice the beasts standing guard outside. This is usually a job for lions, but less leonine creatures would be hard to imagine. They did resemble dragons though (dragon whiskers, scaly bodies), but these animals had hooves, not claws:

A cross between a dragon and a horse? I’d been pondering this conundrum for several weeks when, two days ago, I happened to notice a pair of similar creatures adorning the entrance arch to the village of Ho Sheung Heung (‘village above the river’), just west of Sheung Shui. I pass under this arch regularly, but always coming towards the camera, and my attention is always on the traffic, so I never paid much attention to anything else.

However, on this occasion I’d doubled back to take another run through the alleyway I call ‘the heart of darkness’, so I couldn’t help but notice the stone creature on the left. I saw that it was another dragon–horse hybrid and therefore stopped to take some photos:

Incidentally, dragons in Chinese mythology do not have wings. There are two ceramic sculptures of dragons facing each other, directly above the village name, in the archway.

I had already been wondering whether there was a specific name for the creatures that I’d seen guarding the temple, so, upon returning home after this second encounter, I did some research. And, guess what? They’re called lungma (Putongua: longma), which, unsurprisingly, translates as ‘dragon horse’!

My research also indicated a mistake I made in an earlier post somewhere on this blog (I cannot find where) regarding the phrase lung ma tsing san (Putonghua: long ma jing shen), which I translated at the time as ‘may you have the health of a dragon or horse’. I’ve been using this salutation every Chinese New Year rather than the more common kung hei fat choi, which is equivalent to wishing someone ‘a prosperous new year’ in English, because if I can choose only one, I’d rather be healthy than wealthy. However, I now know that a better translation of the phrase is ‘may you have the spirit [or vitality] of a dragon horse’.

There is another discussion point relating to this phrase, which Wikipedia describes, I think wrongly, as a ‘four-character idiom’, or chengyu. I’ve written previously about these phrases (The Proverbial Fool; Playing Piano to a Cow), and as far as I’m aware, to qualify as a chengyu, there has to be a back story. The only story that I could find relates solely to the lungma itself and not to its spirit or vitality. Wishing that someone will have this spirit is not how a chengyu works.

However, the lungma does appear to be related to the so-called ‘lo shu square’, which is a 3×3 magic square:

A magic square is one in which the sum of the numbers in every horizontal, vertical and diagonal line is the same, and in one ancient fable, this square was shown to a sage by a lungma, which, if you pause to think about it, belittles the ability of ancient Chinese mathematicians, who had reached the same conclusion as Pythagoras regarding right-angled triangles around the same time as the renowned Greek sage.

We now descend from fanciful to bullshit, because this square is the basis of fung shui (feng shui). I will not go into detail about something I’ve always regarded as irrational nonsense, but you will notice the yinyang monad between the forelegs of the right-hand lungma guarding the entrance to Ho Sheung Heung. The basis of fung shui is the so-called pat gua (ba gua) or eight trigrams, which are arranged in a parody of the lo shu square with the monad in the centre. Thankfully, looking at these fearsome beasts, it’s just as well that they have no more basis in reality than fung shui.

Lung ma tsing san.

Friday, 19 January 2018

fortissimo #2

When Paula sent me the photo on the right in July last year, I knew immediately where it had been taken, even though I’d never visited the location. The deduction wasn’t hard to make. I’d learned of the existence of MacIntosh forts only three months earlier, when Paula and I had decided to explore a road leading off Lin Ma Hang Road. The fort that we discovered there, after a fairly brutal climb, had a sign explaining the history of the forts and the fact that there were seven in all.

I also know that when Paula is cycling by herself, she is more likely than not to choose the frontier road. When we first added this ride to our cycling options in 2013—it had previously been part of the so-called ‘frontier closed area’—it was a simple out-and-back ride with a category 2 climb out of the actual frontier area. However, it didn’t take me long to discover Liu Pok Hill, which is reached by a detour through the village of Liu Pok that is accessed from a turn-off just before the top of the aforementioned climb. At first, this category 1 climb was an optional extra, but nowadays it is an integral (i.e. compulsory) part of the route.

*  *  *

Liu Pok Hill can be seen in profile in the photo below, although it doesn’t show the steepest part of the hill, which is at the bottom (see Cycling Action Photos):

You will notice that the gradient eases off appreciably in the middle of the photo, and from that point to the top one can claim to be ‘cruising’! However, about 5 metres below the summit, there is a turn-off to the right, and I did take a look a couple of years ago to see where it might lead (incidentally, the white sign on the right reads ‘engage first gear’):

I gave up almost immediately, for reasons that I don’t need to explain (see below), but once I’d learned of the existence of the MacIntosh forts, I felt confident that there would be one at the top of this climb. There is!

Incidentally, I haven’t yet got around to revising my hill categorization system. Category 1 was meant to be the hardest, but I’ve since discovered hills that, if I assigned them to category 1, Liu Pok Hill would be in category 4—and that in what used to be a three-category system! The hill I’m about to describe would certainly make a new category 1 at the moment—Paula described it as “bloody hard work”—but who knows what horrors I might yet discover (I do know where to look).

It’s steep from the start, but it really depends for how long this gradient is maintained:

…a bloody long way, as you can see as you round the next bend:

The next photo shows the bend at the top of the section shown in the previous photo:

I like to think that I can push myself, but I do know when I’ve hit a brick wall. The last photo was taken from the point where I realized that I needed to stop. Had I known in advance that the streetlight visible in that photo was the same as the one visible in the next, and that the gradient eases off from that point, I might have tried to keep going.

I do have an excuse though. Prior to my attempt to ride this hill yesterday, I’d been out on the bike only once in the previous two weeks. Following three days of rain and four days when I reckoned that it was too cold for cycling, Paula being unwell meant that we went for walks instead. Then Paula passed her illness on to me, so I’ve been coughing and sneezing, and my nose has been running like a tap for the past few days. So I will wait until I feel right before making another attempt to ride the hill in one go.

And the last part of the climb is certainly much easier:

The steps leading to the fort can be seen in the background of the last photo.

In case anyone is wondering, once I’ve managed to ride this hill without stopping, I’m highly unlikely to do it again. I knew it was going to be a dead end, but if it had been up one side and down the other, like Lau Shui Heung Road, and could thus be incorporated into some kind of circuit, I might feel compelled to do it more often.

see also:

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

gone fishing

When we moved to our present house, on the eastern outskirts of Fanling, in 2008, it didn’t take us long to discover the Drainage Services Department (DSD) maintenance access road running alongside the Ng Tung River—and the notices forbidding access to members of the public However, we soon noticed that nobody paid any attention to these signs! Although access to this road is restricted by a locked gate at each end, there is a gap wide enough for pedestrians and cyclists to pass through:

…and they do, despite the sign:
Drainage Maintenance Access
No Entry
This photo was taken in 2011, and the sign is now illegible!

You will also notice the solar-powered streetlights, which appeared during the summer of 2011. They were funded by the North District Board, which must have had some cash to spare, which, if it didn’t use, would lead to its budget for the following year being cut. That’s how bureaucratic organizations work, but I wonder whether the board bothered to consult the DSD.

A year earlier, there was a classic example of how government departments fail to talk to one another. The DSD may prefer it if members of the public keep off its maintenance access roads, but the Home Affairs Department had other ideas. It had several covered seating areas built, presumably because it recognized the amenity value of the DSD’s access road to joggers, cyclists and casual strollers. Here are two:

There are also three footbridges that cross the river, presumably to provide access via well-marked footpaths from Fanling to houses on the north side of the river. This is the one visible in the first photo above:

Notice the signs on each side of the exit from the bridge. They read the same as the one in the first photo. In other words, you can cross the access road but not turn left or right:

I don’t think anyone even notices these signs nowadays, but there is an activity that has increased in popularity in the last few years that does involve active trespassing: fishing. I took the following two photos in the same place on the last two Sundays of 2017 as I returned from my usual Sunday bike ride. There are three or four of these platforms along the north bank of the river, and I’ve no idea of their intended purpose, but this one is clearly popular with anglers, while one further downstream is often used by operators of radio-controlled model boats.

That this activity involves active trespassing can be seen from the next photo. All these people must have climbed over the locked gate to reach the platform off which they are fishing, and there is a sign like the ones described above with the same exhortation.

There is also a sign that reads
Given that all the anglers I see are local Chinese, I assume that everything they catch is destined for the kitchen. There are certainly a lot of fish in the river, although I believe that most are carp and other species that I would deem inedible. However, this is not a dig at local eating habits. The upper part of the river flows through Fanling’s industrial district, and I took the following photo last weekend during a period of heavy (for the time of year) rain from a footbridge across a section of the river where the flow at this time of year is confined to a winter channel. Although the amount of oil coming down the river is obvious, it is the invisible pollutants—lead, mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals—that are the real worry. Fish if you enjoy the activity—I can think of few activities that are more boring—but you are dicing with death if you eat what you catch.

Friday, 5 January 2018

tunnel vision

The new town of Ma On Shan is located in a narrow coastal strip on the southern coast of Tolo Harbour between the inlets of Sha Tin Hoi and Kei Ling Ha Hoi. The nature of this geography means that there are effectively only two ways for someone riding a bike to enter the town. And only the southern entry point leads from a significant population centre, so unless that cyclist is planning to pass through the town—all the way on cycle tracks—on their way to the Sai Kung Country Park, which is not a course of action that I could recommend, especially at weekends, they wouldn’t see the mural in an underpass close to where the cycle track eventually peters out.

Although Paula and I used to come this way regularly until a few years ago, there was no mural then, but I’ve recently been looking for ways to create the longest possible long-distance bike ride, and my explorations have brought me to the northern end of Ma On Shan.

Like many of the things I come across when exploring the New Territories by bike, I can take no credit for what follows. I just thought that this mural was sufficiently interesting to be brought to the attention of more people.

This is what the underpass looks like when approaching Ma On Shan from the north:

However, as a Westerner I read things from left to right, and most cyclists will arrive for the first time at the left-hand end, so that is the way I’ve decided to present the mural. When approaching from the south, there is a promenade extending several kilometres, although I don’t think there are any facilities for sailing or swimming, any palm trees, or anywhere to sling a hammock:

…but there are many places for children to play, and pet ownership is almost certainly more widespread than it is in Kowloon or on Hong Kong island. The Sai Kung herd of feral cows does stray into the northern outskirts of the town, and I think that this is what is represented by the disembodied yellow face:

I don’t think that the images of buildings in the next photo refer to any real structures—unlike many of the buildings in town, which are instantly recognizable—and I can’t say that I understand the significance of the rose, or the dog on the top of the building on the left:

Before the development of Ma On Shan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the natural vegetation along the coast would have been mangroves. And before we moved to Fanling in 2008, we lived further around the coast to the east, and I could see 20–30 species of butterfly during a 15-minute walk. But I don’t think you would see too many butterflies hereabouts nowadays:

This prancing horse is in the exact centre of the mural, and the ‘greenery’ extending on both sides is artistically unlike anything else here. But there is a reason: Ma On Shan translates as ‘horse saddle mountain’, and the town takes its name from the mountain towering above it (Ma On Shan is the second-highest peak in the New Territories). However, the profile of the ‘greenery’ does not match the profile of the mountain, which is very distinctive.

I love the clouds in the next photo, and of course kite-flying is a popular pastime all over Hong Kong:

In the next photo, the cat is sleeping on the roof of Wu Kai Sha station, the terminus of the Ma On Shan Line, which was opened in 2004. I’m not aware of any church in the area that would be recognizable as such from the outside:

…and there are certainly no windmills hereabouts:

The animal in the next photo is a muntjac or barking deer, which are reputedly common in this area, although I’ve never seen one despite spending a lot of time here in the 1970s. These animals are reputedly very timid, so it wouldn’t be nibbling the grass with someone thrashing a guitar behind them.

And we’re finally out in the countryside, although the girl on the bicycle, clearly a weekender, would be a liability to both herself and others once the cycle track has been left behind.

Monday, 1 January 2018

photographic abstraction #25

A new year, and a new collection of abstract photographs. There are no new motifs this time, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing new. Further details follow each image.

bar code blues

I haven’t used reflections on water since Atlantis from Photographic Abstraction #7. I’ll leave you, the reader, to decide what this is a reflection of.

cold front

I had thought that this was yet another image based on staining on a squatter hut in Hong Kong, but when I checked, it turns out to be an image of lichen on Penrith Castle.

jewels of the nile

I frequently see the most appalling scum on a particular section of the Sheung Yue River, which I presume is caused by industrial premises upstream. The only positive aspect of this environmental vandalism is that it gives me an opportunity to create interesting abstract images. The photo on which Jewels of the Nile is based was taken on the same occasion as the photos for Slime #1 (Photographic Abstraction #11), Slime #2 (#13) and Visions of the Emerald Beyond (#21).

lucky number
Leapfrog is the only photo in this collection to feature a completely new motif, and I’d be surprised if anyone can identify what it is actually a photograph of.
This is what I wrote when describing Leapfrog in Photographic Abstraction #24. I’m not about to reveal the origin of that image, but I will say that Lucky Number employs the same motif. However, this photo was taken in Penrith, while Leapfrog was taken in Fanling. In case you were wondering, the number 8 is lucky in Chinese culture.

rags, no riches

Rags, No Riches comes from the same source that I used for No Way Out (Photographic Abstraction #22). Although there is no overlap between the two images, the only real difference is that I cancelled the colour in the earlier image.

shadow dancing

I cannot work out where I took this photo, but it’s an image of staining on a concrete wall somewhere in the Fanling area.