Monday, 25 February 2019

the frontier road mystery

The quiet country road that we refer to informally as ‘the frontier road’ runs between Fai King Road in the east and Ha Wan Tsuen East Road in the west. All three of these roads were part of the so-called ‘frontier closed area’ until 2013 but have since become popular with recreational cyclists. Last week was probably the first time—other than as a result of illness, injury or absence from Hong Kong—that I hadn’t cycled along it since our first visit back in 2013. Unfortunately, despite all my attempts to inform Google Maps of the error, the legend ‘closed area’ still appears on their maps:

The frontier road, as defined above, starts at the turn-off to the village of Liu Pok and ends at the red circle in the bottom, left-hand corner of the map. The green circle marks the position of a ‘police operational base’, the only practical consequence of which is that approximately half of the traffic west of the base is police vehicles.

The entire road when we first came this way was single-track, with occasional passing places:

Given how light the traffic still is, this has never been a problem. The occasional truck driver, heading to the fish ponds between the road and the border itself, is invariably considerate towards cyclists:

The truck is waiting in the entrance to the police operational base.

The road west of the base is much wider, so it is possible for smaller motor vehicles travelling in opposite directions to pass without either having to stop or slow down. However, a couple of years ago, the road was resurfaced, and a continuous concrete ‘kerb’ was constructed along the southern edge. I don’t recall ever experiencing any disruption, so it’s likely that a lot of this work was carried out while I was in the UK over the summer.

This is what the descent from the entrance to the police base looked like last year:

In case you’re wondering why I’m so far over to the right in the second image, it’s so that I can see whether anything is coming in the opposite direction.

The next still, from a video that I shot last winter, is exhibit #1 in the mystery that I’m about to describe:

At the time, the only road markings were a continuous white line along both sides of the road and the admonition ‘SLOW’ (in English and Chinese) where someone in authority had decided that such advice was necessary. Incidentally, I estimate that the average distance between such warnings on this road is less than 30 metres!

Now look at a recent photo of the same position:

A short section of the concrete kerb has been removed, and the road has been widened slightly. Some lines have been painted on the road itself.

And this is the mystery. As a former British colony, Hong Kong continues to follow British traffic regulations and road signs. However, I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere in Britain, so I can offer only conjecture as to its intended meaning. This is what it looks like if you’re heading east:

…while this is another view of what it looks like if you’re driving west:

It seems to me that traffic going east is expected to give way to traffic coming towards it. But why would it, given that the road is wide enough for both vehicles anyway? And why not use conventional give-way markings if that is the intention?

You probably won’t want to hear my answer to this conundrum, especially if you’re a local cyclist who often comes this way. The widening of the westbound ‘lane’ implies an expectation that wider vehicles will be using this road in the future. And work started recently on the construction of a ‘science park’—a joint venture between Hong Kong and Shenzhen—in the so-called ‘Lok Ma Chau loop’, an incised meander in the local river. There is now a constant stream of eight-wheel tipper trucks along Ha Wan Tsuen East Road, bringing in materials, which means that Paula and I no longer cycle that way because these behemoths take up the entire road.

A few weeks ago, I was forced off the main frontier road by these big trucks twice within a few days, at the locations shown in the following video stills:

Both locations are east of the police operational base, where the road is much narrower. In the first image, I was cycling in the direction of the video, and I realized immediately that I had to get out of the way. At the second location, I was travelling towards the camera, but the result was the same.

I don’t know for certain what these trucks are transporting, but it does seem likely that they are bringing in materials, such as sand and gravel, for use on the construction site rather than taking away unwanted material such as soil. This isn’t necessarily important, but the key point to make is that the trucks that forced me off the road could have reached the construction site by following the main roads. Most obviously do, given the sheer number entering and leaving the construction site, but if the long-term plan is to allow trucks to use the frontier road, which the recent alterations to this road suggest, then the frontier road becomes a no-go area for cyclists.

Fortunately, there are some grounds for optimism. My two encounters with big tipper trucks happened several weeks ago, and although I’ve been alert to the possibility that it might happen again, it hasn’t. I wonder whether police vehicles have stopped the drivers trying to use the frontier road as a rat run—common behaviour in Hong Kong—and told them to stick to the main roads. Unfortunately, the mysterious road markings suggest a different interpretation.

Friday, 22 February 2019

crossing the rubicon

When, in 49 BC, Julius Cæsar led the XIIIth Legion across a small river in northeast Italy, he was committing a capital offence, because only consuls and prætors had the authority to command troops south of the river, and Cæsar was a mere provincial governor. This is the origin of the phrase ‘to cross the Rubicon’—the name of the river in question—which roughly translates as ‘to pass the point of no return’. Cæsar gambled that any possible resistance to his move would evaporate once his intentions had become clear. He was right! He became dictator for life, although he obviously didn’t foresee an encounter with a man who had ‘a lean and hungry look’ a few short years later.

This diversion into the history of the republic of Rome does have a point: I’ve decided to call my most recently developed cycling segment ‘crossing the rubicon’. The reason for this name will be explained in due course, but I will say that this is one of the best I’ve discovered to date. It is located 2–3km east of Fanling and is now an integral part of ‘the final frontier’.

I originally worked out ‘crossing the rubicon’ in December, when, because of a mystery injury, I wasn’t able to do any cycling but I could still walk. I cycled it for the first time just last week—and I was not disappointed! This is what it looks like:

The first photo shows the road junction where the original ‘final frontier’ turned left:

I did think I’d checked that continuing straight on here led to a dead end, but I must have missed something:

The previous photo was taken 30–40 metres past the junction, and it seems obvious that the right-hand option here leads into a private industrial yard (notice the guard dog on the right; a second is also fast asleep behind the parked car):

Yes it does, but if you keep going (to the left of the white truck):

At this point, I should probably confess that the reason I know there is an alleyway next to the lamp-post is that I originally explored this (on foot) in the opposite direction. This is the start of that alleyway:

And this is why the point of no return starts precisely at the start of the alleyway:

The height of this drop ranges from 20cm on the right to 25cm on the left, which would make it extremely difficult to bump up, because the approach is uphill, although you can always get off and push. Unless you’re me, that is. The drop is hard enough to control if you’re going in the downhill direction!

The next few turns are straightforward:

…and we’ve now reached the river:

It isn’t the Rubicon, merely the upper reaches of the Ng Tung River, but there’s a footbridge across:

The continuation on the far side of the river may look innocuous:

…but there’s sure to be something nasty:

…and there is!

You may think that this ramp doesn’t look too steep, but it isn’t possible to take a run at it, and the right turn here is awkward partly because the approach is slightly uphill and partly because you need to avoid going over the edge on the left:

After the ramp, the going is much easier:

This is a closer view of the short ramp seen in the distance in the previous photo:

Short, not too steep, plenty of wobble room. Easy!

This is a view from the top of the short ramp. It isn’t obvious from the photo, but that is a T-junction in the distance. A right turn leads almost immediately to the main road:

…but there is more fun to be had by turning left:

I believe that I can add some enhancements to this segment by continuing straight on in the next photo, but for now the route turns right where there is an obvious red cloth in the fence:

There is an obvious right turn next to the lamp-post:

…followed by a forced left turn onto a brick path:

I’ve no idea what is underneath these boards, but because hitting them awkwardly isn’t easy to avoid, the danger, given the narrowness of the passage, is that you will crash into the fence on the left:

I’ve already done that once!

The planks in the next photo weren’t there last Sunday, but it poured down on Tuesday, and when I came through here on Wednesday they’d been added, so pedestrians do pass this way:

The next section is interesting because I encountered an old man here on Wednesday, and I imagine that he must have wondered what a crazy gweilo on a bike was doing around these parts:

I’ve tended to keep left of the red flowers in the next photo, but I should probably try going right:

The path may be a bit broken here, but it certainly isn’t difficult:

The path seen in the previous two photos eventually joins a bigger path:

If you turn left at this junction, you will eventually come to the stepladder, which is the most difficult ramp that I’ve come across to date. I’ve succeeded in cycling up this formidable obstacle just once to date. However, the right-turn offers no such difficulties:

The main road can be glimpsed in the distance in the last photo. Where to go next is a different question.