Friday, June 20, 2014

Man Man Haang with Hansen's Hikes -- A "Slow Slow Walk" through Tai Lam Country Park to Sham Tseng (My Hong Kong weekend Part 1)

I've traded in my shopping bag and credit card for a pair of hiking shoes and a backpack!
Last year, on a quick visit to Hong Kong, I wanted to do something out of the usual.  Thus, I discovered the happiness of hiking through a company called Hansen's Hikes.  I did a short portion of the Hong Kong trail, from the Peak to the reservoir and on another visit,  I  did an urban hike through markets and public housing.  This last week,  for the Independence day long week-end, I found myself back in Hong Kong and booked another hike with Michael Hansen.

Michael and I had agreed to meet up at the MTR exit of Tsuen Wan west.  For this hike, I had requested for a relatively easy, "stepless"  walk.  I had quite a harrowing time navigating the steep and uneven steps of the Peak last year and frequently felt like I was about to hurtle myself off the cliff.  With that request in mind, Michael said that he had just the type of hike for me -- somewhere in the western New Territories.

From the MTR exit, we walked to the bus stop to catch our ride.  

It was a twenty minutes bus ride, along a winding mountain road, in the shadow of Hong Kong's tallest peak, Tai Mo Shan. We got off at the entrance of  Tai Lam Country Park,  Hong Kong's second largest country park and a favourite of hikers and bikers alike.

This map at the entrance shows our route.  See that yellow mark that says "start" on the upper right hand of the map?   Well, that was where we were.  
We would be walking through the red dots, all the way down to the green dots 
where it says, not prophetically, I hope "end".   Could I?  
It was 14 kilometres after all and I hadn't walked that far in one go, not in the longest time.

The hike would be through Tai Lam's paved, gently sloping roads.  As we entered the park, I could see the hills up ahead and mentally braced myself for the uphill walk that I knew would be forthcoming.

Aside from hikers,  mountain bikers are also allowed in the park.  The only motorised vehicles that have access are official park management and maintenance vehicles.  A few did pass us by that day but there was ample horn tooting so I never felt unsafe at any point.

There are nature trails, forest trails, tree trails all within Tai Lam that take you off the pavement and on to more challenging paths.  These are well marked and head off into different directions.  But for now, we were staying on the pavement.

Walking up and up through paved roads is not any easier than walking on unpaved trails.
As a tip, Michael told me to walk on the outside,  where it will take a bit longer but where the gradient is a little less steep.  

It was a cloudy and muggy day.  Along the way, we came upon this look out point which gave a gorgeous view of the New Territories.  Hong Kong has been able to conserve and maintain her forest cover which was certainly evident in the lushness of the greenery inside Tai Lam park.

We're 160 meters up! 

 As you can see from the road behind us,  here we're on a slight descent, 
which means I had the energy to stop and take this photo.

 My breathing had just returned to normal when the road ahead curved uphill once again.  
Thankfully, the air also became cooler and less humid.

As we walked along -- Michael thoughtfully slowing his pace to match mine -- I took every possible distraction to stop and catch my breath.  Oh look!  A black wooly creepy crawly!  Must take a photo of that... stop, point, shoot.  A 15 second break to take a deep breath before starting the uphill climb once again.

From 160 meters, we climbed some more to 163 meters.  It may not not seem like a lot but a continuous steady uphill walk is really not a walk in the park  -- particularly for a desk bound couch potato like me.  This trail marker also shows that we were now walking through segment 9 of the Maclehose Trail, a famous 100 km hiking trail in Hong Kong.

The road continued to curve and climb.  How many more hills, Michael?  But while you're probably thinking that I may have bitten off more than I could chew -- I was actually having a wonderful time, laboured breathing and all. There is nothing better than being outdoors, doing something you normally don't do.

I nearly stepped on this bright neon green bug, slowly making its way across the road.  Should we lift it up and bring it to the other side?  But which side did he start from? 

165 meters up and still climbing!

There was a lot to look at along the way -- views from the tree tops and views down below.  I heard this before I saw it -- a gurgling noisy stream splashing to the rocks below.  

It's always fun to walk with such a knowledgeable and patient guide like Michael Hansen who kept up such an entertaining and informative patter.  I didn't even realise we had walked halfway until he stopped and showed me this map.  It had been less than 2 hours since we started and despite the many pauses for photos and deep breaths, it seemed like we were making pretty good time.

Michael had promised me a very interesting rest stop -- one which he said was not very well known, even among the locals.  Soon enough, we came to this signpost for the village of Tsing Fai Tong.  
The rest stop would be at Parents Farm, a unique and quaint spot within Tai Lam Park.

The walk to Parents Farm took all of 5 minutes along a paved road, wide enough for just one small car to go through.  Michael said that this was the only remaining piece of private land within the park and the owners had been given permission to drive their car all the way inside to their property.

It was a complete surprise to come upon this sight within the forest of Tai Lam!  A white house with an outdoor "cafe" set up right outside.  A dog was definitely not guarding the premises as he barely gave us a second glance.

On the gate there is a semblance of a menu  -- beer, soda, water, tea and juices are for sale.  
If you're hungry, the kind and smiling Indonesian helper will gladly whip up a bowl of egg noodles with Spam.  The owner of the property is an eighty something year old man, who was sitting there enjoying the breeze and the welcome distraction of wandering hikers like Michael and I.

Michael went inside to get our beer while I just stood there and marvelled at this hidden paradise.  There is a lotus filled pond, fruit trees and vegetable gardens and more benches and tables where one can sit and relax with a drink or two.

We shared two large bottles of very cold Tsing Tao beer.  I dug out the pack of salted almonds I had brought in my backpack and they were the perfect salty crunchy snack.  It was amazing to just sit and relax -- looking out over the lotus flowers on the pond and enjoying the mild breeze.  There were no sounds other than birdsong and cicadas.  I could have stayed here the whole day!  
Maybe even taken a short nap.

The old man who owns this place could not bear to leave this village in the late 1960s, when the government bought out all the other villagers, moving them to flats in the city.  He asked that he be allowed to keep his land and his house and the government agreed.  He has lived here since that time although his children have all moved to the city.  They come to visit and help with farm and gardening chores on a regular basis.  
The day we visited, one of his sons was there, doing work in the garden. 

Michael showed me this laminated photo showing what the village looked like in 1953 when this was still Tsing Fai Tong Village.  Now, only the old man's house is all that's left.

In addition to the fruit trees and rice field of Parents Farm, there are vegetables and herbs that are grown.  During harvest time, if there is too much for the family to consume, some of the produce is sold to interested visitors.

I wanted to take a photo with the owner but was too shy to ask.  
He sat in a little terrace right outside the kitchen, and had a friendly nod and smile for us, particularly 
for Michael who has been here many times.

It was hard to tear myself away from this surprising patch of peace and serenity.  But we still had a few kilometres to go and lunch was waiting.  On the way out, I paused and splashed some cold spring water on my face -- instantly refreshing and reviving!  I was ready to go walking again.

Sham Tseng -- 2 kilometers and 45 minutes away.  I'm happy to say, that yes, 
we did make it to Sham Tseng within that time.

I could see that the hike would soon come to an end.  From this viewpoint, Michael pointed out the Tsing Ma bridge which connects Lantau Island and the airport with the rest of Hong Kong island.

And here I came face to face with my nemesis -- steps!  Although these were more evenly and regularly spaced than the ones along the Hong Kong trail, they were steps nonetheless.  We climbed down over 350 steps and I was gritting my teeth throughout the whole time.  See the huge towering flats of Sham Tseng in the horizon?  That was our final goal for the day.

This lizard was having a better time than I was -- he was on his way back while I still had to go down more and more steps.

Sadly, the trees and greenery of Tai Lam Park soon gave way to Sham Tseng's  
iron roofs and concrete walls.  

And these are the final winding steps ending our  hike.  From the bottom, we navigated our way through narrow alleys, past  back yards, back doors and laundry areas.

We made our way, slightly uphill once again, through the village of Sham Tseng.  
Don't let the "village" term mislead you, this is as much about concrete and high rise buildings as any modern area in Hong Kong.  This back alley cuts across the roast goose restaurants -- something people still go all the way to Sham Tseng for.

Sham Tseng has long been famous for its roast goose and Michael had promised that as a reward after a particularly long and challenging - for me, that is -- hike.  
We had hiked 14 kilometres from Tai Lam Park to Sham Tseng and I had made it!  
We started at 9:30 in the morning and ended at 1:30 in the afternoon. 
Not counting the 30 minute beer stop at Parents Farm, we did our hike in about 3.5 hours.
I was ecstatic!
 For me, this was a huge accomplishment.  
It may have been man man haang or slow slow walk but I finished it and was very proud of myself.
Now where is that roast goose?

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