Thu, Jan 08, 2009 - Page 13 News List

High up in Hong Kong

Hiking in one of the most crowded places in the world? It sounds bonkers but, minutes from the city’s cocktail bars, there are spectacular peaks to climb, idyllic beaches to surf, coral reefs to snorkel

By Carole Cadwalladr  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

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Who needs a rucksack to go hiking when you can take a wheelie case? As well as strappy sandals, a summer dress, a Time Out city guide, a big fat novel, various hair products and unguents, and there, buried at the bottom of my case like an afterthought, a pair of stout walking boots, and a sensible fleece.

I was going on the most surreal hiking holiday known to man, in one of the most densely populated cities on earth, and, frankly, luggage was really the least of my issues.

I was, in fact, going hiking in Hong Kong, which sounds like one of those oxymorons made up by an overenthusiastic tourist board, like a Dubai culture break or a Scottish winter sun holiday, with the crucial difference that you actually can go hiking in Hong Kong. Proper, in the middle of nowhere, slogging your guts out up a mountain trail, hiking. It surprises a lot of people who haven’t been to Hong Kong but then again it also surprises a lot of people who have. I went pre-handover and had no idea it was anything but high-rises until my friends Aussie Pete and Czech Zuzana, who live there, rang up and invited me camping.

“Camping? Are you mad?” I said. But then I rang the tourist board and they said, oh yes, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, and found me a guide and a really spiffing hotel, the Mandarin Oriental, which, while not a tent — in that it had a marble bathroom as well as walls, a roof, a bed, liveried doormen etc — was, I decided, tent-like enough. For all I knew, Pete’s idea of “camping” could easily involve sleeping rough on a Kowloon pavement.

There was a snag, though. Usually on a walking holiday, I end up in an Alpine hut sharing a room with four snoring Germans, the plus side of which is that when you put on your three-quarter-length trousers and your microfiber top, your thick socks and your stout boots, you don’t have to walk past breakfasting businessmen and liveried doormen. I think I may have looked somewhat unusual.

Since Pete and Zuzana were working for the first part of the week, I was going to go walking in the day and then meet up with them for a spot of big city entertainment, and the tourist board had rustled up a walking guide called Fred.

Fred wasn’t quite a walking guide, it turned out, so much as a guide, who appeared to have been cajoled into doing some walking. What do you normally do with your tourists, Fred? I asked. “Shopping. Always shopping. Sightseeing. Eating. But mostly people come here to shop.” Not walking then? “Oh no!”

We were starting off with the Dragon’s Back trail, a gentle warm-up on Hong Kong island, about a 20-minute cab ride away. I really couldn’t believe that a 20-minute cab-ride could take you anywhere remotely wild, but by the time we had climbed to the first viewpoint, it was spectacular: undulating hills covered with thick vegetation, a series of beautiful bays, and not a soul to be seen.

It’s the best urban hike in the world, according to Time magazine, although apart from a distant tower or two, and a couple of far-off villages, it didn’t feel very urban at all. Over the top of the hill was the throbbing metropolis, the gorgeous shimmering Bank of China tower designed by I.M. Pei (貝聿銘), and Norman Foster’s HSBC tower, then the as-yet-unfinished International Finance Center, which Batman jumps off in The Dark Knight. But on this side, butterflies fluttered in the breeze, and the sea shimmered in the distance.

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