Hong Kong - This is exactly what I imagine hiking in Scotland or Wales to be like. Every so often, a piece of a craggy mountain breaks through the fog, so thick it feels like I'm walking through cotton balls.
On a high point, a hole opens and my friend Jeremy and I glimpse the roiling ocean a couple thousand feet below. The view is spectacularly moody and lasts less than three minutes. The air is so saturated with moisture that dew collects on Jeremy's eyelashes. Thigh-high grasses are bent sideways by the wind.
We're hiking in Hong Kong, though. We've walked up the east side of Sunset Peak, and now we're heading down the western side. The trail will eventually begin climbing again, to the summit of 3 064-foot Lantau Peak, the mountain coming into and out of view in front of us - the second highest in Hong Kong.
This isn't what one might expect in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), one of the most densely populated places in the world. Several parts of it have more than one million people per square mile. But only about 25 percent of Hong Kong's land area is inhabited, because only about 25 percent can be inhabited.
There's a reason: Mountains cover the rest of the SAR, which includes Hong Kong Island and, on the Chinese mainland, Kowloon and the New Territories. From a jet's window, the city looks more like a thick forest punctuated by pockets of skyscrapers than the opposite - a mass of skyscrapers with chunks of open space set aside. Think more Yosemite and less Manhattan.
Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong's tallest peak, tops out at 3 140 feet. Six other peaks are more than 2 500 feet tall. With the base elevation at sea level, this is quite the vertical profile. Hong Kong also has 455 miles of coastline, almost as much as Honduras and more than the Maldives. The SAR bills itself as “Asia's World City” but it could just as easily be “the world's most diverse urban landscape” - although that doesn't roll off the tongue quite as easily.
Hong Kong is proud of its wild setting. One hundred seventy-one square miles of it have been protected in 24 country parks, four marine parks and 22 special areas, all devoted to education, recreation and conservation. Diving, snorkelling and kayaking are welcomed in the marine parks. Several hundred miles of well-kept trails wind through the country parks, including long-distance trails ranging from 31 to 62 miles long, which offer opportunities to camp - sometimes even on a beach - along the way.
Three days before hiking Sunset and Lantau peaks, I hiked part of the 62-mile MacLehose Trail, the longest and most famous trail in the SAR. Named for a 20th-century colonial governor, the MacLehose winds around the Sai Kung Peninsula in the New Territories and connects eight parks.
I'd first learned about it at my hotel. When I asked about opportunities for hiking, the Four Seasons emailed me about a big team race, the annual Oxfam Trailwalker, along the entire length of the MacLehose. Entry is limited to 1 000 teams of four members (the Four Seasons fields at least two teams every year). In addition to training to hike and/or run 62 miles in one push, team members solicit sponsors, and the money they raise goes to Oxfam projects in Africa and Asia. In 2015, Oxfam Trailwalker raised $4.1-million.
This race is right up my alley. Over the past three decades, I've evolved into an endurance athlete, and whether I'm biking, hiking or running, it's not until hour seven or so that I feel like I've finally warmed up. However, this year's Trailwalker will be held in November, and I'm in Hong Kong in early April.
I still want to see as much of this trail as possible. You can backpack the entire MacLehose - it's divided into 10 sections, each with at least one designated camping area - but I don't want to spend half my time in Hong Kong camping.
So, with the help of a couple of Four Seasons staffers who agree to hike with me, I make an ambitious plan: In one long day, we will hike most of the second section and all of the third and fourth ones, a total of about 23 miles. Because each section begins and ends at a road, we have several opportunities to bail.
“Section one is pretty boring,” says Natalie, who works in human resources and has done the Trailwalker nine times. “At least, compared to some of the other sections.” Like her colleague Gary, who works in housekeeping and is a veteran of six Trailwalker races, she knows the ins and outs of every single section and never passes up a chance to show off the trail to someone new. We skip the first section to give ourselves time to do the fourth, generally considered among the most challenging and one of the most scenic.
At 8am, we meet at the Sai Wan Pavilion and head out in Sai Kung East Country Park. It doesn't blow me away at the start. The trail is paved, which I'm not used to and am annoyed by. Is a hike a hike if it's on a sidewalk?
We pass through thick forest - wish the rhododendrons were in bloom - and walk over bridges (also paved) spanning wetlands and creeks. Soon, I answer my own rhetorical question: Yes, a hike on a paved trail is a hike, at least if that hike is in Hong Kong.
When one of us spots a frog among the moss and decomposing leaves alongside the trail, we all huddle around. The SAR is home to more than 50 species of mammals including leopards, civets, porcupines and wild pigs. About 500 species of birds either live here or migrate through. Nevertheless, this frog is our lone wildlife sighting of the day (if you don't count the feral cows). We convince ourselves that the rustling in dense grass in the middle of the third section is a wild pig, but we never actually see it.
Less than two miles in, a building with a big outdoor patio emerges from the fog. (It was cloudy and foggy six of the eight days I was there.) In front of it is a sign advertising a ferry, with four departures daily. This puzzles me until I step onto soft, white sand.
We're at Sai Wan, the first of four beaches along Tai Long Wan, a bay on the east coast of the Sai Kung Peninsula. With visibility limited to 20 feet, though, we cannot see the bay. I make a note to do a Google Images search for Sai Wan beach later so I can find out what I've missed.
We hike Sai Wan's length, about a third of a mile, passing two tents pitched right on the sand. After Sai Wan, the trail briefly climbs to traverse the side of a steep hill. The trail, a metal railing along its outside edge, hangs off the hillside. The only thing keeping us from falling into the mist-shrouded bay, which sounds like it's about 60 feet below, is the three inches of pavement beneath our feet.
Ham Tin Wan beach is next. It has a couple of restaurants, as well as shops that rent surfboards and tents. The MacLehose heads west and back into the forest before returning to the bay's last two beaches, Tai Wan and Tung Wan.
As we leave the water behind, Gary and Natalie describe the remainder of the second section as “flat.” Two miles later, after we've hiked up and down about 1 200 vertical feet (according to my altimeter watch), I begin to worry about the upcoming sections, which both racers describe as “tough, with lots of climbing.” I point out that what we've just done was “tough, with lots of climbing.” Natalie shakes her head.
At least the trail is in impeccable shape. Directional signs are in English and Cantonese, and there are markers noting the passage of every 500 meters. We've passed only one other group of people, but Natalie says the trail is much busier on weekends - and, over the Oxfam weekend in November, there will be 4 000 hikers. I begin to understand the pavement: Between the amount of traffic it gets and the potential of erosion, a hard surface is understandable.
The second section ends at Pak Tam Road, where signs point to the start of the third and a bus stop. There's a flat area for camping and a small building with bathrooms and sinks spouting cold water. The water isn't fit for drinking, but it's perfect for splashing on my face and dunking my head under. The humidity is at 94 percent today. Vending machines here are out of water, but have soft drinks.
Refreshed, we're off - as soon as a break in traffic lets us cross the road. The new section immediately reveals its personality. Hong Kong does not believe in switchbacks, a common trail design that includes zig-zags on ascents and descents to temper steepness. Hong Kong does believe in stone steps. I simultaneously curse and marvel at the 700ish feet of steps, each constructed from natural stones placed by hand, that take us up the first climb, Ngan Yee Shek Shan. Earlier, I'd read that the MacLehose was built by British Army Ghurkas, elite soldiers from Nepal renowned for their bravery, strength and ability to withstand hardship. Now it makes sense. (A Ghurka brigade was stationed in Hong Kong until 1997, when Britain returned the colony's sovereignty to China.)
For being chiselled by hand, the steps are impressively uniform. Most have a rise of about a foot, but every so often a bigger step up is required. I wish I had my trekking poles.
These sections are exactly as Natalie and Gary promised: tough. But there are butterflies - Hong Kong is home to more than 230 species of them - dragonflies and orchids to distract me. There's a break in the fog, and a picnic table set in the shade beneath bauhinia trees offers one of the most unusual views I've ever had while hiking. The foreground is mountainous and has a palette of dozens of shades of green. At the base of the mountains, skyscrapers crowd against each other until land ends in water. There is a protected marina and then the open, gray-green water of the South China Sea. Hundreds of boats dot the marina. Dozens of islands populate the sea. (The Hong Kong SAR includes 264 islands.) I've never hiked in such an incongruous landscape before.
The longest climb of the day comes toward the end of the fourth section. It's capital-T tough. We top out at a saddle a couple of hundred feet beneath the summit of Ma On Shan, the 10th-highest mountain in the SAR. Below the trail snakes down a barren ridgeline and, for the first time all day, buildings - the Sai Kung district - dominate the view. We've been hiking for more than eight hours.
From Ma On Shan, it's all downhill. I expect the last five miles to be boring. Deep in a forest of ash, oak, laurel and rhododendrons, no clues of the surrounding metropolis can be seen. It could be a hike most anywhere in Southeast Asia or Australia, except we begin passing World War II relics, including trenches, ammunition boxes and tunnels, which were dug into the hillsides. Natalie tells me the fifth and sixth sections of the trail have the most reminders of the war, including trenches dug by homesick British soldiers who named them Regent Street and Charing Cross, as well as tunnels dug by the Japanese, who occupied the SAR for three years and eight months.
Ninety minutes after heading down from Ma On Shan, we're drinking sodas from a convenience store between the fourth and fifth sections, waiting for a cab. An hour after that, I'm back in my hotel room, swapping hiking clothes for a terry robe and preparing to hike down to the hot tub. It is next to an infinity pool that seems to fall off into Victoria Harbour. Looking past the Harbour and the concrete congestion of Kowloon, I can just make out the hulking lushness of the landscape I spent the day hiking through, up and over.
That morning, when we passed the backpackers' tents at Sai Wan Beach, I had a moment of fear of missing out. I'm a sucker for doing the unexpected, and what would have been more unexpected than camping in Hong Kong? On a white sand beach?
Just as the FOMO threatens to ruin my soak in the hot tub, a glass of prosecco arrives. Five minutes later, the city's nightly “Symphony of Lights” show starts. Forty skyscrapers on both sides of the Harbour project green lasers into the sky and flash their exterior lights in programmed patterns. It's definitely nothing I could enjoy after a hike in Scotland or Wales.
* Mishev is editor of Inspirato magazine.
If you go...
Where to stay
Four Seasons Hong Kong
8 Finance St., Central
This hotel is in the bustling heart of Hong Kong's Central District, but inside, serenity rules, whether in the deep-soaking bathtub in every room or at the full-service spa, which Forbes gave five stars in 2016. Rooms from $597 (about R8 300).
Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong
International Commerce Centre, 1 Austin Rd. W., West Kowloon
Enjoy mountain and city views from 1 607 feet above the city. Guests and non-guests can book afternoon tea at the hotel's Cafe 103 on the 103rd floor. Rooms from $560.
388 Jaffe Rd., Causeway Bay
This stylish, chic boutique hotel (91 rooms and one suite) surrounded by bars and art galleries. Rooms from $174.
Where to eat
Hong Kong Foodie Tours
The Central and Sheung Wan tour starts with wontons and ends 3 1/2 hours later with an egg tart. In between, energetic guides take you to a food market for sugar cane juice and dim sum. Adults $94; kids $67.
Lung King Heen
8 Finance St., Central
A lunch or dinner at the first Cantonese restaurant in the world to earn three Michelin stars is more of an experience than a meal. Entrees from $30.
Shop 6, 382 Lockhart Rd., Wan Chai
Look for this tiny stall recognized with one Michelin star in the new street food section of the 2016 Hong Kong/Macau guide for rice rolls, sweet soup and glutinous rice with Chinese sausage. Entrees from $8.
What to do
Hike one of the 10 sections of this 62-mile mountainous trail in the New Territories to feel like you're far from civilization while knowing that Central is only a one-hour cab ride (approximately $30) away.
Lantau and/or Sunset peaks
These two peaks are only miles apart on the 43-mile Lantau Trail, but doing both in a day is a serious undertaking. The trail up Sunset is less steep, but the summit of Lantau is more impressive.
Hong Kong Island
The most popular section of the 31-mile Hong Kong Trail, Dragon's Back is in Shek O Country Park, located on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island. Its seven miles includes the undulating ridge - the dragon's back - between Shek O Peak and Wan Cham Shan. The ridge overlooks the South China Sea and the hike ends at the quaint enclave of Tai Long Wan, “Big Wave Bay,” which is popular with both surfers and swimmers.
Walk Hong Kong
Group or private tours that include birding hikes, hikes of varying difficulties in country parks and themed city walks. A half-day tour starts at $64; full-day hikes are $103.
The Peak Tram
33 Garden Rd., Central
For non-hikers, this tram, in operation since 1888, takes passengers from the bottom of Hong Kong Island's Central neighbourhood up 1 312 feet on Victoria Peak, the island's highest mountain. At the top of the tram, you can buy an ice cream at Häagen-Dazs, shop at the Peak mall, visit Madame Tussauds Hong Kong or walk a flattish trail that circles the peak.
1 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central
Massages are an adventure in authenticity at this local massage spot, where most staffers do not speak much English but are well-trained. A 50-minute full-body massage is $33.
A paved “family trail” designed to be enjoyed by hikers of all ages and abilities crosses from one side of this island to another, passing a beautiful swimming beach along the way. Ferries to and from the Central Ferry Terminal on Hong Kong Island go to both sides of Lamma. There are no cars on this island.
Hong Kong hiking:hiking.gov.hk/eng
Discover Hong Kong:discoverhongkong.com