Hong Kong is usually pictured as one of the world's most crowded cities -- an album of high technology, consumer bargains and multi-million-dollar deals spread across the dense pages of glittering skyscrapers. But that picture is distorted. In fact, three-quarters of Hong Kong is open, undeveloped countryside.
Called the New Territories, but known locally as the Land Between, this dramatic stretch of rural Hong Kong is seldom visited by businessmen or tourists. Yet the Land Between, with its old temples and wayside shrines, its forests and tranquil footpaths, and its wide vistas over the white shores of the South China Sea, is only minutes from the duty-free shopping of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. For anyone who wants to walk out of the urban chaos into the natural order of old China, the Land Between begins where the latest complex of apartments ends.
Usually, when Hong Kong is mentioned, it's Kowloon and Victoria that are being referred to. Yet the New Territories, which form a buffer between the city and mainland China, are about 10 times the size of urban Hong Kong. It's only 15 miles from Kowloon to the border, but it's a journey back several centuries into a vanishing way of life.
And through the heart of the Land Between, from east to west, stretches the new long-distance MacLehose Trail. A walking trail built to open up the countryside, it was completed in 1981 and is divided into 10 stages of varying lengths that link a series of eight country parks. At each stage there is easy public transport -- bus, ferry or train -- to downtown Kowloon, meaning that you can pick any portion of the trail for a leisurely day's escape. The MacLehose Trail is named in honor of a former British governor of Hong Kong, the Right Honourable Lord MacLehose of Beoch, who is even today, we were assured by a local official, "a keen hill walker himself."
The MacLehose Trail is in superb condition and the byword is convenience. The 62 miles of trail are well-marked, lined with tastefully designed litter bins, toilets, fireplaces, viewpoints and beaches -- even several children's playgrounds. There are also two new hostels and 31 campgrounds for overnight hikers.
The trail winds through a towering landscape of ridges and reservoirs, of woodlands and grasslands, of primitive villages and shrines, of sandy beaches and scenic panoramas. At the center of the trailway is Tai Mo Shan, at 3,140 feet the highest mountain in Hong Kong, from which the entire peninsula and surrounding islands are spread out in view. The MacLehose Trail is a haven for photographers, birdwatchers, ridgewalkers, joggers and anyone interested in the botany of the Far East or the rural traditions of Chinese culture.
Tiring of the frenetic pace of downtown Hong Kong, with our eyes glazed over after a week of shopping on Nathan Road, we decided to walk all 10 stages of the MacLehose Trail. We set aside five days to traverse the Land Between, starting from the Country Park Management Centre in Pak Tam Chung on the east coast and ending some 60 miles later on the western shore.
Early the next day, we boarded a red double-decker bus near our hotel and proceeded to Pak Tam Chung. It might have been a London bus except for the preponderance of Chinese passengers and notices warning us that "all windows must remain open during typhoons." Typhoon season was near, but the skies remained clear and the winds light. It was October, the temperature high -- about 800 F -- but not unbearable.
The trail began at Pak Tam Chung as a wide road skirting what appeared to be a large fresh-water lake but was in fact the High Island Reservoir. At 200 feet above sea level, this reservoir forms a perfect perch from which to peer into the isolated fishing villages on the coastline below. These settlements, established about 200 years ago, follow a way of life that was practiced during China's earliest dynasties.
The past is in evidence everywhere. We passed wayside temples where ancestor worship persists, and even in the small hillside cafe's we spotted sticks of incense, candles and offerings of fruit or canned goods on makeshift altars. But even here the traces of old China are being erased. Some of these villages are now maintained solely by the elders; the sons and daughters have vanished, lured by the promise of jobs in the city or overseas.
At the eastern end of the High Land Reservoir, we crossed a long cofferdam separating fresh drinking water for Hong Kong from the blue, salty South China Sea. A monument here commemorates the efforts of Italian and Chinese laborers who completed this project in 1978. The trail narrows beyond the dam, heading north, and we followed it down to an exquisite beach of white sand beside the abandoned village of Long Ke, marking the end of the first stage of the MacLehose Trail. It was an ideal setting for lunch.
The remains of Long Ke were in the old Hakka architectural style. The Hakka people, who migrated here in the 17th century, are hill farmers, a close-knit group that has retained its own customs and dialect.
Later the same day, we would see farmers in the black tunics and saucer hats of the Hakka people themselves. Their coastal villages here are still self-sufficient entities, originally built on these hillside terraces to afford protection from marauding bands of harbor pirates. Even now, these settlements resist modernization. Alongside the high-tech sailing vessels from the world's great ports, junks and sampans ply the Hakka bays.
In the afternoon we hiked over Sai Wan Shan (shan means mountain) and descended to another remote beach. Flurries of tropical butterflies rose in our wake, specimens from the 200 species born year-round in the Land Between. Black-eared kites swept overhead, and in patches of scrub we sometimes spotted sparrows, crested mynas and the Chinese bulbul. We were not lucky enough to cross paths with the civets, long-tailed monkeys or rare barking deer in the region, but the walk was exhilarating nevertheless, seldom demanding or steep, and the sea breeze was cool and fragrant.
Well before dusk we reached Chek Keng and the Bradbury Hall Youth Hostel, a new facility located in a pine forest on a finger of Long Harbor. Mainland China is very close here -- a few miles across the water to the north -- but can be seen only from the highest peaks on the trail. We cooked dinner using the rice cooker, wok and ladle the hostel warden provided. From here you can head back to Kowloon on a ferry that connects with a scenic train ride, but we would continue walking west.
When we woke the next morning, there were two police patrol boats moored at the hostel jetty. Twice along the 12 miles we had hiked the day before on the eastern coast, we had come upon groups of soldiers, faces blackened, consulting field maps. It seemed the annual border campaign was in full swing. It was what the Chinese here commonly call "I.I." season -- the coming of Illegal Immigrants. As the sea winds shift to the south after the monsoons, many mainland Chinese take to sampans, hoping to drift ashore here and begin a new life. Although China will regain control over Hong Kong in 1997, the tide of this exodus has not yet been stemmed.
We set out over the rugged ridges running west across the Land Between. Beyond the lush Cheung Sheung forests, we climbed to the top of Kai Kung Peak, 1,309 feet straight up from the sea, where we had a complete view of Port Shelter, a harbor where ships often seek refuge from storms.
To the north we could look down on the immense Plover Cove Reservoir. (The reservoirs in the Land Between often rival large lakes in expanse, but they are still not vast enough to supply the needs of Hong Kong. For many years, the city has been dependent on additional supplies of water from China.)
The intermediate stages of the MacLehose Trail wind along high ridges punctuated by sharp outcroppings of urban development. Ranks of new skyscrapers charge up the green cliffs as though emptied from the flotillas of oil tankers and cargo ships. Yet the ridges remain uninhabited and pristine. We spent two nights tented along the trail, where temperatures remain almost constant day to night and camping under the stars is utterly untroubling.
On the eighth stage of the trail, we began our ascent of Tai Mo Shan, the crown of Hong Kong's jeweled peaks. Like other mountains in the Land Between, Tai Mo Shan rises abruptly, in a dizzying fury, and you feel like you are climbing to the sheer perch of an eagle. Several times we had to wait for the cloud cover to dissipate before we could find the trail.
Eventually we were left with a perfect view of all Hong Kong, from the concrete towers fanning out along the world's third busiest port to the faint northern peaks inside the borders of the world's most populous nation. Closer at hand, we also discovered the stone wall terraces of an abandoned tea plantation, the riches that brought the British here a century ago already in ruins.
Today the summit of Tai Mo Shan is shrouded in secrecy, fenced off as a government communications post. We quickly descended and spent our fourth night most comfortably in the Lok Yuen Hostel at the foot of the mountain.
On the final stages of the trail, we followed a concrete road along a seemingly endless ridgeline, passing through several tropical forests of overpowering fragrances. The dense forests were filled with acacia, paperbark and camphor trees; the delicate yet strong scent came from the flowers that covered the floor of the forest.
On our fifth day, we had a late lunch at the Tai Lam Chung Reservoir, where we saw evidence of the greatest threat to the Land Between -- fire. Each year the high country is assaulted by hundreds of fires. One weekend in 1977, officials counted 162 separate hill fires, and in 1979, south of this reservoir, 265,000 trees were consumed in a 30-hour blaze. We did not have to ask why the entire MacLehose Trail was laid out with well-maintained barbecue pits.
We reached the western end of the trail at Tuen Mun on Castle Peak Bay. There, browsing through the streetside stalls of fresh produce, fish and flowers, we slowly reacquainted ourselves with civilization. Revitalized by our walk through the Land Between, we were again dreaming of fast food, air-conditioning and the Golden Mile of shopping that epitomizes the usual image of Hong Kong.
The MacLehose Trail dematerialized like a phantom, but left its sweet fragrances behind. It was good to know we had found another Hong Kong -- one more tranquil, more beautiful, older and quieter and fresher -- away from the crowded neon boulevards of the modern world.
Maps and pamphlets on the MacLehose Trail are available at the Country Parks Authority in the Government Offices Building, 393 Canton Road, Kowloon; phone 3-688111, ext. 142.