10 June 2018.
I’m sitting hunkered down in the shade, squished up against the low bushes on the side of the track. The heat has been relentless, and I’ve probably walked about 8 km at this point, a lot of it uphill and part of it up what pretty much amounts to a cliff face. But I’ll get to that.
My biggest concern, as I take a break in this tiny patch of shade, is water. I don’t know how far I have to go, I’m feeling a little dehydrated, and I have very little water left. I take a few sips.
I’d left my hotel in the Jordan area of Hong Kong, on the Kowloon side, at about 10. Really it was a bit late in the day to start and my own fault for being far too attached to slow easy mornings. It would have been better had I left at 7 or 8. Then I’d have had time to go to the beach. And on top of that I pretty much took the hardest way to get to what was once hailed by TIME as the best urban hike in Asia: Hong Kong’s famed, and aptly named, Dragon’s Back. Ever since I read about it on James’ blog I was determined to hike it for myself should I ever be in Hong Kong.
I walked from my hotel to the subway, changed platforms at Central and took the Island Line to the last station, Chai Wan, on the far eastern side of Hong Kong Island. Then I followed a bunch of instructions I’d found online that seemed complicated, but each step was clearly marked. I could have taken the subway to a different stop, found the Number 9 bus along Shek O Road and gotten off the bus right at the beginning of the other end of the trail. I was concerned I’d miss the bus stop, not knowing that upcoming stops are clearly marked inside the buses, so chose to follow the explicit instructions that had me starting at the other end.
Exit A from the Chai Wan subway. Walk through the mall and take the first outdoor walkway on your right. Walk straight on the catwalk and go down the stairs at Wan Tsui Road. But it doesn’t make sense. They’re doing renovations in the mall. There are no stairs to Wan Tsui Road, or none that I can find. I find a winding white-plastic-covered tunnel and follow it. Somehow I do eventually find my way down to Wan Tsui Road and find the tall glass building called Youth Square on the left. After walking along Wan Tsui Road for a couple of hundred metres I come to Ling Shing Road as instructed. It’s on my way up Ling Shing Road that I make my mistake. I see a convenience store and think I should buy more water. I decide not. I don’t want the extra weight.
After four hundred and fifty metres uphill on Ling Shing Road it dead-ends. Straight in front of me is the entrance to the Cape Collinson Catholic Cemetery. And this is when I really start climbing.
I’d read online that the Cape Collinson Cemetery is a vertical cemetery. And it really is. Layer upon layer of terraces rise almost vertically up the side of the hill,
each layer a resting place for dozens of graves, many displaying photos of the deceased.
As instructed I take the first set of stairs on the left and climb. And climb. And climb.
Eventually I reach a road that brings me to another long set of stairs and I continue up. I find I’ve arrived at a grassy open rest area with some trees, and a few people milling around. I’ve come to the start of Section 8 of the Hong Kong Trail. I follow a paved road for about a kilometre and then I see it. A signpost for the Dragon’s Back Trail. At last! I’m already hot, and thirsty, but ready to finally begin hiking instead of walking urban streets and climbing a cliff through a cemetery.
On an uneven rocky trail I head thankfully into the shade.
and out again.
Still climbing, though gently now, meandering through the woods, partly shaded, partly not. And then I see it – the official start to the Dragon’s Back – the spine of the mountain reaching off into the distance,
and finally I’m above treeline. The trail snakes its way along the completely exposed ridgeline with an infinite view of a blue universe. You can walk for over half an hour and still be immersed in the same sapphire world. It goes on and on.
I see a small open spot shaded by the bush at the side of the trail and sit down for a short break. It’s then that I notice the butterfly on the ground next to me. What serendipity that I choose that particular spot.
After climbing some more I eventually come to the long rocky stairs leading up to Shek O Peak, the highest point. The village of Shek O can be seen nestled on a small peninsula down below.
I’m starting to get a little concerned about water and have no idea how far I have to walk, but the view wraps itself around me and I keep going. I don’t know if it’s before or after I reach the view of Tai Tam Bay
where I’m resting in the shade, worried about water, when a man comes towards me from the direction I’m headed in. I ask him how far I have to go. He says maybe about two kilometres. I don’t do the math at the time. The specific part of Section 8 of the Hong Kong Trail that’s known as the Dragon’s Back is 2.7 kilometres and I’ve already walked a good portion of it. Anyway I tell him I’m a bit worried that I don’t have enough water. He pulls a 500ml bottle of water from his pack and gives it to me! When would anyone hiking on a hot day give away their water? I’m so surprised! He tells me that in the past he’s been hiking without enough water so now he always carries more than he’ll need. Wow. I’m still, and always, astonished at how the universe seems to take care of me. He goes on his way and I just about inhale that 500 ml of water. I gulp the whole thing down in one go. This is not the first time I’ve been hiking on a hot day with barely enough water. I hope this time I’ve finally learned my lesson. It’s always better to carry too much, especially if you’re hiking somewhere you’re not familiar with.
I continue on and fairly soon descend below tree line. From here it’s all downhill. It’s a fairly rocky path, mostly stairs, winding back and forth through the trees and bushes but relentlessly downhill. Eventually the trail spits me out at Shek O Road right at the moment a bus arrives. I climb aboard and collapse in the air-conditioned comfort. I did it. I slayed the Dragon. I win. I win.
My feet are sore. I get back to my hotel and that night Thea and I walk down to Victoria Harbour for the Symphony of Light. By the time I get back to the hotel again my feet are even more sore. I’ve walked a total of 19 kilometres this day, the most of any day of the whole trip.
Some tips for the Dragon’s Back:
If possible go on a weekday. It gets very busy on the weekends especially in the summer.
Take enough water, obviously.
A better route I think is to get the subway to Shau Kei Wan Station and take exit A3. At the bus station there take the number 9 bus going to Shek O and get off at To Tei Wan bus stop. Stops are clearly marked in the bus. The trailhead is directly across the street. You’ll head up where I came down, and at the end of the Dragon’s Back you can veer off (just follow the signs) to Big Wave Bay. From there you can get a number 9 bus or the Express Mini Bus back to Shau Kei Wan Station. This article has a lot of good information about it.
This is finally, about 18 months later, my last post about the epic trip I took alone last year – seven weeks in Japan and China that included 18 full days in Japan, 3 solo in China, 21 on Intrepid Travel’s China Experience Tour, and finishing up with 3 days solo in Hong Kong. It feels like a milestone that I’ve finally finished writing about it.
Next post: catching up on the summer of 2018 – a trip to Duncan and Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.