This week, we are pleased to welcome a new author, Marco Bontje. Dr. Bontje is an Assistant Professor in Urban Geography in the Department of Geography, Planning, and International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Having returned recently from Hong Kong, Dr. Bontje brings us his thoughts and experiences of Hong Kong’s urban nature. Enjoy!
Living and working in Hong Kong for a while is an experience I can definitely recommend to anyone in the field of urban studies. It is an impressive metropolis in many respects: bustling with activities 24-7, incredible densities of people and built environment across most of its territory, and still a city with a very high quality of life. For those that can afford it, that is, because living space is a very scarce resource that comes at a high price. Fortunately, high living costs are partly compensated by the affordability of food, drinks, and transport. Coming from small-city Europe, thinking that a city like Amsterdam is dense and highly urbanised, come to Hong Kong and think again. On return in Amsterdam, I suddenly experienced it as strangely quiet, spacious and even a bit empty…
Just about when the metropolis seems to become a bit too overwhelming, when you have had it with the masses of people in subways, subway stations and shopping malls, and when you are longing for fresher air, there is this great escape that for many Hong Kongers is an important part of what makes their city liveable: the country parks right next door. Although Hong Kong’s colonial past has been a mixed blessing, the country parks definitely belong to the positive features of British colonial heritage. Some areas may still be unbuilt simply because building in them is either impossible or too expensive, but large parts have a protected status that has been introduced by the British colonial rulers long ago. Other parts indirectly also became protected nature because of the construction of water reservoirs by the British in the 19th century.
On Sundays, for many the only day off, you will find many Hong Kongers either in the shopping mall or in the country parks. Hong Kong is not known as a city of sports, so most of the hikers will in fact only go for (very) short strolls in a (very) slow pace. But, for those who like to escape from the crowds every once in a while and do not mind to challenge their legs and condition, the four long-distance trails and hundreds of shorter trails offer great opportunities. The Hong Kong Trail offers 50 kilometers along the southern coastline, much less claimed by high-rise, high-density urbanity and mass tourism than its northern counterpart, and across the steep rocks of Hong Kong Island. The Wilson Trail and MacLehose Trail, named after the Hong Kong governors from the 1970s and 1980s, cross through the surprisingly contrasting landscapes of Kowloon, while the Lantau Trail brings you from east to west and back on the island of Lantau, which probably has the nicest nature Hong Kong has to offer.
All four trails feature adventurous tracks through forests, bare rocks and lakesides and occasionally also sea beaches, and of course many fine vistas of the impressive skylines of Hong Kong. It is important not to hate stairs though too: some stairs along the way have hundreds of steps. My worst stairs experience was when I was close to the end of a long hike on Hong Kong Island and the finishing touch appeared to be a stairway of 1.100 steps. Some parts of the trails through nature have maybe become a bit too ‘concretised’ and ‘humanised’!
Along the way, you may meet surprising characters like elderly Chinese combining hiking with playing traditional Chinese music or weird Chinese covers of 1960s pop classics pretty loud, younger Chinese and expats who chose to run instead of hike (a big challenge especially in the hot summer and early autumn months!), or of course those practicing tai chi, hardly disturbed by anyone or anything happening around them. Though never being further from the next urbanised area than a few kilometres, there are also large tracks where you may not meet anyone for minutes and have the feeling of being very far from any city. At the northern edges of Kowloon, you may even get a true jungle feeling when you meet the macaque monkeys. These are likely to be only half-way ‘wildlife’ though; they probably stem from some former pets that were let loose in the forests, and meanwhile all of them have become very accustomed to seeing people. Still hiking between the monkeys is not something an urbanite (especially one from the Netherlands) can experience every day!