Beyond Stanley – a trendy seaside suburb on a peninsula suspended from the south coast of Hong Kong Island – the Wilson Trail climbs steeply up the flank of Ma Kong Shan. A cool breeze blows in from the South China Sea, rustling through the leaves of the low shrubs and stunted trees cloaking the hillside. Far below, the sandy coastline traces a white line between the sea and the green hills. Across the bay, Lilliputian machinery pulverizes rock from the deep gash of a quarry: raw material for Hong Kong’s insatiable appetite for reclamation.
An hour’s climbing has taken me from the seaside to the high tops. The path alternates between concrete steps and rough gravel. A black snake, sunning itself on a boulder, eyes me balefully then slithers off into the grass. Fantail warblers twitter in the undergrowth. I meet a party of Japanese ladies hiking in the opposite direction towards Stanley, red-faced and puffing beneath floppy hats. From the summit of Violet Hill I can see China.
The usual perception of Hong Kong is one of crowded streets cut like canyons through forests of Lego-block apartments, avalanches of neon along Nathan Road and perfect blue buildings beside the milky green waters of Victoria Harbour. But Hong Kong has a secret alter ego. Step away from the frenetic crush of the city and you enter a world of lush lowlands, bamboo forests, rugged mountains and empty beaches. Dozens of walking trails give access to Hong Kong’s parks, making it east to escape the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the city.
From Violet Hill the trail crosses the flanks of Mt Butler then descends into the urban chaos of Quarry Bay. One minute I’m strolling through a forest of silent bamboo; the next I am on a city street, with concrete under my feet and a maelstrom of traffic swirling around me.
The following day I ride a gleaming MTR (Mass Transit Railway) train beneath the harbour to Lam Tin, where the New Territories section of the Wilson Trail begins. As the train comes to a halt, its doors slide open in a silent ballet of technology and I step out onto Mainland China. As I walk out of the station into the congestion of Lam Tim, half the world’s landmass lies ahead of me. Given time, and the right visas, I could conceivably walked all the way to the English Channel.
But I have my sights set on a slightly less ambitions goal: to walk across the New Territories on the northern section of the Wilson Trail. I navigate through a wilderness of towering apartment blocks – pausing at a noodle joint for a late breakfast – and then, as suddenly as I had entered the city the previous day, I am in the hills again.
The path curves upwards along the flank of a ridge to the remains of a old fort which once guarded the eastern approaches to Victoria Harbour. Huge cargo ships lie at anchor in a bay below. The hillside is covered by a vast, tiered graveyard, which steps down the hill like paddy fields of grey concrete.
It is a long, hot haul up seemingly endless steps to the summit of Lion Rock which stands like a sentinel above Kowloon. The city rumbles far below. Chrome and glass gleam in the sunlight. Down there, the whirl of trade and commerce continues amid the oppressive crush of the city. All I have is open sky and long blue vistas across the hazy hills.
After two days of hiking I take a day off in order to rest my feet and legs, which ache from the jarring of walking up and down concrete steps. But although my 21st-floor hotel room tempts me to indulge in slothful indolence, the city filling the window is too full of potential adventure to resist for long. So I fill my day riding trams to and fro along the waterfront, poking my nose into back alleys and browsing in shops selling a happy miscellany of goods.
Next morning I take the Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR) out to the New Territories town of Lo Wu where I pick up the Wilson Trail again. The trail climbs through a shady forest of rhododendrons. I meet a family out for a stroll along the ridgeline and we sit chatting in the shade of a pagoda on the hilltop.
The trail wiggles indecisively across the hillside, beneath antennas and communications towers, towards the eerie no-man’s land between the Hong Kong Special Administration Region and the People’s Republic of China. In the distance, crouching in a pall of smog, lie the skyscrapers of Shenzhen, the first city beyond the border. It isn’t exactly the end of the trail but I have a hankering for a cold beer and a sit down. My Chinese friends have headed back down the hill and I decide to follow them. I can leave the last few kilometres of the Wilson Trail for another time.
As the train glides silently back into the metropolis I sit with my feet up on my backpack and reflect on the juxtapositions I have witnessed on my walk across the rooftops of Hong Kong. I have hiked the high tops and the teeming lowlands, gazed down the long views and the peered into urban interiors. The sophistication of the city has nestled easily alongside the simplicity of the countryside: perfect blue buildings, the press of humanity and the emptiness of the hills.