Cheung Chau, Hong Kong, China
February 3, 2018
Streets crowded with tourists? Yass. Skyscrapers crowned with clouds? Double yass! Wilderness islands? Duh. Deserted beaches? Double duh! Farthest from my mind in Hong Kong. But as it turned out, not far from reality. Who knew that I would reach what seemed like the remotest part of Hong Kong? Apparently, only my travel companion Ki. His early morning online research yielded our day’s destination: Cheung Chau, one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands.
Our journey began at Central Pier 5 in Hong Kong Island. A high-speed ferry took a little over half an hour to get us to Cheung Chau. I had been hoping to see even just one iconic junk sailboat, but there was none. Instead, I got small fishing boats in Cheung Chau. Hundreds of them. It seemed an entire fleet of wooden boats of various colors and sizes had been abandoned at the harbor. Robust tourism aside, this ancient fishing village maintained their age-old livelihood as evidenced by all their boats looking worse for wear.
Still, tourism was clearly the main moneymaker. Parked bikes choking San Hing Praya Street rivaled the number of moored boats cramming the sea. There were few takers for the bikes. Not us. What cold front in winter? We decided it was a fine day for a seaside bike ride and rented a couple for three hours from a shop at the end of the street, some distance from the center of commerce. We might as well have given our business to someone who didn’t get as much.
The ride started out easy-breezy, literally. Sea breeze was blowing in, numbing our faces and hands. Listening to the crashing waves and looking out to the vague horizon were well worth the shiver. Until we got to the foot of a hill. The slope went from gradual to steep in one turn. Regret came as swiftly as we walked our bikes adding more load to our body weight. Our leisurely pace became a workout. We started huffing and puffing midway uphill to North Lookout Pavilion.
We left our bikes at a view deck, a big load off, to get to the small pavilion occupied by a couple and a man talking loudly in Chinese. We continued for some peace and quiet. It was by pure chance we ended up on the north side of the dumbbell-shaped island. The direction to which we walked out of the pier led us away from the more popular southern side where the sights were. We had long stretches of the cobblestone trail mostly to ourselves. Save for fellow cold-loving hikers we could count on one hand and a puppy appearing out of the blue from the bushes, there was not a soul in sight.
Oh, but what a sight! The north hill was a vantage point to fit in the panorama of the flat and narrow central isthmus of the island and of East Bay, empty and serene so unlike the busy harbor and jam-packed typhoon shelter on the other side. Ki likened the view to that of Boracay. On the other side was a lonely beach-ringed cove. We never felt so far removed from metropolitan Hong Kong and so close to nature. Close enough to touch. Actually, it was so close I could feel it through me: the chill in the air, the smell of dry grass, the sound of distant waves.
I could not pinpoint exactly when Ki decided to follow the undulating hiking trail, but I only realized we were hiking when we reached halfway through! There was a curious absence of trees on the hills. Only wild grass grew, which were not tall enough to get in the way of the stunning view. The threat of bush fires was real, though. Each slope, it seemed, was equipped with fire-beaters, wooden sticks with strips of rubber on one end. Given the Chinese penchant for smoking, it was a necessary preventive measure.
We walked down all the way to the deserted Tung Wan Tsai (Coral Beach). Perhaps the cold front kept swimmers away from its powdery sand and clear surf. Or more likely, its remote location protected it from the onslaught of tourism and development. We were privileged to be standing on a part of Hong Kong nearly untouched by two centuries worth of urbanization.
It was almost 5 PM. This wilderness paradise was not a place to be caught in when darkness fell. We went up the opposite way to make a full circle back to the northern pavilion. We retrieved our bikes and made our way down the steep slope on foot. A powerful biker, a man of a certain age, came pedaling effortlessly up the hill past us. In minutes, a young couple came whooshing down on their bikes. Amazeballs. We were two old men walking our bikes. The deep ravine to our left deterred us from even riding gingerly down.
All that unexpected activity depleted our energy. Despite our dinner appointment at Causeway Bay, we succumbed to the offer of one particular restaurant barker. A salesperson himself, Ki found her problem-solving style – explaining in simple English (“tea, no money,” meaning free of charge), showing photos of food – effective and not annoying. We had our Hong Kong-style chop suey fix at Hung Lok Seafood Restaurant. Dining al fresco along seaside Pak She Praya Street lent much of the island village vibe to the experience.
Our half-day jaunt to Cheung Chau gave me an experience I had not bargained for. All the more that I appreciated Hong Kong as a livable city, not only for its modern conveniences, but because it didn’t take much and so long to lose the city and be lost in nature. Ultimately, I owed it to Ki for choosing this island and pushing me to get out there and work it, not just bask in the empty warmth of a mall. When I simply followed someone else’s footsteps, I saw the place from a different pair of eyes.