You don’t come to a Hong Kong cha chan teng to linger. Be it Kam Wah in Mong Kok or Kam Fung Cafe in Wan Chai, every inch of these no-fuss, anti-frills eateries is packed with locals clicking chopsticks in bowls of soupy instant noodles topped with egg or pork; beef macaroni in tomato soup, and sweet milk tea. See that blur of a server? Don’t dally when she comes over and order an egg tart and bo luo bao (‘pineapple bun’)—a fat slab of butter pressed in a sugar-topped bun; it’s like being hugged by toasty bread.
In Hong Kong, people, skyscrapers, stalls, and smells bounce off one another—and how I love it—but move northwards to Kowloon and further up to New Territories, and the glassy facades melt away. Me and my hiking group of seven drive about 45 minutes to the seaside town of Sai Kung, where Hong Kongers and their pet poodles often spend weekends exploring nearby fishing villages and seafood—but mainly, hiking trails.
The cabbie who takes me up the 20-minute drive to the start of the MacLehose trail speaks only Cantonese. Good thing we don’t feel the need for conversation, for we’re surrounded by still, turquoise waters, bottle green hills popping up everywhere. I’d never imagined anything like this in or around Hong Kong, and definitely not within an hour’s reach.
The 100-kilometre MacLehose Trail begins at the High Island Reservoir East Dam in the Sai Kung Peninsula, part of the Hong Kong UNESCO Global Geopark. The trail’s 10 sections weave through eight country parks, covering 20,000 hectares. Hikers who give it the week it demands are rewarded with ever-changing views: centuries-old villages, sea caves, Hong Kong’s tallest peaks, fiddler crabs, meadows, and beaches that come up like apparitions.
A few metres into the MacLehose Trail, my guide Vivian Wong points to a curious sight. The walls of cliffs rising from the sea have uniform reddish hexagonal columns; they look like tight stacks of matchsticks. They stretch for 100 square kilometres and were formed from a giant volcano 140 million years ago. Its summit collapsed to form a caldera. Gradually, the volcanic ash and lava within cooled off in the shape of these stupefying hexagonal columns.
I hike further, and am overtaken by a silent army of Hong Kongers—lean, 60-something women who seem to be walking on air; there’s even a man in a white shirt and trousers, who looks like he changed his mind on his work commute.
At the beginning of Section 2 is a series of descending steps. Picnickers come up, hollering, with suitcases on their heads. Down lies a campsite at Long Ke Wan, a pearl-white beach; the South China Sea flaunts that dreamy hue of aquamarine. The MacLehose Trail continues to wind further. Uprooted trees are strewn around the beach. Typhoon Mangkhut, explains Jane, a hiker in my group. She remembers the first time she camped here, a few years ago. “The night sky lights everything up. Think of the fairy-lit Hong Kong skyline, only this time, it’s the stars beaming down on us.” (Get an Octopus transport card and take one of the regular buses plying between the MTR stations Hang Hau and Diamond Hill and Sai Kung town, and then take a taxi to the starting point of the hike, East Dam.)
Back in the city, the restaurant 1935 in the Central district brings Sichuan to the plate that night. Every bite of the crunchy okra and yam, bundled up and coated with salty egg yolk and deep fried, is a tango of textures. Next up is a dish with litchi-like, perfectly round balls arranged to look like a bunch of grapes, placed in thick chicken broth. “Winter melon,” helps Wong. The Chinese melon has no real taste of its own. I pop one globule in my mouth: it’s hot, soft, and tastes of the sea, thanks to the slivers of conpoy (dried scallop). Finish it off with a Pep Chi Razzi, a fruity vodka cocktail served in a metallic pineapple-shaped glass with a feisty Sichuan chilli on top.
Like a bewitched carpet, the cable car whisks us high above Lantau Island, Hong Kong’s largest. The 25-minute ride begins in the town of Tung Chung, which was a farming village few outsiders knew about until the 1990s. Still waters of Tung Chung Bay—a unique mix of wetland and sea grass—brood beneath my feet. Only from this height can I see how puny the town looks amid the mountains, its monochromatic buildings peeking from the shock of green hills. Lantau is where people come to visit Disneyland, the fishing village Tai O, or to spot Chinese white dolphins. A sharp 60-degree turn towards North Lantau opens up gape-worthy views of the South China Sea. I spot the airport and the 50-kilometre Hong Kong-Zhuhai–Macau Bridge. Wong taps my shoulder to look down—trails zigzagging the North Lantau Country Park shoot through the foliage like veins. It takes me a second to realise that a moving dot I see below is a hiker.
My amusement ride stops at Ngong Ping village, a rather touristy cluster of gelato shops, dim sum restaurants, and tea houses inside buildings modelled on ancient Chinese architecture. If paying respects to the 112-foot-tall bronze Tian Tan Buddha rising from mountains interests you, climb 268 steps in good faith. A more interesting alternative however is just a little bit further.
A number of hiking trails, like the 5.5-kilometre Shek Pik Country Trail and the 4.5-kilometre Pak Kung Au—it passes Lantau Peak—begin a short walk from the Buddha. I decide to surreptitiously follow a lone, elderly hiker who seems to know what he wants. He enters what’s known as the Wisdom Path, a winding trail fringed by mist-headed hills. With measured steps, he walks along the 38 high, wooden steles, which a Chinese scholar carved with verses from the Heart Sutra—prayers offered by Confucians, Taoists, and Buddhists. I stop at a plaque which says these steles are arranged in the shape of the infinity (∞) sign, and suddenly lose sight of my hiker. I find him a few feet away, looking over a cliff, at the gentle rise and fall of the hills around us. He doesn’t touch his camera, doesn’t even move. Then, he looks at his feet and walks away.
Built in 1924, the Po Lin Monastery is packed with tourists, so insight and epiphany are hard to come by. But at least I can eat, I tell myself while heading to the attached restaurant that serves only vegetarian food. A revolving table is laden with hot-and-sweet pumpkin soup, fried taro cutlets, spring rolls, mushrooms, and mildly sweet beancurd dessert. The meal—not the selfie stick-stricken monastery—is the real cleansing ritual.
(Take the MTR from Hong Kong Island/ Kowloon to Tung Chung Station, Exit B, and head to the Tung Chung Cable Car Terminal; www.np360.com.hk/en/cable-car.)
The cable car brings me back to the city in the evening, but Lantau’s quiet lingers in my memory. Jimmy’s Kitchen in Central is one of the few places where it’s easy to forget the Hong Kong outside that’s forever hustling. It is still 1928 here, when the restaurant first opened; the walls and carpet are plum coloured, wooden seats gleam in dim lighting. Their Chicken Kiev is timeless; rich garlic butter oozes out when I fork the sizable hunk of breast coated in flour, egg, and breadcrumbs and then deep fried. The only thing better than it is a pound of Baked Alaska—ice cream and fruit sponge cake coated in snowy meringue, flamed right in front of my eyes.
An hour-long ferry from Central Pier 5 takes us to Cheung Chau island, and decades behind Hong Kong. Fishing boats jostling along the waterfront seem to have jumped out of a crayon box. The aroma of fish balls is everywhere; the buffet of the sea—fish, squid, crab, lobster—is laid out to salt, pickle, or dry. If one more shop along the pier lures me with its steamed buns, I might ditch my day-trip and spend the morning with stuffed cheeks on this pedestrian island. Older, smaller bakeries smelling of dreams keep their chin up as newer hipster cafés lift their shutters across the street. Teens walk by with sticks of square watermelon slices as large as their faces, and slow down near a wall of love locks. A few feet ahead, Cheung Chau’s beach is empty because of the typhoon, save for a woman on a float, oblivious to my presence on the otherwise deserted stretch.
Ever since the typhoon, Wong seems to be nursing a terror of fallen trees. She refuses to skulk past a monster trunk lying diagonally on a paved trail beyond Cheung Kin Road. We lead the way, and then she streaks across it with a shrill cry.
It doesn’t take long for the forest to open up to mint-fresh sea views. We walk past trails leading to a secluded beach or pretty rock formations; but our pit stop is cooler. Hugging the sea is Cheung Po Tsai’s Cave, where the famous 19th-century pirate hid his loot. It’s the story of his adopted-mother-turned-wife, Ching Shih, which puts Jack Sparrow to shame—she ruled the South China Sea in the 19th century and commanded up to 40,000 pirates. But, well, it’s the man who’s got the cave named after him. The site is one boulder teetering on another. I consider entering it, until I look at the ground and see an entrance so narrow that only a skinny kid would wriggle through. I stay put like the rest, and raise a toast to their brave exploits by having a little picnic at the spot.
Hollering, menu-waving hosts outside Cheung Chau’s shacks aren’t joking when they tell you that they serve some of the freshest, sauciest seafood cooked in traditional Cantonese style.
We pick Hong Kee Restaurant, and in a minute, chilled bottles of Tsing Tao and Yanjing beer are popped open. Golden fried calamari, fan scallops tossed with the goodness of garlic, huge razor clams cooked in black bean sauce, and fried crab stuffed with spring onion and ginger are an ode to an older, slower life on the island.
Every night, Kowloon’s East Tsim Sha Tsui hood fills with scurrying feet and poised smartphones: everybody heads towards the harbour for the 8 p.m. light show.
I see a pair of twin girls tiptoeing so their dresses fall just right when their mama takes their photo; a Hong Konger teen looks mutinous when asked to make way for a couple’s shoot. As the lights shimmy on, an Indian migrant worker settles on the promenade’s rocks and Skypes the show to his kid back home.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.