Escape to Dragon's Back

Escape to Dragon's Back

Our taxi was careening down the narrow coastal Cape Collinson Road on Hong Kong Island when it came to an abrupt halt at the iron gates of a prison. We got lost looking for the starting point of the Dragon's Back trail.

A quick call to my Hong Kong cousin and we speedily backtracked to a different jailhouse, the Tai Tam Gap Correctional Institute. Next to it was the start of our walk up Shek O Country Park, which would lead us to Dragon's Back.

There are a few starting points for the hike on the gently undulating dirt path connecting the peaks of Wan Cham Shan (226m) and Shek O Peak (284m), stretching vertically over D'Aguilar Peninsula.

The rolling up-and-down path between these hilltops resembles the back of a dragon, hence the name.

Dragon's Back (www.afcd.gov.hk) is a strand of the Hong Kong Trail - a 50km walking route linking the five country parks of the metropolis.The trail is divided into eight sections, providing a variety of walks of different lengths and difficulty, and the 8.5km Dragon's Back is the last section.

Starting at 9.30am, we took more than three hours to traverse Dragon's Back. Our walk began with a gradual ascent up a flight of stone steps into Shek O Country Park, gradually leading to a trail shaded by groves of bamboo and lush woodland before emerging into open hillsides with stunning views of Big Wave Bay, the former fishing village Shek O and other islands in the eastern sea approaches to Hong Kong.

To the west, there were unblocked views of Stanley Peninsula and the South China Sea. The trail was lush with vegetation and very windy, adding to the liberating sensation of trekking in hyper-urban Hong Kong.

I found Dragon's Back relatively easy and extremely pleasant to walk during winter as the weather was cool and the ground dry. Fellow walkers on the trail included a couple of toddlers and more than a few senior citizens.

Even though open spaces - woods, mountains, beaches and wetlands - make up 73 per cent of Hong Kong's area, while country parks cover 40 per cent of its land, it had never occurred to me to go hiking as my previous visits were filled with eating, shopping and visiting relatives, as the city is also my mother's hometown.

But on this visit, after celebrating a sumptuous Winter Solstice feast with more than 100 relatives, the invitation from a cousin to take a morning hike sounded especially sensible.

Of course, as food lovers, we had planned to end our morning trek with a good meal at the hip Black Sheep restaurant, which serves pizza and barbecued seafood in sleepy Shek O.

Black Sheep was not open for lunch that day, however, so we trooped into the Shek O Chinese & Thai Restaurant instead, where the tom yum soup was piquant and spicy and the curry prawns were not, coated as they were in a creamy, Portuguese Macau-style curry sauce.

Back at our hotel in Kowloon's shopping central, Tsim Sha Tsui, we had the urge to escape the sea of shoppers, so we decided to take another taxi trip to explore Chi Lin Nunnery (5 Chi Lin Drive, Diamond Hill, Kowloon). Admission is free.

The courtyards and lotus ponds inside the nunnery were a peaceful haven from the hustle and bustle of Kowloon.

Troubled Hong Kong stars had found solace in this sanctuary, including the late singer and actress Anita Mui. The nunnery is the final resting place of another singer-actor, Leslie Cheung. After his suicide, his ashes were placed in the Kumbu Stupa here.

The nunnery, established in 1934 and renovated in a Tang-dynasty style in 1990, has several large wooden temples that did not use any nails in the construction, but instead employed a traditional Chinese architectural technique of interlocking timber pieces.

Adjoining the nunnery is the Nan Lian Garden, a public park also built in the Tang style. The garden, which includes a small golden pagoda with a vermilion bridge, is meticulously landscaped over an area of 3.5ha, where every hill, rock, pond and timber structure has been laid out according to specific rules and methods.

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