Hiking in Hong Kong
- Tai Lam Chung Country Trail -
- MTB Trails -
- Shek Lung Kung -
Distance: 18 km
Time: 4 hours 50 minutes
Ascent: 1037 m
Date: June 2018
Start: Tai Lam Tunnel, Tsing Long Highway
End: Castle peak Rd, Tsuen Wan West
Do this hike if:
Tai Lam Chung: you're in need of a stair workout
MTB: you prefer switchbacks over stairs
Shek Lung Kung: you love views over the city
Avoid this hike if:
Tai Lam Chung: you want an undemanding, enjoyable hike
MTB: you're a courteous hiker
Shek Lung Kung: you loathe mosquitoes
This was a trek of three parts, undertaken on possibly the most humid day in existence. It was a sweaty affair.
First up, the Tai Lam Chung Country Trail (distance markers C6401-C6412, markers 500 metres apart). I'll warn you now: if you have a strong aversion to stairs, don't hike this route. I would say at least 60%, and possibly as high as 80%, of this trail is stairs. They. Are. Relentless. Also much of the track is quite exposed, so I would avoid it if a storm is expected.
From the car park I spotted the entrance to the trail behind a shelter and took off down the slightly overgrown track. Within a few hundred metres I was off the track, not because I was lost, but because a huge tree had fallen across it. A slight detour through some bushes put me on the right path again.
It wasn't long before the steps started, and they went up. And up. And up. Every time I thought I must be at the top of whatever hill I was climbing, I would turn the corner to find more stairs. False summit after false summit becomes demoralising after a while. Every peak was met with views, but these were nearly all over the highway and nearby towns, which weren't particularly inspiring.
After distance marker C6404 I was sure there couldn't be any further to ascend. This was sort of true. Before me lay a long set of stairs heading straight down the mountain, followed by an equally long set of stairs going straight up the opposite mountain. This was going to be fun. I'm usually not so bad with stairs, but the buckets of sweat pouring off me today said otherwise. I'm not sure if seeing what was ahead of me was a good thing or just demoralising. Part of the way up the other side I passed C6406, and I couldn't believe I was only halfway through this trek/stair climb.
I was elated to reach the top, but my elation did not last long. A few strides along a non-stair section showed me I was in for a repeat performance. All the way down the stairs, all the way up the stairs. Who designed this trail? If you need some training on stairs, this would be the perfect location. At the top I ran into an older Hong Kong man at a shelter, wearing long pants with no shirt, looking as fit as a 20 year old. He must hike this trail often.
Finally, at C6408, I hit what must have been the big finale before the descent started. Sweeping views in two directions, which were impressive but not the best I had seen in Hong Kong. I didn't stay long, instead walking along the ridge line to C6409 before finally spotting the stairs (what else?) that would lead me down the mountain.
The great thing about this trail was that it was simple to follow. I never needed to pull out my map or wonder which way I should go. Only once was there a fork in the path that was not signposted. I deliberated here for a while before making a decision, only to discover that both paths met up again about 20 metres later.
The stairs deposited me at a road near the Tai Lam Chung Reservoir, a place I seem to end up frequently. The six kilometres from the start of my trek had taken me 1:45, much longer than anticipated. Damn those stairs.
From here there are several options: return along the same trail/thousands of stairs; take one of the trails heading towards Castle Peak Road/Tsuen Wan; join the MacLehose Trail that runs along this road; or do what I did, hike up a couple of mountain biking trails. I don't recommend doing what I did.
I walked along the road away from the reservoir until I reached the point where the Tai Lam MTB trail (north section) ends (distance markers TX07-TX01). Two hikers had just walked out of the forest along this path and were sitting at the exit. As I neared I spotted a sign: "Mountain bike trail. Not for hiking for safety's sake". Well, these two people had obviously hiked it, so I guessed it would be okay. One step onto the path and the female hiker speaks up. "You know that's a mountain bike trail?" "Yep." "Be careful." Given the lack of people I ever see on these trails, let alone cyclists, I wasn't worried.
Do you know what the great thing about MTB trails are? No stairs! Not one. And not only that, there were also no spiderwebs. I guess cyclists had been through recently to clear the path for me. It was heaven. The trail climbed higher and higher via a series of switchbacks, which is rare in Hong Kong. Usually they like to build a path (or stairway) straight up one side of the mountain and straight down the other. But mountain bikers get the privilege of frequent twists and turns and gentle ascents, making for a much for pleasurable hike than my first trek.
My elevation was slowly increasing, with each switchback providing higher and higher views over the reservoir. Walking along one of these switchbacks I heard a whirring noise, gradually getting louder. I knew what that sound was. I jumped over to the side of the path just in time to see a mountain biker fly past me, probably as surprised to see me as I was him. He was followed by another, and another, until five had streaked past. Incredibly all of them thanked me for moving aside, and let me know how many more were to come. I'm not sure why they were being so friendly when I was the one trespassing on their track.
From that point on I was extra vigilant about listening out for further cyclists, hoping to avoid another close call. As I was walking the route backwards I could see cyclists coming towards me, which was helpful. The downside was that the entire 3.5 km route was uphill, which was not only hard on my legs but it also meant the mountain bikers were going deathly fast.
There were several side paths along the track that weren't signposted so I frequently referred to my map to check my location. At one point, after TX02, I realised I had wandered onto a different path that was going nowhere near my final destination. I backtracked about 50 metres to locate the correct path and turned onto an overgrown, barely visible trail. This didn't seem right. My map said to go this way, so I pushed through the overgrowth to see where it would lead.
It wasn't long before I came across a fallen tree, completely blocking the path for mountain bikers. This definitely wasn't the correct track. I checked my map again and assured myself that this was the only way I could reach the end without a significant detour. After I started brushing dozens of spiderwebs off my face, I knew no one had trekked/cycled this way in a long time. But as long as I could see the trail, I was going to continue.
Eventually the path ended at a T intersection, meeting up with a main trail I was clearly supposed to be on the whole time. I guess my map hadn’t been updated in a while, as while it showed me this new trail in one direction (the way I wanted to go), it didn’t show me where it led the other way. I presume it looped around on a spiderweb-free, unblocked, clearly visible path. At least I was on the right track now, and close to the finish line.
After dozens more switchbacks through a beautiful, dark green forest I arrived at the top of the hill. Again I was met with signs warning hikers against using this trail, and also advising that the trail was to be traversed in one direction only (which was not the direction I took). Too late now. I walked up a short hill to the Tin Fu Tsai Fire Lookout, which provided a hazy view over the reservoir and and out towards Lantau.
To reach the next section of my hike I could have walked down the road, but where’s the fun in that? There was another short, 1.5 km MTB trail (TN01-TN04) that allowed me to skip a large paved portion and instead experience the trails I had come here for. So risking being chased down by further cyclists, I took to this narrower, downhill section and hoped I didn’t get in anyone’s way.
The trail, as expected, was gorgeous, and a billion times better than the road. The crappy part about this section though was the mosquitoes. There weren't many but they loved to hang around right beside my ears, the incessant buzzing causing me to use an exaggerated arm swing that swept my hands up to my head. They followed me for every step of that route, perhaps as payback for hiking along a MTB trail.
At the end of the trail I met up with the road again, and dropped my bag at a picnic table surrounded by cow poo. I rummaged through my pack and found the insect repellent, dousing myself liberally (especially near the ears) to hopefully ward off any future attacks.
Although these MTB trails were stunning and the scenery was exactly what I was after, I knew I probably wouldn’t be taking these trails again. They really should be left for the mountain bikers, to have the confidence of pushing themselves to breakneck speeds without worrying about hitting a hiker around the next corner. I apologise to those cyclists I met on the way and hope you experience pedestrian-free adventures from now on.
Final leg: climbing up Shek Lung Kung, coming from the north (rather than the popular southern path). With my little off-road detour I only had to walk along the road for about 300 metres to reach the next trail. I turned right onto a path signalling the direction of Sheung Tong - I had no idea what or where Sheung Tong was but I knew it was the direction I wanted to go. Two steps in told me that Sheung Tong was not a regularly visited place.
The path went directly down. And not on stairs (amazingly), but on a concrete path with ripples across the surface for better grip. It was one of the steepest non-step paths I had taken in Hong Kong. Besides the lack of any other humans, the reasons this area felt so deserted were: 1) plants and shrubs were threatening to overtake the entire path; 2) dead leaves covered much of the trail, meaning that grooved surface was almost useless; 3) bloody spiderwebs. On top of all this, a massive swarm of mosquitoes followed my every step. They didn't land on me (thanks to the repellent) but they were in front of my eyes, next to my ears and I'm sure I was breathing them in with each inhalation. No amount of arm swinging could get rid of them.
Down, down, down I went, not taking any time to enjoy the scenery as all I could see were mosquitoes and spiderwebs. At the bottom was a small creek, which I crossed via a wooden bridge, and then I went up. All the way back up the other side of the mountain, with the occasionally exposed ripples providing some much needed traction. The humidity hadn't eased at all, sweat was pouring off me and apparently the mosquitoes thought I was the most exciting thing in the world. I couldn't get out of here soon enough.
The thing about the spiderwebs today and annoyed me most was that they were all at exactly my eye level. I usually look at the ground, making sure I place my foot on a stable surface, but every one of the spiderwebs I ran into hit me straight in the eye. They tangled up in my eyelashes and had me desperately clutching at my face, hoping no spiders had been deposited with the silk. I couldn't believe how many times my eyes were attacked.
At one point I came out to a rare flat section, containing a field of cows and a long abandoned house. From its size and the shell that remained I guessed it would have been beautiful once upon a time, with no neighbours around for miles. Now it looked like it would be haunted, or should be visited by small children in fairy tales. It was around here that the path disappeared on me completely. I attempted one half-hidden route, but found I was going the wrong way. Pushing aside leaves and branches I located the correct trail, and continued the climb forever upwards.
The path spat me out on a road, going to or from what I had no idea. I turned right and enjoyed the web and insect-free space. This lasted less than 200 metres. Then it was back to trail, but this time wide, well-formed trail that was simple to follow and free of mosquitoes. After a few minutes I came across the world's oldest slide, a concrete eyesore that looked about as much fun as getting poked with a stick. I couldn't see anything else around so I was curious as to why this would be here. I checked my map and it informed me that the local Lin Fa Shan Public School should be right next to me. A search through the trees led me to a building that could have possibly been a school many, many decades ago. It had been completely taken over by the surrounding vegetation, the plants reclaiming the land that was once theirs. I wondered who would have come to this school, if there had been many families in the region. Other than the haunted house I hadn't seen any signs of civilisation. I guess that's why the school was no longer open.
From the school it was only 100 metres to the Yuen Tsuen Ancient Trail (YTAT), and a long descent back to Tsuen Wan. But that would be too easy. Instead I turned left and followed the undulating path to my last climb of the day, Shek Lung Kung. At 473 metres above sea level, it was the highest peak I had conquered in Hong Kong (as far as I was aware), yet it was only half the height of HK's tallest mountain. That didn't worry me; the views were tremendous. The weather wasn't on my side, but looking over the harbour, Tsuen Wan, Kowloon, HK Island, Lantau and the New Territories in a 360 degree panorama took my breath away. I've seen a similar view many times before, but for some reason I'm always in awe of the sight. It was this spot that made all the stairs, humidity and mosquitoes worthwhile.
While I was taking in the surroundings a Hong Kong man climbed up the peak from the southern side, where the route meets another section of the YTAT. His name was Norman and he spoke perfect English. He started chatting away to me, wanting to know all about my trek that day and my life in HK. I hadn't even mentioned running when he turned to me and said: "You look like a runner. Like a 50 or 100 km runner". Picked it in one. He had also completed several ultras, and listed off a few I should sign up for. After several minutes I said goodbye to Norman and followed the path he had climbed up, ready to head home.
I reached the YTAT at a shelter/lookout (between C6102-C6103) and found a large group of middle-aged hikers, maybe 25 people altogether. As soon as I reached them I discovered Norman was right behind me, tailing me all the way down. He grabbed my arm and shouted to the group, "I would like you all to meet my friend Kim. She is from Australia. She has already hiked over 15 km today". For those who don't know me, being singled out like this is one of my worst nightmares. Five photographs and several handshakes later, I managed to make my escape from the friendly bunch and head on down the stone path, towards the comforts of home.