Hiking in Hong Kong
Yuen Tsuen Ancient Trail
Distance: 27.5 km
Time: 6 hours 45 minutes
Ascent: 1196 m
Date: June 2018
Start: Castle peak Rd, Tsuen Wan West
End: Castle peak Rd, Tsuen Wan West
Do this hike if:
you love quiet, peaceful trails where you can be alone with your thoughts
you want history and environmental lessons as you walk
you plan on camping overnight
Avoid this hike if:
you prefer frequent views or noteworthy landmarks
you want to avoid stairs
The Yuen Tsuen Ancient Trail runs from Tsuen Wan out towards Tai Tong in the New Territories, and was an old access route to transport goods and produce between villages. Now it is a popular trekking route, with clear paths, frequent sign posts and information boards about the history, flora and fauna of the area. Distance markers are handily placed every 500 metres, starting at C6100 and ending at C6125 (= 12.5 km).
I had seen a small section of the Ancient Trail in my previous hike, which offered incredible views over Hong Kong. The downside was that the two kilometres of trail I had walked (up to C6104) was entirely paved, with large stone pavers providing a flat surface raised above the ground. When I go out for a trek I want to be walking on the earth over unstable terrain; I was hoping that the man-made path stopped at some point and my wish would be granted.
Why commence on Castle Peak Road rather than the traditional start of the trail near Allway Gardens? I was living on Castle Peak Road at the time, and I was hoping to find a shortcut through to the trail without having to go all the way into Tsuen Wan. (Laziness. It was laziness). From the Greenview Terrance bus stop I was able to take a couple of side streets straight up a hill, before reaching a long set of stairs to take me up to the Catchwater jogging path.
That was the easy part. According to my unreliable map app, there should have been an entrance to a trail 150 metres down the path. Of course this didn't exist - there was no way of entering the forest from here. Luck was on my side however, and I only had to backtrack about 30 metres to another entry point. Pushing past overgrown shrubs and crawling under low branches I landed on the trail I was after. Then it was only 600 metres directly up through dense foliage, scrambling over large rocks and desperately trying to follow the faded ribbons someone had thoughtfully placed along the route. I was elated when I finally saw the marked trail ahead of me (as well as other hikers), reaching the familiar stone pathway at marker C6101.
The stones guided me up to the main lookout, one of the toughest climbs on the entire trail. The views were cloudy and hazy, but I still appreciated being way above the city and the harbour, looking down on the world below me. Once I had soaked in the view I continued along the gently undulating path, through quiet forests devoid of other people. Then all of a sudden the stones stopped. I stepped down onto the bare earth at about marker C6105, and it was at this point that I knew I was going to enjoy this hike.
The first section: rock climbing.
On the stone pathway.
The stones end, the trail begins.
It wasn't long after this that the stairs started. The trail makers of Hong Kong seem to have an obsession with stairs. Down, down, down I went, the steps continuing on for eternity. I knew I would be climbing back up these stairs on the return journey, and I was not looking forward to them.
At the bottom the trail twisted and turned, coursed up and down small hills, and regularly followed a river. The sounds of the water rushing past along with insects and birds was a stark contrast to my previous life in Saigon and Bangkok. In those cities there was never a moment's peace, never an escape. Here I was only a few kilometres from home and I couldn't hear anything but nature. No people, no technology, no vehicles (except for the occasional plane overhead that I was already tuning out to) - I was in heaven.
I arrived in Tin Fu Tsai campsite, which was completely empty but set up with tables, chairs and BBQ pits. It blew me away that this camping ground not only had bins available, but also recycling bins. I never once saw a recycling bin in Vietnam, even in urban areas, but here they were at an out of the way campsite with signs asking people not to litter and to buy reusable drink bottles. I was loving this city more and more.
From the campsite the trail turned into road, joining up with the famous MacLehose Trail that extends 100 km across the New Territories. Road was not what I was after, and thankfully it soon turned off again onto the dirt. This happened several times: road, trail, road, trail. Each time I joined the MacLehose it was a road section. This was a little disappointing, as I was keen to hike this course one day but did not want to be walking along the road for extended periods.
One great aspect of this trail: toilets. Every now and then I would pass a portaloo on the trail, but I was afraid of the conditions might be like inside. I couldn't imagine that they were cleaned all that often, and the filth had probably built up for months. Eventually the time came when I needed to use one, so with trepidation I opened the door. My assumptions couldn't have been more wrong. Although the toilets were of the squat variety (plus a urinal for men), they were immaculately clean and, incredibly, did not smell at all. There was toilet paper, they flushed, and running water was available for hand washing. All I can say is, thank you Hong Kong.
Down, down, forever down the stairs.
Secluded, in nature, 100% happy.
I didn't see a single other hiker between C6103 and C6117 (so for 7 km), until I was almost at the Tai Lam Chung Reservoir. I passed one group of locals, then another, before turning a corner to find hundreds of people spread out across a picnic area, next to a giant bus. If these people came all the way out here to see the reservoir it must have something going for it. I was bitterly disappointed when I walked down to the lake and all I saw was a tiny stretch water lined with concrete. Underwhelming to say the least. I didn't stay long.
The rest of the trail was just as beautiful as the first section, surrounded by greenery and listening to the sounds of flowing water. The stairs didn't ease up at any point. There weren't many lookouts, no amazing views or natural wonders to photograph, but this didn't worry me in the slightest. Just being in the outdoors made me happy.
I passed a tiny Chinese temple on the trail with incense burning out the front, indicating that someone had passed by here recently. I saw no one around, so I briefly stuck my head inside. I had no idea what any of it represented. Again, I didn't stay long.
I was relieved to discover that the entire trail was well marked, with only a couple of ambiguous intersections. These signposts along with the distance markers meant I rarely had to pull my phone out to check my location - a completely different experience from my last adventure trying to find the Stone Dragon Waterfall.
Finally, I made it to the end at the Tai Tong barbecue site, 14 km and 3.5 hours after I started (the extra 1.5 km coming from the start of the trek from Castle Peak Road). Again, there was no one around, so I took in the views over Shap Pat Heung by myself. The photograph on a signboard of what I was supposed to see didn't quite match up to reality. On a clear day you can apparently see as far as Shenzhen, but the haze today was not going to allow that. The picnic site offered all the amenities of Tin Fu Tsai but with one additional feature: a fully stocked Western toilet block. Having a decent place to pee really does make a difference in my day.
The uninspiring reservoir.
The signboard vs. reality.
After taking a few minutes to take in the grey panorama and stuff down a banana, it was time to head back the way I came. Past the Chinese temple, past the now-empty reservoir (empty of people, not water), past Tin Fu Tsai and back to the stairs. The long, long, long staircase I came down at the start of the trail. Things went downhill (not literally) here for two reasons: obviously, climbing back up the stairs was not going to be easy, but also because it was right at this moment that it decided to rain. And not a light shower - it teemed down. I ripped out my rain jacket as quickly as possible, but not before getting soaked. With nowhere to hide I plodded on, up 627 steps (yes, I counted them), fast-flowing streams forming rapidly across the path. I slipped and slid all over place but somehow managed to stay on my feet. I thought I had reached the top when a flat section appeared, but then another 65 steps materialised in front of me. After 20 km of hiking, plus the torrential rain, this felt like torture.
I hauled my wet shoes up the stairs and was relieved to make it back to the stone path. I was against having a paved walkway earlier in the day, but now it was saving me from trudging through the mud and shallow pools that were forming around me. But the drama didn't end there. All of a sudden three large dogs appeared up ahead, staring straight at me, no owner in sight. They immediately started barking menacingly, stopping me dead in my tracks. I didn't have a great record with wild dogs in Thailand and I had no idea what to expect from Hong Kong canines. We held each other's gaze for several moments before they decided I wasn't that interesting, and trotted off down the path away from me. I cautiously moved ahead, my heart still thumping, certain that they would reappear. Thankfully I never saw them again.
Decision time: do I continue along the stones and steps all the way down to Tsuen Wan and drag my wet body onto a bus back home, or do I cut through the steep, overgrown trail I had taken that morning to avoid the bus and make it home sooner? The rain wasn't easing, I had no idea what state the trail would be in with all the rain that was falling, and I was wondering if I needed to worry about leeches in these areas. So of course I chose the trail, with the thought of getting out of my wet clothes and into something warm sealing it for me.
It was only 600 metres down through the thick vegetation but it took an eternity. I couldn't be certain that I was on the right track, as there was no way to check my phone without it getting wet. Ribbons were hard to see through the rain, so I followed my instinct and slowly, carefully, inched my way down. By the end I had only slipped once, I didn't get lost and there were no leeches. All in all I'd say I did pretty well, and I was glad I had taken this route.
When I arrived home the first thing I did was turn the heater on. I haven't used a heater, or even lived in a place with a heater, since leaving Australia. It seems odd to now be in Asia, in summer, and feel cold. Sometimes I forget what it's like to have goosebumps and to shiver. I don't miss it.
It was another day of seeing relatively few people out in the mountains. Outside of road/paved sections, I saw a grand total of one other hiker and a local man cutting down tree branches. That was it for about six hours on the trails. Maybe there are so many trails in Hong Kong that all the hikers are spread out, so we can almost have one route each. Maybe people weren't stupid enough to hike during summer, when humidity is high and storms are likely. Maybe most people are at work mid-week. Whatever the reason, I'm glad I have the chance to explore the mountains by myself, to be lost in my thoughts without the distractions I encounter in the rest of my life. I think I could do this forever. If only I could get paid to do this...
Way better than the city.
Through the forest.
Green (and grey) as far as the eye can see.