Trans Hong Kong
Story by Carmen Freeman-Rey // Photos by Bill Freeman and Carmen Freeman-Rey
Hong Kong is a place of many faces, a conurbation that is much more than the island from which it derives its famous name. There are sprawling masses of habitation, most stretching high into the sky, and then the contradiction of the outlying islands, which offer up, for the most part, a different, more peaceful way of life. This city is full of opposites. This story is about “Trans-Hong Kong,” the third in a series of films that capture Hans Rey exploring both the natural and urban environments of iconic cities around the world on a mountain bike. There are not many places as instantly recognizable as Hong Kong, the skyline cluttered with monolithic buildings, the green mountains and islands. Some would say the same about Hans, after over 30 years as a pro extreme mountain bike rider and one of the freeride pioneers. As an adventurer, his early films paved the way for today’s YouTube generation.
After months of planning, our international team finally touched down in Hong Kong. Media, friends and family had made us question the potential folly of coming here to make a film and photo story. November of 2019 saw a ramping up of discord in the social climate, but scrapping our plans was not an option. All that planning would have been wasted and too many people let down. We set off understanding that there could be roadblocks along the way and we would have to be flexible, able to alter our schedule instantly if necessary.
Flying into the new international airport, Chek Lap Kok, situated on a small man-made island attached to Lantau Island, was not as dramatic as landing at the infamous Kai Tak of the old days. One feels relieved for the people who are no longer subjected to jets buzzing their balconies, as laundry dries flapping on bamboo poles.
THE RIDE BEGINS
The first day, an energetic Hans was eager to hop on his bike after such a long journey and ride the epic Tin Man Trail located in the New Territories region. There are still large areas in Hong Kong that have not been urbanized and are preserved as country parks for the locals and visitors to enjoy.
The population of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon grew rapidly. More homes were needed, therefore urban developments spread up and out, from Kowloon to the north all the way to the border with mainland China, and south and southwest to the islands of Lamma and Lantau. There are 7.5 million people living in Hong Kong and 50 percent of them reside in the New Territories. Hans would be sampling a few of the trails that this region has to offer, the first being Tai Mo Shan, which has the highest peak at 957 meters (3140 feet). Hans teamed up with Hong Kong native Tiger, a local ripper who grew up watching Hans’ videos. He races on a local level and runs a bike repair shop from his small apartment. Together they rode the network of purpose-built trails, some specific for mountain bikers and others dual-use.
From Tai Mo Shan they headed north and then swung to the west, traversing the New Territories and edging closer to mainland China on the Ho Pui Contour trail. The riding was super fun, not too technical and not too steep, only requiring intermediate skills for the most part, suiting many levels of riders. They rode through miles of subtropical vegetation, canopies of exotic looking plants, bamboo groves, streams and waterfalls. The temperature was perfect, with a very tolerable level of humidity, and the sky was a clear azure blue, perfect for the Trans Hong Kong Urban Adventure. Hans and Tiger continued on towards the west coast, finishing their journey on Tin Fu Tsai (“Tin Man”) or, as the locals call it, “Yuen Long Tsai.” We discovered that there is quite a mountain biking scene in Hong Kong, and this is possibly its most popular trail, with over 1,400 feet of descent on a super-flowy run with packed dirt and bedded rocks to help you glide over the areas that might be a bit wet and boggy.
The day had unfolded in an environment that was both rural and peaceful. Day two would be the opposite; Hans would be exploring Kowloon, and he would be joined by Martin Maes, one of the world’s top enduro and downhill racers from Belgium.
DAY TWO: KOWLOON
Kowloon covers a huge area. Once upon a time it was all about the old international airport, the planes flying so low as they came into land that you could look into the apartment windows; people had little privacy or peace. The Peninsula Hotel was closer to the seafront, this being about the only posh place in Kowloon. The streets were a maze of shops selling discounted electronic equipment, and street markets stacked with everything from dried fish to disposable “tat” (British slang for “junk”); these came especially alive at night. The homes were tightly packed, gray, shabby towers.
Now parts of Kowloon give Central a run for its money. The airport has been moved to a new location; the harbor and seafront have been transformed with glitzy buildings, rising tall and brightly mirroring the reflection of the superyachts bobbing on the water. The sea has been pushed back with made-up land to make Kowloon a little bigger. It now has a promenade and the Avenue of the Stars.
Here, the money has moved in, with banks, insurance companies, elegant shops and swanky hotels. The jewel in the crown has to be the Ritz Carlton at the top of the International Commerce Center. This is the tallest building in Hong Kong, standing at 1,588 feet.
Our second day would begin with riding to what is possibly the most spectacular viewpoint in all of Hong Kong—Suicide Cliff. From the top, you have a 360-degree view encompassing Tai Mo Shan, Victoria Harbor, Kowloon, Hong Kong Island, Lantau Island and Shenzhen (mainland China). Quite a list.
It is not called Suicide Cliff because people jump to their deaths, but because unless you are an expert, to hike/climb it is considered suicidal. Some of the trail was not only overgrown, but the tropical plants were, in places, taller than Hans and Martin, creating an umbrella of leaves, providing temporary shelter from the sun. This ascent could not be ridden; instead, it was exhausting and treacherous near-vertical hike-a-bike up a narrow track to reach the saddle, where riding was again possible. Everyone was more exhausted than they expected by the end of the climb and pretty dehydrated (tip: take 2 liters of water for this excursion).
Along the way we came across a number of hikers, locals and visitors, but no one was insane enough to be on a bike. They were all intrigued when they saw Hans and Martin riding along the rocky, incredibly technical ridge, passing the Kowloon Peak radio towers and down the death-defying exposed plunge to Suicide Cliff. Hans was riding his GT Force, a tough all-mountain bike with a lot of travel. Martin was on a GT Sensor—more of a trail bike with a little less suspension, but the benefit of being lighter on the climbs and having 29-inch wheels that provide extra roll and speed.
We knew from photos that the view would be spectacular, but they didn’t prepare us for the jaw-dropping wow factor. As we crested the final peak that looked down onto Suicide Cliff, we all felt an adrenaline rush and were rendered somewhat speechless.
This rock juts out dramatically and is accessed so precariously via a narrow, exposed trail, one littered with loose rocks, that it is possibly the number one hot spot in Hong Kong for the selfie-obsessed to pose and click. It was amazing how many millennials were perched on the edge, taking pictures of themselves, over and over again. Clearly this is a serious and dangerous pastime for the Instagram generation. From this vantage point, one can get a broader perspective of the diversity of Hong Kong, the skyscrapers and high-rises crammed in one after another, the log-jammed traffic passing ing like ants below, the harbor with the cargo ships and superyachts, the port with crane upon crane, and containers stacked up like bricks in a wall, but also the beautiful greenery of the scattered islands spread out before us like emeralds in the sea.
It was time to make our descent and head back to the city. Dirt gave way to tarmac and stairs. We dodged the crowds as we made our way through street markets, discovered the delights of a tucked-away bakery for a midday snack, and came across curiously constructed apartment buildings built as squares with central courtyards, offering little light since the quad extended up to approximately 40 floors. In this dark and dirty space, groups of women sat on sheets of cardboard or old blankets, huddled together and chatting. They were the maids who worked in the buildings surrounding them; this was their break and the only place they could gather to relax. The apartments looked somewhat formidable, every door and window painted a uniform green and each one covered with metal bars. It was explained to us that this was not a bad place to live; it was considered a step up for many.
Housing is a situation in Hong Kong. This is a densely populated place, and a lot of residents are poor. There is a huge income disparity here. Hong Kong has more wealthy individuals than any other city in the world—one in every 110,000 is a billionaire—but there are many more who struggle living here. Because of this, it is not uncommon for multiple generations to share an apartment and to take turns using a bed, sleeping in shifts. For example, the grandparents might sleep in the day, while the younger generations are at work or school.
We continued on, following the road all the way downhill to the water, with one eye over our shoulders, ever conscious of the crazy traffic. Sometimes we rode the subway stairs, going underground, and sometimes we took the escalators up to the bridges that allowed safe passage from block to block. Hans and I had been to Hong Kong before and knew what to expect when first faced with the view of Victoria Harbor from the Kowloon side, looking across to Hong Kong Island with all its skyscrapers. It is spectacular. Martin, seeing this for the first time, was obviously impressed, stating, “This is the most amazing city I have ever seen.”
All kinds of people were strolling along the promenade. Some would stop and gape, then grab their cameras to take a shot as Hans and Martin pulled long wheelies as they rode by.
The sun was setting on another day with mirrored buildings reflecting the high-rises, water and yachts. The sun sank below the structures on Hong Kong Island, and day turned to night. The skyscrapers lit up with dazzling, vibrant colors of every hue, while the night sky offered us an iridescent, almost-full moon.
It was time to head back to the bright neon-lit signs of Kowloon. The city doesn’t slow down with the fall of darkness; if anything, the energy level ratchets up. This truly is a city that never sleeps. We headed into the shopping district in Kowloon, shortcutting through alleyways and charging down avenues. A bike is a fun way to see the city, and although the volume of traffic was crazy, it never actually felt dangerous. Hans and Martin managed to get a ticking-off for riding through an Adidas megastore, but I think the staff liked it, really.
Martin was hungry. Martin hungry is not a happy person. Food was necessary, and some of the best places to eat in Hong Kong are at cooked-food indoor markets. Put simply, there would be a large floor area, somewhat utilitarian in appearance, with very harsh fluorescent lighting and a variety of kitchens. The seating for diners is communal and basic. There is nothing glamorous about this experience. But oh… the food! It is so delicious that they have no need to dress it up with mood lighting and fancy décor. We ate and ate; one dish after another arrived as we shared family-style. Bellies full, it was time to head to bed and rest up for our next day, which would find us riding the epitome of Hong Kong contradictions.
The sun rose on day three, and it was time for some island life. We headed off to Lantau. Southwest of Hong Kong and attached to the mainland via a causeway, Lantau is home to Disneyland Hong Kong, the international airport, the Ngong Ping 360 gondola and Tian Tan, one of the largest bronze Buddhas in the world. There are also some top trails, built in collaboration with IMBA along with oversight from DirTraction and other local bike associations. The trails are extensive, covering quite a distance, crisscrossing the island. There is a newly built bike park featuring a beautiful asphalt pump track. The highlight of the day was the 18-kilometer Chi Ma Wan trail, which had recently been extended.
It was a pleasure watching Martin Maes ride. He has a style that floats and skims along the trails; he is so at ease and fluid on his bike. Martin has a serious amount of talent. He has Enduro World Series wins under his belt as well as a World Cup Downhill win and a second in the Downhill World Championship. Martin has achieved so much already, and he is still young. We know that his multiple skills will take him ever further on the world race circuits.
If you want to ride mountain bikes in Hong Kong, Lantau is a must, and to get there with mountain bikes, the best way to go is with a Go Go—a Hong Kong van.
Another dawn and a new day. This time we would be exploring the urban jungle and some nature on Hong Kong Island, and we were anticipating another mega-watt view. As planned, we met up with Nick Dover, our British ex-pat “fixer,” beside the Bruce Lee statue on the Avenue of Stars. We crossed from Kowloon to the Central District of Hong Kong Island on the famous Star Ferry; this is an iconic alternative way to go to and fro and very much a part of the island’s history and identity. We left the peninsula behind as we motored, bobbing across Victoria Harbor, coming ever closer to those awe-inspiring tall buildings that we saw lit up before.
After disembarking, we made our way along the steep streets up to the famous Victoria Peak, which stands at a majestic 1,800 feet high. The Peak is home to some of the most exclusive and valuable real estate in the world. It is cooler up there, very private, and the views of Hong Kong’s Central District and Kowloon are spectacular, with its iconic buildings, such as the banks of China, HSBC and the International Commerce Centre.
The harbor waters were laid out before us. The distant islands popped vividly in the blue sea. This mountain is incredibly steep and a jungle of bushes. Many people access The Peak via the funicular tram that has been there since the late 1800s and carries approximately 11,000 people a day. For Hans and Martin, there was no alternative but to ride the road back to the city, hammering a few more staircases along the way. We were headed to Hollywood Road and Soho via another street market, this one specializing in every type of seafood, vegetable and exotic fruit imaginable. The food was so fresh—in the case of the shellfish, a little too fresh, with the langoustines still jumping and flapping about, some landing at our feet.
Hollywood Road is the second oldest in Hong Kong and was built before the famous Hollywood in California. It is known for its eclectic shops, antiques and art galleries. As we rode through the streets, the absolute juxtaposition of Hong Kong was glaringly apparent. One moment we were in the land of billionaire properties and looking down on the 1,500 architecturally astounding skyscrapers, and then we were navigating around the crowds jammed into tight streets lit with neon signs, haggling over the price of fish heads.
From Hollywood, we pedaled on to the Soho District, which is famous for its seriously long escalator system; it acts like a funicular railway, taking pedestrians up higher and higher on very steep streets with exit points at each road intersection. This used to be the longest escalator system in the world. Soho once consisted of mostly residential flats and offices. Over time, shops, bars and restaurants moved in, creating a lively buzz at night. This highlights another example of traditional architecture melding with the new and modern.
Nick the fixer had us install an app that showed in real-time where the protest flare-up points were. The hot spots were illustrated with cartoon dinosaurs, or raptors as they were referred to. The app was immensely useful. While there, public transport was a struggle—the metro being shut down for periods, buses not always running, taxis going undercover and the Star Ferry temporarily ceasing service. It was all very unpredictable. With the app, we could avoid the flare-ups and not get stranded. Or so we thought. After a brief pit stop for dinner, we decided to head back to the hotel. We could hear the cacophony of clanging and raised voices coming from the streets ahead. Bricks were being dug up from the roads and thrown, trashcans and trees upended and tossed aside. In front of us a swath of people, many masked or clutching umbrellas, suddenly turned and ran in our direction yelling at us to “run, run” as the acrid stink of tear gas reached our nostrils and the sting hit our eyes and throats.
It would be strange to write a story about being in Hong Kong and not write about the protests. We did experience being in the thick of it. At one point I was on the front line and can confirm that it was intimidating to see helmeted, armed police with riot shields up, holding a line or marching in formation while protesters shouted and chanted at the top of their voices. As we continued on, we saw broken glass, evidence of smashed storefronts. The relentless screech of the sirens shattered the night; however, somewhat bizarrely, many people acted as though nothing amiss was happening, some jogging the streets or sitting at a café just around the corner from the action, even slack-lining on the other side of the boulevard by the Star Ferry. This week saw protests all over Hong Kong, turmoil and unrest. It could be that we were witnessing historic change, and perhaps Hong Kong will never be quite the same again.
Our final day could not have been more different from the previous one, hopping onto the MTR, taking the underground to Aberdeen Harbor and hiring a local fisherman to take us in a sampan across the Lamma Channel for the final stage of Trans Hong Kong. It was eventful; we came within the berth of a huge cargo ship and trusted that our skipper knew exactly what he was doing.
LAMMA—THE FINAL STAGE
As we came into Pichic Bay, it was already evident that this place was very different. There were colorful houses and cafes perched on stilts by the edge of the emerald waters, which were scattered with pontoons and small fishing boats. This island is car-free; the only way to get around is on bicycle or on foot. Stepping onto land, Hans and Martin were greeted by Andy, a Lamma local, who was going to be their trail guide for the day.
The mountain bike trails on Lamma were not as groomed or professionally built as those on Tin Man or Lantau, but they were lovingly created by a bunch of local dirt riding enthusiasts. These are Hong Kong’s original mountain bike trails. They worked with what was naturally there, tamed the wilderness and built some trails to be enjoyed by both those who live there or make the effort to cross the water.
The trails meander across the island, sometimes intersecting the footpath. Once out of the jungle landscape, they open up to views of the stunning crystalline waters, passing through a few villages, most just a smattering of houses. Hans and Martin picked up extra riders along the way; the locals were excited to mountain bike with these pros as they rode the dirt towards Sha Po Old Village.
This is the thing with the conurbation of Hong Kong; there are towns and districts that once upon a time were truly separate, but over decades, they have merged ever closer together so that the physical borders are harder to define. But each has its own character and personality. Most honor the old and welcome the new. No matter where you are in Hong Kong, you are never far from intensely beautiful nature and unspoiled landscape waiting to be enjoyed.
The light was fading as a boat came into the ferry port. People in business suits disembarked, grabbed their bikes from racks and pedaled home. It was an incongruous sight, all these professionals pedaling away, en masse, instead of driving luxury cars. This island is very popular with expats, very laid back, with a hippie vibe, peaceful and free from the chaos of a million cars. With regular boat service and a 20-minute crossing, this makes commuting very appealing. It was here on the other side of the island that we would take a ferry back to Hong Kong Island, leaving this quiet little paradise behind. But first it was time to take a moment to grab a beer, cheer another great Trans Urban Adventure and watch the blood-orange sun lazily descend on the horizon before melting into the South China Sea and leaving us with a golden glow.
Useful websites: Mountain Bike Hong Kong, www.mtbhk.com, for guiding, coaching and skills; www.dirtraction.com (designers and builders of many Hong Kong trails; and Hong Kong Mountain Bike Association, www.hkmba.org.
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