The Dragon’s Back

WE WERE SEARCHING FOR a roundabout. The double-decker bus pulled around curves and cut farther up into the mountainside, and the roundabout would be our signal to disembark. But with every turn threatening to pitch the vehicle down the hill, hoofing it was sounding better.

Then the roundabout came. We punched the button, threw ourselves out the door and collected our wits on the sidewalk as the driver shot off down the road.

Here was Cape Collinson, the entrance to the Shek O Country Park and the trailhead for the Dragon’s Back, a route I’d wanted to hike since researching it three years ago. At 4.5km long, it’s hardly an epic climb. But the trail’s name and my own visions of trekking high above the South China Sea had fixed it in my imagination.

In the shade of trees, we at first caught only glimpses of the water: a sailboat, an apartment complex on the coast. But as we ascended onto the spine of the mountain it came into full view. Beach condos were perched along the edge of a wide bay to the west. Eastward, smaller islands sat out toward the horizon in a greenish-blue ocean. A breeze came over the ridge and I dropped my bag to cool off.

Then came an unexpected sound. Down below, at what looked like a university not far from a crop of waterside mansions, a marching band was drumming and tooting away. I imagined rows of students baking in their polyester outfits under the August sun. They were still going at it as we set off up the trail.

We got excited as the beach came into sight. Not white sand, but certainly light beige. No hordes of holiday-goers, just a handful of umbrellas and the slow lapping of waves. Another mile or so down the trail, another short bus ride and we were in the town of Shek O. Lunch was cold beer and green curry at an open-air restaurant. Fans whirred under the orange canopy. More men without shirts.

The ocean was like bathwater — warmer than I’d ever felt. We waded in and then I got up the courage to swim out to a floating platform where kids were diving and playing with a rubber ball. I used to swim miles in high school but now I hesitated as the water got deeper. What if I got a cramp? Would the lifeguard hear me?

When I hoisted myself up onto the platform, I sat down and looked back at the shore and the mountain, and the cloudless sky. Then I jumped, feet first, and swam back.

Hong Kong and History

IN HONG KONG, THERE are men without shirts. They haul things in carts or on the front of bicycles peddled by sandal feet. Some drape towels around their necks to catch the sweat. It makes good sense. The humidity on the island is such that, upon waking our first morning here, even our blankets felt moist, like in a tent with too many campers.

Dodging the heat while still exploring the city, then, was a key goal in mind as J and I contemplated the day over a breakfast of dim sum and jasmine tea. We caught the Star Ferry over to Kowloon but the breeze aboard the boat, an open-deck vessel built in 1964 that rollicked and rolled in the greenish waters of Victoria Bay, was only slight. The shade in the park next to Nathan Road offered little reprieve. And the Hainan chicken we ate for lunch, tender though it was, seemed to only further dry our mouths.

It was at the Hong Kong Museum of History (free entrance on Wednesdays) that we finally took refuge in chilling A/C and dipped into a bit of local culture, beyond Hong Kong’s flashing retail surface. A special exhibition on the evolution of the qipao, the Mandarin-collar dress worn from the late Qing and still occasionally at dinner parties, displayed over 280 pieces. Each showed signs of their wear. These were personal artifacts, appealing as much because of their craftsmanship as their hints of intimacy with the owner’s story.

The hottest part of the day over, we emerged and blinked in the sunlight, skimming a pamphlet we picked up at our hotel. There was still time to go to the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple, “one of the most popular temples in Hong Kong.” A brief ride on the metro put us at its gates, where tiny stands adorned in red hawked incense and other items for worship. A sign at the entrance warned that burning large joss sticks was not permitted, nor was lighting a fistful of incense instead. A young couple followed the rules and dutifully said their prayers with one thin stick each.

Popular or not, the significance of the temple seemed to have been entirely manufactured. Its building shined with cheap looking paint. The covered corridors of the garden, opened in 1991, were being adorned with red Christmas lights. Turtles struggled to traverse the bottom of a drained pond. After about two minutes, we left, HK$4 lighter and with one word to describe what we had just seen: plastic.

Leaving Seoul

IT STARTED TO RAIN. The weather had been tortuously sunny and humid for days but last night the sky had relented, and in bursts the drops continued to fall. Underneath my yellow umbrella I heard a pulse of thunder and they came down harder. There were the sounds and smells of late summer: crickets singing in the bushes; the sweet, earthy fragrance of wet leaves.

My wife and I had spent two years living in the Sinjeong (新亭) neighborhood of Seoul. We landed there by chance when J was assigned to be the English teacher at a nearby public elementary school. But after many weekends spent exploring the city’s other nooks and boroughs, it was still our favorite. There were no crushing crowds, but the streets felt healthy and alive. We sensed (and, to an extent, felt a part of) a community. Everything one could need or want — from pig feet to pocket wrenches — was a short walk away.

And it was the walks, really, that made the neighborhood. Especially those along the wide, tree-lined pedestrian paths that cut through the surrounding Mokdong apartment complexes. Here, families played badminton without nets, women sold seasonal fruit under pop-up canopies, and grandmothers gathered to gossip in the shade. Almost every neighborhood had a park nearby with outdoor exercise equipment. One had a path of differently shaped stones on which you were to walk barefoot, supposedly aiding circulation.

During the past week we hadn’t spent much time around home; J’s  brother and sister-in-law had come to visit from New York and we hopped around in a whirlwind of sightseeing and binge-eating. But today, our last in the city for a long time to come, I again found myself strolling through Mokdong Complex 7, lingering for a moment in its isolated calm and listening to the rain.

In Foxglove Tree Park, workers were setting up for a festival being put on by a local radio station, and I thought about the fact that I would be long gone by the time it got underway. It seemed impossible. Here, all around me, were the mundane goings-on of life…my life, the life that I had made and come to know. But tomorrow they would fall out of sight as we peeled away from the tarmac and launched forth on a journey of uncertain proportions.

The thought passed. When I had said my goodbyes to friends, I felt the emotional weight of my departure. Now I didn’t feel it. I went and got my hair cut. I ran to the post office. What had carried me here in the first place was momentum, a blunt but powerful tug to go and do. And so I let it carry me again. Backpack on, step forward, out the door.