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.

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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.