Hongkong: Hikes and Hovels

What do you think of when you think of Hongkong? Highrise! I hear you say. Yes, but no. Hongkong has way more to offer than towering blocks of concrete and steel.

Last new year’s eve I had to go to Hongkong (I know, my life is so hard) to finally pick up my work permit. I spend a week there and do a fair bit of exploring. I stay in what is possibly the seediest and busiest backpacker warren in the world. But, I also discover a long and peaceful hike that shows me nature and history in equal measure. These two extreme experiences live side by side in the dense and fantastic city that is Hongkong.

Chungking Express

I’m no film buff but Wong Kar Wai is one of my favourite filmmakers of all time. In the Mood for Love inspires my love of qipao, and I have never stopped listening to its achingly beautiful soundtrack. One Wong Kar Wai film I hadn’t yet seen was Chungking Express, which offers snapshots of life in the notorious Chungking Mansions in Kowloon. It follows two quirky romances of handsome police officers. New crush: a young Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Tony Leung is also very cute.


Enter the Mansions

Maybe it’s a good thing I hadn’t seen the film yet. I have to book high season accommodation at the very last minute thanks to Chinese bureaucracy. The only option that won’t bankrupt me is Chungking Mansions.

I had heard the stories about Chungking Mansions from old China hands. These somehow conjured up images of another cheap backpacker paradise: Khao San Road in Bangkok. This is also somewhat seedy but overall I have good memories of staying there. I enjoyed the throng of dreadlocked backpackers, cheap street food and fun things to do and see. And so I booked myself into a room in Maharaja guesthouse. For 4m2, with private bathroom I pay 60 USD a night.

Busy as a bee hive

Hongkong is always busy, but this time even more so. The streets are incredibly crowded with tourists who have come to celebrate new years eve. Because I have flown into Shenzhen my trip involves a border crossing and lot of public transport changes. It takes a long time before I finally move through a throng of people on the busy pavements of Kowloon. Until I finally find myself in front of the Mouth of Hell. Chungking Mansions.

Chungking Mansions is a rather grand name for what is one enormous grubby concrete cube that is filled to the rafters with drug sellers, prostitutes, backpackers, money changers, suit makers, food sellers, fake watch hawkers, junkies, poor Hongkong workers, homeless people, thieves and scammers from every corner of the globe.

They are all operating on a gigantic ground floor that is an intimidating maze oozing with small shops and food stalls. The trick is to throw yourself in there, ignore all the sleaze, improper propositions and other cat calls and find the correct elevator shaft that will take you up to your hostel. Somehow I manage to do this, and I push away the alarming thought that I will never ever find my way out again.

My Hongkong home

Luckily the hostel owners are an incredibly prim and proper Sikh family, who run a very clean place. Chungking Mansions was built in the sixties of the last century as a block of fairly big apartments for affluent families. Now these are divided into the tiniest little rooms and a confusing maze of doors and hallways. After checking in in a claustrophobic cramped hallway the son takes me through the blood-splattered stairwell to the floor where I will be staying.

I hadn’t quite realized just how small a 4m2 room (including bathroom) would be, and there is no window. Son sees the look of shock on my face and promises me an upgrade after new years eve. I might be able to get a room with a window! On the upside, the room is very quiet, and very clean. Once I am alone in my room I can’t help but laugh. Staying in Chungking Mansions is in a way a rite of passage. I already know I will enjoy retelling the story of my stay.

After a day I find I am used to it. I briskly wind my way through the throngs downstairs and no one bothers me anymore. I think of my windowless room as a cabin in the belly of a ship. After my upgrade to a slightly bigger room, I get not just a window but even one with a glimpse of trees, and I count myself lucky.

I enjoy a quiet night in, watching Chungking Express on my Macbook. Now I am also one of the experienced people. Someone who will knowingly smile when China newbies discuss their visa runs to Hongkong, and contemplate staying at Chungking Mansions.

Hiking the New Territories

A few days after checking in to Chungking Mansions I venture to explore another lesser known side of Hongkong.

The New Territories is a huge (more than 900km2) yet little known part of Hongkong. The area encompasses almost all of Hongkong except Hongkong Island and Kowloon. It borders on China and consists of mountains, coastline, more than 200 islands and numerous wetlands. These territories take up 86% of Hongkong yet only half the population (about four million people at the last count) lives here. This means it’s not nearly as densely built up as Island and Kowloon.

A little bit of Hongkong history

The UK first acquired Hongkong Island in 1842 as part of the Opium War bounty. 56 years later the Qing emperor of China leased the New Territories to the UK, under a treaty that granted them use of the territory until 1997.

It’s not all that long ago that the UK got hold of Hongkong, is it? I won’t go into the details of the Opium Wars . Suffice to say that China has plenty of reasons to be resentful and wary of foreign powers seeking footholds in the country.

The reason the UK needed a larger chunk of land was that Hongkong grew very quickly and suffered an outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1894. Local government sought to expand in order to better the living circumstances of its inhabitants. A secondary reason was that they wanted to keep the expansion of other colonial empires into China at bay. For instance the Germans in Qingdao (Tsingtao beer comes from Qingdao for a reason) and the French, who were approaching from Vietnam and southern China.

The Hakka people

Another interesting fact about the New Territories is that for centuries it was home to the Hakka people. They are a seafaring Han people whose origins are shrouded in the mists of time but who have spread far and wide over the world. The Chinese characters for Hakka (客家) literally mean ‘guest people’, since they are not bound to a region like other minorities but are more defined by their wanderlust, and 75 million Hakka live all over the world today.

In the 17th century the Hakka people arrived in what is now the New Territories of Hongkong, and here they lived and farmed in remote coastal walled villages. In post-war Hongkong new generations of Hakka sought a better life in the city, refugees from mainland China who were fleeing the Great Leap forward famine started arriving in droves, agriculture went into decline and most villages started to be abandoned in the 20th century.

The Territories today

The villages are still there, and here I find a beautiful hike, meandering along the Mangkut-ravaged coastline. I walk for one full day and see a completely different side of Hongkong.

Because public transport in Hongkong is so good it is easy to get there. The bus drops me off at a cheap and cheerful cafe where I enjoy a hearty local version of the English breakfast with a strong hot lemon tea. The rest of the day I walk either close to the sea or clamber up and down paths through the hilly jungle, from Luk Keng to Wu Kau Tang, via the one village that is coming back to life: Lai Chi Wo.


Across the sea, I see the port of Shenzhen, a new megacity in mainland China that I have yet to visit. It is a strange view, this new tech city right there across the water, while I am following a trail through the silence and the history of the empty Hakka villages. There is still a lot of debris from the recent typhoon, and I even see an upturned boat that looks like it has been smashed onto the beach by the storm. Apart from that the path is tidy, there are hardly any people and I am glad I brought enough snacks to make it to the end of the day.

Luk Keng is the first village, and because the bus stop is close by it is still fairly close to civilisation. One older lady and her dogs live here, and she chases me away when I wander into the one street of the village and peer into the picturesque ruins. Most buildings look like they are from the 1960’s. The friendly dogs follow me for a while until I leave their territory.

I keep walking, and feel the mad rush of Hongkong and the chaos of Chungking Mansions disappear from my mind. All is so quiet here. The next villages are truly ghost villages. Broken windows, trees tearing the brickwork apart with their roots, slowly demolishing the houses. Some houses still bear scraps of red paper, signs of families who return once a year to pay respect to their ancestral home.

Around lunchtime I am all of a sudden face to face with a wild boar, who seems just as surprised to see me as I am to see him. I don’t move and he disappears into the bush. Wild boar, in Hongkong!

Lai Chi Wo

Then I find the highlight of the hike. Lai Chi Wo is a typical walled Hakka village, except that this one is coming back to life. There is no road, so you can only get here by boat or on foot. Yet people live here, and I see workers busy with the restoration of the village school. The rural sustainability project is sponsored by HSBC bank.

I look around Hip Tin temple which is beautiful.

Here you see examples of traditional Chinese building, with feng shui applied in the layout of the houses and temples.

In the village itself is a strange mix of houses falling to ruin and other houses being lovingly restored. As I wander around I run into Adley, an eccentric but friendly local who invites me for tea. He lives and works as a permaculture farmer in Lai Chi Wo, together with his wife and small son. He used to work in Hongkong central as a psychotherapist, until he decided to choose the rural life. Here he grows curcuma and ginger, because, as he says: ‘roots are easy’.

Roots manoeuvres

What he says somehow touches on everything I have experienced today and the days before. Roots are easy. But are they really?

Adley moving from the busy city to an old and remote house. Working hard to keep the weeds and ruin at bay. Hakka people upping roots and moving over the centuries, living all over the world. Tree roots creeping through the crevasses in their ruined houses. Even Chungking Mansions, which is the most culturally dense and diverse place on earth. 120 different nationalities pass through in a years time. It is a place where uprooted people drift by and converge, like pieces of wood floating down a stream and clumping together in a gully. I am one of them, replanting myself in China. Here I hope to put some good roots into the ground. But is any of this easy?

I buy some curcuma powder from Adley. This morning I mixed it into my breakfast smoothie. Growing new roots might not always be easy, but this Lai Chi Wo curcuma is certainly delicious, very healthy, and comes with a good story.

I live on Rainbow Mountain East Road

After a cup of tea on the balcony in the sun, overlooking the city centre in the south and the hazy Western Hills in the west, I head out. I will take you along for a short walk down the street that I now call home. I live on Rainbow Mountain East Road (hong shan dong lu, 虹山东路). For the first few weeks when I lived here I thought it was Red Mountain East Road: hong can mean either rainbow (虹) or red (红). When I found out it was rainbow it made me even happier to live here. 

I want to show what my everyday life here in China is like. Not to boast about my very comfortable life here, but I have to admit that the standard of living on a foreigner salary is definitely higher than when I was living in Amsterdam. I am aware that I am enjoying a lot of luxuries such as cheap massage and housecleaning because other people are earning very little. As I know this I treat everybody, no matter what their job is, with the utmost respect. Luckily the standard of living for the average Chinese has improved dramatically over the last two decades and there are no slums. 

Coming and going

I close the door to my modern three bedroom apartment and take the elevator 22 floors down. A young family is in the elevator with me. Ni hao, I say to their baby, and everyone giggles. There are only a few thousand foreigners in Kunming, compared to about 7 million Chinese inhabitants. In this neighbourhood there are more laowai than in my previous one, so sometimes I see a white face in the street. As I open the downstairs door of the apartment building a water carrier in a green uniform bounds up the steps, carrying a 25L water bottle on his back. Hardest working guys in show business, together with the food delivery guys. I also order these water bottles (and sometimes sushi) and have them delivered to my apartment. The water from the tap has been sanitised but no one drinks it because it is likely still full of chemical pollutants. I have a water dispenser for the big water bottles with a handy tea making set on top. 

Brave New World

As I wander towards the exit of my xiao qu (小区) or gated community I enjoy the lush and perfectly maintained greenery around. It is half December but it is almost 20 degrees. Flowers are still in bloom and most plants and trees are still green.

An older man is doing tai chi by the pond that is situated in the middle of a circle of about ten 35-story beige highrise apartment blocks. Some kids are playing. A man is jogging on the rubber walking track that winds around the pond. Older people are sitting together chatting. Young families are walking home with their shopping, kid and a tiny dog. One girl is wandering around in pink fluffy pyjamas, staring at her phone screen.

I have calculated that in my xiao qu alone there are almost as many people as in the town where I used to go to secondary school, and in my apartment block there are almost as many people as in the village where I grew up. One apartment block has two towers of 35 floors, each floor has ten apartments, each apartment on average 4 people (this is my wild guess). Ten apartment blocks, minus a percentage of apartments that are standing empty = about 25.000 people  in total? This sounds like a lot of people crammed together but it is really relaxed and peaceful and doesn’t feel crowded at all. In my home country living in a high rise apartment block is not generally associated with good living, but here it is. Living in this xiao qu is definitely considered upper class.

The older neighbourhoods consist of six-storey high concrete blocks without elevators. They look drab from the outside but are quite large and pleasant on the inside and also have little green and quiet courtyards. In the winter they get very cold though. 

Social control

I exit the gate on Rainbow Mountain East Road. There is always a guard and I enter by swiping a card, so all traffic in and out is monitored. If I have any issues I can contact the xiao qu management through the WeChat app (which translates between Chinese and English), and I even have an alarm button next to my bed and on the intercom. No one likes the idea of a camera owned by a Chinese project developer staring into my living room so I put my coat stand directly in front of my intercom. There are reports of apartments that were rented by foreigners being bugged, but that is mostly Beijing-based foreigners who work in sensitive jobs such as journalism or for a human rights NGO.

Utility bills generally get stuck onto my front door with some glue and I pay them with WeChat. The neighbours all have red and gold Chinese new years decorations on their door but so far mine is only decorated with little glue-and-paper strips, leftovers from the bills. Once a week a cleaning lady comes around, an incredible luxury. 

I feel safe and happy here; not because of the guards or the intercom with alarm or the panic button by my bed or the cameras that are everywhere, but because there are always people out and about. Eyes on the street make for a pleasant environment, as urban planning activist Jane Jacobs knew. 

Hustle and bustle

The street on the outside of the xiao qu is lined with many shops and restaurants, and everything I need is close by. A dentist, a bike shop, a vet, a copy shop. Most importantly: my favourite local bar where I meet my foreigner friends. Opposite the gate, across the road, are some great restaurants. A cheap and cheerful Muslim place, a more upmarket hot pot restaurant (currently fully decked out in Christmas decorations) that usually features a singer with a guitar on stage and a Dai minority restaurant.

As I head south on Rainbow Mountain East Road I first come by a little cluster of shops. Here is my favourite dumpling place where I sometimes have a quick breakfast of steamed dumplings, a plant shop where I am getting all the plants that are slowly but surely turning my house into a jungle, and little fruit market with year-round fresh tropical fruit. Right now dragon fruit and persimmon are my seasonal favourites. The dumpling man has started drinking baijiu (rice wine) and cheerfully shouts hello when he sees me walking by.  Plant man waves and smiles. 

A little self care

If I would now turn left into a side street, I would walk towards my favourite massage place. It is run by a very sweet older couple from Dali. They are Bai minority people and very good traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. Every two weeks or so I go for a massage and whatever treatment the man recommends. I haven’t done cupping or acupuncture yet but I have experienced moxibustion, where he was cleansing me by waving the burning end of a big cigar made of dried sage around my neck and cranium. A strangely soothing treatment and so far I have managed to miss out on the autumn and winter colds so I keep coming back for more.

Another thing I really love to keep me healthy and happy in winter is regular visits to a city spa with some friends. Gigantic indoor spa’s with saunas, steam rooms, massage services, swimming pools, eat-as-much-as-you-can buffets, cinema’s and bars. There are even entertainment theatres for children to keep the kids occupied as the parents are relaxing in the pool. You can stay overnight at these places, and crash on a comfy couch with a warm blanket or get a simple room or capsule. 

A tiny bit of history

But, today I continue to walk down Rainbow Mountain East Street. On the left-hand side are more favourite restaurants (one is selling dog, I haven’t tried yet!) and on the right-hand side is a little park, really nothing more than a strip of green alongside the pavement. Farmers are selling mountains of oranges from the back of their pick-up truck. Old men are playing mah-jongg. There used to be a temple here, at the top of Rainbow Mountain. Now it is a cluster of older and newer residential buildings with a lot of green in between. 

I walk by one of my favourite cafes: owned by an older New Zealand lady and her female Chinese partner. They serve excellent pizza and gin tonics and have a lovely outdoor terrace on the sidewalk. From here you can leisurely observe Chinese street life going by. We are very close to some big universities so there are lots of young and cool people walking by, but also old and gnarly street sweepers.

Poor and rich, side by side

As I keep walking I see more and more shops and workshops. A car repair shop, someone is welding metal in the street. I see a homeless man. There are homeless people in Kunming, but not many considering this is a city of 7 million people. Most have obvious mental issues and are likely abandoned by their families. 

Here is a shop selling temple paraphernalia: brightly coloured fake flowers, candles and incense. Another plant shop. A little tailor shop with an old-fashioned Singer sewing machine sitting in the street at the front of the shop. A foot massage place. A tiny hospital with people lying in beds in the shop window, receiving intravenous medicine. Lots and lots of small restaurants with little tables and low stools outside. They serve dumplings, roasted duck, and many different kinds of noodles. At night a whole new food scene explodes, when the shao kao (street barbecue) vendors wheel out their portable restaurants and set up shop on the pavement. You get a plate, pick your favourite skewers (mine is lotus root stuffed with sticky rice) and they barbecue it on the spot. Delicious. A sign points towards a MacDonald’s restaurant in yet another modern high rise xiao qu. I know there is also an excellent vegan Chinese restaurant there, a lovely little Korean cafe and an Italian restaurant owned by an actual Italian. 

The market

Now we are almost at the southern end of Rainbow Mountain East Road. There is a big covered market here. A perfect place to browse fresh vegetables, fruit, tofu, noodles, soy sauce, cured xuan wei ham (better than Serrano) and fresh ru bing cheese. Yes, Yunnan has cheese! Ru bing is a bit like halloumi. There is also smoked yak cheese in the western part of the province, where the Tibetans live. Everything is cheap and fresh and it is a great place to shop for dinner. A similar market is close to my work.

I pick up some fresh ginger to make a hot ginger and honey drink.  By now my Chinese is good enough to do the shopping, and I get a big smile for speaking Chinese. I love this simple exchange with the market stall owner. I can get by, I can interact, and it makes me feel at home.

I am at home here, on Rainbow Mountain East Road.

Or, after J.C. Bloem, a Dutch poet: Ik ben domweg gelukkig, op de Regenboog Berg Oost Straat!