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.

A Pole, a Brit and a Dutchie enter a Chinese tea shop…

Recommended tea for this post: a cup of cooked pu’erh in an unglazed gaiwan from Xishuangbanna. Recommended listening: Sensation of China – 100 classics of Chinese traditional music. 

A Polish Swede, a Brit and a Dutchie enter a Chinese tea shop…

Now, this could be the start of a geeky joke. It can also be the beginning of a fantastical adventure. A trio of unwitting adventurers is thrown together by fate, in a weird land full of strange customs. As they step across the threshold of a tea shop they are hurtled into another dimension. An ever-expanding universe of history, tastes and smells and exquisite highs envelops them, a veritable Narnia of tea. Together they navigate this magical world and learn many things. It is, like so many fantasy adventures, also a tale of friendship.

Nordica friends

Let’s start at the beginning. A while ago I gave a lecture about bike travel at Nordica gallery. Afterwards, I have a couple of drinks with Kaj and Sean. Me and Sean stick with beer, but Kaj drinks tea. we notice he is really quite particular about the tea he orders. It transpires that he knows quite a lot about tea, Sean and me are curious to learn more. Thus our tea exploration club is born. A bit more about Kaj: his full name is Kajetan Mazurkiewicz. He is Polish but grew up in Sweden and speaks a beautiful British English. Apart from knowledgeable about tea he is also the inventor of a whole new language for his LARPing world. He also introduces Sean and me to his tailor. She ends up being quite busy with making lots of classical Chinese and LARPing outfits for Kaj, and one or two for me and Sean.

The tea horse road

Now, no history of Yunnan can be told without talking about tea, since tea production was likely invented here, some 100 years BCE. So this is not just about tea; it is also about China, and especially about Yunnan. Part of what is called the southern silk road runs through Yunnan. Another name for this route is the tea horse road, as horses transported tea from China to Tibet. The southernmost stop on this route is Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna. The name Xishuangbanna refers to an ancient Dai kingdom which even today feels more like Thailand than China. This area is also home of the unique pu’erh teas.

Tea porters in Sichuan (Ernest H. Wilson, 1908)
Tea porters in Sichuan (Ernest H. Wilson, 1908)

The tea horse road is also part of the future of China. The government uses the legacy of the old trade route to promote a new railway line between Chengdu and Lhasa.

The tea markets of Kunming

Over the next few months, Sean and I follow our tea guru Kaj to tea markets around town. We spend a few leisurely afternoons wandering around different tea districts, peering into tea shops, poking at pottery and of course drinking lots and lots of tea while listening to Kaj explain the myriad aspects of tea culture. We try to speak Chinese with friendly tea shop owners, we spend insane amounts of money on tiny little teapots and associated accessories and yes, we get high on tea. Or rather, we get drunk: ‘tea drunk’ (cha zui, 茶醉) is the Chinese expression for feeling a bit wired but also very content and happy after slurping endless tiny cups of tea. It is much better than being high on coffee caffeine although it can keep you awake at night as well.


It’s a family affair

Drinking tea in Chinese tea shops is something that I would recommend to all travellers to China, as a great way to experience Chinese friendliness and some quintessential aspects of Chinese history and culture. There are many different kinds of tea shops, and if you don’t speak the language it can be somewhat intimidating to step inside and sit down for a tasting. Some are very sleek, others are charmingly messy and full of knick-knacks. It is however always perfectly acceptable to walk in, to sit down at the huge wooden tea table that is at the centre of the shop and to start tasting. There is no obligation to buy anything, although I have bought tea in almost every shop where I sat down to taste. A lot of tea shops are part of a family business so it can feel like sitting down with a family: kids are doing homework nearby, grandma is starting to cook dinner outside, mum and dad are running the business and pouring tea for the three laowai that have rocked up to their shop. The true family businesses sometimes own tea plantations further south in Yunnan and they are most happy and proud to explain about their special tea varieties.

Kaj with a lovely Chinese tea shop owner
Kaj with a lovely Chinese tea shop owner

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Tea

I could try and explain about these varieties but of course Kaj, the master of our tea trio, does this much better than I ever could. As part of a year-long cultural exchange project between Scandinavia and China, organized by Nordica gallery, he compiled a small compendium of tea: here is his Hitchhiker’s Guide to Tea.  He presented this last week at the gallery, to wrap up his year in China. This, sadly, also means that we have to say goodbye to our tea master, who was not just a teacher but also became a friend. Luckily these fantasy stories usually have sequels. So, I can see us meeting again at some time in the future, getting pleasantly drunk on an exquisite pu’erh.

Thank you Kaj! For teaching us so much about China, and for the lovely moments spent enjoying tea.

Chinese propaganda

A lot of people know and love vintage Chinese revolution propaganda posters. Possibly the best collection can be found here in Shanghai. Such as this beautiful Red Guard girl:

Or this handsome worker:

And of course Chairman Mao, an almost god-like figure in this woodcut print:

Today there are still many colourful propaganda posters everywhere, and I’ve started sharing them via my Chinese Propaganda Instagram account.

I am fascinated by the utopian idea of a communist society, with the promise of a good life for all citizens. The China of today is hyper capitalist and its inhabitants far from equal, the state is only communist in name. The beautiful posters however remind us of the original ideals behind the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. Today’s posters show less marching and little red book waving, more children playing with their grandparents and happy minority people dancing together as one. One can dream..

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