It’s 1:30 a.m. in Causeway Bay, and evening has been turned into day. Massive floodlights aimed at street level and towering neon signs electrify the night with a intoxicating profusion of consumerism, hedonism and capitalism. But you will find no broken bottles or crazy drunkards here. No, in Hong Kong the shopping district doesn’t shut down until 2 or 3 a.m.
Hong Kong, Asia’s world city, has always had a tumultuous relationship with nature. If you look closely, this city is full of clues about what was once here, but the physical landscape in many locations has been changed beyond recognition by man’s indomitable hand.
Causeway Bay’s Cantonese name means “copper bay.” However, the bay in Causeway Bay is gone, clawed back inch by inch from Victoria Harbor to build concrete, glass and steel monuments in celebration of free market excess.
But just half a mile to the south, Hong Kong suddenly morphs into a sub-tropical jungle, albeit one perched at a 45-degree angle.
Over the years, I’ve spent many months in Hong Kong. From visits during Christmas week in December to the middle of March, and, of course, the sweltering months of June, July and August, I thought I had seen this city in every light, season and angle.
But I was wrong.
Hong Kong is often compared to New York City. Both are global cities with large populations and soaring skylines. But in terms of natural beauty, Hong Kong easily trumps New York. Mountains covered in jungle trees frame the forest of skyscrapers, providing that iconic image of Hong Kong.
So this year, I’ve tried to see this other, more natural side of Hong Kong. I’ve hiked up both Dragon’s Back and Victoria Peak so far this summer. Each trek was physically strenuous. On my climb up the Peak, one particular section of the mountain was so steep that a fallen water bottle rolled hundreds of feet in seconds.
But my most recent trek up Dragon’s Back was, to put it as succinctly as possible, one of the ultimate experiences I have ever had in Hong Kong, and a memory I hope to never forget.
Starting at a Muslim cemetery within spitting distance from our front door, my fellow department members and I wound our way up hill after hill, with electric fans blowing all the way.
Once my portable rechargeable fan (all the rage here in Hong Kong as an affordable way to slow the sweat; I got mine for the incredible deal of $40 HKD, which is only $6 USD) ran out of power, though, a stream of perspiration began to roll off my chest.
I never knew how much I could sweat before I went hiking here in Hong Kong. Unlike when I’m teaching or walking through the streets, constantly looking for a way to keep cool (cellular stores and posh malls usually have the most effective air conditioning), when I hike there is no other option than to just give into the heat. Thirty fans would be futile in humidity as potent as this (85 percent humidity in the city, and I presume much higher in the jungle).
When we passed the Tai Tam Gap Prison, our route morphed from the typical Hong Kong concrete road (asphalt is remarkably hard to find here) to a rocky and precarious mountain trail.
Surrounded by a wall of lush greenery, I was perplexed by the idea that I was still in Hong Kong.
Furthermore, I was not in some godforsaken crappy fishing village in the New Territories, where they barely have satellite TV, let alone 4G LTE cellular services; rather I was moving slowly along the ridge line of Hong Kong Island, one of the most densely populated spits of land in the world.
By now, though, the perspiration was pouring off not just my face, but every inch of my body. It rolled off my forehead and onto my glasses, into my eyes and down my now shirtless chest, pooling at my shorts in such an awkward way, it looked as if I had wet myself. (It’s so humid that moisture-wicking clothing doesn’t work).
However, right after we took the left fork to go to Dragon’s Back Peak, something changed in the atmosphere. The humidity dropped, or at least felt comfortable to me. As we continued to climb up the mountain, the breeze rolling off the South China Sea became stronger and stronger. Whipping through my hair, the wind carried a stinging mist.
We continued to climb up the mountain, spurred on by the temperate climate and positive vibes.
Then we reached the summit, an imperious rocky outcropping. To my left lay Shek O (a town best known for its beach and old-money Hong Kong mansions) and Big Wave Beach. To my right, lay the expatriate community in Stanley.
As I snacked on sashimi at the top, the clouds continued to descend on me until I was enveloped in a magical wind-whipped cloud of misty fog. That’s when, for the first time this entire summer, I felt cold in a natural location in Hong Kong.
After several more minutes of mental clarity in a halcyon trance-like state, the mist parted to reveal the sun in a glorious Jesus-light formation. I now understand why people want to be in the outdoors.
Hong Kong may be a shopper’s paradise and a super-sized model of what blind ambition and limitless consumerism can do to the environment, but maybe the best activity in this city doesn’t involve Rolex, Mont Blanc, or Hermes, but rolling mountains, hiking and friends.