Travel: 88 Keys to Happiness; Hong Kong hiking — Central to High West Loop
Something professional musicians have in common is free time in the day. However, the amount daylight we get to enjoy depends on how we handle sleep deprivation. My issue is that if I happen to wake up three hours after going to sleep and see blue skies and sunshine, the urge to go outside and play is usually more than I can resist.
That’s when I check my Asia Air Quality app. Hong Kong air normally ranges from noxious yellow death mist to mild poisonous cancer acid, and it’s just not healthy to exert oneself when particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less (PM 2.5) is at dangerous levels.
Microns are a way of measuring microscopic size – the width of a human hair is about 100-150 microns across.
The pollution we see is a haze of microscopic toxic water droplets filled with micron sized poisons and heavy metals, including things like mercury and cyanide. When PM 2.5 is at dangerous levels, these particles get aborbed into our blood streams through our lungs and eventually kill us.
However, Hong Kong occasionally gets lucky and thanks to a recent typhoon, we had a rare day of pristine air quality that demanded some attention.
Air quality aside, there are a lot of things that make life in Hong Kong attractive. One of my favorites is how easy it is to go on amazing hikes. For example, The Central Green Trail is the most picturesque and uncrowded path you can find to The Peak and it’s only short walk from Central.
Once you’re at The Peak there are several opportunities for exploring, including the trail to the top of High West. If you want to follow my footsteps along on a map, I tracked this hike here.
To the peak from Central
The most direct route to the Central Green Trail is to walk up the path to the left of the boarding area of the Peak Tram. At this point the Central Green Trail is called the No. 1 Tramway Path.
I like to take the elevated walkway from Chater Garden to The Peak Tram because it bypasses all the traffic and there are interesting stops on the way, such as Cheung Kong Park where you can read about the history of the area, see interesting water and other natural features, examine art installations, and enjoy relaxing in a mini jungle escape right in the heart of Central.
The beginning of the Central Green Trail follows the Peak Tram tracks for a while and includes several epic stairways. Along the way there’s a sign for Bowen Road, a picturesque path used by joggers and walkers that runs above Wan Chai and then on to Causeway Bay.
Even though the stairs might seem like they last forever, the last set of stairs ends quickly at a short climb to Magazine Gap Road where you’re presented with a choice. Turn right up the Tregunter Path, or left over a little bridge where the the Central Green Trail continues up the hill just to the right of a white curved building with a dozen or so garage doors. The bridge is a perfect place for a photo or video of the tram if it’s nearby.
The Tregunter Path is a mild climb to Old Peak Road which is the most popular way to walk to the peak, however it’s not as interesting as The Central Green Trail and it’s super steep.
The Central Green Trail is my route of choice to the top because of the nice city views and it isn’t nearly as steep. After you cross the bridge over the Peak Tram tracks, take an immediate right and continue up the paved path through the jungle.
At one point the Central Green Trail dumps you onto Barker Road across the street from the old Victoria Hospital which was built in 1897. There is no obvious sign and it’s easy to get turned the wrong way, so when you get here, take a right and walk past the small parking area then go up the Hospital Path which will bring you to the peak.
At the peak, you’ll first see a pagoda with great photo opportunities and some souvenir vendors, and it’s here that the tourists who took the tram will look at you like a sweat covered freak, but that’s OK. You’ve earned your spot at the top while they on the other hand took the easy way and will never live as long as you. There is a nice breeze here and I like wander around a bit to cool down and replenish my water at any one of the convenience stores.
Photo opportunities at the peak
The rooftop terrace of the building opposite the Peak Galleria (the half football shaped building) has some better views of the city and is free. I’ve been to the top of both and I think the free viewing area is more comfortable, less crowded, and has a better vibe because of all the gardens and spots to relax.
There are several hiking and walking options available from the peak including Pok Fu Lam reservoir, Victoria Peak, a nature walk around Victoria Peak, High West, and others. For now I’ll concentrate on High West but I’ll talk about the others in later articles.
The peak to High West and the rickshaws
The old stone building across the street from the tourists is called the Peak Restaurant. Originally this building was used as a docking station for rickshaws. Rickshaws, a sort of people cart manually pulled by a driver, arrived in Hong Kong in 1880 from Japan and were the main form of public transportation for decades. Rickshaw popularity ebbed and flowed until the late 1940’s when they were replaced by busses and streetcars as the modernization of Hong Kong went into overdrive after World War II. Off to the right of the Peak Restaurant is a small intersection, the right hand road going up to Victoria Peak and the left following Harlech Road, also called The Morning Trail or the Harlech Road Fitness Trail depending on which map you’re looking at. To get to High West, follow this trail until you arrive at a large park with a pagoda, paths, and probably quite a few people. The path to High West is somewhat hidden at the western most corner of the park and begins with a small staircase that descends into a dimly lit jungle trail straight out of a storybook.
I like the fantasy feeling of this part of the adventure as it winds through the jungle. There is a magical quality to this path that makes me feel like I’m being pulled along inside a painting, and everything I’ve ever thought about disappears for a few moments as I drift with the current along a tunnel of trees.
At the end of this trail, old concrete structures mark the beginning of civilization. There’s an interesting hidden resting spot up a few stairs to the left that has a Mahjong table and stools made of stone, although I’ve never seen anyone using it.
A few moments later there’s a clearing with several covered wooden benches where the first of many stairs marks the ascent to the peak of High West. This spot reminds me of a peculiar habit amongst many of the hikers I’ve run across in Hong Kong: smoking while hiking. This rest area is in particular seems to be popular with smokers before they start the hike up to High West and after they finish. I’ve also seen people taking smoking breaks in the middle of the hike. I’m not a smoker and I don’t get it, but come on, taking smoking breaks on a hike? “I’m tired and I can’t get enough air in my lungs, I think I’ll stop here and have a smoke because, uh, that’s going to help.” It reminds me of the old saying, “The lights are on, but no one is home.”
The stairs up to the peak of High West are not brutal by any means, they are in fact some of the friendliest stairs I’ve met. The stairs to Lion’s Rock are painfully unfriendly in comparison. As you ascend High West, the vegetation changes with the altitude. It reminds me of hikes in Hawaii where ferns, trees, flowers, even the kinds of butterflies and birds are change as your altitude increases. The differences in flora and fauna are fascinating as you pass through vertical layers of habitat. July is a great time of year to see butterflies and the hike to High West has many different varieties, from small light blue ones to huge black ones with blue spots on their wings to groups of brown and orange ones filling the air around you like a blizzard of flower petals. Once you’ve made it to the top, the 360 degree view of Hong Kong island is spectacular! Make sure you do this on a relatively clear day for the best effect. I posted an impressive Google Photo Sphere where you can visually explore the entire 360 degree view here.
Most of the peaks in Hong Kong have black and white pillars with map location information, and they are also just the right size to climb up and sit on for a while as you soak in the view, catch your breath, and enjoy the tranquility of being above the chaotic stress of the city’s central nervous system for a little while. If you take some time for this sort of exploring, you’ll find an abundance of magical places like this in Hong Kong, places that wake up your spirit of adventure. As an added bonus it’s a fun way to get in some exercise. Take a moment to explore the ridge beyond the roped off area because the photo opportunities are breathtaking. I don’t recommend following that trail down the back side because of all the random hazards. I have a lot of hiking experience and took the trail once, but I won’t do it again.
Random Hong Kong hiking tip
Don’t go bush-whacking in the summer. If hard core trail blazing is your style, at least wait until October when all the giant spiders are gone. Sometimes you’ll see signs like this:
I ignored those signs a few times but have learned my lesson. The trails not only become difficult to follow, they are full of low hanging vegetation covered in spiders and snakes, there are huge thorns that tear skin and clothing alike, and loose rocks and soft muddy spots that can twist ankles and worse. It all adds up to the perfect storm for real life jungle nightmares. I tripped once and before I could stand up, my hands were covered in big angry brown ants. Taking those trails put me in some dangerous situations and I’m usually the kind of guy who likes that sort of thing.
I almost always turn my hikes into loops because I’d rather see new things at every step than retrace my path.
After descending from High West, I continued down the back side of Victoria Peak by following the Morning Trail to Hatton Road which I followed to Kotewall Road and then to Robinson Road which eventually led me to the SOHO stairs. The SOHO stairs did not smell good, in a bad way, and they were slick with some kind of brown organic muck. The thought of accidentally touching them terrified me, even more than trying to salsa dance.
Upon reflection, next time I’ll continue further along Robinson Road and head down through the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens.
The Morning Trail is busier than the Central Green Trail and being a friendly guy, I said hello to just about everyone I met. Most of the time they were a bit surprised but more than happy to chat for a few minutes when I asked what kind of adventure they were enjoying. Sometimes I could even offer destination advice to people looking for new places to explore.
That is, if they weren’t wearing headphones or earbuds.
Wearing headphones is not a new phenomenon and sure, it’s nice to listen to music or a book on tape while exploring or taking a walk, but it also cuts the wearer off from humanity.
Sometimes when I’m coaching clients about following their passions and being happy, I notice that the same ones who habitually wear headphones while having fun also complain the most about not being able to find activity partners.
Looking for people to have fun with? Then be friendly to people doing the same kinds of things that you enjoy. Take advantage of opportunities to let real life happen by leaving the headphones at home, or compromise by using just one ear so when someone greets you, you don’t miss out.
When I said “hello” to people wearing headphones, I was either oblivously ignored or I received a confused look of fear and loathing. Not one of them stopped to chat.
Headphones also cut off the the sounds of nature. Birds, bugs, water, wind in the trees, people laughing, and all the other sounds out there are part of our world and help inspire us to enjoy life more. It is a crime against ourselves to be in beautiful settings without also hearing them, it’s like a world without color.
Give High West a try without headphones the next chance you get, it’s an adventure that keeps your spirit thriving and one that you’ll be happy to brag about to your friends.
Scot Ranney is a jazz pianist who has been performing internationally since 1990. He performs in first-class hotels and other venues across Asia and writing about his experiences is one of his more serious passions.
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