KOWLOON CITY — It’s taken me the better part of two hours, but I finally reach the summit of Kowloon Peak. Naturally, my legs are wobbly from the steep 6.8km climb and the rarefied air and, combined with the surrounding views, leaves me breathless. Below, Hong Kong’s iconic skyline fans out in all directions — the city’s pencil-straight skyscrapers stand out against a background of silhouetted granite mountains, and Victoria Harbour is dotted with ships piled high with containers destined for foreign ports.
It’s a stunning panorama but one that very few visitors ever get to see from my vantage point. That’s because most tourists elect to view this amazing skyline from glamorous Victoria Peak, Kowloon Peak’s rival that lies 18.8km across from here on Hong Kong Island.
Above: It's an effort to reach the top of Kowloon Peak but the stunning scenery is truly rewarding.
Unlike Victoria Peak, where I’ve visited many times before, there isn’t a cute little storybook train — the Peak Tram — to take you to the summit of Kowloon Peak. Most people arrive here, like me, on foot.
There’s no state-of-the-art observation platform on Kowloon Peak like there is on Victoria Peak, either. Here, people perch precariously on rocky outcrops — sans barrier — to get glorious views of Asia’s most beautiful city.
Neither are there any modern restaurants, cafés or gift shops here, like there are on Victoria Peak. People bring their own picnics to Kowloon Peak and eat on grassy ledges while digesting the eye candy below.
My first visit to Kowloon Peak quickly makes me realize that THIS is Hong Kong au naturale.
Most of the people surrounding me are dedicated hikers who live in the working-class districts that lie at the base of Kowloon Peak.
Above: People walk to the top of Kowloon Peak to get spring water, but the shirtless man monitors the quantity.
These are the people I fall in lockstep with as I start my climb to the summit on one-way Fei Ngo Shan Rd., just outside Ma On Shan Country Park.
My fellow hikers and I share the twisting, narrow road with cyclists, taxis and service vehicles — the latter carry goods to a number of small villages nestled in the thick forest that cascades off Kowloon Peak.
The chaos that prevails on the traffic-clogged streets of Hong Kong is quickly replaced by a serene setting, where butterflies flutter in the cool, crisp mountain air and giant hawks silently glide above my head.
The tranquility is short lived, however. Our peaceful walk is suddenly interrupted by the roar of an exotic lime green Italian sports car that whizzes past us. My Kowloon City hiker friends grumble that the rich of Hong Kong like to test their driving skills on the road’s narrow hairpin turns.
Thirty minutes into my uphill climb, fatigue begins to set in. So, I stop to rest and admire the awesome views of Kowloon Bay off in the distance. It's where Hong Kong’s tycoons like to anchor their multi-million dollar yachts.
Two elderly hikers suddenly appear from behind carrying homemade walking sticks and encourage me to keep up the pace — “the summit lookout is not far,” they tell me.
Above: Hikers like to take side treks to trails like Lion Rock, right. The iconic mountain is a symbol of Hong Kong.
I soon notice a series of dusty trails leading off the main road that take hikers on more challenging and dangerous side treks. One of them is the infamous Suicide Cliff Trail. Those who reach it are rewarded with spectacular photo opportunities. However, my hiking companions tell me many people have fallen to their deaths from the small cliff and each year rescue services are called upon to retrieve panic-stricken climbers from it.
Needless to say, I heed the warning at the entrance to Suicide Cliff Trail that says “for experienced hikers only” and continue my climb on the main road.
As I get closer to my objective, I meet people lining up to fill plastic bottles with spring water. The crystal clear aqua travels from high up on Kowloon Peak through pipes that protrude at the base of rock cliffs. A shirtless man is managing just how many bottles each person can fill and is engaged in a good-natured argument with a woman who is objecting to the quota he’s allowed her.
Not long after, I arrive at the summit. Hong Kong’s dramatic skyline sits under an eggshell blue sky and the midday sun has cast the city in a misty glow. I can see Victoria Peak off in the distance and the entire glorious view makes my pulse race a little faster.
Above: Hikers share the road to Kowloon Peak with exotic sports cars, whose drivers like to test their skills on hairpin turns.
However, I watch aghast as some nearby picnickers lay out their blankets very close to a cliff’s edge. One slip and they’ll tumble hundreds of metres to their demise. Their carefree attitude, though, reassures me they’ve done this many times before.
After soaking up the views and the rarefied air at the summit, it’s time to descend back to Kowloon City. I have two choices. Continue on Fei Ngo Shan Rd., or take Shatin Pass Rd., which will deliver me to the bustling Choi Hung district where there’s lots of interesting neighbourhood shops and Thai restaurants.
I choose the latter and not long after starting down Shatin Pass Rd., I come upon some workers balancing high above the trail on scaffolding. They’re busy covering the rock face with plaster, a technique widely used in Hong Kong because it helps prevent rock slides after heavy tropical rains.
Through the thick forest, I can see Kowloon Peak’s communication’s tower — it’s bubble sticks up like a giant golf ball sitting on a tee. A long, narrow staircase invites hikers to climb to the tower, where they are afforded more spectacular views.
Halfway down Shatin Pass Rd., I stop at Kwun Yam Shan village, a makeshift pit stop where hikers fill up on refreshments and rest their weary legs in a small pagoda park.
A few hundred metres further, I reach the trail that takes me to Lion Rock. The iconic peak, shaped like the king of the jungle, is the most popular outlook on Kowloon Peak. It sits perched atop the mountain like a lion guarding the city.
Above: Temples hidden in the lush forest surrounding Kowloon Peak look like ornaments on a Christmas tree.
Lion Rock is very significant to the people of this massive metropolis and is used as a symbol of Hong Kong’s grit and determination.
In fact, it is said that residents of the former British colony pass their “Lion Rock Spirit” down from generation to generation. It even inspired a popular 1970s TV series, Below the Lion Rock, which depicted real-life situations of the hard-working people of Hong Kong. The show was one of the territory's most popular ever, running for more then 30 years.
There’s a buzz of excitement at the steps leading to Lion Rock. Feral monkeys have been spotted in the area and a group of women are nervously debating whether they should tackle the 1.6km hike. Signs warn hikers not to feed the monkeys, who can be aggressive.
Before reaching the bottom of Shatin Pass Rd., I come upon a number of large Buddhist temples. One is nestled in the trees and sticks out from its vibrant green backdrop like an ornament on a Christmas tree.
Finally, I reach the end of my Kowloon Peak hike in a residential area of Kowloon City where I hail a cab so I can rest my aching feet.
While the views of Hong Kong from the two peaks may be similar, the insight into the territory’s history, culture and natural beauty that Kowloon Peak offers is truly eye-opening.