WHEN I went to Hong Kong five years ago — my first visit since I left at 6 months old — the dense chaotic landscape exhilarated me. This year, it seemed Hong Kong’s return to China and the Asian economic crisis had sped up an already maddening pace.
The jackhammer metronome of the pedestrian walk signals provided the backbeat to the constant sounds of building, reclaiming and demolition. Even more bodies seemed to jostle one another for space in this claustrophobic tangle. Maybe it was because I was older. Maybe I sensed that survival had replaced the get-rich-quick determination as the driving force. Whatever the reason, I needed to get away from getting away.
It was time to go for a hike.
Most travelers familiar with the harbor city’s shopping and dining rarely venture into its interior. Yet the cityscape makes up only about a third of Hong Kong’s land mass. About 40 percent has been set aside for conservation, recreation and tourism, according to the Hong Kong Tourist Association — including 23 “country parks” and four long-distance hiking trails from 30 to 60 miles.
Hiking venues range from Lantau Island, the home of the largest Buddha in the world and the new airport, to the forested Shing Mun Valley, with the territory’s highest waterfall and greatest macaque population. Time, accessibility and middling hiking gear dictated my options, and I picked one of the many urban-countryside routes. The Pok Fu Lam Reservoir hike, starting at Victoria Peak and ending in Aberdeen’s cemetery hill, is about seven miles long. It covers two stages of the well-marked 30-mile Hong Kong Trail, which in its entirety would take about 15 hours.
The Pok Fu Lam Trail’s advantage is also its disadvantage: the proximity to urban life. Traffic and barking dogs can make for unceasing background noise during the first half. Commercial ships and factories are always part of the view, and palatial homes of obscenely wealthy sprout from otherwise breathtaking hillside ridges.
Getting to the starting point is in itself a walking adventure. The steep ascent to Victoria Peak can be done via the famous Peak Tram, which tilts the landscape at a 45-degree angle. Another route is the Hillside Escalator Link, a 20-minute series of escalators. Riders can step off at any level to explore the neighborhood of residential buildings and restaurants. Another path is the steps alongside the tram, a considerable prologue to the 3 1/2-hour hike.
At the top, Harlech and Lugard roads circumnavigate the peak — at 1,805 feet the island’s highest point — and provide the panoramic postcard views. After going full circle, the hiker can begin the route for real by taking apedestrian road into Pok Fu Lam valley. My friend and I followed the signs posted just past Hatten Road. Descending steep steps, we met walkers climbing with red-faced determination. The first half — mostly urban views — concluded with a concrete walkway leading to the reservoir and the typically contradictory Hong Kong vista: to the left, placid blue-green waters tucked in emerald hillsides; straight ahead, a congestion of ships and city buildings.
The dry, winter landscape changed almost immediately as we headed toward Peel Rise in Aberdeen. Here urban sounds fade. Shrouded glimpses into south China are reminiscent of the painted scrolls depicting mist-draped mountain landscapes. The moneyed landowners still stake out hilltop patches, but the trail passes through forests, butterflies and tiny bridges crossing rocky streambeds that would become a waterfall after a good winter rain.
Higher up, picnic sites afford excellent views. I regretted not packing dim sum or steamed barbecued-pork buns. More prepared walkers sprawled out on the rocks next to one of the creek bridges with their bags of food.
Eventually, the pastel and steel cluster of high rises emerged in the distance. The steps toward Aberdeen harbor begin to descend at the giant buzzing electrical tower. Amid the floating seafood restaurants favored by tourists, a few sampans still stake out the smoky jade-green waters — but the former fishing village has mostly disappeared in the interest of progress.
After spiraling down the hillside, the Peel Rise trail runs into a concrete waterway. The usually dependable sign — two hikers with walking sticks — was nowhere to be seen, but we turned left along the path.
Hong Kong is a city of juxtapositions. That the city’s drainage system would be part of a nature path seemed somehow unsurprising. Posted signs warned of dangerous hiking conditions. Fortunately it had not rained recently, so the waterway was mostly empty. The only queasy moment was crossing a dam, which made a fearfully sheer drop to the right. Looking down is inadvisable; looking up is recommended, as the falling-rock signs suggest.
The last stretch ends with morbid symbolism at Aberdeen’s famous stacked cemetery. Hundreds of gray tombstones jut from the hillside in tiered formation. Long, lean apartment buildings have since interfered with the ocean views of the deceased. Still, the prime real estate gives the dead the respect they deserve and guards against riling spirits who might take offense if their mortal remains lie in a bad location.
Ending a getaway from Hong Kong’s city life among its departed inhabitants might not be to everyone’s taste, but once in a while, it’s good to see how the other half lived.