We are standing at a bus stop in Sai Kung, a town with relaxing ambiance in the New Territories, anything but similar with the busy downtown of Hong Kong Island. It is a Wednesday morning in January with clear blue skies, a nice break from the usually grim Hong Kong winter days. While James is looking carefully at the bus schedule information board nearby, one minibus is waiting near the bus stop, already full with passengers. We continue standing there, talking about the town while waiting for our minibus to arrive.
A few seconds later James takes a better look at that minibus then walks slowly towards it with me following behind. Apparently that is the minibus we should take, and it is ready to leave very soon. “Are there still seats for two people?” James inquires. He then signals me to go inside – I assume the driver said yes. I get on the minibus first and find only one empty seat, then I turn my back and see the driver handing James a wall calendar, making a gesture signaling him to use it to sit on the floor. As soon as James is seated the driver takes no more time waiting and leaves right away towards the Sai Kung Country Park, another side of Hong Kong not many people are aware of.
Roughly half an hour later we arrive at a dead end after winding through the scenic uphill road leading to the start of the hiking trail to Sai Wan, one of four beaches that make up Tai Long Wan – Big Wave Bay. The first thing we do as soon as we get off the minibus is heading towards an information board with a map, examining the area closely one more time before walking down the trail. Not only we get a clearer picture of our location, but we are also confronted by an incovenient fact: local residents at the village of Sai Wan have been blocking the path to Sai Wan beach since November 2013 in protest of the government’s plan to incorporate their village into the country park – a plan endorsed by conservationists but berated by the villagers.
“I didn’t know they were still doing it,” James expresses his concern. “There was an annual international running race held last November. The villagers blocked the path on the day the race started without informing the organizer. The first runners, unaware of this, had to turn back when they found out the path leading to the village was blocked,” he adds.
Then the minibus driver, at this time resting before going back to the town, tells James and a few other hikers that we can still take the path, as long as we don’t bring too many people. Too late for most hikers who took the same minibus with us as they have left and taken another route. Taking heed of what the driver said, James and I, two French women, and a handful of local hikers decide to walk down the path, unaware of what kind of blockade we will encounter.
Walking down the concrete path – a material Hong Kong is very fond of – we see the High Island Reservoir to our right, built in the 1970s to overcome the severe water shortage in Hong Kong, now it stretches as far as the eyes can see. “There was a time when water flowed only four hours every day,” James recalls the story told by his parents.
The sweeping view of the reservoir is soon replaced by quiet mangrove forests as we are getting closer to the village. Then, we find the blockade, a small fence set up by disgruntled villagers, locked and left unguarded. After a short deliberation we make a decision to climb over it, slightly worrying if we would break down the weak fence and get caught by an angry villager.
The village itself is eeriely quiet, no single person we see, only one very friendly cat and a few dogs lazying around. I also notice some empty chillers and closed small restaurants; while waiting for any outcome of their protest, businesses here are practically shut down on weekdays, leaving me wondering if the money they get is enough to make ends meet. It is a tough situation where on one side the conservationists want the village to be included into the country park, ensuring a holistic protection of the environment for a longer-term benefit – without beautiful and pristine beaches tourism would not thrive in the future; but on the other side the villagers blame the government for not being fair as they are not allowed to develop their own village as the regulation strictly dictates any single development within the country park.
We walk past the village to get to the first of four beaches of Tai Long Wan, Sai Wan. A beautiful stretch of white sand beach, speckled with unique rock formations, Sai Wan itself makes enough reason to do the hiking and visit this part of Hong Kong. However, as James assured me earlier, the more we go north the better the beaches get.
We take a shortcut and climb a steep hill to continue the hike to the next beach, hidden behind a lush headland. Not long after the start of the hike, Ham Tin Wan – the second beach – emerges from afar, with Sharp Peak overlooking at the background. Two white tents sit in the middle of the empty beach, in front of a small lake – more like a big puddle – over which a dubious plank bridge connects the beach with another village through a small restaurant.
More than two years ago James went to the restaurant, trying what he claims was the best sweet and sour fish he has ever tried in Hong Kong. But the restaurant is still closed as lunchtime won’t start until another hour or so, tempting us to go even further to the third beach. The village’s concrete path soon turns into a trail of dirt with exposed roots and a chain of loose ropes to help us scale the hill. At the other end, the highlight of this long stretch of coastline is waiting.
Tai Wan, as the name implies, is the biggest of all four beaches that make up Tai Long Wan. An impressive beach with very fine sand, a rugged landscape and picturesque vista that would make many people mistake this place for a secluded beach in eastern Indonesia or any other exotic part of the world – definitely not an image most people think of Hong Kong. However secluded the beach is, the cold winter air hampers us from jumping into the water, sparing it for a warmer time, next time.
We go back to Ham Tin Wan, leaving Tung Wan unexplored at the far end of Tai Long Wan. With even hungrier stomachs we head back to the same restaurant, eager to taste its sweet and sour fish along with other dishes. An old man, with most of his teeth missing, greets us while unloading groceries from a small tractor-like vehicle which seems to be self-assembled. “You are lucky, the big chef is here today,” he happily informs us. His jovial nature speaks for happiness of living in this part of Hong Kong, far from the bustling city center. Despite not understanding any single word he says – James does the translation afterwards – his hand gestures show a great spirit of life and contentment, a rare thing in a busy city like Hong Kong where many people’s lives are dictated by the constantly ticking clock and the daily rush.
Later I find out that he used to live in the city before moving to this remote part of Hong Kong. After being involved in the construction work of the reservoir, he decided to live in Tai Long Wan, far from pollution and closer to nature.
We order Singapore noodles, as the man suggested earlier. The noodles, alongside sweet and sour fish, fried squid and rice, were surprisingly tasty and filling, something I would never expect to have in such an unassuming restaurant. I secretly wish to have another portion of the noodles, however as we still have to hike back to catch our bus before dark we need to leave the idyllic Ham Tin Wan soon. Spending no more time lazying around we head to a path different from where we came, this time winding around the slopes of Sharp Peak.
Before arriving at the village of Chek Keng, a small cove with clear blue water, dotted with small verdant islands between headlands, steals our attention. We walk down the exposed rocky bed, finding lonesome young mangroves seemingly out of place among the otherwise barren land. “The last time I went home from Tai Long Wan through this path was almost sunset, so we had to rush and I was completely unaware of this,” James recalls. “It’s so beautiful.”
The tide slowly rises, reminding us to continue our walk. A few minutes later we reach the village, seemingly abandoned by most of its residents, leaving traces of life in a somber setting. We peeked into some empty houses, slowly overgrown by nature. “It’s so eerie,” James describes. “It seems like people just left,” he adds as we both see cups, bowls and other utensils still placed on a dining table. In another house an unused roll of toilet paper is tucked among household appliances. The village does look like it was hastily abandoned by its own residents, probably with the intention of seeking a better life out there.
Here in Sai Kung residents seem to have mixed feelings about the land where they live. Some are satisfied with life in this piece of paradise, some are living with angst and resentment for their uncertain future, but some simply opted to leave their homes altogether… forever. No one knows for sure what the future holds for them, but avid hikers and beach lovers will keep coming to Tai Long Wan, sustaining local people’s businesses, one day at a time.