In December last year, my visit to Hong Kong was not much different from my previous trips to the territory: I spent those days eating a lot of good food (dim sum and Cantonese-style roast duck are always a must), checked out new and interesting cultural spots, and went hiking, for the city offers a lot of great trails that are easily accessible from the downtown area. Last year, for the hiking part of the trip we decided to go to Sunset Peak on Lantau Island, but little did I know that this would end up providing us with a glimpse of what kind of year 2020 would be with all its unexpected turn of events and quirkiness we all now know as the “new normal”.
One sunny yet hazy morning, we took the ferry from Central, Hong Kong’s financial district, to Mui Wo, a low-rise tranquil settlement on Lantau known to house a sizeable expat community. It’s not hard to see why they want to live here – the town is situated against a backdrop of lush forests, towering mountain peaks and calm beaches, while the reliable ferry service allows the local residents to reach the city in relative ease. For our hike, James had done quite a bit of research beforehand on the transport and the trail itself: as soon as we disembarked from the ferry, we hopped on bus 3M which would take us to the trailhead of Section 2 (a part of the Lantau Trail that traverses Sunset Peak, Hong Kong’s third-highest mountain).
In a little over 30 minutes, we arrived at the beginning of the trail. Moments later, after slathering on some sunscreen, we were ready to start the hike which at that time felt just like other hiking excursions I had done in Hong Kong. However, now looking back on that day, I couldn’t help but think of a few key things I saw along the trail which pretty much describe 2020.
Let’s start with the haze.
In wintertime, Hong Kong is often shrouded with air pollution blown in from mainland China by the northerly winds. This often results in the significant reduction of visibility, especially if seen from higher places across the territory. However, in my past hikes I often lucked out with this and was able to see clearly as far as the eye can see (except for my very first visit to Hong Kong in January 2012 when it was mostly foggy throughout my stay). But this time around, I couldn’t get away from the haze and had to accept it. 2020 might have started clear for many of us, but as the pandemic loomed large on the horizon, suddenly the future seemed more and more opaque each day, just like how the visibility was along the trail.
Then the wide expanse of dried silvergrass.
As soon as the path leveled out, the view also dramatically changed. Patches of green shrubs and trees along the ascending part of the trail gave way to an endless vista of silvergrass, their dried stems dancing gracefully as the wind gently blew, creating a desolate yet beautiful landscape like poetry written with ink on paper. Months earlier, this must have looked quite different when the grass was greener. And the metaphor has dawned on me: many places that were once bustling with energy before the pandemic are now a lot quieter – eerie to some, peaceful for others. But the grass will turn green again eventually. The end of these uncertain times will be the beginning, or rebirth, of those same places.
As we continued traversing Sunset Peak, a handful of solitary cabins came into view.
These are in fact the Lantau Mountain Camp, a collection of small rectangular cuboids made from basalt blocks that were originally built in the 1920s as places of retreat for British missionaries to escape the heat and humidity of the coast in the summer. There seemed to be no clear layout, but one thing for sure, they are arranged not too close to one another, something referred to as “social distancing”, another term all of us learned this year. Of course, a year ago this notion didn’t even cross my mind, but neither did the idea that the world we knew would drastically change in a matter of months.
Afterwards, the ferns.
We walked further on, past the highest point of the trail, into a shaded stretch where the rock and soil off the path to our right and left were covered in these prehistoric, non-flowering plants. Under normal circumstances, i.e. excellent visibility, they would have been completely overlooked by us. However, this time we decided to stop briefly under the low canopy of trees that provided an ample amount of dappled sunlight for the undergrowth. I squatted to see clearer and realized that there were in fact more than one species of ferns with different shapes of fronds. Not too far from this spot was a wall of seemingly dead leaves, except for a few signs of life shown by a handful of fiddleheads. I learned to appreciate the little things, which turned out to be a skill we all needed in order to stay sane this year.
When the hike was over, it was time for a meal.
You can read a more detailed account of the hike in James’s post, including the part when I started feeling weak towards the end of the trail, for we didn’t have anything to eat since the morning. After walking around Mui Wo to search for a place to eat, we resorted to a modest store that rents out bikes and serves drinks, snacks, as well as some hot meals. James ordered two bowls of spicy red vermicelli soup with meat which was surprisingly good given the unassuming appearance of the place. But maybe I was just so hungry any food that passed my lips would taste really good. In hindsight, this satisfying and very late lunch was like a thirst quencher after surviving the hike, like how my half-day trip to the ancient sites of Batujaya in September turned out to be an extremely refreshing break after months of not being able to go anywhere due to the social restrictions imposed by the government of Jakarta. On top of that, a month later in October, James and I decided to visit my parents in Semarang after not seeing them for around one and a half years. It turned out to be a trip that completely changed my perspective of my own hometown. More on that coming up in January.
For now, let us be grateful for surviving the annus horribilis, let us remember those who have fallen, and appreciate all medical workers across the globe who have tirelessly stood at the front lines of this battle against Covid-19. May 2021 be a better year for us all!