Protect Lugard Road

Dear Friends,

I’m fighting with a group of friends to help preserve something we dearly love, the path that circles the mountain rising over the central part of our busy city, Lugard Road on the iconic Victoria Peak — an oasis of tranquility and refuge from noise and pollution enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors every year.  Developers have applied to build a hotel which will bring cars and service vehicles into the restricted, narrow road which we believe will cause pollution, disrupt the peaceful atmosphere and endanger walkers and the disabled.

When the full effect of this development is felt and the train of traffic is such from vehicles for construction, repair, support staff, suppliers, hotel guests, etc. that walkers and tourists turn away, as they will, the ignominy and shame of those responsible will be as a blight on Hong Kong’s reputation that all of us must bear. For an idea of what’s at stake, read the following post I originally wrote three years ago entitled “A Walk on Victoria Peak” but just as valid today. There isn’t much time to act but if you’d like to help stop the construction, please email Hong Kong’s Town Planning Board to voice your objections.

A Walk on Victoria Peak

Of the millions yearly who visit Hong Kong’s most popular attraction, Victoria Peak, only a small fraction take the hour or so to experience one of the City’s least expensive (meaning free) and biggest delights, the walk that circles the Peak. As a resident on that road for nearly 40 years, allow me, if you will, to accompany you and make a few observations along the way.

Buddhist Nuns

Buddhist Nuns

Walking, jogging, bicycling and driving it for all those years, I’ve developed a real affection for what residents in the few homes and apartment buildings along the way simply call ‘the road’. Actually its two — Lugard Road and Harlech Road, one named for the 14th governor of the then British colony, Sir Frederick Lugard, and the other, although the historical record is scarce, possibly for Lord Harlech, Right Hon. W. G. A. Ormsby-Gore, M.P., Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. They are a patchwork of surfaces, paved and repaved many times since they were built in the very early 1900′s and barely wide enough in most places for a single car. They begin from the Peak Tower in opposite directions, meet roughly half-way around at a junction with Hatton Road, and are part of what is called the ‘Morning Trail’.

Peak Tram Terminus

Peak Tram Terminus

We start at the Peak Tower, upper terminus for the iconic Peak Tram cable car, said to be the steepest in the world when it began operations over 120 years ago. The Lookout restaurant across the street, a charming stone cottage with red-tiled roof that could pass for a gingerbread house with braids of tiny white lights streaming from the roof, windows, eaves and trees, sends Take Five riffs and compelling, near-tangible notes of ribeye steaks from the open kitchen grill into the evening air. a devastating. Proustian experience. Built in 1901 as a shelter for sedan chairs and their bearers and used during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in World War II as a guard house, the one-story structure is a favorite backdrop for picture-takers. You could do the road in its early days by rickshaw for around 60 cents. Now, unless you’re a resident with a special permit for your car, going by foot is the only option.

Out for Exercise

Out for Exercise

A trickle of walkers begins every morning before dawn from the lower slopes and eventually grows into a steady stream. To me, the road is the world’s greatest track. It offers no miraculous cure but judging from the number of elderly and ailing who never miss a morning, the walk or jog apparently effects restorative powers to the body if not the soul as well. Considering that life expectancy rates in Hong Kong are among the highest in the world, there may be something to this.

In a City where most people and their pets live in close confines, the road is a favorite destination for not only walkers and dog-walkers but even one resident who regularly takes a pair of birds for a run by jogging the 1.25 mile road with a bird cage in each hand. The mix includes parents pushing prams, tai chi practitioners harmonizing body, bone and soul through measured steps and motions, smartly-dressed joggers oblivious to almost everything except their cell phones, and long-legged models I’d move the mountain for. Among the regulars are those who walk backwards (for whatever reason), ‘the skeleton’ as I have named him, the shouters who believe their loud, prolonged yells are somehow good for their health, and ‘the crow’ who caws like a crow in greeting his friends and looks like one as well. From the pocket radios of a generation predating iPods you may hear the clash of gongs and cymbals while the spectacle of Chinese opera emerges, if only in your mind, as maiden and warrior, fan and sword in hand, stride forth from the shade to play their parts in this mountain setting.

Two words, ‘Joe San’ in Chinese and ‘Good Morning’ unite this multinational sub-culture of Chinese and expatriates not otherwise given to greeting strangers on the street. I’ve come to wonder what brew this spirit of bonhomie arises from if not one of kinship inspired by the mountain air and morning skies. Joe San and Good Morning, absent of artifice, are shared with a smile or nod of those who know a secret. Class and kind dissolve, if only for this brief period in the morning.

b.waterfallFollowing Harlech, just past The Lookout with sweeping views of western Hong Kong and the outlying islands on the left, kermit green mosses carpeting the shady steep slopes on the right invite you, in respect to their ancient lineage, to examine them closely, perhaps to pass your fingers over their nubby, pug puppy, short furry surface.

Coming round the third bend on an evening in early spring, just past a fig tree on your left, you may hear the mating call of a bullfrog or two at the nearby waterfall, croaks from rocky recesses that would credit the acoustics of a concert hall. The much-admired waterfall strung and garlanded with greenery and flowers is merely a trickle most of the year. But swollen by monsoon and typhoon rains, it gains enormous voice and comes crashing over the 50-foot high lip with such ferocity that it nearly splashes onto the road itself. Engulfed in its violent breath of wind and spray, you may be inclined to quicken your step and leave this mild adventure behind before imagination takes hold and has you swept into the torrent as it rages through the rocky gorge below.

A few years ago City authorities decided to dress up the road in Victorian style considering its importance as a tourist attraction and Hong Kong’s heritage as a British colony. Decorative, knobbed, wrought iron fencing now stretch for most of the length and slender steel lamp posts embellished with fleur de lis motifs taper into gracefully arced arms posed like cobras and fitted with hooded, sodium vapor lamps. They cast such an eeirie, amber glow on foggy, misty nights, of which there are many, that you may imagine a descendant of Jack the Ripper lurking nearby. Hong Kong, however, is one of the safest cities in the world and there is absolutely no reason to worry no matter were you walk.

On rainy evenings its wise to tread carefully to avoid squishing a frog or toad, nearly invisible against the road surface and yet as much a part of the road culture and ecology as the bulky, blue-suited street sweepers in florescent green vests, butterflies, dragonflies, occasional civet, porcupine and squirrel, and the surprising variety of birds. With its scarce land and dense population, Hong Kong may seem an unlikely place for bird-watching. Yet I’ve counted at least a dozen different bird calls when the chorus begins around six or six-thirty in the morning. In fact, Hong Kong has around 450 bird species in all counting residents, migrants and vagrants, an astonishing number considering that it is around one-third of the total species found in China.

Black Kite

Black Kite

Hong Kong is on one of the main bird migration routes in Asia and offers widely differing habitats — wetlands and valleys, forests, and mountain slopes for the shrub and grassland birds. Spring and autumn are best for bird-watching when passage migrants visit Hong Kong on their way to breeding grounds elsewhere. Others come to spend the winter months in what to them is a warmer climate or better feeding ground. With binoculars and some time to spare, you will find the Peak a good place to see warblers, flycatchers, flowerpeckers, bulbuls, thrushes, pipits, spotted doves, Chinese blue magpies, the hwamei, Indian cuckoo, and my favorite, the magnificent, broad-winged black-earred kites that circle the Peak and harbour, hovering in the wind with almost effortless motion before swooping down on their prey. Some would have this raptor named the official bird of Hong Kong given its length of residence, high visibility, and shared characteristics with some of Hong Kong’s other inhabitants.

Acacia Trees

Acacia Trees

Skirting the stretch of road ahead for around 150 meters on a parallel but winding path is a yellow brick road with benches, outdoor exercise equipment and a string of graceful acacia trees that flower in late spring, filling the air with a sweet lemony scent and then, a few weeks later, leaving a soft yellow carpet along the road. Lie down on the sit-up board found under one of the trees and as the sunlight streams down you will see the clusters of the tiny yellow, spiky, spherical balls even with your eyes closed.

The picnic area with gazebo not far ahead where Lugard and Harlech connect is a favorite gathering place for the morning regulars and, on one night of the year, for families and young couples who come to the Peak with candle-lit lanterns to celebrate the Moon Festival, staying late into the night, the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, usually around October, when the moon is supposedly at its maximum brightness for the entire year. Think back 3000 years when people came to worship the moon and later, farmers to celebrate the end of the summer harvesting season. When you pass by, imagine the clusters of families spread out over the grounds, burning incense and candles and eating moon cakes, lanterns hanging from the trees, the impossibly bright moon, and the quiet beauty of it all. Enjoy also the grove of pines standing at this intersection that seem to create their own climate, dripping water from pine needles long after the rain has stopped while playing a deceptive game that causes you to look for an approaching car as gusts of wind sweeping upwards from Victoria Gap whoosh through their branches.

b.flowersFor an educational experience more pleasant than sitting in a classroom, check out the illustrated, descriptive signboards along the way. ‘Classes’ include infomation on various plants and trees, birds, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, land forms and geology, tea leaves, rain and mist, ferns, history of the road and nearby places, etc. And what a remarkable show: Sweet Vibirnum with rose red fruit resembling strings of coral beads; Ethretia with its spectacular spring show of acid pink and pure white flowers; the pale yellow flowers of the Pond Spice, a favorite with insects and bees; the remarkable Hong Kong Pavetta with its many medicinal benefits; and the Mountain Tallow, Chinese Red Pine, Hong Kong Camellia, and the Persimmon-Leaved Litsea with fragrant, pale yellow blossoms hanging from the banches like tiny pom-poms. The star attraction is Ficus Elastica or the India Rubber Tree, sometimes miskaken as a Chinese banyan tree, just past 28 Lugard Road, with hundreds of long hanging aerial roots that Tarzan would love and a sign posted on the trunk reading simply ‘old and valuable tree’. A few steps further is one of the few camphor trees to be seen on the Peak, known for its wood for making furniture and chests and the oil from its bark, roots, wood and leaves for its medicinal value.

The winding, upward forested stretch ahead soon opens to reveal a panorama of the city and harbor with morning skies structured in stainless steel that bridge the mountain tops and the sun leaning in from the South China Sea to paint the water in shining silver. The throbbing hum of commerce driving the city below is almost palpable, a constant low-pitched vibrato from the collected voices of transport on land, sea and sky and the relentless pulse of machinery creating wealth measured by the square foot. To best appreciate the road for its isolation and this particular moment, choose a morning or evening that is not a Sunday or holiday. The imagination is strained to believe, in this tranquil setting, that a city of seven million lies just 1300 feet below, only minutes away. Its easy to understand why the name of this mountain in Chinese is Tai Ping Shan meaning Peaceful Mountain.

b.benchNear the crest you may notice a concrete bench facing the harbour, cracked, chipped and stained with liverwort that has withstood every typhoon and never missed a moon festival since the road was built. Sit for a moment and you will see a century in which skyscrapers swallowed up graceful old colonial buildings and the sun rose every day on new construction of high rise apartments that raised the ratio of people to land and the value thereof to the highest in the world, competition for space no less than in the dense sub-tropical growth on the slopes below. Its hard to believe that Hong Kong was “barren” with hardly a tree left standing following the Japanese occupation from 1941 to1945 when people cut them down for fuel in order to survive, or when Hong Kong was a ‘wilderness of rock faces, boulders on grassy expanses and scree slopes’. Long gone are the oak and laurel families of primeval forest that once covered the land but thanks to a government reforestation program of recent years and natural growth, tree lovers can still find much to admire.

b.bridgeTake a minute to admire the ‘bridge’ we’re standing on, acclaimed as an engineering triumph when it was completed almost 100 years ago for the innovative use of concrete pillars planted in the slopes below to support the road as it snakes along the side of the steep, rocky cliffs giving it the appearance of a bridge. The illusion of this stretch appearing and then disappearing as mists sweep past gave rise to the name ‘fairy bridge locked by fog’.

Continue now as the road slopes downward, past a couple of mansions and some ferociously barking dogs, safely locked behind the gates. From here its just a few minutes to where we began, time perhaps for a bite at the gingerbread house on Tai Ping Shan.