Natural therapy: Hong Kong’s mountain warriors

This file photo shows trail runner Stone Tsang, 39, running on Hong Kong’s highest peak Tai Mo Shan on Dec. 14, 2017. (AFP)
Updated 02 January 2018
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Natural therapy: Hong Kong’s mountain warriors

HONG KONG: Wooded hillsides, craggy ridges and wheeling birds of prey are a world away from Hong Kong’s famous skyscrapers but the city’s country parks are a necessary balm for its stressed out residents.
With some of the world’s highest property prices, many can only afford tiny apartments, some living in infamous “cage homes” big enough only for a bed.
Hong Kong’s fast-paced lifestyle and long working hours also take their toll.
Fortunately, within easy reach of the densely packed tower blocks and traffic, there is an extensive network of hiking trails which snake over hundreds of peaks across the territory and along its coastlines.
Forty percent of Hong Kong is protected country park and nature reserves, amounting to 443 square kilometers (274 sq miles), drawing hikers, runners and campers all year round.
For 29-year-old Dai-yu Cheung, those natural landscapes changed his life.
As a keen amateur photographer, he decided to document some of the city’s remoter areas, never having explored them before.
His discoveries led him to ditch long hours in his job as a graphic designer, during which he had developed a bad back, and go part-time as he sought a healthier, happier existence.
Cheung lives with his family and cut down his financial outgoings so he could work three days a week, often hiking with friends.
“When we go hiking, we feel free, relax and forget our troubles,” he told AFP, carefully gathering scattered litter as he walked through tall grass to a rocky outcrop in the northern New Territories.
He and his friend AM Renault, 29, also a keen hiker, have set up Facebook and Instagram pages under the name Yamanaka Yuko, sharing photos and video of their hill climbs in Hong Kong and abroad. They describe themselves as artists inspired by nature.
With a growing band of followers, the pair is now regularly asked for tips about routes by local walkers and have teamed up for campaigns with environmental NGOs and outdoor clothing brands.
“Our message is about protecting nature and the environment,” says Renault, a freelance photographer.
He worries about the future of Hong Kong’s trails — the housing shortage has sparked government proposals to build on the outskirts of the country parks.
But with hiking becoming more popular, particularly among young people, he hopes those plans will fail.
“More and more people like hiking and go out and do it. Because of that there’s more resistance to development than in the past,” he said.
On a cool sunny morning, Stone Tsang skips sure-footed along a shady path beneath Hong Kong’s highest peak, Tai Mo Shan.
The city’s most famous trail runner, Tsang, 39, regularly wins long-distance competitions and recently completed a gruelling local hill race which saw him cover 298 kilometers (185 miles) in 54 hours, snatching naps when he could no longer keep his eyes open.
As a paramedic and father of two, he says getting out into these wide open spaces is a vital stress relief.
“When I come to the mountains it’s like therapy for me,” he told AFP. “It’s healing for my soul.”
Hitting a dirt trail, rough with gnarled tree roots and scattered boulders, is part of the Hong Kong hill experience.
But over the years, many paths have been covered with concrete in an attempt to make them safer, something which Tsang is leading a popular Facebook campaign to stop.
He says former government technicians who helped establish paths using natural materials have now retired and contractors have little knowledge of how to do so.
Not only is the concrete alien to the natural environment, it also becomes slippery and causes soil erosion, says Tsang.
“Most mountain rescues are because inexperienced people get lost or dehydrated, there are very few injuries because of the trail conditions,” he explained.
Tsang is lobbying the government to stop pouring any new concrete and has introduced them to international experts who are showing workers and members of the public how to refurbish paths naturally.
The agriculture, fisheries and conservation department told AFP it would use natural materials “as far as possible.”
Tsang now wants to bring hiking tours into the country parks to foster a love of the mountains in the face of the threat of development.
“The country parks are a very valuable asset to Hong Kong, not just for us, but for future generations,” says Tsang.
“This kind of thing you cannot just see — you have to go out and feel it.”


World Cup 2018: A Muslim-friendly travel guide

Updated 23 June 2018
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World Cup 2018: A Muslim-friendly travel guide

Moscow

Both Tunisia and Iran are based in the vibrant 800-year-old Russian capital, renowned for its golden domes and stunning orthodox architecture. It is home to the famous Russian ballet and a wealth of art, culture and iconic scenery, including the breathtaking Red Square. A truly multicultural capital, Moscow is home to a sizeable Muslim community, which first began to settle here around the time of the Golden Horde. If you want to explore some of the capital’s Islamic heritage, visit the historic Muslim area, Zamoskvorechie, and head for the ‘Historical Mosque,’ built in 1823 by Muslim tatars. Reopened in 1993 after a lengthy closure under communism, the mosque has recently undergone a major refurbishment. Along with the 10k-capacity Moscow Cathedral Mosque (pictured), it is the capital’s most significant Muslim building.
Halal Food: You’ll find plenty on offer, from highly rated restaurants including Mr. Livanets (Lebanese), Dyushes (Azerbaijani), and Gandhara (Asian) to halal food carts.
Mosque: The Moscow Cathedral Mosque on Pereulok Vypolzov.
Qibla: South.

Saint Petersburg

Saudi Arabia’s national team will be based in this bastion of Russian imperialism, known as the Russian ‘Venice’ for its stunning network of canals, neo-Renaissance architecture and its plethora of culture, arts and all things splendid. Visitors can enjoy a wealth of museums, galleries, open promenades and the finest dining in the northern hemisphere — talking of which, sun lovers will be delighted to know that during the World Cup the sun will barely dip below the horizon. Muslim visitors should not miss the St. Petersburg Mosque’s sumptuous Central Asian architecture and mesmeric blue tiles (pictured) — a design inspired by Tamerlane’s tomb in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Halal Food: Limited, in comparison to Moscow, but both Eastern European restaurant Navruz and Oh! Mumbai (Indian) have received generally positive online reviews.
Mosque: St. Petersburg Mosque on Kronverkskiy Prospekt.
Qibla: South-east.

Grozny

Egypt’s ‘Pharaohs’ should feel right at home in the Chechen capital, which is home to a huge Muslim population (its coat of arms features a mosque), making it one of the most halal-friendly destinations on our list. The mosque in question is the city’s flagship monument and main tourist attraction, the Ottoman-style Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque. Modelled on Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Mosque and sited in a serene location on the west bank of the Sunzha River, it is part of an ‘Islamic’ complex also housing the Russian Islamic University, Kunta Hajji, and is the spiritual headquarters for the Muslims of the Chechen Republic. Much of Grozny is still being rebuilt after being virtually destroyed in two wars with Russia in the 1990s and 2000s, much of it through investment from the UAE.
Halal Food: Chechnya is majority-Muslim, so you’ll be spoiled for choice, from fast-food chain Ilis to high-end restaurants in five-star hotels.
Mosque: Akhmad Kadyrov on Prospekt Putina.
Qibla: South-west.

Voronezh

Morocco are based in quiet (at least until the tournament starts), picturesque Voronezh. The city is littered with lush green spaces and stunning churches. It’s home to a large orthodox Christian community, as well as small Jewish and still-smaller Muslim ones. The city’s beautiful 114-year-old synagogue on Ulitsa Svobody is a popular tourist attraction. Those looking for more ‘familiar’ heritage should head to the Kramskoy Museum of Fine Arts on Revolyutsii Avenue, home to an impressive collection of ancient Egyptian works of art on stone and sarcophagi.
Halal Food: Very sparse. The Asian restaurant Bahor bills itself as offering the “only halal food in Voronezh,” and there are reportedly a couple of grocery stores selling halal meat, one in the city’s central market.
Mosque: While no official mosque has yet been built in Voronezh, Muslims do gather to pray. According to Halalguide.me, there is an informal mosque on Ulitsa Gvardeyskaya.
Qibla: South.

Essentuki

Essentuki, which will host Nigeria in its Pontos Plaza Hotel (pictured), is famous for its health spas and mineral water, so the 'Super Eagles' should at least be able to relax after their games. Muslim visitors may want to drop by Kurortny Park, where the drinking gallery was inspired by Islamic Moorish design.
Halal Food: Hard to find. There is a kebab house that may be able to provide halal options. Otherwise, head to the area around the mosque in nearby Pyatigorsk.
Mosque: The nearest mosque is 25 minutes drive west in Pyatigorsk, on Skvoznoy Pereulok.
Qibla: Southwest.

Kaluga

It’s all about space exploration in the city where Senegal will be based. Space travel pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky taught in Kaluga in his early years. The town’s main attraction — unsurprisingly — is the Tsiolkovsky State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics, reportedly the world’s first space museum. Second billing goes to the rocket scientist’s quaint old wooden family home.
Halal Food: Very hard to find. Asian restaurant Chaikhana and Russian eatery Solyanka (pictured) appear to cater to alternative dietary requirements, and may be worth a call.
Mosque: The town’s main mosque is a converted building off Ulitsa Annenki.
Qibla: South.