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

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.”

A look inside Los Angeles’ movie-making machinery

Traffic and pedestrians at Hollywood Boulevard. (Shutterstock)
Updated 22 October 2018

A look inside Los Angeles’ movie-making machinery

  • Read on for an unexpected travel guide to Los Angeles
  • This glimpse into the reality of Hollywood could come as a surprise to some

LONDON: First-time visitors to America often remark that arriving feels like stepping onto one almighty film set. The country’s iconography, look and feel is so instantly recognizable — already deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, via the land’s greatest cultural export: The movies. Which makes a visit to Los Angeles surreality squared. The home of Hollywood is at once both the most-photographed fantasyland on the planet and an uncomfortable glimpse behind the curtain, at the mechanisms and people bringing these daydreams to the world.

The mask slipped the moment I arrived, when an airport minibus spurted me out on top of a lump of faded metal etched into a grubby sidewalk, and I realized I was standing atop one of 2,627 stars making up the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


That night I was served pizza by an aspiring opera singer, and I chatted with jobbing actresses in the coffee queue the next morning. When I brazenly strolled into a famed Sunset Boulevard rehearsal studio, rather than finding gold records on the walls I was asked, “La La Land”-style, if I was there to audition for the prestigious Berklee College of Music. I didn’t even have to look for the oily engine room beneath the star machine.

And of course, I was expecting to. Disavowing jetlag, I had booked an early slot on an arduous $139 “LA in a Day” guided two-wheel tour, from the excellent Bikes and Hikes LA — a 52km-workout through numerous neighborhoods and landmarks I knew only from the movies: from West Hollywood through Westwood to Santa Monica Promenade, down to Venice Beach and through Marina Del Rey. Peddling furiously up the titular inclines of Beverly Hills, our endlessly enthusiastic guide (and, naturally, aspiring film director) Zack pointed out gleaming once-residences of Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise and Lucille Ball.

To recover, that evening I feasted at Barney’s Beanery, the diner where Quentin Tarantino reportedly wrote much of his seminal early movies. When we asked which table he sat at, our waitress was as unimpressed as any of QT’s characters.

The next day I rested my legs, riding Starline Tours’ two-hour Movie Locations bus tour ($55), winding around a giddyingly geeky list of sights which, if you squint at them in the right light, remind you of the movies.

We glimpsed the US Bank Tower aliens obliterated in “Independence Day,” stopped at the historic Bradbury Building — its restored interior heavily exploited in the original “Blade Runner” — and visited Union Station, familiar from “The Dark Knight Rises” to “Catch Me if You Can.” We found the pond Jack Nicholson rowed through in “Chinatown” and the Hollywood United Methodist Church used as a dancehall in “Back to the Future.” Towering above was Griffith Observatory, the locale of the famous showdown in “Rebel Without a Cause.”

Spotting all these real-life sites had the jolting effect of demystifying the movies, but nothing could prepare me for my visit to the modern Warner Bros Studio, Hollywood’s biggest surviving back lot, stretching to 110 acres out of town in Burbank.

For $65 visitors can join the 1,400 people who call this giant playground their office on an official studio tour and ride a golf cart through the fake streets and makeshift neighborhoods across multiple centuries and worlds that have been brought to life in hundreds of movies.

We visited a studio where dozens of weekly sitcoms are shot in front of a live audience with factory-like precision. (Shows such as “The Big Bang Theory” can wrap in just two hours.) We saw the dull soundstages used by make-believe epics including “Inception” and “Dunkirk,” and were shown a warehouse storing real-life Batmobiles, used over three decades of “Batman” movies.

Any semblance of mystery was totally annihilated with the closing blockbuster ‘Stage 48: Script to Screen’ complex, a collection of interactive educational exhibits allowing visitors the chance to ride a Harry Potter broom in front of a green screen, hold a real Oscar, and hear the award-winning audio to “Gravity” broken down layer by layer — and even act out a scene on the original Central Perk coffeehouse set of “Friends”. As I mimed firing up a fake espresso machine at the edge of the frame and served another tourist an unbreakable plastic mug, I realized my journey inside the Hollywood machine had gone far enough. Sometimes, illusion beats reality.