One of the things I love most about Hong Kong is how easy it is, despite being one of the most densely populated places on earth, to lose yourself in a mountain wilderness without even leaving the city limits.
Because much of Hong Kong is too steep to build on, large parts of it remain as parkland or open space while its famous skyscrapers hug the shoreline. From the building where I, it’s a 10 or 15 minute walk into densely forested mountains, which is where I tend to spend a great deal of my time when I’m here.
But today I decided to go farther afield, and walked down to where my street deadends at the Harbour. I took the little ferry across to Kwun Tong, then rode the subway a few stops to Wong Tai Sin station, within walking distance of the trailhead to Lion Rock.
Does the rock really look like a lion? San Francisco area residents who can see the “sleeping lady” formed by Mt. Tamalpais (and I used to be one) would have no trouble; if anything, the lion is even more distinct. But what I mainly went through my mind was “Holy ****, I’m going to walk over that?”
It looked far higher than its approximately 1,600 feet, probably because of its steepness and the fact that I was looking up from not much above sea level. I had my doubts as to whether I could manage it in an afternoon, but it being a holiday (Easter Monday), the park at the base of the mountain was crammed with fellow climbers who displayed no such trepidation.
Hundreds of less ambitious families sat happily barbecuing in the smoggy sunshine, but I strode purposefully past them, only to be stopped short by a sign at the trail’s entrance warning of “wild dogs and monkeys.”
Dogs I wasn’t so worried about, but my limited experience with monkeys – having only seen them once in the wild, and then from some distance – left me more nervous. I knew the drill: don’t make any sudden movements or loud noises, don’t look the monkeys in the eye (they will take it as a challenge to fight), don’t even carry a plastic bag, as monkeys will attack you in hopes that it contains food.
If confronted by a monkey, the sign concluded, tell a park employee (as if one will be on call anywhere you look in hundreds of miles of precipitous wilderness). Above all, it said, “Do not attempt to expel the monkey yourself.”
A strange turn of phrase, but one that resonated. I’ve been practicing t’ai chi for 41 years (if I’d practiced more faithfully, I might be starting to get good at it, but as matters stand, that will probably require at least another 41 years), and one of its classic moves is known as “repulse monkey.”
Although I’ve done the move many thousands of times, I was in no mood to practice it on an actual monkey. If you wonder why, try googling “human vs. monkey.” They’re smarter, faster, and stronger than us, especially when it comes to unarmed combat. Also, the repulse monkey move takes place more or less at waist level, far above the height of the average monkey. It could easily become a matter of me trying to mesmerize him with my smoothly flowing hands while he sunk his teeth into my unprotected ankles.
I sighed and set forth up the mountain, hoping the holiday crowds would keep any and all wild creatures at bay. All the way to the top, it seemed to be working. Although it was rough going, much the trail consisting of steep stone steps painstakingly hand-placed by what must have been a small army of laborers, I passed and was passed by people ranging in age from pre-schoolers to senior citizens in their 80s.
Once atop the craggy peak and having taken in its fairly mind-boggling 360° views, I consulted my phone, only to have it tell me I needed to climb back down the same way I’d come. I had no interest in doing so; my journey to the top had actually been a last-minute added attraction. My main intention had been to cross the mountains and wind up at the Tai Wai subway station in the New Territories.
I eventually found a trail that promised to lead me in the right direction, but while it was marked on the map to look like any other trail, when I was about halfway down the mountain, it turned into something else altogether.
It dwindled to little more than a dirt path, maybe 12 inches wide, and so steep that a rope had been strung from tree to tree alongside it, a rope which proved absolutely essential if one wished to stay upright. I clung fervently to it, trying to take pleasure in the knowledge that my arms as well as my legs were getting a good workout.
But after a half-mile or so of this, it was getting more than slightly tedious. Try as I might, I couldn’t see where the rope ended or where the hillside might level off. Nor was I sure whether the trail would eventually lead me out of the forest, or might instead leave me stranded at the bottom of a canyon with nightfall coming on.
On the bright side, I’d been so preoccupied with staying on my feet that I’d forgotten all about dogs and monkeys. Until, that is, I heard a high-pitched cry behind me. It could have been – probably was – a bird, but I’d never heard one quite like it before. I tried to remember what wild monkeys sounded like, but my mind was suddenly a blank.
More to the point, whoever or whatever was doing the calling was following close behind me, perhaps even gaining on me. I’d never known a bird do that. Was it a monkey sentry, then, signaling his pack to let them know an idiot gweilo was coming down the mountain and would soon be ripe for an ambush?
It was impossible to move any faster than I already was, so I could only hope for the best. Even my best repulse monkey moves would be of no use since they would require letting go of the rope that was the only thing keeping me from plummeting to my doom.
I endured at least another half hour of this before I finally spotted the end of the rope. Though the slope didn’t level off as much as I would have liked, it looked manageable. Better still, whatever it was that had been following me, though still audible, had fallen farther behind and seemed to be losing interest.
Just one last handful of rope and then … WHOOPS … my feet came out from under me and I went sliding toward the edge. I was confronted with two unpalatable choices: let go of the rope and fall a few hundred feet, or land on one foot in a way that would require a deeper kneebend than seemed anatomically possible.
I’ve seen both professional and amateur football (soccer) players crippled or even permanently disabled by just such an impact, but with little more than a nanosecond to decide between the “fall off the mountain” and the “shatter your knee” options, I instinctively or intuitively went for the latter.
It didn’t feel great. In fact it was terrifying, because I didn’t think I’d be able to stand back up again. But after a few minutes sitting in the dirt contemplating my fate, I gingerly pulled myself to my feet and found everything still working, if a little stiff and sore.
So while I’d feared having to use it to fend off wild monkeys, t’ai chi had saved me in quite a different and unexpected way. Poor student that I might be, without the flexibility afforded by years of practice, I could never have bent my leg like that and stood up again.
I still had to cover a few more miles to the train station, and when I got there, found that my much-anticipated seat would not be forthcoming, since the train being jammed with a standing-room-only crowd returning from holiday visits to Shenzhen and Guangzhou. It was midnight before I got home, but instead of climbing into the elevator and heading for bed, I went down to the nearby park and did an hour’s worth of t’ai chi. You never know when you might run into some monkeys that need expelling.