The hills are alive, in Hong Kong

HONG KONG: We perch on the rocks atop the peak, catching our breath after heaving ourselves up three consecutive hills, each about 400m high. We are in Sai Kung, deep within the New Territories - on a three hour hike after a two-hour train-and-buses ride from Central. It is quiet, save for the rustling of the breeze. Around us are the verdent green of the peaks. Yonder are spectacular views of the South China Sea. There is not a single Giordano store to be seen. We are, we thought smugly, in splendid isolation.

Then, a pebble tumbles. Through the shrubs, filtered voice can be heard. First came a man carrying a bright red travel agency flag. He is trailed by about 10 others, climbing steadily to where we sit. Some women tote umbrellas, daintily shading their faces from the sun. Where South China tigers, barking deer and wild boars used to roam, tourists are now conquering the terrain. Even visitors from the mainland - usually more keen on sniffing out the best deals in Tsim Sha Tsiu or taking the thrill rides at Ocean Park - have cottoned on to one of Hong Kong's most under-rated charms.

And now with the onset of winter bringing cooler temperatures and lower humidity, the hills are even more alive.

Most Singaporeans know Hong Kong as a concrete jungle for its urban pleasures - notably food and shopping; many can rattle off with ease where the best dim sum or the best discounts on designer goods can be found. But three quarters of Hong Kong - measuring 1,104 sq km - is actually made up of greenery. Together, there are some 130 hills and mountains that are at least 300m high; the highest is Tai Mo Shan, at 957m. By contrast, Singapore's highest peak, Bukit Timah, stands at 164m.

The beauty of this proliferation of hills and mountains packed into Hong Kong is that most times, they are quite easy to get to. The government has also done an admirable job of maintaining the trails. In Hong Kong Island itself, for instance, there is Victoria Peak. It takes three hours of steady climbing, from ground level at Wanchai, past tycoons' mansions along the way, to reach the top. From there, another route takes hikers past a reservoir, a cemetary, before ending at Aberdeen, in the south of the island.

Such hikes offer a different perspective on a frenetic-paced city. And for some reason, people seem nicer up on the hills. Perhaps it is the wide skies after Hong Kong's famously claustrophobic homes; the serenity of watching kites soar; or the crisp cool air away from the curb-side fumes. Looking down on the city where cars scurry like ants, one remembers that well-loved Chinese phrase - tui yi bu, hai kuo tian kong (take a step back, the sea widens and the sky clears).

Whatever it is, there is an unspoken code up here for friendly behaviour - smiles and zou sans (good morning) are readily exchanged as hikers pass each other on the trails. Sometimes, humour too - as a friend, clambering downhill, wonders aloud: "I wonder how many calories we are burning?", a sweaty hiker panting his way up retorted before I could answer: "Not enough!"

Still, it seems to seduce locals of all ages. Silver-haired men and women - with transistor radios blaring Cantonese opera or ballads strapped to their waists - saunter past at a speed that puts me to shame. No wonder Hong Kongers took the longevity crown from the Japanese last year.

Younger ones who want to indulge their competitive urges can also take part in many trail competitions here, including its most famous one, the annual fund-raising Oxfam Trailwalker which started in 1981 as a form of training for the Gurkha army. The record for transversing the 100 km of mountains is 11 hours, 59 minutes, held by a team from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) garrison here. (Unfortunately, the competition was politicised when other teams blamed the PLA for their controversial tactics in using large support crews that blocked the way for other competitors. The PLA last year refrained from taking part in the competition, citing work commitments.)

Me? I just want to get to that dim sum place on the other side of the mountain.

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