Tai Mo Shan: A wild walk to Hong Kong's highest point

Discover the untamed face of Hong Kong

The untamed, wild side of Hong Kong is a hiker's paradise. PHOTO: DEREK YUNG
The untamed, wild side of Hong Kong is a hiker's paradise. PHOTO: DEREK YUNG

When you think of vacationing in Hong Kong, you probably don’t think of climbing mountains.

Perhaps you should. The wilder, untamed side of Hong Kong is a far cry from the neon-lit steel and glass of its world-famous skyline. Here, lush forest takes the place of industrial concrete, and the roar of traffic fades away to the chirping of cicadas and the whisper of the sea breeze. It’s no wonder hiking is such a popular pastime in Hong Kong — it offers a much-needed opportunity to get away from the crush of city life.

Of the four major hiking trails in Hong Kong, the MacLehose trail is the longest at 100km. It starts in Kowloon and spans the entirety of the New Territories, from eastern Sai Kung to Tuen Mun in the west, and weaves its way through eight different country parks. 

The MacLehose trail was named after the 25th and longest-serving governor of Hong Kong under British rule, Murray MacLehose. An enthusiastic hiker, MacLehose established the Country Parks, which cover more than 400 square kilometres of the Hong Kong countryside for the purposes of conservation and recreation. 

I recently had the opportunity to hike a portion of the eighth section of the MacLehose trail, which leads hikers to Hong Kong’s highest peak: the 957-metre Tai Mo Shan. The 9.7km trail takes around four hours. I was accompanied by Content Lab’s chief photographer, Chong Jun Liang, and our guide, Zelo Dai, a local in his 50s who seemed to be made of nothing but whipcord muscle. 

Zelo had told us that it would be remiss of us to make the trek up Tai Mo Shan and not try the legendary dim sum at Duen Kee Tea House, located in the village of Chuen Lung. A 15-minute bus ride from Tsuen Wan, Duen Kee is a favourite with hikers and locals alike. Many stop at its premises for a breakfast of siew mai and har gow before making the arduous trek up the mountain — some as early as 6am. 

Duen Kee Tea House in Chuen Long serves dim sum for hikers on their trail. PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG 

The building itself is a remarkably untouched relic that still captures the authentic 1950s teahouse feel. Painted in faded yellow, its two-story premises are surrounded by a multitude of multi-coloured umbrellas, under which we took shelter from the drizzle. Though it was long past lunch, there were still several hikers huddled within, sipping tea as they waited for the rain to subside. 

As are most traditional Hong Kong teahouses, Duen Kee is a self-service restaurant; there are no waiters to take your order. You have to take food yourself from a designated corner piled high with traditional bamboo steamer baskets. The whole process is like playing dim sum roulette — you only find out what’s in your steamer until you take the lid off the steamer, revealing the treasure within.

Our dim sum breakfast picked out by Zelo. PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG 

It was a mistake, in retrospect, to let Zelo choose the dishes for us. When he was done, the table had taken on a distinctly convex shape, creaking under the weight of har gow, siew mai, chee cheong fun, and an assortment of others that even my formidable dim sum knowledge could not identify.

When the table was littered with now empty steamer baskets, we made our way — albeit very slowly — back to the car, which we took to the Tai Mo Shan Visitors’ Centre. There, visitors can learn more about the history and wildlife of the mountain, as well as get some useful information like the weather conditions or fire risk ratings.

Our guide Zelo walking ahead to the visitor centre. PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

When we were done, we set off towards Tai Mo Shan, up a steep set of stairs cut into the mountainside. Jun Liang and I struggled with every step, too much dim sum in our stomachs and too much camera gear on our backs, while Zelo deftly made his way up the mountain, nimble as a deer. I was starting to doubt that he was actually as old as he said he was.

In his university days, Zelo informed us, he and his friends used to come to Tai Mo Shan to have barbecues and parties. The mountain remains a popular spot to do so — there are designated recreational areas and barbecue pits for visitors to use — but only outside the summer season, when the fire risk is lower. 

Mercifully, the ground began to level out as we got higher. Bit by bit, the foliage cleared, and we stepped out of the forest into open sky. From there, it was a short walk to the northern Tai Mo Shan lookout point, where the whole of Kowloon sprawled out beneath us. 

The view of Kowloon from Tai Mo Shan is breathtaking. PHOTO: WANDERING PHOTOGRAPHY

A pair of black kites, Hong Kong’s iconic birds of prey, soared high above, tracing lazy circles in the air. I amused myself by imagining that they, too, were made sluggish by whatever snack they had consumed.

This was a Hong Kong unlike any that I had ever experienced before. I was so used to the rush of human traffic in Tsim Sha Tsui and Central, that only the shimmering buildings of Tsuen Wan in the distance reminded me that I was still in Hong Kong.

As we made our way further up the mountain towards the weather station, the path got easier. The dirt paths we had been traversing gave way to a well-maintained asphalt road; the occasional biker breezed past us, pumping at the pedals with slow, even strokes. 

Black kites can be seen soaring on thermals during the ascent of Tai Mo Shan. PHOTO: HONG KONG TOURISM BOARD

Almost imperceptibly, we ascended into the fabled fog of Tai Mo Shan. It shrouded us in a grey expanse, entirely obscuring Kowloon and the Hong Kong skyline from view. 

Aside from being the highest point in Hong Kong, Tai Mo Shan is also the wettest part of Hong Kong, seeing an average of 3,000mm of rainfall a year. There was no rain here, but within minutes all three of us were drenched, and not from sweat, either. It was like walking through the clouds; water condensed in our hair and on our faces, splashing off our eyelashes with every blink.

When headlights cut through the fog, we had to step off the road, and sometimes we had to share the roadside with one or more of Tai Mo Shan’s many bovine inhabitants. They watched us placidly as we struggled up the mountain, further and further into the fog.

If your fortune holds and the fog clears, the view of the setting sun from Tai Mo Shan is unmatched. PHOTO: HONG KONG TOURISM BOARD

The road continued to twist and turn least a dozen more times. Each time it felt like it was coming to an end, we would turn a corner and find yet another winding stretch of road ahead of us, disappearing into the grey. We were soaked to the skin and starting to shiver. 

Finally — as we contemplated giving up and heading back to Duen Kee for a second round of piping hot dim sum — the twin spheres of the weather station loomed out of the fog. We whooped with excitement and high-fived each other. We had conquered Hong Kong’s highest peak.

It had been a tough climb. But Jun Liang and I were in agreement: it was still easier than finishing that table full of dim sum.

Hiking enthusiasts can find out more about Hong Kong's trails at the Hong Kong Tourism Board website.

Singaporeans looking to visit Hong Kong can enjoy promotional fares and free tours here