Hiking Through Hong Kong’s History in Ma On Shan

Ma On Shan — “Horse Saddle Mountain” — is named for its sloping, saddle-like dips that give rise to steep peaks. It is not Hong Kong’s highest peak, but it may be the most gratifying to summit. If not for the fantastic views at stake, one might hope for a cloudy day to ease the difficulty of climbing the rocky ridge ahead.

It’s fascinating not only for the natural scenery but for the built heritage, too. The hilly terrain of Ma On Shan Country Park is sprinkled with abandoned mining villages that hint at the region’s industrial past. The mountain’s high-purity iron ore led to more than 100,000 tonnes of annual extraction in the 1950s and 60s. Now that the mines have closed, Ma On Shan is hiker’s domain.

Ma on Shan

Ma On Shan mastiff towering above the path towards Wong Chuk Yeung

There are a variety of ways to ascend Ma On Shan. None are easy, but some are undeniably more difficult than others. The most difficult route — but perhaps the most rewarding to avid hikers — begins in a rather unsuspecting way. The cement path departs from Sha On Street in suburban Wu Kai Sha, through an ordinary patch of greenery in the shadow of nearby skyscrapers. The path continues up a slight hill, under an overpass, then left into the overgrown brush of Ma On Shan Country Park’s northern boundary.

When the pavement ends, the path becomes increasingly steep. Some segments are more of a climb than a hike. Previous way-makers have tied thin ropes to tree roots and branches to ease the verticality. Careful hikers don gloves to protect their hands from the rock and rope that can be abrasive while scrambling upwards.

The park is home to a number of snake species, as well as the endangered Chinese Pangolin, which is rarely spotted. The thick greenery teems with the sounds of birds and insects, with a few breaks in the foliage framing views of Sha Tin and Plover Cove in lush green.

Near the top of the first ridge, the trees thin out and the views are revealed in all their splendour, from Tai Po to the northern parts of Sai Kung. There is cerulean water in all its hues, from the teal reservoirs to the indigo depths offshore. For once, skyscrapers do not dominate the landscape.

The now-visible ridge trail winds up to the first peak, Ngau Ngak Shan. Commonly known as The Hunchbacks for its multiple knobby ridges that culminate to one large rounded summit, Ngau Ngak Shan is Hong Kong’s tenth highest peak. A trigonometric point confirms the feat of summiting the 674-metre mountain. Not to be underestimated, the steep route upwards elevates the effort well above what its mere hight purports.

From atop the Hunchbacks, the ridge trail continues towards the city’s ninth highest peak, Ma On Shan, where a 702-metre trigonometric point awaits. Atop the saddle, the expansiveness of Sai Kung and Clear Water Bay come into view. If luck prevails over Hong Kong’s frequent haze, the cluster of islands south of the Sai Kung Peninsula is quite a sight between the mirror of azure sea and sky.

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The trigonometric point atop Ma On Shan stating its height of 702 meters and its latitude and longitude

A steep descent intersects with the Maclehose Trail, which offers a route south towards Pyramid Hill and the Ngong Ping plains, or east to the historic village of Wong Chuk Yeung. Picnickers, paragliders, and kites abound on the grassy plain overlooking Sai Kung at Ngong Ping. The short, scenic trail down the mountain towards Tai Shui Tseng intersects with Sai Kung town in under an hour.

The longer route to Wong Chuk Yeung descents through bamboo and acacia groves in the shadow of Ma On Shan. At the base of the hill, the trail splits; the route to the right skips the historic village, while the left offers a glimpse into Hong Kong’s past. Descending back into the lush, tropical altitude typical to Hong Kong, the first pair of abandoned buildings sit enshrouded in palm fronds and elephant taro that has made its way onto the roofs. Inside, amidst shattered windows and dilapidated beams, graffiti writing adorns the crumbling walls. “This is the End,” declares one unsettling piece. A fractured television set from the 1970s sits cinematically on the concrete floor.

Wong Chuk Yeung was settled in the mid-1600s by a family from Guangdong. The village relied on farming rice and sugarcane until the 1950s, when the nearby mining operations depleted the water table. By the time mining came to a halt in the 1970s, when the cost of operation ceased to be competitive, the land of Wong Chuk Yeung was already ruined for cultivation and many of the villagers had left.

Ma On Shan

One of the many abandoned and overgrown homes in Wong Chuk Yeung village

Now the village is very clearly abandoned. It looks as if the residents departed for some urgent, near apocalyptic reason. A clothes iron lays idle just inside an ajar door; pictures moulder in their broken frames. In one home, a large crimson altar littered with candles sits just inside the tiled doorway. It gives an eerie feeling, as if the sign forbidding trespassing should be obeyed, lest territorial ghosts take issue with uninvited guests.

Anthropologist Joseph Bosco, who has extensively studied Hong Kong cultural and religious phenomena, says that the items left are likely the prosaic result of an elderly person relocating to a smaller residence. Otherwise, the houses might have been left by a man or woman who died, and whose family was unable to take over the home. The belongings left are unlikely to be disturbed by non-family members, says Bosco, “as the soul is thought to linger at the place of death for a while, which is why people prefer to die at home.”

Every spring, relatives visit during the Ching Ming festival to light incense for ancestors who lived in the village. Paul Etherington, a longtime Hong Kong resident who runs and adventure company in Sai Kung, says that for years, some of the ex-residents still listed their deteriorating village homes as their primary residences in an attempt to hold onto the land itself.

Ma on Shan

An old building meant for prayer overlooking the modest graveyard of Wong Chuk Yeung village

The village became part of a development dispute behind the guise of organic farming that resulted in the bulldozing and deforestation of much of the old rice fields that are now, once again, returning to wilderness. The land is fenced off, but not so diligently that hikers interested in Hong Kong heritage cannot get past the gate.

At the village, the trail gives way to a road. One block down the road towards Sai Kung, a large, gated, modern home sits on the outskirts of abandoned, deforested Wong Chuk Yeung, as if to show what might have been of the village, had the developers gotten their way. After a journey through what Hong Kong once was, the house welcomes you back to the Hong Kong that is.

How to get there

Take the MTR to Wu Kai Sha station, then use exit B. Cross Sha On street then turn right. You will notice an overgrown plot on your left, when the fence breaks, turn left towards the overpass. Immediately after the overpass, turn left to connect to the trail.

To return, either, walk to Kei Ling Ha Lo Wai (2.3km) to ride the 99 bus towards Heng On then connect back to the MTR at Wu Kai Sha Station, or walk to Sai Kung Town Hall (3.7km) to catch minibus 1A back towards Choi Hung MTR.

Make sure to bring plenty of water (at least one or two litres per person) and sun protection as much of the hike is exposed.

Ma On Shan

Hikers descending the steep, saddle-shaped Ma On Shan mastiff

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