Summiting Lantau Peak is not for the faint hearted. Also known as Fung Wong Shan (fung6 wong4 saan1 鳳凰山 “Phoenix Mountain”), it is perhaps best suited to those who will happily tolerate a crowd and endless stone stairways, both up and down, in exchange for views of the Tian Tan (tin1 taan4 天坛 “Temple of Heaven”) Buddha, the rolling hills of Silver Grass, and the aquamarine waters skirting Lantau’s sinuous coastline.
The hike begins in Ngong Ping (ngong4 ping4 昂平 “High Peace”), home to the beginnings of Buddhism in Hong Kong. In 1906, three monks of the Ch’an School of Buddhism left their homes in Jiangsu Province to establish a practice in Hong Kong. The monks built a modest stone house where they grew their own food and shared their teachings on the peaceful plateau between Lantau’s peaks.
In 1924, the site was named Po Lin (bou2 lin4 寶蓮, “Precious Lotus”), in reference of the Buddhist symbol for purification. Just as a lotus flower surfaces and blooms, Po Lin represented an opportunity to rise above the murkiness of life by following the ways of the Buddha towards enlightenment.
Po Lin Monastery and adjacent Muk Yue Shan (muk6 ngok6 saan1 木嶽山 “Fish Wood Mountain”) are now best know as home to the Big Buddha, the largest outdoor statue of the seated Buddha in the world, and the ornate Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas, which is home to many ancient Chinese and Buddhist artefacts. Muk Yue Shan is named after a wood instrument, also known as the wooden fish or Chinese temple block, used by monks while chanting sutras.
If additional stairs beckon the athletic and the crowd-faring, climb to the top of the Big Buddha for a good look at the mountains ahead. The insides of the Buddha are also worth a visit; the late Hong Kong artist Derek Bailey’s impressive Bodhisattva paintings adorn the interior column of the 34-metre statue.
Though these two attractions are usually rife with tourists who flock to the significant Buddhist monuments, the nearby Wisdom Path, where the Lantau Trail begins to ascend towards the Peak, offers a more peaceful alternative. The wooden planks rise up from the ground like halved trees; one side rounded bark, the other planed and imprinted with the Heart Sutra, a highly revered Buddhist script.
The 38 ten-metre-tall timber columns are configured to represent the symbol of infinity. They bare the calligraphy of professor Jao Tsung-I, who dedicated his craftsmanship to the people of Hong Kong, asking that the verses be carved and displayed in a natural setting. The verses, which speak of the perfection of wisdom, are esteemed by Confucians, Buddhists, and Taoists alike.
The primary theme of the sutra is the realisation of emptiness, the Buddhist principle of interconnectedness. A section of Thich Nhat Hanh’s renowned English translation reads,
This Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
When the cloud cover lays low in Ngong Ping as it often does, the wooden beams are enshrouded in mist, adding to the paths serenity. As the Lantau trail winds up the backside of Lantau Peak, the views of the Wisdom Path only become more majestic as the distance merges the columns with their woodland setting, a subtle reminder of the philosophical spirit of the place.
At the foot of the Wisdom Path, follow the Lantau Trail south, past wild coffee plants (a false variety with un-caffeinated berries), mountain tallow trees, and bright wildflowers like the violet-hued Chinese peony, bright bamboo orchids, and false dandelions, the roots of which can actually be used as a substitute for coffee.
Lantau has long been called “the lungs of Hong Kong” for its plentitude of natural, undeveloped land. Its forests are said to house many birds, and plant species that are otherwise rare in Hong Kong. Some native species like the Chinese hackberry and the camphor tree have been reintroduced in recent years. The seldom-sighted mutjac deer and pallas squirrel make appearances from time to time in the island’s parks.
As the path steepens, the lush undergrowth begins to give way to silver grass and plume grass. Views of the Buddha, Po Lin Monastery, the Wisdom Path and the Shek Pik (sek6 bik1 石壁 “Stone Wall”) Reservoir reveal themselves at the top of each stone staircase.
The first peak, Tsam Chai Au (zaam2 caai4 aau1 斬柴坳 “Cut Wood Gap”), which sits atop a particularly steep set of stairs at 810 metres, is a perfect spot for a breath of fresh air. Towards the end of summer into the beginning of autumn, dragonflies swarm the smaller peak, darting in and out of the long grass, in the frenzy that is mating season.
From Tsam Chai Au, the jagged ridge of the aptly named Dogs’ Teeth range extends to the south, Sunset Peak (daai6 dung1 saan1 大東山 “Peak of the East”) and Lantau Peak loom ahead. The slope towards the westernmost Dogs’ Teeth ridge offers an intimidatingly steep alternate route.
The grassy, winding stairs to the top of Lantau Peak are protected by chain-link handrails at the narrowest, steepest points. However, the autumn breeze of the ridge and the vast landscape afoot make it an entirely pleasurable ascent. This space between the dual peaks is known as Lantau Gate.
The name Lantau comes from the old Chinese name of the peak, laan6 tau4 (爛頭), meaning “broken head.” From a distance, the fractured mountain has the appearance of a peak, or a head, that has been broken in two.
The more poetic names for the twin peaks, Fung Shan (fung6 saan1 鳳山 “Male Phoenix Mountain”) and Wong Shan (wong4 saan1 凰山 “Female Phoenix Mountain”) come together to form their collective name Fung Wong Shan, representative of both the masculine and feminine sides of the mythological bird.
At the top, the 934-metre Lantau Peak sign confirms the ascent of Hong Kong’s second highest peak. Hikers take selfies and rest in the cool wind. A small temporary shelter offers respite from the sun on the otherwise-exposed summit. The peak often floats above a cloud bed, but on sunny days, the height gives a vast view of the South China Sea and Hong Kong’s outlying islands.
On the north side of the peak, the descent begins; a path of stone snaking down golden slopes of tall grasses with views of Sunset Peak and North Lantau. To the west, the airport’s stark layout appears in a slight haze of pollution. On clear days, Tung Chung and the coast of the Chinese mainland are visible from the North side of the summit.
The trail continues to ascend and descend various hills until the signs of lower elevation begin in a valley lush with elephant taro, ferns, and even a few bushy pine trees along the path. Just before the trail meets the road, an inviting resting shelter appears. The shelter is dedicated to two helicopter pilots who lost their lives during an emergency mission in the area in 2003.
Upon re-joining the road, bus stations are nearby going both directions, back towards Mui Wo or Tung Chung. If preferred, the hike may be done from Pak Kung Au to Ngong Ping. From Ngong Ping, buses or the more exciting (and faster depending on the line) option of glass-bottomed cable car offer routes back to Tung Chung.
How to get there
From Hong Kong Island, take the ferry to Mui Wo and board bus 2 to Ngong Ping. From Kowloon, take the MTR to Tung Chung and the cable car to Ngong Ping. Return via bus 3M from Pak Kung Au to Mui Wo, though be warned – on Sundays this bus is often full.
Bring two litres of water, sunscreen, a hat, hiking or running shoes, and lunch or a snack.