The allure of youth on the mountain trails: Hiking in Hong Kong [Part 3]

In the third of a six-part series on hiking in Hong Kong, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai shares the wonders of Hong Kong’s hiking trails. This time, the vibrant colours of flora and fauna at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden revive the spirits.
The natural landscape of Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong. (iStock)
The natural landscape of Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong. (iStock)

Every spring, my friends would suggest that we go to admire the flowers at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG). 

Towards the end of spring last year, a group of us went and happily discovered that visitors aged 60 and above would get to enter gratis. A friend loudly exclaimed, “Oh no, I forgot to bring my ID card, no free admission for me!”

“How can you wander about without your ID card? The police will conduct spot checks and if they find you without an ID, they will arrest you and put you in jail!” All of us were having some fun teasing him when a staff member interrupted us and said that as long as the gentleman could remember his date of birth, he would be able to enter for free.

Everyone piped up again, saying what a wonderful place KFBG was to visit as it truly respects and loves the elderly, was not obsessed with “procedural justice”, and was kind and forgiving, unlike the police patrolling with batons. Ah, KFBG is indeed a place where rules, logic and emotions coexist. What a utopia. 

Passion of African dance and floating on cloud nine          

We entered the farm in high spirits. What an absolutely stunning visage. This must be how Du Liniang felt when she toured a garden in Ming dynasty playwright Tang Xianzu’s The Peony Pavilion (《牡丹亭》): “How can one know how stunning spring is if one doesn’t step into a garden?”

Climbing on the stone wall before us was a cascade of purple flowers like a waterfall, overflowing with the burning passion of spring. Tall African tulip trees stood by the mountain stream, their huge red flowers in full bloom like dancing flames on the treetops. It is hard to imagine massive tulip-like flowers blooming on such a tall, green and luscious tree with a large, dense crown — this must be nature’s imagination running wild in the land of Africa, as fevered as the passion of African dance.

Fiery red African tulip flowers. (iStock)
Fiery red African tulip flowers. (iStock)

Growing on both sides of the stone steps were various types of colourful flowers. While I couldn’t name many of them, the bright and blooming spring flowers and their cheery colours reminded us of our joyful and carefree childhood days, and helped us forget about our troubles.

Every turn is a surprise when you hike at KFBG. Unexpected wonders abound, like the clouds and fog surrounding the mountains, coming from where they came and going to where they wish to go. Zen practitioners may say that everything comes from nothingness and returns to nothingness, and that life is just an illusion like froth and bubbles.

We are but mortal beings who are not enlightened about these things. We were just truly happy to see the blooming flowers and fluffy clouds. Someone broke into song, “Like a flower, but yet not a flower. Like fog, but yet not fog. Quietly it comes at night, and quietly it leaves at dawn. It came like a spring dream (referring to transient joy), but how long can it last? It left like a morning cloud, and vanished without a trace.”

It felt as if Belgian artist René Magritte’s works had melted into the mountain trail — the clouds were floating and the people were walking.

Rene Magritte, The Infinite Recognition. (Internet)
René Magritte, La Reconaissance Infinie (Infinite Recognition), 1963. (Internet)

It felt so surreal to be walking on the hill and listening to the sound of distant singing, as if providing some accompaniment to the fleeting clouds. It felt as if Belgian artist René Magritte’s works had melted into the mountain trail — the clouds were floating and the people were walking. Their steps were firm and solid but the singing was faint, as if entering an illusory dream.

Kwun Yum Shan enveloped in clouds and fog

I was reminded of the first time we visited KFBG. It was in springtime when SARS hit. As SARS is said to travel with the wind and kill people from miles away, frightened Hong Kongers were in a state of panic and went into self-isolation. Everyone locked themselves up at home, like a broody hen incubating her eggs, refusing to move an inch.

When we had been cooped up long enough, a friend suggested we visit KFBG in the suburbs — there were plenty of pigs, chickens, parrots, flamingos, vegetables and trees but very few people, so it should be safe to visit. We drove there and realised that besides the farm, mountain flowers covered the slopes while clouds drifted leisurely. From then on, we decided to hike at KFBG every spring.

Stare at them and your eyes would catch fire. 

Pavilions in Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden. (Wikimedia)
Pavilions in Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden. (Wikimedia)

We visited KFBG a little earlier this year, a few days before Jingzhe (惊蛰, a period in the Chinese calendar known as “The Awakening of Insects”). The southern magnolias were in full bloom before their leaves had even sprouted, like the main character of a film rushing to take centre stage, abandoning the extras and arrogantly showing off all of its beauty and magnificence.

As KFBG Pavilion is situated atop a mountain, to get there, we hiked up a narrow path and immersed ourselves in the interplay of light and shadow among the trees while listening to the trickling mountain streams and chirping birds. What a pleasant day!

 Kwun Yum Shan (观音山). (Facebook/嘉道理農場暨植物園 Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden)
Kwun Yum Shan (观音山). (Facebook/嘉道理農場暨植物園 Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden)

An open double pavilion sat at the peak among the flowers and from our vantage point, we could see Kwun Yum Shan (观音山) enveloped in clouds and fog in the far distance. The mountain was covered in a sea of rhododendrons that had just bloomed. The large-leaved rhododendrons with red, white, light purple, pink and orangey-yellow flowers, were all vying for our attention, while the small-leaved ones had fiery red buds that were ready to bloom. Stare at them and your eyes would catch fire. 

Everyone was in good spirits and some hikers broke into songs that we learnt back in elementary school: “It is a bright day in March, rhododendrons bloom on the hills and by the mountain streams. Ah, they are pretty like the young ladies in the countryside.”

Purple azaleas. (iStock)
Purple rhododendrons. (iStock)

Looking around us, we realised that the people singing were women in their 60s. We said, “Wow, the young ladies are singing so well!” Everyone laughed. Spring has returned and everything is revived. Of course, we are younger too!                 

After Jingzhe, comes Qingming. The spring flowers should be even prettier then.

This article was first published in Chinese on United Daily News as “嘉道理農場” in 2012.

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