At the summit of Hong Kong Island is “The Peak”, a tourist destination where visitors can look out upon central Hong Kong and the Kowloon peninsula. To get there you can take a tram and idle your way to the top, or you can set out on foot through cement paths that lead to the mountain’s crest.
Choose the first option and there is little to note. If you choose to brave the hike, however, I appreciate your willingness to take “the long way” to your destination (or anywhere for that matter) and, in the most overdramatic sense, suggest you prepare yourself for the psychological / philosophical / spiritual revelations that might arise from your readiness to sweat.
Your journey will begin in Hong Kong Park. Here you will walk through the manicured Tai Chi gardens, pass through an aviary with a wooden walkway pegged with signs that boast “This is disinfected four times a day.” If you continue upwards through the park, you will arrive at the Visual Arts Center where a Chinese doorman will point you in the direction of the pedestrian path up the island.
Several apartment buildings and a few corporate skyscrapers will stretch above you on quiet streets that will contrast starkly with the metropolis you will see bustling below. At last you will see the tram railway and a series of steps rippling upwards beside the rail. Now you begin climbing, convinced that your butt will be stone by lunchtime.
Lunchtime arrives, and you find yourself on a separate cement pathway that winds snakelike up the mountain, where the tram rail is nowhere to be seen and where there is zero indication (besides the path’s steady inclination) that you are headed in the right direction. Above and to the side of you are lush forest plants bearing fearsome, thick leaves and blossoms blanketed by surrounding shadows of dark green; and beyond: the intensity of unobstructed sky, and – even farther away, corporate buildings on the blinking harbor. These buildings shrink beneath your ever-rising point of view.
Suddenly you find yourself high above Merill Lynch, HSBC, and Bank of China, and you commend yourself for getting there on foot. How’s that for figurative victory? (I should note that your wallet is almost empty.)
You climb like this for almost two hours, stopping with increased frequency as your legs begin to burn. Each time you look out from the path, you marvel at how far you’ve traveled, and then look up at the remaining lump of hill left to climb. You start to believe in the existence of Heaven. Half-an-hour ago you thought you had reached the top and now new spines of the mountain reveal themselves in patches that – until reached – remain mysterious and out of sight.
At last, panting as much out of exhilaration as exhaustion, you reach Victoria Peak, an area indicated by a sign but holding nothing besides a single empty road wrapping around either side of the mountain. A giant brick wall lines the road like the side of a fortress, blocking off another hill that hints at more land left to climb.
After coming so far, you refuse to consider yourself lost. Right or left? You ask a construction worker nearby and he points you in the direction of a cement walkway you hadn’t seen before. The sign reads “Hospital Path.”
Your thighs strain, you believe, for the last time that day. After hiking so long on an empty stomach, you damn well deserve a good view. Perhaps all this has induced a state of delirium, so now you consider the mountain itself a mystical thing: a teasing beast or a cruel demon, sent by some all-knowing universe to discourage you from reaching your aim, providing a new challenge each time you feel you might actually prove something to yourself.
Of course you must complete the challenge, especially now you that you can see beyond the top of the mountain, and there: an overlook that seems to provide a magnificent view. It’s less than one minute’s walk away. As you pace towards it, you notice that the overlook is blocked by a gate that reads “Private Property. Do not enter.” You become confused. Then incensed. Have you labored this far to hit a dead end, secured by a flimsy gate implanted by the possessive upper class?
No one is around. It seems there is no sign of a camera that would detect your violation. You place one foot on the gate to climb over it. Just as your foot leaves the ground, your cheap phone falls out of your pocket, letting off a hard clack of breaking plastic. Startled by the noise, you climb back down. As you crouch to inspect your phone, you take another look around and notice that a Chinese garden-trimmer beyond the gate is watching you. You wait for her to turn away and wonder if you should attempt climbing the fence again. It would be easy: no more than a five-second hoist and a jump.
Then you wonder. Perhaps you did reach the overlook, and then someone asked you what you were doing on private property. Perhaps you would be caught in your crime and fined. You think of your friend waiting back at her apartment in Kowloon, and how much you look forward to spending the evening drinking wine with her at one of the many open-aired restaurants where you can look out at Hong Kong’s diverse populace, and then– begin your stroll home through the night market of colorful trinkets. How much more enjoyable this might be without fear of responsibility or debt? And how sad it might be if these plans were compromised due to some proud need to beat your chest at the top of a mountain where desk-jockeys planted their flags.
You look around at the clouds that have now covered most of the waiting view, at the beautiful shrubbery lining your end of the path. Your breath, which has been steadily quickening since the beginning of your journey, now begins to slow. You take a flower and press it inside your journal beside a butterfly you found dead on the trek up, and you decide that this keepsake is trophy enough.
On the way down, you feel you have learned something but can’t quite pinpoint what it is. It is only when you step onto the Star Ferry that you realize that you have, at least for the time being, learned that the process of liberation is more important than the prospect of victory, and – furthermore – the most liberating thing is letting go.