Sai Wan Swimming Shed is merely a 15 minute walk from the nearest MTR Station in Kennedy Town. Yet, it looks like decades away from all that Hong Kong is thought to be. Say Hong Kong and people across the world get images of a city of skyscrapers, of concrete and glass, of neon lights lit harbours.
And here is that beauty from the 1960s that must have seen thousands of hardy swimmers take a plunge into the South China Sea. This is also a place that gets perhaps the best sunsets in the city. Almost Always, a rarity in Hong Kong with its crazy and cloudy weather full of thunderstorms, and of course typhoons.
Once there were many in the town, scattered around city’s really long coastline. Then came the swimming pools and they started disappearing with Sai Wan Swimming Shed being the only one left. Hopefully it will survive as it has both: it’s loyal swimmers from decades and a new group of lovers: Instagrammers. Yeah, the modest swimming shed has become such an instagram sensation that one has to queue for hours to reach get a chance to walk over the beautiful shed.
Yet, the effort and the wait is absolutely worth it.
Pro Tip: Choose a weekday and you may cut the waiting time shorter by at least an hour. Pro Tip 2: Respect others, specially the swimmers as they have the first right to the shed. Also, do not take more than 15-20 minutes at the actual walkway as it inconveniences others. Also, do not peek into modest changing huts.
You can add to the adventure by adding a 2 hour long hike in the adjacent Mount Davis Hiking Path strewn with war time relics from the World War II. The place also marked the city boundary of the City of Victoria- the official name of Hong Kong then and you would find milestones marking that, old Army Batteries, structures, a private cemetery of the Euroasian community in Hong Kong (Bruce Lee is from the community). The hike is easy and rewarding especially on clear day for reflection pictures. A detailed post on that later.
Getting there: Take Exit B from Kennedy Town MTR station, then hop on any of the buses No.58, 58A or 59 and get off at Caritas Jockey Club Hostel Mount Davis. Then look for the Entrance as in the picture below. You can also walk along Victoria Road from Kennedy Town MTR station if you have time for taking in more views. It takes around 15-20 minutes.
And at the end, do not forget to bow down to the God Of Land, curiously blessing visitors in a swimming shed!
It was a beautiful, sunny, and oh not so humid morning of March 2007 when a bright streak of light woke the boy from Babhnan with a start. He looked out of the window and it felt like the plane was about to land on water! He looked around, a little startled, saw everyone composed and so did he. A red eye flight, his first international one, he had taken 7 hours ago from Delhi had brought him to Hong Kong, the city he would soon call home.
Hong Kong. That was a full 6,000 years after humans first set foot in the territory. 2200 years after it became part of the Chinese Empire for the first time. 500 after the first European came here, Portugese Jorge Álvares.
Hong Kong: a jungle of concrete and grass. Where the East meets West. The financial capital of the world. And the Disneyland and the Ocean Park.
Local tip: If you must, go to the Ocean Park, it is so much better than the Disney.
The village boy was a little nervous, but he was armed with his most trusted weapon: a well rehearsed abandon bordering on disdain. Whole buildings of glass, so what? It is just the glitter. The Khadi kurta, rugged jeans and Hawai Chappal- the JNU uniform that got him many stares- from immigration to immigration was part of that abandon, a carefully rehearsed one, though.
He followed the crowd running to the immigration, pretending he was not, as if he had been clearing immigration since he was an infant. A faint smile ran through his cheeks. The memories of entering glass buildings when he had first come to Delhi were back. That careful look- on people behaving ‘normal’ and imitating them.
That was the only nervousness the boy would ever have with this city.
Hong Kong was nothing that those cinematic ‘establishing shots’ made it to be. Yeah, Victoria Harbour is beautiful, but it was only as much the city as is India Gate Delhi. The Peak too, only as much Hong Kong as Gateway of India was Mumbai.
Yeah, the ‘heart’ of Hong Kong is all glass and concrete. Provided you could call that place, always in flux with people moving in and out as they would from any financial hub Hong Kong in the first place. No one calls Dubai airport’s transit area Dubai, right? That glass and concrete part is only that much Hong Kong. People come here, mostly on short time assignments and go. Without even knowing the city.
Beyond that exist well-knit communities in villages 300 to 400 years old still farming. Many of them are still walled in a throwback to the times gone by.
The village boy immediately belonged here, settled in the first he took as home with windows looking at sprawling bonsai mandarin plantations on one hand and a lush green hill behind. It was not love at first sight, but a lifelong romance had begun.
A romance that would take him to the Tai Mo Shan- a hike traversing over 5 waterfalls, largest over a 100 meters in a row, in a single hike! Startled? The boy too was- only till he took a nice long swim in the natural pool in the third one. Or to the Tung Lung Fort built in 1722 to guard against the pirates. Or the Bride’s Pool- another waterfall combined with a beautiful valley praying for the wife who lost her life while crossing the waterways, after whom the waterfall took its name.
Or the stilted villages like Tai O with their unfolding bridges taking you straight to further south east- Vietnam and Cambodia.
And the villages with their centuries-old traditions living on for centuries- the dragon dances, the bun festivals in which a very rustic looking person sees you and you being the only non-Chinese there starts explaining the history and the ritual. And then that he is Vice President or this and that in HSBC or again, this or that!
And yeah, the small bunkers, now shrines, dug by the Hong Kongers who resisted the Japanese during World War II with all their might, often making the biggest of the sacrifices. And the sprawling parks in the middle of the city with retired elderlies playing Mahjong all day, often also babysitting their grandchildren as both the parents would have gone to work.
Hong Kong is now home. Yeah, I often feel sad seeing a few of the fields in front of my house disappearing every year, yet, happy that forests make for them. Yeah, forests cover over 26,400 hectares of the total area of Hong Kong, about 23.8%- much more than during the World Wars.
Come, visit my home. But please please please, not on those 2 nights 3 days packages. I can share with you some best-kept secrets for a longer and better rendezvous with this harbor I now call home.
Fujian Tulou(s)- the magnificent, fortified earthen building were yet another revelation for me- the Hong Konger of almost 6 years! Such a shame that I knew nothing about them till a botched visa delivery for China- they asked me to collect it on the day before Chinese New Year holidays start and then when I reached, just after the lunch- last staffer was locking the office! With the holiday plan for Xiamen gone, I decided to go for a virtual tour and there they were! The Tulous, a whopping 46 of whom built between the 12th and 20th century are inscribed as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 2008 as the legend goes- thanks to their circular shape confused to be nuclear reactors by the United States at the height of the Cold War! So Tulous were finally calling me and I was all set to make an amend and become a Tulou veteran.
Tulous, are mostly three to five story fortified buildings- most commonly circular or rectangular- built for communal living for a whole clan. Built to repel the attacks of the pirates with provisioning for ration for a full year, they often have just one gate. The ground floor will be meant for kitchens, first floor would be granaries and upper floors- with each living unit exactly of the same size- to ensure equality- meant for living. The tulous will also have concentric inner rings for bathrooms, wells and other provisioning. They mostly have a few wells as well.
Built by mixing earth with stone, bamboo, wood and other readily available materials, their walls are up to 6 feet (1.8 m) thick and additionally reinforced by branches, strips of wood and bamboo chips. With this much fortification, they were, of course, next to impossible to break into in the times they were built. Further, as our friend showing us around told us: often sitting by some kind of natural fortification like at the top of a hill (like Tianluokeng Tulou Cluster) or river- like Cuxi Tulou Cluster- once the residents see ‘bad men coming- and close the main door-often 40-50-inch-thick (1 meter to 1.3 m) wooden doors reinforced with an outer shell of iron plate’ the ‘bad men’ would have to ride on exceptional luck to defeat the insiders- sitting with granaries having all the ration for an year or more and gun holes guarding only entry!
Look at the photos again- the kitchens and granaries at the first floor have no windows, practically making the structure impossible to breach! Add the numbers inside- bigger tulous housed as many as 800 people- of the same clan and one might need a whole army to take on them!
Reminder: Though often called as Hakka tulous too- after the majority of the Tulous belonging to the Hakka people, not all of them are Hakka. Their neighbours in South Western Fujian known as Minnan people also have their own Tulous, mostly to the east of Yongding in particular in Nanjing and Pinghe counties.
How to reach: Just hop on a Shenzhen- Longyan high speed train (there are three in a day- get off at Longyan, hop on a local bus for Yongding county which is closest to three of the most famous Tulou clusters and you are good for an exciting weekend soaked with history and, of course, adventure! Otherwise, one can also couple the trip with Xiamen, just 2.5 hours away or can also go to Yongding station though that too is almost an hour away from the Tulou clusters.
Where to stay: Complete the experience by staying in one of the centuries old tulou like we did- don’t expect too much luxury though, the beds will be hard, as they are almost everywhere in China, you may or may not have an attached bathroom, but the experience of living in a building constructed 200 or even 300 years ago will be amazing!
We stayed in Tulou Fuyulou Changdi Inn– a Tulou more than a century old and with the owner Steven making you wonder what’s better- the warmth, the home away from home feeling he gives or his fluent English! With him you are mostly set with an itinerary from an insider who knows his stuff… So go on discovering the places- You will perhaps begin with Tianluokeng Tulou cluster meeting the slanting one of the oldest one built in 1308, and tallest at 5 stories and a village temple on your way back. Then you will meet the Chengqilou (承啟楼) nicknamed “the king of tulou”, of Gaobei Tulou cluster- with 15th generation Jiang clan living inside with 57 families and 300 people!
That done, you will be back in the Hongkeng Village with a Tulou cluster by the same name- enjoy your evening seeing them and then sitting/walking by the river in the village with Tulous on both sides! You may also have local wine brewed in one of the Tulous to top it all up! Wake up to the soothing sound of the river next day and head over to Cuxi Tulou cluster- I saw accommodation there too though could not find out much- and they looked far more basic than the one in Hongkeng, though, also far more older, if that does the trick for you!
Accommodate more Tulou clusters if you want to- though basically this is more or less all that one needs for an extensive and authoritative Tulou experience.
For those with more time on hand- go on to Fuzhou, not a city high on travel bucket lists but worth enough for a day for the 3 lanes and 7 alleys, founded in 2nd century AD and continuously inhabited ever since, itself! And beyond that lies the beautiful mudflats of Xiapu- a paradise for the photographers and also for anyone looking forward to a way back to idyllic life yet not spoilt by the modernity!
My detailed piece on Xiapu, around 6 hours by high speed train for Shenzhen, worth a standalone visit on itself, can be found here.
Xiapu? What is that? And where exactly- asked most of my local, Chinese friends, taking a little of my guilt of not knowing about this gem just 6 hours away by high speed aka bullet trains from Hong Kong- perfect for a long weekend getaway, okay even for a weekend one! Sample a few pictures to begin with while remembering that I am not a photographer- and think how this place would look in reality as well as to a real photographer! Quick facts about reaching there and other logistical details at the end…
Xiapu has the most beautiful mudflats in China, perhaps one of the most beautiful even in the world! Mudflats are many things. The coastal wetlands also known as tidal flats built by tides depositing mud by tides or rivers are a delight for the photographers with sun rays falling on them making fantastic patterns, sea gypsies (human ones) working on the mudflats, whole village on the sea, kelp growing half a meter a day and so on. They are also a retreat for those getting maddened by the urban chaos, a gateway to the times gone by- and of course a magic of walking on the water during high tides! Well, okay, only the feeling- as it looks like one is walking on the water and not the real thing, but even that is worth dying for, no?
Mudflats are also a celebration of sheer human endeavour- human capacity to farm even the sea! yeah, they farm all kind of seaweed there, as well as fishes and crabs and what not with all the colourful gear one can ever think of! Just sample this- and I was cursing myself to not get a fisherman resting in his boat inside but then… what I managed to get was no less impressive in any case!
And then there is the mother of it all! A blast from the past- a scene right out of a China of perhaps at least a few centuries ago- just that it is all faked. No, don’t let your enthusiasm dampen down even a wee bit, forget it getting killed altogether! They faked it with elan, down to the smoke from the fire by an old lady, but it is worth all the travel (some 30 kms from Xiapu town). It was, in fact, one of the highlights for me there!
And then, while you are there- there are much more to come! Like an ancient village- more than 300 years old that we first passed by, and then returned to, small sleepy towns, devouring vegetables filled steam bun by the roadside shops, and if you get lucky enough as we got- a full throttle religious/cultural parade celebrating something we had no idea of- but which was just breathtaking with all the fireworks, traditional clothes and what not! And of course the whole cities on the sea! With proper wooden houses!
How to reach Xiapu: Xiapu is just 6 hours away from Shenzhen on China’s High Speed Train network. It has a station of its own, well connected to the town.
Where to stay: Though very small, the town has many nice budget hotels. We stayed in Hotel Hanting Express, a nice chain hotel we had stayed in Fuzhou as well and will recommend that. Interestingly, the bathroom in our real big, almost a full apartment size by Hong Kong standards, looked strangely like a spaceship- really quirky. Hotel was spotlessly clean as well. For Backpackers: Xiapu has no Hostels yet, but the hotels themselves cost just about the same- Ours cost us about 30 USD a night, that is it. (Photos at the end.) How to see places: Xiapu has many places to see- most importantly Dong Bi, Xia Qing Shan, Ba Chi Men, Xiao Hao, Beiqi, Nan Wan, Yangjiaxi, Sha Wan, Yantian and so on. But as they are all located at distances some even 30 kms from town centre, and the timings would be odd- some for sunset, some sunrise, some mid day and so on- so best would be to book a Guide. It would be fun though- you watch sunrise, come back to hotel, have breakfast, go out again…
That said, Lin is the most famous, and celebrated on Tripadvisor and other travel websites, of them all! And he is miraculous! His WeChat contact number is: 15359700706. He is a local, a sweetheart who knows the place like the back of his hand! His English is just about okay, but he is a master of Baidu translation- like even if it looked bizzare in the beginning to converse like- we speak to Baidu, it translates, then he reads and he speaks to Baidu, and so on- but we had longish conversations even about his family, India! It made us feel so rooted!
What to do in Xiapu: Nothing much other than soak in the vibes of China that it had been a few decades ago- not too many malls, though a real big Wallmart- lazy, laidback life unlike other cities in China where they keep building something everyday! I loved to roam around in the night…
P.S. 1: Fujian is a Mecca for vegetarians, such a pleasant surprise in China.
2. You can couple Xiapu trip with Fujian Tulous in nearby (just 2 hours by train) Yongding county in Longyan prefecture-level city. Wait for next post on that.