"All the time I'm not writing I feel like a criminal." -Fran Lebowitz

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


So far on this trip (knocks wood), there have only been two moments where I thought I was amidst legitimate danger. One of those moments was in Hong Kong. I blame Couchsurfing.*

*Not really.

To date, I haven’t used Couchsurfing for accommodations, to actually surf a couch (this may change when I return to the States and find myself homeless). But Couchsurfing isn’t only a website where hosts and guests can arrange a place to stay, but also a place on the Internet where people who are strangers in a particular city can arrange to meet and just hang out. It’s a valuable resource for those of us traveling alone, allowing us to meet like-minded souls and break the solitude every once in a while. You meet “friends” at a bar, attend a comedy night, have dinner, and such…

I thought I’d give it a try. Before traveling to Hong Kong, I decided to see if there was anybody posting on the site who was interested in meeting up and doing something during my time there. There were plenty of people; in fact, my host in the city by sheer coincidence was attending a Couchsurfing event at a bar the night. He asked me to tag along, and I had a wonderful time. I chatted with a woman who would later show me the Umbrella Revolution, and I met several people who were interested in taking a hike on the Tai Tam Country Trail the next day. Would I like to join them?

Sounded fun, I said. Sign me up.

The next morning at 11am I met a group of both travelers and locals at the Shau Kei Wan subway stop. There were seven of us: two local men, a woman from Malaysia (who had to catch a plane at 6pm), a Chinese woman, a Polish woman and a Ukrainian woman, both working in mainland China, and me, the elder statesman American (Couchsurfing does seem to be a domain of the twenty-somethings). A jovial group, we first bought water and supplies at a 7-11, where I was gently mocked for buying a large, liter bottle, then took pictures in an urban village, and finally made our way into the Tai Tam Park. Walking past the entrance and up a pretty steep path, we finally stopped at a set of brown, concrete steps that led into a thicket of trees, up the hill.

This was the beginning of the trail. But there was no way to tell where it led, or how far. My mind flashed, as it often does, on GHOSTBUSTERS:



DR. STANTZ: Hey! Which way do these stairs go?
DR. VENKMAN (Bill Murray): (looking) They go up.

One of the Hong Kong men, our nominal leader, pointed at the steps. “Shall we start?” he asked. He was chomping at the bit.

“How long is the trail?” I asked.

He thought for a moment, calculating. “Five hundred meters?” he said.

I looked at the group. While most of the group already seemed impatient that we hadn’t taken off up the hill already, the Malaysian and Chinese woman were already out of breath, the Malaysian with her hands on her knees. They had struggled even with the path from the park’s entrance. I didn’t give a shit how long the trail was; I'd walked every day on this trip. Half of the sights I had seen in eight countries seemed to be at the top of an endless staircase. I had been walking around the continents of Australia and Asia for what seemed like three straight months already. But it seemed like full disclosure was needed for everyone before they signed on. “How long do you think it’ll take?”

More thinking, more calculating. “An hour?”

“Okay,” I said.

“So,” the Ukrainian woman said, impatient, shaking her knees at the bottom-most step, “we’re going, right?” The others made jokes about weak stamina, asking me if I was too old to make it. 

But again, I wasn’t worried about me. Not to be Mister Chivalry, but I wasn’t interested in going on a hike which ended up with a woman in a hospital. I looked at the Malaysian woman, and tilted my chin, silently asking her if she was up for this. She was breathing heavily, she was sweating already, but she was nodding. “Okay,” I said.

And off we went.

And maybe the concept of both time and distance are different in Hong Kong than they are in, say, REALITY, but our “leader’s” sense of both five hundred meters and an hour was, to be charitable, inaccurate. Checking the “Enjoy HK Hiking” website just now, I find that “500 meters” is actually 5.2 kilometers, and “an hour” is 2.5 hours, which I’m guessing is for a dude hiking by himself before his restful three-day weekend ends and he rejoins the rest of the fucking Avengers.

Because it took our group over two hours to reach the midpoint of the hike, and that was a rough two hours. Imagine walking a stair master for two hours. Now imagine walking that stair master in a gym where the heat is turned up to ninety degrees and the sun is blasting on your face and neck. Now imagine walking that stair master with a Ukrainian woman chattering in your ear the entire time. Now imagine walking that stair master in that heat where every ten minutes or so, you think you’re getting to the end only to have the stair master reveal a thousand more steps. This was not a hill, it was a mountain, a mountain with several false endings. This mountain had more false endings than the first LORD OF THE RINGS movie. I don’t know how many false endings the other RINGS movies had; I didn’t bother to see those. Every time I thought we were reaching the peak, where at least the incline would level off, another peak would rise in front of me. It was like the opening credits of THE SIMPSONS, where the city of Springfield just keeps unfolding and unfolding. The steps rising into this mountain threatened never to end.

An hour into the hike, the group had kinda broken apart, walking in clumps of two a few hundred feet apart. Most of the group had ceased joking about stamina (which was fading for all of us) and ceased joking about my water (which was gone, the empty bottle and the lack of garbage cans across the entire continent of Asia mocking me) and begun joking about helicopters. Helicopters, as in the emergency helicopters that were sometimes called to fly to the mountain, swoop in and rescue people. There were phone booths along the trail - about as many booths as garbage cans - and you were instructed to call if you would be unable to get down off the mountain. The other members of the group found this hilarious.

“You think she’ll need the helicopter?”

“Listen, you hear that? Is that the helicopter?”

“Ha ha ha!”

“You don’t wanna call for the helicopter too early. Remember, it’ll cost you money.”

Apparently if you call the helicopter you’re required to reimburse the city.  Good to know, I thought. Goodness knows when contemplating whether or not to save your own life you should consider budget. Looking at the Malaysian woman, I didn’t find any of this funny. I was struggling. She was struggling too, really struggling now. Thin, unmuscled, clearly sunburned, she had to stop virtually every ten steps, hands on knees, mumbling weary, sarcastic comments before hitching up her backpack and moving on. She didn’t have any water. She looked like she was going to faint any second. I kept waiting for her to fall to her knees, but she seemed to steel herself during each pause before moving on. People in the group took informal turns going back and waiting with her, and the rest of us took breaks, but as we climbed the mountain, the breaks became shorter and more impatient. The others wanted to keep moving. It’s not like we were bound by something beyond the Internet. We had all met each other through a website; we weren’t friends or anything. This woman was intruding on everyone's enjoyment.

At one point, someone commented, “If she couldn’t make it, she shouldn’t have joined us,” which caused my annoyance to burst through my politeness. “She had no idea how far it was,” I said. “It was completely underestimated for her.” I looked at our leader. He shrugged. “This is not safe.” I kept repeating, “It’s not safe,” as if trying to make sure everyone knew my complaint was not self-serving, which felt shameful enough. I walked away from the group and waited for her, pointedly looking away. This had the effect of making me seem like a grumpy asshole, but at this point, I didn’t give a shit. I would’ve been concerned had I known her. Having no clue as to what she could take terrified me.

Besides, I AM a grumpy asshole.

Finally - finally! - we all saw the radio tower that represented the peak of the mountain. We were going to make it. Everyone, including the Malaysian, picked up the pace and we got to the top. It felt like a true accomplishment, and as we took pictures of the gorgeous Hong Kong skyline and Victorian Harbour, looked out at Kowloon and the New Territories - holy shit was the view incredible - ate our snacks (and the rest of the group polished off their own waters), and rested, I convinced myself I had been too over analytical once again, too concerned about something that was too unlikely to occur. Lighten up, I told myself. Even the Malaysian woman seemed buoyed by the peak. She smiled at me. She took pictures, had others take pictures of her. It WAS an accomplishment. We had climbed a big, fucking hill. And going back down would be easier. It would all be downhill from here. All downhill from here. It’s an expression, for Chrissakes.

We were ready to go. “Back down should be easier,” I said, starting to reverse our steps.

The leader pointed the other way. “Down is the other way,” he said.

Oh. I looked in the direction of his finger. He was right. The path continued on. We weren't just going to double back. Oh. I shrugged.

“Okay,” I said. “How long will it take?”

“An hour?”

Whatever. It didn’t matter. We were going downhill, now. It was all downhill from here. And we all started off again. Down the hill.

Don’t get me wrong, downhill was tough too. The steps were steep and you really had to watch your step. Every time you caught yourself admiring the view, which was magnificent, your head would snap down to make sure you weren’t stepping off the actual mountain itself. Steep, steep, steep, for step after step after step. But it WAS downhill. For a few hundred meters, maybe a whole kilometer, it took less effort and each step felt like a victory.

Until. Down the hill? A kilometer or so past the midpoint, and to be fair, that WAS a downhill kilometer, it became clear that the entire trip downhill would NOT be that. We had been duped. More false endings. The hills began to rise again. Each hill ended with the reveal of ANOTHER hill. These hills were steeper, if that were possible. You’d get to the top of one, and another would laugh in your face. This LORD OF THE RINGS will never fucking end, I thought. It was almost as bad as when I realized it in the theater.

I glanced behind me. The Malaysian woman had lost her smile. She seemed worse than ever. I looked around. Where the hell would a helicopter even land around here? A few minutes later, the rest of us realized she was at least a hundred meters behind us. This was going to end badly, very badly.

“We should go back,” I said. “She’s not going to make it.”

Everyone else looked at each other, and several gave that blasé shrug you get used to in Asia from people who don’t have the balls to argue with you but who have no fucking intention of helping you. It’s a maddening shrug, and this from someone who’s MASTERED the maddening (shrug). The ambivalence really made me want to throw something, but there had been a garbage can at the radio tower and I had already unloaded my water bottle.

“She’s not going to make it,” I repeated. More shrugs. THIS is why you buy more than one water bottle, I thought. So you can chuck the extra ones at Couchsurfing people. “Fuck it,” I said. “I’ll go back and walk back down WITH her.”

The leader of the group finally spoke up. “It will be just as tough to go back.”  He pointed back towards the radio tower.

I followed his point. He was right. We had reached sort of a canyon. At this point, if we turned around, we would have to go up the steep, steep, steep that we had just descended. We had seen that revealed peak, but from the opposite angle. It would be just as tough to go back.

“I’ll go back and walk with her this way, then,” I said.

They all shrugged again. Assholes, I thought, as I turned and made my way back - my way back UP - the steps so I could at least accompany the woman, make her feel like she wasn’t alone.

I reached her. She was standing still on what was somewhat of a plateau on one set of concrete steps, hands on her knees, seemingly waiting for me.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Take your time.” She doesn't seem as grateful to see me as I anticipated, I thought.

“Yeah. I am.”

“Whenever you’re ready.”


When she was ready, we started again, back down the steep, steep, steep. Every couple of steps, I waited as she made her way down, turning her body almost sideways to keep her balance. Waiting for her, I had time to look around, to see the view, to catch my own breath. By the time we both reached the bottom of one such steep, I seriously wondered whether or not she just wanted to be alone. We were both smiling. Maybe it just takes time, I thought.

The group was waiting for us back where I had left them. We all started off together. It became a consistent downhill. There was less chatter now, except from the Ukrainian woman, and we stayed in a single file. The Malaysian woman was now near the head of the line. Two hours later, we reached the bottom and an hour later (finally, something was only “an hour” later), we all had dinner together. Walking the streets of Central Hong Kong afterwards, the Malaysian woman reminded us she had to catch a flight, so at one corner, we all shook hands, exchanged cards, and bid each other safe travels. I went off and had a couple of beers by myself before finding my accommodation and quickly falling asleep. Good day.

Apropos of nothing, today marks the theoretical midway point of my trip.