"Aroma Walk (香花徑)" and a covered staircase. Why not?

“Aroma Walk (香花徑),” reads the sign next to the long staircase.  It’s covered (the staircase, that is), but there’s nothing at the top that can be seen from street level.

Huh?

“Aroma Walk (香花徑),” it still reads.  Hmm.

Ten seconds of the continuous drilling that’s gone on in the construction complex next to me convince me that I no longer want to explore these streets.  So I decide to ascend the staircase.

Another day, another sign, and another decision to walk.  But unlike the previous excursions I’ve undertaken, this one isn’t Kowloon-side.  Nor is it in the New Territories.  Not Lantau Island, either.

This is Hong Kong proper.  Hong Kong Island (香港島).  I’ve returned here at last, with the intent to finally start charting the where, who, what, and how of this place.

So the exploration begins.

Vendors and pedestrians along Chun Yeung Street (春秧街) in North Point (北角).

This isn’t the first time I’ve set foot on Hong Kong Island.  (It’s actually not even the first time I’ve set foot here on this trip.) On our family vacation here back in the summer of 2004, we ventured into Central (中環) – which is actually on the ‘western’ side of the island – and made our way toward “the Peak” (Victoria’s Peak, 山頂), the source of nearly every beautiful view of Hong Kong you’ve seen on a postcard or in a travel guide.  I don’t remember much about the street-level aspects of the area (save for the seemingly endless but fun escalator ride), but I certainly remember the photos we took at the Peak.  It’s absolutely beautiful in the evening.

But this post is not about Central or the Peak.  It’s about North Point (北角) and Braemar Hill (寶馬山), where I’ve decided to begin exploring the island, a little at a time.  Two areas which, in their own ways, parallel and counterbalance their more tourist-oriented counterparts to the west.

Actually, even the title is misleading.  It’s true that I visited both of these places, but between these two and on this visit, Braemar Hill gave the greater rewards and images.  So I’ll focus more on the latter here, and leave the discussion on North Point for another post.  (Don’t worry – I’ll be going back soon enough, for reasons that will become clear once I’ve fulfilled them.)

Braemar Hill (寶馬山), as the English suggests, earned its name from the British, who may have found inspiration in the Scottish village of the same name.  Having never visited Braemar myself (and with the likelihood that I will probably never see this village), I leave it to the British officials who settled here to explain their thoughts on the connection between these two places.

The other self-evident aspect of the name, of course, is that this neighborhood rests on a “hill.”  On paper, that makes sense: Hong Kong’s geography, after all, is largely mountainous throughout the entire territory, even along the coastline.  Buildings and high-rises have largely been constructed on hillsides and slopes, and even a simple stroll in any one district will often involve an incline (gentle or otherwise).

But on street level, geography doesn’t favor someone who has limited physical stamina like I do.  True to its name, Braemar Hill was founded along a steep slope, and if you ever decide to venture here without the aid of public transportation (taxi or bus), you would do well to keep that in mind as you climb up what seems to be an infinite series of staircases.

Not that I have this in mind as I set out along the “Aroma Walk.”  A long staircase that doesn’t quite live up to its name – the scenery is mildly comforting, but the incessant drone and dust of construction equipment nearby suppresses any chance to stop and smell the few flowers along this path.

It’s also not very encouraging to see everyone else (mostly schoolchildren) walking down the path rather than up.  But then again, it is a Friday evening.

The high-rises of Hong Kong Island, with Kowloon and the New Territories in the far distance.

At least seven staircases later (I stop counting once I realize I’m wasting energy via my brain), I arrive at street level – although, seeing as this is a hill, “street level” becomes relative.  The rough equivalent, based on the stunning view, is about fifteen to twenty floors of a standard high-rise.  Not bad.

That’s when I turn around and stumble upon even more high-rises.  Unlike their counterparts at sea level, though, these tower even higher.  They’re also newer and nicer.

Much nicer.

A typical gated community in Braemar Hill (寶馬山).

As elsewhere in Hong Kong, Braemar Hill is quick to distinguish itself from the rest of the territory.  This is unmistakably the home of Hong Kong’s upper echelon: the apartments are secured by elegant, well-designed gates, the schoolchildren wear clean British-inspired uniforms (although to be honest, it’s the case pretty much everywhere else too), and the cars are expensive.  It’s a British-inspired hill, and a British-looking one, at that.

And yet I haven’t reached the top yet.  I know I’m far from the Peak, but I want to keep finding higher ground.  It takes some furious convincing for my legs to agree, but eventually they move and so do I.  More stairs, more apartments, and more street levels.

The path continues in much this fashion until I reach two schools: the Chinese International School (漢基國際學校) and the Quarry Bay School (鱡魚涌學校).  Both look remarkably new and expansive.  But it’s getting dark, and there’s virtually no one here.

And that’s the end.  No tourist points of interest, no kiosks offering reading material, no souvenir shops.  Braemar Hill: a wealthy neighborhood hearkening back to a village in Scotland, another place reached after a long and frankly exhausting walk.  A brief glance beyond the trees reveals even more forest and growth covering yet another mountain.  Humbling, but expected.

I am about to turn around on How Yuen Road (“School Road,” 校園路), when suddenly I catch a glance of something unexpected.  It’s bright and strikes a remarkable contrast with the evening sky.  I move closer, toward a guard rail, and stop.

The "rest" of Hong Kong Island, as viewed from Braemar Hill. It was, admittedly, clearer and more striking when I took the photo...

Here, in the middle of nowhere, on a hill that bears no personal connection to me, is a near full-view of Hong Kong Island: its buildings, its forests, and its mountains.  An even better view, I think, than the one I stumbled upon before.  Bright, colorfully lit buildings below and beyond; dark green hillsides to the left; the fading evening sky above.

Here, yet again, is a wonderful moment – a beautiful miniaturization (condensation) of Hong Kong into a single portrait.  Stand back and you see everything all at once; look closer and you begin to notice the details and put them together.

It’s become a metaphor for this experience, for this journey.  Even better, it’s become yet another reason why I’ve grown to love this side of the world.

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