It is a tempting signpost, but also a frustrating one.  Five possible destinations, and the awareness that this visit alone will hardly suffice to account for all of them – save for the KCR Station (Kowloon-Canton Railway, the old name for the East Rail Line – though I’m amazed it’s survived for so long!).  Notably, they’re all part of the Wilson Trail, which defuses the mystery a little bit.

So which one should I take?

The temple walk – in the direction of Lin Au (蓮澳) and the fascinatingly named “Lead Mine Pass (鉛鑛凹)” – proves to be the most compelling option, so I cross the bridge (back toward the market side) and follow the road.

The street winds through a fairly open courtyard, but I’m at a loss as to figure out what this place is.  A village?  A (housing) garden?  A town?  “Suburb” seems like a close match, yet I hesitate to tack on the American connotations to a place like this.

But that’s not the only problem – the road diverges into two new paths.  Do I still really want to go to the temple?

Fortunately, two signs are enough to answer both questions: “Shek Kwu Long Village (石古龍村); Thai Temple, 400 m [straight ahead].”  It doesn’t point in the direction of the hillside temple, but it’s good enough for now.  So I move.

I have no idea where this village is.  Its name, Shek Kwu Long (石古壟), translates quite literally to an ancient mountainside grave.  But that’s about it, and I hope that’s all there is to it.

It’s more than I need to know, too, because context and a map are useless out here.  Getting one’s bearings this far away from the center of Hong Kong equates to having enough memory to remember where you were five steps ago.

And if it’s easier said than done, then maybe it’s because I never found the “Thai temple.”

I trace back to the diversion in the road.  Frost beckons, if only very faintly, so I continue on the second path: into Kam Shek New Village (錦石新村), where the road begins to snake up the hill.  There are, interestingly enough, a mix of low-lying apartments and older, more traditional village houses on both sides of the street.  There’s even, among other oddities, an old school and an “international institute” for traditional Chinese medicine. It’s not surprising, really, given what else can be found in the New Territories, and yet…these juxtapositions…

A(n abandoned?) school. The staircase doesn't seem to lead anywhere, at the very least...

And to top it all off, there’s a highway overpass at the top of the hill, with a construction crew working on a possible extension.  Remarkable.

The road (or what they’ve demarcated as the “pedestrian path”) still snakes in and around the construction area, so I tread carefully.  The path is now very steep, but I manage to finally make it to level ground.  A gate stands, opened.  I walk inside, before I suddenly realize:

This is it.  The hillside temple.

It’s absolutely beautiful.  Even if the temple itself – and preferably the road construction too – were removed from the scene, the surrounding gardens alone would have made this a worthwhile walk.  There are only two women here when I arrive: an elder, plain-clothed matron who solemnly walks the grounds, and a middle-aged woman (perhaps her daughter? a helper? another visitor?) burns incense in a nearby closed fire.  The older woman observes me curiously for several seconds as she walks; I smile and ascend the stairs toward the temple hall.

I have never seen, or have ever known of, a temple like this.  Judging by the golden statue in the hall, it is a Buddhist temple, but there is no name – or rather, no transliteration – available.  There’s a part of me that almost doesn’t want to know, because it’s so secluded that I feel as though figuring out where this is would shatter the mystery rather than resolve it.

And yet, who am I kidding?  There’s a highway right outside the grounds; taxis and cars continue to move up and down the steep road.  Two other women, about the same age as the younger one burning incense, approach the old woman with offers for lunch.  The three of them seem to know each other well, so they strike up a pleasant conversation (the elder woman politely refuses the food).  Within several minutes, the younger women leave.

I’m a bit hesitant to enter the temple proper, so I ask the elder woman if I can take pictures inside.  She politely responds in the negative – I think she’s surprised I approached her at all, and in Cantonese no less – but lets me (continue to) take pictures of the grounds.  She even recommends me to visit the guanyin (觀音) temple at the end of the side path.

There’s a second temple here?

I thank her for the suggestion and take her advice, following the path to – indeed – a second temple.  Guanyin temples throughout Hong Kong and mainland China honor the (East Asian) Buddhist bodhisattva that symbolizes compassion.  I am not Buddhist myself, though, so there is little else I can offer in way of an explanation or context.

This second temple looks remarkably newer; in fact, it’s still under construction.  The unfinished ground floor lies below the end of the path, which leads to the functioning first floor – complete with glass windows and doors.  I can see multitudes of what appear to be golden icons (maybe of Guanyin herself?) and scrolls inside, but I have no idea as to what they say.  The interior, colorful as it is, looks empty.

But it’s not once I pass the front door.  A lone monk kneels beside a table, cutting what appear to be batches of paper for writing prayers.  Again, I am hesitant to walk in – we are the only ones here – and when she politely declines my request to take pictures of the grounds, I decide to leave.

I return to the gardens and slowly stroll through.  There are other religious buildings too, but I’m not sure if they constitute their own temples or serve as adjuncts to the two larger sites.  All of them, however, are empty on this early Saturday afternoon.

Eventually, I discover that this is as high as I can go along the path (a bilingual sign going farther up the hill warns visitors to “turn back – free-running rotweiler ahead”), so I turn back and head down the slope toward the river.  I can’t even tell (or rather, I’ve forgotten) if I ever reached Lin Au or the Lead Mine Pass.  But maybe that’s an excursion for another time.

Rather than return to the sign and pick another destination, though, I decide to continue exploring the length of the river, upstream.

The river path is emptier than it was when I first set foot here several hours earlier, but there are still joggers and older men and women walking.  It’s certainly peaceful, and as the trail descends into forest the scene grows pleasantly quiet and beautiful.

A sign along the path provides a map with a walking trail that ‘circles’ both sides of the river, so I decide to follow along.  It’s a long walk, but a peaceful one, and I take my time and follow the river for as long as I can.  Eventually, though, the trail diverges from the river and into more construction.  So much for completing the circuit.

I turn around once again and stroll along the length of the river – though at this point it’s not so much a river as a near-dry canal, with a single tiny stream running like a spine along the ground.  The East Rail Line, amazingly, is directly on the other side – another reminder that this is still Tai Po, that this area is less of a secluded grotto than I think it is.

I can’t tell how far I’ve walked, but after enough time ambling along the path I return to Kam Shek and the original signpost.  Two destinations not reached, but crossed off.  One to the MTR station, back home; the other toward another village and another hill.

Where to next?

To be continued…