Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Hong Kong's Rooftop Gardens by Oscar Ponton

Hong Kong is a city which probably isn’t renowned for its urban gardens. With space at such a premium and often used for new housing developments, it seems there is little way for any sizable garden to flourish. Not to mention the severe tropical conditions which affect the city throughout the year, and can make gardening a tricky prospect at the best of times. Yet a solution to the city’s gardening problem does exist in the shape of the many idle rooftop spaces found throughout the city, which are just waiting to be transformed into small, but sustainable urban gardens.

Upon joining my post-secondary campus in September, I was informed that I would be in charge of their newly formed rooftop garden, set up by last year’s Chatteris Project Coordinator in the spring. With a little knowledge of gardening myself, having helped maintain my parents garden over the years and going to work on an organic farm in France the previous summer, I felt relatively ready for the task. But as head of the garden, it remains a continual learning experience for me, and one that I have thoroughly enjoyed so far in allowing me to learn and teach so many new things to the students around me. Having formed a gardening group with students, which meets once a week to look after the garden, I have met so many wonderful local people who are truly passionate about the environment. In the course of the garden’s development we’ve grappled with Hong Kong’s heat waves and typhoons, and eventually set up three new beds with fresh produce in, ranging from kale, lettuce, green beans and cucumbers and a variety of fresh herbs and flowers.

By growing such produce, I’m able to give something back to the students which is truly rewarding for their continual hard work. Moreover, the garden helps to foster a community feel on campus between myself,  local staff and students through us learning about the environment together. Just last week we managed to give the principal a bag of our freshly grown produce, which he seemed to thoroughly enjoy! There have been clear educational and communal benefits to this project, and it is fantastic to see students engage so willingly in environmental concerns when Hong Kong is a city which could arguably do more in the shape of ecological thinking.

Yet just as our rooftop garden has become an important feature on campus for both staff and students, there are equally a number of other ventures in Hong Kong who are really driving the communal gardening scene. Companies like Rooftop Republic, who have a number of urban garden sites around Hong Kong and hold workshops for businesses are doing great things for the community, whilst HK Farm in Yau Ma Tei looks to foster community participation through a number of different gardening activities. Just as these sites promote gardening on a larger scale, the wide ranging benefits of setting up your own rooftop garden are endless. Doing our own bit to serve the environment is important, and gardening is just one tool we can use to better educate people about such matters in the bustling urban metropolis of Hong Kong.   

Friday, 13 January 2017

Hong Kong by Foot by Jack Hall

Hong Kong, also known as ‘the +852’, is the remarkable city that effortlessly fuses Western influence and Chinese heritage. The everlasting sea of neon lights shine beneath a skyline reminiscent of Manhattan. It is vibrant, yet there is another side to Hong Kong that very few encounter for one reason or another. A side that is tranquil, undisturbed and seemingly forgotten by the masses. The green side of Hong Kong.

With 78.7% of Hong Kong’s land mass being ‘vegetated’ (grasslands, woodlands, shrublands and agricultural lands), there are endless paths of discovery waiting just moments from your doorstep. Get off the beaten track, over the rolling hills and see what is waiting beyond the next corner. Avoid the travel guides and listen to the whispers you have heard - you never know what you will stumble upon. Perhaps you will uncover a gem - just like I did.

The East Sai Kung Peninsula, enclosed by the Maclehose Trail, is

an area to the north east of Hong Kong has an endless supply of beauty. Here you will find pristine beaches with pearl white sands and serene turquoise seas - something not out of place in Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam. Ham Tin Beach is a place I never thought would exist when I first landed in Hong Kong. It’s the ideal camping spot where just metres from the rippling shores you can sit back, relax around a campfire and sip away on a beer (or two). The clear skies invite you to gaze upon the stars for hours whilst the temptation to take a dip in the placid sea is all too much.

It was, however, the next day that I really discovered Hong Kong by foot. Leaving behind friends to nurse their hangovers, I ventured off into the greenery with the hope of running, hiking and climbing my way back to the city. The sense of adventure was all too rewarding as I made my way along the Maclehose Trail not knowing what I would run into.

After drifting around Chek Keng Bay where you feel as if you are gliding across the ocean’s surface, I made my way to the top of Ngau Tau Shan. The climb was unbearable, especially with a huge camping backpack weighing me down and the previous night’s excesses sweating from every inch of my body. However, when I reached the peak and had a view as far as the eye could see in all directions, I became overwhelmed with the feeling of joy and accomplishment of persevering to the top, of finding a gem, going off the beaten path and not returning the way you came.

Finding the perfect view in Hong Kong isn’t all that hard, but when you stumble upon it by chance, it makes it that much more special.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Christmas in Laos

Deciding which Asian country to spend Christmas in is a bit like choosing between a basket of kittens and a bed of puppies – I was very unlikely to be disappointed. Hong Kong’s fantastic location means that previously far-flung destinations like Thailand, the Philippines and Japan are just a couple of hours away. After a while, I settled on Laos, the final frontier of South East Asia as far as I was concerned. Despite numerous jaunts around Asia, Laos had always eluded me and I decided Christmas 2016 would be my opportunity to scratch that itch.

With a 10 day break, I focused my attention on one part of Laos: the northern city of Luang Prabang, regularly voted the best city in South East Asia for its laid back charm and natural wonders. The most logical way to get to Luang Prabang was to fly there direct from Hong Kong… so naturally I didn’t do that. It was far cheaper, physically exhausting and much more thrilling to cross the Laos border overland and all those things just scream Christmas. As such, I jumped on a flight to Chiang Rai in northern Thailand and immediately embarked on a 19 hour slog to get to Luang Prabang.

It was a scenic journey of three buses and two tuk tuks on roads which had more bends than the Hokey Cokey. Just to top it off, my fellow passengers were a job lot of roosters who had a lot to say for themselves. I had to feel for them, seeing them cramped in tiny boxes and knowing they were probably going to end up as someone’s Christmas dinner but I’d have had more sympathy for them if they’d accepted their fate without making such a racket. Headphones maintained my sanity… just about. I finally arrived in Luang Prabang in the early hours of Christmas morning. It had been a long, uncomfortable journey and the sound of a rooster will haunt me to my dying day, but my sense of adventure had been well and truly satisfied. Thankfully, there was room at the inn.

After such a bonkers journey, Luang Prabang was the perfect tonic. A small city sandwiched between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers as well as a plethora of mountains, I quickly realised why Luang Prabang had garnered such an amazing reputation. The city itself is a collection of chilled out cafes, an after-hours bowling alley, mini beaches and cheap eats (an all-you-can eat vegetarian buffet for US$2 was a particular favourite). It also hosts probably the best night market I’ve found in South East Asia, with traders who don’t just churn out the usual mass-produced souvenirs. The elephant slippers I purchased may well be the best thing I’ve ever bought.

Where Luang Prabang really comes into its own is the incredible nature that surrounds it and various day trips let me experience this beauty up close and personally. Christmas Day opened my eyes to Luang Prabang’s most spectacular wonder – the Kuang Si Waterfalls, a half an hour tuk tuk ride from the city. The waterfalls seemingly never end with layer after layer toppling onto the next, creating the most breathtaking waterfall I’ve ever seen. The freezing cold water also made for a bracing Christmas dip, accompanied by a string of expletives.

Overall, Luang Prabang was completely worth the effort. Of course it would have been easier to fly straight to a Thai beach but Luang Prabang combined beautiful nature with a relaxed vibe and a sense of adventure. It was just what I needed.