Hong Kong: The New Territories offer unexpectedly rural and comfortable cycling

San Cheung, my avuncular guide, who sports a greying moustache and goatee beard like Mr Miyagi from The Karate Kid, admits cycling isn't the first thing tourists usually want to do in Hong Kong.

As we whizz north on the super-efficient MTR (Mass Transit Railway) from skyscraper-filled Hong Kong Island to the outer reaches of the more rural New Territories, he says: "Most people come to Hong Kong for shopping and eating. Cycling? Not so much. They think it's too busy and dangerous. Or too hard."

He has a point. As well as its frenetic, traffic-choked streets, Hong Kong is cloaked in challenging terrain. About three-quarters of this SAR (Special Administrative Region) of China is mountainous, characterised by jungled peaks that are more attractive to hikers than casual cyclists. But Yuen Long, the district we're heading to, has flat plains where you can pedal, and admire countryside scenery and centuries-old heritage sites, without getting much of a sweat on.

We alight from the MTR at what is one of the most rapidly-developing New Towns in the New Territories, the patch of Chinese mainland that Britain added to its Hong Kong holdings in 1898. It was the conclusion of the 99-year lease for the New Territories – which comprise about 85 per cent of Hong Kong's land – that sparked the handover of the whole colony back to China on that famously rain-lashed evening in 1997.

After collecting our wheels from a bike hire shop near Yuen Long's sprawling transport hub, which is hedged by a shiny new mall and high-rise apartments, we start pedalling along a network of paved cycle routes as San Cheung reveals just how much this area has changed – especially in the past two decades.

Pointing back towards the soaring new developments, he says he was born in Yuen Long "60-something years ago" when it was little more than a fishing village. His father was a teacher who had crossed the border from Guangdong province, formerly Canton, in Communist China.

The low-rise clinic in which San Cheung's mother delivered him has been replaced by a huge new hospital and Yuen Long district is now home to about 600,000 people, with rents and real-estate prices slightly more affordable than in the more densely-populated environs of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. A typical 45-square-metre apartment here would still set you back more than $A1 million, however.

The New Territories are actually quite ancient, as people were living here long before the British arrived. Remains have been unearthed from the Bronze Age and the region is dotted with hamlets and villages founded hundreds of years ago during the Ming and Qing dynasties of imperial China. Most villages have moved with the times, though, with mod-cons such as airconditioning units and satellite dishes.

We roll into one such place: Shiu Tau, which is quite a surprise for Hong Kong. Clusters of tile-clad apartments are only three and four storeys high (rather than 30 and 40 floors) and the general vibe is sleepy and quiet, punctuated by bursts of birdsong. Colourful banners, etched with Chinese lettering, dragons and phoenix, are still on show, a vivid reminder of the recent festivities for Chinese New Year.

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Parking our bicycles, we duck into the village's restored stone monuments – study halls, where scholars would learn literature and martial arts, and temples and ancestral halls with internal courtyards infused with incense and statues of deities. These landmarks were built by the Tangs, one of the so-called five great clans of Hong Kong, who began gravitating here via Guangdong province around the 12th century. Still among Hong Kong's most prominent clans, the Tangs, it's said, can trace their  lineage back 86 generations.

After a photo stop by a 150-year-old banyan tree with eerily tangled roots and branches, we cycle to Kat Hing Wai. It's one of a handful of walled villages in the vicinity that sprang up to thwart pirates and bandits. After the British seized the New Territories, local resistance figures also sought refuge behind the walls after skirmishes broke out with the colonial authorities. The British had the gates dismantled, but returned them in the 1920s.

From the outside, Kat Hing Wai is striking, with its study walls, iron gate and old watchtower. Beyond the fortifications, however, is a fairly modern settlement, with one, narrow bicycle-littered main stretch, a few side alleys and low-rise apartments and houses tightly packed together.

Holding fort by the gates, ensuring visitors pay a donation on entry, are two elderly women deep in Cantonese chat: one is popping bubble wrap, her friend is munching away on a steaming takeaway rice lunch.

San Cheung and I enjoy some nibbles ourselves – siu mai (shrimp dumplings) coated in soy and chilli sauces, and sugar-doused tofu pudding – at a little farm eatery by Nam Sang Wai, one of the wetland areas and nature reserves in the New Territories that are protected by the Hong Kong government.

Sunday joggers, cyclists and birders are in their element in a zone peppered with fish ponds, mudflats, marshes, reeds, mangroves and the Kam Tin and Shan Pui rivers. Up to 100,000 migratory birds winter here, some coming from as far afield as Siberia. They rest and fatten up in Hong Kong before heading on to Australia and New Zealand. Of the birds flying about, or idling and grazing on the banks, San Cheung points out cormorants, egrets, kingfishers and grey herons.

Less than 10 kilometres away looms the cloud-piercing skyline of Shenzen, the Chinese city across the border. San Cheung says that when he first started doing day trips there in the 1970s, Shenzen had a population of 500,000. Now it has 12 million, plus myriad factories, tech start-ups and corporate offices. Last year the city's GDP surpassed that of Hong Kong's for the first time (although it still lags behind in GDP per capita).

We continue pedalling through a muddy, puddle-strewn eucalyptus forest, where trees were felled by a ferocious typhoon last year. Then we pause at a particularly scenic patch of wetland, where half a dozen women are posing for photographs by a vintage wooden jetty that has apparently featured in scores of Hong Kong movies and TV melodramas.

"In the scenes, people are usually on a boat, crying, saying goodbye to their families," says San Cheung.

A little further on, we're stopped in our tracks by a murky creek about 10 metres wide, fringed by ramshackle stilt houses and iron huts. Beside the creek, a group of middle-aged men are chatting, smoking and playing cards. Quipping that they run a "monopoly ferry service", San Cheung gives one of their number a handful of Hong Kong dollar coins and the man guides us, with our bikes, into the tiny, solitary wooden boat. Flexing his wiry arms, he rows us across the creek in about 20 seconds.

As well as saving us a long diversion back to Yuen Long MTR station, he's given us the kind of timeless, rustic experience you'd perhaps expect in the deepest Chinese countryside, but certainly not in Hong Kong.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/china

discoverhongkong.com/au

FLY

Cathay Pacific flies to Hong Kong from Sydney and Melbourne, code-share with Qantas. See cathaypacific.com

TOUR

Smooth Ride offers a selection of Hong Kong bike rides, including five-hour Countryside Bike Tours, priced from $HK3120 (about $561) for one to two people. Per-person rates decrease the larger your group (maximum: 12 people). See sr-cycles.com

Steve McKenna was a guest of the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

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