- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2011

HONG KONG

Thirty yards away from where we stood, a herd of water buffalo grazed in a green field. Behind us, mountains rose up with pockets of villages tucked along a winding road. Yet not two hours earlier, we had been standing amid glass skyscrapers and throngs of people in Hong Kong.

My cousin and I were visiting a friend in Hong Kong for a week this spring and took an excursion to camp on Lantau Island, Hong Kong’s largest island. After an hourlong ferry trip and a seven-minute bus ride, we were dropped off near a path to the campsite on Pui O, a beach with clear water, fine sand and a salmon-colored tiled pavilion.

It seemed almost too easy. The campsite was clean - and mostly empty - and there were indoor bathrooms with the same salmon tile, a small store that sold snacks and beach toys, and a Western-style restaurant called Ooh La La owned by a Hong Kong-born Canadian. The camping was free.

A mix of rural and urban, East and West, characterized much of our excursion, which offered enough distance from the bustle of the city for a peaceful break without eliminating conveniences such as accessibility or indoor plumbing.

Even the water buffalo add a layer to this rural-urban story: As recently as a few decades ago, Pui O was dotted with rice paddies plowed by water buffalo. As agriculture declined, farmers abandoned their cattle and left the island. Today, an estimated 280 feral buffalo live on Lantau Island - but don’t worry, they aren’t much interested in people.

Pui O makes a good starting point for further exploration of Lantau Island, with designated hiking trails, a large monastery, a fishing village and a cable car to the Big Buddha, though we stayed on the southeastern side and used the Lantau Trail as a means for accessing great views of the island.

The trail starts along the water with an estuary in a small village full of beautiful, expensive vacation homes, then passes a stone cemetery built into the mountain and a small temple with coils of incense burning overhead. Then the real hiking begins with a sharp turn up into the mountain and cement steps built into the trail. Wear bug spray to avoid mosquito bites and the potential for dengue fever, and keep an eye out for butterflies fluttering along the path.

Halfway up the trail, we stopped at Pak Fu Tin campsite. We sat at the site’s one picnic table under a leafy tree to cook our vacuum-packed black bean chili (actually quite tasty). Then we continued to Mui Wo, where the ferry pier is, and, after getting frozen yogurt at McDonald’s, we took the bus back to the beach instead of hiking. There, we lounged in the sun and sand and swam in Pui O’s clear, calm water until it got dark.

A tip about choosing a campsite: Like Pak Fu Tin, most of the sites are hike-in, hike-out, meaning exactly what it sounds like. The smaller sites fill up fast in warmer weather when camping is more popular; from October through March, there are fewer visitors and it’s easier to find a spot. All sites are free and offered first come, first served.

As a pleasant surprise, three restaurants were within a 10-minute walk of Pui O. One night, we ate decent, basic Chinese food at Mao Kee, where, at 8 p.m., we shared the restaurant with two men dining while watching an Asian soap opera on a TV hanging from the ceiling. The second night, we ate tasty, if overpriced, burgers at Ooh La La on the beach. If you want more variety, there is a swanky-looking Japanese teppanyaki restaurant called Pui O Delicious with leafy potted plants out front. Not too shabby for a camping trip.

The hardest part of the trip was getting the one item we couldn’t bring with us from New York: a small gas tank for the stove. The first two camping stores we went to before leaving for Lantau Island either had closed or changed locations. It was hot and crowded on the streets and difficult to navigate with our backpacks.

We found what we needed at a third store, World Sports Co. in MongKok. In the end, we could have done without the small camping stove, but when we were planning the trip, we didn’t know there would be restaurants so close to the campsite.

On our way to the island, we took the subway instead of a cab to the ferry to feel less like tourists and more like locals. Few people have cars, and public transportation is crowded, but cabs are expensive. Even on a weeknight in the offseason, the subways are crowded, partly because Lantau Island has year-round residents as well as a community of vacation homes for expats. The ferries and buses are not so crowded.

On the way back, we took a bus and a subway instead of the ferry. We shared the bus stop with two local Chinese teens, one wearing a leopard-print scarf, both wearing long, flowing skirts that might have been from the H&M downtown. As they listened to music playing from one of their cellphones, a pair of water buffalo ambled up the road in what seemed like slow motion, their hooves clicking against the pavement as the sun went down.Next time, I’ll work this errand into some shopping in the area. You can buy tents and sleeping bags cheaply at a number of camping stores in MongKok, but we were glad we had brought our own gear. We packed smart and light - just the basics, including tent, roll and sleeping bag.