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Postcard from the Dragon’s Back and Shek O, Hong Kong: another side of the island


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Hello from Hong Kong! I’m here for a few days on my way back to Italy from Australia, and it has been an excellent stop over. While here, I have been following a new year diet of large meals plus multiple snacks every day (diiiiiim suuuuuum) but today I temporarily tore myself away from the food to go hiking.

Yes, hiking in Hong Kong. I didn’t realize you could do that, either.

The Dragon’s Back ridge is on the eastern end of Hong Kong island, and the hiking trail that runs across it is super popular, for good reason. On a clearer day, you’d get views across to the massive apartment buildings of Kowloon, but even on a hazy day like today I saw smaller islands dotting the bay, quiet beaches and granite boulders. (I also saw a couple wearing broad-brimmed sun hats walking the opposite direction to me, and I couldn’t resist saying “hi” to them, knowing exactly what accent they’d reply with; it’s pretty easy to spot Australians from a distance once you know the tells.)

At the southern end of the trail, I hopped on the bus to Shek O, a beachside town that at this time of year was mostly host to couples taking engagment and wedding photos next to the ocean swirling against the shore.

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Practial notes for future reference: I followed these very useful directions to walk the trail north to south, starting at Chai Wan MTR station. The only thing I would add is that the walk along the road after you’ve left the cemetery isn’t looooong but the trail head isn’t quite as close as I would have guessed — you can’t miss the trailhead though, so just keep walking.

The trail over the ridge is quite exposed to sun, you’ll want to wear sunscreen and carry plenty of water. There’s nowhere on trail to get water. I was there on a warm winter’s day and I wish I’d brought a full litre of water rather than 500 ml.

I found myself walking against the flow of traffic on trail, not sure if that was because of my timing or because more people start at the southern end and walk northwards. I did the trail on a Monday, it was certainly populated, but not ridiculously so. The weekend might be a different matter…

When you get to the southern end of the trail, there are bus stops for buses to Shek O and Shau Kei Wan MTR station. While Shek O is within walking distance of the southern trailhead, it’s along a winding road without shoulders much of the way so you’re better off catching a bus.

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Postcard from Dijon

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I was in Dijon in October for a conference. All I knew about the city before I went was the story from some friends about how they’d been on a roadtrip in France and ended up spending the night in a cheap hotel on the outskirts of Dijon, where instead of a reception desk you were supposed to collect your keys via some kind of vending machine arrangement(!) and the room had bunk beds(!!) (If I’m remembering their stories correctly, this was also the trip they camped on the nature strip in a supermarket carpark in the north of France, so their time in Dijon was actually pretty luxurious.)

While it’s fair to say I went to Dijon with zero expectations, what I discovered there was a fascinating mix of gothic and renaissance buildings. And unlike many towns where the historical centre is a few streets surrounded by 1960s concrete blocks, Dijon came through WW2 with little damage to its buildings and the centre is large and well-preserved, perfect for wandering around on a sunny autumn afternoon.

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Practical information for future reference: Dijon is 2 hours by regional train from Lyon, which is a major transport hub (from Turin I travelled via Lyon), or 1.5 hours by TGV from Paris.

Postcard from Gran Bosco di Salbertrand: a human landscape in the Alps

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I’d only been back in Turin a few days before I realized I needed to get out and walk… again. So last Saturday, a few of us took the train up to Parco Naturale del Gran Bosco di Salbertrand in Susa Valley.

This was the first time I’d organized a hike myself, and I’d been careful about choosing a nice route for the group: it featured a rifugio near the top, and several options so we could take the less steep path on the way down to save our knees and ankles. Unfortunately my map didn’t have full topographic information and it turns out that just because a path is twice as long, it doesn’t have to be half as steep a descent. It can be gently uphill for a substantial distance and then drop precipitously into the valley on a track covered in pine cones that act as rollers under your feet. (Sorry guys!!!)

When we weren’t slipping and sliding and cursing our way down the side of Susa Valley, we had a walk through a pine forest in the morning light, past old stone walls and ruins of buildings that we debated about (were they houses, or cow sheds, or..?). We picked lavender and mint that was growing beside the path. We saw cows — and a marmot, who was sadly uninterested in B’s offer of lifelong friendship. It was a very human landscape, with all its signs of human history — apparently, timber from these woods was used in the construction of the Superga Basilica in Turin. It was also a very modern human landscape, with the constant hum of the highway below us.

We got back to Turin that evening tired and hungry and coated with a fine layer of dust.

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Practical information for future reference: You can get to Gran Bosco di Salbertrand without a car — take the train from Turin to Salbertrand (altitude 1000m) on the Bardonecchia line, it runs hourly, takes about an hour and costs 5.75 euro each way. From there, there are all sorts of walks you can take. I used this map, be warned that although it gives altitudes of landmarks it doesn’t have contour lines. We took the GTA route up to Rifugio Daniel Arlaud (altitude 1770m) and then on to Le Selle (altitude 2000m), which is a cluster of agricultural buildings, but also a great viewpoint for the valley. We followed the (closed to cars) road down and then took route 2, which was very steep and I wouldn’t recommend it unless you enjoy that sort of thing.

It was quite dry in late August, and if I did this walk again I’d do it earlier in the summer with the hope of seeing green meadows rather than brown. (It was also quite warm, but much of the route is shaded.)

Postcard from Conca del Pra: enjoying the foothills of the Alps

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Went hiking with some friends and their kids yesterday in the foothills of the Alps. It was a sunny day and it was hot work following a narrow valley up, until we came over the ridge and found ourselves in the open space of Conca del Pra, a basin surrounded by jagged hills. On our walk we saw waterfalls, and wild roses, and cows, and raspberry patches, and flowers growing from the rocks that were reminiscent of hattifatteners, and entrances to mysterious caves where the air was cool and underground streams emerged. Our 4-year-old guide would probably want to add that we saw plenty of cool rocks and sticks and also he found an old shoe lace.

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Practical information for future reference: We parked at Villanova, which is near Bobbio Pellice, which is a bit past Pinerolo as you head into the Alps in that direction from Turin. It was a popular spot — the tables at Rifugio Willy Jervis in Conca del Pra were full of people having lunch — which is not surprising considering it’s a beautiful place only 50 km from central Turin. There are 2 trails from Villanova to Conca del Pra, one that is a dirt road with a few shortcuts to save on tedious switchbacks, and the other that follows the other side of the stream and is much steeper and rockier (but definitely rewarding). We took the gentler route up and the steep route down, my knees today feel like that was maybe not the best order to do things… It’s also possible to drive up to Conca del Pra and use that as a starting point for hikes further into the hills.

Postcard from vallée Étroite: How is this even possible.

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Earlier this week, a friend sent out a group message that she and her family were going on a hike on Saturday, anyone was welcome to join them, adding “it’s one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever seen”.

She wasn’t wrong.

“How is this even possible?” we asked ourselves, repeatedly, as we walked through alpine meadows with walls of dramatic jagged rock formations above us and a clear cold mountain stream running next to us. We saw a herd of cows, an enchanted lake with a million shades of green algae growing on the bottom, half a dozen marmots, a pond with tadpoles, wildflowers in pink and yellow and purple and orange, and new views opening out to us every time we climbed a hill.

At one of our many pauses for photos, I asked one of the guys if he wanted a photo “with that stuff over there.”

“Stuff?” he laughed.

“I’ve run out of words.”

 

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Practical information for future reference: vallée Étroite (valle Stretta in Italian) is just over the French-Italian border from Bardonecchia. We drove from Turin, which takes 1.5-2 hours on the highway; parking near our start point of Rifugio i Re Magi (website in Italian) was 2 euro for the day. We walked from 1780m  above sea level at Rifugio i Re Magi to 2500m above sea level at Refuge du Thabor (website in French), a distance of about 7km each way on well-marked trails — just make sure you follow the signs to Refuge du Thabor and not Mont Thabor itself. You can buy lunch at Refuge du Thabor or even sleep the night. I was glad of my waterproof shoes for the stream crossings but everyone else got on fine in running shoes.

 

Postcard from Monte Galero

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Went on another hike this weekend, this time in Tanaro Valley near the border between Piedmont and Liguria. A hot morning, followed by an afternoon of dramatic skies, rain showers, and thunderclaps in the distance (disconcerting when you’re on the top of a hill!), followed by an evening on the Mediterranean coast eating takeaway pizza while standing around a concrete block used as a makeshift table. In between all of this we also read the gospel of Matthew start-to-finish — I’ve been going to church all my life but somehow the Bible becomes new and unfamiliar when you read it in long sections while sitting on a picnic blanket in a beech forest rather than a paragraph at a time in a church service. Highly recommended.

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Postcard from Valle Varaita

I’ve come down with a rather tedious and inconvenient head cold, so no writing from me this week — I started trying to write this post and got bogged down in Uggggh what even are words. But enjoy some photos from a day spent in Valle Varaita recently with friends from church.

(Not to make you jealous or anything, but it was basically a perfect summer’s day.)

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Postcard from Cinque Terre

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It’s a crazy busy couple of weeks right now so no “real” blog post from me, but here’s a photo from the calm in the eye of the storm, when I spent the weekend on the Ligurian coast with a friend from highschool. Great times catching up and a lovely morning walk in Cinque Terre, with this view down past the vineyards to Vernazza.

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Postcard from Dusseldorf

 

Boxing day, I woke up early in Munich to hop on a plane to Dusseldorf. I had a 10-hour stopover there before flying to Beijing, Singapore, then Perth. Fortunately, even though I was a bit bleary from an early start, Dusseldorf is a lovely city to spend a day and the weather worked in my favour — unlike Munich, it wasn’t snowing there that day, and was even sunny for a while.

The day made a relaxing break between a fun but hectic Christmas with family and a long flight. I spent most of the day down at the river, walking around to try and offset the upcoming hours of sitting on planes. Though I made sure to get in some gluehwein, too!

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Practical details for future reference: Dusseldorf airport has a left-luggage facility which is open from 5 am – 11 pm and is staffed (!) so I — rightly or wrongly — felt safe leaving all my luggage there, including my laptop, and went around town with just my wallet and phone. This made for a much nicer day than I was expecting since I didn’t have a heavy bag. The office is in carpark P3 and is signposted quite well. Cost was 3.50 euro/day.

You can either get the S-bahn into town every half hour from a stop right at the airport, or take the skytrain to the main airport train station and get a regular train into town — these seem to run more frequently. The train trip takes <10 minutes either way and costs 2.50 euro.