The following extract is from a wonderful book on the wild places of Hong Kong called 《咫尺山林》by Teddy Law 羅榮輝, first published in 2016 by EDGE/Roundtable Synergy Books. If you love hiking in Hong Kong and you can read Chinese, I think you’ll find it hard to resist this practical-poetical account of twenty-nine Hong Kong hiking journeys. But if you can’t read Chinese, here’s a small taste of Teddy’s take on heading off into the hills on your own. I think you’ll find he manages to distil a lot of rich thinking in a very short space.
As a way of coming to appreciate nature, solitary walking is absorbed, candid, naked. Making foot-contact with the Earth, gradually you merge with the natural world until ― without even noticing it ― there you are: part of it. This direct, unobstructed dialoguing with nature is even more conducive to finding a way into the deepest parts of a person’s inner life. At that moment when nature allows the solitary walker to take delight in its scenery, there is also then consolation and a new chance to get to know oneself. From this knowledge of self, the solitary walker begins to appreciate herself, to believe in her own value, and thus to bring to light the goals and meaning of her life. This may provide solitary walkers with a key at a particular stage in their lives, opening the gate to a self they have been searching for. We all do this: it is just that solitary walkers do it in their particular own way.
However, society’s views on solitary walking are quite different. Out in the broader community, not only is solitary walking regarded as being undesirable; it is even considered to be a form of irresponsible behaviour. When hiking accidents are reported in the media, the coverage tends to attribute most of the blame to walking on one’s own. Opinion is also directed at what happens after an accident: the social resources that are wasted in rescue operations, and the risks to their own safety run by rescue personnel in carrying out such operations. Solitary walkers are criticized for generally thinking only about their personal pleasure, engaging in a form of behaviour that benefits them at the expense of others. Solitary walkers also often give people the impression that there is something gu-pik or “uncommunicative and eccentric” about them. The community may therefore nurse certain prejudices, believing that solitary walkers are lacking in basic social and/or communication skills, or that their behaviour reflects some kind of psychological imbalance.
To be sure, walking alone involves some degree of risk. Apart from unforeseeable factors, however, the occurrence of accidents involving solitary walkers can to a large extent be put down to certain factors that lie within an individual’s control such as hiking experience, preparation for the walk, knowledge of path conditions, one’s physical condition, weather, and skills in responding to emergencies. Such commonplace notions ― the most basic things even to consider when going on a hike ― are often the easiest things to overlook. This is because the biggest difficulty facing solitary walkers is not having appraised the risks with sufficient modesty and not having acknowledged with complete honesty any inadequacies in one’s physical strength. To define solitary walking as a high-risk activity is a great pity.
No matter whether you set off for the sake of freedom, more personal space, the challenge to yourself or to get close to nature, undergoing such an experience can help a person to understand themselves, thereby transforming hiking into a quest for the self. Walking on your own is, I think it is fair to say, gu or “solitary” but not pik or “weird”, an opening out and not a narrowing down. Solitary walking has a positive effect on both the soul and the spirit: it moulds a positive way of thinking as well as a positive set of values, leading to a transformation in both one’s life and one’s behaviour. Cherishing the value of our lives does not mean reducing everything to our narrow existences and remaining indifferent to any pursuit of the spiritual; proper regard for the reasonable use of public resources cannot be reduced to the mere waste of such resources in the event of an accident, thereby depriving us of the enlightenment that solitary walking brings to an individual’s thinking and behaviour and the positive influence this in turn has for a society.
Solitary walking has its good and bad points but, in itself, there is nothing terrible about it. The terrible thing is to interpret it in a manner that is only one-sided or negative. To be indifferent to the essential nature of solitary walking and to write off its deeper significance is to obliterate one route to our finding of ourselves.
It is my wish that one day solitary walking will no longer be something people resent or avoid as being harmful.
Translated by Simon Patton