Fast but not furious

Accessible stress-busting hikes around the region that stretch your fitness and your horizons

Story by Steve White

HIKING IS NO LONGER ONLY FOR NERDS, PACING THE hills in safari shirts and clunky boots. It’s gone mainstream. Advances in apparel have banished the boot and replaced it with trail shoes weighing a fraction as much, while technicolour technical fabrics keep us dry from rain or sweat, and as warm or cool as we like.

In improving our ability to withstand the elements, the changes in apparel technology have been one of the catalysts in the rise of people wanting to get their exercise outdoors. The result has transformed our trails.

There are still those hiking to photograph, birdwatch or stargaze; or those that simply prefer a slower pace to allow nature more time to work its magic on our stress-pummelled souls. But today, many bring a more determined mindset to their hikes. For them, switching gears on their day off doesn’t mean entirely letting up. They see hiking as a way to work on their bodies at the same time as relaxing their minds and sharing quality time with friends. Keeping a good pace, they stop rarely, elevating the heart rate as they climb, perhaps breaking briefly trotting on the downs.

Luckily, many of Asia’s cities, while traffic-choked and polluted, make accessing trails surprisingly simple. In almost all of our examples below, to reach your jump-off point, you can first jump on a public bus or train, placing them within day-trip distance of the city – though we stretch that point a little with lofty Kinabalu, included for its undoubted pull on the imagination.

KOTA KINABALU – CROWNING GLORY

In Malaysia’s eastern province of Sabah sits an obvious objective for any hiker with a degree of stamina and mental steel: the 4,095-metre Mt Kinabalu.

While technically it’s possible as a day climb, very few get the necessary permit to treat it as such and most must join the gaggles ascending with the mandatory porters. The upside is this allows you to keep to fast-hike form: the porter hefts the bulk of your gear, allowing you to keep to a hydration pack and little else for the hike up through the forest to the huts at Laban Rata. There you overnight, rising in the early hours for the last push to the summit.

As a fast hiker, you’ll have the option to start later both days – though good luck with staying asleep on Day Two as the rest of the hut is zipping, clipping and clanking its way out of the dorms. The best of the views are gone before 10am usually so a lie-in isn’t a good idea anyway.

The steepest sections up the cliffs above Laban Rata come first, much of this on new stairs built since the earthquake of June 2015, then you roll over a lip onto an eerie inclined plateau, striated and faulted. Marking the edges are curious spires of rock including the Donkey’s Ears, now truncated in another sign of the quake’s passing, and Low’s Peak, your eventual goal.

The descent is sustained and punishing on already tired knees so poles are a good idea.

MANILA – CIRCUIT TRAINING

The bulk of Luzon, especially its north, is mountainous, so hikers have no shortage of destinations given a little travel time. But for those wanting something closer to instant gratification, the best answer lies a couple of hours to the south of Manila, in the well-visited environs of Lake Taal.

Here is a relatively unsung summit that yields stunning views of the whole area. In fact, Batulao is more of a mountain range in microcosm. Seen from its usual approach, its serrated form seems alarmingly technical and starts you worrying just how much climbing you’ll be doing: can it really be only 811m high?

Close up, you discover its rollercoaster ridge is more fun than intimidating, with the worst of the peaks skirted entirely by the main trail. This bucks and weaves its way up, mostly running through open grassland before diving into some stands of low trees near the summit section.

Finally you clamber up a final rise from where the immense Taal caldera lies at your feet. Soak up the unreal sight, then continue your circuit, descending carefully to a series of campsite platforms, crossing the stream at the very bottom and climbing again to rejoin the trail you came in on. All told, the loop should take only 2-3hrs plus an hour each way to walk in and out from the road.

Also in the Taal area is Pico de Loro – the Parrot’s Beak – with its exciting summit monolith. This has been closed since October 2016 though and there is no word yet on when it might be reopened.

TOKYO – THE PEAK OF ZEN

When the urge for the outdoors becomes undeniable, there’s one spot within reach of Tokyo that stands clear above all others, physically and in the imagination: Mt Fuji. There are closer escapes – the forested trails on Mt Takao for instance, or Mt Mitake – but both are so doable that crowds are a problem most weekends. Fuji offers more scope for escape, more taxing terrain.

That said, for the Japanese, Mt Fuji is hallowed ground and hundreds of thousands climb it every year so don’t expect to be alone all the way. The Yoshida Trail is the most used of the four main trails, being easiest to reach from Tokyo, so simply switching to one of the others will immediately grant more elbow room.

Each route is divided into ten stations, the Fifth being the usual place to start for hikers, away point accessible by public transport at the trail’s approximate midway point, and the Tenth being the top. From there, an up-and-down day-hike is a realistic aim. It will still mean upwards of 8hrs walking though to summit and return – more if you choose the Gotemba trail. If you can arrange for transport at the other end, the sandy Subashiri route can save time on the descent with long runnable sections.

While you’ll therefore need to get going, it’s worth noting how much locals – and many foreign visitors too – treasure their climb. For most of them, this is a two-day process, with them overnighting in mountain huts and targeting the summit for sunrise. Chat with a few of these folk and they’ll be amazed at your summit-and-back in a day. Ironically, some of their bewilderment will be focused not on your speed but on your wish to treat the experience in such a way – looks like you didn’t shed the habits of city life so easily, huh!

SINGAPORE – HEART OF THE LION

The green centre of Singapore is a hidden gem where primary rainforest butts up almost directly against housing estates and expressways. The mix of concrete and dirt trails at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve are not as groomed as you might fear, keeping things technical enough and with a decent amount of undulating terrain to offer a challenge.

From the main entrance at Hindhede Nature Reserve, all the main routes converge on the 163-metre summit of Bukit Timah. Start out on Route 3 though, marked in green on maps, which offers more varied terrain than Routes 1 and 2. They all merge again near Simpang Hut before you face a choice of final approach to the peak: either the longer road, or steep wooden steps.

The steps get the heart really working by the time you top out. Then, after a quick glug of fluid and a look around at the view, you’re ready to extend the session, taking Rengas Path onto the Dairy Farm Loop.

All-in, this adds up to an altitude gain of 500-700m over 10-14km of trail. If this is not enough of a workout, widen the loop further, adding the Pipeline Trail to stretch out the distance, though this is over much flatter terrain.

Recent, lengthy renovations have widened the trails, making it easier for hikers with poles to share the path with other members of the public – just as well as the pent-up demand sees this spot pretty heavily trafficked at the weekends.

There are nearby bus and MRT (Beauty World station) connections and a car park at the entrance. Note though that this being an area of wild forest in the heart of a city, the trails are open only 7am- 6pm – no hiking after dark is allowed.

JAKARTA – RECENTRE, RELAX

The centre of the Big Durian offers seemingly little prospect of easy escape from city streets suffocating under a miasma of photochemical smog and tropical heat. The southern suburbs offer hope, with a little more – literal – relief, but this is one Asian city where you need to begin your day extremely early for any done-in-a-day opportunities.

Keep heading south and prospects improve as you reach the relatively airy city of Bogor, 60km out. Beyond there, clearly visible from the city, the hills steepen into a pair of prominent volcanoes, Gede and Pangrango, both around 3,000m high.

The whole area is known simply as Puncak (‘summit’) and it can seem that half the capital has followed you out here on holidays to ‘cuci mata’ (literally ‘wash eyes’, meaning to wander about). Happily, the majority are content with a gentle walk around the botanical gardens at Cibodas.

Head instead through the gates onto the mountains proper and it’s a different world, the air often aswirl with mist and enervatingly fresh. Climbing either peak takes several hours; combine the two and you have a weekend’s-worth of trail-time, some technical, most of it steeply inclined.

HONG KONG – STEEP LEARNING CURVES

The Special Administrative Region may well be the quintessential fast hiking spot. Thousands of kilometres of trails criss-cross Hong Kong’s hilly countryside, many accessible via a superb public transport network.

The steep terrain ensures that town and country have little separation: much of the core of the city sits on reclamation, while in many surrounding districts, tower blocks back immediately onto forested hillside. Launch up a nearby trail and surprising vistas quickly open up, showing a tide of greenery lapping at the foot of the concrete ramparts.

Hong Kong Island itself has its favoured training trails, the most celebrated being the Parkview to Stanley route over Violet Hill and the Twins, with its famous 1,000+ step staircase. Die-hards come back the same way for double the pain/gain, and there are stories of triple and even quadruple Twins sessions (triplets and quads?).

Assuming you prefer a greater variety of scenery, the territory has four major long distance routes – the Maclehose, Wilson, Hong Kong and Lantau Trails – each of which is a two- or three-day undertaking purely as a walk. Many of the sections of each are also possible as standalone options for shorter, higher-tempo hikes.

Lantau Trail loops about the major peaks of Lantau Island, including a traverse of the peak of the same name – Hong Kong’s second-tallest. It’s a natural focal point with a huge seated Buddha sat to the west of the peak from where a rocky staircase clambers up to the summit before undulating back down to the east. You can turn this into a loop using smaller side-trails, or extend further, roping in Sunset Peak or the lovely quiet trails down to the far southwest corner of Lantau to make circuits of 30 or more kilometres with some serious altitude loss/gain.

There are more technical routes to Lantau Peak too, including the Dog’s Tooth ridges, a series of knife-edge climbs on informal tracks that raise the bar a notch in terms of risk but are therefore always traffic-free unlike the main routes.

SEOUL – GRANDEUR IN GRANITE

Immediately to the north of the city lies Bukhansan National Park, the most visited national park in the world for its size. That’s thanks to the ease of access, with bus routes and subway lines within striking distance of the major entrances. Such is the press of food stalls and outdoor retail outlets at these convenient gateways that you could get off the train in your streetwear and be suited and booted for an amped-up trail session by the time you crossed into the park!

This is another spot where weekends are best avoided if you want to move at pace for there are pinch points where the steepness of the granite spires that are the park’s distinguishing feature bring sections of steep stairs or tricky clambers on the rock itself.

That said, almost every local is fixated on the main peaks. Undeniably photogenic, they clog up with trundling traffic so if you want to keep up the pace, come on a weekday. With lots of ascending and descending in every direction, it’s easy to accumulate 1,500m and more of ascent and descent over a 20- or 30-kilometre day.