Yes those are stewed chicken feet on the right.

Certainly, street food in Hong Kong will kill you, and this I was prepared for, steering clear of the three-day chicken feet in spicy salmonella sauce. But there are other hazards. Ignorance, for one. I didn’t realize the Special Administrative Region that is Hong Kong is not only a high-rise jungle, but a literal jungle.

As we gathered for the start of the MSIG Sai Kung trail race, a mere half-hour bus ride from the most densely populated urban square mile on earth, my new Hong Kong friend passingly mentioned that most of the country park’s Burmese pythons would be hibernating at this time of year. But he added that I should avoid falling into bushes. Or grabbing tree branches for balance.

A Burmese python that is not hibernating. Photo via Getty.

Hong Kong peninsula, on China’s southern coast, is subtropical, at the same latitude as Hawaii, with 75% of its area devoted to park land, which with almost daily rain, is jungle. A half-hour train ride from China’s frenetic financial center brings the innocent to the steamy outback, and a surprising number of things that probably will not kill you. Unless provoked. Or unless it doesn’t like the way you look. For example, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department assures that of the 14 venomous land snakes native to Hong Kong’s open spaces, only eight will actually kill you if not treated in a timely (read: immediate) manner.

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Here’s a non-exhaustive list of other stuff that was mentioned in an offhand way as, well, potentially lethal.

Snakes That Bite

Banded krait, many banded krait, Chinese cobra, king cobra, various pit vipers, coral snake—though reticent, these snakes’ venom can cause dizziness, vomiting, loss of orientation and, if sufficient in dose, suffocation through paralysis of the lungs. They hang out in trees and sometimes look like sticks on the trail. Ha. Oh goodness no, they hardly ever bite and are usually hibernating in February. Unless the sun is out.

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Snakes That Squeeze

That would include constrictors like the Burmese python, averaging 12'2" in length, excellent swimmers and tree climbers, until they become too large and heavy for that endeavor. Yay! Burmese pythons usually hibernate during January and February, but on warm days they may come out and sunbathe or drape themselves around branches. Sai Kung Park, where I ran, hosts a robust population of protected pythons. Am I faster than a cat, rat, or goat, the python’s preferred meals? Would accidentally tripping and falling onto a hibernating python be considered provocation? These questions plagued me.

Water Buffalo

Back in the day, Hong Kong was a sleepy fishing and farming area that operated on water buffalo power, but high rises sprouted and most of the remaining land was ceded as park property. Farmers liberated their tractors and the beasts are thriving, roaming free in the outlying areas. Fortunately considering their size, they’re usually docile. But a Hong Kong trailrunner told me that several times she’d had to scramble up a tree while a bull or a protective cow puffed and pawed below. No word as to whether she checked the tree first for snakes.

Wild Boar

The fierce tusks are somewhat off-putting, and they’re seen pretty frequently, but apparently these mini fridge-sized animals would rather retreat than fight. This is not to say I would not crap my shorts if I encountered one on its home turf.

Packs of dogs

Whether they’re feral or loosely belong to a village matters little when you’re surrounded by a pack of dogs on Lantau Island or the further reaches of the New Territories. A runner with some experience advised me to “just carry a stick.”


As it turned out, something much more mundane nearly put me away: mud. Steep greasy mud. The photo below shows mud but not steep, and was taken by someone who was not paralyzed with fear.

Photo by Michael Thorneman.

I’m ashamed of my ignorance, but before I left home I thought the devotion to paving trails was a misguided Chinese modernization initiative. The Chinese government does have a well-earned reputation for not abiding a vacuum: Why have a national park when you could build a paint factory there? They are fond of dominion, of control, over water and dirt and Tibet—over everything. And everything is constructed to accommodate half the world’s population, something for which a narrow dirt trail is wholly unsuited. These all factor into China’s propensity for paving things.

But they also pave trails because the Hong Kong peninsula is tremendously steep and corrugated with hills. Moistened with rain and masticated with hundreds of feet, dirt trails quickly become leg-snapping, rock-studded chutes to the glue factory.

As I stood atop one of the high points in Sai Kung, legs quivering only 6K into the 21K race, clenching, clenching every muscle in my body, I looked down on at least 300 feet of steep, 5" wide, outwardly, deathwardly sloping steps cut into the side of the hill, thickly lubricated from the muddy feet of previous runners. Others pushed past me, seemingly unfazed by the shockingly bad footing and exposure, and I wished more than anything for a big, wide, nature-obliterating Chinese swath of paved steps with a handrail.