Before the 1980s, the New Territories were made up of peaceful countryside, with duck farms, fields, and old villages. No more. A vast 1,008-sq.-km (389-sq.-mile) region that stretches from Kowloon to the border of mainland China, the New Territories have long been Hong Kong's answer to its growing population. Huge government housing projects mushroomed throughout the New Territories, especially in towns along the railway and subway lines. Once-sleepy villages became concrete jungles virtually overnight.

Close to one-half of Hong Kong's population -- about 3.5 million people -- lives in the New Territories, many in subsidized housing. The New Territories, therefore, are vitally important to the SAR's well-being and its future. For visitors to ignore the area completely would be shortsighted; many find the housing projects, in some suburbs stretching as far as the eye can see, nothing short of astounding. If, on the other hand, it's peace and quiet you're searching for, don't despair. The New Territories are so large and so mountainous that not all the land has been turned into housing, especially along the deserted eastern coast. In fact, the region is so different from the city itself that it's almost like visiting an entirely different country.

Traveling in the New Territories, you may notice women wearing wide-brimmed hats with a black fringe. These women are Hakka, as are most of the farmers of the New Territories. During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), some of the Hakka clans built walls around their homes to protect themselves against roving bandits and invaders. A handful of these walled villages still exist today, along with ancestral halls and other ancient, traditional buildings. One of my favorite things to do in the New Territories is to walk two heritage trails, both of which highlight village life in the New Territories and take you past significant historic buildings and walled villages. Both trails are described in more detail later, but be sure to pick up the Hong Kong Tourism Board's (HKTB's) two pamphlets, the Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail and the Ping Shan Heritage Trail. I also suggest that before visiting any walled village, try to see the Sam Tung Uk Museum in Tsuen Wan, since it will greatly enrich your visit to a lived-in walled village.

Visitor Information & Tours

All MTR train stations in the New Territories offer free maps in English of their immediate surroundings, complete with descriptions of buses that serve the area. Simply stop by the MTR ticket or customer-service counter at your destination and ask for the Station Information location map. Other useful pamphlets, which you should pick up at an HKTB Visitor Centre before heading to the New Territories, are Major Bus Routes in the New Territories, which tells you which bus to take, the fare, and the frequency of buses along the route; Discover Hong Kong by Rail, which describes attractions at MTR stations and provides maps; Discover Hong Kong Nature, with detailed maps and recommended hiking trails in the New Territories; and pamphlets for the Lung Yeuk Tau and Ping Shan heritage trails.

If your time is limited, a good tactic for seeing the New Territories is to leave the driving to someone else and opt for an organized tour. The "Land Between" Tour by Gray Line emphasizes both the rural side of Hong Kong and its urban development, enabling visitors to learn about the lifestyle, customs, and beliefs of the local people. The "Heritage Tour," a must for architectural buffs, covers historic Chinese architectural sites spread throughout Kowloon and the New Territories, including a restored 18th-century walled village, a Man Mo temple, an ancestral hall, and Tai Fu Tai, a stately country mansion.

Getting Around the New Territories

Two major MTR lines, the East Rail Line and the West Rail Line, provide the fastest and most convenient way to reach major destinations. Subway lines also serve some satellite towns in the New Territories.

For years, every visitor to the New Territories took the train to the border for a look into forbidden and mysterious China. Now, of course, it's easy to get permission to enter China, and the border lookout was never very exciting anyway. Still, you might want to take the train up into the New Territories just for the experience, as well as for the interesting stops you can make on the way.

The East Rail, in operation since 1910, is Hong Kong's primary north-south transportation link. Departing from Hung Hom in Kowloon, the East Rail connects 12 stations along its main route, passing through such budding satellite towns as Sha Tin, University, Tai Po Market, Tai Wo, and Fanling before reaching Sheung Shui -- your last stop unless you have a visa to enter China. The entire trip from Hung Hom to Sheung Shui takes just 38 minutes and costs only HK$8.50 one-way for ordinary class and HK$17 for first class. Trains depart every 3 to 8 minutes. There are two offshoot lines from the East Rail; the Ma On Shan Rail from Tai Wai Station (convenient for visiting Che Kung Temple) and a small spur line running from Sheung Shui to Lok Ma Chau, another border crossing into mainland China.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.