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China: The People’s Hiking Revolution

As prosperity spreads across China, so does a passion for the outdoors. But can millions of new trekkers save Asia's vast wilderness from the march of development? Welcome to the world's next hiking frontier. PLUS, check out China's Top Treks.

Liquor shotguns his first beer at 10:29 a.m.

We’ve been hiking up a steep trail in southwestern China’s Guizhou province, a place that looks a lot like Kentucky with bamboo. Fir, pine, and rhododendron also thrive here, at an elevation of 900 feet and roughly the latitude of Orlando, Florida. But there’s nothing gentle about Guizhou’s chaotic canyon topography–the result of India pushing into Asia, and dozens of rivers cutting through soft sandstone and limestone. Where the hillside isn’t dead vertical, it’s covered with dense, pack-grabbing vegetation. The temperature has climbed into the upper 80s, and the next ridge disappears into white-cotton humidity.

Liquor is a 20-year-old Chinese university student with a protruding stomach and soft, round features. This is his first backpacking trip, and it took only a few minutes on the trail before he questioned the wisdom of packing six cans of beer, especially since he’s also carrying several large bags of fried rice, a jar of pickled chilies, and eight raw eggs. So he pops the tab on a Snow-brand beer, lifts it to his puffy lips, and tilts his head back. After draining the can, he knocks the top off a glass vial of glucose, drinks the syrupy liquid, and tosses the empty container on the ground. It rolls to a stop at the base of a pine tree.

Ultralight and Leave No Trace clearly aren’t part of the program for Liquor and his seven companions, a local group I’ve joined for a five-day trek in Guizhou. But that’s hardly a surprise. It took decades for those ideas to evolve among recreational hikers in the United States. Like American backpackers in the 1960s, China’s new homegrown trekkers have only recently gained middle-class means–money and leisure time–to explore wilderness. And like our forebears, they have a lot to learn by trial and error.

A more pressing question is whether China’s budding outdoor culture will promote a broader conservation ethic sorely lacking in the country today. China’s cities and rivers are famously polluted, its factories contribute to smog and dust that reach American skies, and in 2008 the country surpassed the United States as the world’s leading contributor–in total volume–of new greenhouse gases. I’ve lived in China for nearly a decade and have watched its exploding middle class embrace the trappings of prosperity–imported cars, bigger houses, flat-screen TVs, designer clothes–at a speed that can only make these well-known problems much worse. What’s almost unknown, however, is that its burgeoning back-to-nature movement could change the way Chinese see–and protect–the environment. It was hikers and campers, after all, who ignited America’s own environmental movement.

Will these nature-loving citizens push the country in a new direction, just as cash-hungry masses oiled China’s shift toward capitalism? I had joined Liquor and his companions to find out what was happening at the leading edge of China’s newest cultural revolution. But only one thing was certain after a few steps on the trail: Backpacking in China, like everything else in the country, would be unlike anywhere else in the world.

I live in Beijing, which means I had looked forward to my upcoming trek simply as an opportunity to clear my lungs: Beijing’s air is abysmal–a miasma of sand, dirt, smoke, and car exhaust. My anticipation was also heightened because I’ve racked up some of my all-time favorite adventures in remote parts of China–a trek to Mt. Everest’s eastern basecamp, hikes to secluded Buddhist pilgrimage sites in western China, a long bike ride along the Laotian and Burmese borders–and this exploratory trip promised more of the same.

Guizhou, our destination, has a growing reputation as a hiker’s paradise. Only 3 percent of the Missouri-size province is flat, and it contains probably the highest concentration of waterfalls in China. Guizhou’s forests protect rare mammals, including clouded leopards and snub-nosed monkeys. And while wealthier provinces have unsightly, overbuilt tourist infrastructures, Guizhou sees only a trickle of visitors. So when a Chinese friend introduced me to Guan Hongqing, a 28-year-old interior designer, and Guan mentioned that an informal hiking club he runs was planning the trip, I signed on.

The Tianya Backpackers Club (the name refers to a mythical Chinese paradise) gathers on a May morning in Chongqing, a megacity near the center of China. We meet in a restaurant at the bus and train depot. Guan has an athletic build and moves with quick intensity. He wears a battered baseball cap pulled low over his forehead.

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