Then come two businessmen, each looking for a break from hectic workdays. Zhou Changhui, a rail-thin man with sharp, angular features, sells stoves to hotels and is the group’s elder at 38. His friend, Xu Junjie, is shorter and bulkier and markets disposable products available in hotel rooms–packages of toothpaste and toothbrushes, combs, slippers, soap, and shampoo. Guan introduces me as a journalist interested in hiking and the environment, and Xu immediately apologizes. He has tried, without success, to convince hotel managers to provide high-quality toothbrushes that guests can buy and take home. Perhaps hoping to deflect future questions, he says, sheepishly, that he knows his work isn’t environmentally friendly.
Liquor’s real name is Chen Xiang. He studies engineering and business management at Chongqing University but prefers traveling. Because his father is a government official, he figures he’ll get a good job regardless of his grades, so when he saw the trip mentioned in an online chat room, he signed up.
The rest of the group works in real estate: Two of them are interior designers, one is in sales, one in advertising, and the last an architect. Together, they represent a cross-section of China’s middle class, a demographic that consists of 100 million people with annual incomes between $5,000 and $15,000. Guan makes $500 a month, enough to share a rented apartment with his brother and indulge his passion for travel and hiking. The architect, 28-year-old Guo Shanchuan, earns almost $900 monthly and is considering buying an apartment. He Xiaoqing, a 30-year-old real estate saleswoman who tells us to call her Little Qing, picked me up at the airport in a new Mazda 6 that cost $33,000.
All of the trekkers except for Guo wear T-shirts printed with the English statement, "Tibet WAS, IS, and ALWAYS will be part of China!" Two months before the trip, violent riots broke out in Lhasa over the issue of Chinese rule in Tibet. Nationalism runs deep among Chinese yuppies, and the shirts appear to be a coordinated effort to send a message to a Western audience. I don’t debate the point. Instead, I ask Liquor how he got his nickname.
"I always bring alcohol when I travel," he says, his giant aviator sunglasses reflecting a soaring web of elevated highways behind me.
"What did you bring this time?" I ask.
"Six cans. But it’s not enough."
We board a new, air-conditioned bus and ride six hours to Jinsha, a town of 3,600 people near the start of our trek. Our plan is to hike through the Chishui Alsophila National Nature Reserve, a wilderness area at the heart of 33,000 acres of protected forests. The reserve includes one of the world’s last pockets of alsophila spinulosa, an endangered fern that has existed for about 100 million years, but when we arrive I don’t see any ferns, just thousands of disposable chopsticks drying on the side of the road.
While Guan looks for a local guide to help us improvise a route, I watch villagers feed sections of bamboo into machines that cut them into smooth, white sticks. A woman bent over one of the contraptions says that a skilled worker can make 8,000 sets each day–enough for a profit of about 21 renminbi (just over $3). I ask if locals hike in the reserve, and she gives me the universal what-kind-of-idiot-are-you look: No one has time to walk in the woods, and if they do take a vacation, most people would rather go to a city.
It’s almost six in the evening when Guan finds our guide, a 56-year-old beekeeper named Luo Zhixia who maintains hives in the nature reserve. Still, we have time to hike to the park entrance, and our little band strides out of town on a quiet dirt road that winds through a canyon. A thin tributary of the Red River gurgles softly beside us. A waterfall tumbles over a cliff, its spray catching the late-day sun.