With packs on our backs and boots on the ground, it strikes me as strange to be traveling with a group of Chinese hikers at all. When I first arrived in China in 1996, few locals hiked. I taught college English in western China’s Sichuan province, and with friends I often trekked in the Min Mountains, a range famous for protecting many of the world’s remaining wild giant pandas. But we rarely met anyone on the trails. As we came back with euphoric stories of clean air and quiet nights, some of our students ventured out. But most returned clutching sore legs and never went back.
So it’s heartening to hear Guo Shanchuan, the architect, talk about his love for the outdoors as we walk through a thick pine forest. Guo has a wiry frame and long bangs that shadow his eyes. When I ask why he hikes, he offers philosophy. "Everyone is essentially good, but in society we’re corrupted by outside influences like money and sex," he says. "In nature, we can return to a more natural state."
We reach the park gate in high spirits, full of anticipation for tomorrow’s hike, and we drop our packs in a clearing that looks ideal for a camp. But the mood dampens when a black Volkswagen Santana–the ubiquitous car of Chinese officials–appears from the darkness. Word has spread that a foreigner passed a nearby village, and a park officer examines my passport and says I need official permission to enter the wild heart of the reserve. "There are poisonous snakes and wild boars. It’s not safe," he says, adding that with the Beijing Olympics three months away, "it would be bad for the nation if a journalist is hurt or lost." Park management is still evolving in China.
We pitch our tents in a tight cluster like circled wagons; we’ll consider our options over dinner. Good to his name, Liquor finds a local villager willing to sell beer at 45 cents a bottle and we pop off the caps and light butane stoves. Little Qing heats a canister of homemade red-braised pork, the cubes of meat simmered with soy sauce and sugar. Zhou boils bread in milk, a traditional dish in northern China.
We discuss our next move. No one had foreseen a problem since several of Guan’s friends had trekked to the preserve’s inner sanctum a year earlier, and there are typically few restrictions on hiking in protected areas. The cadre’s insistence on getting official permission for me, however, makes things difficult. In China’s top-down infrastructure, low-level bureaucrats rarely take initiative or responsibility. As a result, approval can take days as requests work their way up a chain of command. We don’t have time for that. Guan announces that, in the morning, we’ll hike over the next ridge and into an unrestricted part of the reserve. We crawl into tents after a calming round of Son of Heaven cigarettes.
Mainstream Chinese weren’t always so disconnected from the wilderness. Before World War II, there was a tradition of going to wild places to paint, write, and meditate. But Mao Zedong, Communist China’s first leader, saw nature as a resource. One of Mao’s top-down directives was to open farmland by clearing forests and draining marshes, an order that left much of China barren. Logging across eastern China left only tiny pockets of primary forest. In Hubei province–once the Chinese version of Minnesota with thousands of lakes–the area covered by water decreased by 75 percent.
Mao would be shocked, to say the least, by today’s China. Literally thousands of hiking clubs have sprung up. Two million Chinese climbed Yellow Mountain, the country’s most popular pilgrimage site, last year. A surge in the number of outdoor stores is also telling: In 1996, Chinese hikers bought army surplus tents and prayed it didn’t rain. Today, there are well-stocked outfitters in most Chinese cities.