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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.

Before my trip, a friendly employee at Beijing’s Sanfo–an outdoor retail chain that over the last decade has grown from a single back-alley shop to a franchise with 23 outlets–helped me clean my camp stove and showed me how to flip the fuel tank to empty the line and prevent clogs. While I waited for the stove to cool, I looked at a flyer about trips run by an affiliated hiking club. Last year, the group led 35 treks longer than five days, plus 200 day and weekend trips. Dozens of twentysomething and thirtysomething Chinese browsed racks stocked with everything from titanium sporks to The North Face apparel and $2,000 Suunto wrist computers. The quality and selection was high, even on the budget racks. You could outfit a beginner with homegrown brands for only $300, and it’s decent stuff–a testament, perhaps, to what Chinese manufacturers have gleaned from assembling American outdoor products.

China’s park system has kept pace–at least in terms of land acquisition. The amount of protected space in China has doubled since 1995, to 374 million acres. Some parks have begun to maintain short trails. And the central government established the first official national park–Tangwanghe, in the far northeast–in October 2008.

For China’s few longtime hikers, the shift has been dramatic. A few days before I flew to Chongqing, I had coffee with Li Shuping, a former director of the China Mountaineering Association. Li started hiking the way Chinese did everything under Mao: He had studied to be a doctor, was reasonably fit, and in 1975 his work unit assigned him to accompany the government’s second Mt. Everest expedition.

"We were climbing for the glory of the state," Li, now 62, said between sips of cappuccino. "No one chose to trek then, but now young Chinese have time and money. It’s different. They want to hike."

Two officials escort us back to Jinsha the next morning, and we hike east on a two-lane road, past a government propaganda poster urging us to "improve the quality of the population" by having few or no children. Before the trip, Guan made us sign a contract that required each member to "possess physical strength, adequate supplies, willpower, a willingness to take orders, and a strong sense of the collective." Jiang Wei, a 28-year-old advertising designer, makes good on both the second and fifth requirements–and sends another nationalist message–by pulling a Chinese flag from his backpack, tying it to a stick, and carrying it in front of our small brigade.

An hour later, we hike back into the forest on a narrow trail that climbs out of the valley. Small black-and-red birds dart between tall stands of jade-colored bamboo. Alsophila spinulosa, with thick woody trunks and crowns of radiating fronds, poke between spruce and pine trees. Beyond the distinctive ferns, distant ridges collapse into haze.

But Chinese peasants are economical, and the steep path offers few switchbacks–they’ve carved the shortest but hardest route through the forest–and our group soon fragments. Little Qing mops sweat off her forehead and tugs at her tight black jeans. I turn a corner to find Jiang Wei sitting on a limestone outcrop drinking from a vial of brown liquid that I guess is herbal medicine. "It will prevent me from going into a coma," he says, deadpan.

Zhou, the stove salesman, rounds the bend shouting into his cell phone, "You think you’re busy? I’m even busier!" It’s his first trek, and he bought his gear–including a $60 Lover Ice Rock sleeping bag–a few days earlier. Like most of the group, he packed too much, and now he pays our guide a few renminbi to carry his pack.

"My lungs aren’t good," he explains. "I smoke and I don’t exercise. I just drive around in my car all day." Liquor shotguns that first beer.

After a full, hard day on the trail, it’s beginning to feel like a real backpacking trip. The fit hikers charge ahead; the stragglers lag behind. Liquor and I stop to wash our faces in a cool stream tumbling from beneath forest shrubs. I continue up the trail and turn to see Liquor–alone in nature possibly for the first time–sitting on a rock, smiling like a Buddha.

An hour later, we scramble up a steep, overgrown slope in search of a cross-country route into the valley, where a river and waterfall await. But almost as soon as we leave the trail, our guide backtracks to find a better way. By the time he returns, Guan has decided it’s too late to continue.

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