I wake up to crowing roosters and make a cup of coffee as others perform morning rituals. Liquor cracks a raw egg into his mouth. Little Qing picks at a plate of leftover noodles. Guan–not a morning person–swears as Xu Junjie shakes his tent.
The sun has crested the ridge by the time we start hiking. We follow a dirt trail south through a series of small villages and after four miles hit the Shatuo River, another tributary of the Red River. Our progress moves us out of cell phone range, finally silencing Zhou’s frantic sales calls. The only sounds are birdsong and our group’s quiet conversations.
As hikers often do, Guan and I swap stories about trips we’ve taken. I describe a 1998 trek to Mt. Everest’s Kangshung face basecamp. He tells me about a 2007 trip, when he walked for three days between ranger stations in Kekexili, a protected Tibetan wilderness bigger than Maryland.
"It was absolutely desolate, but it was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen," he says.
When I ask if he thinks China can protect such landscapes, he shrugs. Even remote scenic areas have been overrun with hotels and restaurants. "There are too many Chinese," he says simply.
That’s not apparent at the moment, though: We have the trail entirely to ourselves. In the afternoon, Guan finds a wide section of the river wedged between steep cliffs and we pitch our tents on dry, flat rocks. We strip to our underwear and–with schoolboy yawps–jump into a deep pool of clear water. Soon almost everyone is floating and splashing, enjoying the kind of rejuvenating moment that resonates for months after a trip. It’s Liquor’s first time swimming in a river, and he floats in the pool, staring up at the sky.
The others are also, finally, immersed in nature. Xu Junjie finds a blue frog and calls Little Qing to take a picture of it. Zhou checks again to be sure his phone has no signal and puts it away.
"A year ago, I didn’t understand why people would hike," he says. "Why sleep in a tent and carry so much weight? But in the city it’s all about work and getting somewhere. Here, I’m finally able to relax."
After dinner, we build a fire by the swirling river. We lie back and admire the wash of stars. Zhu Ying, a 24-year-old advertising writer with a quick smile and short-cropped hair, says she never sees so many stars in Chongqing’s sky. Until a camping trip last year, she hadn’t known there were more than a handful.
Experiences like that–literally discovering nature–have prompted individual Chinese hikers to change their behavior. Guan goes out of his way to recycle batteries; Xu would pay a 30 percent premium for a hybrid car if one was available.
But they’re also realists. "Twenty years ago we didn’t know what a company was," Xu cautions. "We had never heard of a CEO. All we can do is look at how America got where it is and replicate that path. Once people’s standards of living are high enough, they’ll begin to think about protecting the environment." The mystery, of course, is how soon that day will come, and if it will be soon enough.
On our final day, we hike farther along the Shatuo River, settling into a comfortable pace with plenty of rest stops. We dip our feet in the water, admire giant black-and-blue butterflies, and catch the spray of a waterfall cascading into a pine forest. On our last night, we camp near Tiger Head village, population 25, and celebrate the end of the trek with a feast. Liquor buys 36 Mountain City beers from a farmer, and Xu purchases and butchers two chickens to stew with vegetables and chilies. We make toasts as a crescent moon rises.
In the morning, we pile into the back of a white pickup. The road out is under construction and there are many potholes, but the group is in good spirits. We sit on our packs and bounce past felled trees and rockslides that score the hills. We sing Taiwanese pop songs and a rolling ballad Guan wrote to the tune of "The Internationale," the anthem of communist parties worldwide. We pass workers building high-tension power lines, the steel towers rising over a dense section of pine and bamboo, and the Tianya Backpackers Club raises its collective voice over the noise of the truck and the workers.
It isn’t a pretty song, but it’s full of energy.
Beijing-based Craig Simons is the Asia bureau chief for Cox Newspapers.