How hiking in China transformed my views on backpacking

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A lifelong lover of the outdoors encounters a different cultural attitude toward nature and finds himself lost and confused.

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I’ve been an avid hiker from a young age.  When I was eight or nine my Dad used to drag me out on long excursions in the Appalachians – the Smokies, Shenandoah National Park, the White Mountains.  Early on he had to literally drag me kicking and screaming.  I hated the “outdoors” at that time.  Gradually, I came to understand the enriching thrill of hiking.  Through physical exertion, sweating, developing intense body odor, sleeping on the ground and relishing each refreshing gulp of spring water at the top of a hard hill, every return to “civilization” pulses with rediscovered, childlike appreciation for simple luxuries. 

That’s the appeal of hiking and backpacking as the Western world sees it.  Since moving to China I’ve encountered a different way of viewing the outdoors experience.

My first experience in China was in the summer of 2010 as a college student.  With a friend, I had come to a small town in Hunan Province to work as a volunteer English teacher.  One weekend, we went on a trip into the mountains with some of the staff and students.  My friend and I were accustomed to American-style hiking, in which various essentials like a day-pack, sunscreen, reusable water bottles, bug spray, proper hiking shoes and even hiking poles are expected.  So we exchanged puzzled glances when we saw that our party of Chinese teachers and students had arrived to board the buses with nothing more than their usual casual clothes.  No backpacks were in sight.  Some of the students were wearing flip-flops and some of the female teachers were stumbling toward the bus in high-heels. 

We rode for a few hours on the bus into the mountains, up winding roads over the hillsides, until alighting at a gargantuan parking lot still partially under construction.  We were thus greeted not by the sounds of nature, creaking tree branches or the singing of birds, but by the noise of jackhammers and the hum of machinery.  We glanced around for a sign of a hiking trail, expecting to see a simple dirt path, perhaps shaded under the trees.  Instead, we were directed to an imposing and meandering series of concrete steps snaking straight up the hillside, no shade in sight.   Our companions donning the aforementioned high-heels made a beeline for a nearby teahouse.  They would wait for the rest of us to return from our “hike.” 

 We quickly realized why there was no real need for shade.  Although our Chinese friends hadn’t brought much in the way of hiking gear, they all had umbrellas and they didn’t hesitate to unfurl them as a defense against the blaring sun.  There was no need for hiking boots as the whole way was paved, although the kids in flip-flops struggled a bit.  Backpacks bearing food and water bottles were unnecessary as there were numerous food stalls and concession stands along the way.  Trash cans were scattered along the path.  We noticed at some rest spots our fellow hikers had left behind their litter on the pavement nonetheless. 

My friend and I found these cultural differences more amusing than anything and we enjoyed the hike all in all, as the paved track led us rather serenely through rustling bamboo forests and past raging waterfalls. 

 

In the mountains of Hunan.

I returned to China three years later to work as an English teacher and have subsequently traveled through much of the country and lived in three different cities.  I’ve discovered that much of hiking in China is pretty much like that experience I had in Hunan, with concrete paths and generally more amenities than Western hikers are accustomed.    This is down to cultural and economic conditions particular to China. 

It would be wrong to say that there’s a lack of appreciation for the outdoors in China.  China’s love affair with the garden and with dramatic natural landscapes idolized in poetry and painting, for example, goes back millennia.  This legacy lives on in many of China’s cities, where one can easily happen upon magnificent parks, gardens and man-made lakes, particularly in cities like Suzhou and Hangzhou.  Living in China, I’ve come to adore these parks as sources of refuge from the country’s over-crowded and polluted urban landscapes.  China’s parks are well-kept, clean and valued by their surrounding communities.  Strolling through a park in China, one is likely to see traditional musicians, opera singers, elderly couples ballroom dancing or crowds of older gentlemen playing chess.    

However, “wilder” natural settings are not yet as respected in China.  The sides of mountain and country roads are often lined with litter tossed by passing motorists.  Mountain paths, though paved and designed for the greatest possible ease of use and comfort, are not nearly as frequented by Chinese travelers.  When visiting a popular mountain in China, like Yellow Mountain in Anhui Province or Hua Shan near Xi’an, if one wants to escape the crowds the best idea is to just keep climbing up because most Chinese hikers don’t have the willpower to hike to the summit of a mountain, preferring cable cars and buses.   

The Chinese seem to prefer cultivated and managed natural beauty, appreciated at ease and in comfort, like the ancient poets who waxed lyrical about the Three Gorges of the Yangtze from their pleasure boats – not the messiness and hazards of wilderness.  We Americans, Canadians and Europeans, raised on the legacy of frontier or colonialist societies with explorer-heroes, value adventure and thrill-seeking, testing one’s courage and resourcefulness in the full harshness of nature. 

 

One of the Three Gorges, post dam flooding.

Until recently, China was an incredibly poor country.  Today its people still do not feel entirely secure in their newfound prosperity.  Having no familiarity with comfort for generations, China’s current generation is most interested in living luxuriously, not with playing the homeless vagabond as a backpacker. 

After living for years in China, without much money to spend on real hiking gear, I slowly developed a more Chinese sensibility toward hiking and mountain experiences.  I’ve come to appreciate the ease and accessibility of the outdoors in China, where you can simply hop on a bus without any preparation and after an hour find yourself at the cloud shrouded summit of a 18,000 foot mountain.  Once you tire of the chilly mountain air, head into the nearest tea house to get warmed up.  After several hours, the noise and brightness of the city beckons.  The prospect of staying the night in such rural quiet is unthinkable and a little disconcerting. 

The realization of how far I had drifted from my prior cultural attitude dawned on me on two occasions. The first was when I traveled to Lijiang, Yunnan Province.  I was set on trekking Tiger Leaping Gorge, a popular overnight trip in the shade of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.  I knew little about the conditions of the trail and assumed it would be as well-appointed as all the other “hiking” paths I had used in China.  I only knew that it would take several days and so decided to buy a backpack and a raincoat.  I went to the nearest “outdoors” store I happened upon, REI this place was not, and haggled for a cheap, dusty possibly factory-reject camouflage pack along with a bulky raincoat. 

The morning of my hike, when I loaded my pack and slung it on my back, one of the straps immediately snapped.  I tied it secure assuming it wouldn’t be a big deal.  Only upon boarding the bus bound for the trailhead, in my jeans and tennis shoes, did I realize how foolishly unprepared I was.  The bus was filled not with Chinese but with Westerners, Koreans and Japanese, all decked from head to foot in hiking-optimized outfits and with big bulky backpacks.  Everyone was staring at me with either amusement or pity.  I sheepishly took my seat with my lame, broken camouflage pack. 

My panic mounting, I considered whether I should just hop right off the bus and head back to my hostel.  Instead, not wanting to “lose face,” I remained glued to my increasingly sweaty seat, watching the peaks grow higher and higher from the window as the bus headed deep into the hills of the Tibetan plateau to the north of Lijiang.  I soon faced another decision.  There are two ways to “trek” Tiger Leaping Gorge.  There’s a lower, paved and planked path that lines the river.  This lower trail is a one day journey, popular with Chinese travelers.  The other, “upper” route is a proper hiking trail that takes two days. 

I watched my fellow foreign travelers head uphill for the upper route and wondered which I valued more, my pride or my feet.  I chose my pride and went for the upper trail, hoping I wouldn’t need to be medevac’d in a few hours.   

My fears proved unfounded.  Although the trail was rough and steep, I had little difficulty navigating it in my tennis shoes.  My cheap backpack, although broken, served me surprisingly well.  While the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek is decidedly more arduous and rustic than other hiking opportunities in China, as elsewhere in the country there are numerous chances to stock up on snacks and water as you go.  My fellow hikers, far from thinking I was ridiculous, said they admired my apparent disdain for “proper gear.”  “Honestly,” one of them said to me, “We all really over-prepared for this hike.” 

 

Tiger Leaping Gorge.

I emerged from that experience with true disdain for hiking gear, in my mind asserting that it was all an elitist indulgence and a boondoggle on the part of the marketers at outdoors companies, insisting that you need the latest and greatest gear for even simple excursions.  The Chinese attitude might be superior, I thought.  Why waste money on all this stuff? 

My thinking was challenged again when my girlfriend and I visited South Korea.  The country is amazing but Seoul in particular is a delight.  Many Koreans are hiking enthusiasts and you can often see whole families decked out in gear on the Seoul Subway, bound for Mount Bukhan.  Stepping out of Dobongsan Metro Station at the foot of this mountain is like stepping into a different town altogether.  Gone is the neon glitz of downtown Seoul and everywhere you’re surrounded by shops selling wool socks, water bottles, hiking poles, packs and anything else a hiker might need, with the craggy mountains looming in the distance.  Coming from China, my girlfriend and I were unprepared yet again for what was ahead.

The path was not paved but a proper hiking trail, and the October air grew chillier and chillier as we made our way up the mountain.  My girlfriend also quickly realized that she had made a mistake in wearing a skirt and I felt like an idiot for not foreseeing this problem.  Surely I would have if I hadn’t been living in China for so long, I thought.  All the fully-clothed Korean women who passed clucked their tongues disapprovingly at us as we passed.  The trail was more difficult than we anticipated, with areas requiring ropes for hoisting yourself over boulders.  Fortunately, a few lovely strangers helped us and we were able to complete a loop to the top of the mountain and back down to the city with only a few scrapes and bruises.    

 

Mount Bukhan, South Korea.

 

I came away from that experience settling on a middle ground between my full-blown Chinese attitude and my original Western point of view about the necessity of gear and on what a “proper” hiking experience should be.  Who says every hike needs to be a test of mettle against the elements?  Why shouldn’t there be more luxury and comfort?  And is all the gear we insist on buying necessary at all times? 

On the other hand, for those of us who are set on the most thrilling journey possible, a proper degree of consideration for gear and preparation is essential for a safe and enjoyable trip. 

I’m confident that as China continues to develop, its people will grow increasingly bored of the modern lifestyle and will start seeking adventure, just like people in other developed countries.  When I stay in hostels in China, I already encounter a smattering of young Chinese people who have hit the road, city-hopping by train or bus with nothing but their backpacks.  That ongoing transformation in attitudes is going to be fascinating to watch from courtside as a foreigner living in China.   

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One thought on “How hiking in China transformed my views on backpacking

  1. I love this!! The full-on gear vs the Grandma Gatewood tennis shoes and old shower curtain is perennial. But it’s worth it to get out there to the wild places while they last.

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