Hiking the Middle Kingdom

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By Cheryn Flanagan

Chopsticks, lanterns, kung fu, and egg rolls. Mention ‘China’ and these are sure to be among the images conjured in conversation. Add to that list: tiny labels on the bottom side of sundry trinkets that read ‘Made in China’, visions of white skin and pouting red lips from David Bowie’s video for ‘Little China Girl’, and the overpowering smell of mothballs on a crowed San Francisco bus, and you’ve got a list of my ill-defined perceptions of the mysterious Middle Kingdom. Hiking boots did not figure into the picture.

And so it was that I arrived in China without a pair (of hiking boots) and after miles of walking stone pathways on ancient constructions, trails that meander through pristine forests and past gem-colored lakes, and upon tracks that hug the caps of brooding mountains, I wished that I’d brought a pair with me. Never, in my wildest dreams, did I imagine that China was so full of beauty and that I could walk right into it. Velveteen terraces, like giant emerald stair steps, carve the sloping hillsides; misty fog coils around mountaintops like a mink stole on the shoulders of a graceful old woman; village homesteads dot the landscape; farmers work the fields in straw hats among tidy rows of crops; fields of corn and rice paint the countryside green and ochre; winding rivers nestle in valleys and gurgle over boulders and rocks.

At virtually every turn there is a World Heritage Site, a landscape that wows, and an ‘old town’ that takes you back in time. The staggering beauty of China is the highlight of a journey to The Middle Kingdom, but there is more to be discovered than breathtaking scenes of nature. China is a land of serenity, antiquity, legend, and Buddhist enlightenment, all wound up in her landscapes, and all accessible with your own two feet.


Jiuzhaigou Scenic Area
Location: Northern Sichuan Province
Level of Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Hiking Duration: 1 or 2 days

The Jiuzhaigou Scenic Area has been likened to a “fairyland,” full of all the enchantment one would expect from such a place. Edged by snowcapped mountains with mist that swirls like steam from a magical brew and laced with forests, waterfalls, and gem-colored lakes, Jiuzhaigou far surpasses its name, “Scenic Area”. There are 140 bird species and endangered plants and animals in the nature reserve, including the great panda. And within the park’s boundaries, there are three colorful Tibetan villages brightly painted with fantastical imagery in colors of hot orange, yellow, and red. It was listed as a state nature reserve in 1978 and UNESCO declared the reserve a World Heritage Site in 1992.

A walk through the park submerges hikers in deep bamboo and deciduous forests full of wild flowers and the peaceful twitter of birds, but the main attraction of Jiuzhaigou is the water. A string of crystal clear lakes the color of emeralds and sapphires line the trails. A high concentration of minerals gives the lakes their vivid color and turns their surface into giant, mesmerizing mirrors. At the same time, the lake water is transparent, giving view to ancient fallen trees below, mournful and stoic like patient ghosts. There are rivers that cascade over hillsides of black rock and course over forested plains; stepped lakes and shoal rapids; mighty waterfalls that thunder down mountainsides. Said one tourist, “This kind of amazing… I’ve never seen anything like it. And if I ever see something similar in the future, I’ll be amazed again.”

The Jiuzhaigou Scenic Area is comprised of three gullies that span 80 km and define a Y-shaped network of roads. For the sheer size of the place, in addition to preservation of the land, a visit to Jiuzhaigou requires bus transport through the park, complete with Chinese tour guides. While Chinese tourists tend to experience the wonders of Jiuzhaigou by bus, getting on and off at various attractions along the route, there are miles of trails that wind through serene forests, tread past luminous lakes, and cross over streams and waterfalls via a raised wood-plank pathway, which provides a unique opportunity to ‘walk on water’.

For the best hike, take the bus from the park entrance to the last stop on the eastern side of the Y. From here, it’s a full day’s hike downhill towards the park gate, through forest, past lakes and waterfalls, and into the heart of a fairyland. It’s possible to do this hike in one day (get started early – the park closes at 6 p.m.). Exploring the western side of the Y makes a good second day in Jiuzhaigou. A good plan is to join the Chinese tourists getting on and off the bus instead of walking, which allows time to visit the Tibetan villages.

Getting There
Jiuzhaigou is located in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, 450 km north of Chengdu. The park is a 13-hour bus ride from Chengdu and bus tickets (96 Yuan) can be purchased at the main station.

Entrance Fee
The entrance fee is for one day only. A second visit to the park will be discounted if you get your photo printed on your ticket. A student ID will also get you a discount.

Fee: 235 Yuan (145 Yuan for the ticket + 90 Yuan for the bus)

According to park regulation, it’s not possible to stay overnight within the park. There are plenty of hotels near the park entrance and most have restaurants. A convenient option is the Jiutong Hotel next to the bus station. Rate: 60 Yuan per night.

Breakfast and dinner should be found outside the park; most hotels have restaurants.

Inside the park, there is a restaurant in the Visitor Center that serves several buffet options during lunch hours. There are also snacks and drinks for sale at shops. Stock up on water and munchies before starting your hike as there are few, if any, vendors or food stalls along the way.


The Great Wall: Jinshanling to Simatai
Location: Hebei Province
Level of Difficulty: Challenging
Hiking Duration: 4 – 5 hours

The Great Wall
The Great Wall
Steep slopes and massive steps line the ridge of jaggy mountains separating China from Mongolia. A hike along the Great Wall offers sweeping views of grasslands, plateaus, mountains, and of course, the never-ending, winding wall – one of mankind’s most amazing structural achievements. Watchtowers jut upwards to the sky, silhouetted against the horizon. Gray stone winds a lonesome path against dark green vegetation; clouds cling to mountaintops as tightly as the wall itself. Located on the southern edge of the Mongolian Plain and several hours from Beijing, the Great Wall is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Although it’s a myth that the Great Wall can be seen from the moon, it’s easy to believe upon gazing at the length of it, which seems to disappear into infinity as it marches into the horizon. Starting in the tiny village of Jinshanling and ending in Simatai, hiking is a strenuous rhythm of climb and descent the entire way along this less-touristed, 10 km section of the Great Wall. Some stretches have fallen into disrepair, with crumbling walls and steps, which doesn’t detract from the beauty, but enhances the sensation of walking upon a construction that is more than 2,000 years old.

Originally called the “Great Wall of 10,000 Li” (10,000 Li equals 5,000 km), the wall has also been dubbed, “The Long Graveyard,” and, “The Longest Cemetery on Earth,” for the numbers of workers who died during construction. Built in the 15th and 16th centuries, the wall served to protect China from raids by Mongols and Turkic tribes. Several earlier walls built in the 3rd century BC, also as defense fortifications, preceded what we know as the Great Wall today. It stretches along the northern border of China, 6,700 km from east to west, and spans nine provinces.

Like invaders of the past who were able to breech the wall with a little cash (read: bribe), the Great Wall is visited by thousands each day for a small entrance fee. Nonetheless, there are several segments of the wall that see a much smaller number of tourists, such as the stretch between Jinshanling and Simatai. During this hike, one is likely to run into more local farmers selling water and t-shirts than other tourists (a handful at worst). The hike is not for the meek; it’s strenuous climb up and down steps. For the fit, the 10 km hike could take as little as 3 hours. For the on-again-off-again couch potato, 5 hours is adequate. For those who cannot bear to take another step upon arrival to Simatai, there is a zip line that will carry you over a tranquil blue lake to the parking lot.

Getting There
The hike starts in Jinshanling, a small village three hours by bus from Beijing. It’s possible to get there by public bus, but much easier to arrange through a travel agency. Tickets usually include a minibus from Beijing to Jinshanling, entrance fees, and a minibus from Simatai back to Beijing.

Entrance Fee
Two tickets are required – the entrance fee for one or both should be included with a ‘tour’ arranged through a travel agency. Note: there is no tour guide (thankfully). At the end of the hike, there is a 5 Yuan fee for crossing a bridge; the zip line ticket is an additional 60 Yuan.

A ‘tour’ obtained through a travel agency should cost 90 Yuan (be aware that an additional 30 Yuan may be required for a second ticket purchased separately – by you – on the wall).

It’s possible to sleep overnight on the wall, if you have the appropriate gear: sleeping bag, food, etc… Otherwise, most people visit the Great Wall as a day trip from Beijing. Lodging in the small villages near the wall may be difficult (or impossible) to find.

There are locals selling water, soda, and beer on the wall at elevated prices. Snacks are hard to find. At the end of the hike in Simatai, there is a restaurant near the parking lot.


Tiger Leaping Gorge
Location: Northern Yunnan Province
Level of Difficulty: Strenuous
Hiking Duration: 2 days

Tiger Leaping Gorge
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Nestled between the ominous black peaks of the craggy Yulong Mountains and the friendlier slopes of the Haba Mountains, Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest gorges in the world, and most likely, the only one named after a legend. Long ago, a tiger on the run from a hunter leapt over the gorge, thus escaping its ultimate demise and defining a magical place with moody mountains, dark forests, flowered meadows, vertical walls of rock, and hamlets with terraced fields and homes built with stacked slate, wood frames, and tiled rooftops.

Far below the trail that winds along the Haba Mountains, the Jinsha Jiang River (known as the Yangzi in other parts of China) rushes into the 16 km gorge and pierces the steep walls of snowcapped mountains, which rise more than 19,000 feet into azure skies. Hikers have been walking (and climbing) the gorge since the early 1980s, but it still feels wild, remote, and natural, with an ever-changing landscape that leaves one feeling spellbound.

Deciduous forests, bamboo thickets, and pine groves give way to meadows of fern, fields with grassy knolls and grazing goats, walls of rock with precipitous overhangs, and waterfalls that look like mere trickles against massive mountain walls. Grazing cows, horses, and pigs meander along the trail along with colorful butterflies, lizards, caterpillars, and wildflowers. Terraced fields of crops hug velveteen hillsides and loll in valleys below. The occasional grave, passing goat herder, and village are reminders that the Naxi, an ethnic minority group, inhabit the area. The Naxi are descendants of Tibetan Qiang tribes and as a matrilineal society, women run the show. Not only does a hike along the Tiger Leaping Gorge offer incredible views of nature, but also scenes of village life in a remote mountainous outpost.

Most people take two days to complete the 9–12 hour hike along Tiger Leaping Gorge, staying overnight at one of the numerous guesthouses in the villages. In the evening, tranquility is found in the sounds of rushing water in the distance, the chopping of vegetables on the cutting board, and the breathy noises of pain and delight as other hikers rest their aching feet and stiff legs.

Getting There
Tiger Leaping Gorge is located north of Lijiang, several hours by bus (20 Yuan). The trail head starts near the tiny town of Qiatou. At the end of the hike, transport back to Qiatou is 20 Yuan. From there, you can pick up a bus back to Lijiang.

Entrance Fee
Entrance fee: 30 Yuan

Most people hike the length (16 km) of Tiger Leaping Gorge in 2 days, starting early in the morning from Qiatou on ‘Day One’, and stay overnight at a guesthouse in one of the villages along the trail. There are several, but the Halfway Guesthouse is in a good location, although it’s a little more than halfway as the name implies. Accommodation is basic, 30 Yuan.

Accommodation in Qiatou can be found at the Tiger Leaping Gorged Café, which offers food, dorm beds, storage of luggage, and lots of information. At the end of the trail, on ‘Day Two’, Sean’s Guesthouse in Walnut Grove is a popular spot to stay if you’re not returning to Lijiang right away.

In Qiatou, The Tiger Leaping Gorged café offers home cooked meals. There are restaurants at the guesthouses in the villages – water and snacks can also be purchased. Outside of the villages, there are no facilities along the trail.

Buddhist Enlightenment

Emei Shan
Location: Southern Sichuan Province
Level of Difficulty: Grueling
Hiking Duration: 3 days

One of China’s four sacred Buddhist Mountains, Emei Shan is home to active temples and monasteries replete with stoic monks and nuns. It’s also a World Heritage Site, a place of pilgrimage for Buddhist followers, and home to what must be the longest staircase on earth. A climb up the ancient stone steps ends at the summit of Mount Emei, a parcel of land that sits upon a carpet of clouds at an elevation of over 9,800 feet. Some may consider this staircase a hell on earth, but as you ascend into the mist and fog of thickening clouds, it also feels like a stairway to heaven.

Maps of Emei Mountain depict the summit as a lonesome but majestic peak that overlooks a sea of clouds adorned with a magnificent temple – like a tiny kingdom in the sky. The lure of summiting Mount Emei is to reach this place, the Golden Temple, to witness the sunrise and watch it paint the atmosphere above the clouds brilliant colors of red and orange. In good weather conditions, it’s possible (but rare) to observe a phenomenon in which a person can see his own shadow in the clouds, complete with a rainbow-colored aura around his silhouette. Old timers say that monks used to interpret this as a special sign and would often throw themselves off the face of the mountain, to their deaths, in joy.

It’s easy to see why Buddhists have chosen Emei Shan as a place of pilgrimage. Not only is it a test of physical endurance, but a test of the mind as well. A religion (and philosophy) established on the principle that life is all about suffering, climbing Emei’s stairs is nothing if not painful. There are many traveler’s stories written on the walls of cafes at the base of the mountain recounting the antics of wild monkeys, slippery steps and scenic overlooks, impossibly sore bodies, and the mental anguish involved with climbing a staircase that never seems to end. On top of all that, the weather on Mount Emei is often less than ideal, restricting views and making for a misty climb into white haze. That’s not to say that what can be seen in bad weather is not beautiful…the stairs are hewn from aged stone; the forest is lush, green, and dense; mist swirls in the air and settles like massive cotton balls in valleys; the sound of dripping water patters softly on leaves; tiny wildflowers sprinkle color along the stair path. Every now and then, a monastery emerges from the fog, quiet in its solitude on the face of a mountain.

Many people make the journey to the summit and back in three days, staying overnight on ‘Day One’ at one of the monasteries on the mountain, and on ‘Day Two’ at the Golden Temple in order to catch the sunrise. ‘Day Three’ is a walk (or bus ride) down the mountain. Depending on how much suffering your Buddhist beliefs allow, it’s possible to take a bus to the top of Mount Emei and then walk down the mountain, although going down is hard on the knees. There are also cable cars located sporadically on the Mount Emei, which are handy in shaving off a few extra hours of climbing steps.

Getting There
Emei Shan is located in Emei Town, about 150 km southwest of Chengdu. It’s approximately three hours by bus.

Entrance Fee
Entrance fee is 120 Yuan. Cable cars are 40 Yuan going up/30 Yuan coming down (round trip is 60 Yuan). The bus from the top to bottom (and vice versa) is 30 Yuan.

Expect to pay anywhere from 40 Y (dorm bed) – 130 Y (double room) for basic accommodation at one of the monasteries on the mountain.

At the base of the mountain, in Emei Town, there are numerous hotels. A popular choice is the Teddy Bear Guesthouse, 120 Yuan (double room), www.teddybear.com.cn

There are stalls along the path selling water, soda, fruit, and instant noodles and the monasteries have dining facilities for a heartier meal.

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