"What gives?" I asked.
The animal's name translated to "many colored mouse" — a.k.a. chipmunk. More photography. A woman from the mega-city Shenzhen approached me with a bag of sunflower seeds.
"Would you like to feed him?" she asked.
"No, thanks," I said. I was ready to visit a different park.
Field of beans
Busing south from Zhongdian, I watched snow-capped peaks fade into rice paddies. A four-hour minibus ride brought me to Lijiang, a popular urban destination for Chinese and Western tourists. In the morning I caught a minibus that puttered west from the Lijiang bus station.
Backpackers who visit Lijiang typically hike the nearby Tiger Leaping Gorge, but I was going to a protected area called Laojunshan National Park, a hiking spot that wasn't listed in my guidebook.
The minibus struggled up winding roads, showing vistas of terraced farms and mountain streams. By lunchtime I was walking through Liming, a one-horse town with a national park-style visitor center. The park, a 419-square-mile, UNESCO-recognized area of rolling forests and red sandstone formations, suggested a lusher version of Utah's Arches National Park.
Established in 2007, Laojunshan National Park may be China's next great eco-tourism destination. In partnership with the Nature Conservancy China, the Kunming Mountain Expedition Assn. helps design the park's hiking trails, and the American nonprofit Global Parks has sent retired U.S. National Park Service professionals here to help design interpretive systems.
Although Laojunshan may eventually acquire a sleek network of hiking trails and interpretive signs, it still feels wild.
On my second day in the park, an English-speaking guide took me walking for four hours on a dusty access road. The only beverage he drank was beer. There were no trailheads or signposts, and none of the Lisu farmers we met — nearly 8,000 members of that ethnic group reside inside Laojunshan's borders — knew they lived in a nascent national park.
Around dusk, we reached a no-frills Lisu hut overlooking a sun-drenched bean field. Wood smoke was pushing through cracks in the roof. Once my guide and I were settled by the cooking fire, our hosts handed us chopsticks and insisted that we spend the night.
When they fed us homegrown beans, I thought of the bean field Thoreau wrote about in "Walden." I reflected that if the 19th century essayist were still alive, this protected area — with its friendly farmers, sublime vistas and lack of signage — would make a great backup muse.
Chang to the rescue
A natural park with undeveloped infrastructure can also be dangerous. On my fourth afternoon in Laojunshan, I found myself standing on a cliff with my friend Alyssa. She had bused in from Lijiang the previous afternoon. All day we had blissfully rambled along a sandstone ridgeline, but now we were famished, and all we had to eat were soy nuts and chocolate.
The night before, a Lisu villager named Chang Zhen Hu had offered us beds in his makeshift guestroom. But now it was almost dark, we couldn't see any huts, we were sunburned and dehydrated, and Alyssa felt lightheaded.
We backtracked until we reached Chang's simple hut. Chickens and pigs were running around the yard, but there was no sign of our ex-host. We weren't sure if he was home, or if he would shelter us again.
Then he emerged from the woods, wearing a green jacket with yellow stripes. "If you try to walk back to Liming now, it'll be night when you arrive," Chang told Alyssa in Chinese. "So stay."
Chang and his family had eaten, but his wife offered to cook us dinner. As she fried pork gristle over a wood fire, Alyssa went to lie down, Chang fed his chickens, and I tuned my mandolin.
Sitting on a wooden bench, I imagined I was back in Glacier or Arches. Hiking in China was nothing like hiking in America, I thought, but the basic idea was the same: Take a walk, share a meal and sing a few songs.
I sang the first one that seemed apropos:
"My ol' hen, she's a good ol' hen
"But she ain't laid an egg since I don't know when
"Old hen cacklin', cacklin' a lot
"Next time she cackles, gonna cackle in the pot."
Chang Zhen Hu sat down to listen. He grinned, and I think I saw him tap a foot. He couldn't have understood the lyrics, but when I finished the tune and put down my instrument, he placed it back in my hands and smiled.
Dinner was still cookin', so I sang him another.