I suspected this trip would be a bit different from my previous trips to American national parks. OK, a lot different: I live in Hanoi, and I was heading to fledgling national parks in southwestern China.
My first challenge was getting to the parks on a shoestring budget — that is, without flying. A sultry overnight train ride left me at the Vietnam-China border. From there I hopped an all-day bus to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. During the next two weeks, I would spend more than 30 hours riding more buses and minibuses.
Then there was the question of what to do. In 2008, China's State Forestry Administration declared Yunnan, a biodiverse area bordering Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Tibet, a demonstration area for the country's first national parks. And in 2009, an official at the Yunnan National Park Management Office told me that five of province's planned 12 or 13 parks were drafting development plans.
Several U.S. and Chinese conservation experts say these aren't national parks in the American sense, partly because China doesn't have the equivalent of a National Park Service. The Yunnan government has embraced the national park concept, noting in a 2009 memorandum, "Establishing national parks is an important measure for Yunnan government to build the good image of ecological conservation."
Westerners wouldn't know, because for all its enthusiasm for "national parks" the Yunnan government isn't aggressively marketing them to English-speaking tourists.
Before hitting the trail in Yunnan last April, I met with Yue Wang, acting director of the Yunnan program at the Nature Conservancy China, which reportedly introduced the "national park" concept to Yunnan officials in the late 1990s.
"Which of these national parks do Chinese hikers like?" I asked the conservation policy expert. We were sipping Pu'er in a posh Kunming tea garden. Wang, who wore a white blouse and a red skirt, considered my ripped jeans and dusty rucksack. Then she laughed.
"For now," she said, "Chinese tourists don't travel like you, carrying a backpack into the mountains and going camping. A very small group of Chinese people are doing that, but most of them are just getting on buses and going to overlooks."
Into thinner air
Despite Yue Wang's advisory, I was determined to do some Thoreau-style exploring.
A few days and minibus rides after my Kunming orientation, I landed in Shangri-La (a.k.a. Zhongdian), a city in northwest Yunnan that Chinese officials claim is the actual fictional setting of James Hilton's 1933 novel, "Lost Horizon." From Zhongdian, I planned to visit a protected area that the Nature Conservancy reports is slated to become the beautiful-sounding Meili Snow Mountain National Park.
Yue Wang had said that when visiting Meili, I should be flexible — no one knew when local officials would close a crucial access road for construction. In Zhongdian, a travel agent said Meili-bound travelers could be stranded in Diqing, the nearest city, for as long as 10 days.
I couldn't risk that delay, so I opted for Plan B: Pudacuo National Park. Yue Wang had cautioned me that the 4-year-old protected area, one hour by minibus from Zhongdian, feels more like a city park. But I figured that any park so close to Tibet was bound to be some shade of spectacular.
The road to Pudacuo was flanked by boxy Tibetan-style houses, and the roadside fields were crawling with yaks. As my minibus climbed above 8,000 feet, sunlight graced the snow-capped Henduan Mountains, and the air rushing through my window felt crisp and cold.
I was riding with a friendly Taiwanese couple whose new hiking boots and breathable jackets suggested a commitment to outdoorsiness. When the minibus stopped at Pudacuo's visitor center, I followed them inside, hoping they would lead me to good hiking trails.
But after we each paid $27 in park fees, a man in a suit directed us to an "environment shuttle bus." Boarding it, I saw a dozen more smartly dressed hikers — none of whom, apparently, preferred to walk. Celine Dion was crooning in surround-sound.
As the bus rolled through the park, we saw alpine hillsides, fluttering Tibetan prayer flags, crumbly thatch huts and real-live subsistence farmers. "It's like the movies," my new Taiwanese friends said. Soon a park representative was lecturing us via onboard microphone. Cameras clicked.
This place is a bit city-park-ish, I thought. Scenery aside, I felt like a Midwesterner cruising Manhattan on a double-decker.