One spring morning last year, I stuffed my rucksack with things I bring on camping trips in the U.S.: fleece, books 'n' socks, toothbrush, bug spray, sunshades. Then I shouldered my mandolin case, unlatched my apartment gate and stepped into the sunshine.
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.
Finally the bus stopped at an alpine lake that reminded me of landscapes in Montana's Glacier National Park. But after 20 minutes of turtle-slow progress on a lakeside boardwalk, our group leader crouched down for an extended photo shoot.
"What gives?" I asked.
"A wild animal," someone whispered in English.
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.