The Kinda Long March

Chinese outdoorsman Yang Xiao writes for Outside Magazine about walking the Appalachian Trail with other Chinese hikers and compares it to his experiences in China:

We’re carrying eight days’ worth of supplies in our packs. Most of our food is local, but for emergencies and homesickness we’ve divided up a large store of yasuo binggan—compressed military-issue rations, which my English hiking friends in Beijing long ago dubbed “dog biscuits.” There are no opportunities to resupply here; even foraging for wild berries or mushrooms is strictly forbidden in the park. This is simultaneously disappointing and impressive. From a conservation point of view, none of us can argue that picking wild plants and eating them is a good thing, especially in a park that claims nine million visitors a year.

Habits are different in China, however, where hiking is still in its infancy. Wild foods and medicinal plants are vital to the livelihoods of many mountain communities. China has more than four times the population of the United States but roughly the same area, and even the most remote parts tend to support significant numbers of people, who are delighted to share the local bounty with visitors—for a price, of course.

Here on the Tennessee–North Carolina state line, all we can take from nature is water, which must be boiled before drinking. In China’s high ranges, we often don’t worry about this, but Americans generally seem shocked at the thought of drinking untreated water. Perhaps their concerns make sense in this place: with all those visitors and abundant wildlife, there’s plenty of reason to suppose the water is teeming with nasties.

Carved wooden signposts point the way and provide updates on distances whenever the AT intersects with one of the many other trails that spread like veins throughout the park. To us, it’s unusual but reassuring to have so much guidance on hand. When you climb into unknown mountains in China, every day is dominated by nagging concerns about distances, terrain, and suitable campsites. Because trails are maintained only by local users, they vary unpredictably: illegal logging tracks lead to dead ends in primeval forest; hunting trails divide and divide again before vanishing into impenetrable bamboo thickets; once well-traveled paths are abandoned as modern roads extend into the valleys. By comparison, the AT seems a very relaxing place.

February 22, 2011 12:21 PM
Posted By: