Ecotourism in Yunnan (Part II)
How do China’s pristine forests counteract its image as one of the world’s most polluted countries?
Up and up we climb, stopping often to catch our breath and work through the increase in altitude. These first few hours have been tough going — the thin air making us dizzy, nauseous and short of breath.
I am feeling it less than some in the group who are complaining of headache and even throwing up. I was worried about trekking — about asthma, about blisters, about the altitude. But we rest regularly, and even my asthma-weak lungs and over-enthusiastic heart seem to be adjusting well.
The landscape has now turned to sparse alpine grassland, and our group enjoys the wind-shelter created by a valley between two higher points in the mountains where we rest and take our lunch.
Our guides serve ginger tea and fresh steamed mantou buns, hot vegetables and roasted pork for lunch. They comprise the “guiding cooperative” that my colleague Xiaoli has been working so hard to coordinate and train over the past year. The collaborative is formed from young Lisu men and women from the villages in these mountains, led by an older man the group calls Lao Zhang.
The guides are a complete joy — so comfortable in this environment, so excited to finally put all their training to work. And their physical strength is humbling to all of the participants.
They are carrying twice as much as any of us, traveling double our speed and cooking and serving our meals. Their enthusiasm for the project makes me begin to believe in it, makes me think that perhaps this ecotourism idea is not so bad after all.
I’m starting to get acquainted with our group of 17 — about half tourists and half guides. A large portion are young 30-somethings from the Meili Outdoor Club in Kunming.
There also is a woman about my age from The Nature Conservancy, GEI’s partner in the Laojunshan project. She is also an experienced hiker — although she says she has never camped before.
There is a family with a ten-year-old boy from Dali. They, like me, are beside themselves with the beauty of the landscape. The mother keeps saying things like, “Now this is TRUE happiness! Oh, food isn’t delicious until you’ve eaten it in a place like this!”
A couple from Beijing is trying to overcome a bout of altitude sickness with a keen sense of humor and lots of rests. Coming from pollution and a sedentary office life in Beijing, they have the biggest adjustment to make.
Everyone in the group is well equipped with new, state-of-the-art Gore-Tex jackets and hiking boots. Having grown up in the forests of Northern California, I am not accustomed to such a guarded approach to being in nature. I caused quite a disturbance in the group by wearing my Chaco sandals for the first half of the hike this morning.
After having nearly every member of the group — from fellow participant to guide — remind me to “be careful,” and “watch out for twigs,” I finally gave in and put on my other shoes. Now they are focused on my uncovered hands and continually offer to lend me their gloves.
There seems to be a strong aversion to bare toes and fingers among Chinese hikers.
After lunch we continue on over mountain ridges and down into valleys, until we reach a stream with permanent snow where the only things growing are shrubbery and low alpine flowers.
We peak at 4,005 meters and reach base camp shortly thereafter at 8:00 p.m. I wonder about the history of this landscape and the people’s interactions with it: What made this forest sacred to so many people? What does that mean today? How does it intersect with modern conservationism?
I sit now next to the fire that our guides had gone ahead to prepare for us when we arrived at our campsite. A few people are putting up a tent while others prepare dinner behind me. Each breath of this air gives me confidence to live a very long life.
The next morning we climb a bit as drops of rain fall sporadically and the wind rips through our weatherproof jackets. Down and down we hike into a forest of rhododendrons and firs. Old growth? I wonder.
It feels like it, but with the length of Chinese history and human habitation in this land, one can never say for sure.
It certainly hasn’t been touched by humans for a very long time. The forest floor is soft as a sponge, with generations of fallen trees feeding new growth and moss blanketing the top layer.
The trail is so lightly traveled that I keep walking off of it, blissfully losing myself momentarily in the multiple shades of green.