Pristine rivers flowing between green mountain walls. The primeval forest haunts of the Farmer God. A chance to glimpse the 野人, or Ape Man, who roams these parts. Owen’s first time camping. And, a 6-hour bus ride up an endless succession of rocky gulches and high canyons, with an exhausted 6’3″-tall 20-year-old asleep on my shoulder and a 2′ tall 1-year-old asleep on my lap. All this, and much talk of monkeys, drew us to Shennongjia, a national park (actually a”forest management district” that is only partially open to foreigners) located waaay back in the mountains north of the Three Gorges.
The ride in was one of those experiences that illuminates how far along China’s development has come, and how far it still has to go. Like our failed ride out to the dam, we rode on the old road, all rutted and dusty, while staring out the window at a brand-new highway vaulting overhead. It’ll probably be open next year, and when that happens the people living way up here will finally have a more reliable link to civilization than 100 miles of washed-out gulches. They’ll also have probably one of the world’s most spectacular highways on which to speed and swerve and curse at each other. These canyons will soon reverberate with the sounds of horns and airbrakes.
Meanwhile, the park, which is actually much more accessible from the north, is pretty awesome (we’re not allowed to come from that direction–since no reason is given, I’m forced to guess it’s either because of nuclear missiles, prison labor camps, or political sensitivities regarding the Ape Man’s calls for greater autonomy). Although the same drive for development that’s resulting in mountain-piercing highways has also impelled the park management to pave-over the hiking paths and build staircases up the mountains, the vastness of the quiet alpine landscape is still an incredible thing to experience in eastern China.
And the best part is, we got to camp. This is a rare opportunity in China. The park management rents the equipment, and even provides staff to set up your tent for you if, like most people around here, you have no idea what you’re doing. The park ranger in charge of the campsight, an outdoorsy guy who clearly loved his job, seemed to have the opposite impression of us: “Watch,” he yelled at his staff, “Americans camp all the time! They’re way tougher than Chinese! They won’t need any help tonight!” It wasn’t clear if previous campers had required middle-of-the-night assistance, but there couldn’t have been that many of them; our tent, bags and sleep mats were all fresh out of the store packaging.
Before setting up for the night, we hiked up to the park’s highest peak. This is where it was really clear that we were still in China, and not, say, anywhere else. The finishing touches were just being put on a new concrete staircase, 3,000 precisely-leveled steps in one straight line leading 600 meters up to the top. The management was evidently very proud of this staircase, having opened it last month with the fanfare of hundreds of brightly-colored flags along both sides. Going up, it was like we were ascending to some new mountaintop chamber of the UN General Assembly. (Actually, reality was even better: at the peak, pronounced ‘ding3’ in Chinese, they’d somehow, for some reason, built an enormous sculpture of a three-legged pot, also pronounced ‘ding3.’ I guess this is supposed to be poetic or something.) But back to the UN theme, we also had a multilateral hiking effort for a little ways, as we were joined by a woman from Xi’an. Her story was great: after a miserable experience through the Three Gorges, she ditched her tour group two days ago and was absolutely loving the new-found freedom of travelling on her own. She almost looked like she wanted to join us camping. However, she also no doubt wanted to distance herself from the egregious case of child abuse we would be committing with such an activity. Overdressed with a winter parka, she made it about a hundred steps up before waving us ahead. I don’t think she went much farther.
And Owen’s first time camping? Well, if camping means hanging around outside, playing with dirt and plants and bugs, he’s a fan. Of particular interest were the hay straws that had been placed around the tent site. As it turns out, hay is the wildest, craziest, funnest toy that Owen has ever seen in his life. It was hard to get him in the tent for bed, and within 30 seconds of waking in the morning he was banging on the tent flap, wanting to get back at it.
In the end, despite talk of Ape Man and warnings about monkeys, boars, and venemous snakes, we passed the night uneventfully. Awake in the tent, it seemed the only sound for miles around was Owen’s breathing. And above, we were treated to the most complete gallery of stars we’d ever seen.
The next morning, the park staff arranged our pickup and delivery to the crossroads where the bus to Badong would pass by. We were completely surprised by their hospitality. But down to the last worker, they seemed proud of their park. As the ticket agent said on our way out (he, like everyone, knew we had camped that night), “Tell everybody in America about this place!”