Call of the Wild


汉语世界(The World of Chinese) 2021年4期

As Chinas urban middle class seek adventure in the outdoors, they are redefining their relationship with the natural world. But safety infrastructure and danger awareness have failed to keep pace with the growing numbers climbing mountains, hiking trails, and taking on extreme running challenges—fatal accidents are worryingly common. Government and NGOs are trying to develop regulations to protect people from the wilderness (and vice versa), while a new system of national parks may be able to safeguard Chinas most precious natural resources from human activity. Locals who rely on the same land as endangered species, however, struggle to gain from environmental regulations, and rangers grapple with enforcing restrictions that damage the livelihoods of farmers. Chinese travelers are heeding the call of the wild—but are they truly listening?


Trails and Tribulations

Outdoor sports are booming, but safety measures fail to keep pace

It was when his tongue started to freeze in his mouth that the trail runner knew the end was near. When a participant of the Yellow River Stone Forest Park 100K, who blogs under the name “Liulang Nanfang,” realized this was happening to him, he quit the race and started to  descend the mountain—and found with a growing dread that the way down is even harder than the climb up.

Slipping over rain-slicked rocks through a dense mist which obscured the path, he began to shiver uncontrollably. Eventually, as the window of his mind was reduced to a single thought—“I must get to the bottom of the mountain”—he spotted a team of rescuers through the fog, and was ushered out of the howling gale and into a small wooden hut with ten other runners, who huddled together until their trembling abated and they could descend on their own.

“Nanfang” was one of the lucky ones, as 21 of his fellow runners never made it back from the May 22 ultramarathon in Baiyin, Gansu province—whats become known as the deadliest trail race in Chinese history. Poor planning, a lack of aid stations on the mountain, no rules making warm clothes mandatory, and a sudden hailstorm combined to create a catastrophic—and entirely preventable—tragedy.

The incident sent shockwaves through media in China and the world, with people in disbelief that even the most seasoned runners were not immune to tragedy out in the wild. After the initial expressions of sympathy and occasional lurid pictures of hypothermia victims, a sense of foreboding became apparent in groups of trail runners on messaging app WeChat. “The races will become more expensive and shittier. The golden age of trail running in China is dead,” lamented one runner. A few days after the disaster, the General Administration of Sports banned ultramarathons, mountain and desert races, and wingsuit flying across China, “pending reviews of the rules” governing these events.

The reactions to the events in Gansu are not surprising in the context of a public which has become more and more engaged with issues of outdoor safety. Since the NGO Chinese Mountaineering Association began collecting annual statistics in 2001, the number of serious accidents involving mountain climbers has risen every year, with 2,055 in 2019. The number of deaths and disappearances rose from just three in 2001 to 74 in 2019 (although this figure is confined only to leisure mountaineers, and does not include people working in outdoor environments or accidents in other outdoor sports).

These alarming trends come against a background of growing interest in outdoor sports. It is hard to get precise numbers on the number of people who participate in outdoor activities like camping and hiking, but one useful proxy might be domestic sales of outdoor sports products. According to a 2020 report by Beijing consulting firm Zhongjin Qixin, the industry saw a yearly growth rate of over 50 percent at the start of the 2010s, before falling to a more stable increase of just a few percent in the second half of the decade. Sanfo, one of Chinas largest outdoor sports goods retailers and events organizers, turned over 486 million RMB in 2018.

Public opinions on outdoor activities have not always caught up with their popularity. In an article on trekking holidays in China Newsweek magazine last October, a travel writer under the name Ni Lao described trying to hike in a remote part of the country: “When hostel owners saw my walking sticks, they would always urge me not to go walking; and whenever I met forestry officials, they would try to scare me off by telling me about bears and wolves…In Chinese peoples eyes, hiking means youre up to no good. The only right way to travel is to take a battery-powered car in a scenic area with the retired aunties and uncles.”

The general publics reaction to news of lost hikers and outdoor-lovers are also usually unsympathetic, with comments castigating the victims as “spending money to suffer” and “causing trouble for the nation.” Mainstream media may follow with warnings for travelers to stay away from the wilderness and stick to “scenic areas.”

Local governments often resort to one-size-fits-all bans due to the risks. On Taibai Mountain in Shaanxi province, where more than 50 hikers have died over the years, the local government has issued repeated injunctions that the mountain simply should not be climbed. In some spots on the Great Wall popular with hikers, its common to find security guards employed by the local villages blocking the routes and turning away climbers.

A major problem has been the confusion over where responsibility lies for outdoor mishaps. Chinas 2013 Tourism Law stipulates that “local governments and relevant departments and organizations” are responsible for rescuing tourists in the event of emergencies, but the details are up to the judges to define if the incident comes to court. Who pays the cost of these operations is also contentious: The Daocheng Yading Scenic Area in Sichuan province spends over 1 million RMB annually on searching for and rescuing stranded tourists, one of its officials told China News in July, and has started to charge reckless tourists a starting price of 15,000 RMB per rescue. Helicopter services can cost 40,000 RMB per hour.

Rather than bans, experienced hikers and outdoor educators suggest the government take responsibility in providing safer, more convenient ways for people to enjoy nature. “In terms of infrastructure, the main things which China needs to improve are its national park systems and its trail systems,” says Li Songtao, coordinator of an outdoor skills training program for children and adults in Shenzhen.

In many countries, trails are publicly maintained footpaths, usually covering rural and urban green areas, allowing the general public to access nature without interference from vehicles or landowners. Without such a resource, hikers in China must use paths left by local farmers and herders, or carve their own routes through the wilderness, leading to environmental damage, accidents due to lack of trail maintenance, and conflicts with locals. “We should study developed countries thinking about walking path systems, and also gain a deeper understanding of environmental protection,” says Li.

China is seeking to develop a national park system. However, this move may not necessarily improve peoples access rights, as many of the parks are built with conservation in mind. At the Changbaishan National Nature Reserve in the northeastern Jilin province, a prospective national park, concerns about tourists picking critically endangered wild ginseng means visitors are only allowed to walk along short designated pathways, with little chance to get off the tarmacked roads.

Apart from physical infrastructure, Li also suggests improving the publics outdoor education to raise awareness of safety and their environmental footprint. China is not without its own tradition of outdoor pioneers: The second team to summit Mount Qomolangma (Everest), and the first to do so from the north slope, was a three-person Chinese team in 1960. Walking parts or all of the route of the “Long March,” the Red Armys 12,500-kilometer retreat from Jiangxi to Shaanxi province in 1934 and 1935, is a staple of “red tourism” itineraries as well as commemorative events for the Communist Party.

However, the idea of mass participation in outdoor sports for leisure is more recent. “The problem is most people arent really familiar with the concept of outdoor and adventurous sports,” says Li. “Outdoor and exploration sports are a product of industrialization, but China has industrialized too fast, so many people havent had a chance to understand them yet.”

Chen Pengbin, Chinas first international ultramarathon champion, agrees. “Since China has opened up the last 40 years and people have more money, their need to stay healthy has also grown,” he tells TWOC. Chen grew up in a fishing community in Zhejiang province and began working on the boats at the age of 13, before discovering running through the growing number of easy-to-enter marathons held in cities all around China. He has since run on every continent, including Antarctica. “Its not just in China. I attend a lot of international competitions, and wherever people have money, they start to think about health matters a lot,” Chen says.

But enthusiasm coupled with inexperience can lead to disaster outdoors. One prosaic—and perhaps surprising—source of accidents is photo-taking and visual culture, according to Zhao Heqiang, a local of a village in Beijings Miyun district who has been taking people out to explore unrestored sections of the Great Wall for 30 years. “One time I was taking a group from Hong Kong out to hike on the Wall. As we were coming back down, one member of the group, a university teacher, was walking and looking at photos [on her phone] at the same time, when she slipped and fell off the Wall! We had to call the fire department to bring her down on a stretcher.”

Another mistake even experienced outdoor-lovers are not immune from—including many who died in the Gansu marathon—is underestimating weather conditions and not bringing the appropriate clothing. “Once, in 2007, I got a call from two people out on the Wall who ran into a lightning storm, and I had to talk them out of panicking and explain that they should shelter and wait it out,” Zhao recalls.

Village locals and trip leaders like Zhao frequently find themselves the de facto first responders when accidents happen. Outdoor and disaster rescue services may be divided between the local police department, fire department, and even the military. In recent years, non-governmental rescue groups have become more and more active—Chens hometown of Taizhou alone reported that 26 such organizations registered with the Civil Affairs Bureau by October of 2019. Blue Sky Rescue, a non-profit organization founded in 2007, has 669 authorized rescue teams in 31 provincial-level regions and over 50,000 registered volunteers, including over 30,000 with professional rescue training and certification.

Local governments lacking in expertise and resources may hire organizations like Blue Sky to rescue stranded or injured visitors. However, rescuers lose valuable time due to the remote location and lack of advanced equipment at most accident sites, with fatal consequences. A Blue Sky team in Beijings Fangshan district estimated that most distress calls come from more than 40 kilometers away from their base. In July last year, when a falling rock struck three hikers on a mountain in the far west of Beijing, volunteers from Blue Sky and another NGO, Green Boat Emergency Rescue, drove up to four hours from the other side of the city, and spent several more hours climbing the mountain by foot, before finally reaching the accident site at 10 p.m.—tragically, one hiker had already died.

In Lis classes, people of all ages study how to improve their navigation skills, weather preparedness, and learn basic first aid. His students include amateurs who start with basic courses on what clothes to wear outdoors, as well as serious mountaineers and mountain rescuers.

This is fortunate, because for the people who love the outdoors, there is no likelihood of giving up their hobby. Chen, after recovering from a serious foot injury in 2015, promptly gained sponsorship to do a run all the way from Guangzhou to Beijing—an epic 2,000-kilometer journey which he describes as his lifes biggest competitive achievement. “If I didnt run, I never would have gotten to see so many of the places Ive been to. There just wouldnt be a reason to go to places if I didnt do it to run,” he says. – Yefren Nye, Additional reporting by Tan Yunfei (譚云飞)

The Yellow River Stone Forest Park 100K ultramarathon first began in 2018, featuring a trail through the karst landscape in Baiyin, Gansu

Hiking in parts of Shaanxis Taibai Mountain is banned due to environmental concerns and frequent accidents

Hiking is a relatively inexpensive and accessible outdoor activity for amateurs

Blue Sky Rescue participates in more than 1,000 rescue operations per year

Rescue organizations have helped with emergencies such as cable car malfunction, wingsuit flight crashes, and spelunking accidents in the past year

Photographs by VCG

The Myth of the Chinese Wilderness

As China aims to create 60 national parks by 2035, what will happen to the 12 million human residents inside protected areas?

On the rough cement of a pitch-black village road sometime before midnight, a family hacked at the hind meat from the carcass of a cow.

“It starved to death because there wasnt enough land to graze,” claimed one man. The family was in a rush to get the cuts to market by morning, as their livelihood largely depended on their cow herd, which grazed illegally within the bounds of Momoge National Nature Reserve, a 1,440-square-kilometer wetland in northeastern Jilin province in which the family lives.

It is estimated that 12 million people live within the borders of Chinas sprawling system of over 1,600 nature reserves, where residents and conservationists are set on a collision course.

“Ecological protection and economic development have always been at odds,” sighs Zou Changlin, a park ranger at Momoge. “And we are a classic example of this historical problem.”

The reserve was created in 1981 to protect Siberian cranes, a critically endangered species according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and for which loss of habitat along their migration route is a key threat to survival. As Chinas northeast has industrialized over the past century, more and more cranes are squeezed into Momoges shallow waters to refuel along their 10,000-kilometer flight.

When Ranger Zou began working in the park in 2003, only around 300 Siberian cranes landed in Momoge each year. Now, a staggering majority of up to 3,200 of the worlds remaining population of 4,000 Siberian cranes land in Momoge each year. “They have nowhere else to go,” says Zou. Yet Momoges protection zone also includes 102,000 people who had lived in the areas 37 villages long before the reserve was built.

Coexistence between humans and nature are a key question facing Chinas new system of protected natural areas, as China seeks to create an “ecological civilization,” to quote President Xi Jinpings guiding philosophy. In the shifting tide of Chinas political priorities, environmental targets are coming to the forefront, after decades of promoting rapid economic growth over all else.

China is one of 17 “mega-biodiverse” countries in the world, according to the United Nations Environment Program, hosting 12 percent of plant species and 15 percent of all vertebrates on earth. However, degrading ecosystem health is driving rapid loss of habitat. Since the 1950s, over a half of the countrys coastal wetlands have disappeared to land reclamation; only 5 percent of land cover remains primary forest; more than a quarter of Chinas grasslands were lost to farming and mining activities in just a decade, and 90 percent of the countrys remaining grassland is in poor condition.

Last year, the National Development and Reform Commission and Ministry of Natural Resources jointly released ecological targets for natural forests, grasslands, wetlands, coastlines, marine environments, and endangered species, including a goal of creating 60 national parks by 2035.

The central government has been laying the groundwork for national parks for over a decade, approving establishment of a national park management office in 2008, which launched nine pilots in 2015. Two more pilots were added in 2019, and many were declared operational last year. These areas were chosen based on a sweeping national ecosystem mapping project led by Ouyang Zhiyun at the China Academy of Sciences that drew from 100,000 field surveys and 200,000 satellite images to map Chinas ecosystems on six indicators.

“I was speaking with some scientists based in the US and elsewhere outside China, and they remarked its the kind of ambitious, data-focused project that pretty much only China can pull off,” Rudy DAlessandro, the US National Parks Services international cooperation specialist, said at a public forum at Princeton Universitys Woodrow Wilson Center last year.

Chinas protected areas are experiencing ongoing reorganization from 13 to just three classifications: national parks, nature reserves, and natural parks. National parks, the crown jewels of Chinas protected areas, now have their own dedicated National Park Service. “They are trying to do what America did in 100 years, but in ten years,” Jonathan Jarvis, former director of the US National Parks Service and a consultant to Chinas largest national park, Sanjiangyuan, in the northwestern Qinghai province, said in a 2019 conversation with news site Pandaily.


ome have likened Sanjiangyuan to the first national parks in America, with Associated Press calling it “Chinas Yellowstone.” However, while there are no people who currently live in Yellowstone, there are 64,000 people who live in Sanjiangyuan, which is roughly the size of Texas.

One of the biggest decisions facing each park is whether to relocate their human populations. Environmental philosopher Fan Yangcheng, associate professor at Beijing Forestry University, writes in a 2021 paper that the US-modeled idea of national parks should be “transplanted into the third world” with caution. She points out that Americas earliest national parks were emptied of people at gunpoint. Yellowstone forcefully relocated the Shoshone, Lakota, Crow, Blackfoot, Flathead, Bannok, and Nez Perce Peoples within its borders. In 1877, a conflict between the park authorities and Shoshone residents killed as many as 300 people.

Fan suggests that Chinese national parks should instead be conceived of as controlled ecosystems where human populations live in symbiosis with nature. Relocations should be conducted on the principles of informed consent, participation, and sufficiency, if at all.

While possible relocations from core conservation zones are written into the governments 2035 plans as “ecological migration,” and China has its own track record of heavy-handed forced relocations to reach political goals, some administrators have reassured the public that it will not be a strategy taken lightly.

In Momoge, Ranger Zou notes that while relocating humans would be good for conservation, the amount of compensation necessary to make it appealing for residents to willingly move is prohibitive.

In Shandong province on the east coast, where the Changdao Marine Ecological Civilizational Pilot Zone is an official candidate for a marine national park, the average household income from the fishing industry is 400,000 to 500,000 RMB (over five times the national average), making it difficult for the local government to grant potential relocatees a similar standard of living.

In 2018, Zhang Shanning, deputy director of the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park, told China News that relocations are “only one option, not a preferred option or a necessary one,” and “never one size fits all.” The park has the most residents of any national park, numbering 93,000 people. “Migration will only be considered when people and tigers are incompatible,” said Zhang.

The Hainan Rainforest National Park in Chinas southernmost province, created to protect Chinas last remaining large swath of ancient tropical rainforest not transformed into monoculture, is home to the islands endemic Hainan gibbon. Only 30 are estimated to remain. The area is also populated by 30,400 humans, many of whom are ethnic Li people, who have lived on the island for thousands of years.

When Changjiang county party secretary Huang Jincheng received instructions to relocate 3,181 residents living in 13 villages in Wangxia township, he penned an official proposal to the Hainan Provincial Peoples Congress to not relocate the residents, stating that “there are many problems in the implementation of ecological migration, such as residents attachment to their homeland, the difficulty of land allocation in new areas, lack of income opportunities in new areas, and difficulty of integrating into the new environment.”

The Peoples Congress accepted Huangs proposal, and Wangxia has instead been transformed into a cultural tourism project around Li culture, preserving the villages for folk song and dance performances for tourists. Meanwhile, Huang notes that a policy in which all children are guaranteed free enrollment, food, housing, and medical expenses at the countys ethnic middle schools is driving natural depopulation of the villages as young people leave for towns and cities.

However, not all counties in Hainan are following Huangs model. Baisha county relocated 498 people at the beginning of this year, and Wuzhishan city is in discussions with residents to relocate 491 people.


n cases where people are allowed to remain, industry must typically move outside of the parks bounds. This is no easy feat: In 2016, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (now the Ministry of Ecology and Environment) estimated there were 104 quarries, 318 industrial mines, and 335 energy facilities in Chinas nature reserves, in addition to 580 illegal mining operations.

Seventy-seven former forest farms located inside Tiger and Leopard Park are in the process of being merged and transformed into forest management sites. Additionally, residents have been ordered to keep their cattle in pens for much of the year in order to preserve grazing areas for the deer that tigers and leopards feed on, or else face a fine. The cost of buying industrial cattle feed is so high that many are reportedly selling their livestock.

While the protection of core conservation zones is paramount to preserving Chinas key ecosystems for future generations, administrators face the challenge of how to reemploy locals. The most obvious options are employing them within the park administration and encouraging job creation through the tourism industry. The growing Chinese middle class and rising interest in nature-based tourism make some experts hopeful tourism can pull local economies forward.

Sanjiangyuan National Park on the Tibetan Plateau protects the source of three of Asias largest rivers, the Yangtze River, Yellow River, and Lancang (Mekong) River, which provide water for 900 million people downstream. Its “One Family, One Ranger” program has created 17,000 patrolling jobs, one to each family, paying about 2,000 RMB per month. However, the salary for rangers is still only a fraction of average household incomes, which still rely more on yak grazing and harvesting caterpillar fungus.

Sanjiangyuan is home to Valley of the Cats, the first franchise within a Chinese national park, where domestic and international tourists are taken on safaris to spot snow leopards. Managed by locals under the guidance of the Chinese NGO Shanshui Conservation Center, 100 percent of the proceeds for transportation and homestays go to the local community.

British conservationist Terry Townshend, who helped develop the community tourism project, wrote on his online blog in 2019 that among the early visitors were Scottish couple Graeme and Moira Wallace, who flew 10,000 kilometers to spend their 40th wedding anniversary there, and were elated to encounter a snow leopard 160 meters from their vehicle. However, Townshend concluded that the “standard of accommodation, food, and toilets mean that this type of tourism is only for the adventurous traveler.”

At the same time, the entrance fee and costs of visiting a park are prohibitive for average Chinese people. “If most people cant afford to visit national parks, the parks will lose their educational and recreational meaning,” wrote a team of researchers led by Linghong Kong of Global Environment Institute in a 2018 paper. They cited Potatso National Park, whose admission fee of 258 RMB was equal to roughly 1 percent of the national median after-tax annual income of 27,540 RMB in 2020 (this proportion to income would be equal to 350 USD in the US).

The Changbaishan Nature Reserve of southeastern Jilin employs 1,000 locals as rangers, shuttle drivers, and staff—many of them are former forest farm employees, now charged with protecting the forests, albeit on precarious contract pay.

Nearby, snowy slopes have become home to Chinas premier ski resorts, leading the 60,000 locals of the town of Erdao Baihe to open hotels, restaurants, and convenience stores, also finding employment in a bottling plant for the reserves spring water. Wang Shaoxian, director of the reserves Academy of Sciences, expects the site will soon make it onto the expanding roster of national parks. “If we become a national park, our territory will expand. Protection comes first, tourism and economic activities come second, though both must go hand in hand,” he noted.

Among Wangs long-term hopes is for the Siberian tiger to return to Changbai Mountain, where they havent been spotted since 1976—an ambitious goal, as a mating female requires 500 square kilometers to roam.

Early one summer morning, after weathering hours of bumpy detours due to impromptu road closures, TWOC arrived at the gate to Momoge National Nature Reserve to find the entrance ticket booth empty.

Park employees, found in a back office, stated glibly that the electronic gate was broken. Inside the gate, TWOC was greeted by cages with 30 red-crested cranes, said to be injured, shifting idly in captivity. The lights to the museum introducing the reserves biodiversity were off. Needless to say, the reserve was devoid of visitors.

Not all parks and reserves have been so successful at boosting the local economy. In protected areas without ecological industries like Changbaishan, or highly organized local initiatives supported by NGOs like Sanjiangyuan—those who live inside these areas are often left worse off. In remote areas, there is little tourist infrastructure to support the supposed wave of ecotourism that is meant to buoy local communities.

In a 2018 study of 1,510 households in six giant panda nature reserves in the impoverished Qinling Mountains of Shaanxi province, researchers discovered that nature reserves reduced incomes as cropland was converted to conservation sites, and income inequality inside the parks increased as some households with more resources took on tourism-related work as guides, drivers, and souvenir-sellers.

In Potatso National Park in Yunnan province, established in 2008, the park took a more proactive approach, signing a five-year, 500 million RMB contract with locals, who were compensated according to their distance from the park. However, when it came time to renew the contract, community residents demanded a higher sum. “The park had no choice but to agree,” wrote Kong. “It is easy to cultivate peoples dependence.”

In contrast, Momoge has hired only 30 locals, with Ranger Zou noting that for 2,000 RMB per month, young people are either not willing to work or else want to leave quickly. “Locals would see the importance of conservation if their livelihoods were related to it, instead of in conflict with it,” he says.

Buy-in from local communities is vital to conservation work—its win-win, or lose-lose. In Momoge, locals openly flout all kinds of reserve rules, from anti-grazing to waste disposal. Rangers have enacted public education programs in local villages, but it has not stopped trash piles from forming in the grassland. A nearby resident recalled with a chuckle that some years ago, he drove into the reserve and picked the endangered cranes up by their necks to pose for photos for fun.

In many nature reserves across China, often in poor and remote counties, ecological education and management have not yet created incentives for locals to care about conservation—or simply, locals face few alternative livelihoods. Livestock are not allowed to graze within the Momoge reserve boundaries, but authorities are aware of these transgressions, and simply urge locals to “graze less, or not in the main areas, especially during bird migration season.”

However, Chinas first batch of pilots show that responsive governance and local participation in the planning and implementation of park policy contribute to environmentally and economically thriving protected areas, and will be necessary to get a truly “ecological civilization” off the ground.

Or else, there is a steep price to pay—for Chinas threatened biodiversity, as well as some of its most vulnerable communities. Ranger Zou shrugs, empathizing with local residents lack of viable alternatives to setting their cowherds to graze: “Are you going to have the people who live here starve to death?” – Tina Xu (徐盈盈)

A resident of a national reserve drives a motorcycle through the wetland to herd horses in Baicheng, Jilin province

Cranes and other water birds are protected species in Jilins Momoge and Xianghai wetland nature reserves

Sanjiangyuan National Park hires locals, many of them herders, to watch for poaching and other harmful activities

Offering jobs as “ecological caretakers” is one way that nature reserves compensate locals for the loss of their land

Wangxia village in Hainan narrowly evaded “ecological migration” by instead becoming a Li minority cultural tourism site

Photographs by VCG

Blind Ambition

The first Chinese person without sight to summit Everest

“Vibrations from avalanche.” “Cracking ice.” “Biting wind mixed with snow [that] hit us like waves.” Zhang Hong describes his journey to and from Mount Qomolangma, the Tibetan name for Mount Everest, using a panoply of sounds, smells, and the feel of thin, frigid air in his nostrils—because he is blind.

A native of Peiling, a small town near Chongqing in west-central China, Zhang lost his sight at the age of 21 due to glaucoma. He and his wife had lived in several cities including Shanghai and Chengdu, before moving to Lhasa to work as physical therapists. There, he met mountaineer Luotse, who shared with him the story of Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to reach the summit of Qomolangma. This ignited Zhangs desire to become a mountaineer.

Over the past six years, he has reached the summits of mountains including Muztagh Ata (7,546m) in northwestern China, Chomolhari Kang (7,034m) on the China-Bhutan border, and Qizi Peak (6,206m) close to Lhasa. Finally, on May 24, 2021, the 46-year-old summited Qomolangma—the third blind person in the world, and the first from China, to accomplish that feat. Zhang speaks to TWOC about his ascent to the highest peak on Earth and the transformation it spurred in him.

What did you feel when you reached the summit of Mount Qomolangma?

I had imagined and even acted out numerous times how excited I would be or what I would do the moment I reached the summit. But when I finally made it, I felt none of that excitement or ecstasy, because I was clear about my goal: to safely descend. So my strongest feeling on the summit was that I had only accomplished half of what I set out to do. The greater challenge was yet to come.

On Mount Qomolangma, 60 to 70 percent of accidents happen during the descent. People might be mentally more relaxed, less focused, and physically exhausted. If you have sight, you can see more of the dangers that lie below, which might add to your fear and lead to problems. On the day of our climb, bad weather made it even more difficult.

On the summit, the Sherpa guides and I took a few photos before we hurried to descend. We made it down fairly smoothly. Not until we reached Kathmandu did I feel at ease.

How did you develop rapport with your guide?

At a few rare sections of the trail, when the path was wide enough for us to walk side by side, I could hold onto the guides hand. But for the most part, on Mount Qomolangma, I couldnt do that, and had to listen to instructions.

My guide Qiangzi and I have been working together since 2017 when we climbed Muztagh Ata. But actually, during training, we had lots of misunderstandings and even conflicts that led to trust issues. It could be that because I have been without my sight for over 20 years, I didnt always 100 percent believe in what people around me told me to do.

For example, when crossing a crevasse, Qiangzi would tell me, “Zhang Hong, take a 30-centimeter step,” but I would take a 50-centimeter step or an even bigger one, because I thought that might be safer. But the landscape is not designed according to my imagination. The crevasse is only 30 centimeters, so if I took a step over 40 centimeters, I might land in another danger zone. Or Qiangzi might tell me, “Take a small step of 20 centimeters and youll be fine,” but I might still probe around with my hiking pole to make sure before moving. Not only does that slow us down, but Qiangzi might also wonder: Does Zhang Hong not trust me?

After a series of conflicts like these, I learned to trust what he says, because I have no choice. Later, when climbing Mount Qomolangma, I was able to have absolute trust in Qiangzi. He would tell me to take a 20-centimeter step, and I would take a 20-centimeter step.

How has mountain-climbing changed you?

I have learned to care more about others. For example, I used to take it for granted that Qiangzi would give me instructions nonstop, because I cant see. He never told me that he was constantly exhausted from speaking at high altitude where both oxygen and moisture are extremely scarce.

But thoughts like this gave me anxiety and other emotions I cant even explain. Over time, I learned to care for him as well. I would tell him: First, you dont have to speak so loud; second, you dont have to keep speaking, just tell me once and Ill remember. When I started to care about his feelings instead of asking him to speak to me continuously, we collaborated even better.

I used to think that I was supposed to get help, because I cant see. But now I know I can gain more by not taking others help for granted. At the base camp, we had to put on heavy high-altitude mountaineering boots. I thought I could ask the Sherpa guides to help me with it, but in the end, I learned to put on the boots and the harness myself, and I felt so much satisfaction and happiness.

Whats next for you after Mount Qomolangma?

First, I need to show lots of love for my wife. I used to always focus on myself and ignored her feelings. Through the climb of Mount Qomolangma, I learned to care more about others—I should take the initiative to care for my family.

Second, I learned about the Sherpas, whose only occupation for generations has been to serve as mountain guides. Behind the mountaineers glory of reaching the summit is the Sherpas hard work. During my two-month stay here, I heard of many Sherpas who faced a lot of pressure or even lost their only means of income due to disabilities caused by frostbite or injuries.

Therefore, I want to raise awareness and do something for the Sherpas who became disabled because they helped others climb. After all, I am also disabled, and I know what disability could mean to them and their families.

Thirdly, climbing Qomolangma is not the end. It might be the starting point for blind people to enjoy a fuller life. Next, I will keep training to improve my physical and mental strength, and I might try the “7 + 2” challenge: the highest peak of each continent as well as the Arctic and Antarctic. Its a message to people with disabilities that we are capable of achieving all that non-disabled people can, of bringing positive influence to others. Dont confine yourself due to disabilities; you can explore a fuller life and realize your own ambitions. – Ningyi Xi (席寧忆)

Zhang Hong at Everest Base Camp

Zhang Hong (right) and his team climbing Lobuche East Peak

Photographs by InHope Pictures

Leave no Trace

The more outdoor-lovers climb, the more obvious the environmental damage

Living in “Beijings Most Beautiful Village” is a blessing and curse for Wang Junqing. The 63-year-old party secretary starts off each day by worrying about the growing piles of plastic trash left everywhere in the mountainous Xiangtun village, in the capitals Yanqing district. “Plastic bags, disposable cartons, and other white trash have been found more and more, thrown here and there in our village, and its mostly from travelers coming in.”

Ironically, this problem began after Xiangtun joined the governments “Beautiful Village” rural tourism development project in 2007, attracting a growing number of outdoor-lovers to explore the areas picturesque valleys, streams, and Great Wall ruins.

To Xiangtuns 100 residents (mostly chestnut farmers), “trash” used to refer to organic scraps they could feed their pigs, chickens, and other livestock. But as the number of visitors climbed, Wang has had to dispatch locals to patrol the village and the nearby mountain three times a week to report litterers and collect waste. Sanitation staff hired by the district go up the mountain once a week collecting litter and emptying overflowing bins, transporting them to a landfill 30 kilometers away.

As Chinas middle class embraces hiking and other outdoor pursuits, the booming ecotourism sector has put increased pressure on local ecological resources. A string of outdoor pollution cases have hit the Chinese headlines over the past five years. In 2016, a group of backpackers on Hebei provinces Little Wutai Mountain dug trenches to set up their tents in a fragile alpine meadow and stripped the area clean of wildflowers. In 2017, three hikers scaled Python Peak on Mount Sanqingshan in Jiangxi province by fixing 26 expansion bolts into the granite cliffs with electric drills, causing irreparable damage to this 200-million-year-old geological formation. In 2019, four off-road vehicles drove over parts of Inner Mongolias Xilingol Grassland, which will take hundreds of years to recover, and one driver taunted law enforcement officers who tried to stop them.

According to the Civil Code of the PRC which became effective this January, those who cause severe pollution and environmental damage will be sued for compensation by the victims. Criminal sentences may be dealt to those who discharge “hazardous substances,” or destroy historical relics.

This is rarely enough to deter wrongdoers. “Without laws, we cant fine and punish violators, and these days we need to do everything by the book; so we can only try to persuade people and hope they regulate themselves,” says Wang.

Some outdoor enthusiasts have taken the matter into their own hands. Yu Youjun, an air-conditioner mechanic in Beijings suburban Mentougou district, started a mountain cleanup group in 2016 and leads volunteers on “mountain clearing” hikes every weekend. Just a week before he spoke to TWOC, he led more than 90 volunteers over 10 kilometers in Beijings Western Hills to pick up over 500 kilograms of trash.

However, such grassroots efforts fall far short of needs. In Wangs village, “though volunteers come to help collect trash once a week, it is not nearly enough [to deal with all trash],” he says. His office also organizes local party members to help clean up the area.

In remote rural communities where much of this outdoor recreation takes place, a lack of facilities and funding is a running concern. “We need to hire at least four cleaners more than the five we currently have [to handle the volume of visitors]. One cleaner costs 150 yuan per day. We cant afford that,” Wang estimates. The local town government has allocated 30 trash cans to the area, but Wang reckons the village needs twice that amount given the volume of tourists, and feels existing trash cans are not emptied regularly enough.

The environmental degradation is usually rooted in tourists lack of awareness of their environmental impact. Last March, Yus team discovered six off-road vehicles had driven over the “Horse Hoofprints,” a section of the “Jingxi Ancient Road” bearing footmarks of horses and donkeys from the days when caravans had transported coal through Beijings western suburbs in the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644). After the media picked up the story, one of the car owners called Yu to explain they hadnt known the site was a cultural relic.

This echoes the experience of Yang Guoqing, a museum curator in Beijings Changping district who leads backpackers in his leisure time. “Some people wont even recognize an ancient ruin if theres no stone plaque [stating] it is a protected cultural relic,” he says. Last December, he joined Yus team in setting up their own stone plaque at the Horse Hoofprints, but he worries that it “wont be as effective as one with the name of the Cultural Relics Bureau carved on it.”

In order to protect natural relics, some scenic sites have chosen to close. In 2015, authorities closed the Niubei Mountain in Sichuan province for three years partly due to the damage inflicted by tourists—pits full of trash, and over 100 tents and wooden cabins illegally constructed on the slopes. In 2017, to protect natural resources in Qinghai Lake, the local government forbade travelers from going onto Birds Island and Sand Island, two scenic areas within a national nature reserve.

Outdoor enthusiasts disagree with this one-size-fits-all solution. “It is human nature to contact with nature. We were allowed to visit the Great Wall so that we know its history, but a ban will keep our next generation from learning from these historic sites,” says Yang. “Are we just going to rely on experts research?”

Some advocate stronger punishment for misbehaving tourists, or letting them pay for their own damage to the ecosystem. One of the drivers who made tire marks in the grassland in 2019 was fired by his employer and promised to plant over 10 mu of trees in the county every year.

Wang advocates a middle-of-the-road solution. “We dont emphasize punishment, but if these situations continue to arise with these tourists, we will need to put a limit on the number of tourists and charge them a cleanup fee,” he says. This proposal is still waiting for approval from various government departments, which Wang believes will be a difficult process.

Yang still hopes the problem wont result in limiting outdoor recreation. “It is when you go out into the wilderness that you develop a better understanding of nature. In recent years, with government improvements, the efforts of the media, and travelers own awareness, there is already a huge difference,” he says. “This is going to be a great test for the government and the grassroots.” – Yang Tingting (楊婷婷)


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