I took a trip up to Beijing at the end of February to attend the ISPO sports business exhibition from February 27-March 2. The outdoor gear manufacturers are always well represented at this event, so it’s a good chance to check out the latest cool new stuff. On this occasion, however, I saw it more as an opportunity to start a discussion about some ideas that, hopefully, will begin to crystallize at a workshop to be held at the University of Western Australia this September. The workshop is currently being organized under the title:

“Australia, China and the Great Outdoors: Leadership, Best Practice and the Future of Outdoor Leisure and Ecotourism”

by our old mate Prof. Gary Sigley. I’ve been working with Gary on preparations for this event, in particular with a view to organizing a delegation from China, and so my primary aim at ISPO was to gather interested individuals and have an initial discussion about some of the questions the workshop hopes to address.

The ISPO people were kind enough to let me use the “Fashion Stage” to host a group discussion that I titled: “南方垃圾之路? The Future of Hiking in China”. Many thanks to Nina Zhang and Zhou Yang for their help with this.

This was my opening shot: an open rubbish tip on either side of the Tea Horse Trail between Jianchuan and Lijiang

I opened with a short presentation on my own experience of researching and developing hiking trails in China, and specifically in Yunnan using the Tea Horse Trail and South Silk Road as primary resources. Much of this work has its origin in a conversation I had several years ago with a gentleman named Joe Eberling, whose company represents Osprey backpacks in China. Joe asked a simple question: Did I think it would be possible to develop a long-distance hiking trail in China?

At the time, I thought not. Most of the trails I had followed on the Long March were too broken up. At most you might be on mountain paths for a day, after which you’d be back in town and on a main road for a while. Besides the Tibetan grasslands in northwest Sichuan, nowhere seemed to offer potential for a continuous trail that could comfortably be followed on foot for many days, let alone many weeks.

Experiences in Yunnan changed my mind. In the province’s northwest, in particular, the terrain is so complex that modern roads have proved unable completely to supplant the older, more direct mountain paths. Although the trunk routes of the Tea Horse Trail have been covered over by tarmac, the extensive network of interconnecting trails has proven quite amenable to use for long-distance hiking purposes. I have hiked from Dali all the way to the Tibetan border without more than occasional interruptions from sealed roads.

Part of the South Silk Road from Kunming to Burma

At first, I thought merely to map these paths, promote them and let people enjoy them as they saw fit. I soon realized the naivety of this approach. The keenest students of my work were travel agents and hiking clubs in Kunming, whose clients and members descended on newly mapped trails and trashed them in no time at all. They didn’t mean to, of course, but sheer numbers, lack of concern and education, and lack of any organized protection or management for the mountain areas resulted in rapid damage and degradation.

I began to understand Chinese hiking friends’ attitude towards secrecy. Once they found somewhere beautiful to enjoy, they kept the information to themselves. Yet that seemed a dispiriting and mean-minded attitude to carry into the great outdoors. I’ve wondered for a long time if there could not be a more positive way to approach things. Thanks to Gary’s enthusiasm for setting his up workshop, I decided that I should stop wondering and see if it were possible to help inspire a bit of collective action. The first step was to see if anyone else shared my feelings and, if so, what they thought might be done. Everyone seems ready with the warm words about eco-friendliness, so why are the mountains increasingly strewn with rubbish? Rather than boo-hooing about this, I wanted to hear some ideas about specific problems and specific solutions, which could then be translated into specific actions.

I posited three issues that I think lie at the heart of the problem in Yunnan:

1)                  Lack of concept

2)                  Lack of example

3)                  Lack of confidence

The Three Lacks, the Party might call it. What I mean by number 1 is that there is no existing framework, either in reality or in theory, in which the Chinese outdoor community can imagine uniting with a common purpose: other than to get together with a few mates and have some fun. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it encourages them to see enjoying the outdoors as a selfish, individualistic pursuit that exploits a “free” resource. I would argue most Chinese hikers are young, middle class, urban types, and that they treat the outdoors much as they treat the urban entertainment environment of bars, restaurants, clubs etc. Conceptually, I’d suggest there is little difference between a night out on the town and a night out on the mountain.

Number 2 simply points to the lack of existing examples of well-managed outdoor environments. I cannot think of a single hiking trail in China that exists outside some “tourism development” project whose purpose is to screw money out of visitors. Nowhere I can think of generates income whose primary purpose is sustainability. And number 3 is simply a consequence of numbers 1 and 2. Those I know who would like things to be better often throw their hands up in despair. And as a consequence, for them the enjoyment of nature also becomes an individualistic, selfish pursuit.

I won’t say I have any grand solution. But what I wanted to propose as a first step was a discussion about designated, managed hiking trails. My notion is that lack of concrete examples, which people can experience for themselves, is a major obstacle to progress. While Chinese hikers are theoretically enthusiastic about protecting their country’s natural resources, and while the government is also, on paper, fully in favour of this as well, the sheer scale of the question overwhelms all good intentions. But if one could bring things down to a single example, and show how it could be made to work, then perhaps one might see something in the way of positive emulation. At present, the mountains are full of negative emulation, as illustrated by this rest stop on a trail in a National Nature Protection Zone.

Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve in November 2012

The workers responsible for this area all agreed wholeheartedly that this was a reprehensible sight, but they didn’t do anything about it except blame hikers – probably 90% of whom are guided through the area by said nature protection zone workers.

That also invited three questions:

1)                  Is this desirable in China?

2)                  Is it possible?

3)                  If yes, to these two questions, then how could it be done?

So, on to the discussion itself. As was to be expected, nobody disagreed that environmental damage as a consequence of the rapid growth of outdoor pursuits in China was a major issue that needed to be addressed.

One thing that struck me was how those who contributed to the discussion tended to see this issue in individualistic terms. So the problem was mainly a lack of individual education and 素质, a marvelously patronizing term for which I have never found an appropriate English equivalent. In such a context, the solution is self-evident: more education and improvement of the overall素质 of the Chinese outdoor community. Some speakers cited their personal positive experiences in this regard, in that they and their fellow hikers were paying more attention to the environment and that this reflected an overall positive direction in Chinese culture and society. Action should therefore be directed towards individual improvement.

The fact that this positive trend, which I won’t deny, is being largely outstripped by negative events, was recognized. That led to the second main theme of the discussion: the role of government.

“The government should do something” seemed to be about as far as thinking got. Indeed, it’s hard to disagree. But what and why was not answered on this occasion. Who will persuade the government of the case for action? And what level of government are we talking about?

In further discussions with people working in the industry, this topic was also at the forefront. In the Chinese context, it is hard to imagine any kind of action or activism that does not end up involving the government at some stage. As our general discussion suggested, this has an emasculating effect on the potential for grassroots action. Which is, I would argue, all the more reason why specific projects need to be developed to show how obstacles can be overcome. Government does need to be involved in this discussion, and hopefully will have its representatives at Gary’s workshop

Commercial interests also need to be involved: it was noted at the ISPO discussion that China’s outdoor resources form the basis of much of that exhibition’s business (in that the hiking market doesn’t exist without said resources) and so the industry should also have a role in contributing to positive action. If commercial interests leave all such action to grassroots volunteers, then they should be viewed as parasites and treated as such by their customers.

I must say that discussion focused overwhelmingly on problems rather than solutions, but that seems quite reasonable at this stage. One young gentleman from Anhui noted a hiking trail that he and some local enthusiasts had mapped, and said it was hard for him to imagine how it could be developed further. Who would be responsible? It cuts across the interest of local villagers/farmers, so what should be their stake in such a project and what voice would they have in its development? Different government bureaucracies, such as the forestry bureau, would also be involved, and how would their interests and requirements be satisfied? If some commercial income were generated, for example by sale of entry permits, who would administer that income and in whose interest?

All excellent questions that make my head ache even as I type them.

For now, however, all this is simply about raising those questions and sorting out which are most relevant – and then working on gathering the people most qualified to answer them. All contributions to the debate are most welcome!