Foreigners are still a novelty in the Xuefeng Mountains of Hunan Province. But a new trail that seeks to meet international standards could change all that—and bring life back to the mountains’ poor villages.
Foreigners are still a novelty in the Xuefeng Mountains. Laden with firewood, the villagers who pass us react with curiosity and amusement at the sight of luyou 驴友, literally “donkey friends,” wandering through this remote part of Hunan Province in central China.
Donkey friends, or independent backpackers, may become a more common sight, though, as a new trail that’s marked, defined, and easy to follow is being built along the mountain range. The trail stretches for 60 miles across Hunan, from the mountains of Huxing to the wetlands of Simeng.
There are thousands of hiking trails in China—many of them concreted—but none have the signage and other attributes necessary to appeal to a global clientele, says Dennis Hu, chief executive of Make It China, a marketing consultancy that works with Chinese and Western brands.
He and his team hope to attract international visitors to this region—most of which remains off the radar of even domestic tourists—by designing a trail that meets international standards.
There are thousands of hiking trails in China—many of them concreted—but none have the signage and other attributes necessary to appeal to a global clientele.
They have mostly made use of existing pathways, some of which, we’re told, have been trodden by villagers and their animals for 500 years. Other pathways, which had fallen into disuse, have been restored.
The route’s designers, Leon McCarron and David Landis, have visited Hunan—the province of Hu’s birth—several times to scout the route, covering some 300 miles by foot and mountain bike.
“Ancient paths that have been abandoned actually have lots of great views,” Hu says. “The reason they were abandoned is that [many villages are now served by] the transport system and people will choose the easiest access.
“We connect modern passes and ancient ones to enable hikers to enjoy the agriculture and history and also to make them understand villagers’ lives.”
“We want to offer a window into unseen parts of China.”
“This trail strips out the suffering, keeps the good parts, and hopefully condenses it into something that people can do in a week off work,” says McCarron, an avid hiker who once walked 3,000 miles from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert to Hong Kong. “We want to offer a window into unseen parts of China.”
It’s a work in progress. Some sections are still so overgrown that McCarron and Landis have to hack us through with sickles. Some of the villagers who have lived their whole lives close to where the trail now passes tell us it has revealed beautiful areas they had not seen.
Each stage varies in length and difficulty. A 10-mile trek from Huxingshan, a mountain village at 4,330 feet, to the ancient rice terraces of Shanbei takes us on a steady, steep climb that makes me regret having brought a gear-laden backpack. I’m encouraged to walk ahead, a guinea pig following the red-and-white stripes painted as guidelines on rocks, tree trunks, and other surfaces.
The idea is that a hiker should be able to walk the trail without having to follow someone else. Visitors will have access to digital trail data, maps, and a written guide that details accommodation and resources along the route.
Part of the designers’ job has been to gather this information and prepare it for distribution by tour operators and the local trail-management team. Landis, a guidebook author who has designed trails around the world, says they have created itineraries of various lengths and are using Spain’s Camino de Santiago as a general benchmark.
Bringing tourism to China’s villages
On our hike, we pass quiet villages, many just clusters of rundown wooden houses in various stages of disrepair or reconstruction surrounded by pine forest. Most of the inhabitants are working on their crops, leaving the odd grunting pig to greet us.
The people we do meet tend to be elderly or their young grandchildren. The generation in between long left for cities in search of other opportunities. We’re plied with homegrown pink pomelos and kiwi fruit, giant fried bee larvae, and honeysuckle juice.
Some say we are the first foreigners they have seen coming through here. One man, returning from hunting bamboo rats in the hills, says he recently saw two Westerners, but upon further investigation, these turn out to have been McCarron and Landis, on an earlier recce.
Over the days that follow, we trace the mountains’ natural water sources as they are funneled into rice terraces and small rivers. At the highest point of the trail, 5,180 feet, a dense fog lends an otherworldly feel to the barely visible landscape.
Accommodation along the route ranges from hard-bedded hostels to small mountain resorts. Our last stop, Yanqi Resort in Yan’erjie, with its wooden cabins and sloping tiled roofs, follows the architectural style of a farming village in which some houses date back 300 years.
Improved roads and rail lines, as well as investment in resorts and restaurants, have already drawn a trickle of domestic tourists to this end of the trail. They come from Changsha and other nearby cities for the spicy, fresh food and a taste of Huayao culture, the local ethnic minority.
“The Chinese economy is booming, but there is still a lot of poverty in the rural areas.”
Residents say they are benefiting. “The new road has improved our lives,” says farmer He Caikao, 68. “Everything has become more convenient. We used to need to carry everything on our shoulders.” Now, there’s room on the road for carts.
Most foreign visitors to China still head to metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai, but there’s growing demand for experiences off the beaten path.
“The Chinese economy is booming, but there is still a lot of poverty in the rural areas,” Hu says. “So how to reduce that gap? By introducing tourism and offering job opportunities. The trail will bring the community together, so everybody along it can be its hosts.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.