I CALL A HALT and set the video to capture the scene. After three days of clear weather, broken curtains of low clouds chase across the wooded slopes of Thunderhead Mountain in the distance. The rising wind brings a damp chill, and our team begins unpacking rain gear. No one hurries. Ever since entering Great Smoky Mountains National Park, my Chinese comrades and I have progressively lost respect for this manicured "wilderness" in the Appalachian Range. It's nothing like the random challenges of the mountains back home, where trails are maintained only to the extent that local peasants find them useful. Here the trail is in such perfect condition that I feel like giving it a tip. There are signposts everywhere, and the maps are a revelation: in China, I'm sure only the army and Taiwanese spies could hope to have anything so detailed, and I'm willing to bet that the Chinese People's Liberation Army hasn't started marking the locations of toilets yet.
I pull on my hard shell as the first drops of rain splash off pack covers. Less than half a minute later, the sky explodes.
Chairman Mao once wrote about an "upturned bowl of rain." As if to say, "Diss this, Chinese man," something more like an upturned barrel of hailstones hits our crew. Dazzled and deafened by a terrifying burst of lightning and thunder, we stumble for cover—only to find the trail growing increasingly exposed. The hailstones give way to a relentless tattoo of heavy raindrops. As we reach open ground on the approach to Rocky Top, a barren western peak of Thunderhead Mountain, we pause under the last trees and count the seconds between lightning flashes and thunderclaps: "Six … eight … ten—good enough!" Then we run for it.
WE ARRIVED A FEW DAYS AGO from Beijing and were greeted by a notice on the doors at Knoxville, Tennessee's tiny airport announcing that the terrorist threat level was orange. Serious stuff, apparently, but not serious enough to warrant placing any security on the baggage claim, where anyone could wander in and take a new piece of luggage.
The airport's faith in the good character of the local citizenry was not shared by the burly African-American driver who helped us into his taxi. He wasn't happy about our choice of lodging.
"That's a pretty rough part of town," he said.
"Yeah, it's full of homeless people, drug addicts, prostitutes …"
A half-hour ride away, both the Knoxville Hostel and the street outside were completely empty. The manager had popped out, but he had left the door unlocked so we could let ourselves in. This was the "rough part" of a small southern American town: so out of control that people left their doors open in the middle of the day.
We were a collection of six friends I'd met mostly through China's outdoor-blog sites. An American friend in Shanghai had suggested we put together a trip to hike in the U.S. and to share what we learned with folks back home. Ed Jocelyn, a Shanghai-based colleague, would guide us on the AT, America's most famous hiking route—and the only one we'd ever heard of in China.
Knoxville was our gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where our team planned to tackle a 70-mile stretch that runs across the center of the 800-square-mile preserve. Starting at an elevation of 1,800 feet near Fontana Dam, where the trail enters the park from the southwest, the AT climbs over the highest peaks found on its entire 2,179-mile route. While Americans in cities might be fretting about terrorism, all we were worried about was bears: 1,500 of them, supposedly, or nearly two for every square mile. It's now extremely rare to see a wild bear in China, but we still take them very seriously. Only last year, I met a young Tibetan who'd lost half his face to a bear attack in the forest above his village. The affable old owner of the hostel, Al, was reassuringly unconcerned.
"There's only been one person killed by a bear in the last 75 years," he said. "It's the wild pigs you want to worry about."
OUR FIRST CAMP IS AT WHAT some AT hikers call the "Fontana Hilton," so named because of the unusually luxurious facilities: clean toilets and hot showers in a modern concrete building right on the campground. Above looms the 480-foot dam, which all of us saw on pirate DVD when Harrison Ford jumped off it in The Fugitive. We are the only residents sleeping in tents; our American neighbors have brought enormous camper vans, grills, several dogs, and even a motorboat for fishing the reservoir, which guards the southern entrance to the park.
We rise at dawn, anxious to start as early as possible on the steep trail. The forecast is for a blazing-hot day, 80 degrees and above. It's April 6, and we see only a handful of lone hikers, some so focused that they overtake us without greeting. These are the through-hikers—some of the 1,350 bold souls who have set off from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to hike all the way to Maine.
We're carrying eight days' worth of supplies in our packs. Most of our food is local, but for emergencies and homesickness we've divided up a large store of yasuo binggan—compressed military-issue rations, which my English hiking friends in Beijing long ago dubbed "dog biscuits." There are no opportunities to resupply here; even foraging for wild berries or mushrooms is strictly forbidden in the park. This is simultaneously disappointing and impressive. From a conservation point of view, none of us can argue that picking wild plants and eating them is a good thing, especially in a park that claims nine million visitors a year.
Habits are different in China, however, where hiking is still in its infancy. Wild foods and medicinal plants are vital to the livelihoods of many mountain communities. China has more than four times the population of the United States but roughly the same area, and even the most remote parts tend to support significant numbers of people, who are delighted to share the local bounty with visitors—for a price, of course.
Here on the Tennessee–North Carolina state line, all we can take from nature is water, which must be boiled before drinking. In China's high ranges, we often don't worry about this, but Americans generally seem shocked at the thought of drinking untreated water. Perhaps their concerns make sense in this place: with all those visitors and abundant wildlife, there's plenty of reason to suppose the water is teeming with nasties.
Carved wooden signposts point the way and provide updates on distances whenever the AT intersects with one of the many other trails that spread like veins throughout the park. To us, it's unusual but reassuring to have so much guidance on hand. When you climb into unknown mountains in China, every day is dominated by nagging concerns about distances, terrain, and suitable campsites. Because trails are maintained only by local users, they vary unpredictably: illegal logging tracks lead to dead ends in primeval forest; hunting trails divide and divide again before vanishing into impenetrable bamboo thickets; once well-traveled paths are abandoned as modern roads extend into the valleys. By comparison, the AT seems a very relaxing place.
For the entire morning, we see only two other people: through-hikers who know no more about the geography of this area than we do. "If this trail was in China, we'd have met at least 100 peasants going up the mountain by this time," observes Zhao Yang, a 35-year-old sales director for Overlander, a Beijing-based magazine. We pitch camp by a spring just off the main trail. As the shadows lengthen, other trekkers begin to make their way down the side trail to join us. By dusk the campsite is full, and we've made friends with an assortment of through-hikers who introduce themselves with curious names: Noodles, Gouda, King Krawler, Jim.
"Yeah, most people have a trail name," says Noodles. "You guys don't have them?"
"They call me Noodles because I like eating them. He's Gouda, because he likes cheese."
Our team ponders appropriate names, but nothing springs to mind until my old school friend Tan Zhaohui, 41, points at Hou Ke, 34, who is sitting off to one side enjoying the latest of many cigarettes. "Smoky!" he declares.
I get my trail name next. I'm in charge of our team's equipment, and the Americans pore over the Chinese brands and gadgets in our kit. "You're a real gearhead," says Noodles.
"That's me," I say. "Gearhead."
THE TRAIL, which is largely maintained by volunteers, is in beautiful condition. From our perspective, this is the most inspiring aspect of the AT. Even right next to the trail, plant life is undisturbed. Notices reinforce our guidebook's instructions to leave the animals and plants alone and to apply the ethics of Leave No Trace, something the Chinese hiking community is only slowly becoming aware of.
Many Chinese hikers like to call themselves "donkeys," which in Mandarin is a pun on the word for "travel" as well as a satisfying image of a sturdy beast of burden. Outdoor activities are dominated by what I think of as "donkey culture," which reflects a general Chinese preference for group action. The donkeys favor large, raucous excursions, overcrowded campsites, and blazing bonfires, none of which are kind to the countryside. Although Chinese people guard their personal possessions carefully, we tend to pay scant respect to public property. As a result, popular trails and campsites are often littered.
Not so on the AT. More than once, we meet local hikers taking care of the trails, such as a middle-aged married couple clearing debris one day. From spring to autumn every year, they come up a few times a month to look after "their" section, which is a mile long. When you know it's people like this who make the whole thing possible, how could you treat the AT with less than full respect?
It's nearly six when we reach Spence Field shelter, one of many that dot the trail through the Smokies. I first heard about them in the 1990s, when I read a Chinese translation of Blind Courage, a book about a blind man through-hiking the AT. I didn't appreciate the idea much at the time. I thought, What's wrong with using tents? Why spoil the wilderness by putting up buildings? But now that I've seen how Americans live, with huge houses, big cars, and an obsession with "personal space," I'm impressed by the economy of these shelters. In these circumstances, our American comrades seem quite happy to squeeze together and limit their impact on the environment.
Near the shelter, there's a camp toilet like nothing we've ever seen in China. About 50 yards downhill from the shelter, a single "moldering privy" has been erected on a raised wooden platform. Inside are a comfortable toilet seat, a bucket of mulch, and two signs. One informs users of an ongoing study to "evaluate the safety, efficiency, and capacity of moldering privies to treat human waste." The other instructs users to throw only one handful of mulch on top of their business and warns against throwing in items such as trash and clothes: otherwise volunteers will have to pick them out.
We Chinese have some odd habits, but what kind of person throws clothes into a toilet?
BY MIDMORNING ON April 10, we're at Newfound Gap, where a highway cuts through the park and weekend day trippers stop their cars and take advantage of this unusually accessible section of the AT. The day trippers are excited by the unexpected appearance of a group of Chinese people. Even here in the southern states, the hiking community seems to be almost 100 percent white. They ply us with questions: some about China, but mostly about the AT. Does it have hot running water? Are there any restaurants on the mountain?
Restaurants? This isn't actually that different from talking with non-hikers in China, whose first question about hiking is usually "How do you take a shower?" The concept of hiking for pleasure is barely 20 years old in China. The idea of doing it on your own is enough to make you seem quite crazy. But the scene is growing fast. When I first explored the mountains of western China, in the early 1990s, there wasn't a single outdoor-gear shop in my town. Everything I carried was either army surplus or homemade. Today's donkeys can kit themselves out with the same products and brands we see on the AT. Twenty years ago, there were no magazines or Web sites to turn to for ideas and information; now there are countless blogs, and the shelves are full of outdoor magazines, including a Chinese edition of Outside.
The largest gathering of our journey occurs on the evening of day six at Tricorner Knob shelter, for many the last stop before exiting the park. By this time, news of our Chinese team has spread all along the trail, and we get a taste of that odd kind of celebrity that accrues to foreigners in the Chinese countryside.
"Which one of you is Gearhead?" asks a gray-haired gentleman who joins our circle. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, no one from China has ever through-hiked the AT, and even locals section-hiking the Smokies are unsure whether any such group has ever visited before.
Zhao Yang, now known as "Builder," brews copious quantities of Chinese green tea to hand around to the comrades we've dubbed the chaoqing laotou, or "ultralight oldies." The retired through-hikers have stripped down their equipment to an extraordinary degree, using the tiniest possible alcohol burners to boil water, with which they rehydrate instant foodstuffs in ultralight one-person pots. They deal only in bare essentials, so they neither offer nor expect to share food. But they love to share their enthusiasm for the American outdoors. They insist we must come again and see this or that beautiful place, or hike trails with names we've never heard of: John Muir, the Pacific Crest, the Continental Divide.
The college-age hikers on the AT don't seem much different from the young hikers we see at home. In this globalized world, their lives and careers follow quite similar paths, despite the distance between our countries. But these older people are nothing like their Chinese contemporaries. It's unthinkable that our parents would strap on ultralight packs and head for the hills. It's not in their culture.
"When will there be Chinese old people doing something like this?" I wonder.
Builder considers briefly. His answer is short, surely correct, and vaguely distressing. "When we're old," he says.
Some of the through-hikers are maintaining blogs as they go, and we write down the addresses with some regret that we will no longer be keeping them company. There's a spirit on this trail that is greatly to be admired. They call it "trail magic"—the random interactions through which people on the road help and support one another. We gave what we could and received more than our fair share.