Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Camping in China: Enshi Grand Canyon and Wanzhou

Bouldering downriver from our campsite
From October 1-7 China observes National Holiday. The new middle class and higher use the spare time to travel, while migrant workers, if lucky enough to get time off, will use the time to return home for a few days. But National Holiday was not always so long. Sometime in the early 2000s the government declared to extend the holiday from a couple days to seven, in effort to boost spending in China, like the creation of Valentine's Day in the U.S.. With a couple good friends and city mates, our plan was the common plan of the rising Chinese middle class during Golden Week: travel--but not too far from home because we have to get back to work soon and flying is too expensive.

Campsite and Enshi light show igniting the crags
Other than our general plan we didn't really have much of a plan. We knew that we wanted to camp. Last year one of my city mates, Maivy, heard about Enshi from some Chinese people and after telling us, we have all wanted to go since. Enshi is a two hour train west of Wanzhou, located in Hubei Province. The Chinese say that Enshi Grand Canyon is comparable to the U.S. Grand Canyon, which I have been to a couple times, and they are right when measuring the awe-factor, but wrong in every other way. To compare a rusty desert to a lush mountainous region with a river at every turn is a senseless competition. September 2013 a few world famous pro-climbers took a trip to Enshi and trad climbed one of the famous stacks, or free standing phallic rock formations, which are the mark of Enshi, and put Enshi on the map of the West. Libby, my climbing friend, contacted some contract English teachers living in Enshi to see if couch surfing was an option for five bodies in their small place. 

Large rock in the river
They consented and dealt with our tardiness. They are an amazing couple, our age, from Arkansas, chilling in China until they decide to go to grad school. We wanted local food and they brought us to a restaurant with  the most complex flavors I have had in China. Also homemade brownies and scones. . . . Even though Enshi is only an hour from the Chongqing Province border, the dialect resembles that of Chongqing, but the food is entirely different. Most of Chongqing only has one flavor, spicy, while what we experienced in Enshi was salty and sweet, with maybe a little fresh-sour.  

Enshi canyon landscape
The next day we left for the Grand Canyon, which is about a two hour bus ride from the city. We bought tons of snacks, water, and fruit before getting on the bus. Our plan was to get to the Canyon, hike out to a village area, make our camp, and well. . . . stuff.

Sam skewering pork for the grill in Wanzhou

Camping at Enshi, Hubei Province: 
Kayla, Maivy, and Sam taking the public bus to the long distance bus station.
 During most holidays in China prices are raised in tourist regions throughout the country, except for public transportation services, of course. For instance, on the first night of National Holiday, Sam and I got in a cab and the driver tried to charge us 100kuai (15USD) when the price is usually 30kuai. I yelled at the driver for trying to cheat us, but he still wouldn't settle below 40kuai and the driver we passed up before him gave us the same quote. The slim stipend Peace Corps allots each volunteer forces us to be more careful of how we are spending our money. The entrance fee to Enshi Grand Canyon was raised from 120kuai to 180kuai. The combination of the price increase and the hordes of Chinese tourists (480 million Chinese were projected to travel during the Golden Week) convinced us that the canyon proper was not worth the effort. 

Redistributing snacks for the hike to find a campsite
A word on camping in China. In my previous posts I have spoken of hiking in China, and how you can just roam, as long as you are not intruding on a government restricted area. Camping follows the same set of guidelines and rules. I know this because I have read Chinese blogs on the topic. If you come to China and experience Chinese style tourism, you might be led to conclude that Chinese people do not do outdoorsy things. But there are many who hike out to extremely rural locations and camp. Prima facie, I think the outdoors market is actually one rapidly growing market that desperately lacks supply of high quality products. Returning to my point, you can camp pretty much anywhere in rural areas. Unless someone tells you explicitly that you can not camp in the location you have already pitched your tent, then you are good to go. The key is to look for villages. If there is a village in the area you desire to camp, then camping is fine. The villagers will probably welcome you. Make sure you have food, cigarettes, or booze to gift to those who visit your site. 

Searching for a campsite from the road down into the gorge 
As long as you know what you are doing it is fine to have a fire at your camp. The peasants have fires in the hills all the time. You will need dry sticks and firewood. For cooking coals are best. One issue with camping in Southern China is unpredictable precipitation, so pray to the gods of good fortune before you embark on your trip. You can forage for dry sticks, but your best bet for dry firewood is to go to a peasants house and ask to buy dry firewood. They need dry wood to cook everyday, so they definitely have it. Even though their dialect will be thick and they might not know what you are asking, don't give up, you can get it. Every time I have purchased firewood from a peasant I just gave them 10kuai, which is probably too much, but they need the money. 

Setting up our tents on an island in the middle of the river
When you camp in China, please observe the 'leave no trace' standard we follow in the U.S.. Even though the peasants litter infectiously, it is not fine for you to follow. If you do not live in China and cannot communicate with the locals, you are most likely going to be eating all prepackaged food and your water will be bottled when you camp.  Make sure to carry every wrapper out with you. If you do manage to get raw vegetables and/or meat, you can buy skewers, tinfoil, and charcoal at larger supermarkets. Grilling in the countryside is a popular activity for urban Chinese with cars, so trust me, these things are available in China. They are just a little difficult to find. 

We searched for a campsite for about 1.5hrs. and settled by a river in a gorge below a high bridge. We got a late start and made it to the river just before sundown, quickly procured some firewood, and started to set up our camp.

Sam carrying a tent back across the river
A local told us that the river level rises randomly, so we had to move our camp off the island to the higher banks. The water level did rise overnight. Local knowledge is invaluable. Although sometimes the locals will tell you that there is no trail in that direction, or you can't climb to the top of that mountain, or you can't do that because they are worried for your safety, so use your best judgement when seeing advice. 

Rice paddies in the gorge

Above is the farmer we asked to buy firewood from. He was nearly blind and illiterate and lives with his wife and two little girls. The parents are most likely off working through the holiday in one of China's major cities in the region, possibly Chongqing, Wuhan, or Changsha. A couple of us went to get him and his family from the field to help us.

Since we didn't really do any planning, we only had prepackaged snacks for dinner, breakfast the following morning, and lunch. Libby, our master of fire, kept us warm. On what to bring, there is no universal camping gear set for China. The climates vary so differently from region to region, and season to season. We were lucky in that it didn't rain, but it was hot during the day and frigid at night. Tents, sleeping bags, a pair of pants, and a thick upper layer was enough for this trip. 

Falling asleep to the sound of the river, the quiet of the gorge, and staring up at the full body of stars was possibly the most at peace I have been since I arrived in China. 

In the morning we were awoken by three boys yelling in Chinese and English, 'Wake Up!' I asked one of the boys what time it was and he ran over to my tent while looking at his watch and said in a whisper, '6:45.' I slept for another hour. 

We didn't have enough sleeping bags so Maivy and Kayla had to double up.

Semi-alert, we foraged for sticks and boiled some water in the morning for our instant coffee. We also went for a swim in the river. The texture and temperature of the river resembled that of ice water. After went for a hike into the mountains.

We stashed our bags at the farmhouse of the family we bought firewood from and hiked down the river looking for boulders we had seen earlier. 

We found some massive boulders sitting in the middle of the river.

Sam and Maivy being daredevils (!) and almost climbing to the top of one. Terrifying. 

That unimaginably picturesque boulder placed in the center of the river with a perfect landing that I didn't send. 

Libby found this excellent boulder with almost every type of hold while walking along the river. 

We went back to the peasant's house to pick up our bags after hiking the river. Above we are using that wood machine to separate spent rice casings from full granules. When we asked him if others had come through to camp, he said we were the first. 
Camping in Wanzhou:

Back in Wanzhou, we realized that we had nothing planned so we decided to camp again. Earlier in the year while scouting destinations for Hiking Club, I came across a spot that was perfect for camping. Flat and smooth dirt floor, overhanging section of rock for rain protection, fire pit made by the peasant who lives around the corner, and only a 40min. hike from my apartment. The camping section is halfway up a mountain on the side facing opposite to the city.

Wanzhou is our home, so we quickly bought all of the necessary provision and set off. For the second time, we were racing the setting sun. What was supposed to be an easy hike ended up being a bushwhacking mission. I led us up the wrong trail and there was some vertical climbing involved. We grilled spicy chicken, duck, potatoes, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, apples, red peppers, and onions, all fresh from the market. Maivy, the excellent cook that she is, made a delicious sweet and spicy rub for the vegetables. Everything was cooked on coal and in foil.

Sam and I went to buy firewood from the old man who lives around the corner of the mountain. He came to hang out with us at dark. He is 85 years old and lives alone. He has five daughters who all live the valley below. When I first scouted the area I met one of them on her way to visit him. His dialect was extremely thick and we couldn't really understand anything he was saying. We gave him a box of Danish cookie, beer, cigarettes, potatoes, and some chicken. He was great company.

Waking up to fog on the mountain.

Sam pulling some morning yams from the fire.

We finished packing our gear by the time the fog started to clear. The sun broke the clouds as we walked down the mountain to the bouldering park around the bend. We did some work on my new project and then left for lunch.

This was easily the most unplanned travel I have experienced to date. The best part about it was that it was the cheapest and most relaxed trip I have been on in China. Even though it was a bit grimy and the Chongqing mosquitos got to us, cooking and sleeping outside, in clean air, did its part in recharging me from the stress of PC work and the anguish grad school apps. Good food, good scenery, and most importantly good friends always makes for phenomenal travel.