Traveling around China, I noticed something: in a country filled with spectacular natural scenery, domestic tourists have found numerous methods to limit their exposure to the abundance of nature. They had to, really. Can you imagine if they simply accepted nature as it is? Neither can I—the prospect is simply too horrible to fathom.
It is not surprising that nature reserves and geological wonders account for many of the top attractions in a country the size of China and that millions of domestic tourists flock to the most popular every year. Few things can elevate a family’s social standing as quickly as a visit to one of the more popular—and thus quite overpriced—attractions (see Keeping up with the Changs); but the truth is, few of the visitors seem all that happy to be there. In fact, for the most part, they seem more comfortable at the man-made “beautiful scenery” attractions so abundant in China.
Unfortunately, no architect can come close to mimicking the beauty created by millions of years of plate tectonics and erosion; not even the world’s foremost experts in “imitation engineering”. For the time being anyway, the Chinese are stuck with nature. Luckily, they’ve devised a few simple tricks to make that prospect a lot less terrifying and I’ve decided to pass those ancient secrets on to you.
Obviously these will seem very simplistic to seasoned Chinese travelers, as it has become clear to me from my time in China that just about every single Chinese tourist is aware of them all; Chinese travelers might want to stop reading. The rest of you need to read on—the number of people (westerners especially) I’ve seen exposing themselves directly to the natural environment is shocking. Those of you with no travel experience need to know how the experts deal with all that pesky nature.
First of all, you’ll want to stick to popular destinations, especially in China, as the government will look out for you. In July 2011, I spent a day hiking in the Cangshan (“shan” means mountain(s), so that’s the Cang Mountains) just to the west of Dali in China’s Yunnan province. Dali lies in a beautiful valley near the large Erhai (“hai” means lake, so Er Lake), surrounded by mountains. The Cang Mountains provide some of the best views of the valley, so it should come as no surprise that every visitor to Dali heads up for some hiking.
In this case the Chinese government has you pretty well covered, when it comes to limiting your exposure to nature. Cable cars take you up or down the mountain at two separate locations and a road runs along the top, called the Cloud Traveler’s Path.
Anyone who’s been to China knows that they have a very loose interpretation of the word “road”, but that’s not the case here. This one is a thing of beauty: flat, paved, no potholes. It is hands down the best maintained road in China. And it runs along rough mountain terrain, so you don’t have to. Other governments take notice.
Unfortunately, the government has not found a way to deal with the noise: birds chirping, insects buzzing, the sound of numerous waterfalls, the breeze rustling through the trees. It’s all so incredibly annoying and distracting and it never ceases. Thankfully, you won’t have to worry about that on Cangshan; in fact, after reading this, you’ll never have to worry about nature’s incessant drone again.
First of all, you need a radio. A cell phone will do, assuming the volume can be turned up to ear-splitting levels. In a popular place like the Cang Mountains, you’ll be covered even if your volume setting doesn’t hit the appropriate levels, as you’ll be surrounded by plenty of Chinese tourists, each blasting Chinese pop music that many would describe as horrible (think Britney Spears, but less innovative and less manly; no, now you’re thinking Justin Bieber—still too manly), but that’s only because those people have taste and functioning hearing. The important thing is this: you will no longer have to listen to nature’s constant babbling.
The music is pretty effective, but it’s not foolproof. That’s where the next trick comes in: screaming. You need to scream loudly and often, as if there were an echo, even when there clearly isn’t. Because there could be. The echo could happen at any moment, so you need to keep screaming as much as possible. The Chinese seem to aim for a ratio of one scream every ten meters and that’s probably a good benchmark.
With so many people screaming all the time, it kind of seems like some of them are answering your screams with their own, so you’ll naturally want to answer back. Then you can laugh at this amazing development, high-five all your friends and scream again, because it only gets cooler with every successive yell.
If you happen to see a foreigner, you’ll definitely want to high-five them. Since they are not screaming, they are obviously unaware of proper mountain etiquette, but once they see just how cool you look, red-faced and yelling like a deranged lunatic, they’ll be eternally grateful you took the time out from screaming at absolutely nothing in particular for no discernible reason whatsoever, just to acknowledge them with the ever popular high-five.
Even if they’re hundreds of meters away, you’ll want to run up to them to high five them and say “How are you?” Don’t forget to get out of there quickly or you run the risk of being engaged in a conversation. And if you’re not too out of breath, a parting scream would certainly be appreciated.
Now I realize some people might not enjoy the constant screaming set to a background of loud Chinese pop music and will want to leave the main trail for a bit. Obviously these are the same people who don’t enjoy China’s 24 hour a day car horn symphony or the perfectly reasonable habit of shouting “WEI!” into their cell phones over and over again at the same volume used by deck crew on an aircraft carrier (if you haven’t been to China, you’re missing out with this one); these people with their fancy “functioning hearing” are few and far between, I know, but I want to be inclusive here.
And I’m not alone in that—in the spirit of inclusiveness, the local government has made sure to provide a few opportunities to get off the main trail. On the Cloud Traveler’s Path, you can take little side trips to caves and to the Dragon Maiden’s Pool, a set of beautiful pools of varying colors. At least that’s what I’ve been told—the pools were closed for renovations when I was there, since nature has apparently once again done a half-assed job.
This was over a year ago though, so I’m sure the pools are open once again; this time with a more aesthetically pleasing arrangement of the surrounding trees and rocks, as well as a water slide and a Wal-Mart. The superstore will be especially welcome for those who’ve forgotten to bring their own radios and have spent the past hour or two surrounded by sounds of chirping birds and babbling brooks. And with the whole Cloud Traveler’s Path taking 3 to 6 hours, there’s a decent chance you’ll finish the hike before the radio breaks.
Obviously I’ve only scratched the surface here, but other tricks for minimizing exposure to nature will have to wait. In the meantime, get out there and start practicing what I’ve taught you and, with any luck, you’ll soon forget what those annoying birds even sound like. Just make sure you stick to popular tourist areas in China—keeping up the required volume over the course of a hike is pretty much impossible without other tourists adding their noise and you’ll end up exposing yourself to all kinds of natural sounds. Even the most seasoned Chinese tourists would never dream of heading off to an uncrowded area.
This travel guide for Dali has more information on the area.