In July of 2006, I was on a bus heading through the Qinling Mountains in China with a beautiful young female. We were going to visit her aunt and relatives in the small town of Foping about 200 kms southwest of Xian. Donna is a student at the university in Xian where I am an associate professor of history. Donna is just a friend. I take trips with male and female students, but after the trip is I say good-bye to the guys and turn the females over to their boyfriends. Sometimes the female students have a hall pass to go with me. Sometimes they don’t. Back in America, at 56, I would not be a threat to anyone’s reproductive cycle. But in China, one cannot be certain.
Donna’s aunt was located in the Qinling Mountains which are south of Xian, China in Shaanxi province where I live. One day Donna and I hiked a beautiful river valley with steep walls and lush vegetation. A river runs through it. We found two natural moss slickened rock slides to glide down into deep green pools of refreshingly cool water.
The next day at a natural history museum in Foping (5,000 people), we met two Chinese guides and one American researcher who had been studying and observing Giant Pandas. When I discovered I might qualify for such a trip, it took me almost ten minutes to sign up. Five days were required to go to Xian and return to Foping with a student/translator and the necessary gear for six days of camping in the wilderness of the Qinling Mountains. It seemed as if I had been preparing for such an event all year.
In Foping, we spent a day getting permits and interfacing with our three guides. It cost $160 for the permit; $200 for three guides for six days including food; plus $250 for the equipment that I bought. This money may not sound like a lot to people in America. But when your salary is $450/mn in China, it does become a lot.
Access to the Foping National Nature Reserve seemed limited to researchers and other special people. I am not sure how I qualified to get in. However, I had written a book about adventure travel in the Alaska of the US which they located on the internet and that seemed to carry some weight. Mr. Shaowen-ho, Forest Senior Engineer, was most helpful in getting our permit.
In the pouring rain on the first day, we hiked ten kilometers. I do not remember receiving much information about what gear to bring. On the four hour hike, between the rain and wet bamboo, we were soaked to the bone. From 45 years of camping experience, I knew we had to keep moving or we would become hypothermic (low body temperature). The two lead guides left us, explaining later that they had become too cold. We survived, but somehow I felt they could not bring people in this manner on a regular basis. There would be too many grave stones blocking the path.
When we reached the hut with a dirt floor which would be our home for six days, researchers were there from Xian. Hiking with the guides (who were farmers) reminded me of the Long March of Chairman Mao and his indestructible army. I had three times as much gear as any of the guides. They had basic gear because that is what they could afford.
The next day we hiked the 2000 meter mountain ridges for eight hours, covering 16kms, and saw four mountain ox. The mountain ox or Takin looks like a large mountain goat. However, its closest relative is the Musk Ox of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia. The Golden Fleece of ancient Greek legend sought by Jason and the Argonauts came from the Takin. The Takin fleece is said to have been laid in streams where its hair collected fine gold. Takins are endangered and only 20,000 exist. The trails we followed were made by the mountain ox.
Two tigers once roamed this area but they had been eliminated as had the brown or sun bear. The smaller black bears still roamed wild. There were also leopards, poisonous snakes, wild pigs, musk deer (with a tusk) and other things to focus one attention.
The Qinling Mountains are the backbone of China similar to the Rocky Mountains in the US, but the Qinling run horizontally. Similar to the Grand Canyon of the US except with more rain and vegetation, the Qinling Mountains are an ancient uplifted ocean floor with sharp ridges and narrow valleys. Maximum height for the Qinling Mountains is 2,000 meters (except for Mt. Taibai at 3000 meters). Some areas have never been inhabited because the valleys are steep and narrow, the soil is poor for crops, and there is insufficient water for farming. The Qinling Mountains have kept alive animals and plants that otherwise might have been farmed over.
Pandas have survived in part because they are not dangerous to humans and they don’t eat human food. They eat bamboo leaves and therefore don’t raid farmers’ crops (and farmers aren’t forced to kill them). Panda’s have a false thumb (part of the paw) that lets them grasp bamboo and eat the leaves. The Giant Panda is related to the American raccoon. The Red Panda of China is similar in size and coloration to the US raccoon.
The third day was Panda day. The guides skillfully placed us in a spot and then went on a tremendous march to herd the Panda towards us. These guides could hike circles around me. After only an hour, a Giant Panda came wandering through a pass in the ridge. We took many photos, but I missed the best head shots. The Panda seemed to have been through this before and it knew what it had to do to get back to eating. It was a special treat for my student who had never seen a live Panda. We were lucky to see a Panda in the wild even though there are 300 Giant Pandas in the area – one per 1.5 square kilometers.
The last two days were less eventful. The guides saw no purpose in hiking if we had already seen a Giant Panda, a Takin, and endangered wild pheasant. They had every reason in the book for not going out of the cabin: the fog, the rain, the sun, the stars, etc.
But I enjoyed interacting and talking with the guides (through an interpreter). I will give the lead guide great credit for expressing an idea that I have long embraced. He said, “When Chinese get money they want a better home, better education for their children, and more comfort. Americans get money, come to China, hike the mountains, and live like peasants.” I had to agree with him.
My student/translator, Brian, did a wonderful job. He was fit and terribly pleasant and understanding. A good negotiator, he asserted himself well when he had to. Also, I have killed a few good friends with my snoring, but somehow Brian survived.
We headed home on the sixth day. We made the four hour hike with little excitement except for the small disagreement over money at the end which was not as big as the one at the beginning.
It was a great trip through some wonderful country with a great translator/student and terribly interesting guides. I was glad to see the wilderness of China. It was once again significant to slip the surly bonds of convention to reach out and embrace the seductive goddess of adventure.