Trekking in China
China is big news. The Olympics are just around the corner, the country's economy is storming onwards and a series of exhibitions celebrating its creative energy has brought Chinese culture to the UK in a big way. But the attractions of China are wellknown to those who like to get off the main tourist trail and make a trail for themselves.
I first visited China 20 years ago when there were very few independent travellers wandering around the country and the currency system for foreigners was extremely strange. China was just starting to become used to visitors getting there, and getting around, under their own steam and to behonest it was a struggle to do anything (although the memory of the delicious Beijing Duck I had in the capital will stay with me forever). Well worth the effort, but still a struggle. Today, the tourist industry has come on leaps and bounds but, partly because the country is simply so enormous, there is still plenty to see off the beaten track. And one of the best ways of seeing it is by trekking through it.
Of course to walk through it, you have to get to it first and you might want to consider travelling along part of the magical - and often spectacularly dusty - old Silk Road first of all. Dragoman (www.dragoman.com) has a pretty adventurous 11-week trip from St Petersburg to Beijing (or the other way round) which also takes in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia where you stay with Mongolian horsemen and sleep in a yurt.
In China itself, most hikers are understandably drawn to the snaking Great Wall (which is also a particularly popular spot for the increasing numbers of people who are hiking for charity - Kuoni has considerable experience with these types of trips to China over the last five years and for more information go to www.challengeforcharity.co.uk). One of the finest stretches is actually not a hugely long one, the four hour route from Jinshanling to Simatai (Jinshanling is 87 miles outside Beijing, Simatai is 75). Because Jinshanling is just that bit further away from Beijing than other more accessible sections of the wall it's not so busy and well off the main tourist route, although it's not entirely deserted. The beauty of this hike is that you get to see the wall both in its repaired and its pretty original state - conditions do start to deteriorate pretty soon and the trail is often rocky, frequently steep, and features lots of loose bricks. But there are marvellous views and numerous watchtowers along its many ridges.
The wall follows the mountainous contours up and down, sometimes on flagstones, often through forested areas. Along some stretches it's semi-ruined and simply unwalkable and you will need to walk alongside the wall instead on dirt paths. There are numerous villages along the route where operators often arrange accommodation. Staying in one of these outposts is a great way to get a real feel for what life in China is like and as well as the wall you'll also get the chance to hike through agricultural terraces,walnut orchards and scrubland. Among the many operators including the Great Wall on their trips is World Expeditions ( www.worldexpeditions.com). Their main trip is a seven-day hike, including camping in two-person tents with toilet tents and equipment provided, but you need a good sleeping bag and mat.
But there's obviously more to China than the Great Wall. Exodus (www.exodus.co.uk) for example venture into the Yunnan region in the south west of the country, home to many of the country's ethnic groups including the colourfully-dressed Naxi and Yi peoples. This is also where you can enjoy the sight of the mighty Yangtze and the incredible Tiger-leaping Gorge as well as visit the relaxing town of Dali. Their Yunnan Explorer tour takes in the atmospherically titled Black Dragon Pool and Jade Dragon Mountain. If you're really keen, it's possible to hike the whole length of the Gorge as there is a well-marked path which is used daily by locals. As you'd expect, the views are amazing and you'll find accommodation fairly easily along the route. It's best to keep to the lower route because of rockslide hazards on the upper road.
The locally-based Active China (www.activechina.com) in Kunming also run trips into north west Yunnan's Deqen county including the mighty Mount Kawa Karpo. They offer expedition hikes through the region's semi-tropical landscape, high alpine tundra, with stops to bathe in hot springs and the chance to explore some of the last remaining old growth forests in China.
Also popular with the backpacking crowd for more than 20 years is the area around Guilin and Yangshuo which has some astonishing tall karst mountain cenery. If you don't fancy trekking every day, a river cruise along the Li River is a popular way of enjoying the mountains here. This is also a very popular spot for rock climbers as Yangshuo is fast becoming the adventure capital of China. It's also the first place I tried eating snake (yep, tastes like chicken).
Not all the best hiking areas are lushly forested. For those with a particularly determined streak, there is always the Taklamakan Desert, rather alarmingly though not altogether wrongly known as the Desert of Death. Taklamakan is in the Zinjiang region and at more than 270,000 km square is one of the largest sand-only deserts in the world. It's on the old silk routes mentioned above and has been inhabited for thousands of years, to which the well-preserved mummies which archaeologists continue to dig up testify. Shangrila Adventure (www.shangrilaadventure.com ) are among specialist operators who provide treks to the area and offer a week-long trip through 150km of the desert, entering the desert from the oasis station of Hotan Prefecture.
Whichever area you pick, however strenuous your trip, always bear in mind the words of Confucious who said: "It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop."
What else to see
There's so much to see in China that it's best on a first visit to do the must-sees and then come back for further visits. The Great Wall and the strange landscapes of Guilin/Yanghsuo are mentioned above but you should certainly not miss:
?The Forbidden City - vast, impressive but surprisingly easy to wander around.And while you're in the city, the Summer Palace too.
? Xi'an - the terracotta warriors are a must but also think about cycling around its walls.
? Kunming - the stone forest is a remarkable geological sight, similar to thelandscape around Guilin/Yangshuo.
? Kashgar - once a key city on the old Silk Route, it still retains much of the ancient
The idea of travelling in China can be a bit daunting and an expert operator can certainly make things a lot easier for you. On many camping/trekking trips, vehicles will take the group to the start of the trek and carry all your luggage, food and water between stops, while you keep a small backpack full of essentials with you during the day.
But independent travel is certainly very possible indeed, although it's a good idea to take a really decent guidebook such as Lonely Planet's and to try and learn a few words of Mandarin which will go down very well.
Although there are dozens of airports around the country, most visitors come via Hong Kong, Shanghai or Beijing. British Airways (www.britishairways.com)and Virgin Atlantic (www.virginatlantic.com) are among carriers to China.The national airline is Air China (www.airchina.co.uk).You could also consider the new Butterfly Bus service (www.butterflybus.co.uk) which is a 16-day overland bus trip from London to Xinjiang province. Alternatively consider the Trans-Siberain railway or even take a slow boat to China from Japan or Korea.
Getting around China can be quite an experience in itself. Long distance buses are plentiful and good value, but the trains are an excellent alternative. One of the most memorable travel experiences of my life was a two day train trip from Beijing to Hong Kong on which I enjoyed watching the country drift past the window, actually used my phrase book to make a genuine conversation, and shared several meals with my fellow compartment travellers. In the major cities, it's easy to hail a cab but keep an eye on the meter... The best way to get around is, of course, by bike.
Because China is so huge, it's very hard to generalise about the weather but as a rough guideline, spring and autumn will offer more stunning views, winter is likely to be snowier and so more dangerous (especially on the Great Wall), summer likely to be hotter.
All prices and details were correct when published, please check before you try trekking in China.