Saturday, Aug 19, 2017, 11:01 PM CST – China

Essay

Don’t Fence Me In

If nature is a right in Norway, it is an industry in China

China is home to many natural wonders. From high mountaintops sprinkled with snow, to lakes so blue that no painter could render them in oils and expect to have their work praised as realistic. The country boasts lush forests and jungles where the trees are so tall that they can compete with the skyscrapers of the encroaching urban jungles. When I got the opportunity to travel China’s byways, the scenery was what I was looking forward to the most. And the little I have been able to see has indeed been breathtaking. But besides wonder, my encounter with the great Chinese outdoors has also filled me with less salubrious emotions – indignation and frustration.

First, let me explain a bit about my background. I come from a country that is also quite proud of its natural beauty. Norway’s fjords and mountains are widely known, and we Norwegians are uncommonly fond of hiking, skiing and generally spending time outside. We are in fact so fond of being outdoors, that nature – in the eyes of both the people and the law – is invested with something close to human rights, and we don’t appreciate anyone trying to fence in our wide open spaces.

Nature for Norwegians is all about freedom, adventure, and – and this is important – quiet. With a total population that in Chinese eyes would be considered a poor showing for a medium-sized city, once you leave the populated areas of my homeland you are pretty much alone. Out in nature there are no paths besides those formed by generations of adventuring feet, and nothing but your common sense to keep you from falling off a cliff. Sometimes people mark trees to indicate a good route up a mountain, but these markings are mere suggestions. If you would like to climb right up a sheer rock face, or cross a river where it is at its most turbulent rather than using the partially submerged log bridge half a mile downstream, you are more than welcome to.

If nature is a right in Norway, it is an industry in China. This realization crystallized for me at Huashan, a mountain near Xi’an. Upon first hearing that we would have to pay money to enter the park – and not just a token sum, but US$30, a week’s wages in some parts of the country – I was outraged. The evening before our trek I was all indignant bluster, wondering aloud where my cash would go and angrily repeating: “They didn’t build the mountain!”

Upon reaching Huashan, however, I soon realized where my money was going. I didn’t for one moment feel like I had left civilization. Paved paths with handrails to hold onto while climbing and garbage cans disguised as tree stumps demarcated the route to the summit. Every 20 minutes or so you could be sure to come across a snack kiosk, and a public toilet almost as frequently. The peace and quiet of a Norwegian forest seemed a laughable fantasy as we trudged in a line of gabbling tourists most of the way. Every now and then we would come across a temple, making me realize that mountain hiking in China is viewed as just as much a cultural experience as it is a natural one.

The feeling of accomplishment when reaching the top was also slightly dulled by the fact that people who didn’t want to walk could easily reach the top by ropeway. In Emeishan, close to Chengdu, you can even hire a sedan chair, like a modern-day imperial memsahib.

China’s local governments seem to revel in fencing off nature. Whether with ticket booths, wire mesh or sternly worded road signs complete with surreal English translations, everything more than 10 paces from the designated path, it seems, holds a wealth of death traps and must be avoided. Wherever I go in China people keep telling me that the mountains can be dangerous, but after being carefully shepherded up fully paved roads to a walled-in summit, I couldn’t imagine a safer place to be. There is no chance of getting lost, no need to scramble over deadfalls or jump across streams.  Anywhere there might be the smallest chance of hurting yourself, you may be sure to find a fence and a sign telling you to stay well clear.

Despite all this, I have to say that it makes me happy to see how people of all ages and shapes are out enjoying the mountains and nature of China. Although I, a Norwegian, might frown a bit at the mollycoddling of humanity and the enclosure and taming of what should be wilderness, it is also nice that the beauty of China has been made accessible to those without the fitness level or hiking experience to attempt a more serious adventure.

Despite the fences, China’s landscape remains beautiful, so beautiful that even a Norwegian might be able to overlook certain infringements upon her right to roam.

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