Over the May holiday, I wanted to do three things: eat seafood, go hiking and visit an old stone village in the mountains. So I rented a car and drove to Ningbo. The popular seafood places we chose in Ningbo were just average and halfway up the mountain to the stone village, the one-lane road became a traffic jam. Ahead of us, there was a tour bus. Off to the left, a guy in the tea field blasted fourth-tier techno from a tent. It seemed like the Chinese vacation was becoming a "Chinese vacation" and it was going to be a shitty crowded day.
The stone village, Xujiashan, turned out to be fantastic and uncrowded (no idea where that tour bus went), and the hiking trail that ran out of the village turned out to be just one part of an amazing 500 km network of sign-posted footpaths through the Zhejiang mountains. Score!
Thirty minutes on the trail and I knew I'd have to come back, and often. So last week when there was a break in the weather, I called in sick, figured out how to do this trip the easy way (no rental car), and went out to explore the Ninghai Trail System, China's first "national" network of hiking paths.
A little background. The national trail system was officially "opened" in 2009 but there really wasn't anything to "open." The trails are all well-worn footpaths that residents and traders in this area have used for centuries. All the government did is put in signposts along the way, showing the distance from one place to the next, and designated a few campsites. Sometimes the places are active villages, like Xujiashan. Sometimes they are a collection of abandoned stone houses, being reclaimed by the forest. Sometimes they are just a busted hut on the saddle of a ridge, like this one.
That might shortchange the government a bit. What they have done is, as far as tourism in this part of China goes, amazing. There's no entrance fee. No flights of concrete steps. No tacky commercialism. No neon lights. They took nature and... pretty much left it alone. They made a great map, they made an app, and then they got out of the way. It's low-key and charming. At the trailhead I started on, someone had nailed on their homemade "Fresh Honey For Sale!" sign. It's that kind of place.
There's no visitor center and no parking lot for buses. Really, whoever the government officials were that created this system, they need a raise and some recognition. I'm all for it.
Not many people know about the trail, even though it's been around for seven years. Hiking clubs and ultra-running events use it, and some of the outdoor tour companies in Shanghai have done trips along certain sections. More power to them. But what you get in the convenience of going with groups, you lose in the ability to just be on your own in nature, and the satisfaction you get in setting your own pace, getting lost and then getting found again. That's the way I like it. The Ninghai Trail System is made for that.
I chose a 50 km stretch of trail that starts in Dujuanshan (杜鹃山) and comes out in Feng Jia (冯家), mostly because I could download a GPS track online, just in case everything went to shit, and it seemed like a good distance for three days out in the woods.
It turns out this path was supposedly the first 50k that Xu Xiake, China's original hiking badass, did when he went out walking around the country for 30 years, starting in 1619. His most famous journal entries come from his later trips to Yunnan and Sichuan, where he catalogued all types of new plants and stuff, and found the sources of some rivers and whatever, and then had his travel companion killed by bandits (it's a long and famous book), but the very first entries in his travels start here, in Ninghai, on these trails. Chinese call him the original backpacker or the Chinese Marco Polo. He was the first guy to do a trip like this on his own, with no $$ from the government. In 2011, China officially made May 19, the first date in his journal, the country's "Tourism Day".
The first step is taking the high-speed train to Ninghai county, about 65 km south of Ningbo. Ninghai the city doesn't have much to see but it does have a high-speed train station, and that's crucial to doing this from Shanghai. It means that three hours after getting on a train in Hongqiao, including a cab to the trail, you can be here —
— and that you can do this whole thing in a weekend, or do a section of it as a day-trip, if you really push it. (The last train from Ninghai to Shanghai leaves just after 7pm.)
I'm gonna give a recap of the path I took, but really, there are a million ways to get in the trail system. Here's the big version of the map. All those little yellow guys doing the Running Man are trailheads.
After arriving at the Ninghai train station, get a cab and tell the driver you want to go to the National Trail System, which is known as 宁海国家登山健身步道 — the Ninghai Guojia Jianshen Budao. You'll need to make clear that you want to go to the east part (the dongbu) (if you're following my path). If the driver doesn't know where it is, tell him to take you to the foot of Dujuan mountain —杜鹃山脚, dujuan shanjiao. This is about the most complicated Chinese you need for the trip. Otherwise, it's really easy. Those directions will get the driver to cross town (about 15 minutes and 25rmb) and bring you here:
Walk up the path towards the yellow temple.
Head to the left, behind the temple and a little ways up you'll see this "service station"/empty tea shop.
If you're facing the shop, the trailhead is off to your right, up some rocks. It's an inauspicious start but I promise it gets better. Much much better.
From there, you're on the trail. The first section is a steep climb. I started at 11am. I didn't bring water, thinking I'd get some on the way, or I'd drink from the creeks (I brought a UV filter), and ten minutes up the mountain, in the sun, I was kicking myself. Amateur move, right? But here is what is even more awesome about the trail. Thirty minutes up the mountain, the trail starts to level out as it approaches a road, and just over the horizon, what the fuck—is that a Nongfu Springs Vending Machine?
Yes it is. And it's attached to a countryside convenience store selling cold water, candy, chicken feet, tea eggs. Everything a modern day hiker needs.
The husband and wife owners were sitting out front eating some noodles and we struck up a conversation. He took me over to the side of the store, where he's got a massive map of all the trails, and gave me the lowdown: how long from this point to that point, how the conditions are on this stretch, where to camp so I get the best sunrise... and then he gave me a printed copy of the map. It's basically an unofficial visitor's center and it's perfect. Just enough to get the job done and no more. Another score for China. The husband tells me my planned 50k is only enough for two days, I buy some water and I'm off.
The stretch I'm on goes from Dujuanshan to Xujiashan, the stone village. It's one of the most popular and interesting sections because there's a lot to see—both nature and tiny villages; because at about 12k you can do it in four hours (so it's good for a day hike); and because Xujiashan has some tiny hotels and restaurants, if you don't want to camp or carry food.
The path goes through a bunch of scenery, from dirt trail to old steps to fire roads like this one.
About halfway to Xujiashan, the trail dips back down into the bamboo forest and I come to Wang She (王社), an abandoned village. About 20 years ago, the government moved the families to a more accessible village closer up the road. Their old houses were left to crumble and the forest moved in.
After a few hours hiking, this was the only place I saw anyone else on the trail. This farmer, who used to live in Wang She, was back in his old hood collecting bamboo husks to make zongzi.
I pushed back farther down the footpaths into Wang She, off the main trail. Wild raspberries were growing on the side of the path (and the flavorless but safe lookalike ‘mock strawberry'), and more houses just kept coming out of the forest.
A bit further and I found this guy and his wife trundling up the path. He was hauling a massive bag on his back, which he set down in front of me.
They were out digging bamboo shoots, which technically you're not supposed to do—there are signs that say "50 rmb Fine For Cutting Bamboo Shoots"—but I guess that didn't apply to him. It wasn't even 2pm and they had already collected 200 pounds.
From here the trail weaved in and out of the forest, through a few clusters of houses too small to be called villages and into a bit of road.
Civilization reappears in Wa Yao Tou (瓦窑头): a bus station! No idea who it is for. There are four houses here and the only sign of life is a family of roosters.
Eventually a stone moon bridge appears: the entry for the last stretch of trail before Xujiashan.
Beware the dangerous cobra worm.
After a tough incline, the path levels out, a small patch of terraced tea appears and, if you're lucky, this old farmer taking his cow out for a walk.
A few minutes further on and you'll drop into the top of Xujiashan, the stone village.
There's not much in the way of economy out here. Xujiashan is only well-preserved because it was exceptionally poor for a long time. When the local government got around to trying to build a tourist economy, the people in Xujiashan were still living in this beautiful but dilapidated stone-and-beam houses, and no one had bothered to tear down their ancient theater or the ancestral temple, or even paint over the 60s revolutionary propaganda.
Even now, when the government touts how much more wealthy the residents have become, the extent of the commercialism is charming: a grandpa selling little nubs of homegrown ginger on his step; grandma selling her homemade grass jelly; everyone else killing the afternoon with cigarettes and mahjong in the makeshift convenience store.
I'd already been so I pushed through and headed for a campsite at Da Hu Tong that the guy from earlier in the morning had suggested.
From Xujiashan to Da Hu Tong, the path gets a bit less than idyllic. The trail goes down to a highway you've got to cross, and in the years since they've published the map, this little operation has sprung up right in the way of where you want to go.
Hang to the left, ignore the dynamite blasts and the workers will point you in the right direction. After about a kilometer of construction hell, the road takes a gentle curve off to the right and climbs back into the hills. A makeshift sign points back to the trail.
From here, the climb becomes a bit brutal, skirting up the side of these new rock terraces.
But, the reward.
A campsite, in China, with no people, some rocks set out for a fire pit, and a forest floor completely covered in pine and fir needles and dead branches, just waiting to be turned into a bonfire. The view from the clearing looks like this.
I set up my hammock, had some salami and bread for dinner and called it a day.
The night sucked. I wasn't prepared for how damp and cold it would get up in the mountains. At midday, it was close to 30 C. By midnight, I could see my breath and a blanket of mist had rolled into the mountains, soaking everything. The nice thing about camping in China, though, is that there is no big wildlife to worry about. There are bumps and rustles in the night but at most, it's a frog or a mouse. Everything else has been eaten.
The next morning, I built a fire, dried my stuff out and got on with it. From here the trail goes up along the ridges of the mountains.
It's not that the trail to Xujiashan is busy, but this stretch, from Da Hu Tong to Feng Jia, is way more deserted. I saw more cows than people, and the only people I saw all morning were a couple old ladies out picking wild plants. The scenery changes from dark Hansel-and-Gretel forests to stands of dusty green bamboo to exposed scrabble to roads under construction.
Early in the afternoon, as I was coming down off a short asphalt stretch, I heard a loud "bbbaaaaaaaaa-baaaaaaa!" and this guy popped up.
He hiked with me for the next hour or so, alternating between shouting at me and munching leaves. I kept telling him he was going to be disappointed when he realized I wasn't a goat, but he didn't listen. He couldn't find his family so I'd have to do.
By the time we bumped into three hikers coming from the opposite direction—the only others ones I saw in two full days— I gotta say I was a little attached. The first thing the hikers asked me was "Is that your goat?". I considered it for a second and then told them, "Yes. That is my goat."
The rest of the day was less eventful but no less beautiful. I had taken enough pictures and was focused on the hiking. I had started that morning at 7am, hoping to camp at Lin Jia village, a site just before the end of the trail, and spend the next morning wandering around the side trails.
But the combination of a shitty night's sleep, two days of eating trail mix and a sudden and powerful craving for a pizza—I guess it was the calories—pushed me on. By mid-afternoon, I had come back out of the mountains into a crappy little town and was exhausted, but there was no place to stay. I decided that if I hauled ass, skipped the campsite and ran the downhills, I might just make it out of the trail with enough time to hail down a car on the highway, get back to Ninghai before the 7.15pm train to Shanghai and with enough time to call Sherpa's on the way home.
Ultra-runners do this trail, all 50km of it, with 3,200 meters up and then down again, in as little as five hours. It took me 18 hours from start to finish over the two days, and left me exhausted, sun-burned, blistered—and extremely happy.
Tourism in China goes wrong so easily. Natural wonders like caves get killed with neon light shows; the scenery of places like Huangshan, if it's not ruined by the sheer number of visitors, is corralled into a neat development, commoditized into an entire industry and then sold back to us at high prices.
So when something goes so right, like the Ninghai trails, it's all the more reason to celebrate it. The trails won't stay empty forever and the county is sure to develop into something more ‘modern'. But for right now, they are just about perfect.
How to do it:
How do I get there?
The Ninghai National Trail System covers 500 kms and there are a whole bunch of ways into it. From Shanghai, the best method is to take a high-speed train from Hongqiao directly to Ninghai (宁海). There are several trains a day but if you want to do either the Dujuanshan-Xujiashan route or the longer trail to Feng Jia, you shouldn't leave any later than the 7.38am train. Tickets cost 118-166rmb one-way. The full schedule is here.
The last train back leaves Ninghai at 7.15pm and arrives at Hongqiao about 10.30pm.
How do I get back?
Taxi or private car. From Xujiashan, the guesthouses can help you arrange a taxi, or you can use Didi Chuxing to get a private driver. Baidu says a cab from Xujiashan to the Ninghai Train Station should take about 30 minutes and cost about 60rmb. Didi Chuxing estimates about the same.
On my trip, I walked out from Feng Jia (冯家) to the S311 highway and then about 10 minutes' south to the nearest village. I asked around for a private car and, as these things work, a guy called a guy who picked me up and drove the 25 minutes to the train station for 100rmb. I was in a rush (for the pizza), so that was cool. On the way, the driver told me next time that I should just use Didi Chuxing. Apparently, there are a lot of part-time drivers in the area just hanging out and they are used to picking up hikers. People who live in the mountains don't actually go hiking. Didi Chuxing estimates 70rmb from the village (大佳河) to the Ninghai train station.
How hard is it?
The Dujuanshan to Xujiashan section is 11.5km and has some climbing and descending. The first stretch, going up Dujuanshan, is hardest: you are climbing the equivalent of 137 flights of stairs in just two km. You can see an elevation map here. Pretty much anyone can do it, with a little huffing and puffing on the climbs. From Xujiashan to Da Hu Tong, there's a good hard climb. From Da Hu Tong to Feng Jia, it took me 11 hours and I'm in decent shape. Don't take a kid or a dog on this part. Overall, the full trail from Dujuanshan to Feng Jia took 18 hours and covered 52 km.
Will I get lost?
Probably not. The trails are well marked with the brown-and-white NTS posts. On the top of the posts, arrows point out the direction of the next trail (if you are at a crossroads), give your current elevation and tell you how far it is to the next checkpoint. Even better, outdoor clubs have marked the trails for their own use or for competitions, tying colored ribbons on trees and trunks all along the path. It seems annoying at first—until you get to the first split in the trail where there is no signpost but plenty of ribbons.
How can I get a map? Do I need GPS?
You can get detailed GPS tracks for the hikes on Wikiloc but it's easy enough to do the hike with just the printed map. Follow the signposts and the outdoor club ribbons. Or you can download the route I took, with the main points marked in English.
What about food and water?
I stocked up at my favorite outdoor supply shop: The Avocado Lady. Get some peanuts, raisins and shredded coconut from her. Add some M&Ms and pretzels from Fei Dan and you've got Wulumuqi Lu Trail Mix®. I brought a salami, a loaf of bread and three apples and it was enough for two days. If you are doing just the Dujuanshan-Xujiashan path, you could pack a light lunch and then eat at a restaurant in Xujiashan.
You can buy bottled water at several points along the train, usually from a resident who has turned one of their rooms into a tiny convenience store. There are running creeks all along the path if you want to go natural. Taobao sells sterilizing pills and fancier kit like UV sterilizing pens, neither of which I could find in stock at any of the real outdoor stores in Shanghai.
Where to sleep?
Camp if you're going on the longer stretch. Get a room in Xujiashan if not. Don't trust the symbols on the map that represent places to sleep; some have gone out of business. The campsite in Da Hu Tong is the best on the part of the trail that I described.
How much does it cost?
Nothing, really. The trail is free, the towns are free, the water costs 3 rmb per bottle. A cab from the Ninghai train station to the trailhead for Dujuanshan is about 25 rmb.
Can I do the 50km trail in a weekend?
Yes but it's hard. Take the earliest train out of Hongqiao (6.50am), be prepared to get to Da Hu Tong to camp with less than an hour of sunlight left, and don't dally around in Xujiashan too long. Start as early as possible the next day and try to arrange transport from Feng Jia (冯家)or Da Jia He (大佳河) back to the Ninghai Train Station ahead of time. At the very least, have enough power left on your phone to use Didi Chuxing or speak enough Chinese to bargain a car back to the train station. It's not hard. People are friendly and used to hikers.
What if something happens?
Call Mountain Rescue (119) or First-Aid (120). The signposts are all numbered and make it easy to tell other people where you are. However, not all parts of the trail get cell phone service.
Do I need to speak, read, write Chinese to do it?
Not really. The map and signposts are only in Chinese so you'll have to match the characters from one to the other but that's about it. Most older people in the mountains speak a dialect anyway, so even if you speak Chinese, it won't help too much on the trail.