↓ Archives ↓

Archive → May, 2011

Introducing the Donkey Friends: Recreational Hiking in Contemporary China

Travel for leisure and recreation has always been an important activity in China. With mountain ranges as far as the eye can see and myriad streams and lakes the country is heavily endowed with many places of great natural beauty. Scholars and poets have been waxing lyrical for centuries about the landscape, weaving in the human presence amongst the enormity of nature (such writing is categorised as ‘travel record literature’, 游记文学).  A thousand years ago the famous Tang Dynasty (618-907) scholar/official/poet (Chinese history is littered with individuals who combined all three) Li Bai (李白) wrote in a poem titled ”Downstream to Jiangling” (《下江陵》) of a journey through the three gorges on the swiftly flowing Yangtse River. Li Bai was on his way home from a period of exile (Chinese history is also littered with such examples , even in this day and age). He wrote (I have taken the translation from here, translation by Andrew Wong and used with his kind permission):

朝辞白帝彩云间,千里江陵一日还。zhāo cí bái dì căi yún jiān, qiān lǐ jiāng líng yī rì huán.

两岸猿声啼不住,轻舟已过万重山。liăng àn yuán shēng tí bù zhù, qīng zhōu yǐ guò wàn chóng shān.

At daybreak I leave Baidi amidst clouds aglow,
A thousand miles to Jiangling is a mere day’s flow.
Whilst monkeys cry incessantly from bank to bank,
I’ve skiffed past a myriad mountains row after row.

Sampan passing through the Yangtse Gorges.

Of course the opportunity to travel presented itself in different forms, and as Li Bai’s experience suggests it was not always in pursuit of leisure. Many people no doubt spent their entire lives in their village or town and/or immediate region. Those who did travel did so for various reasons (doh!). As I have been exploring with regards to the Ancient Tea Horse Road, engaging in trade is an obvious motive. The merchants on the tea road did not just come from Yunnan of course, but from all over China (and beyond, and of course what we think of ‘China’ now was quite a different entity in times past, but I will leave this for another time). In Ninger, one of the major production centres for Puer tea, the ‘Jiangxi Clubhouse’ (江西会馆) still stands as testimony to the extensive trading networks across China (Jiangxi being a province in eastern China). Journeying to take part in examinations for entry into the bureaucracy was another obvious reason for travel. And as in the case of Li Bai, travelling as a result of imposed exile, banishment or conscription into the army was a sure way to get to see some of the more remote parts of the empire. Indeed there are many towns in the peripheries which were first established as military outposts, the town of Husa that I visited in 2010 is a good example.  Sometimes the exile was self-imposed as in the form of persons moving to remote mountainous locations to seek peace and solitude in the quest for enlightenment and immortality (whether Buddhist or Daoist or some combination thereof), as Li Bai also did for some time. Bill Porter has written a fascinating account of encounters with modern day hermits, including a brief history of the place of meditational seclusion in Chinese culture, in his book Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits. At certain times of war, natural disasters and famine, and sometimes during relative peace under the auspices of dynastic government policies to open up more land to cultivation (dare we say ‘colonisaton’?), whole communities moved on epic journeys to the ‘frontiers’. One of the most famous Chinese travellers is without doubt Mr Xu Xiake (徐霞客) (1587-1641) who travelled for much of his lifetime all over the place, even to Lijiang on the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’. Xu Xiake also crawled into deep caves to make geological explorations. He goes down in history as proving that the ‘Jinsha’ and ‘Yangtse’ rivers are one and the same. The list of course could go on and on. All I’m trying to point out here are the various motivations for travel and the different forms in which travel takes place. The question I would now like to pose is what, if anything, about travel has changed in the modern era?

Porters on the tea road, most likely around Ya'an in Sichuan.


Tens of millions on the move in the world's largest annual migration: the Spring Festival in China.

For the purposes of this entry, with the focus squarely on contemporary China, let me just highlight two aspects which I believe have fundamentally changed the nature of travel: modern modes of transport and historically unprecedented levels of participation. In the ‘old days’ to get from one end of the country to the other was quite an arduous undertaking, especially if your travel involved crossing the mountainous regions of western China (travel via the extensive river and canal networks and along the eastern seaboard was relatively speaking a much more straight-forward affair). This situation didn’t really change too much until after 1949 when, often motivated by the need to move troops quickly to the frontier, ‘roads’ began to be constructed deep into the mountains. Even so, many of these roads through the mountains were unsealed and prone to landslides and if traversing high passes could be impassable during the winter months. It was not until the 1980s, and into the 1990s and beyond, that a truly modern highway network began to be constructed, and indeed at a very rapid pace. Much the same could be said for railway travel. Add to this mix the rapid development of air travel and associated infrastructure and it is far to say that China has undergone one of the largest ‘mobility revolutions’ in human history (or we might say one of the largest ‘time-space compression’ revolutions of all time). The road network is now beginning to go ‘international’ and there are plans for high speed rail to destinations such as Singapore as well. All of this has facilitated the largest migration in human history as tens of millions of rural inhabitants move to the cities and industrial regions in search of work (and of course there is also a lot of travel within regions as well, not all of it necessarily to the large cities). Every year at the time of the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) tens of millions, perhaps more than a hundred million, take part in the world’s largest annual migration making their way back to native towns and villages. China is literally ‘on the move’. And now with the rise of the private motor vehicle car owners are taking to the roads themselves and venturing far and wide in their automobiles in search of leisure and adventure in ‘driving tourism’ (自驾旅游). In short, transport is relatively affordable and the network is ever more extensive. The once ‘remote’ and ‘inaccessible’ regions are now within reach of the average traveller, some even within reach of those possessing their own car. Scholars working in this field refer to what they do as ‘roadology’, a relatively new branch of research, so new in fact it isn’t even listed in Wikipedia! More on ‘roadology’ in another blog entry.

Chinese tourists in matching hats visiting the ancestral home of President Hu Jintao in the village of Longchuan, Anhui.

A group of Chinese car owners out and about on a driving holiday.

Secondly, more people are travelling for leisure than ever before, not just in China but worldwide. Tourism and the leisure industry have experienced a staggering expansion (it is very hard to come to terms with how fast this has all been happening). To travel for pleasure was a luxury and something that on a large scale, by which I mean something that has become relatively frequent amongst many social classes within society, has only emerged in the modern era. In China modern tourism as we know it begins to develop in the first half of the 20th Century, but it was still rather limited. After 1949 whilst the transport infrastructure began to be slowly improved the emphasis was overwhelmingly on production, not consumption, and therefore ‘tourism’ as an industry didn’t really exist. It was not until the 1980s that tourism begins to develop, firstly in terms of inbound international tourists, but overtime, especially as we get to the 1990s, the domestic tourist market begins to make a credible appearance and the ‘take off’ occurs. The Chinese government actively promoted the development of domestic tourism and the leisure economy by creating a number of official public ‘golden week’ holiday periods. The ‘golden weeks’ proved to be extremely popular. Domestic tourism is now one of the biggest industries in China and combined with the overall development of the ‘leisure economy’ will become the biggest industry outright some time in the middle of this century. You would be surprised as to who is actually counted now in the ranks of the domestic Chinese tourist. Many people seem to think it is only the ‘middle class’ in the big cities that have the disposable income to do so. Indeed they no doubt make up a large portion. However I’m surprised in my own travels to meet farmers and residents from small towns in relatively remote regions out and about on a ‘holiday’. A farmer, butcher and muleteer I know in the small town of Shaxi (an important staging post on the Ancient Tea Horse Road) has travelled many times with his family and friends to Xishuangbanna for annual holidays!

To summarise, scenic locations are increasingly accessible and the relative costs of travel are more affordable to an increasingly larger section of the population. So what are Chinese people doing with their leisure time? As I have noted, tourism is a booming industry, not just domestic tourism but also outbound international tourism as well (inbound Chinese tourists are the largest body of international tourists to Australia these days). But in addition to the packaged tours of commercial tour providers many people are now organising their own leisure and travel schedules. The tourist market is maturing and diversifying. It is in this connection that I want to introduce to you what I take to be an especially interesting and noteworthy group of travellers: the ‘donkey friends’.

Donkey Friends from Beijing just about to embark on a hiking trip in Shaxi, Yunnan.

Group photo with donkey friends at Xianju, Zhejiang.

‘Donkey Friends’ in Chinese is ‘lüyou‘ (驴友) which is a pun on the word for ‘travel/travelling’ – lüyou (旅游). ‘Donkey Friends’ are called such because they engage in outdoor hiking and in so doing invariably carry their provisions and so forth on their backs, plodding along the trail much like a donkey or mule would do (and thus also implying a sense of being able to ‘eat bitterness’ (吃苦) and overcome adversity). ‘Lü’ (绿) is also Chinese for ‘green’ which by extension implies ‘environment’ and ‘nature’. Hence the term ‘lüyou‘ also suggests ‘friend of nature’ (although in written Chinese the choice of 驴友 is overwhelming). So as outdoor activity enthusiasts (户外运动的爱好者) there is a combined sense of ‘do it yourself’ and ‘getting back to nature’ in what the donkey friends do. The ‘donkey friend’ phenomenon has really taken off in recent years. Hundreds if not thousands of outdoor hiking clubs have appeared all over the country. Outdoor fashion and equipment shops have also popped up in the cities like ‘bamboo shoots after a spring rain’. Book stores now have growing sections devoted to hiking and hiking trails. How can we account for the sudden interest in outdoor hiking and the rapid increase in the ranks of those who call themselves ‘donkey friends’?

Donkey friends like to leave their club banners at the hostels along the trail, a sign that they 'came, saw, and conquered'.

Campfires are very popular, even when not actually camping out, as was the case in this instance.

The term ‘donkey friend’ is a neologism that only appeared in Chinese sometime in the late 1990s/early 2000s. According to my preliminary research it first appeared on the Sina travel bulletin boards ( 新浪旅游论坛) (sina.com is a major Chinese web portal). The Chinese (or Sinophone) Internet is a hothouse for the production of neologisms and it is very hard to keep up with the pace of new word creation. ‘Donkey friend’ (lüyou 驴友) has spawned a whole series of associated neologism, such as, ‘donkey travel’ (lüxing 驴行) (a ‘donkey friend’ hiking trip), and ‘donkey head’ (lütou 驴头) (someone who leads a ‘donkey friend’ hiking trip). One particularly interesting term that has generated heated discussion verging on moral panic is ‘hunzhang‘ (混帐) which refers to the practice of mixed-gender tent sharing. As a practice of social networking ‘donkey friend’ culture is also a laboratory for the production of new and often innovative social networks and associational activity. In this sense ‘donkey friend’ is a self-appellation and although a homonym for ‘travel’ is clearly meant to distinguish what they do (exciting, authentic and challenging) from ordinary tourists (boring, fake and predictable). Whereas the conventional tourist on your typical package tour seeks entertainment without hardship, the donkey friend puts him/herself through a gruelling regimen, sometimes even quite dangerous or risky, in which ‘self-development’ is a key factor. Also, many conventional tour groups (旅游团) consist of persons from the same workplace (the danwei 单位 as it is known in urban China) or community (relatives and neighbours).

By contrast, most of the donkey friends are young (under 35 years), urban residents which I divide into two cohorts: the university/college students who are typically organised into university/college outdoor clubs; and the white collar workers who join one of the many ‘outdoor clubs’ (户外俱乐部). Of course there are also many gradients within the extended hiker/outdoor enthusiast community from the very amateur all the way up to the professional/semi-professional adventurer/explorer type. In terms of associational activity it is very clear to me that the donkey friends take participation in the group very seriously but do so in ways that step outside conventional Chinese relationship networks, and this is how they differ from the conventional tour group. As Zhang Ning notes in her article titled ‘Donkey Friend Communities: Harmonious Networks and Harmonious Tourism’ (published in 2008 in China Media Research Vol. 4, No. 4), the friendships formed through the ‘online’ clubs enable individuals to form relationships outside the traditional networks of kinship and workplace. And in so doing the relationships are not burdened by the traditional forms of social responsibility which in China have much to do with obligatory codes of gift giving and reciprocity. Donkey friends reported to Zhang Ning, and my own interactions confirm this, that their relations with other donkey friends are very relaxed and easy-going and provide a valuable break from both the pressures of urban life and the burdens of obligation and indebtedness of conventional relationships.

When space is short there is no choice but to pitch your tent in somewhat unconventional places.

College students from Shanghai hit the trail in Xianju, Zhejiang.

But apart from the chance to form friendships and relationships (and I have observed that the club network does seem to open up possibilities for finding partners and expanding the so-called ‘marriage market’) why do the donkey friends do what they do?  Urbanisation and modern lifestyles no doubt bring many benefits and are attractive to many people, but urban lifestyles also have serious downsides. Life is hectic and demanding. Cityscapes are crowded and polluted. Escaping to the hills for a few days offers a chance of respite, fresh air and camaraderie. And as I mentioned above with the ever expanding transport infrastructure it is now possible to get to scenic locations relatively easily. In what I regard as another very ‘modern’ twist the donkey friends, whilst definitely enjoying what they do as a group (and they spend much more time interacting on the social networking sites than actually out in the field hiking), there is the real sense of developing ‘individuality’. This might sound like nothing special but in a society which has ‘traditionally’ emphasised the status of the person in relation to other persons (that is, forming identification in relation to ones position within a familial or social network) and which during the ‘socialist’ period of Maosim (1949-1978) emphasised the interests of the collective over those of the individual, the development of a strong sense of self-orientation is indeed significant. Part of this has to do with the one child policy in which the post-1980s generations have become the focal point of familial and social investment (the development of ‘human capital’ you might say), but also more broadly with the emergence of a individual-orientated consumer economy (Yan Yunxiang (2009) has written a great book on this subject titled The Invidualization of Chinese Society). Part of what they do here is also performative and playful. For example, ‘donkey friends’ give themselves nicknames (avatars) such as ‘old bear’, ‘where the wind blows’, ‘green frog’, and ‘good mule’. Actually, this is a common practice amongst hikers around the world but the difference in China is the way these avatars/personas are carried over into use in the social networking environment.

Ah Liang, donkey friend from Jinhua, Zhejiang.

Foreign donkey friends from Western Australia on the Ancient Anhui-Hangzhou Road.

As Zhang Ning also noted, another key feature of donkey friend activities is sharing of costs (‘going dutch’ or ‘AA制’ in Chinese), which includes the hiring of transport (typically a minibus or coach), hiring of local guides and meals and accommodation. The donkey friend clubs will have a few ‘old donkeys’ (老驴) who are well versed in the ins and outs of organising hiking outings and they generally take the lead in putting together the itineraries. The proposed trip is advertised on the club website (sometimes also through other hiking portals but the donkey friends I associate with tend to keep their activities ‘in house’) and members ‘invited’ to join. Leading up to the event, and when the final number of participants is better known, the donkey friends may have a number of online group meetings where the ‘old donkeys’ discuss the itinerary, what to bring, weather situation, travel insurance, and so on. Other donkey friends in the group will be allocated various tasks, such as booking the vehicle and contacting the local guides (if required). Each outing also has an ‘accountant’. In the group I travel with the last person to turn up at the assembly point is given this task. Another person or persons will be trusted with keeping notes and writing a simple diary to be later posted along with images on the group website once the event is concluded (and this in turn generates a great deal of discussion amongst the members who did not participate). The ‘old donkeys’ also look out for the ‘new donkeys’ and are available to offer honest (that is, non-commercial) advice about purchasing equipment and so on. So as you can see there is a strong sense of community and mutual-aid, very positive features if you ask me.

Litter on the trail in Anhui. Hiking has developed so fast that local communities do not have the infrastructure to deal with the environmental impacts.

Enjoying the scenery from a mountain top in Jiangxi.

The Chinese outdoor hiking culture, dare I say ‘industry’, is still in its nascent stages. There are many ‘gaps’ in the way the hiking is organised, especially at the sites where hiking takes place. Given the risks hikers sometimes take and the nascent status of the hiking industry it is not surprising that ‘donkey friends’ are often getting themselves into trouble. In recent years there have been a number of high profile hiking trips which have ended in disaster, some with lives being lost. In April of this year (2011) 39 donkey friends, all of whom were college students, were rescued after getting trapped on a mountain outside Beijing. China Hush translated a Chinese report on the rescue which includes some comments by readers. In December 2010 18 donkey friends from Fudan University (Shanghai) had to be rescued after getting lost in bad weather on scenic Huangshan (Anhui Province). During the course of the rescue a local police officer fell of a cliff and was killed. There were a lot of news reports on this rescue (here is a link to one report in Chinese). It is no wonder that local authorities are often in two minds about ‘donkey friends’. On the one hand they are a potential source of income, especially for more remote regions, but at the same time they bring many risks and potentially negative publicity. Local officials don’t want negative publicity, it impacts adversely on their chances for promotion. In the past of course they have preferred the development of packaged tourism which can accommodate large numbers and is relatively safe. But hiking tourism is very suitable for certain areas that are inaccessible or for which the status of the environment, particularly when it comes to carrying capacity, precludes the development of mass tourism. There are also questions about the legal liability and status of ‘donkey friend’ organised trips with a number of cases reaching Chinese courts in the last year or so.

Descending Lingshan Mountain in Jiangxi.

One last issue regarding the development of hiking in China and the rise of the ‘donkey friend’. The donkey friends typically like to ‘discover’ their own trails, to visit places ‘off the beaten track’. This is understandable. The problem is that in China once a ‘trail’ becomes more popular, with the ability of the Internet to reach a mass audience very quickly, the number of incoming hikers can, in the space of a few years, expand from several dozen per year to several thousand. The local communities and ecology are often not well equipped to deal with such a sudden influx. On some of the trails I have visited you can clearly see the negative impact of large numbers of hikers in the form of litter, erosion, fires and so forth. So even though donkey friend tourism could be seen as an alternative to mass tourism it actually has the potential to be a form of ‘mass tourism’ in and of itself. Indeed in recent years we are seeing the emergence of this kind of ‘commercially’ focused hiking tourism, much to the chagrin of traditional donkey friends who feels this goes against the ethos. Of course independent hiking and commercial hiking can and do coexist perfectly well in many locations around the world. China has some way to go to sort out these very complex issues. I have spent some time over the last two years in participant observation with a ‘donkey friend’ group based in Shanghai and Zhejiang (a neighbouring province of Shanghai) (you can see some of the images from my trips here and here). Apart from providing many fascinating insights into modern Chinese society I have been very inspired by the sense of community and good will amongst the group members. There is a lot of discussion in the Chinese media about the seeming lack of ethical responsibility and moral certainty within society and the finger is often pointed at the younger generation just as often as it is pointed at officialdom. But in my dealing with my donkey friends, who I must also note include quite a few older ‘donkeys’, I have been impressed by the genuine concern shown for ecological and community support in their activities. Of course I have also heard and seen many examples of unethical practices, but overall the experience has been very positive. I will be back to discuss other aspects of China’s hiking culture in the future, stay tuned!

With donkey friends on a cold snowy day at temple in Jiangxi.