Foreigners are still a novelty in the Xuefeng Mountains. Laden with firewood, the villagers who pass react with curiosity and amusement at the sight of luyao (“donkey friends”) wandering through this remote part of rural western Hunan province, central China.

Donkey friends (independent back­packers) may become a more common sight, though, because China’s first world-class trail – generally accepted to mean one that is safe, well defined and easy to follow, well provisioned and that passes through areas of natural beauty – is being readied. The trail stretches for 100km across Hunan, from the mountains of Huxing to the wetlands of Simeng.

There are thousands of hiking trails in China – many of them concreted – but none have the signage and other attributes necessary to appeal to a global clientele. Trail designers have mostly made use of existing pathways, some of which have been trodden by villagers and their animals for 500 years. Other pathways, which had fallen into disuse, have been restored.

Ancient paths that have been aban­doned actually have lots of great views. The reason they were abandoned is that [many villages are now served by] the transport system and people will choose the easiest access. This trail connects modern passes and ancient ones to enable hikers to enjoy the agriculture and history and also to help them understand villagers’ lives.

The idea is that a hiker should be able to walk the trail without having to follow some­­one else. Visitors will have access to digital trail data, maps and a written guide that details accommodation and resources along the route. Part of the designers’ job has been to gather this information and prepare it for distribution by tour operators and the local trail-management team.

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