Porters in ratty green uniforms are standing by their bamboo-and-metal sedans, calling out to the busloads of Chinese tourists. The tourists are huddled in groups on the frozen parking lot, strapping mini crampons onto all sorts of inappropriate footwear, or zipping up their rented snow boots. It’s February, and the New Year holiday has given way to a period of frantic mass travel that has what seems like all of China on the move.
Hailuogou National Glacier Forest Park is shrouded in a cold whiteout. My brother and I, traveling in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, have paid a couple hundred yuan for matching entrance and transport tickets, which double as postcards. We churn past three thermal-bath resorts, tiered by price and comfort. The rolling green-tea fields of Sichuan province are miles downriver, on the other side of massive tunnel and hydroelectric projects reshaping Tibet’s eastern slope.
We have spent Chinese New Year in Ya’an, shooting fireworks off the Qingyi River promenade and watching a flock of floating lanterns carry their well-wishing inscriptions into the night sky. The next morning, we flag down an empty bus (auspicious turn) on its way to Moxi, gateway to the Hailuo valley, to join the caravan. Moxi has three streets and nothing to do but go all in for the natural splendor. “Welcome you, Our guests from far away!” reads the brochure.
Some 15,000 feet above, the summit of Mount Gongga, the easternmost of the world’s high peaks, remains hidden. To the west, geographically, is Tibet; politically, “Western Sichuan.” The glacier covers ten square miles, cascading off the skirt of Gongga, carving the valley as it has for at least two million years.
But on this occasion, hiking bumper-to-bumper with hundreds of Chinese tourists, there is nothing to look at but bright fog and frost crystals spreading like coral on the branches and ice-scraped rocks. The park may protect nearly 80 square miles, but visibility is ten feet, and no one is allowed off the one trail. The Chinese tourists are wearing scarves that say Fendi and bags that say LV, national sportswear brands like 361°, and Snoopy sleeve protectors. They chat on their cell phones, smoke, drop trash everywhere except in receptacles, and point out to my brother and I that we are laowai, foreigners. Our unusual presence seems to validate their pride. A few train their Canons and Nikons on us.
The glacier, like most ice fields, is in hasty retreat. Or, in the worldview shaped by the Xinhua state news agency, Hailuogou’s Glacier No. 1—“thanks to improvement of natural and manual ecological systems in the areas” as well as “protective measures carried out by governments”—is shrinking at a much slower rate than many major glaciers. It also, according to Xinhua, looks “like a zigzag ice dragon entwined on the mountain.”
In 1980, shortly after Deng Xiaoping implemented an “open-door” policy that allowed climbers access to the peaks of the southwestern frontier, the first U.S. team to attempt Gongga in Red China was thwarted by an avalanche that broke 29-year-old Jonathan Wright’s neck, killing him, and crushed the ribs of famed outdoorsman Yvon Chouinard. The same policy now marks the beginning of China’s economic surge, and the greatest rural-to-urban migration the world has ever seen.
On the rocky frozen waves of the glacier, people are taking pictures of the ice, and of each other on the ice. There is a lot of slipping and ducking. A vendor has set up a photo booth with costumes, such that one might pose as a Tibetan cowboy or a Qing-dynasty emperor. Just then a pair of porters trot—hut! hut!—up the path, hauling a fat, rosy-cheeked boy. China is on the move.