Hiking in China: exploring the Ninghai national trail system

Here in China, one of the many things I miss from living in the UK is heading out into the countryside to go hiking. Armed with only a hiking guidebook or an Ordnance Survey map it’s possible to find and follow thousands of trails all across the UK, safe in the knowledge that you’re heading somewhere.

This opportunity to grab hold of a map and head off on a hike on your own is also one of the reasons I love Hong Kong so much and why I’ve written about hiking on the city’s Lantau Island.

That sort of unrestricted access to the countryside simply doesn’t exist here in China. Any ‘hiking’ to be found easily usually consists of concrete paths running from or through designated ‘scenic spots’, often shared with hundreds of other walkers. Plus, thanks to language barriers, it can be extremely difficult even finding out where to go, much less actually getting there when I don’t have access to my own car.

Added to this is the fact that access to the type of smallscale map you require for hiking is extremely limited here in China, so it can be soul destroying for someone who just wants to be able to plot a course through the countryside.

Really?! A hiking trail network in China?

So it was with excitement and trepidation that I came across this article about China’s first national hiking system in Ninghai, Zhejiang province. According to the post, the county of Ninghai, just 2.5 hours south of Shanghai on highspeed train, is hiding 500km of waymarked trails through the mountains, with barely a concrete path or AAAAA tourist attraction in site.

It sounded too good to be true, but I was hopeful.

And so it was with hope in our hearts that three of us set out this past Qingming holiday in early April to hike part of the National Trail System (NTS) – Ninghai. We planned to spend three days following the route and instructions mentioned, and beautifully laid out, in the Smart Shanghai article, as it was really the only source we had for understanding the terrain and possibilities for camping.

The trails in Ninghai have designated campgrounds along them.

We used the GPS file he links to, printed out the maps he so kindly shares, borrowed a couple of tents, packed three days’ worth of tinned food and jumped on the high-speed train from Shanghai Hongqiao to Ninghai.

My thoughts the Ninghai National Trail System (NTS)

I won’t repeat what the author has already documented so well, but I would like to share my own thoughts and experiences, having been down there myself:

  • Firstly and most importantly, the area was pretty much everything we had hoped for and more. It was thrilling to be able to follow a trail through some of the most spectacular, and varied, countryside I have visited in China.
Trekking through the pine forests to Dahutong campground. Photo: Tom Ennis.
  • The article is still a pretty good reflection on the current situation, despite it already being a couple of years old (things can change A LOT in China during this time). One difference, however, that at the start of the route, the area around the yellow temple that the author mentions, was under construction. They look like they’re building a carpark, which on first sight filled us with dread, thinking that the trail might become a ticketed tourist spot. This is still possibly what is going to happen, but once we were on the trail proper we realised it’s probably unlikely to ever attract hundreds of casual daytrippers. This is because…
  • The terrain on these trails is extremely TOUGH! Almost from the start of the trail, you hit steep inclines that just keep on and on over the ridges of mountains to the east of Ninghai city. And while this means, like I said, that the average Chinese tourist probably isn’t going to get too far along the trail, it also means that you’re working hard straight away, when your pack is at its heaviest. With this in mind, there are ways to lighten your load, including…
You hit extremely tough incline right from the start of the trail.
  • Spending more time in the stone village of Xujiashan, around 12km from the start of the trail. The village has a number of restaurants and guest houses (as well as some very friendly, cute dogs) and was fairly bustling when we arrived at around 4pm on our first day. Had we done things differently, we might have decided to stay here for the first night (there’s a campground at the village) or timed it so we could eat a substantial hot meal in the village before carrying on. But as it was, we decided to press on to the Dahutong campground, which turned out to be another six kilometres on, through a particularly difficult part of the trail…
The stone village of Xujiashan is home to some very cute dogs!
  • The ‘little operation’ that the author mentions as having sprung up across the trail at the point after the stone village, has now become a still-in-progress dam and reservoir. His advice on tackling this section still applies, however: “ignore the dynamite blasts and the workers will point you in the right direction.” Kind of scary and pretty inconvenient as it does mean the GPS route is a little off at this point. Keep left of the reservoir wall (in fact, climb up and over it) and you’ll find the trail again to get on your way to…
You have to walk up this still-under-construction dam.
  • The Dahutong campground is still almost exactly how the author describes, a clearing in a beautiful pine forest, surrounded by tea plantations. It was really so amazing to spend the night under canvas in the Chinese countryside, surrounded only by darkness and almost complete silence. We felt incredibly free, in a way we don’t often feel in China. Now, for foreigners in China, it is important to note that technically it is illegal to camp, due to regulations stating that we must register our whereabouts for every night we’re in the country. So if you do choose to camp, you do it at your own risk (which kind of makes it all the more fun!) This article about camping in China gives some good advice and tips, should you be thinking of camping. What is undisputed about camping in Ninghai, however, is that…
The Dauhutong campground is in a beautiful spot in the forest.
  • It was extremely cold overnight in the tent. True, our visit coincided with a cold snap but even at other times of the year, it can get cold and damp in the mountains overnight, so bear this in mind when packing.
  • The GPS file we followed was excellent and a great supplement to the way markers and maps, especially on the section beyond Xujiashan village. With this in mind…

  • I would advise not deviating from the GPS route if you can help it. We did on the second day and got completely lost, thanks, in part, to maps that were not detailed enough to give meaningful information. It was at this point that I missed the amazing Ordnance Survey maps we have access to in the UK.
  • After getting lost (and then hitching a lift in the wrong direction, to make things worse) we basically abandoned trying to complete the full 50km trail outlined in the article and spent time in a different, but no less, beautiful area called Donghai Yunding. It’s probably only worth going there by accident and we would have loved to have continued following the original trail but various things conspired against us to mean that we didn’t. It didn’t matter all too much, it was still beautiful and we just enjoyed being in the Great Outdoors.
A beautiful, if unexpected, place to spend night two.

Return to Ninghai – more trails to explore!

Now that we’ve been down to Ninghai once, we’ve realised just how easy it is to access the network of hiking trails that are down there. We feel confident that we could return and map new, other routes that haven’t been outlined elsewhere. This Chinese website provides a map of the whole network and, as you can see, there’s a lot to explore.

When we went, we had a long weekend to cover the 50km stretch we intended and, if you don’t get lost, this would be adequate time in which to do this particular section. Next time, we plan to head down on a Saturday morning to do a couple of days hiking before heading home on Sunday evening. The route to Xujiashan village would make a nice one-day hike and you could stay or camp in the village. The map indicates there’s another trail from the village that loops its way back to the starting point at the yellow temple, and we intend to explore that next time. Stay tuned for more!

Featured image courtesy of Tom Ennis. 

7 Replies to “Hiking in China: exploring the Ninghai national trail system”

  1. Jacqueline Banki says: Reply

    Sounds fantastic! Another side of China to explore.

  2. Is it possible to cycle?

    1. It would be extremely difficult to cycle over some of the terrain outlined in this route – some sections are virtually up and down steep, rocky paths. Having said that, there are hundreds of kilometres of trails in the area so I’m sure some are suitable for cycling!

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