Factories. Smog. Surveillance. Not things normally associated with backcountry sojourns. But beyond that reality, China also is home to some of the world’s most rugged mountains, vast deserts, and epic sweeps of otherworldly scenery. Five years in the making, China is launching a national parks system to rival the United States’. Or so they say…
Since 2015, the country, which is roughly the same size as the United States, has been planning a national parks system with a belated eye toward conserving its natural wonders. After COVID-19 disrupted rollout plans, the government’s ambitious scheme is back on track, with the first of 10 pilot parks to be approved by the end of 2020.
Even if a little late, China is coming big to the parks party. According to Chinese sources, the inaugural parks cover a combined 85,000 square miles—about the size of Utah—and span 12 provinces. Su Yang, a researcher with the State Council, expects the system to protect high-profile tourist attractions, such as the Yellow Mountains, which he’s rightly called “unique and irreplaceable” on the world stage.
More glorious, or at least less crowded, the Shennongjia Nature Reserve is home to the mysterious “yeren,” China’s answer to Bigfoot. Northeast Siberian Tiger and Leopard National Park near Russia is a frosty reserve for endangered big cats. The colossal Giant Panda National Park is said to be twice the size of Yellowstone. Hainan Tropical Rainforest Park protects an even more precious species, the last 30 Hainan gibbons on the planet.
After six years in-country, conservation photographer Kyle Obermann is most geeked about Qilian Mountains National Park, which straddles the border of Gansu and Qinghai prov-inces and forms part of the Tibetan Plateau. “From glaciers to desert and snow leopards, the Qilian Mountains have it all,” says the 28-year-old Texan.
In terms of accessible wilderness experiences, China can’t yet match the United States, but if the new system expands as planned, it one day could.