Tianchi National Parks is one of the most famous in China. The word, “Tianchi,” means “Heavenly Lake” in Chinese, and, staring out over the lake, it is easy to see why, long ago, it was given that name. The alpine lake is nestled among steep mountain walls on either side, some of the walls lush with green firs, others a craggy, brown cliff face.
However, that day as we began our trek around the lake, the beauty of the place was eclipsed by the thing that had overgrown all things in China: development. Tianchi National Park was not a quiet respite from civilization but an amusement park in a setting that had once been wild and beautiful.
Our arrival set the tone. Ticket prices are about $30USD per person. To put that in perspective, entrance to Tianchi for a day for a family of four would cost $120USD. To stay a week in the Grand Canyon, it would only cost that same family $25USD. The reason it is expensive is because, Tianchi is not, in the American sense, a National Park, a place of unique beauty preserved for the people to commune with nature. Instead, the main goal of the people who run China’s National Parks is to make money.
There are all sorts of gimmicks to try to get you to pay a little bit extra. You are required to pay for a bus that takes you the twenty miles from the Park’s new entrance to the lake, but, just to squeeze a little extra from you, the bus stops half a mile before the lake, at which point you have the option to pay an additional $1.50USD to ride a tram up to the lake.
Along the lake shore, a ferry took visitors across the lake to a fakish-looking temple built into the side of the mountain. For those with more money, you can pay to be slung around the Lake in a speedboat. All of these rides generate revenue for the park, detracting from any wildness and defecating on the lake’s pristine beauty.
Around the western shore, administrators have set up another cash machine. A road was recently extended around the western end of the lake about a mile, so that the park can cash in on wedding photography. Before Chinese weddings, couples usually spend half a fortune on getting a special set of photos taken of them. Tianchi National Park built a small beach area and a parking lot which appeared to be designed for the vans of wedding photography teams. When we hiked through, the beach and the area around it had a gaggle of twenty couples taking photos, trying to do their best not to get other soon-to-be-weds in their shots.
Beyond the wedding photography section of the lake, we passed the money-making zone of the Park, but we were not in the wild. In this transition zone, most people had come to make their best effort at circumambulating the Lake, a decent, four-hour hiking trip. Still, the trail was a long series of stairs, and we encountered a sprinkling of fake, concrete trees and groundskeeping Han Chinese, employed at trimming fir trees off the pathway.
The hand of man mars even the far end of the Lake’s south. Few tourists make it this far. There are no facilities here, other than, for some inexplicable reason, a sprinkler system, chattering away, watering brown patches of dirt. The creek that fed Tianchi was contained in a wide, concrete spillway. Why could they not just leave it alone, I thought. Why did they need to mar this place with their improvements?
We surveyed the spillway, the sound of sprinklers chattering away. Beyond here was where things should get wild, we hoped. We looked back at the lake and then ascended into the wilderness.