In China: no map, no problem

They were to map an area of a park when some unexpected friends showed up.

We first heard the Tibetan herders early in the afternoon, their cries carrying down the hillside: "Hooeeeeee! Hooeeeeee!"

We were on the second day of a four-day backcountry trek through the Jiuzhaigou National Nature Reserve, one of China's largest national parks.

Gus, Kimberly, and I were part of a cadre of American students who had come to work with park staff for a couple of weeks. As ecologists, our project was to map a proposed ecotourism trail in the park's northeastern region. This meant we had to walk the trail, which would take us into some of the park's wilder spaces.

We didn't expect to come across anyone. Chinese officials had told us that we were heading into unpopulated terrain. The Tibetans who used to farm and herd yaks there had been resettled, as had most of the Tibetans who had lived in the park. (Jiuzhaigou, by the way, means "Valley of Nine Villages." Those villages still exist, but now they're more like theme parks, tourist commodities.)

Apparently, though, not everyone had gotten the memo, because it wasn't long before we saw fresh yak manure, the odd soda bottle, and, of course, the Tibetans, calling to one another across the hills.

We could see 10 of them on an exposed slope far above us and then we walked around a bend to find two men digging under one of the short, scrubby rhododendrons common to the area. We didn't stare and neither did they, but our feigned lack of attention belied a keen interest in one another.

We nodded silent greetings and continued up to a ridge, reaching it by late afternoon. According to our map, we would follow it along the park boundary until it dropped to the road from which we'd started the previous day. But our map was little more than a line across some colorful polygons. These were the indistinctions we sought to specify. Through our work, we would give greater precision and authority to these dots and lines.

But first we needed a rest. We sat down and looked at the peaks of the Minxian range, which spread across the Tibetan plateau. We were trying to guess how far we could see – 50 miles? 100? – when the two Tibetans appeared. The younger one, who couldn't have been more than 15, waved and said, "Hello!"

"Ni hao (Hello)," replied Gus.

"Hello!" the young Tibetan said, pleased.

"Hi," Kimberly said. "We came from Jiuzhaigou."

"Jiuzhaigou," the Tibetan said. "Hello!"

Our shared vocabulary thus exhausted, the Tibetans gestured at the vista and gave us a thumbs up.

Yes, we agreed, it was a fine view.

A third, older Tibetan walked over. He was friendly but more cautious. Three Americans alone in the Chinese wilderness is a rare sight, after all. To explain ourselves, we said, "Jiuzhaigou," and handed him our map. The three of them pored over it, trying to match the small, arbitrary symbols with the vastness all around us.

Then they laughed and shook their heads. They thought we were lost.

They motioned for us to follow and turned up the ridge. After maybe 10 minutes, they decided we were too slow and made us take off our packs, which they shouldered with a depressing ease. (To be fair, we carried their walking sticks.)

"Let's go!" the young one said. And before we could make even the smallest cautionary gesture, over they went, off into the unmarked spaces beyond the lines on our map.

We followed them, scrambling to keep up. Eventually we arrived at a large lean-to in the middle of a stand of conifers. More Tibetans were sitting around a fire, drinking tea and chatting.

We collapsed, exhausted. The older man went to a large pot hanging over the fire and tossed in noodles, some sort of animal fat, and wild herbs. He stirred the pot's contents for a bit and then filled bowls. Everyone dug in with chopsticks carved from small branches.

Gus, Kimberly, and I could finish only half our meals, and we spent the rest of the evening basking in the warmth of the fire, wondering where we were and how we'd find the trail again.

The next morning they were gone before we woke up. They had been coming and going in this land for far longer than any park had existed and would no doubt continue to do so. They had little use for maps.

We packed our gear and started back to the ridge. We had a long day of mapping ahead of us, but we knew more of the details that had been left off the official rendering – and the details we would be forced to leave out, too.

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