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Mian Bao Che to Shangri-La, part 1

August 11, 2010 Leave a comment

When we got to the end of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail, we were half an hour away from a purported final bus to Shangri-La, about a two hour drive and about 1000 feet higher.

“I don’t know, when we were waiting to go to the Jade mountain they told us the last bus was at six and we waited from 5:30, and then around 6:30 we were like…ummm….” Kay said.  We decided the best way to avoid standing on a dirt road in the dark for several hours (and to avoid having to stay at the Skippy peanut butter hostel), was to use Kay’s excellent Chinese skills and girlish charms to get a Mian Bao Che for the drive.

The man who was driving us over the construction zone, past the newly constructed staircase entrance to what will be the national park, agreed to drive us to Shangri La.  As we emerged from the hostel after retrieving our bags, he was having the inside of his car hosed out by the most buxom 12 year old Chinese girl I’d ever seen that had a t-shirt on that said “Bootylicious”.  It felt a lot like home.  We stopped for ice cream on the way out, and I knew immediately that this driver was awesome, even though all we were doing was rummaging through an ice chest at the front of someones shop.  The family who owned the store stood around the cash register, heads turned toward the TV that rested on a plastic crate, watching the same Japanese horror movie that Megan K. and I had been obsessed with at the beginning of our year in China.

We dozed on and off as the ride continued past a tributary that bubbled into the river, winding up greener and greener mountains, finally breaking through to rolling green mounds that Megan C. could only compare to the foothills of the Alps in Switzerland.  Kay, as she sat in the front passenger seat, continued to chat with our driver, short, kindly, middle aged, as he whipped around the curvy hills. She would intermittently turn around to translate different things the driver was saying about himself, the relatives he had in Shangri La, the names of the different things we were seeing by the side of the road.  At one point, she giggled and turned around to translate.

“I said, ‘oh this is so beautiful’, and he said, ‘not as beautiful as you!'”  She grinned.  We all burst out laughing and we felt our van accelerate hard into a curve.  We all stopped laughing immediately.

The road into Shangri La.

Driving into Shangri La was impressive because of the green of the hills, because of the looming clouds that brought in night and seemed so much closer than any other time besides when we’d been inside airplanes.  Yaks stood clustered around each other, the remnants of their tails hung from shop windows that grew in frequency as we neared our destination.  Women walked by the side of the road in blue and pink hats and skirts–the way that those Tibetan people on the news and in the documentaries dress, even.  A tractor toting a wagon full of children and workers putted by going the opposite direction as us, and we watched little boys tearing after them, ready to jump aboard.

In Shangri La we said goodbye to our driver and I waited in paranoia, through negotiating a room in a Chinese-speaking-only guesthouse (one of the panes of glass was broken–completely punched out–in the bathroom but the proprietor convinced us that this was just to keep it ventilated), to get altitude sickness.  Aluminum cans of oxygen sat outside a number of shops and in the window of our own guest house.  Jessica had gotten it when she had come here.  We walked slowly down the cobblestone street in search of yak steaks.

What we got were burgers, salty, juicy and spongier than the beef we’re used to.  When we’d finished, we walked past a barking dog chained in the parking lot to watch the Brazil vs. Portugal world cup game, cheersing to a good two days of hiking and to several days of hiking still to come in some of the prettiest mountains this side of Nepal.

A yak burger...one of several that I ate in Central China.

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Categories: Transit

Second part of Tiger Leaping Gorge, Part One

August 5, 2010 Leave a comment

We were following three people from Singapore who had decided not to leave their backpacks–their BACKPACK backpacks– in Qiaotou.  One of them had speakers built into said backpack blasting hits of the 1990’s such as Edwin McCain along with Michael Jackson classics such as “Bad” and “Billy Jean”.  We were apprehensive about the bell clangs of horsemen behind us, but decided to wait, preferring such a fate to an extended nature hike accompanied by ubiquitous tinny pop tunes.  We were at least two hours from the nearest KFC–why injure our ear drums?

When we finally began to walk again, Kay and I kept exclaiming infuriating things like, “Is this the 24 bends?”  “Which bend do you think that was?”  Megan kept saying, “Just don’t think about it!”  We would stop at every…bend…and look at the clouds’ shadows playing on the mountains.  For some reason, neither Kay with her Nikon that was responsible for both Kay and Patrick’s pictures, nor Megan, nor I ever got tired of trying to capture some of the different aspects of the range on the other side of the Yangtze.

One of the many ways the clouds complimented the mountain ridges

The landscape, though special, though deeper and more jagged and more extreme than many of the trails I’ve hiked in the past, made me long for Californian mountains.  Particularly with the familiar accents around me, the trees, the hillsides, and even the gravel and loose earth we tromped over seemed like a different version of something I’d known forever.  Call it wishful thinking, call it making waste of the present, call it Jungian.  I enjoyed it with that kind of heart on the butcher block sort of anticipation that makes people use phrases like “It killed me” for things that are wonderful.

We came upon houses in the mountains, clustered together around a few hostels that were marked by orange spray-painted arrows.  It overlooked, of course the canyon, but also rice terraces and people constructing more houses in preparation of the growing tourist groups that will inevitably be arriving within the next five years or so (more on that later…).  We, however, had heard that the Halfway House, was one of the best places to stay in the gorge, and we could already hear the voices rising from the hostels at this place.  We continued through completely flat land that merely wrapped in and out of rocky cliffs, but level, and uninteresting as the sun went down more quickly than it would had it not been for the towers of the mountains that formed the thing we’d come to see.

We walked into a courtyard of a house, after following a green arrow and been welcomed by a family of proprietors of Naxi ethnicity, the ethnic group that lives in the Lijiang/Tiger Leaping Gorge area.  They’re matriarchal, one of the few matriarchal societies in the world, and as we walked we saw that the workers, the people tending the animals that were so often women in the rest of China…weren’t.  The inkeepers, however, were.  They took us to our rooms—only 50 yuan for a double with a glorious view of the mountains (that’s about $7.50 split between two people), showed us the bathrooms, the toilets of which had open upper spaces that also faced the mountains, and finally a big open patio with menus that offered Chinese favorites and Dali beer.

The view from our hotel room.

Everyone sat out together on the upper patio until late at night.  There were so few of us that the stories emerged almost collectively–ours, a British girl named Amy who was traveling before writing her thesis on 19th century buttons and fastenings, the be-radioed Singaporans, a young American couple who were planning to cycle-tour through Japan, and an older American couple who were currently cycling through China.  The two of them, Alaskans, had cycled through India the year before–the woman a 40 something school librarian who had not a single drop of fat on her body, the man an environmental lawyer who had met her when they’d cheers’d each other from separate apartment buildings across the street over morning coffee.  When I heard their stories, the part of me that was crying YOU MUST GO HOME TO WORK!  YOU WILL NEVER SEE ANOTHER PIECE OF THE WORLD AGAIN! was silenced.

We departed the next morning, the hike now substantially easier than it had been the day before, and cooler due to increasing cloud cover, the kind we’d seen in Dali and had been thankful was not present when we began our hike.  Something in the girls, at least, started to say “ok, that’s enough” particularly as we tried not to slide down steep declines toward the end of our trail.  In fact, I finally said, as we climbed a fallen tree to a bridge across a waterfall, insisted on turning around and going back down a path that, had the rain started in earnest, I could see totally washing out.  Patrick was disappointed that we didn’t continue up the hill on our hands and knees, insisting that we could make it if we wanted to.  The other girls not so much.  But remember, I’m the mean one…I guess for as many places I’ve gone or risky things I’ve attempted, I don’t see why I should put myself in obvious danger if I’m not bringing life-saving medicine to orphans.

Which I’ve never done.  But would probably be a good thing to do, right?

We climbed down to the hostel at the end of the main trail, about two kilometers from the “official” end (Walnut Grove), and ate egg sandwiches and noodles at Tina’s Guest House.  Then we hopped in a Mian Bao Che that ended up taking us along the lower path of Tiger Leaping Gorge, where they appear to be building a tremendous road.  Thumps in the distance that I had earlier thought to be thunderclaps, we now realized were responsible for the great piles of boulders in our path that we had to get out of the van and cross on foot, more than once.

Road construction in the gorge

It seems as if within a few years, the piles of dirt our little vans galumphed across, me with my head down, mouth covered in the back seat, will be gone.  There will be a paved road in addition to the high mining road we took.  Come October, the gorge may have blended into the same kind of cable-car ridden tourist trap that characterizes Lijiang and the holy Buddhist mountains.  I’m glad we had a chance to experience it before that happened.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Part 1–The Trip Gets Awesome

August 4, 2010 Leave a comment

We left Lijiang with the earliest possible shuttle, but later than one would usually desire when departing for a two day hike that first must be preceded by a two hour ride in a mian bao che (a small silver van in the shape of it’s nicknamed “bread loaf”).  We traveled through the mountains with three young Chinese students, one of whom was an English major in Beijing.  As we snaked out of the valley and toward the mountains surrounding the gorge, we passed a truck pulled over to the right shoulder (there was a right shoulder!) by two police cars.

“Someone’s in trouble with the po-po!” Megan said.

The English student turned around, his cheekbones riding high with a grin.  “What is po-po?” He asked.  We told him it was a kind of American slang for police and he burst out laughing, sputtering Chinese to his two friends until they were laughing too.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Shangri-La County, Yunnan

We stopped to look over the gorge at a vista point complete with Buddhist temple.  Tiger Leaping Gorge is supposedly the deepest river gorge on the planet, the Yangtze running it’s silty way between Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Xueshan.  It was dizzying to look down, and baffling to see the ubiquitous high heeled women making their way down the steps to the vista point.  They looked sexier in their photos than we would after two days of trekking, that was inevitable.

We left our big backpacks in Qiaotou village at Jane’s Guest House.  The driver left us there at noon.  While we were there we saw a Chinese-featured but Western dressed couple, the woman speaking with a British accent, the man with an American one.  They paid their 5 yuan to the woman sitting next to a pile of menus and a disheveled kitten and walked out.  We bought a couple of snacks to give us trail-energy.  I got “toast and peanut butter” which consisted of a large slab of bread and a jar of Skippy with a knife stuck into it.  We soon began the hike, following the path of several green, spray-painted arrows on walls that said “Gao lu” or “high trail”.

We caught up to the couple in a big concrete yard outside of an elementary school.  They stood, debating their route in Western-accented Chinese with a confused looking man on a horse.  We stopped, asking them if he was telling them which way we should follow.  The four of us were soon walking up a paved road together, the man on the horse clopping slowly behind us.

“He’s trying to convince me that I’m going to need the horse,” said the British woman in clipped tones, “but at least I made him take of the damn bell!”

This woman, Kay, had spent the past five years living and working in Hong Kong and just moved to Qing Dao (home of the brewery…Tsing Tao is how you write it in old Pinyin) to learn Mandarin.  There, she’d met Patrick, an electrical engineer turned English teacher from Hawaii via the Bay area.  He was moving back there to get his Masters in Environmental Policy, and she was moving to Beijing to try her luck at job-getting.  We heard from her, the familiar ring of how easy it was to live in China, and how she didn’t want to leave.  We eventually figured out that they weren’t actually a couple at all.

Kay on the treacherous path!

Meanwhile, one horseman clopping behind us, listening to our introductions, to us discuss the world cup, turned into two and then three horseman.  One of them started making goat noises as we passed a flock of goats, mimicking the laugh I let out in surprised response.  The new horseman also had bells.  Patrick and Kay kept politely turning to ask them to leave but they only laughed and said, how ever would she finish the trail if they weren’t there to rescue her?

Finally we stopped at a shaded convenience store for water before the famous “24 bends”, a collection of tight and steep switchbacks that coil up the mountain.  The man working at the convenience store offered us marijuana.  Patrick and Kay looked at us in confusion, “People never offered us that before!”  Kay said.  We laughed at their indignant arms akimbo–apparently getting offered drugs was stuff only white foreigners liked.  We declined (again), preferring not to accidentally teeter to our deaths.  Instead we sat, sipping water, and looking at the horseman, who had let their horses loose to graze and were themselves squatting nearby, waiting for us to move.

“I can’t handle it if they come along,” Kay said.

“Me neither,” I said.  The goat-bleating man was starting to repeat everything I said.  I was starting to prickle.

“It’s just that we’ve asked them several times already to leave us alone and the don’t seem to want to…”

“Emily, you should go be mean to them,” Megan said.  “You know how to be mean!”

It was a theme of our trip how mean I could get.  I wasn’t mean this time, but I definitely broke the magic fourth wall of politeness by walking up to them and imploring them in bad Chinese not to come with us.  It would’ve translated to something along the lines of: “Please please please please don’t come.  Please.  Don’t.  Don’t come.  Don’t go up hill.  Please.”

They laughed a lot.  But they didn’t follow us.

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