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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.