Tiger Leaping Gorge: Adventuring with Zhou, October 20-21, 2014
Even with Zhou's expertise, plotting our way through Tiger Leaping Gorge was not easy.
Even getting the bus tickets was a challenge, as like so many other places in China, the bus station we were heading for on foot had recently moved several kilometers farther away, and even the locals seemed unsure of its location. It was a good thing we caught a local bus, or we would have been searching for many more hours.
Lijiang's old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but like so many other historic sites in China it has become almost totally devoted to souvenir shops, restaurants, and guest houses that have taken over the historic buildings, and the streets are tightly packed with holidaying Chinese. As with Pingyao and Dali, the historic walled city was surrounded by a huge modern city.
However, on the road between Lijiang and Qiaotou we finally saw some small, traditional farming villages, some actual countryside, with corn fields, forests, and apple orchards, and traditional family compounds.
As Jeff Grant wrote in his reminiscences of visiting Tiger Leaping Gorge a few years ago, the road was still rough and narrow, although a super highway, which for some reason our rickety bus didn't take (maybe it couldn't go fast enough, or maybe it needed to pick up passengers on the roadside), wound nearby, often overhead.
From Jeff: "I do remember our trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge. We had a professional driver supplied by Yunnan Normal. He was well trained and experienced having been a driver in the military before coming to the university motor pool. Even so, I found the roads some of the scariest of my life. We were on one lane, dirt roads, hardly roads at all, with hundreds of feet straight down into the river on one side, and sheer cliffs on the other. Fortunately there was hardly any other traffic. Don't know what cars would have done had they met head on.
"I also remember the walk down the stairs to the water level in the Gorge. It must have been 12 stories or more down and back up. There were four guys carrying a chair that would take tourists down and back up for a price. We walked. At least I was thankful to get out of the car. Not sure my knees would be able to do that now."Fortunately, we had to travel that most hair-raising part of the road one way, as we had walked high above the road on the way in. I was glad Kent was sitting next to the window. One man moved to the other side of the bus. I wished I was still walking.The day before we had taken what is known as the high trail ( and now know why it was so named!), and we never actually made the 3 hour round-trip trek down to the bottom of the gorge that Jeff describes, since had barely more than the required three hours remaining when we arrived at Tina's Guesthouse where the trail met the road.
Our walk:There we only a few other people on the trail--mostly young--. We were followed by cigaret-smoking guys on horses wanting to carry me (!) since we had only our small packs, and I carried only my fanny pack. We had left our bigger packs at the Swiss Snow guesthouse in Lijiang. I wasn't sure how long it was going to take me--it was hot and in the southwest sun. I was insulted, and thought I'd much rather be on my own two legs on this practically vertical trail, than up on top of a horse! I can still hear those tinkling horse bells taunting me, following me like vultures waiting for me to drop as I struggled up the endless,ever steeper, ever hotter trail. You have to cross three mountains, they told us! This was an ancient trail for horses to bring tea down from the mountains in Tibet.
Finally, Zhou paid them 20 yuan to leave us. They were sure I wasn't going to make it, and I'm not sure that Kent thought I was going to make it, either, as he was worried about getting to a guesthouse before dark. Despite the difficult ascent, the scenery was beautiful. "This is paradise!" Zhou exclaimed at every new vista. "thank you, Thank you!"I was worried that with all the sweating I would run out of electrolytes and hit a "wall," as has happened to me before. Every soften along the trail there would be a little shelter where someone sold drinks and trinkets. "What I'd really like," isaid at one, "is something like Gatorade," remembering how a stranger's Gatorade helped me get those last few hundred yards up to the rim of theGrand Canyon. "Gatorade!" The young woman said, "we have Gatorade!" And she pulled it out of an ice chest. We three split the bottle. How unexpected to find this in a remote corner of Chona!The scenery was spectacular as we approached the height of the jagged peaks across the fabled river Yangtze, and I relaxed a bit without the pursuing horses. We topped out at a promontory where a man had a little shelter and wanted 15 yuan per person to walk out on the ledge to see down into the gorge. Kent paid for me, but I was so shaky and the wind was blowing so hard it almost took my hat, so I only went out a little way. From that high point the trail descended steeply. Zhou had bought a bamboo stick for me on the way up, for which I was most grateful. All that climbing had been to get to this spot where a man wanted money so we could take a picture! We could have cut out that whole section of the trail, had we realized how high the climb was going to be.The steep descent was almost as hard as the ascent, but it was cooler now, with a breeze, and in the late afternoon light the views were even more beautiful.At last we could see a village in the distance, although we had to cross a canyon to reach it. Ah, a bed, beer, dinner and showers, in a friendly spot with spectacular views. I was so stiff that evening that I could hardly get up and down all the steep, uneven stairs throughout the Tea-Horse Trail Guesthouse.After a good, long night's sleep, like mornings on my Caminos, I woke eager to go and without pain in the beautiful clear light of early morning. We encountered flocks of mountain goats, waterfalls, more breathtaking views, and wildflowers in the remaining 3-4 hours of walking, much of it fairly level, but with a last very steep descent before the end. We really had walked very high. We were glad to have our down jackets.
With the bamboo stick in the morning!We arrived low enough to descend to the bottom of the gorge with about 3 hors to spare before the bus was to pick us up. The estimated time to go down and back was 3 hours. I am sure it would have taken us longer, and none of us wanted to try it. The people who came up (young people!) looked totally wiped out. it was not something to tackle in the heat of mid-day with a tight deadline. So, we missed out on descending to the gorge, although the entire walk was so wild and beautiful, I don't feel I missed that much.We went by bus on that scary road through the gorge, back to Lijiang, then overnight on the train (with sleeping compartment for 3, a dining car and a bar with flashing lights) to Kunming and the comfortable if unexciting Home Inn. Unfortunately we were too tired to enjoy the bar and dining car although Zhou and I checked them out. It was 9:30 pm when we boarded the train, and not long before we were all asleep.End of Tiger Leaping Gorge trek.