Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

With three hours of sleep and a very good night behind us, the morning held less promise. I was quite tired, though thankfully excited enough to get myself moving, but Eric was downright hungover. We got a quick breakfast from Mama Naxi and grabbed our van to Tiger Leaping Gorge – Eric grabbed the bag I had my sandwich in for the road and we set off. We came across what I assume was some roadwork, the result being a backlog of stopped traffic in the middle of nowhere. After about 15 minutes of waiting the line inched forward and then stopped again. Or at least, most of us did. The woman behind us appeared not to notice this stoppage and relied on the mass of our van and its cargo (us) to bring her own van to a halt. The way people drive in Asia, it was bound to happen sooner or later, and I was happy it was a rather harmless rear-end rather than a serious accident. We picked up our bumper from the asphalt, stowed it in the trunk, and drove off without so much as a word between the two drivers. And without further incident (except a stopoff at some Tibetan-looking temple) we arrived in Qiaotou and specifically at Jane’s Guesthouse, where we stored our packs, grabbed lunch, and began our two day adventure.

Lunch, by the way, was delicious fried goats cheese with sugar, yak meat, and baba, a Tibetan flat bread that is pretty dry but hits the spot when combined with other foods. The start of the trail is 2500m ASL and climbs to 3000m. Eric and I were okay at first but soon found ourselves feeling the effects of the altitude (probably worsened by a lack of sleep and excess of alcohol). Still, we soldiered on and found a more steady rhythm which brought us up to a minority Naxi village where we stopped for tea and a snack. Regular readers may remember how I raved about that cup of tea in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, well, this was almost as good but far more simple (I assume). Simple green tea with a fresh mint leaf and perhaps something I couldn’t quite detect, set over a breathtaking (literally) view of the village and gorge with some crisp fried snow peas to munch on.

It was well that we stopped there for a break as the most arduous part of the trail lay ahead. 28 Bends snake their way up the mountain so steeply that whoever named the place couldn’t find the energy to keep track and invariably miscounted. Whatsmore, all subsequent hikers have noted the discrepancy but none have had the fortitude to produce a correct number. Men pass with horses hoping to snag weary and desperate hikers, and one we turned down became quite irate as though we were obligated to take a horse from him. This was more than compensated for as we reached the top and met up with the others we’d shared the van with and a cheery old man who had developed and maintained a path down to a great viewpoint for the gorge. He charged 8 quai to take photos from the vantage point he carved out and it was well worth the money just for his quirky and friendly personality. We were happy to pay it, in contrast with the grouchy horsemen.

We went ahead of the rest of our group – an Australian girl, Dutch woman, and an English mother-son combo – and came upon our home for the night, the Tea Horse Guesthouse. Rooms were basic, food was decent, and the view – unless you paid a lot for it – was non-existent. In short, I’d recommend others try to make it further along to Half Way Guesthouse. I didn’t stay nor eat at the latter, and I object to the misleading name, (Two-Thirds Guesthouse doesn’t have the same ring, I suppose) but the views and rooms did look nicer here. Still, Tea Horse did the job. We ate in what is essentially an open basement and were sound asleep just after 8:00. Breakfast at Tea Horse was decent and then we were back on the path, stopping in the village for a peak at Half-Way.

This peek cost us some time as we, somewhere, took a wrong turn and wound up on a trail to the low path. Both of us knew something was wrong pretty quickly, but we discussed it and neither had seen a branch since the village and after that branch we’d seen a sign pointing out that we were headed in the right direction. So we pressed on until finally I stopped and we both admitted the obvious. But rather than backtrack, we cut cross country. There was no danger or fear of being lost. The low trail – a road – was quite visible below us, and the high trail was somewhere above us. I thought I could see it cutting through the tall grass. So cross country looking for a good way to make our way onwards and upwards. In the end we followed a goat path up the hill and tested our rock-climbing mettle until at last we merged with the upper trail again.

Further along and soon we were at Tina’s for a decent lunch. We thought we’d see the whole gorge and walked along the road about 4 km towards (and past) Walnut Garden then came back to Tina’s and did the final crowning glory of the trek: the walk down a steep path to the Yangtzi River and the stone from which the tiger leaped once upon a time. It was steep alright, and as our weary legs brought us down I did not envy our upwards return. We cleared a ridge and started down the REALLY steep part when I saw someone who, without my glasses, looked familiar and at the very least, good. A little further along and I was shocked to see it was Charlotte standing on the path. I hadn’t expected to run into her again and was happy to see her but she seemed a little perturbed so we exchanged pleasantries and made our way further along. Much further along, in fact, where we came to a tired Gerri sitting in a shelter summoning the energy to climb on. She was a bit more affable and we had a snack and chatted with her before clambering down the rest of the way.

By now it was getting late in the day, our detours off track and to Walnut Garden leaving us behind schedule. So Eric and I both dipped our feet in the Yangtzi, which was roiling and flashing by with a violence and speed I’ve previously only experienced in Stanley Cup semi-finals. And it started to rain. We made our way back up the increasingly slippery rocks and a very vertical ladder to Tina’s in record time. Our venture down and back had cost just over an hour but there was nobody waiting for a van out of the gorge and they wouldn’t cut us a two-person deal. Our collective impatience set us on the road walking and hoping to either flag down a van or grab one at Zhang’s, but no such luck. One van passed us half empty but refused to stop – they get paid 80/van so they have no interest in picking up more passengers. We were coming up on a hairpin bend when a van with four empty spots passed by blatantly ignoring us. Eric sprinted after it and I darted over the ledge and scrambled quickly down to where the road weaved back from the hairpin, just making it in time to jump in front of the van and stop him.

But instead of the customary 15/person, this pirate wanted 50. From each of us. So it turned out that trying to flag down a van was not a bright idea and we let the jerk go on his way. In retrospect, I would’ve liked to blockade him until he agreed on a reasonable price but maybe next time. We eventually stopped someone who gave us a ride for 20 each and made it back to Jane’s where Charlotte and Gerri were recuperating. I half suspect they were waiting for us, though neither will admit to it, but we grabbed dinner and split a van between us to Shangri-La, where we would spend our last days together.

Tiger Leaping Gorge Photos

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