Tiger Leaping Gorge
After a few relaxing days in Lijiang seeing the local sights, we decided to go trekking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Here, the Yangtze squeezes through a narrow, 20km canyon flanked by 6000m peaks. Although a road now runs the length of the gorge, one can still hike on the upper slopes. After leaving our heavy gear with a guesthouse at the start of the trail, we started up the trail. Luckily it had stopped raining, although clouds still hid the tops of the mountains on either side of the canyon. The trail was easy to follow. Colorful graffiti advertising the various guesthouses was written on the rock outcroppings along the trail. Climbing 28 switchbacks took us far up the flanks of the mountains. The signs continued: “Only 2km!”, “Stay with us”, “10 minutes ahead”. After walking most of the afternoon, we arrived, predictably, at the Halfway Guesthouse, in a small village connected by road to the lower gorge. As soon as we sat down on the outdoor terrace, an indifferent girl thrust a menu under our noses, then disappeared. Could we see a room first? The owner was not around. Unimpressed, we decided to move on. The Five Fingers GH was another ten minutes down the trail in a more isolated location. After climbing a short flight of stone steps, we arrived in a deserted, open courtyard. “Hello!”, “Anybody there?” Nobody seemed to be around. Suddenly, a wizened, bent-over old woman emerged from a shed, grabbed our hands and pressed them to her cheek, crooning all the while in some strange language. Li, the owner, appeared. He sat us down and brought us some tea, then returned with walnuts and a bowl of honey. Li could only speak a few words of English, but his affable, welcoming manner and his guestbook full of rave reviews convinced us to stay.
Li showed us to a room across the courtyard. It was a simple affair. Through the creaking wooden floorboards we could hear grunting pigs. Off to the side were the toilets, including a gravity shower. When we wanted to wash, Li poured hot water into a plastic jerrycan on the roof, and the water trickled down to the showerhead. We needed a hot shower after the long day trekking. “Grandma” pulled up a stool, sat in front of the courtyard shed and smoked her pipe. Across the canyon, the swirling clouds created an ever-changing panorama. For a brief instant the icy mountain peaks were exposed, a no-mans-land of black basalt and snow. It rained briefly, then the sun returned to dry the wet ground.
For dinner, Li made it clear that we could either eat from the menu or “with the family”. Some Chinese guests appeared. Sniffing at the humble accommodations, they ordered food from the menu. Eating with the family turned out to be the better choice. Most of the food came directly from their farm – chicken, pork and different kinds of herbs, vegetables and mushrooms. Li’s wife, cooking over two enormous, wood-fired woks, worked efficiently, stir-frying six different dishes in succession. When she threw handfuls of ginger, garlic and spices into the boiling oil, the wok exploded with a heady, exotic aroma. The food was steaming hot, spicy and full of flavor. Li poured green tea and brought a cold bottle of beer from the refrigerator. We decided to stay another day.
After a hearty pancake breakfast, we set off with Qian, a neighbor. From 1700m she took us up the side of the gorge, to about 4000m where the snow and black basalt cliffs began. She was a fit walker, never breathing hard on the steep trails. Along the way she showed us where to find wild herbs and wood mushrooms. After about three hours of climbing, we reached a small settlement with some kind of mining operation. Under awnings, channels of muddy water were sluiced into rows of vibrating machines. In a small wooden shack, Qian’s friends cooked us stir-fried cabbage for lunch. After more climbing we reached a small cabin in an alpine field. As we walked through the long grass, Anne noticed a small, wiggling black worm. It was a leech! One good look at the ground revealed several leeches inching at full pace towards our shoes. Others, hanging off the surrounding bushes, waved back and forth with glee trying to catch on to our clothes. We stopped to tuck our pants into our socks, but it was too late: one had already reached Anne’s ankle. Flinching at the sight, Qian applied salt and the bloated leech dropped off, leaving a bleeding, round blister. We climbed to a rocky ridge overlooking a massive, black basalt cliff. The air was thin and chilly. Small, stunted pines and broad-leaved rhododendrons grew on the mountainsides.
Further along the side of the mountain, a giant hotel complex was being constructed. When it started to rain and hail, we sought shelter with the workers in their makeshift wooden huts. We warmed our hands and feet in front of an electric heating element. After the rain stopped, the sun came out. A magnificent double-rainbow arched over the mountains on the far side of the gorge. We started the trail down. Suddenly, Qian stopped and pointed to the ground, then bent down and started gathering a kind of white fungus growing in the grass. It turned out to be “white tea”, a Yunnan specialty. On our way back down through the pasture, Qian suddenly screamed. A giant leech was reaching out towards her from a blade of grass! After picking up a friend at the mining settlement, we continued the long descent to the guesthouse, gathering wild onions on the way down.
Li cooked us a special meal that night. Plate after steaming plate of delicious food appeared on the table. Although our legs were sore from the climbing, we decided to continue our hike through the gorge the next day. After saying goodbye to Li and “grandma”, who bent over and pressed our hands to her cheek, we walked along the rugged path towards the end of the gorge. An inviting branch trail that appeared to avoid the road took us to nowhere, and we had to pick our way down the steep slopes. From the road we descended into the inner gorge to see the river. We followed a set of winding switchbacks down to the water, then turned to follow the river. At this point we came across a barrier where we were demanded to pay an “entrance charge”. We protested that we had already paid to enter the gorge. Some Chinese tourists from Hong Kong arrived, paid the 15 Yuan charge (about $2) and went through. Eric told them that he was willing to pay to use their trail, but would only give them 5. (After all, we had paid 15 Yuan per night to stay at the guesthouse, so 5 seemed a fair price). Grudgingly, they accepted the money and let us through, to the amazement of the other tourists! We walked along the thundering river to the rock where the famous tiger is said to have leapt across. Here the entire muddy Yangtze, rushing and swirling, squeezes through the narrow channel. Our water supply was running low, so we decided to go straight out. The trail climbed up the sheer sides of the inner gorge with the help of several rickety ladders constructed from rusty iron rebar that were literally tied to the adjacent cliffs, and sometimes vegetation, with bailing wire. Hot, sweaty and feeling our sore legs, we emerged at the side of the road, caught a ride back to the start of the valley, and hopped on a bus to Zhongdian.