Friday, May 20, 2011

Days 4-5: Tiger Leaping Gorge

MONDAY, April 25- TUESDAY, April 26

There’s been few times in my life where I’ve actually had my breath taken away (Yes, I am succumbing to a cliché for this case). Standing atop a rock formation jutting out into the Tiger Leaping Gorge, with a view up and down the length of the vast chasm, was one of those instances. Maybe it was the scenery, the sun setting over an awe-inspiring landscape on loan from heaven, or maybe it was the fact that I’d been trekking for the better part of day – either way, the air in my lungs had been temporarily stolen from me. Then out came my camera and roughly 50 shots later I was ready to move on.

LEGENDARY BEAST: The Tiger Leaping Gorge, located in China’s northwest Yunnan, is a backpacker’s dreamland. One of the deepest river canyons in the world, the gorge is 14 miles of green hills, snowcapped mountains and rugged paths, with rugged trails, cozy villages and waterfalls along the way. The gorge gets its name from a legendary tiger that, while evading hunters, jumped over the gorge at its narrowest point, which is about 100 feet.

VALLEY VILLAGES: Trekking the gorge at an enjoyable pace, if you like stopping to smell the cherry blossom flowers or visit each village, can take up to three days. Layla, my travel companion, and I would only be spending two days in the gorge at a much less leisurely walking pace. We’d leave our guesthouse in Lijiang early in the morning, arrive at a base town two hours later and begin the trek by about noon.

THE JOURNEY BEGINS: But like all things in China – chaotic and disorganized – our plan quickly fell apart due to a lack of buses, a lack of bus tickets and a lack of signs at the bus station. When we finally arrived at the base town it was pushing 2 in the afternoon. We finally got trekking around 3 p.m. after checking our larger bags at a nearby hostel. We’ll just have to walk faster, Layla and I agreed. That was a mistake.

OVERESTIMATED, BIG TIME: We started out strong, walking confidently toward the gorge on relatively stable terrain, but once we hit dirt trails and had to maneuver over boulders our pace slowed with each step. The second biggest problem was ourselves: we’d misjudged our physical capabilities since neither of us was in trekking shape. At this rate, and with my frequent breaks to stop and photograph everything around me, we wouldn’t make it to the gorge’s peak before sunset, let alone the village and guesthouses an hour beyond that. Trekking at night was out of the question. One wrong step in the dark could send us over a cliff – and then who would update this blog? Lucky for us, the cavalry was about to arrive.

RUGGED TRAILS ROLL ON AND ON: Since leaving the town at the bottom of the gorge, two men on horseback (or maybe they were mules) had followed us. They had offered to take us to the peak, for a fee but on horseback it would only take about two hours. We wanted to walk the “real way” and said no thanks.

OUR FOUR-LEGGED SHADOWS: But the duo followed anyway. Their horses were equipped with small bells on each saddle. As we went up steep hills, the bells would jingle; as we traversed rocky terrain, more jingling. There was, literally, jingling all the way as we made our way through the gorge. Jingle, jingle, jingle – it was the sound of our salvation. After about two hours of hiking on our own, and now covered in sweat and through half our water supply, we had a change of heart.

ON HORSEBACK, TIGER GORGE NOT SO HARD: Once on horseback with the two horsemen now guiding each animal on foot, we reached the peak in about two hours (it probably would have taken four or five hours otherwise), shot off another hundred photos, and made it to the village as the sun retreated behind the snow-covered peaks nearby.

On the way up to the peak, out of curiosity and now feeling like an epic failure of a traveler, I asked our guides how many times they made this trek each week. If there were travelers, one of them said, sometimes every day. Then he pulled out a cigarette, his third of the day, and lit up before pulling on the horse’s reins to move on. That’s a helluva cardio workout, I thought to myself.

RISE AND SHINE: The next morning we got up early before the afternoon heat could slow us down again. A mostly downhill trek, the second half was much easier. Since we didn’t have to rush, we were able to stop and enjoy the scenery around us.

THE PEOPLE AT WORK: Along the trail, people were busy harvesting wheat and other crops. Flowers were in bloom.

CURIOUS OBSERVER: At each sleepy town we passed we were greeted by a few farm animals, mostly chickens and horses, wandering around unattended to.

REFRESHING DISTRACTION: We passed a waterfall whose waters flowed over the path and into a ravine. The slippery rocks made it difficult to pass, but the cool waters were a nice refresher to keep us going.

MAYBE NEXT TIME: On the opposite side of the gorge was the Snow Dragon mountain. This part of the gorge was much less accessible than the side we were on.

ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE: Three hours later, we reached the main road through the gorge and were reconnected with civilization. A group of foreigners were trying to get a bus back to a nearby town and we decided to hitch a ride too.

IMPRESSIVE, MOST IMPRESSIVE: While a tourist hotspot, the Tiger Leaping Gorge is by no means touristy. True, there was a toll to pay before entering the gorge and the two prime photo spots were guarded by aged locals who demanded a fee of about $2 per person, but the natural beauty and lack of Chinese tour buses compensated for the few minor inconveniences of the trip.

R&R: The journey through the gorge is a great place to do some soul searching, even if you think you haven’t lost yours. Stuck out there among the trees, blowing wind and winding trails had a rejuvenating effect on me. While physically exhausting, at the end of our first day I felt relaxed and comfortable, perhaps enjoying a nice hiker’s high. I slept soundly and woke up re-energized to finish the trek.

LONG WAY DOWN: Yes, the trek was fun, but the Tiger Leaping Gorge is no joke. Certain points in the trail were as narrow as three feet with a sharp drop off waiting to one side. Each year, a dozen travelers die while hiking here, but it’s easy to see why. There are just way too many spots that, while dangerous, would make for great new Facebook profile pics.

SO TOURISTY: But I couldn't resist a few of those "dangerous" shots myself.

THE WIRES: The only annoyance was wires reaching across various sections of the gorge (note the wire in the upper left hand corner of this photo). These villages may have been small and isolated but were by no means completely disconnected from the outside world. The cables ruined a few too many of my shots and I had to maneuver myself into better photographic positions without falling off the sides of cliffs.

SECOND BEST: As an added bonus, I got to see the second bend of the Yangtze River during the trek. The second bend -- not as exciting or interesting as the first bend, but just as brown.

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