Tiger Leaping Gorge-ous, Yunnan, China (Day 1)
As it stands the Tiger Leaping Gorge is closed to hikers. This is because construction work is taking place on the lower road – work that involves frequent haphazard explosions – so there is a guard posted at the entrance to ward off idiots like us. As you will see, he is a particularly useful cog in the wheels of the Chinese government.
Guard: “Where are you going?”
Us: “Just to that guesthouse there behind you.”
Guard: “You aren’t going to hike the gorge are you?”
Us: “No of course not, it’s closed isn’t it?”
Guard: “Yes, it’s closed for construction so it would be very very dangerous for anyone hiking the route.”
Us: “Of course.”
Guard: “Here, take this sheet of paper which says that you shouldn’t hike the gorge because if you do, you could be killed.”
Us: “Okay, thanks. We’ll just go to our guesthouse now. The route starts just over there doesn’t it?”
Guard: “Yes. Goodbye. And good luck.
I would like to say that that was the start of our expedition but unfortunately, having for some reason taken Gary’s directions, we had already walked 5km towards Shangri-la and back.
For the last few days we had been to-ing and fro-ing over the prospect of hiking the gorge and had eventually dismissed it as a terrible idea akin to cycling 150km around a lake. That was until the boredom set in. As much as we enjoyed Dali and Lijiang and the rest of our trip, it was starting to become worryingly same-y – an endless whirl of temples, bike rides, winding alleyways, quaint towns, lukewarm hostels and snap-happy tourists. In short, we needed to shake things up so we threw a spare pair of underwear, a hand drawn map and some suncream into our tiny day packs an headed for the hills.
The first few hours were pretty mundane – we rounded the first few mountains, stopped for a lunch of fried rice and caught our first few glimpses of the gorge. We weren’t realy tired at all so when we met other hikers who tutted at my Berkenstocks and Gary’s grip-free runners, labelling them “inappropriate footwear” we laughed them off. What was all the fuss about – this was only a mere 3 day hill walk. Any old granny with half a hip could do it in her slippers. Soon after lunch we started to choke on our arrogance.
Of course we had heard of the 28 bends before we left Lijiang – what prospective hiker hasn’t? According to backpacker folklore they were the 28 steepest turns ever to wind their way up a mountain. They were bends paved with fire, glass and screaming babies over whom you had to trod to get to the top. Once you had trampled the screaming glass fire babies, you would, according to eyewitness accounts, have to battle a troll, a witch and a flying goat before crawling on your hands and knees over stones made of the strongest, most jagged, razor-sharp titanium to the top. However, since it appeared on our omniscent hand-drawn map as a squiggly line no more than half an inch long and around one-sixth the size of Tina’s Guesthouse we figured we could take it in a mere bound or two.
How wrong we were.
The first 35 bends (we counted them) were a little strenuous but manageable for such hardy, world-worn travellers as us. We stopped frequently under pretenses such as admiring a particularly large beetle, staring wistfully into the distance, letting a kid (of the goat variety) pass by and as we ran out of ready-made excuses, gasping desperately for water.
At the end of the 35 bends we tripped over a small woman selling chilled drinks, snickers bars, pipes and chicken’s feet at a makeshift shop. “Alas, the end!” we rejoiced. “No, no!” she said, the pleasure evident in her shining eyes, “28 bends that-a way. This not 28 bends!” She produced a hand-drawn map and pointed to a spot a few centimetres below the short squiggly line. “You here.” Timing her pitch perfectly she waited until panic and despair filled our faces before driving home the sale. “You want some ganga? Hashish?”
Oh God. I couldn’t think of a single thing I wanted less at that moment. Some altitude sickness medication, a piggyback, even a hug would have been nice. But some ill-gotten sleeping potion? Before crawling over titanium babies and fire kids? You’re having a laugh.
No, we said, we were okay for ganga and hashish. Even if we could chew it. Even if she would chew it for us. Even if she would carry us up the bends on her back afterwards. Even if the pixies would carry us up the bends on their backs afterwards. No, we would go onwards and upwards over screaming goats and flying babies.
And onwards we went past ten, fifty, one hundred bends; over glass, fire and infants; battling Nintendo boss after Nintendo boss; crying bitter tears of blood as we puffed, panted and crunched our way to the end. The view, we said, would be worth it all. Worth the broken bones, the soiled underware and the bloody feet. The views, we said, would be spectacular.
When we finally reached the top of the bends we were still 10 metres short of the top of the mountain. The trail, as it turns out, doesn’t go the whole way up and the panoramic view promised by our all-knowing crayon map is monopolised by a particularly mean looking woman who demands 10 yuen to take your photo at the edge of the mountain. Far from trusting her with our cameras, we weren’t confident that we could trust this enterprising member of the mountain community not to push us over the edge just for the giggles so we sighed and slogged onwards in the hope that we could reach the Halfway House before nightfall.
According to the backpacker community the Halfway House was the best place to stop on your first night so when we passed Teahorse and we saw a group of half a dozen hikers sitting on a mountainside terrace drinking beer and laughing, we ignored our better judgement and kept going. Common sense said that they were the only other people on the gorge apart from one other straggler who could be anywhere. Common sense also dictated that at 5.30pm when you have altitude sickness and are horribly sunburned, exhausted, starving and salivating at the thought of a cold bottle of Tsing Tao, you should pack it in and embrace the propect of a night spent exchanging horror stories and friendly banter.
Common sense however, seemed to have taken up the glassy-eyed ganga woman on her offer earlier and was doubtlessly sitting at the bottom of the mountain marvelling at the talking, flying goats. We, on the other hand were stumbling urgently along the last 6km to the Halfway House.
Thankfully we arrived before sunset and were greeted by a twenty-something girl who, according to her scowl, was carrying the weight of the starving masses on her shoulders. The conversation went something like this:
Us: “Can we have a double room please?”
Girl: Tuts and rolls eyes.
Us: “Is that a no then?”
Girl: “Fine, follow me.”
Five Minues later:
Us: “I’m sorry, there doesn’t seem to be any power.”
Girl: “No power.”
Us: “Is there going to be any power tonight? It’s getting dark.”
Us: “Is the power broken or is it just turned off?”
Girl: “No power.”
Us: “Oh, how about dinner? Will there be dinner?”
Girl: Shrugs and rolls eyes. “Maybe later.”
Us: “Oh, well the window in our room only meets the wall on two sides so it’s really cold. Can we see another room?”
Girl: Runs through every Chinese curse word she knows while rooting through her massive pile of keys looking for the dingiest room she can find. She eventually leads us to such a room in which there is a wooden board balanced on two garden benches. It is covered by a sheet.
Us: “I think we’ll keep the one we have. Thanks.”
Girl: Shrugs and leaves.
Despite the initial hiccups the Halfway House wasn’t that bad in the end. It turned out that the other hiker had arrived – a German with a very workable grasp of Chinese. The three of us had a lovely candlelit dinner of delicious stir fried potatoes, pumpkin soup and Tsing Tao. Eventually the power did come on and we flopped into our beds which, as it happens, were equipped with electric blankets. The guesthouse also made good on its promise of ‘scenic toilet views’, offering guests the unique experience of balancing on the balls of their feet (westerners cannot squat on the flats of their feet just as fish cannot ride bicycles) over a rancid hole in the floor while gazing upon the most spectacular moutain vistas.
At around 8pm fed, watered and thoroughly exhausted, we fell into a well-earned slumber until the beaming sun woke us up for a second day of fun and misadventure on the Tiger Leaping Gorge.