Posts tagged ‘Lijiang’
Afraid to approach Medusa to ask for breakfast, we left the Halfway House with empty bellies. While we were pretty impressed by all the scenery the day before – the green mountains, bleating goats and nearing snow-capped peaks – it turned out that our scenic walk had not yet begun.
Rounding one of the first bends of the morning we saw a waterfall diving from the top of a mountain over the dirt path and down to the bottom of the gorge. From the distance we could see a herd of what looked like cows but eventually turned out to be goats, picking their way gingerly through the spray. Crossing the waterfall meant choosing one of two paths – you could stick close to the wall and be pounded by sheets of water or you could keep your distance, shuffling precariously along the edge of the drop. The goats chose the latter so we followed suit, hopping from one slippery stone to another as Gary recorded a video post for the blog on my (now lost) camera.
Having successfuly negotiated the first hurdle of the day we ploughed headlong into the second – the steep decline down a rocky dirtpath to Tina’s guesthouse. Tina’s by the way, was not the colossal 600m tall monster that our doodle map had made it out to be. The restaurant did do a mean stir-fried potatoe dish though and the waitress provided very ambiguous onward directions. As is a re-occuring theme on the gorge, directions to every guesthouse were clearly signposted on every rock, tree or animal that would stand still long enough to be painted. Once we got passed the guesthouse though, we were more or less on our own.
After we left Tina’s we decided to head for the Middle Tiger Leaping Stone without fully knowing what a Middle Tiger Leaping Stone was supposed to be. Was it just a pebble? Or a rock with a plaque on it? Did it have a statue of Chairman Mao? Devoid of any useful map or directions, we decided to follow the small dog who had tagged along from Tina’s. He looked like he knew where he was going – like an ugly Chinese Lassie.
As it turns out Chinese Lassie did know where he was going and the rock pretty much did what it said on the tin. It was a massive hunk of stone sitting in the middle of the ferocious river which you could get onto by crossing a questionable rope bridge. “You could be killed…” The words of the guard we met yesterday kept floating through my head. Eventually though, they were drowned out by the deafening roar of the great Yangzi. Never really one for rivers, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed lying stretched out on the Middle Tiger Leaping Stone with Chinese Lassie as Gary clicked and whirred at the towering gorge from every angle.
There was of course, a catch. Having descended around 30 flights of stairs (some so steep that we had climbed down backwards on our hands and knees, bellies flat against the rough stone), we had to go back up. Que the Towering Ladder of Death. “Let’s take the ladder back up so we don’t have to retrace our steps – those stairs were a killer.” I remember saying to Gary who unfortunately agreed. So we climbed up to the base of the ladder where there was a sign pointing in one direction to the “Safe Route” and in another direction to the ladder. Hardy and well-endowed as we are, we decided to take a gamble on the ladder which looked like a relatively short iron structure bolted into the rockface. Wrapped in ivy and sheilded from the halfway point by a round metal cage it appealed to my romantic notions of what a real ladder should look like – an adventurer’s ladder. And what the hell, we were in China, doing a 3 day hike in the most scenic gorge I had ever seen. We could handle it.
On about the third rung of the ladder I realised that, far from being bolted into the mountain, the iron ladder was loosely tied to a rotting wooden structure underneath it. Any attempt to look upwards therefore resulted in the ladder swinging violently away from the rockface and out over the crashing river, now at least 100m below us. “Two people have already died on this Gorge,” warned a sign down below, “be careful, we don’t want to make it more.” Four or five rungs later, as the ground started to spin below me I remembered that I have a crippling fear of heights – oh well, it can’t be much further, I thought.
Looking up I saw that Gary was still climbing, 15 minutes after getting onto the ladder which, from the bottom, hadn’t looked like it was more than 20 or 30 rungs high. By now he looked to be at least half way to the sun. “Why didn’t we take the safe route?” I thought as my hands became sweaty and my legs started to take on the muscle density of jelly. Then, just as I thought it couldn’t get worse, the wind picked up, buffeting violently against the rock and forcing the ladder to sail further away from the safety of the mountain. Too afraid to move a muscle I flattened myself against the ladder and contemplated going back down and taking the safe route. A quick glance below me convinced me that that wouldn’t be such a great idea – going down would be harder than going up. So, taking a few deep breaths I ploughed on, taking at least 5 years off my life in 15 long, sweaty, mentally disturbing minutes.
Finally I reached the top, panting, soaked through and terrified. Throwing myself up the last few feet and clinging to the dusty path I heard Gary’s muffled voice penetrating my relief. “I think that’s the first of the three ladders. And from what I can see this path doesn’t rejoin the safe route.” Oh crabapples.
Thankfully he was wrong, the Towering Ladder of Death was the second ladder, the third was a short 10 rung number which presented no risk of falling to a watery death. After that it was a steep but – in light of my ordeal on the ladder – pretty easy going 40 minute climb up a winding path, the top of which left us a merciful half hour away from Sean’s guesthouse, our rest stop for the second night.
Sean’s turned out to be a highlight of the trip for us. Located in Walnut Garden, the guesthouse has a majestic view over rice paddies, farmhouses and a full quartet of goats, chickens dogs and screaming children. Settling into seats on the flagstone patio we were thrilled to discover three things:
1. The rest of the travellers were now following the same schedule as us so we had company for the night in the form of an architecht, a civil servant, a forest ranger, an archaeologist, a Parisien, a Texan and a South American
2. The hostess had lit a massive fire for us to sit around
3. It being only 5pm we would get full enjoyment out of happy hour which stretched until 9pm and promised bottles of Tsing Tao for a bargain 4RMB (40c).
And enjoy it we did. Sitting around the fire with our generous host family comparing scars and listening to stories about Dan and Ashley (who we were to spend the next week following) almost being chased over the edge of a cliff in the Bamboo Forest by a runaway bull, The Towering Ladder of Death was soon forgotten. As the night went on and her shyness was replaced by curiosity, we also made another addition to our merry little band of misfits – a beautiful little Chinese girl. What started out as a friendly game of ball with Gary soon developed into an entire procession of her favourite foods and for me, a lesson on how to eat sunflower seeds properly, spitting out the shells with appropriate Chinese gusto.
The plan for the next day had been to hike the last few kilometers up to the ferry which would take us across the river to meet the early bus back to Lijiang. Our hostess kindly informed us however, that the Chinese authorities had caused a blockage in the river while they were playing with their dynamite during the day so the ferry was no longer running. We decided to order a fleet of minibuses to drive us back instead only to wake up the following morning, hungover and with swollen feet, to hear that another explosion during the night had blocked off the only road out of the gorge. Never fear however, our minibus drivers were willing to go anyway.
The minibus ride back to the town was what you would call an experience. Taking some small comfort in the knowledge that our diver was born and raised in the gorge, we spent a nerve wracking 2 hours peering over the edge of steep cliff drops as he trudged along, one wheel skimming over the drop. When we did meet the rockfall we had to wait an hour while two diggers lifted boulders out of our paths and threw them carelessly down the mountain.
Thank God that was the end of our journey rather than the beginning. After spending two days watching puffs of smoke and dust rise over the sites of explosions that were too close for comfort, we weren’t exactly clambouring to go back. Had we the gift of foresight when we decided to brave the hike, chances are we would have decided that we valued our fully intact limbs too much to risk it. But the gorge was more than worth the risk – one of those fantastic, adrenalin filled once in a lifetime experiences – totally surreal at the time and, once it was finished, seeming more like a strange shared dream rather than something we had actually done together, oohing, ahhing, singing, bickering and laughing ourselves silly.
It was Tiger Leaping Gorge-ous!
More pictures from Tiger Leaping Gorge are available on the gallery
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.
For every western tourist in Dali there are around 20 Chinese tourists in Lijiang. They come in their hoards, snapping photos and toting the canary yellow caps assigned to them by their enthusiastic, flag-wielding guides. They fill the tiny winding alleys of the old town to bursting point, oohing at the beautiful curved roofs and ahhing at the gurgling streams that run through the cobbled streets. They take it in turns to pose next to the slowly rotating water wheels and hop on the Tibetan cowboys’ horses. At night they file into the hundreds of overpriced traditional Naxi restaurants spread across town, wolfing down courses of fried baba, hotpot, pigs ear, mushrooms with meat stuffing, yak and the odd insect. After dinner they retreat to the local bars to view and often partake in Naxi dance shows. On their way, they stop to light a floating candle and watch it disappear as the river snakes its way under bridges and between houses.
The idea, according to the guidebooks, is to get up before the tourist rush kicks in. What the guidebooks don’t tell you is that Chinese visitors are so thorough in their tourism that long before you even think about getting up they have already taken close to 200 photos, have devoured half a yak and have lit incense sticks at 6 temples across the city. Your best hope of avoiding the scrum, as we found out, is to elbow your way out of the old town and head for the beautiful Dragon Pool Park.
Unfortunately Gary’s hard-drive corruped and he lost a lot of pictures from Lijiang. Here’s a picture of the park from Google Images.
With Jade Snow Mountain (or mini Everest as Gary likes to call it) for a backdrop, even a rubbish pile could look picturesque but there is something pretty magical about spending an afternoon sitting in the sun watching the reflection of Deyue Pavillion in the rippling water. Although the park gets its fair share of tourists, and a steady stream of beautiful brides posing with grooms dressed in top-to-toe white, few seem to make it past the pavillion so its easy to find a quiet spot overlooking stone bridge. We didn’t time it well but word on the street suggests that the local orchestra practice in the park every afternoon.
For the more adventurous it is absoultely worth renting out a bike (if your backside has recovered from the trip around Er Hai yet) and visiting one of the local villages. Once you get out of Lijiang it is pretty easy pickings with vast fields, traditional rural towns and mountain vistas. If your behind has not yet recovered you can seek out Dr. Ho, a legendary local doctor who will brew you up a tea and spin you a yarn for a generous donation.
Our favourite day trip was to Shuhe, 10km outside of Lijiang and by far the superior of the two. The small town is pretty much what Lijiang would look like if no tourists visited it – women banging out metals on their doorstep, people lounging at outdoor tables drinking tea and freshly picked corn hanging out to dry. Of course there is the usual mishmash of clothes and souvenier shops and a western restaurant or two but the whole thing smacks of authenticity more than Lijiang which, despite its traditional architecture and old world charm, was only recently built after an earthquake destroyed the original, less picturesque version.
Most importantly, Shuhe hosts a free outdoor song and dance performace daily at 3pm and 7pm. Technically you have to pay a pretty hefty admission to visit both Shuhe and Lijiang in the first place but if you don’t use the main gates no-one will ever ask. The dance recital is absoultely fantastic, and well worth the trip for its vast array of traditional costumes, beautiful girls and skillful boys who, despite wearing fur bellytops manage to look surprisingly threatening and manly. While traditional Chinese music often sounds like a bag full of wailing cats, Naxi music is far more palatable and is the perfect backing track for all of the love stories played out onstage by the startlingly attractive cast.
More pictures from Lijiang (those not lost to the corrupted HD) can be found in the gallery