Friday, September 4, 2009

Curious gorge

Three hours north of Lijiang by bus is one of the deepest gorges in the world.  It's called Tiger Leaping Gorge.   Legend says that in order to escape from a hunter, a tiger jumped across the river at the narrowest point (still 25 meters wide), hence the name.  The tallest peak, Shanzidou, rises 3900 meters above the river floor to a height of 5596 meters.  The length of the entire gorge is just 16 kilometers long but is arguably one of the most spectacular natural sites I have ever seen.  It is considered "unraftable," and, as far as I can tell, there have only ever been 3 attempts to run the rapids.  In the early 1980's 4 men tried to float a large raft down it, but they were never seen again.  In the late 1980's 2 Chinese teams in a race with an American team attempted to navigate it using "capsule" rafts that looked like 2 airline rafts tied on top of each other with car inner tubes tied around the rim.  I'm not sure how many people started the trip but 9 people were killed by the time they exited the canyon.  From what I understand, the American racers days behind had already decided to abandon the race. 
Our drop off point was a few hundred yards from the start of the hike up the "high road".  As I had been warned the night before by an aloof Australian couple, we were immediately descended upon by Margo,  a wild eyed, slightly crazy Australian expat who owns a cafe at the start of the hike.  Excitedly scolding those who were not listening to her, she extolled upon us the evils of anyone we were to meet on the hike. "They all will try to rip you off". About Tina's Hostel (a hostel in the middle of the gorge), "You have already been ripped off by her!".  About the weather, "it is much too hot to wear long pants today".  More about the obviously demonic Tina, "don't stay at her hostel, she will rip you off. You want to continue on to Sean's 40 minutes walk up the road".  And finally, the cost of a ride back to her café, "all of the cabs along the road will all try to rip you off, especially if other drivers are around to make them fee, guilty.  It shouldn't cost more than 10 RMB".  Her diatribe finished, she quickly scurried away to parts unknown mumbling to herself.  Quite trippy.

Cindy and I had worked out the trip to the start at Qiaotou and would walk about 25 kilometers along the "high road" to the middle gorge.  We were joined by Pete, a Brit working near Xi'an who was on a quick holiday, Meng-La, a Chinese-American student traveling the country on a grant doing research for her thesis, and a Chinese-Malaysian Banker, on holiday to his homeland. He told me his name but I found it unpronounceable to my western ear. 
On the first day we hiked for 8 hours.  The heat was stifling and the sun was intense.  Pete, sans hat, soon resorted to tying a T-shirt around his head and looked uncannily like Lawrence of Arabia.  I was still recovering from a cold and soon fell into the same routine. I would walk slowly uphill until my heart sounded like it would explode in my head.  Then I'd stop gasping for air waiting until my heart stopped pounding. Finally I would stagger few more steps and launch into a spasm of coughing. It was a grueling 2 hours uphill to a nice guesthouse for lunch, 2 disheartening hours more up a section called 24 turns to roughly 2700 meters, and then 4 more hours before stumbling into a guesthouse discouragingly called "Half Way".  The building was under construction like we see everywhere in China, and I could only hope that the din would abate sometime soon so I could rest my weary bones in silence. We took a room and our gear quickly exploded out of our small packs. We showered, and, marginally refreshed, we were soon happily ensconced on the deck drinking large local brews, eating fried whatever and staring in awe at the amazing mountain across the way.
The hike so far had been spectacular in its beauty.  Looking across the canyon you were confronted by the magnificent Shanzidou.  It completely filled your field of vision.  There was an impossible number of mini mountains encompassed into a greater whole.  To see the whole mountain, you were constantly bobbing your head up and down, side to side to encapsulate the whole view of the thing.  It's upper reaches were sharp, craggy, and alpine but it gradually gave way to its lower peaks which were covered in huge bamboo forests that swayed mesmerizingly in the wind like fields of grain.  I've never seen anything like it.
Morning arrived to colder weather, the threat of rain and a mist filled valley.  I awakened with a voracious appetite and had only one thought in my head:  banana pancakes.  I had seen them on the menu last night and was salivating at the thought of them.  I don't think I could stand another morning of greasy eggs or the like.  Minutes later they were unceremoniously placed in front of me by one of the staff members who treated me and all the other hikers around me like we were a great nuisance.  Please god I thought, don't just look like pancakes, please oh please taste like pancakes too.  My stomach practically purred as the first bite was all that I had imagined.
Morning fog embraced the mountain the next day as we set out.  It was both haunting and surreal as we walked the remaining few hours to our end of the hike.   The view of the mountain on the downward side of the path was opaque and mysterious, and I was unnerved not knowing what lay below me.  At one point, out the gloom, a beautiful waterfall blocked our path.    Looking up, it seemed to spew forth out of no-where and below us it was lost in the mist.  We crossed it with unsteady footing as the water cascaded around us and continued its journey to the river below. 
Before the path turned downward, we stopped at a ledge and spent at least half an hour watching the clouds race through the valley.  They would alternately obscure our view of the mountain on the other side and then part to reveal small clouds clinging to the mountains rough edges.  I have never been above the clouds like that before as they raced past by my feet.  I will never be able to describe in words its ephemeral beauty.
And then, 2 hours later, we were unceremoniously dumped out on the road near evil Tina's guesthouse.  We jumped into a passing bus and soon found out way back in Lijiang.  Even now I find it jarring to be sitting at a café in Jenhong, just north of the Laos border, drinking a beer and wondering if it was all a dream.  I hope it wasn't. 
Another aside.  Tomorrow to head to Loas and leave China behind us.  Yeah, no more blocked internet.  We have decided to pass on Lhasa and think we will be spending the next month in Southeast Asia and then fly to India and enter Nepal from the south.  We'll see …….