Friday, September 4, 2009

Hiking to WenHai

August 26
So it was time to get off the beaten path. Geoff and I hit a traveler's online forum and found that it's possible to hike to a village at the edge of an Alpine lake near Lijiang. According to a two year old posting, the village has a defunct eco-lodge that visitors can stay in if they make appropriate arrangements in advance. Geoff hopped on the phone and, through fits and sputters, managed to make it over the language barrier to some sort of arrangement with one Mr. Chu via his cousin, Mrs. Somethingorother, who knew a little English.
Mr. Chu picked us up in his Jeep at 10am the next day and 40 minutes later we were meeting our guide, Mr. He, at the trail head.  I liked Mr. He right away. He was youthful and had the dark skin and chiseled features of someone who was most at home outside. Forgetting myself I reached out to shake his hand. Shaking hands isn't the custom here, but he mimicked my motion and looked at me awkwardly as I took his hand and gave it a mild bounce. Mr. Chu looked at us and pointed the Mr. He: "No English," then he took off.  I had no idea where we were going, but I could see a pass up a pretty steep slope. The first 300 feet were paved, but then we made for a dirt trail and a 20% grade. The hike starts at about 8,000 feet, so Geoff and I were huffing and puffing from the start.

It's hard to say how old Mr. He was, but I'd put him at somewhere between 17 and 19.   Damned if he didn't trot ahead of us like we were taking a stroll in the park. Geoff and I were laughable. Our packs had us off balance. We were thumping along making a racket huffing and puffing. Mr. He was so light footed he barely made a sound. I'd huff, Mr. He'd hum. Geoff would hack, Mr. He would whistle away.  At one point I stopped, all stooped over, to catch my breath, so Mr. He stopped too and started belting out a song. Show off!

When the trail hit 35 degrees he didn't skip a beat, but he looked back at us as if to say "Hell! Are you two going to make it?" With only body language to go on, I smiled at him overzealously to reassure him that we were all right. And we were. The hike was Wow! The trail was lined with more kinds of wild flowers than I could count. Bright blue and yellow butterflies were everywhere, and the birds were singing. The views were spectacular.  We were ascending quickly, so we could already see down into the Lijiang valley: miles of checkerboard fields bordered on all sides by mountain ranges with 12,000 ft peaks. By the time we hit a 45% incline Mr. He's boyish side was showing. He pulled out a sling shot and started flinging rocks as high as he could in the air. He handed the slingshot to Geoff for a go. We both laughed at how visibly unimpressed he was by Geoff's flinging. Then Mr. He started to whistle. Beautiful! He was mimicking the birds, and I thought "what a great addition to the hike." Then he stopped dead in his tracks and shot the ass end clear off a bird's body. Damn! I didn't see than coming.  He retrieved the bird and hung on to it for a while. I looked over to see him gnawing at one of its legs. I decided that was TMI and turned away.
An hour later we hit a clearing and bang! From out of nowhere springs up a twelve story wall; the side of a reservoir I didn't know was on the trail. I managed to laugh out loud in between gasps of air. Mr. He was getting restless from our intermittent stopping, so he avoided the 240 steps (yes, I counted) in favor of running (yes I said running) up the side of the inclined wall. Then, when he got 1/3 of the way up, he ran down to the bottom, arms outstretched like a bird, and ran back up again with that beaming smile of his. Show off! No matter. Once I got to the top it was stunning. More than stunning. On one side was a mirror calm lake, and on the other side was the expansive view of the valley 3,000 ft below and three mountain ranges.
We rested for a few minutes to enjoy the view then we were off again. Mr. He lead us down the other side of the pass, alternately singing, practicing martial art moves, and playing a blade of grass to make that sound a balloon makes where you let the air out while pulling the opening taught. Sometimes he would just let out a shout, which would startle the hell out of me. I wanted to follow suit, but some kind of social programming would kick in and nothing would come out. Pity, I should have. I would have felt good.
After about another hour we made a bend and shazam! A new perfectly picturesque valley came into view. A mile long alpine lake at the far end of an even bigger alpine meadow filled with flowers and grazing horses. The roofs of three tiny villages were visible by the lake.  I motioned towards the valley and said, without any of the proper inflections, "WenHai?" Mr. He shook he's head in agreement. That would be the only word that would pass between us that we would both understand.
The hike into the valley was easy-peezy. We arrived at the lodge by 2pm. It was utilitarian: plain, clean rooms with a heating blanket to help stay cozy at night. We were the only ones there, but we looked in the guest book and found that one Sylvie Desjardins and one Eric Demingue from Gatineau, Qu├ębec had recently been there with their three children.  No kidding! I missed someone from my home town by 14 days.  There were only about 30 people who had visited the lodge this year.
We were given a simple but filling lunch, then we were kicked out. Mrs. He, our hostess, had some potato picking to do. Fine by us. It gave us a chance to wonder around the village.  It was a simple place full of roaming dogs, chickens, and pigs. There are about 60 families living in the upper village from five different clans: three He clans and 2 other clans.  I got the impression that Mr. He, our guide, and Mrs. He, our hostess, were from separate families in the same clan.  At first the place seemed deserted. There was almost no one in the fields, no one by the houses. We met a small gaggle of boys playing in a puddle, and three men plastering the adobe wall of a house, but that was it. Then I noticed that the mud wall of one building was covered in a bright red China Unicom sign. It cannot overstate how out of place a marketing mural was in this rural setting, but it got my attention, so then I noticed that the court yard of the building was filled with people. The whole town was playing Mahjong! Almost as soon as we walked in people started to giggle at Geoff. I pointed to Geoff's bare calves, and they busted out laughing. Poor Geoff is as hairy as a Sasquatch to the folks here, and they get a good giggle out of it. Geoff's a good sport about it, so I pulled up Geoff's shirt a little to show some of the hair on his tummy. They just about peed themselves.  So with laughter all around, we pulled up a chair to watch some Mahjong.  It's a great spectator game. It's all trash talk and tile slamming. It seems like you wouldn't actually be following the etiquette of the game if you didn't slam the tile down after you draw it, or sigh and carry on if you pull a useless tile. At the end of a game money came flying out of women's aprons and men's shirt pockets to settle the bets.  People were losing 100-200 Yuan a game. I was shocked! To put that in perspective our guide was paid 60 Yuan for his day's work. We hung around until we got a sun burn, and then headed back to the lodge. Mrs. He was there. She made us heaps of yummy food for dinner, and got us squared away in our room. The following morning she was our guide for the pretty hike to the Yi village where we would get a Jeep back into Lijiang.
-- Cindy