Hann took another step and started to slide to our left, her thong was being dragged from her foot by the loose gravel and broken bamboo that was silently creeping underneath us.
“This would be a really bad time to mention the boots, huh…”
“Yeah, I think it’s time we turned back.”
We had been travelling through China for three weeks and needed to get away from the city. We decided to move west and south to a little town called Lijiang in Yunnan province. Lijiang is a popular stepping stone to the Tiger Leaping Gorge, which lies around 60km further north. We intended to treat it as such, much in the way it is said the tiger leapt from one side of the gorge to the other using a big rock smack bang in the middle of the roaring Yangtze as her path.
The Yangtze cuts its relentless way between two massive peaks, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain. The Gorge is a place of such magnitude that it has inspired myths and legends and in turn inspired us to go there. But we got comfy. Lijiang is the perfect place to chill out and fatten up before hiking in the mountains sweats it all off.
The ‘Old Town’ is a labyrinth of little bars, restaurants, guesthouses and shops selling hand crafted ornaments and instruments – mostly djembes (African drums), strangely enough. Each shop owner would proudly display their product by drumming along to Chinese pop songs, smiling and beckoning as you walked past.
We spent a few days in Lijiang sampling the delicious local delicacies, exploring the alleys and hanging out in the bars. In every bar you walked past there was someone with an acoustic guitar singing and playing; they would play western pop tunes like ‘Hey Jude’ and ’21 Guns’ when we sat down for a drink, waving enthusiastically at us. They would eventually run out of western covers and get back to playing Chinese pop songs and traditional ballads and we would clap enthusiastically: our way of saying, “This is why we came…to hear your music!”
Yunnan province is home to the Naxi people. The Naxi is a minority group said to have moved into China from the North, probably from Tibet some thousand or so years ago. Their food, music, traditional clothing, and societal structure are unique among Chinese ethnic groups, but share elements with Tibetan culture. Naxi society is one of the few remaining matriarchal societies in the world. Women are the heads of the household and the born leaders of the community, passing their legacy to their daughters when they die. We grew to really admire and respect the Naxi people, in particular the women who were so friendly and accommodating to us, but who exuded such strength and authority. And Naxi food…I shouldn’t even get started on Naxi food, or we will never make it to the gorge and you will begin to think you’re reading ‘Gourmet Traveller.’
A lot of adventurers use Lijiang as a base to set up for their expeditions into the gorge itself. Most people hike the gorge, but we also saw groups of mountain bikers and road cyclists kitted to the nines at various points along the way. It looked like they were with guides, so it’s probably best to follow their lead.
Don’t underestimate the tiger — she can be fierce.
“Here, grab my hand, and try to focus on the wall to our left.”
There are two main roads through the gorge, the high road and the low road. The high road takes you through dense bamboo forest, snaking its way around the edge of the mountain. To hike the high road in its entirety takes a couple of days or longer depending on how you want to pace it. Guest houses act as checkpoints along the way and will be your accommodation each night. They are mostly owned by Naxi locals who rely entirely on agriculture and the visiting hikers for their livelihood.
We were a bit short on time and weren’t exactly geared up for a 2-3 day hiking expedition, so we decided to get dropped about half way into the gorge at Tina’s Guest House and spend a couple of days doing short hikes using Tina’s as a base. To get to Tina’s, we took a bus from our hostel in Lijiang’s Old Town. It was one of those bus rides that inevitably led to profound existential reflection along the lines of well I can’t get off now and if I die, at least I’ll make the news….
As the gorge expanded before the windscreen of the little tour bus, the road climbed steadily and a tiny part of me wished I had sat on the side of the bus nearest the cliff as opposed to the side that fell away into the seemingly endless void and the white jaws of the roaring river below.
We stopped halfway to Tina’s to get out and take in the immensity of the rock walls and the ferocity of the Yangtze smashing them slowly but surely, to bits. Tina’s is perched on the North face of the gorge just before you reach the bridge. The bridge is so high and the gorge so deep it’s hard to explain its vastness. Even photographs don’t do it justice (we didn’t have a wide angled lens) because you are so deep in the gorge, your shots just end up looking flat and full from edge to edge with black rock.
On our first day in the gorge we found our way down to the river paying the locals a few yuan for access. A thousand metres or so down at the river side you can see the stone itself: the fabled bridge used by the tiger from which the gorge gets its name.
The path down to the stone can be a challenging trip: you will want to give yourself at least three hours for a round trip to enjoy the views, and catch your breath. The dirt track steadily dissolved, getting smaller and smaller leading to a series of rugged steel frame ladders bolted into the cliff face. There were rest stops along the way at small clearings cut into the cliff, home to small shelters where locals sell water and offered to take us back to the top on their donkeys. We politely passed; the idea of riding a donkey on the trail was infinitely more terrifying than using our own uncertain feet.
The Yangtze explodes through the base of the Tiger Leaping Gorge with such force, they say it has only been navigated by boat once. Plenty of adventurers have died trying to paddle their way through those rapids. And sitting on the tiger leaping stone before a makeshift fence of wire and iron bars – the only thing separating us from that unstoppable force – an entirely different image of the tiger came to mind, forged by the cacophonous roar and the pattern of the waves as they crashed against the rocks below.
“The arrow pointed this way didn’t it?”
“Yeah, I think so, that other path was much too narrow…”
The day after we visited the stone we found our way to where we thought the path up to the high road was supposed to start. It should’ve been just near Sean’s Guest House, but the owner who stood out front easily balanced on one leg advised us that if we tried to climb that way, we would surely fail. Maybe we should have listened to the wise man with one leg.
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Green arrows spray painted on the rocks led the way into the mountains, the only problem being we were walking the track in the ‘non-traditional’ direction. Perhaps that was what the oracle was getting at…. We followed the arrows up behind the guest house, the path had been built by the owners of the guest house from slabs of the same black rock that formed the two thousand metre high walls of the gorge surrounding us. A little irrigation system trickled beneath the steps fed by a small stream that originated high above the upper walking track which we were yet to reach.
We found our way to the track proper and things started to get a little easier. A goatherd led her flock up the mountain side so they could graze on the gorse and tough mountain plants that grew at high altitudes. We would cross paths as we turned a bend; the herd would come ploughing out of the brush to our left to skip across the trail and bound straight up the steep hills to our right. The goat herder followed casually behind, climbing hand over foot after them. The kids would cry from down the trail so we carried one a little way feeling sorry for it with its tiny legs. It re-joined mum once we got a little higher where the open hillside turned into dense bamboo forest marking the upper section of the gorge.
“I feel dizzy, I think we should turn around.”
Hann had been doing fine up until this point in her thongs. She had decided against her hiking boots because they “made her feet sweaty.” We had a little map that was given to us by the lovely Naxi woman at the guest house where we had enjoyed lunch. We had chowed down on Naxi bread salad sandwiches and eaten sunflower seeds and candied popcorn in the midday sun. Naxi bread by the way is the best bread in the world (I’ve eaten every kind of bread in the world, obviously): fried with egg and cheese, it’s kind of like a naan bread fried omelette….
Anyway, we had a little map (about the size of a business card…) but it wasn’t much use to us. We worked out fairly promptly that it wasn’t drawn to any kind of scale. The waterfall we were hoping to see ended up being an hour further down the path than we had anticipated. A journey we had thought would take 3-4 hours soon turned into a 6 hour slog and the light was fading in the bamboo thicket…and Hann was wearing thongs.
“Here, grab my hand and try to focus on the wall to our right.”
We had reached a particularly perilous part of the hike. By this point we realised everything we had done wrong, and were just taking our time, working through each section slowly, trying not to have an accident; but also trying to get home before it got so dark that it would be dangerous to press on.
I was supporting Hann because she could hardly get any traction (should’ve worn boots) on the slope which was mostly loose mud, rocks and fallen trees. We were using bamboo sticks for support (should’ve brought hiking poles). And the general conclusion we came to was that we should not have treated this as a simple day hike. We had water, and warm enough clothing, but we were not prepared to stay in the mountains overnight.
The trail was so steep in some parts that we both suffered vertigo looking out into the nothingness and the river far below – our eyes swimming and balance fading.
And the path just disappeared.
We stood there searching and feeling stupid and holding on to bits of fallen bamboo to stay on the slippery scree. We turned back (the most intelligent thing we had done all day) and worked our way across the slope to the green arrow to try the path that had seemed so narrow on our first passing. We discovered it was indeed the right way down through the thicket of bamboo and led us to the make shift bamboo bridge over the river towards Tina’s.
We found out later we had chosen an old disused path; a stark reminder of how easy it is to become disoriented in the outdoors, and why you should always find out everything there is to know about a hike in a different country before hitting the trail. While our adventures in the Tiger Leaping Gorge could have ended in tragedy, they didn’t and we had one of the greatest experiences of our lives. But I can’t help but think what it could have been like if we hadn’t just relied on the green arrows, had gone well prepared with appropriate gear, and directions, and had hiked the full length of the gorge. I’ll have to go back for a different experience.
If you haven’t been already, hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge — but please, don’t repeat my mistakes.