Thursday, February 5, 2009

Tiger Leaping Gorge

"What was the most memorable part of your trip?" I asked the Australian who spent the last five months wandering around Asia. When he told me it was Tiger Leaping Gorge, I decided I had to see it. The gorge is said to be the deepest in the world and plenty of folks hike through it. My guide book suggested it could be a day trip along the river or an overnight trip if you wanted to go up along the mountain. I could take a bus to one end of the gorge and hike to the other end where I could pick up another bus back to Lijang. I decided to be lazy and hire a tour service. The trip out and back, an experience guide and a room in a guest house, came to about sixty bucks. It was relatively pricey, but worth it.

I dislike using tour services. I much prefer to set my own agenda and go where I want when I want. Furthermore, most tours offer side trips for shopping (where the tour company gets a cut of whatever overpriced goods the sheep purchase). I was assured there'd be no shopping trips so I booked the service for the next morning. I would meet the guide at a landmark at 8AM sharp.

I awoke much too early and spent a half hour watching the old town come alive. The tour operator met me at the prearranged location, explaining that I was the only one doing the overnight trip. I would travel to the site with a group of day-trippers and my guide would take me along the high route alone. Terrific! the operator introduced me to a young college student who spoke sufficient English.

After waiting around for a good half hour for the other tourists, my guide led me across the square where we looked for a specific taxi driver. We got into his mini-bus made a few stops to pick up other Chinese passengers before heading off to the gorge. Total time from meeting at the arranged location to leaving for the trip? One hour. This is why I don't like organized tours: they're organized for slow people.

On the trip to the gorge, we stopped at a sort of temple to see the mountains and the Yangtze river below. It was, I'm sorry to say, not a particularly inspiring view - I'd hope the gorge would be well worth it. We made another stop to see the "first bend" in the Yangtze river. Another uninspiring view. Some time later, we pulled into a town then pulled into a restaurant. "We have lunch here" my guide said. I didn't want lunch and certainly didn't want lunch at a tour bus stop. There were already a couple of other tour buses stopped there and I could see that others would soon arrive. My guidebook suggested that the high road was a day's climb and we'd just frittered away the morning. "We have time" he assured me. I guess he didn't know how slow I could be when climbing.

I decided I'd have a good meal to gird myself for the day's journey. I was discouraged by the lack of an English menu, but was simply flummoxed by the fact there was no menu whatsoever! "Just point to what you want," my guide assured me. Well, that's easy enough. I pointed to beef, garlic, two types of mushrooms and some fresh snow peas. The order taker held up one finger. I smiled and pointed to myself; yes, just enough for me. I looked forward to a delicious meal.

Ten minutes later my plate arrived. It was a plate of fried beef in sauce with onions and some sort of greens I could not identify; no mushrooms and no peas. As I looked at the plate, I shrugged. Then another plate appeared: two types of mushrooms in another thick sauce. Then the snow peas arrived on another large plate. Then a bucket of rice was placed before me. I kid you not, it was a wooden bucket holding at least five liters of steamed white rice. I had enough to feed a family!

Luckily, two other couples in need of a table asked to sit with me. I put some of the mushrooms and peas on my plate of beef and insisted they help themselves to the other dishes. They, in turn, offered me some of their food. The bill came to 70CNY, around ten bucks, and a lot more expensive then it should have been.

I looked around and noticed that none of the people from my bus were in the restaurant. The mini-bus was outside but I could not find my guide. I started looking around and soon located him. The others had gone on to the gorge. Hmmm, I'd have preferred to have left as well, but there you go. We moved my backpack to another vehicle so it could be dropped off at the guest house; this was the main advantage to using a tour operator. I was a bit nervous about being separated from my bag; all my battery rechargers and all my images were in there.

The mini-bus hugged the edge of the road as we entered the gorge. It was huge. The Yangtze river looked like a stream at the bottom.

Note the size of the mini bus.

The driver let us off and my guide directed me to a dusty gravel road that zigzagged
up the slope. The climb up was an ordeal for my out-of-shape physique. I took it really slow and stopped for photo breaks whenever I could. My guide, Lee-oh, was as encouraging as he could be, but it was no help. During our breaks I worked on his English language skills to improve his pronunciation. He didn't get a lot of opportunity to practice English.

We encountered a few villages as we ascended. Although the land is desert-like, the local Naxi people are able to grow a variety of crops with careful irrigation and contoured plots.

Tending the crops.

Eventually, we left the road and cut across the hillside on what could best be described as a goat path. It just so happened that we encountered a goat who had given birth to a kid only hours before. We also ran into a few goat herders sitting on the path and keeping an eye on their livestock.

The very definition of a goat path.
After a couple of hours, we made it to the "Half Way" guest house. I enjoyed a cool beer and a hot tea while admiring the vista.

The view from the "Half Way" guest house bar.
The path we now followed was level and I was able to cruise at a good speed. I frequently took breaks to gaze at the landscape and marvel at this particular waterfall that ran right across our trail.

Eventually, we made our way down the slope and stopped at Tina's guest house ... which should really be called a hotel seeing as how it's three stories of rooms. Curiously enough, the windows in the rooms look out not on the spectacular view of the gorge, but on the road and other slope. Lee-oh got us checked in and took my bag to my room.
The dining area of the hotel looks out on the gorge, but I decided to eat outdoors for the best view. A young English guy joined me for a drink afterward. He was spending a year teaching English in China and gave me some insight into the employment possibilities. Licensed teachers could do quite well (relative to other Chinese, though).

A few days earlier I discovered something unusual about many of the hotel beds: they have electric heaters. Instead of an electric blanket, which I despise, they have an electric mattress pad. I made extensive use of this device every evening. The nights were miserably cold and the blankets were as thin as a pauper's wallet.

In the morning, after a leisurely breakfast in the shadow of the mountain, Lee-oh told me we would begin our hike after lunch. I told him I wanted to start early so I could take my time and shoot some photos. I knew he needed to wait for the day-hikers to arrive from Lijang. I assured him that I was quite capable of hiking down the gorge alone. He reluctantly agreed but asked that I wait a bit for a couple of hikers who were, as I understood it, staying at the hotel. After another hour of puttering around, we departed with two middle-age Chinese women dressed for a walk in the park.

From the hotel, we walked down the road to another guest house run by a family responsible for cutting a trail down to the gorge. They charged a nominal fee for passage, but my guide had looked after that. Lee-oh insisted that we wait for another group of hikers before descending, but. I explained again that I would go it alone so I could stop for photos. Organized tours are too often in the "hurry up and wait" state.

I started down the gorge just as the sunlight was crawling down my side of the slope. I tried to time it so the light was about a hundred meters above me. I observed the indistinct demarcation between light and shadow as the sun rose above the mountains.

The family that built the trail did an awesome job. The switchbacks were well designed and they put chains and pegs anywhere a handhold was needed. They also installed a number of wicker baskets along the trail to act as garbage cans. These were emptied by the vendors who set up drink stands at the bottom of the gorge.

I rounded a corner and stopped in sheer amazement. The family had carved a passage right through the rock to enable us hikers to get by. to the left and above, solid rock; to the right, a sheer drop to the riverbed a good 75m below. Walking through that rather unnerving.
The path runs directly through a cut in the solid rock wall.
By the time I made it to the bottom of the gorge, it was still in deep shadow.

The contrast between sunlight and shadow wrecks havoc on my camera.
Looking back up, I saw the bridge on which I stood the day before.I saw a postcard with this photo and assumed it was some decorative footbridge. No, it's a full size bridge, at least 50m across, over which passes cars and tour buses.

Look up. Look way up.
Legend tells of a a rock where a tiger crossed the river to escape a hunter. From the bridge, I was able to see the "Tiger Leaping" stone; it looked like a rock. When I arrived at the bottom, however, I was able to witness the scale of the thing.

Look at the people standing on the rock near the bottom of the image.
See those tiny figures at the top of the rock? Those are people. The Tiger Leaping stone is the size of a small office building.

Lee-oh caught up with me as I was shooting and told me we had ten minutes before going back up. I was prepared to spend the better part of the day watching the sun work its way down the slope, but I also knew I'd be really slow going back up. We would not return by the trail, I learned, but by a set of ladders the family had installed downstream. I met my guide at the appointed time and he explained we were waiting for a few more hikers. Hmmm. I told him I'd start now because I'd be going slow. He wasn't happy about this, but off I went.

Guided by arrows painted onto the rock, I made my way up the slope. I was slow going and I was hot (for once). Eventually, the larger tour group caught up with me, right before we arrived at the first ladder. We sat in the shelter of a vendor's shop. Some of the Chinese tourists were purchasing water, oranges and peeled cucumber to snack on. Most of them were dressed in street clothes with ordinary shoes. Astonishing.

One of the other guides started taking people up and over the shelter to the ladder. I decided to get going, not knowing how far we had to go (it's impossible to tell how high up the gorge you are). There were a few people ahead of me as we came to the ladder. They grabbed the rail and started up.

From the bottom, the ladder looks almost inviting!
The ladder is a contraption of rebar steel welded together and held with wire attached to posts driven into the rock. I could see redundant supports and solid welds so I had no concerns for its ability to support my weight (and surely I was not the first oversize westerner to climb the ladder). I packed my camera and, holding my tripod in my right hand, started up once the people ahead of me were well ahead.

It wasn't practical to take the steps properly. I had to step up both feet on each rung. It was slow, but required less energy. I should have figured out a better place for my tripod. I was holding it with my thumb and forefinger, leaving only three fingers to hold the ladder.

The ladder was ascending through heavy vegetation; it was almost like crawling up a tree. After a few minutes, the ladder sort of ended and another one began. I wished I could have put the tripod somewhere, but my hands were busy holding on.

The new ladder crawled out of the brush and was exposed to the sun and breeze. The feeling of climbing a tree was gone and it felt more like climbing up a sheer rock face ... which is exactly what I was doing. Left hand up, left foot up, step up both feet together, raise right hand with tripod and use three fingers to hold the rail. I was painfully aware of how exposed I was and how small I was compared to the mountain I was scaling. The ladder just kept going and going. Left hand up, left foot up, step up, grab rail with three fingers, look closely at the welds and how the ladder is fastened to the rock with wire. I started giving myself the heebie-jeebies. I wished I'd backtracked the trail to the top instead of this accursed ladder, this hodgepodge of metal clinging precariously to the rock face. I thought of the Chinese moms who'd gone up the ladder ahead of me. I focused on the steps and kept going ... surely there was no going down at this point.

Suddenly, there was no more rungs. I reached out to grab the metal post and pull myself up and over the edge, fearful that I'd slip up at this point. I walked well away from the ladder, and the edge, and sat down on a rock. I was shaken, not stirred. I thought about my camera and how I should get a photo of the ladder looking down, but I just didn't have the nerve to walk over to it.

I watched as the girl behind me came up the ladder and continued up the trail. The climb hadn't fazed her at all. Lee-oh walked over and asked me if I was OK. "Yeah," I said, "How many more of those ladders are there?" He said there was only one, but it was short. "That's a relief!" I paused for a moment. "Lee-oh, how did you get up here?" I was ahead of him at the bottom of the ladder and only two girls had come up since I arrived.

"I take the trail" he answered pointed to the path behind him. I walked over to see a trail snaking down the slope. At the junction with the trail going up, two signs were posted. The one leading to the descending switchbacks was posted as the "easy way" while the one I just came up was marked as "dangerous way." Thanks.

I continued up and managed to the next ladder with little difficulties, having secured my tripod. I was able to take a few shots going up, but nothing as impressive as the climb itself. This shot gives you an idea as to how steep the slope is. If not for the switchbacks, there'd be an awful lot of ladders.
When I finally made it to the guest house on top of the trail, I took a much needed rest and finished my water. Lee-oh was trying to hurry me to the bus so we could go. We had to pick up my bag first, so I suggested we walk over to Tina's and have the bus meet us there; I really wanted a few more minutes of admiring the view. We walked across the bridge (the one in the earlier photo), collected my bag and walked all the way back. So much for being a hurry to leave, eh?

The bus took us back to the town ... where it stopped for dinner! Fortunately, Lee-oh managed to get us on a different bus heading back to Lijang right away.

I can't say that Tiger Leaping Gorge was the highlight of my trip, but there's no way I'll forget that accursed ladder.

1 comment:

Erin said...

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