Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge: Traveling China’s Tea Horse Road (Part VI)

Culture, Travel | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: January 31st, 2011 | Updated: August 9th, 2014 | Comments

When you're done wandering the streets of the formerly Old Town of Lijiang/Dayan, you'll probably wonder if you should head back to Dali, make the jump to Shangri-La or hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge and then see what you think. My advice: Hike the Gorge. For some time, rumors have been afoot that the Chinese juggernaut might dam the river, and though recent reports state that the plans have been suspended, you can never be too sure. They dammed the Three Gorges, after all, and there are many of you out there who wish you could have seen the gorges before the dam went up. Don't make the same mistake here. And besides, it's totally worth it, dam or no dam. The hike takes about two days total, has only one challenging section and offers great views, clean air and an opportunity to party with Naxi mountain people who were teleported from the 8th century forward to the present day. They might stoke fires in blackened huts and sleep on mattresses of straw, but they can also put together a mean breakfast, love satellite TV and have no problem with modern intoxicants. Best of both worlds I say... (more—including a slideshow—after the jump).

Rumors of dams

Last trip I took to Tiger Leaping Gorge was a few years back, 2007, when the rumors were at their height. We arrived in Qiaotou a little later than we wanted to and stopped in at the Gorged Tiger, a small guesthouse with a DIY kitchen and some rooms to sleep in—very nice. But as soon as the woman running the show—late 40s, English, I believe—heard I was writing a story for the South China Morning Post about the gorge possibly getting dammed, she became quite unnerved and unhappy with me. My feeling was that she had dealt with too many journalists asking the same questions. [callout title=Tiger Leaping Gorge: Where to stay]Nearly any hotel can book a bus to Qiaotou—be sure to leave your excess baggage at your hotel—and then hike to the junction of the Low Road (paved) and High Road (horse path). Then decide if you want to cross the river to Daju (ferry operates until 5pm) or take a van back to Lijiang. You can also book tickets from Lijiang to Daju, hike to Qiaotou and then take a bus from Qiaotou back to Lijiang. Bus tickets vary, but prices hover around RMB 100. The hike takes at least two days, but you can easily stay three nights: one in Qiaotou pre-hike [Gorge Hotel or the Gorged Tiger—it's (still) a one street town so you should be able to find either easy]; one at the Halfway House mid-hike (or another halfway guest house); and then the last in Daju or at Tina's, Sean's or the Walnut Grove near the junction of the Low and High Roads before heading back.[/callout] We took off late for the hike,  around 11 am. As soon as we stepped out the door it started raining. I thought I remembered there being a guest house a little bit up the path past a schoolhouse, but that trip was in 2002 and my memory for such helpful details can be startlingly poor. But my two companions, Big Scott and Princess Giulia, trusted me and we hiked up for a while until we reached a collection of buildings that, in theory, could have been that place I was talking about. I went in to investigate and found an extended family sitting around a fire and talking in loud tones about the meat and liquor they were going to consume later that night. A few words and we were invited in to dry our stuff, share smokes and attend the night's festivities. Big Scott and Princess G made me the designated drinker, so I drank and laughed and woke up the next morning feeling just fine. The place I am talking about is not exactly a guest house, rather barracks for workers brought in to build high-voltage power lines from Qiaotou all the way to Daju at the far end of the Gorge. So it seemed the rumors of hydroelectric power had a bit of meat behind them. We talked about the river and the gorge and although everyone admitted that damming such a wild part of the Yangtze would be a shame, half the boys were laborers from other parts of Yunnan, Guizhou or Sichuan and all were in the pay of the electric company so: "this liquor and this meat say, Dam the River"! Luckily, the dam has been put on hold for the time being, but all it takes is for the bureaucratic pressure from one side to bowl over the resistance on the other side (i.e., cash) and the project could be back up again. It took decades before the Three Gorges Dam went forward, after all, and China's need for electrical power is hardly decreasing.... Finally, we said our goodbyes and continued the hike, conscious of the fact that the amazing scenery around us could be irrevocably altered for the sake of gigawatts and development.

Two Sacks the dog and the First Bend

One of the first things you see on the hike is the famous bend in the river caused by Haba Peak and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain squeezing the mighty Yangzte into shape. For the first few hours, you spend a lot of time tripping over stones underfoot as you peer over your shoulder at the stone rising up the sky and try and distinguish the tiny roar of the river below from the playful rush of wind past your ear. You don't see many people. Some villager's dog followed us all the way to the 23 Bends. He had the biggest balls I have ever seen on a canine; we named him Two Sacks. [showtime]

The Bends to the Halfway House

When we reached the bends, it was sometime in the afternoon, perhaps 2pm. Maybe later. We took one look at the twisting path as it rose up into the clouds and groaned aloud. We sat and held council. Big Scott works out every day and is perhaps one of the few men on earth that have made significant progress with the Toad Style Gong Fu (Ha Ma Gong/蛤蟆功). Unfortunately, he had brought all sorts of stuff with him and his bag weighed somewhere around 45 kg (100 lb). I am weak, suffer both from gout and consumption and had just recently acquired a rare mental affliction that manifested itself unpredictably. Princess G was and still is in good health. We were considering what to do when a man with a horse ambled by and said, "Anybody need a lift?" I took Scott's bag and climbed up on the horse, Princess G accompanied me to make sure I would be all right and Scott set off on his own to conquer the Bends. Somehow I don't feel as ashamed as I should. We met up a few hours later at the Halfway House, where we would be spending the night. A yardbird patrolled the courtyard with a mangy dog. They kept one eye on me and the other on the toddler waddling back and forth from a pile of toys to my lap, where he deposited them for safe keeping. The owner took it for granted that we would want weed-laced pancakes and we appreciated that. That night we all sat in the courtyard and stared up at the stars, each going on his own trip somewhere. Scott went somewhere very special. The hike up the Bends had left him famished, so he ate like 25 pancakes and they proved to be more potent than we assumed. I am not sure how you, the Reader, feel about eating banana pancakes using butter infused with marijuana grown at 14,000 ft (4,300 m) and then watching the stars spin around the Jade Dragon all night, but its actually quite illuminating. You could also just have a nice cup of local black tea (which I had as well) and do the same thing.

Leaping Tigers, Churning Demons

From the Halfway House down to the "Exact Spot from which the Tiger Leapt" is a smooth walk passed waterfalls and through small collections of huts, with the massive backside of the Jade Dragon blocking out the sun for most of the morning. There were many more tourists here then on the hike from Qiatou, so it looks like there is a car service that takes people directly to the "spot" along the low road. I might be too much a of a wimp to hike up the 23 Bends, but I'll be damned if I take a van out to a spot, snap a picture, point at a couple sweaty hikers and then dip. That's just wrong. So with an inflated sense of righteousness, the three of us sat there where the Tiger had landed and watched the river churn as if a horde of viscous brown demons were being funneled through here on their way to annihilating something. The first time I came here, in 2001, a little girl led me down to a different stone in the river from her hut by the path. She had little Liberation shoes on and we walked past a small stockade housing three cows on our way down. She stood by patiently and reverently as I watched the river become molten silver. White sunlight danced with mischief on the water and impudently dried out parts of the rock, parts that only got dark and wet again as the next wave of silver washed over it. That was 2001 in the winter; 2007 in the summer the land was lush and the river swollen with mud and run-off.

Back in time, to Daju

After the hiking, horse riding, cliff gawking and river worshipping, the three of us strolled silently toward Daju. We never made it there. Some time constraint or another forced us back to Qiaotou and then on to Lijiang where we took a bus to Zhongdian. I want to continue this as if 2001 and 2007 were separated by a silk hanging and not six years of living. To do so, Big Scott and Princess G have to fade away and be replaced by a rotating cast of others—a photographer from Beijing who focused on Black and Whites of the gay scene, an Irish investment banker, a Naxi farmer in Liberation shoes and a blue cap, a girl from Guangzhou on her first real hiking trip, a buxom English girl who carried mushrooms in her bag and swung her golden hair around in open challenge. On that trip, I started out by taking a bus to Daju with the goal of hiking all the way to Qiaotou and out. Daju at that time was a dusty relic of a town; white squat homes with red roofs, a color scheme that melted into the vastness of the mountains that surrounded the little town. The stone was every shade of gray, red-orange and green lichen clung to the sides and grew an inch while the mountain wasn't looking, the sky was unchanged blue and white. The sun demanded your acknowledgement, no matter where you were or what you were doing. At this time I was strong, reveling in youth and hubris and I had just recently acquired a stomach virus that manifested itself unpredictably. The only way to get to the ferry that would take us across the Jinsha River (part of the Yangzte) to the path was by tractor. My virus manifested itself roughly five minutes into that 45 minute ride. Do you know the meaning of suffering, truly? Suffering is: your intestines clawing at themselves like fighting rats while you bump along a wide open plain in a slow moving tractor. I broke out into cold sweats and I convinced myself that if I didn't take the pain Tom Berenger-style, my little sister thousands of miles away would be hit with some terrible sickness. So I held on until we reached the ferry and then I exploded all over a hole in the ground surrounded by rocks. The ferry did not know where to pick us up and we didn't know how to get to the ferry, so it took about an hour of us waving to a tiny man on a long raft in the rushing river before we all figured it out. Once across, my virus manifested itself repeatedly and vigorously as we climbed up to Sean's. He had extremely hot showers made of stone (very pleasing aesthetic) and some invigorating hot tea. From there... well... I hiked the trail alone back to Qiaotou, staying at the Halfway House, running down a mountainside with the Irishman, dancing underneath a waterfall with the Englishwoman, strolling silently with the young Naxi guy and talking late into the night with the photographer and the Guangzhou girl. No need to give too many details. The idea is for you to hike the Gorge yourself, not listen to me yap on about it.

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