The Fellowship of the Gorge: Part One

Culture | by Luis Landas
Posted: October 8th, 2012 | Updated: October 24th, 2012 | Comments
I have just returned from ten days backpacking with a few buddies through Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, two of the most popular tourist destinations in China for independent, adventurous and good-looking travelers such as myself. We began our trip with a flight from Shanghai to Kunming where we immediately hit the road towards Dali. After three brilliant nights there we bussed it over to Lijiang where we boarded another to get to Qiaotou. We found that the town of Qiaotou, scenic and inviting, is but a humble gateway to the utterly Tolkien-esque magnificence of Tiger Leaping Gorge. Indeed, before spending our last two nights in Chengdu we dared to venture east for three days on "the high road," trekking along what some call the deepest valley in the world. We came for a nature fix, but left with much more. We became conquerors. So, why don't you grab a cozy cup of Yunnan coffee, take a seat and let me tell you about that time a few good friends and I, naively equipped with humongous backpacks, traversed the Tiger Leaping Gorge: where we were provided with as much Internet connectivity as we were toilet paper, and where stopping to smell the roses doesn't actually involve any roses.... The ride up from Lijiang to Qiaotou was an excruciatingly slow one. Narrow roads, bottlenecks and unwieldy vehicles made the otherwise meager distance a three-hour torture sentence. Not five minutes out of the bus terminal were we already halted by traffic that lasted for almost half an hour, a situation that eventually inspired our driver to take matters into his own hands and valiantly turn off the engine. At least they were playing the first Iron Man movie on board. But, man, was that bus hot. We arrived at Qiaotou in the mid-afternoon and used our month's worth of elementary level Mandarin lessons to order some lunch at a nearby roadside restaurant. The owner was patient and accommodating, letting us choose a few ingredients and come up with our own dish (they didn't have a menu). Our meal of rice, meat and vegetables was hearty and filling, and fueled us with some crucial carbohydrates for the trek ahead. There were three of us who embarked on the journey from this point; I was with two friends, Snake, a strange fellow from the realm of Floridian forests, clad in white and grey and proficient with an Amazon Kindle, and Ferg, a rugged yet convivial character from the wild lands of Costa Rica, whose facial hair alone can grind mountains to dust. I, hailing from the kingdom of third-culture, have hairy feet and can ferociously vanquish several large meals all by myself. The three of us paid our entrance fees at the tourism center not far from the restaurant and embarked on the path towards the hiking trail. Overexcited, I started snapping pictures, unaware that the paved street provided a view inferior to those offered a meager hour ahead. Our handy-dandy trail map, which we picked up from the tourist center back at Qiaotou, gave us a lot of useful approximations for the distances between each guesthouse along the high road. We had spaced out our itinerary so that we did not have to rush our hiking, so our goal for the day was to reach the Naxi Family Guesthouse [Nàxī Kèzhàn, 纳西客栈; (86 887) 880- 6928], the first of many on the trail. The map said it was only 1.5 hours away. Four hours later we arrived at the guesthouse. Sweaty, exhausted and overwhelmed with feelings of relief, we inquired about room availability and nabbed a place to stay for the night. Luckily for us, the lovely lady who ran the place had space. But what took us so long? Why did we spend the last hour prior to checking in to Naxi Family speed-walking in the pitch black of the night, hoping to finally find a place to sleep? What went wrong? We got distracted. We read about how marijuana plants grew "on the side of the road" in the area, but when we finally came across our first plant, sitting inconspicuously against the wall of a small structure, it diverted our attention from the sign painted on the wall behind it that guided hikers down a dirt path—the correct path. We found ourselves sidetracked for over an hour, continuing upwards through corn fields and local homes. Delightfully, we even found ourselves a shortcut, climbing up a muddy slope to the path above. Things started to feel wrong when we realized we were where only mules roam, standing helplessly up high on a steep ridge, overlooking what looked like the correct dirt path a hundred yards below. A local Naxi woman shouted all the way from her home for us to come down the right way, probably thinking to herself that we looked like some lost mountain goats perched up in solitude. In our defense, the view was splendid. That night, dinner at the guesthouse was absolutely delectable. We were happy with the prominence and quality of rice dishes in menus around Yunnan, and our meal at the Naxi Family Guesthouse was unsurprisingly rich and gratifying. The three of us shared a pot of jasmine tea with honey and sang songs of merriment while telling stories of adventures passed. Snake practiced his Amazon Kindlery in the dining area, while Ferg guzzled down a mug of hot chocolate. I tended to my toes. Sweet sleep awaited us. We dreamed of the vistas we would witness once we achieved higher altitudes. Only one thing stood in our path. The 28 Bends. This portion of the hike, legendary for its difficulty, was not far from Mama Naxi, and would be our first target the next morning. Did all of us make it? Did Snake's Amazon Kindle survive the outdoors? I will tell you, in time, what happened that next day. Find me here again next week. But what should you take away from all this so far? Well, I've got these tips for you:
  1. If you are student under 25 years old, whip out your student ID and something else with your age on it. It should help you save around 30% on the Tiger Leaping Gorge entrance fee. Ideally, if you are studying in China, have your little red student ID booklet in hand.
  2. Keep a lookout for multicolored arrows and signs crudely painted on various surfaces along the way that tell you which way to go. You'll see them on walls, large rocks and even flat stones on the ground.
  3. If you can stick to your plan and not overestimate your hiking ability, book rooms at the guesthouse in advance.
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