EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a four-part series on Taylor's recent trip to south China's Yunnan Province
There's been few times in my life, clichés aside, where I've actually had my breath taken away. Standing atop a rock formation reaching out into the Tiger Leaping Gorge, with a view up and down the length of the vast chasm, was one of those instances. Maybe it was the scenery, the sun setting over an awe-inspiring landscape on loan from heaven, or maybe it was the fact that I'd been trekking for the better part of day either way, the air in my lungs was temporarily stolen from me. Then out came my camera and roughly 50 shots later I was ready to move on.
The Tiger Leaping Gorge, located in China's northwest Yunnan, is a backpacker's or woodsy folk's dreamland. One of the deepest river canyons in the world, the gorge is 14 miles of green hills, snowcapped mountains and rugged paths, with bending trails, cozy villages and waterfalls along the way. The gorge gets its name from a legendary tiger that, while evading hunters, jumped over the gorge at its narrowest point, which is about 100 feet.
Trekking the gorge at an enjoyable pace, if you like stopping to smell the cherry blossom flowers, can take up to three days. Layla, my travel companion, and I would only be spending two days in the gorge at a much less leisurely walking speed. We'd leave our guesthouse in Lijiang early in the morning, arrive at a base town two hours later and begin the trek by about noon. At least that was the plan.
But like all things in China chaotic and disorganized our plan quickly fell apart due to a lack of buses, a lack of bus tickets and a lack of signs at the bus station. When we finally arrived at the base town, it was pushing 2 in the afternoon. We finally got trekking around 3 p.m. after checking our larger bags at a nearby hostel. We'd just have to walk faster, Layla and I agreed. That was a mistake.
We started out strong, walking confidently toward the gorge on relatively stable terrain, but once we hit dirt trails and had to maneuver over boulders, our pace slowed with each step. The second biggest problem was that we'd misjudged ourselves; neither of us was in trekking shape. At this rate, we wouldn't make it to the gorge's peak before sunset, let alone a traveler's guesthouse an hour beyond that. Trekking at night was out of the question. One wrong step in the dark could send us over a cliff. Lucky for us, the cavalry was about to arrive.
Since leaving the town at the bottom of the gorge, two men on horseback had followed us. They had offered to take us to the peak, for a fee but on horseback it would only take about two hours. We wanted to walk the "real way" and said no thanks.
But the duo followed anyway. Their horses had small bells hanging from the saddles. As we went up steep hills, the bells would jingle; as we traversed rocky terrain, more jingling. There was jingling all the way as we walked along the trail. Jingle, jingle, jingle it was the sound of our salvation.
After about two hours of hiking on our own, and now covered in sweat and through half our water supply and extremely behind schedule, we had a change of heart. Once on horseback, we reached the peak in about two hours, shot off another hundred photos, and made it to the village as the sun retreated behind the snow-covered peak on the opposite side of the gorge nearby.
The next morning we got up early before the afternoon heat could slow us down again. A mostly downhill trek, the second half was a breeze, albeit hard on the knees. Since we didn't have to rush, we were able to stop and enjoy the scenery around us.
The path took us past fields where people were busy harvesting wheat or planting other crops. Flowers were in full bloom and I even saw an out-of-place cactus or two. At each sleepy little town we were greeted by a few farm animals, mostly chickens or other fowl, wandering about unattended.
Three hours later, we reached the main road through the gorge and were reconnected with civilization. A group of foreigners were trying to get a bus back to the base town and we decided to hitch a ride, too.
While a tourist hotspot, the Tiger Leaping Gorge is a far cry from being anything remotely touristy. True, there was a toll to pay before entering the gorge and the two prime photo spots were guarded by aged locals who demanded a fee of about $2 per person, but the lack of Chinese tour buses and unadulterated landscape more than compensated for those few minor inconveniences.
The journey through the gorge is a great place to do some soul searching, even if you think you haven't lost yours. Stuck out there among the trees, blowing wind and winding trails had a rejuvenating effect. While physically exhausting, at the end of our first day I felt relaxed and comfortable, perhaps enjoying a nice hiker's high. I slept soundly and woke up re-energized, something I wish I could pull off back in Beijing.
Only once we were on a bus headed to our next destination did I completely crash, falling in and out of sleep as we bounced along the third-world roads. And when I awoke, the landscape had changed. Instead of lush rolling hills and forests, the land was a barren grayish-green. Snow-capped mountains lay off in the distance. A white ice cream shaped structure stood next to the road, rainbow colored flags on ropes hanging from it. It was a stupa, a Buddhist religious monument.
This was the Tibetan Plateau and we would soon be arriving at Shangri-la.
Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at http://www.btay200.blogspot.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.