Thursday, 22 November 2012

Tiger Leaping Gorge-ous

As Akke and I were waiting to leave Dali, we were joined by another backpacker, Otto from Finland so our group was three once more. We took the bus about 4 hours to Lijiang, and when we arrived we grabbed our bags from the luggage hold and they were wet and stinking of river fish. A polystyrene container, obviously transporting live fish, had slopped some of its contents and the padded straps of our bags soaked up the stinking liquid. We boarded another bus which was heading to a village called Qiaotou (pronounced a bit like 'chateaux'), and two hours later we arrived. We checked into Jane's Hostel, which is at the start of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. Before nightfall we decided to go for a little explore of the dusty village, and again the smell of cannabis wafted down from the hillsides. We started hiking up a hillside with the hope of reaching a temple looking place we had seen from the valley floor. Dusk descended as we were halfway up in the woods, having already crossed a few little farmsteads, and so decided to head back down to town as it would've been too difficult in the dark. That evening we shivered in the hostel, and chatted to a group of French girls as the night drew on. Beautiful dark haired French girls seemed to be my new weakness. I'd met two in as many days, both by chance called Camille, with sunshine eyes and heartache smiles; and both commanded my desires. I was reminded of a Jack Kerouac quote from On the Road; 'a pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved going the opposite direction in this too-big world'. Lusting aside, before bed I wandered out into the chilly black street to take a photograph of the stars as the skies were clear and the light pollution low. 

Terraced farming on the way out from Lijiang.
Looking down onto Qiaotou at dusk
Stars over the midnight road - outside the hostel before bed.
After breakfast the next morning we left our main luggage in storage at the hostel and the three of us started the trek. We followed the road up the mountain until it became a dusty track. The banks along the side of the route were covered in funnel web spiders, their threads like hammocks and beefy looking spiders spied us from their tunnels. Looking back down into the valley we were rewarded with beautiful views, the morning sun softly lit the Jinsha River valley and a light haze clung to the water. 

Tough looking mountain spiders hiding in their silken tunnel. 
Looking back over rice terraces towards Qiaotou, a morning haze hangs in the valley. 
Rice terraces in the Jinsha River valley.
We hiked through hamlets, across rice terraces, along dusty trails and rocky paths; we ached up the 28 bends, glided through a sea of bamboo and scurried under sighing pines. The 28 bends was the most arduous part of a thigh straining climb. The incline was steep and the sun was strong, dust kicked up from our heels and caked our dry mouths. We stopped for tea in a guest house along the way, before continuing along a path which was easier, for most of the days ascent was over. We ran into another group, themselves a collection of solo travellers, apart from one couple, a Kiwi and another Fin, who had cycled to China from Ankara in Turkey. The last hour or so we walked and chatted together, before arriving at our destination for the night, the Halfway Hostel. 

Farmsteads along the way.
Local farmers, the indigenous Naxi people of the area. 

Drying maize in a guest house along the way.
Cannabis for sale. I asked how much, she started at £10 then dropped to £3, but you can find it for free anyway.
Myself, Akke and Otto take a break from hiking.
The mountains on the other side of the gorge. 
Looking down the valley.
I accidentally trod on this creature, but it seemed to be fine.
A rare glimpse down the gorge into the roaring water below.
The Halfway Hostel was a picturesque and quaint place, that was fairly priced considering they could charge whatever they liked. As soon as we arrived we took a beer on the rickety terrace overlooking the jagged mountains opposite. We sat out chatting as the sun slowly set and cast a performance of shadows over the battered rock face of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The temperature dropped and we took the conversation inside, and the couple who had cycled from Turkey bore the brunt of the questioning and story-telling. We were a mix of two English, two French, two Dutch, two Finnish and a New Zealander. After a while the three native English speakers congregated together and traded in-jokes, and everyone else, who's English was damn near perfect, chatted amongst themselves. Later that evening I went to the top terrace to take some more star pictures, and rested my camera on the bannister as I had no space to bring a tripod. A few seconds into my second frame, a gust of wind somehow knocked the camera off the railing, it bounced on the wooden terrace and dropped 60 odd feet off the edge onto the hard ground below. Fuck. I was naturally concerned, but didn't shit myself. It sounded like it hit the ground with a solid thud, than a pant-crapping smash, so I fetched my torch and looked for a way to descend the mountain side to retrieve my camera. Somehow, and testament to Nikon, the camera was rescued unscathed, with just the smallest of cracks in the back screen protector. I did a quick test of the functions and everything seemed to be working fine. I got away with it. Next time I'll loop the camera through the strap over the railing. Lesson learned. I rejoined the group inside who had heard a thud and wondered what it was. We were all tired and before long most had gone to bed. I decided to take another couple of star pictures, that's what second chances are for. Before I could go to bed I was invited to join three middle aged Korean hikers, who were in high spirits from having sat there drinking all evening. They couldn't speak hardly any English, but they warmed to me with my three Korean words I could remember, and listing all the places I had been in Korea, just a month earlier. They were very generous and wouldn't let me leave until we had finished all their beers on the table, and somehow I was the last one in the hostel to go to bed.

Halfway hostel in late afternoon.
The views of the mountains opposite.
Clouds roll over the mountain tops.

Dramatic light and distant snow on Haba Snow Mountain.
The first frame of the stars over Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Falling frame, a few moments into the 30 second exposure my camera took a plummet.
Second chance: I think that's Venus over the valley.
The following morning the air felt warm, and we were in no rush as we had breakfast. We only had a two hour hike ahead to the road where we could take a ride back to the village we had started at. We walked with the group from the night before, though we were divided by segments of slightly differing pace. There was no real climbing to be done on this part of the hike, most of it was flat and downhill which was most welcome after yesterday's leg strain. We crossed a number of waterfalls, and followed dusty paths which hugged rock escarpments on the mountain side. As we descended we could hear the roar of the river as it rushed over rapid below. We soon made it to the road and Tina's Guest House, where we stopped for lunch and refreshments, before deciding to descend the gorge to the river below.

The morning sun at breakfast.
Otto crossing a log bridge.
Some of the group ahead.
Paths cling to the mountainside.

Waterfall ahead.
Stream crossing.
The descent into the gorge must've been a vertical kilometre, and it took 30 minutes to reach the bottom. I half ran rather than walked, allowing gravity to do half of the work for me, but my knees took a pounding as I bounced from rock to rock and kicked up dust into the face of the Dutch guy behind me. The way was very steep, loose and uneven, and the path zig-zagged down the valley. If going down was tough, coming up would be hell, I thought. At the bottom I scrambled over huge river boulders to reach the furthest point, out in the middle of the raging torrents. I was the only one on the rock, and no one else was in sight as the others were five minutes behind me. I enjoyed the location and the solitude. Otto and I then crossed an unfinished wooden bridge onto another rock 100 metres downstream, and my legs trembled slightly and the bridge wobbled and swung over the gorge. We could climb down onto this rock in the river to get as close as possible without facing certain death.

Descending into Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Alone at the bottom. Yes Tom, I'm wearing a neckerchief, it stops my neck from burning. 
Otto on the rope bridge.
Akke on the rock.
Crossing the bridge. This made me a little scared.
I was talked down.
The way back up was hell. I don't know how long it took, over an hour, but it was the most tiring part of the entire hike, with huge steps and climbs up, to retake the vertical kilometre we had surrendered in order to visit the bottom of the gorge. We stopped for a rest and a coke, and were joined by a Belgian couple in their early 70s who we had met a few times along the way. If I can walk up the stairs unaided at that age I'll be happy. We declined to take the safe route in favour of a 100 metre vertical ladder, which would save us a bit of time and zig-zagging up. It really got the adrenaline going, towards the top it was terrifying and my legs were already shaking from fatigue, I didn't need to be unsteady from fear as well. But needless to say, as you're reading this, I didn't fall to my death. We took our time more than the way down, and had great views over the landscape with the river glistening now in the distance.

An easier part of descending the valley, through a bamboo grove.
Akke climbing the ladder.
Interlocking spurs of the river gorge.
The sun shines down over Tiger Leaping Gorge.
On the way back up, looking down the valley.
Getting smaller below us.

Back at the top, we were told it would be £15 for a minibus to take us the 20km back to the village at the start of the hike, where we had left our bags. We decided to try and hitch hike, and after ten minutes on the road we were packed into the back of a van, and were joined by another traveller from London for this part of the ride. The driver was a little heavy on the accelerator, but I trusted him and the remaining adrenaline in my blood kept fear at bay. Once back to the hostel we collected our things and went to take a bus back to Lijiang, but instead ended up hitching a ride in a small people carrier, and two hours later we were checking into a hostel in the old part of Lijiang.

Hitch hiking back, I tried to take pictures of reflections of the Chinese girl sat in the front seat.
More abstract reflections as the sun set.


  1. Ben, I lost my TLG bridge and ladder pix. May I have permission to use those 2 pix for a video I am making on China? You will be credited. tito

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