August 6th, 2010
Shangri-La, Yunnan Province, China

Aside from our brief jaunt into the Cang Shan Mountains about a week ago, Chris and I have zero hours of trekking experience between us, so it was with some trepidation that we tackled China’s famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. Lonely Planet warned that it was a difficult hike even for experienced trekkers in good condition, that the rainy season often caused landslides and deaths. Lonely Planet was, as usual, wrong.

The bus from Lijiang dropped us off at the western edge of the gorge in the village of Qiatou (actually pronounced Chowto, or something; I would love to get my hands on whoever transliterated Asian languages into Roman characters). At that point we had to get to Jane’s Guesthouse, where we could leave our main packs while we spent two days trekking, but it was very unclear as to how to go there. You’d think that with thousands of tourists doing the trek every year you might put up just one little sign, but no. We trudged a while up the road, decided that we’d gone the wrong way, and trudged back down the road. We followed it downhill for about two kilometres, with Chinese people still telling us we were heading towards the gorge, before deciding that we must have gone the wrong way and needed to go back to Qiatou.

This was carrying our 15 kg packs in summer heat, and it was putting us in exceptionally foul moods. Neither of us had slept well the previous night, since our guesthouse hadn’t been well-equipped for that. The beds were rock hard (a common problem in Asia), there was a bright porch light directly outside our window, and – worst of all – one of our neighbours snored heavily all night, blasting right through the paper-thin walls. It sounded like an aggressive dog growling at an intruder.

“Why don’t we just go to sleep on the floor of a barn in the middle of the day, with all the cows mooing around us?” Chris asked.

So, that wasn’t a great start to the day. We trudged all the way back up to Qiatou, sticking our hands out in the hope of hitching a ride from one of dozens of minivans passing. No luck. Upon our return to the village we found a very obscure route into the entrance of the gorge, across a bridge and squeezing through some trucks in a construction site, which led us to Jane’s.

Trekking the gorge on no sleep was obviously not an option, so we resolved to stay there the rest of the day and that night, gratefully flopping down onto our beds as soon as we’d had something to eat, exhausted and fed up. “The perfect life,” Chris said, “would be if your spine was broken and you just had to lie in bed all day.”

After a decent night’s sleep, we set off the next morning around 11 am. We left our main packs there, taking along only our daypacks, with a change of clothes, notebook, iPod, bottled water and something to read.

There are two ways to trek Tiger Leaping Gorge. You can take the low road, which is an actual proper vehicle road that’s under construction and involves a lot of mud, gravel, earth-movers, workers, dynamite blasts and trucks. It’s straight and flat and easy. Or, you can take the high road, which is foot-trail that meanders through forests and bushland at a higher level and takes a lot longer to complete. If you want to do things properly, the high road is clearly the only option.

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The first stretch saw us following some convoluted directions to get out of the cluster of village buildings at the west end, before we emerged into a bare hillside with a path stretching around to the point.

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We stopped for lunch at the Naxi Family Guesthouse, and then pushed on, following the path around a curve that gave us a pretty good view of the river below, and the trail to come. There was a lot of horse shit on the path, and I could hear them whinnying off in the distance, but no enterprising Chinese man came up and offered us a ride. I totally would have taken it. On level stretches, I can walk all day, but uphill, I need to stop every ten minutes. This was the view from the top of a particularly strenuous uphill struggle:

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Later in the afternoon we rounded another bend and were treated to a much more impressive set of mountains on the opposite side of the gorge. This is the range that includes Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and it rises to a dizzying height of five and a half thousand metres. By comparison, Mt. Kosciusko – the highest peak in Australia – is a pathetic 2228 metres high. These mountains were titanic granite monsters. They just went up and up and up and their peaks were completely hidden in the clouds.

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It’s the kind of thing you don’t see much of in Perth.

After the 28 Bends, a section of the trail that is extremely steep and winding, the high road levelled off and we made very good time. In fact, we overtook everybody we came across: Chinese locals, Western backpackers, Korean ajossi decked out in their North Face gear and hiking poles – and arrived at our planned stop, the Halfway House, at about five in the afternoon.

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This place had good rooms, did decent food and had a spectacular view of the mountains. We had dinner there, and spent some time talking to an American guy, and a French guy who recommended us a great motorbike rental place in Shangri-La. As sunset approached, the clouds finally dissipated, and we could see the mountain peaks in all their jagged majesty, crowned with the last amber light of the day.

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Sill haven’t seen snow. I thought I could see a few patches here and there, but Chris said it was shale, and given how low down it was he’s probably right.

Halfway House didn’t give the gift of good sleep either, since every dog within five hundred metres was barking its fucking head off until 2 am. I also woke in the middle of the night needing to pee, and sat up to see a man standing right beside my bed, sillhouetted by the faint moonlight coming in through the curtains. It was actually Chris’ shirt, which he’d hung by a coathanger from the light fixture, but for a split second it scared the crap out of me.

We set off again the next morning at 11. I had a banana pancake for breakfast; I order these everywhere I find them, on the theory that as soon as I can’t, I will have found the end of the Banana Pancake Trail. Also they’re delicious.

The trail after Halfway House was often covered in rocks and waterfalls, which was cool.

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There was also more livestock than the previous day, which meant an increase in shit. Tiger Leaping Gorge is by no means wilderness; people have always lived here, and the trail often leads right past fields and pigsties. You’re also spoiled for choice when it comes to guesthouses.

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After clearing the land of waterfalls, the trail started to descend towards the low road, and Tina’s Guesthouse.

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We’d been told that at four o’clock a bus ran from Tina’s, back to Jane’s and then on to Shangri-La, and we wanted to catch it. As we were heading down, however, somebody else was coming back up.

“That’s not a good sign,” Chris said.

“He’s probably just doing it the other way,” I said.

“No, we met this guy last night.”

He was right; as the man drew closer I saw that he was an Israeli backpacker we’d met at Halfway House. “How come you’re heading back?” Chris called out.

“An American girl is missing,” he said curtly.

He explained what had happened and asked if we’d seen her. She’d left before them and was supposed to be at Tina’s, but hadn’t showed up. We hadn’t run into anyone except a Dutch trio, but there were lots of branching paths, and at least one other guesthouse. We wished him luck and descended down to Tina’s.

Tina’s Guesthouse was a bit of a mess. There were quite a few trekkers there, but not enough to explain the catastrophic level of disorganisation. It took us half an hour just to place an order for a meal, and Chris asked Tina several times if there was a minivan leaving at four o’clock, receiving only vague replies – and being ignored by Tina constantly as she walked past us and he tried to grab her attention. We talked to a Chinese guy who spoke good English and said that it would probably be easier for us to just walk back to Jane’s; on the low road, it should only take three hours. And given the constant construction, the free passage of vehicles was dubious.

So after eating a mediocre lunch, we set off down the path to the low road. (The American girl turned up safe and sound, by the way.) This was a muddy, unsealed road that led us between a sheer cliff face (sometimes with tumbling rocks) to our right, and a steep drop down to the river on our lift. There was construction going on, but not as much as I expected, and we often had the whole road to ourselves.

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We were walking for less than an hour before a minivan offered us a ride back to Q-Town, as Chris had dubbed it. We haggled him down to 20 yuan and hopped in – so much for the road being closed to vehicles. This was a pretty cool ride, since it was very… precarious. Not exactly like that road in Bolivia, but we were quite often cruising along wih less than a few feet between the minivan and the edge of the road – no guardrails, no safety measures, just a hundred metre plunge onto the rocks below.

Arriving back at Jane’s Guesthouse at three o’clock, we learned there was a bus leaving for Shangri-La at 3:30, and so we grabbed our stuff and headed into town. Sure enough, there was a bus, and we spent the next three hours crammed into the backseat watching a spectacular landscape of mountains and ravines go by. And now we’re in Shangri-La, staying in a fairly cramped and crummy room, which is OK because it’s only 80 yuan a night. We’ll shift somewhere else tomorrow.

So that was Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was pretty amazing, and I’m glad we did it, although I can’t say I’m sold on trekking. I think I’m just too lazy. A lot of the time I was fantasizing about Mongolia, and having a horse to carry me everywhere. Nonetheless, I think it was a hike well done, and I’m glad we did it before the completion of the low road, which will grant free passage to hundreds of thousands of Asian tour group buses.

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