Monday, April 24, 2006

Grinning in the Gorge

Two weeks ago we had the chance to do one of the quintessential SW China outdoor activities: hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge. It's interesting: in Europe many of the 'big deal' sights/activities turned out to be kind of let-downs for us, while some of the much lesser-known attractions were our favorites.

In China however, the biggies have all been worthwhile. We were really moved and impressed hiking the deserted sections of the Great Wall (thanks again Linda!), we were suitably impressed by the terracotta soldiers in Xi'an, and we now we have really enjoyed our trek down Tiger Leaping Gorge.

It's by no means the most challenging or most breathtaking hike we've ever done, but something about the combination of the scenery (which is really pretty), the hike (enough uphill to make you work, but not to be too daunting), the guesthouses (small family-run places) and the other people doing the hike somehow all combined for a really enjoyable experience that definitely made our China highlight list.

The hike is easily done in two days and even possible in one, especially since most people don't do the full length of the gorge, but instead turn back at Walnut Garden. However, we were in no hurry, and also, I had no desire to do the hardest part of the hike either at the end of the day or in the hottest part of the day. So instead, we headed up from Lijiang early afternoon, arriving at the head of the gorge about 4 pm, leaving us just the time to attack the first 2 hours of so of the trek.

That turned out to be a great decision for a number of reasons. 1) We missed the early afternoon rainstorm that could have made things a little dicey. 2) We got our legs loosened up hiking uphill for the first two hours but then got a rest before climbing the notorious 28 bends the next morning, and best of all 3) It meant that we ended up spending the night at the Naxi Family Guesthouse (which we recommend, by the way) and meeting up with the rest of 'The Naxi Family Eight' (see below)

The second day was a great mix of hiking and soaking up the views. It was a pretty easy day of hiking (the 28 bends notwithstanding) with only about 5 hours of moving down the trails, but the scenary was great and we broke up the hikes with some snacks and beers at various guesthouses. After a slightly more basic night at the Five Fingers Guesthouse (which might not have been anywhere near as comfortable as the Halfway House, but was definitely authentic and came with the world's cutest grandmother), we easily rolled off the last 2-3 hours in time to grab some lunch at Sean's Guesthouse (which underwhelmed us, btw).

So what was the hike actually like?

-- Well, it started among the green, terraced hills of the river valley but quickly climbed into the gorge proper. For two days we had variations on looking down steep slopes to a narrow, rapid-filled gorge, looking forward along the gorge, looking across at spectacular rocky peaks that changed aspects as the light and weather changed, and walking a trail that wound through forests, dusty trails, and rocky cliff edges. (For all the pics from the trek click here)

-- Scattered along the way are spraypainted ads for the various guesthouses telling you (usually inaccurately) how far you have to go. Occasionally at some of the intersections it could get a bit overwhelming.

-- Each time we had stopped at a guesthouse, someone always came running out with a menu for our meal/snack etc. When we reached the Five Fingers Guesthouse late afternoon of the second day we checked in, put our things in rooms, and ordered a bunch of teas and beers. A food menu never appeared or was mentioned and so when an hour or two after our arrival we heard cooking sounds from the kitchen and began to smell some tantilizing scents, we all assumed that it must just be an 'eat whatever they cook for you' type of place, which was fine with all of us. After all, they knew we were there for the night, there were no other food options, and we clearly would be hungry having hiked through the day to get there.

About seven o'clock or so we looked up from our card game with some surprise, as we realized that we still hadn't seen the hosts or our food and we were getting quite hungry. Much to our chagrin, disappointment and amusement, we looked in and saw the family gathered around the table piled high with food and eating away; it had been THEIR dinner they were cooking. Thoroughly abashed at our assumption, we meekly went to them and asked for a menu. By the time they had cooked all of our dishes from scratch, it was after 9 pm when we finally were able to eat. But it was delicious.

-- While many tourists hike the gorge each year, thousands more visit it by tour bus. We strongly recommend against experiencing the gorge this way. Looking down from our peaceful trail above, we could see the backed-up jam of tour buses winding through the gorge and we spoke to some Belgian tourists who described the chaos and crush of tourists and touts and vendors at the viewpoint and path down to the middle rapids with disgust.

-- Though there was the occasional sheer drop off the trail, by far the hairiest part of the experience was the ride back through the gorge to Qiaotou. Due to shortage of taxis (and no phone to call more with) Pat and I managed to bargain with the driver of an ancient truck to drive us back to town. While I'm sure that he actually drove really well, I was a wreck as we headed back, seemingly oversteering and skidding on the gravel towards the sheer drops and driving way too close to the edge for my comfort. The only saving grace for me was that I was sitting on the cliff wall side, so I could just refuse to look towards the abyss. Poor Meaghan had it right out her window and she wasn't much enjoying her ride either. It took me a good 15 minutes to stop shaking afterwards.

All in all, it was a great couple of days doing the kind of things we love to do. We highly recommend the hike for those passing through Yunnan. If we had more time we would even have tried to extend the walk or combine it with a trek to the WenHai ecolodge or something. Rumor has it that the Chinese are going to dam up the gorge and soon this spectacular walk and scenary will be gone. Don't know if that will happen or not, but if so, get here and see it while you still can.


The Gang (aka 'the Naxi Family Eight')

One of the best parts of the hike was hooking up with 6 fellow travellers at the Naxi Family Guesthouse. We started by ordering dinner together so that we could all try more dishes and ended up spending the next day and a half hiking, eating, sleeping, playing cards, and sharing travel stories together. Our partners in crime were:

Scott and Ana, a couple from (of all places) Southeast Portland (!!) who are also travelling for a year. We all get back to Oregon about the same time and are looking forward to sharing stories and beer together.

Pat and Meaghan, two Canadians currently living and teaching in Hong Kong. They finish this vacation trip just as we hit Hong Kong, so hopefully we'll be able to get together there again.

Joachim and Katja, a German couple from Berlin currently living and working in Oudomxay, Laos. It was great to share stories about Laos and learn more about how life really works there.

Thanks again to all of them for enriching our gorge experience!

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