Tiger Leaping Gorge
Nov 5, 2001
David Rich 1000 Words
T i g e r L e a p i n g G o r g e
In the far southwest of China nestled between Tibet and Myanmar near the headwaters of the mighty Yangtze River, glowers Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Gorge compresses the Yangtze from 300 yards wide to a raging ribbon 11,000 feet below the snowcapped mountains on either side, one of the deepest chasm on the globe. Chilly white peaks stretch a vertical mile over the edge, which drops an additional mile to the Yangtze, well over twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. The Gorge ranks among the top ten hikes anywhere, which is a mighty high ranking out of 191 countries, though I still haven't visited them all and could more easily than not be flat wrong.
Naturally it isn't easy getting to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Read James Hilton's, Shangri-La for general directions. From Kunming, capitol of Yunnan Province, it's a five-hour bus ride to Dali; the train takes eight hours, go figure. It's another three hours to the charming World Heritage city of Lijiang. Two hours beyond Lijiang you hit the Yangtze, or it hits you, Haba Mountains to the north. The towering jagged peaks of the Jade Dragon Mountains are on the high south horizon, 5500 meters high, which to gringos is over 18,000 feet, snow caps sparkling in the sun.
We were as usual mobbed by cabs upon disembarkation from our less-than-luxury bus in the jumping-off town on the west end of the Gorge, the name of which to this day I can't spell, pronounce, or remember, but I've looked it up: Quaotou or Qiaotou, alternative spellings. Plug "Tiger Leaping Gorge" into your favorite search engine, or my favorite search engines, http://surfwax.com or www.dogpile.com, and it'll come up with pictures, stories, inns and the name of the town on the west end of the Gorge. That's what we did in Lijiang to get all the info we needed for trekking the Gorge.
Why is it called Tiger Leaping Gorge, you rhetorically ask, since the answer is apparent? The Gorge is so narrow that legend has it a tiger once jumped completely over to escape a wily Chinese hunter. Fifty yards at the narrowest point still boggles the tiger-leaping imagination.
Our cabby deposited us at the end of the pavement after graciously taking my picture astride the garish tiger statue at the entrance to the Gorge. There we trudged 700 feet down stupendously steep steps to the Yangtze, paying a quarter (two yuan) to the mother of two darling imps in full Naxi costume to take their picture as they perched on the edge of the savage roiling river. We struggled back up to begin a nine-mile meander through tiny Naxi villages suspended precariously over the river's edge, all the way to Tina's Guesthouse where exhausted, I slammed down scabrous walnut and honey pancakes while my spouse continued blithely onward and upward. Still, the carbs fortified me to catch up with her for the 2000-foot climb that took two hours during which we encountered three startling perils.
The first consisted of two drenching waterfalls pouring across the trail from far above to far, far below, both promising a rapid descent into the river upon any misstep over slippery boulders. The second was two rams engaged in a butting contest so intense their heads were bloodied during the forty crashes it took us to summon the bright idea of gingerly sidling around them without falling off the narrow track. They never noticed us tiptoeing by, amidst the crash, crash, crash of their grueling contest. The last hazard was a cornered bull taking offense we were on the track at all and if I hadn't charged back at him, waving my arms, screaming and calling his bluff while my spouse stood petrified, we'd have been part of Yangtze history, washed into the South China Sea. It's an adventurous few miles hiking up, up and up to Halfway Guesthouse, a quaint establishment run by Mr. Feng.
Rung out, we relaxed on Mr. Feng's patio, overwhelmed by peaks looming a mile and a half above our heads and the faintly tinkling river half a mile below. It was chilly at 8500 feet but Mr. Feng shepherded us into his kitchen along with the neighbor's kids and fellow travelers. We enjoyed ginger tea for warmth, fried veggies for sustenance, and foam earplugs for peace and quiet from the kids.
The next day I succumbed to the garish blandishments of Mr. Feng's poster advertising pony treks up the mountain; see the enchanting meadow at 12,000 feet, great views of the Jade Dragon Mountains, hoopla and snake oil. I talked my long-suffering wife into the pony trek and sore behind was us, long-term memory loss eclipsing my childhood spent on horses. I should have known better. The upshot meant we abandoned the miniature ponies and walked back down the mountain from the enchanting 12,000-foot-high meadow, cradling our rear ends all the way to Mr. Feng's lovely patio, where I sipped numerous Dali beers with other trekkers.
As the sun sliced behind the peaks we sat shivering with a Dutch couple, a Tibetan checking out tour possibilities, three extremely obnoxious Chinese, two Brits, and a lively group of seven Koreans. Beds cost $1.87 each and Mr. Feng served great cheap meals from fried peanuts to decent walnut honey pancakes and wild mushrooms. We skipped the meat dishes and the resident cat emerged unscathed. The neighbor kids watched TV, no escaping that anywhere, while we huddled away from the blare, around the rude black stove on the patio with a view, repeating traveler's lies. The Dutch were headed for Laos on bicycles after hiking around Annapurna in Nepal. The Tibetan wanted to entertain clients with a side trip from Lhasa to Tiger Leaping Gorge, and he might make a mint. For all you out there who remain tentative potential tourists, go now before the Chinese pave the road, and a legion of terrible tours cluster-bomb the district with tons of tourists, converting Tiger Leaping Gorge into a claustrophobic pussy cat. And that's no bull.