China's Tiger Leaping Shangri-la
Sep 25, 2004
David Rich 1500 Words
China's Tiger Leaping Shangri-La
Lijiang is the centerpiece where James Hilton set his epic, Shangri-La, an ancient city with World Heritage designation sprawled along crystal-clear canals, chockablock with quaint shops and dotted with red lantern-festooned restaurants for those who like to eat. The restaurants uniformly offer sixteen-page menus in English featuring teas, coffees, beers ($.50), a dozen kinds of salads, milkshakes, omelettes, burgers, pastas, pizzas, Mexican dishes, steaks, chicken concoctions and many more choices in major food categories. Go to Lijiang if you love to gorge.
However, don't preoccupy with eating so much you miss the gorge called Tiger Leaping, an easy day trip from Lijiang. Plug "Tiger Leaping Gorge" into your favorite search engine, or my favorite search engines, http://surfwax.com or www.dogpile.com, and you'll be flooded with pictures, stories, inns and the weird name of the jumping-off town on the west end of the Gorge. That's what I did in Lijiang three years ago to get all the info needed for trekking the Gorge, which sits below the north face of Jade Dragon Mountain.
Quaint Lijiang sits at the south base of Jade Dragon Mountain, an always snowcapped monolith of spiky granite towering over 18,000 feet, accessible by two cable cars swooping to 11,000 and 14,000 feet. However the top cable car station is often shrouded in cloud and any thought of a peaceful view is eclipsed by a raucous karaoke bar croaking through extremely thin oxygen. When visible and your head stops reverberating, Lijiang looks like a toy town far below.
Lijiang nights shimmer with Christmassy neon lights reflected off Lilliputian canals flanked by pagoda-like building and cobblestone streets. Digital cameras wielded by Chinese tourists flash incessantly, pushing Japanese photogs into second place around Asia. The locals parade in native costume, delighting the tourists, while a picturesque Naxi orchestra fiddles on ancient ethnic instruments buried in local gardens during the Cultural Revolution. You are impressed that musical culture may survive in Shangri-La and indeed it does if culture consists of twangy single-stringed cellos and screechy soprano soloists introduced by the longest-winded master of ceremonies in all of China. The orchestra is gasping its last because thirty-eight of the forty-four members are over age seventy. Maybe the instruments should have stayed buried. Their owners soon will be.
Lijiang is also famous for earthquakes, but amazingly for earthquakes that though high on the Richter scale do little or no damage. Fortuitously Lijiang's old town was built of ancient granite blocks that sway in vicious tremors but seldom tumble. For the foreign tourist with the usual 30-day visa Lijiang is a godsend, the easiest place in China for extending your visa (ten minutes versus the usual three days) and a mecca for trekkers as the jumping-off place for the 11,000-foot-deep Yangtze River Gorge called Tiger Leaping that cuts the backside off Jade Dragon Mountain.
Why is it called Tiger Leaping Gorge, you rhetorically ask, since the answer is almost apparent? The Gorge is so narrow that legend has it a tiger once jumped completely over to escape a wily Chinese hunter. Fifty meters at the narrowest point still boggles the tiger-leaping imagination.
The Gorge nestles near Tibet and Myanmar where the headwaters of the mighty Yangtze River attract hikers worldwide. There the Yangtze compresses from 300 meters to a raging ribbon 11,000 feet below the snowcapped mountains on either side, one of the visually deepest chasm on the globe. Chilly white peaks stretch a vertical mile over the edge, which drops over twice as deep as the mere-mile deep Grand Canyon.
It's easy getting to the Gorge from Lijiang. After a scenic two hour bus ride 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, snow caps sparkling in the sun.
The hike up the Gorge this time was quite unlike the one I had three years ago. The streets of the jumping-off town of Qiotou were seemingly deserted, not a cab in sight and I did so want to avoid the eight kilometer (five mile) jaunt to the Gorge entrance. Last time I'd been mobbed by cabs upon disembarkation from the Lijiang bus. For a few bucks the cab had deposited me at the end of the pavement after the cabbie graciously took my picture astride the garish tiger statue at the entrance to the Gorge. This time signs were plastered everywhere announcing the lower road, next to the Gorge, had been closed by landslides. Avid hikers were offered the perfect opportunity to log an extra five miles on the high trail so I stood thinking of shoving off.
I hated to miss the riverside trail where you can climb down 700 feet of 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 perch on the edge of the savage roiling river. Back then I'd 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'd slammed down scabrous walnut and honey pancakes. I had no choice but to miss all the close-up river excitement, unlimbering my hiking poles to begin the ten kilometer and almost 1000 meter climb to the high trail's high point, with only another six kilometers from there to Mr. Feng's Halfway Guesthouse.
Last time I'd encountered three startling perils on the high trail. 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 me to summon the bright idea of gingerly sidling around them without falling off the narrow track. They never noticed me tiptoeing by, amidst the crash, crash, crash of their grueling contest. The last hazard was a cornered bull taking offense I was on the track at all and if I hadn't charged back at him, waving my arms, yelling and calling his bluff I'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 Mr. Feng's Halfway Guesthouse.
This time the most menacing encounters were a couple of long skinny snakes and several bristly black boars. I couldn't let sleeping snakes lie, prodding them twice to encourage slithering off the trail while the boars scampered like swirling black tops with no encouragement whatsoever.
Rung out after the ten mile (16 kilometer) hike I slouched on Mr. Feng's patio, overwhelmed by peaks looming a mile and a half above my head while the Yangtze tinkled faintly half a mile below. Three years previous I'd 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. Sore behind had been me, long-term memory loss eclipsing a childhood spent on horses. I should have known better. I didn't make the same mistake this time, settling for scintillating conversation with hikers from around the world while we racked up a case or two of good Dali beer.
As the sun sliced behind the peaks three years ago I'd 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; this time there were a dozen Chinese, several Koreans, two Aussies, a Dane, Kiwi and many other nationalities. The number of hikers had increased four-fold. Beds had spiraled from $1.87 each to $2.50, but were now in a new building with the amenities of picture windows and spaciousness instead of the near-cupboards suffered three years back.
Mr. Feng served great cheap meals from fried peanuts to decent walnut honey pancakes and wild mushrooms, huge apple pies and an unending stream of Dali beer while we huddled around the rude black stove on the patio with a view, repeating traveler's lies. Three years ago the Dutch had been 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's probably making a mint. This time most of the hikers were headed further north, to the officially-designated Shangri-la of Zhongdian, now the jumping off town for overland tours to Tibet.
For all you out there who remain tentative tourists, go Tiger Leaping now before the Chinese clear the landslides and pave the road and a legion of terrible tours cluster-bomb the Gorge with even more tourists. Or stick around quaintsy Lijiang if the gorge you prefer flows from menus the size of novelettes.