OK, so the gorge trek. Here we go (warning! Long text! Pictures at the end!):
Since both mom and I are scared of heights we were a bit nervous about the Tiger Leaping Gorge (TLG) trek. Still, since I’ve read so many reviews of it, all claiming it was “amazing!” and a “must-do” if visiting that part of Yunnan, we still decided to give it a go. Unless it was raining of that very day that is. We had read that if it rains the road/stones can get real slippery and the thought of us (me, being such a clutz) slipping off the road was kind of intimidating, forcing us to establish this rule.
So, on Thursday morning we got up really early and carb-loaded with a breakfast consisting of sickening sweet white bread that we had found from a bakery the night before (no cafés were open at that time of the morning) before heading to the bus station in order to catch the 8.30 am bus to the TLG entrance. All went well until the bus started driving and it started raining. And not as in a little drizzle, oh no. It was as if the sky had opened and it was literally pouring down. I tried to keep a brave face simply by closing my eyes and pretending that it wasn’t happening, meanwhile mom anxiously watched the road. After about 20 minutes she suddenly tapped my shoulder:
-Hey, look outside. That’s the third car accident so far!
And, very well. Out on the road were a large bus, a crashed mini van and a lot of police cars. I swallowed hard. Fortunately, even the bus driver seemed slightly affected by the amounts of slippery slops and actually slowed down as we made our way up the mountain on narrow, slippery roads. For me it almost became a little bit too much though. In 2006 I was riding a car in similar conditions in another part of Yunnan (also in mountain areas) and we actually had a car accident. Since I am not the bravest person on earth I got a minor shock form the experience, and promised never to put myself in a similar situation. And now, what was I doing? For a while I considered telling mom that we would get of the bus and hitchhike back to town.
Fortunately I didn’t and when we eventually reached the entrance it had stopped raining and the ground at this point seemed rather dry. In fact, it almost looked as if it had never rained at this height. The sun was shining from a clear blue sky and it was pretty hot. We paid the entrance fee (50 yuan/person) and started walking together with some other hikers that had arrived at the same time as us. I had read that the TLG was a challenging walk, although not too bad except for the steep, 28 bends. Therefore, I was quite surprised when I realized how much “up” the road went from the very beginning. I think mom felt the same way, because after a mere hour of walking both of us were exhausted and realized that we obviously needed to slow down if we wanted to make the top.
Since the trek is a popular choice especially amongst western travellers a bunch of local Naxi men and women have made a living out of following the travellers with horses, offering them to ride when it gets too touch. Me and mom became prime targets for the men who insisted mom would get on a horse immediately after getting off the bus. We kept saying no though, laughing at their offer and stating that her health was really good (which it is). One man refused to leave us though, and quietly walked behind us with his cute little pony.
It was around 12 pm and stinking hot when mom suddenly started feeling dizzy. A combination of the heat, not drinking enough water (we could only carry that much) and the tough trail eventually got to her, and after many “buts” we decided she would take the horse up until the Naxi Family Guest House where we were planning to have lunch. It took some seriously convincing to get her on the horse (she’s a sporty spice in deed!) but eventually she gave in. Being dizzy on a mountain in the middle of nowhere in Yunnan isn’t really to recommend. The effort of the Naxi man with the horse eventually paid off. During the rest of the trek he became a good friend and an excellent real-life story teller, sharing information about his life, his family, about Naxi people and so on. Although his dialect became a bit hard to understand at times, I didn’t have any big problems communicating with him, which felt really nice. (Overall, I don’t think I have spoken as much Chinese during the last 6 months as I did during our one week in Yunnan. All that hard work has finally paid off and travelling/reading signs/information boards/asking for directions/communicating with locals went real smooth. Yey!)
Reaching the Naxi Family Guest House felt like a blessing. I was so sweaty at this point, I looked as if I had just showered with my clothes on?! Seriously, it was much harder than running for 2 hours straight! Because of my weak ankle I was wearing an ankle support and it felt as if it was 100 degrees inside my shoes.
The lunch as the Naxi house was some of the best I’ve ever eaten. Not because it was anything special, it’s just that when real hungry food tastes amazingly good! To my great surprise all food/water bottles/ guest house rooms along the trek were still cheap. Our lunch was under 50 kuai and the most expensive bottle of water I bought along the way only set me back 5 kuai! I was so surprised about this. Seeing how popular the trek is they could have easily charged much more. Also, the Naxi people we met on the way/ the people running the guest houses/ the women selling water and snacks from small “stations” were all smiley and friendly, always offering us to sit down for a rest and a free cup of tea. It was such a pleasant atmosphere.
After 1 hours of eating and resting we decided to continue our walk to the half way guest house where we had planned to spend the night. The steepest point: the 28 bends was coming up, so mom stayed on the horse while I walked. Our new Naxi friend (who was called Xiao Hua) continued walking with us and I almost feel as if I should write a separate post only about his life, because he was so interesting to talk to. He did the trek 6 days/week (he’d been doing it for 6 years already) and although he admitted it was tough he said he wouldn’t change his life for anything. At one point he was offered an office job in Shanghai with a much better pay, but he decided to turn it down:
-Look at this view, the sky and the nature. To work in this environment every day is what makes me happy! Actually, I think I am better off than all the white-collar workers who spend all day in front of the computer. Also, by working here I can stay close to my family (that lived in Shangri-la, or Zhongdian as it is also called) and go and see them at least once a week. If I would have moved to Shanghai I would have only seen them once a year, and what’s the point of that? I’d rather make less money and stay close to my loved ones.
I have to say that it was refreshing to listen to Xiao Hua. He had no complaints what-so-ever. He listened with interest to me telling about life in Sweden but not once did he say something like “Oh, the welfare there is so good!” I think he was just genuinely happy about what he had. And it’s not often you meet a person like that.
We eventually reached the 28 bends that is said to be the hardest, steepest point. It’s a 30-40 minutes climb but to be honest I didn’t find this any harder than what we had already climbed. What impressed me the most if how that little horse made the top.
After reaching the top the trail started going downhill, which I found to be much harder than going upwards! I’m a bit of a “Bambi on thin ice,” so I kept slipping on lose stones and I actually fell several times (haha!). The impact on the knees was quite hard too, aooch! After reaching the top mom felt much better and jumped off the horse. She walked the rest of the trail, but Xiao Hua still followed us, now more as a company than as a “man with a horse trying to get us to ride.”
It took some 5 hours from the Naxi Guest House to the Half Way House. Once we got there and I took off my ankle support I saw that I had a huge rash all over my feet and legs. Xiao Hua saw it too and collected some herbs for me and told me to put my feet and legs in a bucket of hot water, which I did, and it actually helped.
We spent the rest of the day/evening at the terrace of the half way house, drinking beers and having food together with travellers from all over the world. It was a laid-back, easy-going, happy atmosphere at the terrace where everybody bonded over travel stories and trek memories. And the people running the place were also real friendly. And I have to say that although I was tired, I felt really good about having done the trek.
Seeing that this post already has turned into a minor novel I’ll continue telling about the rest of the trek in another post tomorrow.