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Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 3: My Life in the Hands of an Idiot in a Minivan

Day three. Tired and sore, and a long way above the river.

The series of wrong decisions begins immediately after breakfast, when I have to decide whether to hike another four to six hours along a newly asphalted road and through uninteresting terrain to reach our forward pick-up point, in Dazhu, or to take an easier option and hire a minibus going along the riverside road back to our starting point, Qiaotou. With tired legs, the river road was beckoning, and having walked for two days high above the river, with it constantly 1500m below my right hand, I’m really desperate to get down beside it and feel its power from up close. And you know, dip my hand in the waters. 
From the walking trail high above the road, it always appeared that the serpentine road, apparently recently completed, ran right beside the river just a whisker above the waterline. I could get the minibus driver to let me off somewhere, walk down to the water’s edge, and take a few photos. I asked the lovely Xiao Li at Sean’s Guest House whether she could help find a driver willing to take us. 
‘No problem, we have a guy we always call!’ she said. Great! So easy! I wouldn’t have to flag down a bus laden with chickens and goats after all.
‘How long will it take to get to Qiaotou?’ I asked
‘Fifty minutes’ she replied. ‘Five -Zero’, for emphasis. Plenty of time to stop for photos, and still make the rendezvous with our Lijiang-bound ride.
As we got into the minibus, I noted our wild looking driver, wearing the same sort of shapeless grey suit pretty much every man in China waers as a uniform, with a pair of pleather loafers and a partly untucked business shirt, no tie. He had a deep brown suntanned face and a wild hairstyle that stuck out every which way, which looked like he cut it himself. His silver minibus was really a small van with two seats in front, two behind, and a space for luggage behind the back seats. These silver Chinese minivans are ubiquitous everywhere you travel in China, and have a uniquely poor suitability for travelling in any other fashion except a straight line, at a speed of 40kmh or less. Their slightly-too-high centre of gravity means they are apt to tip over when going around bends, and I’ve seen valleys all over the country littered with the compressed carcass of a silver minivan or two. The van, combined with the slightly unhinged appearance of the driver gave me some misgivings, but I got in anyway. And then I saw the road.
Turns out the appearance of a road at water-level that was an optical illusion of depth perception, and the road is actually positioned a precarious 400-500 metres above the water. If you could actually call it a road. Carved from the steep rocky slope, it appears to have been built on a succession of small landslides with extremely limited stability. Have you ever built a sandcastle mountain and then used your finger to trace out a road along its side? That’s kind of what this road reminded me of, with the same degree of impermanence about it.
 Long stretches are still just gravel, other stretches are being asphalted right this second, leaving the narrowest of paths for vehicles to pass. The mountain side of the road is littered with giant slabs of smashed rock, fallen from the tectonically unstable mountain above, and the river side of the road plunges impressively off to the left. Fierce wind gusts volley up the river and buffet us at every bend. Occasionally there are small blocks of concrete, about the height of our minivan’s hubcaps, placed at intervals along the sheer drop. I suspect they would stop nothing but an unmanned skateboard from going over the edge, and only then if it managed to miss the two metre gap between blocks.
Reassuringly, there is a lucky charm hanging from the rear view mirror, which makes me feel so much better as we go around the first corner on two wheels at about eighty clicks. The driver cranes his head round to give me a manic smile, while I yell at him to ‘Slow down! Slow down!’ This seems to have no effect as we prepare to overtake a gravel truck on the wrong side of the road going around a blind corner. NOOoooo!
Fate smiles briefly though, as the truck grinds to a halt while a rockfall is cleared from the road. Saved. I breathe out. Then the driver begins to inch forward in an attempt to pass between the truck and the concrete blocks on the river side of the road. NoNo NONONONO! I yell, Chinese abandoning me in my hour of need. This guy is a complete lunatic and this is where my life will surely end, I think. The only way we can fit through is if we knock all the blocks down into the river on our way past. 
‘Ting Ting TING!!’ I yell as my father yells ‘Stop Stop STOP!’ in English. No effect. We’re metres from death at the hands of an idiot. Suddenly, like divine inspiration, a small tinny mechanical voice pops into my head and repeats itself over and over. It’s saying ‘ee loo ping ann, ee loo ping ann, ee loo ping ann’ on loop in a singsong voice. What does it mean? It must be an important message from my subconscious, I figure, in the scant few seconds before we hit the first concrete block.
Suddenly I have it – the meaning is clear and it might just save me. Sitting in thousands of Shanghai taxis, mind on autopilot, the taxi’s meter automatically plays a phrase whenever the driver gets above the speed limit, or it’s little electronic brain gets bored. It’s a recorded message played so often during any one trip that it becomes meaningless.’Yi lu ping an!’ it rattles – ‘All the way safely!’ 
I clamp my hand on the driver’s shoulder and yell ‘YI LU PING AN!!!’
He stops trying to inch ahead. It’s nothing short of a miracle.

The truck lurches forward, and so do we, at slightly less than eighty the rest of the way. The view from the front passenger seat shows just how cosy we are to the white line marking the road edge.

And even closer. I should mention here that all of the above road photos were taken by my much braver father, sitting beside the driver, while I was hanging on to the door handle with my eyes closed in the back. Every time he snapped a photo the driver swung round again with a grin and we swung towards the road’s edge. I may, or may not, have yelled at my father to ‘Stop distracting the bastard!’

Either way, the next thing I knew we had reached the safety of Qiaotou. The fifty minute, five-zero, trip had taken exactly twenty-three.

I recovered enough to ask the driver for his photo. He stepped out of his seat, smoothed his wild hair, retucked his shirt and applied a sober and serious look to his face. Very amusing. Out of the corner of my eye I spied a flat-bed truck coming around the corner, with a concertina-ed silver minivan on the back.

Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 2: Exercising Caution While Maintaining Momentum

Naxi Family way down in the valley below
Dawn breaks quite late over the tiny valley where the Naxi Family Guest House lies, the sun climbing high in the sky to reach over the impossibly vertical ridges of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. my head has stopped pounding and my heart has stopped palpitating from the altitude, at least while sitting still, but today will be a major challenge. The path will rise to its highest point, 2600m, through a series of exhausting and formidable switchbacks known as the ’28 Bends’. If you survive that climb, it’s only another agonising 8 hours’ walk along narrow paths cut into cliffsides, a mere hairs’ breadth from a fatal plunge to the river below, to tonight’s guest house, beyond the lower rapids of the gorge.
After an hour of climbing up, up, up through a softly soughing pine forest, it becomes clear that I’m either extremely unfit, or extremely susceptible to altitude. I’m sweating, I can’t speak, and I feel like I’ve just swum fifty metres underwater on a single breath. Ahead I can see a stone Naxi dwelling, perched all alone.

The house is empty, with an abandoned feel to it, and I’m not quite sure how to ‘gain energy for the 28 Bends’ if it’s going to be even more difficult than what I’ve already climbed. I push on. In fact, the 28 Bends are probably no more difficult than the preceding climb, and some scallywag has painted a countdown on the rocks on the way up (Four down! Only twenty-four to go!). Still, it’s a relief to get to the top.

The top is a tiny rocky windswept outcrop jutting terrifyingly out over a sheer drop of 1500m down to the river’s swirling pale green waters. Without the protection of the pine forest the wind howls past with full force, and unexpected gusts menacingly threatens my balance as I edge out for a better view.The small red sign painted on the rock in the lower right corner says ‘Be Careful’. 

Photo courtesy of Dad
I plant all my weight on my right foot, and with my left, edge it gingerly close to the edge. This is about as wide as the path gets at this point. 
Below, the gorge’s Upper Rapids are just visible. It’s only after I look at the photo I’ve taken in more detail that I realise the tiny black dots on the bridge are people. The rock in the centre is the size of a five story apartment block, toppled on its side. Around it, the dangerous waters roar and boil with an incredible ferocity. I try and imagine whether, after accidentally falling over the edge from sheer carelessness, something I am all too prone to, it would be better to be dashed to daeth on the rocks on the way down, or drown with no hope in the raging water. Both seem very unpleasant. I vow to pay full attention and be very, very careful.

We later pass a traditional Naxi house perched precariously in a small depression in an otherwise vertical landscape. The central south-facing courtyard, protected from the elements, is flanked by a house, a barn, and two storerooms. The farmer is tending to his herd of black goats on the nearby mountain, while a lost kid bleats sorrowfully for the rest of the herd.

As close as I dare bring my foot to the edge….

I round a corner in the trail to find a waterfall ahead, which I will have to traverse – there is no other way around it. The scale is difficult to imagine, but the path is running horizontally across the middle of the photo. It’s a pretty big waterfall, but thankfully there has been little rain, so it’s just a matter of hopping from rock to rock and trying not to look sideways beyond the edge of the path, rather than worrying about being washed off the mountain by the force of the water. That obstacle passed, the next corner reveals a very, very narrow path literally cut into an overhang. It looks menacing.
On closer inspection, it is menacing.

Nothing for it but to keep moving forward and try not to think about it too much. Hug the left side too close, and risk being obliterated by falling rock, like the piles of smashed rock lying to the side of the path, their white marble innards exposed. Hug the right side too much, and face anhilation by cliff fall. It keeps the senses terrifically sharp. This goes on for hour after hour, until gradually, certainly, I am heading downhill. The downhill path holds tiny unexpected treasures, like a rocky temple inhabited by goats, and a grove of wild pale pink azaleas.
Nine hours after setting off, the end is almost in sight – below me I can see the road, still some 500 metres above the river, but almost the end of today’s trek. I’m too exhuasted to speak and my knees have completely given up.

Looking downstream, I can see the Lower Rapids, as the green waters turn white over huge rocks of marble in mid stream. Ahead of me, the terraced lower slopes of Mount Haba are planted with wheat, corn, and walnut trees. – just revealing their first spring shoots. I am headed for Walnut Garden, the tiny settlement where I will spend the night before  the final day of the trek. 
The owner of the guest house, Sean, a Tibetan and lover of mountain country, has drawn and published the only decent map to be found of the gorge walk, so it seems only fair to return the favour and stay in his guest house, even though it’s a little further along the road than the competitively placed Tina’s, a three story concrete block sited right where the track finally, after some twenty-three kilometres, ends. As I walk on the flat for the first time since leaving Qiaotou, I drink in the wild and rugged mountains and the green, green water. God, I’m so looking forward to taking my shoes off, drinking an ice cold beer, then falling into a very heavy sleep.
Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude

The mighty Yangtze River, properly called Chang Jiang (the Long River) begins its life in the Tibetan plateau, fed by mountain springs and snowmelt, and gathers momentum and strength as it heads south, through one of three parallel river valleys in Yunnan, beside the Mekong and the Salween rivers. At one point, north of Lijiang, the Yangtze cuts a narrow gash between the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a line of jagged snow-covered teeth, on one side; and Mount Haba on the other, carving a water-hewn channel with almost sheer cliffs rising on both sides to peaks of nearly five and a half kilometres above sea level.

At twenty-three kilometres long, Tiger Leaping Gorge is not to be taken lightly, so narrow in points that it is almost possible for a tiger to leap across, perhaps alighting briefly on a stone slab rising up from the churning waters of the rapids. Years before, miners had hewn a donkey track into the side of Mount Haba, which has now become a walking track, the entire length of which exhilarates at every step, either because of the impressive might of the Jade Dragon blocking the sky before you, or the pale jade-coloured river flowing swiftly and dangerously 1500m below you, just a step from the edge of the path.
And yet it begins so gently, in the sleepy town of Qiaotou, a stop-off on the trail of hundreds of Chinese tour buses northbound to Shangri-la, where the river runs wide and slow around a gentle curve. This gives me a false hope that, despite all I’ve read about Tiger Leaping Gorge, it’s not really something to be anxious about, even though the my instincts and sense tell me it’s not too late to turn around and head back to Lijiang. When we arrive in Qiaotou it’s market day, and all the local villagers have converged on the town to buy and sell – mandarins, vegetables, spices, roots, and strange medicinal leaves.
The women wear ethnic dress and carry baskets of fresh food on their backs, not for the sake of the tourists, but because this how they always dress for market day.
I expect the start of the trail itself to be more exciting, but as I follow the whitewashed village school wall to its end, as instructed, I come to a crudely painted sign. It turns out this will be the nature of the directions all the way along the trail, coloured arrows painted in haphazard fashion by the owners of the few guest houses along the path. Follow the red arrows for the Naxi Family Guest House, the yellow arrows for Sean’s Guest House, and the green ones for the Ancient Path Guest House.

It’s all uphill for the first hour, through fields of rapeseed and wheat, and groves of blossoming fruit trees. Not so bad, I think, although the gentle inclines (as they later prove to be, although at the time I think them to be steep) are making my heart pound and my breath come in rasping gasps. The altitude is higher again than Lijiang, where I had problems yesterday with just a few stairs, and I wish I had more time to acclimatise. Instead, I stop to take photos and catch my breath every ten minutes, while a jack hammer bangs away at my temples and wish that I knew much less than I do about high altitude illness (it always seemed more interesting to study wilderness medicine than hypertension). Realistically I’m not in any danger at this altitude unless I try and climb too high, too quickly, and my progress is so excruciatingly slow that seems impossible. But the headache won’t budge and I feel very fuzzy.

Trying not to look like I’m struggling for breath, with Jade Dragon Snow Mounain rising behind me. 
After two hours of sweating and heaving, the path flattens out briefly into a lovely meadow, with a traditional Naxi stone house in the middle of it. This is the Small Guest House, whose folks aren’t shy of a lick of red paint or two advertising what they offer, they let us sit on their wisteria covered porch and bring us mint tea in a glass. It would be incredibly tempting to stop right here for the night, where the hospitality is so good, but I’m pushing on to the Naxi Family Guest House for the night, or there will be no hope of getting the walk done in three days. Having set off from Lijiang straight after breakfast, it’s now well past three in the afternoon, and the one thing in our favour is China’s single timezone, set to Beijing time, which means that here in Yunnan it doesn’t get dark until well after 8pm. I think briefly of the poor buggers in far western China who are drinking their mid-morning tea in the pre-dawn darkness and going to bed while the sun still blazes.

I set off again for another two hours of gasping, stopping, plodding ahead, and gasping again, and I finally see the sign I’ve been waiting for – the Naxi Family and their guest house are just around the corner, right before the dreaded start of the ’28 Bends’, a series of switchbacks leading to the highest point of the trail. Those can wait until tomorrow.
I’m curious to know what a guest house perched on the side of a mountain will be like, at least two hours walk from the nearest road. Will I be sleeping on a mattress on the floor, and eating whatever meagre leftovers are on offer? Will there be any hope of a shower? I’m completely prepared for roughing it, with a pack full of mandarins and nuts, and extra layers of clothes for the cold mountain night ahead, and I’m expecting to stink pretty badly by the end of the trek.
But of course, what awaits me when I walk through the decorated doorway of their courtyard home, hung with rows of drying corn, are soft beds with crisp white sheets, hot showers, cold beers, Yunnan coffee, and fabulous home-style Naxi food. There’s even, unbelievably, electric bankets and wireless internet, should I have lugged my laptop with me. China never ceases to astound me. If I could just get rid of this headache it would be perfect.

 I fall into the sleep of the dead at about seven o’clock, well fed, showered, and with an incredible view of the mountains from my window. I don’t know if I’ll be able to move tomorrow, every part of me aches and today I’ve covered only 5.6 km of the total 23km at a blistering pace of 1.4 km an hour. But I’m not going to think about that until tomorrow, when I will wake up clear-headed, strong legged and completely and totally acclimatised. Fingers crossed.

Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures