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Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hutiao Xia)

Yes, I've hiked this thing twice. No, my knees don't work so well anymore.

[photo right: Morning sun over Jade Dragon Mountain, Tiger Leaping Gorge, April 28, 1999]

April 27-30, 1999
April 18-21, 2002

First Visit, 1999

High in the Himalayas of Tibet begin two of the world’s major rivers, the Mekong and the Yangtze. For hundreds of miles the two flow south side by side, coming within thirty miles of each other in northwestern Yunnan. But 20 miles west of Lijiang as the crow flies, near the town of Shigu, is Cloud Hill. Cloud Hill is nothing of note except that it happens to sit in direct line with the flow of the Yangtze River. This otherwise insignificant rock turns the Yangtze River east instead of south; a simple matter of geology that has had no other impact except to facilitate the development of one the world’s oldest civilizations.

The Yangtze, alternatively spelled Yangzi, goes by several different names depending on what part of the river is being referred to. In the southwest it’s the Jinsha and from Sichuan east it’s the Changjiang (Long River). 300 million people live within its influence and it is the third longest river in the world.

After the river’s first bend at Cloud Hill, it turns north before bending again into what is one of the world’s most spectacular gorges: the Tiger Leaping Gorge, locally known as Hutiao Xia. Located about 40 miles, but two and a half hours by bus north of Lijiang, it’s a narrow gorge between Haba Peak (about 15,000 feet) and the steep backside of Jade Dragon Mountain (18,000 feet). The hiking trail runs along the base of Haba Peak providing spectacular views of 7,000 foot cliffs yielding to the jagged pinnacles of Jade Dragon Mountain that rise another mile above them. Overall, it’s about 13,000 feet from the river to the top of Jade Dragon. The Gorge is only about ten miles in length if you were swimming, but by foot it’s a rigorous twenty-plus mile hike.

Gorge treks are rapidly growing in popularity, almost becoming faddish. The best time to do it is either in the spring or fall. The weather is pleasant and the number of trekkers is still low, as one can expect an average of about fifteen people a day in each direction. In high season, summer, that number rises to about a hundred. There are several ways of doing the gorge trek. There are two trails, the high trail, and the low trail. The high trail is more difficult, more scenic, more solitary, and definitely not for the unfit. The lower trail, which, at the time of my visit, was in the process of being fully constructed into a road - which by now I'm sure is finished - is conversely easier, less scenic, and faster. This transition from path to road is drawing a mixture of criticism and praise, which I will comment on later. There are towns at each end, Qiaotou to the west and Daju to the east. The distance between the two is about 27 miles. It’s difficult to say which is the better way to go: Qiaotou to Daju, or Daju to Qiaotou. I hiked from Qiaotou.

Qiaotou is a dump. Sorry, but there is no better description. It’s a one-road town, maybe a kilometer long, lined with dilapidated old shops, a few dodgy eateries, and small residential apartment blocks. [Note: read my 2002 account before taking this information to heart.] There’s not much choice for accommodations but at least what’s there is acceptable. The Gorge Village Hotel at the corner of the main road and the small road that crosses over the Yangtze provides dirty rooms for Y12 ($1.50) and clean rooms for Y25 ($3.13). It’s a convenient location as it’s across this bridge that the Gorge trail begins. Food options in Qiaotou, however, are grim. The most obvious establishment bears the enticing name: The Backpacker Café. Avoid it. Although it happens to be across the street from the Gorge Village Hotel and is also the place to flag down a bus, it has nothing else to recommend. Advance reports told me that the place was dirty, served lousy food, and run by a woman of questionable character.

When I arrived in Qiaotou my immediate concern was for a cup of coffee. I put my fate in the hands of a higher power and gave the Backpacker Café a chance to prove the reports wrong. Surely they can’t poison me with coffee, can they? Well, no, but it was about the worst tasting coffee of my life. Like many of the cafés in Lijiang, the Backpacker Café has a guest book filled with the musings of many an itinerant traveler. Obviously this women doesn’t read English or she would never have shown me the book. It was full of warnings telling me to get out! There were a number of suggestions to leave if I hadn’t ordered my food, and maybe run away anyway if I had. There were also more complaints about her lack of honesty. She was accused of overcharging, of not providing everything ordered and then demanding more money to finish the order. Several people complained that they were out front waiting for a bus when she told them the Lijiang bus would be at least an hour coming. Well, no sooner did they sit down for a meal that the bus passed by. I left my coffee half unfinished, paid, and walked out. Fortunately my hotel had a kitchen. It was point-and-eat and this time I remembered to communicate that I wanted these ingredients together. It was vegetables only, but satisfactory.

After my snack I went to explore Qiaotou. This took four minutes. The most exciting event coming when a woman yelled at me for trying to take a photo of two kids (hers, presumably) standing in a doorway. I then found a small grocery store to stock up on snacks and water for tomorrow’s hike. There would be no facilities for at least eight or more hours into my hike. I would carry in several bags of sundry goodies and nearly three liters of water - which was barely enough.

Dinner would of course consist of pointing and eating. Looking for a little variety I inquired about meat. One of the young women working the place, they had more staff then guests, checks the refrigerator for me. She pulls out an old pork leg that appeared to be in the early stages of fossilization. She shrugs her shoulders, smiles, and offers it just the same. I shake my head ‘no’ with a laugh. She looks at the pork leg again, laughs herself and tosses it back in the fridge. She then checks the freezer and digs out some frozen blocks of processed chicken. I identified it as chicken only because it had a picture of a chicken on the package. I figured since it was frozen it would probably be safe, but the less I knew about the processing the better. It didn’t have much taste but it was harmless.

I planned to start my hike at sunrise. I wanted to make an early start for two reasons. The first reason was to exploit the maximum possible daylight as I would need at least eight to ten hours just for walking, and that time would not include breaks, photos, getting lost, etc. The second reason was I didn’t want to pay. Yes, even here they extract a toll of Y25, but the toll gate operator doesn’t normally arrive before 7:00 a.m.

I awoke in darkness (about 5:45 a.m.) and made my way downstairs. Fortunately the hotel staff, about six young giggly women, also started their day early allowing me to get that ever important morning caffeine boost. They were a bustle of activity as they raced around the kitchen, the restaurant seating area (two tables), and the hotel lobby, cleaning this and straightening that. Around 6:15 a glimmer of light appeared so I slung on my pack and set off across the bridge.

Before embarking, this is what I knew about what I was getting into. The low trail is under construction, still in its transformation from footpath to vehicular road. It’s a flat and easy walk, but a long walk. The only danger, and one not to be taken lightly, is that they are still dynamiting in the area. The road workers are reasonably careful to keep people away, but other hazards, such as rockslides, can occur.

The construction of this road is the subject of some controversy. The detractors, mostly foreigners, complain that the road will bring too many people and too much development into the gorge. It’s supporters argue that this road will greatly ease the lives of the local residents, significantly reducing their travel time. Without the road, a trip to Qiaotou or Daju can be a two-day adventure. The other advantage of the road is it will allow many people to see the gorge who might otherwise never see it. The high trail is not an easy hike; you have to be fit. Even I wasn’t entirely up to the task, but I’ll get to that. But the road will open this spectacular gorge to everyone, and while it will bring in the tour groups, one can only hope that maybe if more Chinese can see what spectacular scenery they have in their country they might start taking better care of it. The other concern of this inevitable rise in tourism is the proliferation of resorts, hotels, and guesthouses that could follow. Well, that may not happen either. First, the local residents have spoken out loudly against this, and yes, even in China you can fight city hall. And secondly, the market isn’t even close to supporting it.

Right now, there is one guesthouse along the high trail and two guesthouses in the village of Walnut Grove, which is at the eastern end of the gorge along the low road, several miles beyond the terminus of the high trail. Except during peak season they are never close to being full and are just as likely to be empty. Personally, I’m in favor of the road, they certainly could use the economic shot in the arm and Tiger Leaping Gorge really should be accessible to everyone and not just the physically fit. The high trail is perfectly safe from development (famous last words, right?). It’s simply too remote and too difficult to access.

As for facilities along the trail, there are only the guesthouses I mentioned. The one on the high trail, the appropriately named Halfway Guesthouse (which isn’t really halfway, well, it may be halfway from Daju to Qiaotou but along the high trail it’s more like 2/3 to 3/4 of the way through) is a minimum of eight hours from Qiaotou. As the high trail can be lost from time to time, a proprietor of one of Walnut Grove’s guesthouses has painted yellow arrows on a few rocks to help you along. But the arrows aren’t everywhere and most people will get lost at least once, the only question is whether you get lost for ten minutes of five hours.

I crossed the bridge over the Yangtze and turned right per my directions- something about walk along a road, through a schoolyard, and look for the trail. Okay. I followed the road and passed the tollgate which was still not yet manned. Free hike! Then I came to what was sort of a fork in the road and now had no idea what to do. But a young local man was standing around and through an exchange of sign language he directed me on my way. The locals are well familiar with the trail and well familiar with lost foreigners, though I imagine they think us completely crazy for voluntarily walking the 20-plus miles from Qiaotou to Daju; they walk the trail because they have to. The only thing I had to explain was whether I wanted the high trail or the low road. I communicated this in sign language by pointing up and indicating walking, or pointing down and indicating driving - like moving my hands as if I were holding a steering wheel. This system works. I even had one villager make the same motions to me before I could do the same to him.

The schoolyard was easy to find; it was the place with all the children. Though only 6:30 in the morning the students were already out running laps around the basketball court. The sight of a foreigner walking by at this early hour generated no surprise whatsoever, they see it every day, but I still received a few smiles and ‘hellos’. After passing the schoolyard I was on what amounted to an ox-cart lane that soon turned into a narrow footpath. Thankfully, to my left I saw a rock bearing a big yellow arrow. I was on the trail.

I walked along the trail, gradually rising along the side of a hill, and then turned left into the Gorge. The views were spectacular from the start. Tiger Leaping Gorge looks spectacular no matter what the weather, and in fact, the more atmospheric changes, the better. I was to see several changes that day, but the early morning hours were the most magnificent. The morning was mostly cloudy with heavy mist hanging on the upper jagged peaks of Jade Dragon Mountain.  

I soon caught up to a local villager lugging of all things, a table on his back. He was about my age and hardly dressed for a hike, but was surely far more used to it then I was. We passed each other several times as I was taking photo breaks and he was taking cigarette breaks. I did not yet know that the gorge had a number of houses in it that could not be reached any other way but by foot; so even a simple task like carrying a new table home requires a rigorous hike of several miles. No wonder they all think we’re crazy for hiking this thing.

My first mistake was a minor one. I came to a fork in the trail giving me the option of going above a farm or below a farm. I chose to go below, walked about one hundred yards and dead-ended at the tip of a ledge. Nice view, though. An elderly woman working the farm waved me around to the proper trail. I crossed paths with quite a few villagers who were almost without exception extraordinarily friendly, all the more remarkable when you consider that they must contend with a dozen or more foreigners walking through their yards every day. In some cases, the trail literally takes you past people’s front doors, through their little backyards, and through their gardens, so watch your step lest you squash somebody’s produce.

After climbing another thousand feet or more, the trail leveled off giving full view of the backside of Jade Dragon Mountain. For the next 48 hours I would see this 18,000 foot mountain (13,000 feet of it visible - the distance from the Yangtze to the highest peak) under numerous atmospheric conditions and angles, but the views I had for the next hour or two were clearly the most dramatic.

You’ve seen the ancient Chinese watercolors depicting soaring mountains with snow-capped peaks and misty clouds clinging to their pinnacles. That’s what I was looking at this morning. Except I wasn’t just looking at it, I was walking through it. It wasn’t the most colorful scene save for the occasional green plot of hillside vegetable patch. Most of the colors were shades of brown and gray, but these subtle earth tones juxtaposed with the clouds and soaring jagged peaks created a true living watercolor; a watercolor that changed with every movement of clouds, with every appearance and disappearance of the sun, with every few steps I took.

Around 9:00 or 9:30 I was approaching a small village. Just before the village, the road forked and I failed to notice any yellow arrows. When in doubt, the advice is to take the path that looks most traveled. This is good advice but near the villages the path most traveled is going to be the one that takes the villagers back to their homes. Having no idea what to do I opted for a right turn into the village, winding my way around homes, through gardens, and past an ornery dog that was thankfully tied up. Near the homes a handful of friendly villagers tended to their terraced fields. Along the trail a young couple was leading a pair of mules. Still not sure if I was going the right way or not, I got advice from the couple who pointed me along in the right direction. I probably should have paid more attention for when I came to the end of the village, which by the way was all of about half a dozen small farms, I really wasn’t sure where to go. I saw one trail that continued across a field and around a bend and as it bore a fresh pair of footprints that looked like they were made by western footwear, I followed it.

I crossed the field and headed towards the next bend. I passed an elderly gentleman and we exchanged ‘ni haos’ (hellos). After stopping to admire the amazing view, I continued around the bend walking another mile or so when the trail started to descend. I came across a rockslide, scrambled over it, only to come to another fairly treacherous one, which I also scrambled across nervously and carefully. I had heard the trail was sometimes covered with dangerous rockslides so I didn’t think anything of it. Once confidently beyond the rocks I looked for the trail. It was gone.

There were plenty of goats around looking and “naaaing” at me, but no trail, no footprints, nothing. I looked back beyond the rockslide to find the trail I came from and couldn’t see it. All I could see were endless bramble bushes, the other rockslide, and well beyond the slide I could see the trail climbing up the rocky hill and around the bend from which I came. But looking in the easterly direction, where I wanted to go, there was nothing. I stood around a few minutes “naaaing” back at the goats and working out what to do, when then: “BOOM! BOOM!” a short pause and “BOOM!” again.

It sounded close. I looked at the rockslide, now knowing exactly how it got there and feeling a sense of relief that the rockslide was still motionless. I then considered that 1,500 feet below me significant amounts of TNT were blowing out mountainsides, very well the same mountainside I was standing on. Okay, think rationally. What to do? What to do? Solution: ”GET THE #$%& OUTTA THERE!”

Easier said than done, I had misplaced the trail. I got across the first rockslide okay, but still had to get to the second one beyond which I could visually locate and rejoin the trail. The problem wasn’t so much being lost, I knew what direction to walk; it was just a matter of getting there, and getting there in one piece. For about twenty minutes I bushwhacked my way through the brambles, slicing up my arms, hands, and face. I slipped once on the rockslide getting a nasty cut on my wrist that was to become slightly infected and take a good month to heal. But eventually I found the trail and returned to the village. I had added about three or four miles and two hours to my trip. Furthermore, this little misadventure was probably a major contributing factor to a little breakdown I would have about four hours later.

I stood around looking utterly confused. While standing around looking confused may get you assistance in a bus station, in a sparsely populated mountain village the only attention you’re going to attract will come from the goats. Hearing “naaaa” may add to the atmosphere but it doesn’t get you your trail. Fortunately, after wandering around for ten minutes I met up with the same young couple with the mules. I made some hand gestures about finding the trail. The husband first pointed up the mountain and then down towards to the valley to ascertain whether I wanted the high trail or the low road. I indicated the high trail. He then pointed in the direction I came from. I waved my hands ‘no’, indicating I just came from there. I showed him my bloody wrists and arms, and went “naaaa”. The couple both started laughing, probably not so much for my goat imitation than for having ended up grazing with the goats. The couple lead me back to their home, which was the last one of the village, and the husband indicated I should hold up for a minute. He tied up his mule and lead me back to the trail, but instead of pointing across the field where I had gone before, he points up a steep incline where I can see an old man walking down.  I laugh and point to where I had come from and go “naaa” again. The man laughs and says “naaa” back at me sending me on my way- the right way.

I started up the incline and after climbing about 500 feet I was on the trail. The trail wound up another few hundred feet and there I saw one of those wonderful yellow arrows confirming I really was where I should be. Then I came to the trail’s most difficult section, the ’26 Bends’. This is a series of steep switchbacks that take you up another thousand feet or so. At the top of the switchbacks I encountered my first fellow hikers, two Swedish women coming from the other direction. Eventually the switchbacks ended but that still wasn’t the end to the climbing. Another thirty or forty minutes of ascending brought me to the top of an outcropping. Looking around at the great view I guessed I was at about 9,000 feet, having started at around 5,000 feet that morning. It was time for lunch.

I ate some rice cakes while enjoying the awesome view of Jade Dragon Mountain disappearing in the clouds some 9,000 feet above me. The weather was now mostly overcast and the mist had given way to solid clouds. After a twenty minute break I started walking again, periodically stopping to overcome minor bouts of nausea. A lot has been said about hikers getting sick on the trail and most have blamed the Backpacker Café. While the Backpacker Café leaves a lot to be desired I think in all fairness many problems can be blamed on high altitude exertion undertaken by people, like myself, who are not accustomed to it. Fortunately I never became ill, just close.

I started down the other side of the ridge on a long gradual descent that I guess brought me down to about 6,500-7,000 feet. Around 2:30 p.m., four mighty dogged looking Americans came the other way. One girl in particular wasn’t walking too well, “what’s ahead?” they wanted to know. “A 9,000 foot mountain,” I replied matter-of-factly. They weren’t too thrilled to hear that. They told me I could expect flat walking for quite a few miles ahead. The next few miles were just that, a winding trail along the side of the mountain following a small aqueduct that provided water to the farms. Later, I saw a small snake having a drink at the aqueduct. It remained oblivious to me, taking its time before retreating back up and under some rocks. Except for the domestic goats, cows, and mules, I saw hardly any fauna whatsoever. I saw only this snake and a few small unidentifiable furry critters. I guess the dynamiting scared the rest away.

The sun returned briefly, again changing the view of Jade Dragon Mountain. I was now directly behind the mountain. Rising from the rushing currents of the Yangtze below, a single cliff of 6,000 to 7,000 feet rose up. Behind it, the mountain made several jumps bringing it another 6,000 to 7,000 feet above the top of the first cliff.

I was hoping I’d make it all the way to Walnut Grove where I would spend the night. Sometimes horse treks were available from there, and perhaps I’d take one if I could. Otherwise I would either walk to Daju or perhaps return to Qiaotou via the low road. Although technically a complete Gorge trek is from Qiaotou to Daju, the bulk of the trek is from Qiaotou to Walnut Grove. Walnut Grove is pretty much out of the gorge, anyway.

But all of these ideas were rendered pointless when shortly after 3:00 my left knee gave out. It was entirely inexplicable, I was walking along the flat path, left, right, left, right, and then a stabbing pain, originating from my knee, ripped through my left leg causing me to fall down. I got up, shook the knee and began walking again, right, and –zap-, I went down again. Okay, let’s try walking again - carefully. This time I ever so gently put the left leg down, I didn’t fall. So I could walk, good. I was near the village of Ben Di Wan and beyond that would be the Halfway Guesthouse. How far, I really had no idea. A mile? Five miles? I’ll see how I am when I reach Halfway Guesthouse and then decide what to do knowing that Walnut Grove was another two to two and a half hours beyond the Halfway Guesthouse. Well, I limped through Ben Di Wan village, remember what constitutes a village here, and continued painfully limping along the trail. With every bend I hoped to see the Halfway Guesthouse around the corner. Finally, after about ninety agonizing minutes of walking I reached it.

Fortunately, all this time I had the advantage of a completely flat trail. I hadn’t so much as had to take one single step downhill. At Halfway I had to walk down just a few steps to enter the courtyard. Those few steps convinced me I was definitely spending the night at Halfway. Two foreigners were already there, and quite a few more were to check in over the next two hours.

The Halfway Guesthouse certainly deserves some mention. While it’s hardly the most luxurious place I’ve ever stayed, it was just about the most charming. A few years back the family who runs this particular farm, observing the increase of tired and broken travelers knocking on their door, decided to throw some beds in a few rooms of their farmhouse and call it a guesthouse. They recently built an upstairs addition that increases their capacity to eighteen beds. They filled eight of them the night I was there with two more people from England camped out under the stars in a nearby field.

The Halfway Guesthouse is a real working family farm. The common area is a small courtyard between four buildings, one is the residence - the family lives downstairs, the guests stay upstairs, and meals are eaten at a long table in the front hall. The other buildings include two storage buildings, one of which has the livestock in the ground level, and the final building is the kitchen. All food is cooked on a wood-burning stove. Just about everything they had to eat was either grown or killed on their farm or a neighbor’s farm. The patriarch of the family is an elderly gentleman who practices traditional medicine. I could have used his services in a big way but he wasn’t doing too well this particular evening spending most of his time in bed. The rest of the family, I couldn’t really keep track of who was who, divided their time between cooking for the guests and tending to farm chores which the guests were welcome to join in on. One Irishman was helping with some chore that had something to do with sifting grain or something. I’m a city boy, I have no idea what he was doing; I can’t even identify half the vegetables I saw growing in the fields around me.

The guests for the evening included myself, a man from Ireland now living in Sweden with his Swedish girlfriend, a young French couple who live in Beijing, two girls from Denmark, and a guy from Holland now living in New York. Interestingly, five of the eight people in this group were no longer living in their original countries. We all got along well and talked well into the early evening as we were dead tired from having hiked about fifteen miles, or more in my case - thanks to getting lost. Except for the Danish girls everybody got a little lost at some point but only I made it into a safari. We talked Chinese politics, NATO in Yugoslavia (the Embassy bombing was still ten days away), and life and travel in China. Soon we were discussing the experience of Chinese buses. As we were more or less in the hinterlands of China, all of us were spending more time than any of us would like on those dilapidated, overcrowded, mobile spittoon, mobile ashtrays. Then the guy from Holland says, “Umm, I have to make a confession. This is embarrassing but I guess it’s funny,” he pauses. “I had to stop a bus.” Pause. “For a toilet. I needed to use a toilet, I had to stop the bus.” There were a few giggles followed by silence.
Then, “I’ve stopped a bus before,” I add.
“So have I,” says the girl from Sweden.
“Us, too,” the couple from France jump in.
Only the Danish girls couldn’t join in, but one of them laughs and says “Guess I’m just lucky.” We all agreed that stopping a bus isn’t a problem; we also agreed that the Chinese will never ask to stop the bus but sure will pile out en masse when the foreigners stop one. We also concluded that based on our own 75% majority, foreigners stopping buses was probably something most Chinese bus drivers were accustomed to and is not something to be concerned about.

The beds weren’t particularly comfortable but they were at least warm. Mine had a sag in the middle that nearly sent me tumbling on to the floor a couple of times during the night. But for Y12 ($1.50) a night I wasn’t complaining, and the charm of the place more than made up for any deficiencies with the beds.

The following morning the travelers headed out one by one, some going west, some east. I limped out at about 7:30, leaving only the two Danish girls behind. The path was still level which was a good thing, my knee hurt badly. But I limped along taking plenty of breaks. I knew that before long the path would descend, something I wasn’t looking forward to. But to aggravate things, after a mile or two of flat walking the trail began to ascend up a small ridge, meaning more downhill later. Just before the trail began its long descent to the low road the two Danish girls caught up with me. They had left about an hour earlier; I had left two and a half hours earlier.

The final descent turned out to be one of the most painful experiences of my life. For the next hour I could only take baby steps as shock waves of pain originating from my left knee spiked through my body. The Danish girls were kind enough to pause to check on my progress, should I completely break down. But finally I did reach the level low road. Now my only task was to make Walnut Grove. My trek was definitely over, I’d probably just rest up in Walnut Grove for the day, try to get a ride back to Qiaotou the next morning where I would then catch the bus to Lijiang and find a doctor if I felt I still needed one.

Unfortunately Walnut Grove was still about two miles away. I did the walk in just over an hour, reaching Walnut Grove at 12:30. There are two guesthouses, Sean’s and Woody’s. Travelers’ preference has lately been for Woody’s, mostly due to the demeanor of Sean’s wife. Sean, a nice Tibetan recently married an Australian woman often described as abrasive, demanding, and not prone to creating the cozy homey atmosphere one seeks in a guesthouse. That’s at least what all the books I read in Lijiang said. However, Sean’s was a few hundred yards closer than Woody’s and as I could barely walk, Sean’s it was. The two Danish girls were there finishing lunch, having arrived an hour earlier. It took me five hours to walk from Halfway to Walnut Grove; the girls did it in two.

Like the Halfway, Sean’s also doubled as the family home, but attached to the main residence is a second building with a capacity of about fifteen beds in about five rooms. I think the bed was somewhere between 15 yuan and 25 yuan, but whatever it was, it was cheap. Glad to see I was alive and breathing, the Danish girls headed off for Daju, leaving me alone with the guesthouse staff.

Neither Sean nor his wife were around. I’ve forgotten her name, but as far as I know Sean has only one wife so referring to her as such shouldn’t cause any confusion. But they weren’t there. Looking after the place were Sean’s two daughters (Chinese girls, from a previous marriage). One of their friends was there helping too and a few other teenagers were hanging around as well. One might have been a third daughter, but I’m not sure. Sean’s youngest daughter, Lucy, about ten or eleven years old, is an adorable little girl who speaks some English and we passed some time playing a few card games.

A few hours later a middle-aged Chinese woman and her niece stopped by the guesthouse to rest for a few hours. The aunt gave the niece, who was about 20, an assignment to practice speaking English with me. Of course I wasn’t consulted about this, but I wasn’t going anywhere, so why not? We chatted for about twenty minute, but it wasn't a whole lot more than, “How are you? I’m fine, thank you. And you?” I then limped to my room for a nap, emerging about 4:00 p.m.

In front of the guesthouse is a patio with a couple of picnic tables, chairs, and benches. The view was much the same as I’d been seeing since late yesterday, massive 7,000 foot cliffs rising from the Yangtze, with Jade Dragon Mountain soaring another 6,000 feet above them. Only here the cliffs were right in my face. It’s humbling. But at the main picnic table, paying no attention to the view, several other Chinese had stopped in and were chatting and playing games. I was invited to join them at mahjong. This was a great idea except I hadn’t played in about fifteen years and I had kind of forgotten how. I wasn’t going to get any instruction, as except for ten year old Lucy, nobody spoke any English, and Lucy was someplace else. No problem, the aunt helped me. Okay, actually she kind of played for me. The pieces were in front of me but she made all the moves. The Chinese play this game very quickly so even when I started to remember how to play I couldn’t make a decision before she’d make one for me. Still, “I” won three games in a row much to the amusement of the others. It was a pleasant and relaxing day occasionally interrupted by the sounds of exploding dynamite coming from deep within the gorge.

Around 6:00 p.m., just as the Chinese visitors were departing, two Frenchmen arrived at the guesthouse. They had made the trek from Qiaotou in eight hours. I looked at them like I had met superman. Then they admitted to taking the low road. Cheaters. An hour later the girls treated their three guests to a free meal, inviting us to join them for dinner. Like at the Halfway, everything appeared to be locally produced and was cooked on a wood-burning stove. And it was free and delicious! I had been at Sean’s for about seven hours now and my knee was a little looser. It still hurt a ton but I could at least put a little weight on it without falling down. However, I was still hopping down the stairs one-legged. No ifs ands or buts, I was returning to Lijiang the next day.

I awoke at 7:30, coming down to the patio to find heavy tension and anxiety filling the air. The girls were all walking around on eggshells, worried looks upon their faces. When I ordered breakfast there apparently was a problem. The girls huddled and finally Lucy got up the courage to… knock on the door. Ahhh, Sean and his wife must have come back during the night. It disturbed me that the girls were so nervous and I didn’t want to think too hard about why. In any event, the crisis was averted and I soon got my big breakfast of omelet, toast, coffee, and whatever else. A rather sheepish Sean soon appeared from the room followed by his wife who began bossing everybody around. Now I must say she was very nice to me, but she was a terror to the family. She spent a good bit of time yelling at Sean for forgetting this and losing that and the rest of the time was spent ordering the girls around; at one point putting Lucy into tears. Hardly appropriate behavior in front of paying guests. This easily explained why so many people didn’t want to stay here. But again, with me, she really was very nice.

There was also the problem of my knee. There was still no way I could walk out of the gorge. No problem, Sean and his wife had returned that night from travels to Lijiang and Dali for supplies and things. The driver and truck were still here and she was happy to give me a lift back to Qiaotou, no charge.

The drive along the road wasn’t very scenic. That’s because the truck‘s windows were covered with a thick layer of red dust. I was surprised, but maybe I shouldn’t have been, to see that the road construction crew was living in a tent city in a tunnel. Just past the tunnel is a viewing platform overlooking the narrowest point of the gorge, just a few dozen meters across. It is this narrow section that gives Tiger Leaping Gorge its name, as legend has it that a tiger used to leap from side to side here. The road was lined with tour buses and this is the extent, for now, of what most tourists will see of the gorge.

We arrived in Qiaotou about 1:00 p.m. having covered the distance from Walnut Grove in about thirty minutes - amazing what four wheels can do for your travel time. I hobbled over to the steps of the Backpacker Café to wait for the next Lijiang bus, ignoring the old woman who was trying to get me into her restaurant. To her credit she didn’t lie about the bus, the next Lijiang bus really didn’t arrive until about 2:30 p.m. By that time nearly ten foreigners were assembled out front including two Dutch (or were they Germans?) who had come up from Lijiang with practically no money expecting to be able to change cash in Qiaotou. They couldn’t. So after having just checked into the Gorge Village Hotel, they checked out. But then they swapped a few currencies with some of the assorted foreigners, managing to collect enough Chinese yuan to get them through a gorge trek. So they checked back into the Gorge Village Hotel. But then they had no place to stash their extra bags while they were in the gorge, and not trusting the woman at the Backpacker Café (neither would have I), they checked back out of the Gorge Village Hotel and reexchanged all the various currencies with the assorted travelers. We had just created our own little black market.

The bus ride back was half foreigners. Surprisingly, this was the first time in four bus rides this trip that there was another foreigner on the same bus as me, and there were about ten of them.  All of them had managed the gorge trek in much better shape than I had. Of course they were all around 20-23 years old. Boy, was I feeling old.

Second Visit, 2002

April 18

I followed the same itinerary as in 1999 - take an afternoon bus to Qiaotou, spend the night there and head into the gorge before dawn for the same reasons as in 1999, get in for free and maximize the number of hours I'd have in the gorge.

Seeing as I had thoroughly torn up my knees in 1999 on this trek, a logical question to ask is why on earth am I doing this AGAIN? Umm, because it's there? Actually, it's because I planned to head up to Zhongdian and I wanted to take the back way through Haba and Baishuitai and I had a commissioned magazine story to do just that. Therefore it would be necessary to go through the gorge again. So why not trek it? And after my 1999 breakdown I was all the more determined to get through this thing properly once and for all. It did occur to me to pick up a knee brace or two but this brainstorm came too late and I was unable to find any in Lijiang.

The bus ride to Qiaotou took two hours and forty-five minutes, part of it over a road that didn't exist in 1999. I arrived under clouds and drizzle at 3:45 p.m. and was quite surprised by what I saw. Qiaotou is not a dump. Not anymore. Obviously a lot of tourism money has come in to this town since 1999 and it's looking a whole lot better for it. While I certainly wouldn't call this place attractive, it certainly has improved.

The Backpacker Cafe was not there. The building that houses this establishment was under renovation but it was not clear to me whether the cafe's absence is a temporary thing and we can expect the place to be back in business soon or whether it is gone forever? If it is gone forever... no loss to anyone, really.

Two new cafes have sprung up across the river, the Gorged Tiger Cafe, run by the same family that runs Sean's Guesthouse in Walnut Grove and a place called Shandian just a few buildings down from the Gorged Tiger. The Gorged Tiger was closed, as Margo, Sean's wife, was in Kunming with a tour group or something. The Shandian has internet access, Yunnan coffee, and fried dried yak. Good enough for me.

Again, I stayed at the Gorge Village Hotel, possibly staying in the same room as in 1999. Again I paid Y25 for the room. Later, a number of other trekkers came in and most of them managed to get their rooms for Y15 to Y20. There are some other new hotels in Qiaotou, so if the Gorge Village isn't to your liking, poke around. But for the price, I think the place is fine. With the Shandian in town now, it wasn't necessary to play the "let's guess what the blocks of meat are" game with the hotel.

Over the next few hours several other trekkers wandered in and as we were all ensconced in the Gorge Village we all agreed to head out together around 6:15 a.m., weather permitting. Three years ago I was all alone on this trek, now I was in a group of six. And far and away I was the old fart in the group. There was Michel, a tall skinny Dutch kid of about 20. Frank, a twenty-something Canadian. Mariana, also Dutch and she was maybe 20 or 21. And a Canadian couple, Michael and Corrine, who I believe were in their mid 20s, making them second oldest to me. Me? I'm 38.

Weather was possibly going to be a problem for us. It was raining steadily this evening and we all agreed that if it was still raining tomorrow morning we'd wait out the day in Qiaotou.

April 19

I awoke about 5:00 a.m., early I know, but no matter what my departure time is anywhere, I like to start my morning with an unhurried cup of coffee. And as Chinese hotels always have hot water thermoses, this is never a problem.

Digression. Are you, like me, a coffee junkie traveling in China? Coffee is often hard to find, so find yourself a box of Nescafe 3 in 1s. Boxes are sold in sizes of 10, 20, 30, and 40 packets with each packet containing a mixture of instant coffee, non-dairy creamer, and sugar. Taste good? Not at all. Tastes like yak's piss, really, but it's often the only coffee you might get for days. Get some.

Anyway, I took a look outside and saw plenty of stars up there. This was encouraging. One by one the group assembled. Waking up was easy for all of us on account of the noise coming from across the river - a pig was squealing loud enough to start in avalanche in Tibet. Mmmm, I always like to hear my dinner scream first thing in the morning.

We headed off in darkness, but the stars I saw just over an hour ago were gone. It was clouding up again.

We made it to the schoolyard without difficulty, and again, here, at this ungodly hour, the classrooms were full of students already. Continuing onward me made a few missteps before locating the high trail, but most unlike my 1999 trek, from here on out  there were no difficulties in keeping the trail.

It's really not necessary to describe the trek again, I did that already with my 1999 account. Little has changed. There are more arrows, more guesthouses, and more trekkers. But it's the same trail and the same Jade Dragon Mountain. I will say it was enjoyable to make the trip with five other trekkers, especially with at least two of them almost young enough to be my kids. As you can see from the pictures below it was a very foggy drizzly day. I lagged behind on the twenty-something or however many bends, 26, 28, I don't know why they call them that, there's got to be at least forty of those blasted switchbacks, but the group waited for me at the top.

Soon thereafter, my right knee started to go and it was a painful walk out of the gorge. Yes, out of the gorge! I/we made it in a day this time! We hit the Halfway Guesthouse around 2:30 in the afternoon. My right knee hurt a lot and the other folks were feeling ragged, too, but a nice lunch and some coffee kicked us all back to life and we decided to make Walnut Grove in a day. This time, the Halfway Guesthouse didn't seem like such the big deal it was in 1999. Popularity, I suppose. But they still use the same bamboo stick menu. Anyway, at 6:00 pm, almost twelve hours from leaving Qiaotou, we made it to Sean's and divided ourselves up into various rooms there.

There are several new guesthouses in the gorge now and it's no longer necessary to carry in a lot of food and water as you're never more than an hour or two from one of these places. We even met a group of young women who were, seemingly, trying to stay at every guesthouse in the gorge and subsequently spent about four days walking through it. In the gorge you can find Naxi Family, Five Fingers, Halfway, Tina's, and in Walnut Grove, Sean's and Woody's. So that makes six guesthouses. Next year there will probably be eight or nine.

Below: Foggy images of Tiger Leaping Gorge, April 19, 2002

April 20

With one severely sore knee I decided to spend the day doing nothing but staring at the mile-high rocks across the road. It was a shame we didn't spend the previous day in Qiaotou because the weather this day was spectacular - hardly a cloud in the sky and pleasant temps.

Michel was mulling over whether or not to return to Qiaotou or go to Daju. Either way he needed to get back to Lijiang. He was in a bit of hurry as his time in China was more limited than the rest of us. Sitting around Sean's with a coffee in my hand, knee resting on a stump, a bit of a cold buzzing my head, and a pair of Tylenol 3s numbing the pain in my knee, I turned to Michel and suggested partly in jest (or so I thought), "Why not walk all the way back to Qiaotou, beautiful weather, see the gorge like it's supposed to be seen." Considering we all hiked the entire gorge the previous day I wasn't exactly expecting a speedy positive reply, but with all of about two seconds of thought Michel said, "Good idea, okay." And in minutes he had his bag packed and was gone, off to cover the high path for the second time in two days.

The other four did what I wished I could have done, hiked down to the river. There's a path you can walk down somewhere west of Walnut Grove, I think around Tina's. Everybody came back telling me how spectacular the views were from down there and having seen plenty of the gorge from other vantage points I know there was no exaggeration in what they said.

Later in the evening quite a few trekkers wandered in. A Belgian couple joined our group and at another table a large group was assembled with one of their members laid up in a room with an apparent broken collar bone from a fall he took on the trek. He was not a happy camper.

We asked the Belgians if they saw a tall, skinny, blonde guy pass them in the gorge. "You mean the guy who ran by us?" they answered. And that was Michel, The Gorge Runner, offering a new twist to extreme tourism, running the gorge. I wonder if he saw anything?

With no knee, I certainly wasn't walking on to Haba and Baishuitai, so I asked Sean about getting a horse and guide, seeing as the guidebooks all claim he offers the service. "Horse?", the short Tibetan replies, "I don't have any horse, haven't had a horse in years, I don't know why all the books say I do." But a little insistence on my part and he located a horse and guide for me and we negotiated a good price on account of the fact I was doing a magazine story on Zhongdian and the back way in and somewhere I'd print "Sean's Guesthouse".

My plan was to go to Haba the next day and Baishuitai the day after, then send horse and guide home and I would pick up a bus from Baishuitai to Zhongdian. Michael and Corrine decided they'd tag along on foot. Frank and Mariana would hike to Daju and return to Lijiang.

April 21

On the road again. My horse and guide arrived plus a pack horse to carry the bags. My horse was a small thing and the pack horse, he was a little wise ass of a mule but that's about what you'd expect from a three-year-old. Our group split up a few kilometers east of Walnut Grove when it was time for Michael, Corrine, and myself to turn left up the Haba Valley while the others continued to the ferry crossing to Daju. There are two ferry crossings now. A second one has opened closer to Walnut Grove, but take heed, it's a very steep climb down and up. Consider walking further to the older ferry if your legs are a bit banged up from the trek.

Story continues on the Haba-Baishuitai page.

Meanwhile.... 2005... perhaps I'll hike this thing a third time... with knee braces.

Leaving Tiger Leaping Gorge towards Daju. April 21, 2002.


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