We’re at the “halfway point” of Tiger Leaping Gorge after walking since 10am, we arrived here at about 5pm, just as it was starting to rain again. It’s been an excellent day, although I’m a bit knackered.. that “month off” in Vietnam meant we didn’t do a lot of walking, so it’s nice to get back into it.
Our minibus from Lijiang had dropped us off just after the entrance ticket area to Tiger Leaping Gorge (TLG) , where unenthusiastic folks will board the bus, relieve you of your 65 Yuan each and provide you with access to the TLG area. Our 40 Litre Osprey backs stayed on the bus, hopefully to arrive at Tina’s hostel where we’d retrieve them in a day or so, meaning that we carried only what we needed for a night on the route along the gorge.
It’s a 20km walk from Qiatou at the start, to Middle Leaping Gorge, by what’s called the “Upper Trail”. Also hopping off the bus were a further 9 folks, so we wouldn’t be lonely on the trail, and I’m sure there would be other buses dropping off too.
It started to rain pretty much immediately, so the zip off trousers came off (it’s easier washing my legs, than my trousers and it was going to get muddy), the back pack rain cover bought in Sapa went on and the rain coat also went on.
Samya and Lauren, the Swiss couple brought out the brollies. The Belgians had coats, the Germans went for long plastic macs, the three English students were in raincoats and the two Chinese girls just hugged their cardigans a little tighter as we took two steps forward and one back in the increasingly sticky mud.
The trail starts on a hard packed road, there’s some tarmac and then it divides. We carried straight on. Climbed over a pile of earth, walked through a farmyard, into a field of corn and stopped. Reversed, asked the farmer, who was watching with much amusement. Climbing back over the pile of earth, we received a fabulous Chinese hand wave which could have sent us anywhere from NORTH WEST to SOUTH EAST, but just not the way we had been trying to go.
We should have realized we were going wrong when the horses stopped following us. On all Chinese trails there’s an easy way and a hard way. The hard way is when you walk, the easy way on this trail is to get a horse to carry you up (or down), so as we rounded the first bend on getting out of the minibus, we were trailed by a local man leading two be-belled horses. I wonder, as I said to Nige, does he make a bet with himself, as to which of this little lot of people will be the first to succumb and take him up on his offer? Pretty much like the T-shirt, postcard, water selling lady who trailed us on the Great Wall two months ago, he started his sales technique on the weak. This time it wasn’t me – as we followed the Germans and headed to the front of the pack. The sound of the bells around the horse’s neck disappeared as we clambered over the pile of earth and we found him waiting for us, when we panted back over.
There’s roadworks going on here, if you can call the creation of a road through a corn (and I mean corn on the cob, not wheat) field road works. So we were halted for 15 minutes, while the diggers did their thing, which mainly involved, pushing large rocks down the hill and scaring their work colleagues as they swung round to stop.
There are arrows, all the guides to this trek say. Only they don’t start until after this bit. There are red arrows painted onto rocks, trees, buildings. There are yellow arrows. There are blue signs with Tiger Leaping Gorge on them and we picked these up eventually, more or less as we arrived at the Naxi Family Guest House, the first on the trail.
Some folks stop here for the night, but seeing as it was only coming up to noon and we’d only been walking two hours, it did seem a little early, so instead our merry little band, trickled in (we led the charge) for lunch and a sustaining cup of mint tea. Sitting on tiny wooden stools undercover in the lovely courtyard we drank Tibetan Yak Butter Tea, ate pork fried rice and the most delicious stir fried pumpkin – which unlike it’s American cousin is green.
The trail continues, onwards and up. There’s a donkey-horse that stops us in our tracks as we round one bend and find a small shack, “Gain Energy for the 28 Bends” says the sign as we navigate round the horse-donkey, with the woman screeching, “photo-money” at me as I snap said horse-donkey. As we plough on, I’m thinking, “you mean we haven’t got to the 28 bends yet?”.
This trek is more popular with Western backpackers than native Chinese tourists, so our two Chinese girls are unusual and it’s a surprise when we meet several trekkers heading the opposite way and they’re all Chinese. One man makes a point of stopping and shaking our hands. My concern about the 28 bends increases.
We started the trek pretty close to the river and we’ll be climbing up to 2430m, then heading down again. A lot of the climb is sloped, this is no Huashan or Huangshan. There’s no concrete or stone steps here. This is pure Yunnan mud and rocks and horse-donkey poo. One famous part of the trek is the “28 Bends”, switchback after switchback of tight, sharp little steep bends, where sometimes the next step is a boulder precariously balanced on the edge of a drop. There are no handrails. There are also a lot more than 28 bends. I gave up counting at 60.
We left the Chinese girls a while back, the Germans have disappeared, so too have the three English students. We share the burden of the lead with the Swiss couple and Andrew, an American law graduate, who just appeared at the back of our group a while back. The Swiss summit first. We joke with them later that they’ve lived up to their mountaineering stereotype, we take the second spot with Andrew as we hit the high point.
“Nihao”, says the woman at the top, “Ganja?” There’s also Snickers, water and beer – it’s hard to travel anywhere in China without an opportunity to spend that tourist Yuan. And there are many ways to spend it, including wanting to go and look from this viewpoint. 8 Yuan to look, she says, 20 Yuan to take a photo. We decline all offers and head onwards, we have a bed to find for the night.
And it’s a glorious day. There are just the three of us, we wander amiably discussing life, the American National Parks and future plans with Andrew, marvel at the mist covered mountains, negotiate cows and horses in our tracks, and as the drizzle starts again, stumble into the Halfway Guesthouse, get ourselves a room for the night (no need to book, just arrive) and, finding there’s no internet connection get to know our fellow hikers.
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