This is an incomplete, work-in-progress description of my travels from 1990-2009 in the China-Tibet borderlands, following in the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock. Will be adding chapters and pics when they are ready - expected completion date November 2009. Contact me on mutikonka [AT] gmail,com

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Chapter 25: TIGER LEAPING GORGE: 'Here is dangerously...'

Tiger Leaping Gorge, 1994

Everyone I met in Lijiang had either done the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek or was on their way to do it. It was the thing to do. A few of those who had clone it mumbled comments about it not being suitable for anyone with vertigo, but otherwise there was a conspiracy of silence about the dangers of the gorge and its precipitous paths.

The Tiger Leaping Gorge was touted as China's Grand Canyon, a monumental chasm created by the Yangste river between the 5,000 metre mountain ranges of Jade Dragon Mountain and Haba Shan. A mule track, chipped away from the sides of the canyon, had become a popular two-day trek for western visitors. There were advertisements for the guesthouses along the track in all the Lijiang cafes: 'Stay at Spring Guesthouse. Free Showers', 'Try Chateau de Woody, Breathtaking Views'.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, 1994

The Gorge lived up to all the hype. My first glimpse of it. from the starting point of Qiaotou village, was impressive: a flat mountain face rising sheer up from the sandy green Yangste (known locally as the Jinsha 'Golden Sands' river), to be swallowed up in the clouds above. The sun played on the tree-lined ridges, and in the distance, a narrow ledge could be seen bisecting the first grey cliff.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, 1994

A sign at the ticket office read: 'The two cliffs push together as if fighting for hegemony'. Local legend said that a tiger fleeing from a hunter had once jumped the narrowest section of the gorge, 30 metres, to a rock on the other side: hence the name. But when I saw the first section of cliff-skirting track close up, I stopped dead and almost turned back immediately. It was barely a metre wide, with an unimpeded drop of a thousand feet down to the white water beneath.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, 1994

On a boulder nearby someone had painted in yellow: 'Here is dangerously. Be careful, strong winds are not your friend'. I braved the first precarious yards without daring to look down. The path turned a corner and widened out and became relatively easy. The first test was over. For the rest of the day, the track was a pleasant stroll through the epic canyon. Down below, the roaring Yangste was funnelled into a narrow corridor of rock, and its wider sections were choked with washed-up timber. Pine logs from Tibet were floated down the Yangste to sawmills in Sichuan, but a fair proportion never made it- Later on my travels, when I saw logging trucks struggling to haul five spars, I would wonder about the wastage of those hundreds of logs stuck in the Yangste.

Halfway along the gorge, at a spot called Walnut Grove, were the guesthouses. They were part of a small hamlet, clinging to a few terraces of barley, and overlooked by a towering wall of grey-cream rock that rose unbroken from the river up to the high buttresses of Jade Dragon mountain. It was an idyllic place. Sat outside the Tibetan chalet that was Chateau de Woody, with a beer in my hand, I was as happy as I could remember in a long time.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, 1994

'Walnut Grove? Sounds like an English pub with MGs parked outside,* said Terry, my Australian companion on the day's trek. We shared the quiet evening with a few chickens, piglets and a lazy dog for company. Scruffy local kids with snot running out of their noses shooed goats and donkeys along the path running in front of us. 'What happened there?' I asked 'Woody', the soft-spoken owner, pointing out a huge scar on the cliffs above the river. 'Ten years ago, the rock fell down,' he said. 'There were two men panning for gold in the river. Both were killed. Their comrade survived because he had just climbed up here to collect their lunch.' The fracture had deposited chunks of marble the size of a house stuck in mid-river, water raging over their tops.

At last light. Woody spied some foreigners coming from the opposite direction. It was a party of ten American kids. 'Wow man, that track was one boot wide in places,' one of them said. 'You reach out to a rock for support and it just comes away in your hand. Not good tor your confidence,' said a young woman.

I began to feel nervous about the next day. The Americans wouldn't say any more. They were language students in Beijing and wanted to practice their 'ni haos' and 'xie xies' on Woody. 'This place is awesome. Better than anything in New England,' someone said in the dark. My fears were justified.

Late the next morning, travelling alone. I reached a difficult section of the track known as 'the landslide'.

Tiger Leaping Gorge landslide section, 1994

Beyond it, a 100 metre stretch of ledge jutted two or three feet out from the cliff, and hung over a dizzy drop. In the middle of the landslide the trail had been swept away completely, and only a faintly impacted track existed over some fallen scree and rocks. When I saw it, I wanted to turn back again. But Daju village, the end of the trek, was visible on the plain beyond: so near but so far.

The longer I hesitated, the harder it became to start off. The wind blew marble dust into my eyes, and spots of rain whipped my face. On my first attempt, 1 turned hack in panic after only a few steps, wobbling under the weight of my backpack, which threatened to unbalance me down the slope.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, 1994

On the second attempt I fumbled along the trail, unable to look anywhere except at my boots. I cringed at the low overhangs and muttered to myself: 'Slowly, slowly, no problem...', one step at a time. Just when I thought the worst was over, the ledge turned a blind corner, and the track petered out into a powdery trail hugging the cliff, less than a foot wide. Somehow, I teetered across, holding my breath and hoping my footholds were solid. I'd made it: palms sweating, legs trembling, back onto a 'normal' track, a metre wide. Never again, I thought, as I dropped down the rest of the easy trail to a more placid Yangste river cutting through the plain. There was a put-put punt across the river, to the Nakhi village of Daju, and safety.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, 1994

Daju was a dusty village square surrounded by a store, a restaurant and a guesthouse. There was one bus a day back to Lijiang, and I had missed it. With nothing better to do, I wandered down the village alleys and read the slogans daubed on the mud-brick walls. 'The Soil Is The Mother Of Prosperity. Labour Is The Father!' 'Stick To The Socialist Road! Uphold The People's Democracy!' 'Adhere To Mao Zedong Thought!' 'Follow The Party Line Unwavering For 100 years!' And, most recently: 'Opening-up And Reform Is The Road To A Strong China!' There wasn't much else to do in Daju except sit in the restaurant and wait. 'What do you do for fun around here?' I asked the waitress that evening, as we sat alone by candlelight. She was knitting. 'Sometimes I go to karaoke. Or if I'm here] talk to foreign friends and practice my English.' I was the only foreign friend in Daju that night.

The wind howled, and I went back to my creaky wooden room at the guesthouse, to listen to the scampering of mice in the roof. Before I took the bus out the next day, I dumped my pack and scrambled up one of the hills outside Daju. I wanted to see if it was possible to walk directly from Daju to the next bend in the Yangste, and beyond, to Youngning. But when I reached the top all I could see was hill after hill, stretching to the horizon, with no sign of linking valleys. It had been hard enough climbing this hill without a pack, and it would be impossible for me to scale any more such peaks with my heavy load. I would have to go hack to Lijiang and start from there.

The bus back to Lijiang was almost as terrifying as walking the gorge itself. We set off two hours late, after the driver had gobbled a bowl of grey jelly torn and won a game of Chinese chess. I was the only passenger except for the driver's son. The road ascended out of Daju to a dizzy height. After two hours driving I could still see the village far below, beyond many zig-zags of road. There were steep drop-offs on one side of the narrow, pot-holed trail, and I didn't have much confidence in the driver or his machine. He drove with one hand on the wheel, the other clutching his Jar of tea or a cigarette. Every few minutes he would reach across to adjust a switch, temporarily losing control of the steering. The bus veered across the road. close to the edge. and I cringed by the door, ready to jump out should he lose control completely.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Daju, 1994

A cold wind blew in through the many missing windows. The driver kept stopping to lop up the radiator with ditch water, which he poured, weeds and all, into a funnel next to the steering wheel. The nerve-wracking nature of the ride spoilt what should have been excellent views of the 13 snowy peaks of Jade Dragon Mountain. We crested a pass over the hill, and the driver switched off the engine, to coast back down to the Lijiang piateau.

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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of  Originally from Yorkshire.