It was late August of 2017 and I had spent the last couple days wandering around the culturally vibrant city of Lijiang in China’s northern Yunnan province. Resting in the foothills of the Himalaya, Lijiang is the ethnic home to Naxi people who have long inhabited China’s Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces.
I was thoroughly impressed with Lijiang, though this Thursday morning my sights were now shifting to the jutting peaks surrounding the city.
Bright and early at 6am, Tom the host at the October Inn Guesthouse, led me to the bus stop where I board a shuttle in route to the Tiger leaping gorge.
One of the deepest river canyons in the world with a trail high above the Jinsha, a tributary of the more iconic Yangtze River, The Tiger Leaping Gorge rises over 12,000 ft from the banks of the river. Trekking through the gorge was said to be one the best hikes in all of China.
As I walked on the bus, hauling a forty pound osprey pack and waived goodbye to Tom, I sank into the seat with fatigue weighing heavy on my mind. Thoughts on whether I really should be doing this popped into awareness. A lack of consistent sleep combined with a Stomach bug that I had picked up in Kunming, had me feeling a bit weary.
The bus made its way through Lijiang city and completed it’s routine stops. We picked up some hikers, mostly Chinese in the beginning, and then a couple Germans, then an older Italian man and later, a Portuguese woman. There was about fifteen of us spread out on inside the bus, sitting quietly as the vehicle gained elevation and drove on a road that constantly curved and weaved through an increasingly rugged landscape. After about a three hour drive into the mountains, we were dropped off at the trailhead of the trek. The group of us, and we would be spending the rest of the day and the day after together.
I quickly became well acquainted with an Indian man who was around my same age. He was taking a sabbatical before going to Grad school in Germany where he would be studying Physics
He was curious about my research in Xishuangbanna.
“How do you plan on communicating with them?” he asked in referring to the Dai people.
“Not sure. I am hoping to find and hire a translator.”
He looked at me in disbelief.
He seemed to be amazed and maybe a bit confused that I hadn’t had that part completely figured out yet.
After about an hour, the trail began wading into the valley and the landscape began to take on epic qualities. The scale of the mountains was unlike anything I had ever seen prior. The peaks across the valley strutted straight into the sky like colossal sized spikes or pyramids. The greenery that covered our path and then broke into small rice terraces, waterfalls and eventually jagged granite walls, made one feel like they were walking in some mystical epic location from a fairy tale. This was the real authentic China that I had imagined when I was young.
As our group continued onward, we came across a woman walking on the trail ahead of us. She was coming towards us.
Tall, athletic looking with short blonde hair, as we got closer something about her began to draw my earnest attention. It wasn’t a physical attraction, it was something else. I couldn’t put a finger on what exactly it was.
Anje was her name. She was a German woman about my age and she told us that she had just hiked the entire trail and now was finishing hiking it in reverse. An approximate 20 hour solo expedition. I was damn well impressed.
I asked what she thought of the hike.
She talked softly and slow, with a noticeable German accent.
As we continued our brief interaction, I began to become aware of a pleasantness and peaceful vibe that seemed to be originating from her. Was it her bright eyes and soft and relaxed smile?
I wasn’t sure. We did not talk that long and within less than 5 minutes, we parted and continued on our separate ways. She remained in my thoughts for awhile as our group of Chinese, Indian, German, Portuguese, Italian and American hikers continued our trek.
The scenery only became more and more stunning as we hiked our way into the breadth of the gorge. The path at times became incredibly narrow in which one hand could touch the rocky jutted cliff while the other, with your arm reached out, could hover over a steep drop. Perhaps I was starting to understand why Anje seemed so happy. The Tiger leaping gorge was enchanting.
There were a couple of small vendors along the way that sold water, soda and snacks.
At one of these vendors, after I purchased a bottle of water, the Chinese woman pulled out a bag of green nuggets. I examined the bag a little closer. ‘Uhh-ohh.’ I thought to myself.
She was attempting to sell us pot.
I turned away and waved my hand at the bag. “Buyao xiexie” I said rather sternly (no thank you).
I started on the trail before I soon heard loud chatter and some giggling behind me. I turned around and saw most of our group huddled around Pranjal. He was handing the lady at the vendor some yuan and then taking the bag of marijuana.
“You guys ever watch Locked Up Abroad?” I called back to them.
“What?” They yelled back in confusion.
We trekked for a few more hours before finally making it to the halfway house at dusk. Most of our group was exhausted by this point but a couple of us pondered going on further. After talking it over we decided we’d spend the night here and then finish the trek tomorrow.
We booked our dorm rooms and then posted up on a large stone balcony that set ont eh edge of a cliff and presented us with an surreal view of the gorge. We could see straight across the valley where the mountains launched themselves into the sky in a vertical manner that seemingly piddled Yosemite’s El Capitan in both scale and scope.
I sat with Pranjal and two other Chinese girls from our group and waited for dinner to be served. The Chinese girls were sisters and were fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, English and German, of all languages. Their sarcastic sense of humor and tendency to poke fun at anything and everything, had me laughing throughout the evening. When the food was finally delverd out to us, Pranjal and the sisters were given chopsticks while I was given a fork and knife.
“Well that’s pretty considerate I suppose.” I said while picking up the fork.
“No, they just saw a dumb white man in desperate need.” One of the sisters exclaimed.
It was a little before ten when I decided to call it a night. Pranjal asked if I was going to join him and a couple others from our group in the smoking of ganja.
“No thanks I am already high as a kite.” I replied immediately.
I was making a habit out of confusing Pranjal.
“Goodnight!” I called back as I walked off the balcony.
Walking into my twelve bed dorm room was bitter sweet as I craved rest but knew it would be hard to find a deep sleep with a dozen others in the room. I put my pack underneath the cot and quickly claimed the empty bathroom to brush my teeth and take my contacts out. Then, with ear plugs in, collapsed on the mattress.
The next morning I awoke from a light sleep to the commotion of multiple people tossing and turning in their cots and others moving around the room. Hiking boots being planted on the floor was a less than subtle sound.
A long day of trekking lay ahead and without a good night’s sleep? It was becoming a signature quality of backpacking in Yunnan.
After using the bathroom, I searched out a quiet spot and got a fifteen minute meditation in and then headed out to the balcony and ordered some breakfast. The rest of the group joined me soonafter and before 9am we set off to finish the trek.
Our group did not stay as close together on this day as we did on the previous. From the start at leaving the guesthouse, it was pretty clear that we had divided further into subgroups with Pranjal, the two sisters, the Portuguese woman and myself leading the way. We would reach a high point on the trail and then wait for the others to catch up, but as the day progressed it became evident that we were going to finish the trek on different schedules.
To my amazement, the second part of the hike turned out to be even more fantastic than the first. I was awash in wonder and bliss as we passed through waterfalls, and more epic himilayan mountainous terrain.
As we became closer to the end of the trail, there was talk among us of going on even further to the fabled Shangri-La.
Shangri-La had been a mythical place among backpackers and travelers for decades and was known for hosting Tibetan culture and monasteries. It was said that the landscape that the town sits upon, was something that could only be seen to be believed.
The two sisters became emboldened by the idea of going but I was a bit hesitant. I had unfortunately heard a disappointing rumor in Kunming from a pair of Swiss travelers whom had told me that the Chinese government had turned the town and surrounding area into a less than authentic tourist trap. Apparently, along with tearing down and rebuilding the monasteries, the government had been moving Han Chinese into the town as well, just like they had been doing in Tibet, so the place was a far cry from what it once was.
By the time we walked into the small township that marked the end of the trek through the gorge, talk of painful feet and rumbling stomachs began to draw the conversation away from Shangri-La. I decided not to fight the change in mood as while I liked the idea of going to Shangri-La, I knew it would end up being at least a couple day commitment and I wasn’t sure it would be worth the time and effort given what I had heard in Kunming.
Our group finished our time together by dining at a small restaurant while we waited for a bus to come and take us back to Lijiang. I was surprised but quite elated when I was told that they served crepes and pancakes. Yep, another reminder that I was certainly not the first westerner to come through the Gorge. It didn’t matter though, that was never a point in coming here.
This was all new and real exploration, to me. I could have read a book or watched a documentary on the Tiger Leaping Gorge and I am sure both would’ve been informative and enjoyable but nothing could have taken the place of actually being here. Physically and mentally pushing myself through these two days and making friends with adventurers from all over the world.