After waiting at the wrong bus stop and almost getting on another vehicle, going in a completely different direction, we finally caught what turned out to be ‘Oh-My-God-We’re-Going-To-Die’ Bus Lines, for our trip to the famed Tiger Leaping Gorge. Even the six jarring hours of near accidents and bouncing from one pot hole to another, didn’t alter our grand expectations, nor our high level of excitement.
As we bumped along, we caught a glimpse of the highest peaks of the gorge just before our entry into Qiaotou; a pretty river town at the head of the canyon. Here we noticed that the women ‘seemed’ to do all of the work, while the men sat around smoking and gambling, and making sullen faces at the frazzled tourists, as they staggered white-faced from their buses. We asked for directions and felt a little suspicious, after receiving a multitude of differing opinions concerning our destination. So, we chose the most prominent view and headed out on the lower road, to start our trek. Fortunately, we only managed to walk six kilometres in the wrong direction, before eventually returning and beginning our trek, twelve kilometres later, at 5pm.
After about half an hour on the track, we came onto the gorge proper and our mouths fell open in surprise. We found ourselves surrounded by an awesome kind of beauty; the hills around us grown into mountains of rock that pierced and rose above the clouds, culminating in columns of jagged limestone teeth. At a maximum depth of approximately 3,790 meters from river to mountain peak, Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest and most spectacular river canyons in the world. For around 15 kilometres, the Jinsha, or Golden Sands River; a primary tributary of the upper Yangtze River, passes between the 5,596 metre Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the 5,396 metre Haba Snow Mountain, creating a series of spectacular rapids that rage chaotically under steep 2,000 metre cliffs.
Legend says that in order to escape from a hunter, a tiger jumped across the river at its narrowest point, hence the great name. Yet, the poor creature needed a 25 metre miracle to get to the other side. I hope it could swim really well.
An hour further down the trail, we arrived at the Naxi, pronounced Nashi, family guest house. Later we found out that the inhabitants of the gorge are primarily the indigenous Naxi people, who live in a handful of small hamlets, where workable fertile land is available. Their primary subsistence comes from grain production and hikers, both foreign and Chinese. What a special place to stay. Apart from the stunning vistas and lovely earthy, authentic architecture, we received wonderful hospitality and delicious Naxi family food; fortifying us for the next day’s trekking. Nothing could be more special than sampling the Naxi family spirit, which we found to be akin to drinking petrol from a petri dish. Astounding is the only way I could describe the hike so far. So much so that our camera fingers seemed to suffer from lactic acid, with the work-load they endured. We both feel it is worth coming all the way to South-Western China, just to experience this place.
The next day it began to rain steadily and the track became mud in the lower sections and slippery rock on the higher reaches. In some places, impromptu waterfalls cascaded and crashed over our very narrow pathways, which sometimes sloped towards vertical drops, into what seemed the oblivion to us. This trek isn’t for the faint-hearted; anyone who suffers from vertigo, might well struggle on the narrow paths and the thousand metre drops.
We met many interesting people as we tried to negotiate our way through the rain, none more wonderful than a lovely Chinese girl, who went by the name of Scarlet; chosen as her ‘English name’. At this point, the trek could not have been more perfect … then … we received a message through our Kindle that my beloved mother, had suffered heart failure and been taken to hospital, so we became desperate to get to a phone. We soon discovered that none of the land-lines in the area worked, due to the lines being down. That’s where Scarlet came to our rescue. She contacted her service provider and unlocked her phone from some kind of international block, so we could make the call. Fortunately, we were able to ascertain that my mother was in a stable condition and due to return home that afternoon.
So … we continued our trek, walking with Scarlet and her somewhat smitten friend, until we descended to the banks of the churning river, near the end of the gorge. Here we decided to take some refreshment at one of the many appealing guesthouses along the waterfront and enjoy some more of the wonderful views. This time sheltered from the rain. At the table next to us, sat several tourists. When we asked them where they came from, they said Australia, but we wouldn’t know their tiny hamlet in the mountains of North-East Victoria. It turned out to be Mt Beauty, the town next to ours. Talk about a small world!
The next morning, we hitched a ride back to Qiaotou, in time to hail a bus back to Dali. This time the journey took closer to seven hours, because of a local market that closed the road off to all traffic. With just about every kilometre travelled, our experience worsened until it became the bus ride from hell. Every time our non-air-conditioned bus stopped, most of the male occupants lit up a cigarette. I could hardly breathe. Apart from our bone shaking lack of suspension, we also witnessed the results of eight major accidents; one a fatality. Over time and in a confined space, the gobbing, wild bumping, suffocating smoke, flying rubbish and scenes of death, got to me and … I think I may have raved and yelled like a Banshee. Fortunately, a night of good company, a scrumptious Sichuan hot-pot and several medicinal gin and tonics, saved my sanity.