Shangri-La – Tiger Leaping Gorge
Today we are headed to one of my favorite places on the face of the Earth, Tiger Leaping Gorge, near Shangri-La. It is located in the remote western hills of Yunnan, China, deep in the beautiful mountains. We have an early 630am wake up time to catch the bus to the Gorge. I was here 8 years ago with another friend, and the views and memories I have of that experience are enough to bring me back out this way. The Tiger Leaping Gorge visit consists of a two day hike; one day up into the mountains, and another day back down.
We catch the bus and begin our journey to the Gorge. I use the time to catch up on my writing and gaze upon the rich Chinese countryside. The colors of the mountains and the fields full of farmers hearken back to a time long ago. The deep complexity of China with it’s mix of old and new is such a fascinating recipe. We sit beside two older teachers from the U.S. and share stories and funny pictures, and the 2-hour ride goes by rather quickly. As we reach the destination, confusion sets in a bit, as everyone starts scurrying around and speaking really rushed Chinese. I luckily have a small grasp of the language and an affinity for striking up conversations with the people around me. Almost in every situation, this ends up being our saving grace, as my new friends are always eager and willing to help us find our way. It’s not really a design as such, but more that I just love people and they return that energy in kind. It’s the kind of symbiotic relationships that fills life with joy and happiness.
We get off of the bus, and begin our journey on the trail. The first mile or so consists of roads that go by small houses and villages. All along the trail you find big plants of marijuana and every small little guesthouse selling bags to the travelers. In Beijing this is strictly forbidden, but here in the deep mountains of southwest China they have a saying that translates something like “The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.” Now, I am a proponent of medicinal cannabis, but this ganja looks and smells more like decomposing lawn clippings, so we pass by and keep walking.
Very soon into the trail, it begins a steep climb upward into the hills. Eight years ago, I was a young spry 27 year old man. Now that I am 35, these strenuous hikes up the sides of mountains have a different effect on me. However, I do like the challenge and the workout, so I continue on, pushing myself up and up. My traveling partner, Ben, at 41, has a different outcome of that first leg of the journey. As I’m waiting on him at the top of the hill, he reaches up, huffing and puffing, almost out of gas. He knows this is a two adventure, and I’m sure is already cussing me under his breath for bringing him on this crazy hike. I assure him, even though I am not sure myself, that the hike gets easy and breezy just on the other side of that ridge. He looks at me like I’m trying to sell him beachfront property in Kansas!
By sheer luck, and the intelligent enterprising of a Chinese mountain man, there is a mountain guide sitting there at the top of the hill with a riding horse, just waiting for his collapsing victims to show up. Ben gives in, not sure if he can make it any further at the moment, and jumps on the horse. The price to ride to the next village is expensive, but so is passing out on the trail, so he climbs aboard the horse and goes for a ride. We make plans to meet up the trail a bit and journey on.
One of the cool things about his hike is every few miles there is a small village with guesthouses for the hikers. You can stop and enjoy a Chinese meal, or even pack it in for the day and rent a room. The trail rolls through the countryside, past these beautiful small villages, and up into the mountains of the Gorge. As you get higher and higher the views become spectacular. On the trail side, you walk along the side of the mountain filled with deep canyons, and rough and rocky terrain. On the other side, deep green and rocky mountain raise from the ground at almost a vertical angle, reaching up to the sky. On top of highest mountains you find rocky ominous peaks covered with snow, and smoky clouds swirling all around. And down below all of this, splitting both sides of these majestic mountains, runs an emerald green river, flowing and rushing with the power of millions of horses. With one heavenly glance of this environment, you understand quickly where the inspiration comes from all of those Chinese paintings and movie scenes depicting this magical nature. Being here allows you to feel the space with which we exist, and the source from where we find our Love. It feels like the edge of the world.
Ben climbs off of his ride at the first village where we have lunch and a beer, and continue on our hike. We go through a couple more villages and attempt to conquer the steep trial up the mountains called the 28 bends. Although he gets his legs under him a bit, he is still struggling up the mountain. We find one rock painted 14, which means we are halfway up the 28 bends and provides some encouragement, but a few bends later we see a rock painted 12, and become a bit disheartened.
However, we keep trekking and eventually make it to the top of the rock. Once we arrive, there is a Chinese woman waiting for us who says in broken English, “Congratulation, you made it to the top”. She then proceeds to try to sell us water, beer, or red bull, or weed, and charge us 10 yuan to take a picture from this amazing viewpoint. Agitated at this unexpected reward for hard work to make it up the mountain, I decline and continue on. Right around the corner I see a large pile of red bull cans and plastic water bottles, and am glad that I did not contribute to this enterprise.
The trail is much different than I remember from 8 years ago. Although the beauty of the mountains and the fun of the hike remain the same, many things have changed. Back then there were no horses. You did not have that option to ride up into the hills, then be dropped off to walk down. A side effect of this new option is that the horses have to poop somewhere. Therefore the trail is almost covered in horse dung. Not only do you have the challenge of hiking through some steep rocky terrain, but you also have the challenged of avoiding stepping in horse manure on nearly every drop of the foot! Also, back in 2007, there were no tents set up vending drinks and snacks and marijuana. This is interesting, and sometimes helpful when you are thirsty, but has contributed to a trail now littered with plastic water bottles and candy wrappers. I sort of miss the wild and primitive nature of this place as it was. But, the deep and rich beauty of Tiger Leaping Gorge remains intact, and keeps it a must have experience for anyone who has the chance to visit.
We reach our guesthouse of choice right before sundown. Exhausted we get a room, have as shower, and begin our descent into sleep. The house is overrun with Chinese and foreign hikers having fun, eating dinner, and making a lot of noise. But it is of no consequence to us. When a tired like this overtakes you, there is nothing that can get between you and your dreams.