Saturday, March 1, 2008
My brother and I caught the 3-hour-long afternoon bus ride from Lijiang to Qiaotou. I was looking forward to escaping the frantic traffic, ringing cell phones, smog, pushy shoppers and hive-like swarms of activity elsewhere in China’s cities. We were on our way to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge, said to be the deepest river gorge in the world, and one of China’s most pristine natural areas.
The town of Qiaotou is located about 60 km north of Lijiang, in Yunnan province (southwestern China), at the eastern reaches of the Himalayas. The area has only been open to foreign tourists since 1993. Here the Yangtze, known locally as the Golden Sands River, making a drastic elbow turn and flows north through Tiger Leaping Gorge. It barrels through 21 rapids in the course of about 15 km, between the 18 peaks of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5,596m) and the Haba Xueshan Mountain (5,396 m). The river is only known to have been navigated successfully (without dieing) by 1 expedition in 1986.
Legend says that to escape a hunter, a tiger jumped across the narrowest point of the gorge, about 25 meters wide. There are no more tigers wandering the gorge now (and probably no more hunters either, due to the lack of abundant wildlife), but two roads still allow the current residents and visitors to traverse the gorge today. The high road is approximately 22 km long and was once a trade route where Tibetan horses were exchanged for tea from Yunnan. It can be hiked in as little as 2 days, and is still actively used by local villagers. The lower road was once a mule track, but has recently been dynamited out and paved; bringing scores of busses full of Chinese tourists to see the furthest reaches of the gorge.
Qiaotou is a quaint little river town straddling the Yangtze. A couple of stone bridges connect the town, and are a popular spot for children to fly kites. We were dropped off near the central market, where a group of Yi women sat packed in the back of a truck. They wore ornate gowns, large silver earrings, and giant black mortarboards perched on their heads, looking as though they’d just graduated from high school. We booked a room at the fake YHA, and then passed the evening on the other side of the river at Shen Jian’s Backpacker’s Café.
We got up before sunrise the next morning, crossed the bridge over the Yangtze, and walked through the schoolyard. The toll collector hadn’t gotten up yet, so entrance to the trail was free. Wild geraniums, iris and rhododendron lined much of the trail and scented the air. The Yangtze churned below, always to our right. Beyond it, Snow Dragon Jade Mountain, rose from the river majestically. Its jagged, impenetrable peaks were covered in snow. The base of its black towers formed the epicenter of an earthquake that nearly flattened the city of Lijiang in 1996. The quake increased instability of the area, contributing to periodic landslides which still plague the gorge.
As we climbed, rocks fell up ahead. I saw minors digging for crystals far above. I pushed my brother forward, not wanting to linger. We'd heard that sometimes hikers are killed by falling rocks dropped carelessly by prisoners forced to quarry the mountains. Supposedly a handful of hikers in the gorge are killed in a large variety of ways every year, although no official records seem to be kept.
We passed camphor trees, pine, and stands of bamboo, eventually coming to a small Naxi village hidden in a hanging valley. The outer walls of the homes were stone or mud brick, and the inner courtyards were wooden. Enormous red stacks of chaff stood by old barns overlooking terraced rice patties and fields of corn and wheat. It looked as though the village was locked hundreds or even thousands of years in the past, if not for the power lines and satellite dishes on many roofs.
Naxi, Yi, and Tibetans are not the only inhabitants of the gorge. The endangered Yunnan Golden Monkey (Rhinopithecus bieti) also makes its home in the gorge, although rarely seen. Golden monkeys have a ghostly appearance, with a pale face, vacant black eyes and slits for nostrils. They live higher than any other monkey species in the world (between 9,500 feet and 14,000 feet) and primarily eat lichens on the fir and spruce trees growing on the mountainside. Once thought extinct, thirteen small populations are now known to survive, with as little as 1,000 individuals remaining in total. Extensive logging has reduced their habitat to the most isolated spots in the country.
I stopped to take a photo of the river below but noticed a bus parked on the lower road, so I walked a little further until it was out of view. Then I noticed power lines over the ridge, so I kept going. I stopped again, but a plastic bag was caught on a tree branch within the shot. No matter where I stopped, I realized there was always some sign of human presence—and much of it rubbish. My brother and I played a game to see who could find the first spot where signs of the modern world weren’t present. Yet almost everywhere we stopped, there were cigarette butts, or an aluminum can, a satellite dish or telephone lines, a plane flying overhead, or the sounds of automobiles honking on the road below. Even in one of the remotest parts of China (or the world for that matter), the modern world was rapidly encroaching. It was a disappointing realization. Everyone wants to be the first and only to visit an exotic location untouched by industrialization, modern technology, pollution or mass tourism, but sadly, those places are long gone.
Soon we came to a stretch of the trail known as 28 Bends. This was the most physically and emotionally difficult portion of the hike for me. I’d been training all winter for this, and had just been tramping in New Zealand a few months prior, but none of this proved to be adequate preparation for the grueling task ahead. Truth be told, I was very overweight, and the trails I’d been hiking in preparation were relatively flat. In contrast, my brother lived on the 8th floor of his Chinese apartment complex with no elevators. Constant trips up and down the stairs every day had prepared him well. He clamored up the trail with little effort and yelled down that he would wait for me at the top.
Here the trail makes a perpetual switch-back up the side of Haba Xueshan Mountain at a ridiculously steep incline. As I climbed higher and higher my head began to pound and an intense sense of vertigo set it. Exhausted, I fell to my knees and was afraid to stand up, that I might tumble backwards down the mountain. I never experienced a fear of heights until I hiked Tiger Leaping Gorge. This was something that would haunt my nightmares for the next few months. I had a panic attack as I looked down at the rapids, thousands of feet below. I climbed the rest of the way on all fours. As I ventured higher, explosions of thunder crashed on the cliffs of Snow Dragon Jade Mountain. Cold rain began to fall and my hands and knees were soon muddy and sore. I yelled for my brother but heard no answer. I swooned when I saw how much further I had to climb. It took me more than an hour to reach the top, and my brother was nowhere to be found. I was nauseous, dizzy, and very concerned. A group of hikers happened to pass by (they were only the second group I’d passed that day) and told me my brother was waiting for me at “the gate.” Relieved, I trudged on, shivering in the rain.
I arrived at the gate to find two posts, a sign in Chinese, and a few prayer flags, but no brother. Now the icy cold rain was pouring down and lightning cascaded through the gorge. I yelled for my brother over and over again, but heard nothing through the howling wind. I was exhausted and my legs ached, but there was no place to sit, I leaned against the rock face under an overhanging pine tree. I faced the cliff edge only 2 feet away.
There were several arrows on the rocks, and they either pointed through the gate, or back the way I came. The gate led out to a slipper rock outcropping where the trail seemed to dead-end. It was a sheer drop to the river, a couple of thousand feet below. I watched the wind hurl a dead bush through the gate and into the abyss. I remembered the story of another hiker who fell to his death the previous week. His body was found a few days later, battered beyond recognition.
The icy rain fell hard on my skin with an odd burning sensation. I pulled a small umbrella from my pack but the wind caught it with such strength that I let it go for fear of being pulled off balance and falling over the edge. I was faced with 3 options now. I could go on without the aid of a map or guidebook (my brother had the only copies), and investigate the slippery cliff edge ahead, hoping the trail continued around some unseen bend. Alternatively, I could crouch here in the storm with no shelter, waiting form my brother who may already be dead on some ledge below. Lastly, I could go back the muddy way I came, sliding down the most treacherous section of the track, and seek shelter at the previous Naxi village. An hour later, the sun was beginning to set, and my choice was urgent.
Just when I was about to head back the way I came, I heard a faint hollering from over the ridge. In his impatience, my brother had apparently climbed up somewhere above, in an unmarked portion in the trail. When he came into view, we exchanged heated unpleasantries. He was furious that I hadn’t caught up and got us both stuck in the storm. I was upset because he hadn’t waited for me, putting my life at risk. A rather nasty argument ensued which took considerable time to dissipate.
We hurried through a grove of pine trees, sheltered from the icy rain and howling wind. It was pitch dark when we reached the Tea Horse Trading Guest House, and I was ready to collapse. I was shivering on the edge of hypothermia. We quickly ate a hot dinner underneath an overhang in the courtyard, and then went off to bed.
When we awoke the next morning, it was still raining. We ate breakfast again under the balcony. As I drank a glass of scolding hot green tea, I looked over the black tile roof at the black fangs of the mountain, piercing the fog. Bundles of dried corn hung from the red wooden pillars around the courtyard. Ornamental lanterns swung in the wind and I heard cow bells in the distance. It was a romantic setting until I noticed the enormous satellite dish in the corner.
Our hosts were Naxi, like most of the people who live in the villages along the trail. The lady of the house, with her traditional blue cap, apron and silver earrings, spoke English well. We asked her about the relationships between men and women in her village. She explained to us that Naxi are matriarchal. Women may take temporary consorts, but much of the time they live without a man in the house.
Noting all of the large items around the guesthouse, such as the beds, satellite dish, TV and what appeared to be a washing machine, I asked her how she brought all of that stuff to her home. She pointed to the path down below the house and said she carried it all on her back from Qiaotou. Knowing how sore and tired I was from the day before, I was in awe that she could carry such things up the mountain on her tiny frame.
By 9 am the rain finally stopped and we were on our way. The morning hike was much easier than the day before but my new fear of heights didn’t subside. The trail was only wide enough to walk single-file and the drop-offs were much more abrupt. We climbed over several fresh landslides, and inched our way through a gushing waterfall.
We passed pygmy goat herds frolicking on the boulders. I resisted the urge to grab one of the adorable kids and give him a squeeze, imagining him jumping playfully at the last minute, losing my balance, and going headlong over the cliff. We heard little cattle bells all along the trail, even if we didn’t see the herds that they belonged to. The most worrisome encounter was passing a train of mules. I hugged the mountainside as the mules brushed my sides, clomping their feet unpredictably on the rocks. I held my breath to make myself as small as possible while they passed, knowing the beasts probably wouldn’t care if they knocked me over the edge.
We stopped for lunch in Bendiwan village at Feng De Fang’s Halfway Guest House, home of the renowned “Number One Toilet in Heaven and Earth.” Michael Palin used the same toilet a few months later on his Himalaya trek… I’m proud to say I used it first.
I was relieved when the trail finally descended to meet the low road after Tina’s Guest House, although the climb down was almost as difficult as the climb up. It was the middle of the afternoon when we reached Sean’s Guesthouse, and we discovered it was too late to get a bus back to Qiaotou, or a ferry on to Daju (continuing on in the opposite direction). We had no choice but to spend the night at Sean’s and catch the bus to Lijiang early the next morning.
Sean’s Guesthouse is the oldest inn at the Walnut Grove village. Sean is Tibetan, and the one who single-handedly (quite literally) marked the entire high trail with helpful yellow arrows and signs. His Australian wife Margo also runs the “Gorged Tiger Café” in Qiaotou.
That evening we sat on the terrace with glasses of hot tea, while others told us about the dreary future of Tiger Leaping Gorge. I was disturbed to learn that in 2008 the government is scheduled to begin construction of a proposed 278m-high (912ft) hydroelectric dam and flood the gorge, creating a reservoir 125 miles long. It would actually dwarf the highly controversial 185m-high Three Gorges Dam. If the dam is completed, villages like Walnut Grove will be lost, and up to 100,000 people will be forced to relocate.
The project is a joint venture between the provincial government of Yunnan province and a subsidiary of the China Huaneng Group. The company is run by Li Xiaopeng, the son of the former prime minister, and the driving force behind construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Local communities and environmental groups are frustrated that the entire planning and preparation process for the dam is being conducted in secret. Local villagers have not been consulted about any stage of the development.
The potential loss of ecotourism due to the dam could have devastating effects on the community that remains. Many of the families in the gorge lived in extreme poverty before hikers began visiting the gorge in substantial numbers. After tourism came to the area, many people switched from subsistence farming to running inns and working as guides, generating a substantial new income that brought education, better nutrition and modern conveniences like electricity and telephone service. The new opportunities also gave locals an even deeper appreciation and desire to protect the environment as a valuable resource. Inn owners and guides complain that only the investors and local government will benefit from the dam. Even the electricity itself may never reach local residents. Reportedly, it will be directed to other parts of China and even be sold to neighboring countries like Burma, Thailand and Vietnam.
Environmental impacts may be unrecoverable. The reservoir will destroy habitat for local flora and fauna, including the Yunnan Golden Monkey. The gorge is also an active seismic zone, creating fears that the dam could increase the likelihood of future earthquakes such as the one that flattened Lijiang in 1996, and could in turn cause instability or even failure in the dam itself.
I came to Tiger Leaping Gorge to escape the freight train of modern progress in China’s cities, only to find it bearing down even here with all the power of the Yangtze. It may be impossible to stop construction of the new dam, and divert the potential cultural and ecological disaster waiting to flood the gorge. Local and International outcries over construction of the Three Gorges Dam fell on deaf ears. The only way to effect change may be to convince surrounding countries not to buy electricity from Yunnan, but that’s a tall order. Electricity in the region is in short supply. It’s common to be without power for several days a week. If other areas don’t draw their electricity from Tiger Leaping Gorge, then there are other proposed dams on rivers like the Mekong which may be exploited with even greater environmental impact. It’s a depressing reality that some of Asia’s greatest rivers may be irreversibly altered and damaged within our lifetime. The most practical advice I can give is to visit the gorge soon, before it’s changed forever. The leaping tiger is going to have to swim for a change.