The never-ending adventures of a travel writer in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Leaping Tiger Must Learn to Swim

my brother at the waterfall on the path
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.

Houses along the trail
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.

Tiger Leaping 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.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
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.

The Greeter at the Naxi Family Guesthouse
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.

Horses on the Trail
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.

SARS & Vinegar

The Untold Story of Mainland China

In early 2003 the world watched anxiously as the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic erupted in Hong Kong and Guangdong province on the Chinese mainland. Cases soon popped up in Beijing, Toronto, Hanoi, Taiwan and elsewhere. The cause and even the means of transition was a mystery. My mother and I were nervous as we followed the latest news. We were planning to visit my brother in April, while he was teaching English in Sichuan province.

Despite Dr. Jiang Yanyong’s highly publicized open letter detailing Beijing’s under-reporting of the official number of SARS cases and subsequent deaths, we were fairly optimistic. We would only be in Beijing for a couple of days and then fly to Chengdu, the capitol of Sichuan, which was far from the effected areas. My mother was a nurse, and I had worked in NIH funded primate labs, so we understood how good hygiene and basic precautions can prevent the transmission of most illnesses. We knew we would be alright if we were careful, and besides, we were armed with several boxes of trusty surgical masks, gloves and handy wipes.

We arrived in Beijing on April 16, the same day WHO confirmed a previously unknown form of coronavirus was the cause of SARS. We didn’t meet any other foreigners in the city. By this time, tourists had fled the country and groups like the Peace Corps were evacuated. The only news coming out of China was from Hong Kong or Beijing. Most foreign news agencies were covering the story from outside the country. Typical tourist spots like Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Wang Fu Jing Street, and the Pearl market were deserted. Many Beijing residents wore dirty, disposable surgical masks, not realizing it was necessary to actually change them from time to time, to avoid contamination.

My brother met us in Chengdu a couple of days later, and we traveled a few hours away to visit his school in the countryside. On April 20, while we were in Sichuan province, there was a major shake-up in Beijing. China’s health ministry raised its official number of confirmed cases by 300 individuals. China's health minister and the mayor of Beijing were fired from their jobs and removed from their Communist Party posts due to their handling of the epidemic. The central government also canceled the week-long May 1 International Workers’ Day holiday for the entire country. It was done in an effort to discourage travel, and thus prevent the spreading of the disease to inner provinces. Such sweeping measures and candid response to the SARS threat suggested the direness of the epidemic. It was unsettling, but still seemed far away from us in Sichuan.

On April 25, we drove up to the Wolong Panda Reserve in the mountains, about 3 hours from Chengdu. I was looking forward to getting my picture taken while holding one of the Pandas (yes it’s shameless, but this is the only place on the planet where you can do it) but we were told that human contact was prohibited now due to SARS, and the red pandas were taken off display entirely. That day the official SARS count jumped by 125 cases, and an entire hospital in Beijing was quarantined.

Afterwards, we set off for Lijiang city in Yunnan province. Although the May holiday was canceled and classes continued, my brother was still given the week off from teaching, allowing us to travel without experiencing the typical holiday crowds. We were happy to visit a remote area and escape the SARS hysteria that was brewing. The overnight train ride from Chengdu to Lijiang offered great scenery, although it always seemed to be through the opposite side of the train. The bus ride on April 27 to Lijiang, was a hellish mix of over-amplified karaoke; flying luggage; and driving way too fast through hairpin, cliff-hugging mountain roads.

It was on this last bus ride that we discovered the SARS epidemic had suddenly gotten much more serious. Several of the other passengers coughed constantly. One woman seemed seriously ill and appeared to have a fever. Even worse, everyone had a habit of spitting right in the aisles (in China, spitting is such a problem that some cities have begun enacting laws against it). We kept our face masks on nice and tight and prayed we’d get to Lijiang soon.

The bus stopped every thirty minutes at makeshift checkpoints. We were ushered off to wait while health workers in contamination suits sprayed down everything inside the bus—including the seats and our luggage—with diluted vinegar. We asked someone what was going on and they merely replied, “because of SARS.” Apparently it was hoped that vinegar would work as an effective disinfectant and kill the virus. It was a small comfort that the government thought sitting in a cold puddle of vinegar might be all that stood between me and some SARS carrier spitting loogies in the aisle.

We arrived in Lijiang that afternoon and learned that the government had just closed all but two hotels in the city to tourists (which were themselves government-owned), as a way of managing the SARS outbreak. There were also rumors that the local hospitals were full of SARS patients.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were told that our temperature must be taken before we could check in. Then when we got to our room, we found the carpet was soaked with vinegar, and there were puddles of it in the bathroom. It was more “SARS decontamination,” we were told by the hotel staff.

My first priority now was to find internet access. I scoured the old quarter for an hour, looking for an internet café. Normally the area is bustling like Disney’s Epcot Center, with mobs of tourists wandering through the souvenir shops and restaurants. Today it was a ghost town. No sooner did I find a café and sit down at a terminal, and I was told that the police shut down all internet cafés nationwide, until May 8, for reasons of “national security.” News reports on national television that night later confirmed the shut-down. It was an effective way to limit unofficial communication about the epidemic.

I met a Canadian man sitting in the café. He told me he was an English teacher in Lijiang, but his school ordered him to leave over fears of SARS. He was determined to wait it out instead, and was secretly staying with friends, hoping the epidemic would soon blow over and he could go back to work.

The next afternoon my brother and I caught a bus to Qiaotou, the starting point to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge. We were stopped several times for more vinegar showers, but at Qiaotou there was a mandatory temperature and passport check. I glanced at the temperature lists on the officer’s desk, curious because so many people on the bus were coughing, and noted numerous entries for 38 °C (100.4 °F) or more—the most consistent symptom of SARS. Oddly, no one was detained for further diagnosis. Was it just an empty exercise? Were officials so overwhelmed by potential cases way out here in the countryside that they didn’t bother to follow up?

The officer said we couldn’t go into Qiaotou, not because of our temperatures, but because we’d been in the immediate area for less than 2 days and should remain under quarantine for a few more days, to be sure we showed no symptoms. Noting that we were in one of the most remote areas in China now, we were concerned that “quarantine” could mean being left on the side of the road. Fortunately a young, bilingual Chinese man helped us provide all the “right answers” to get us through the checkpoint and on our way to Qiaotou again.

A few days later, after our wilderness adventure, we flew on to Kunming and then Chengdu. At each airport and hotel we submitted to more thermometers. When we finally returned to my brother’s school, we had the worst surprise of all. We were told that the town officials enacted a new regulation while we were away to manage the outbreak. Now anyone entering the town had to submit to a mandatory health exam at the military hospital. We went very reluctantly—especially concerned about the possibility of coming in contact with SARS patients at the hospital.

The hospital was filthy. Dirt was caked on the floors and walls. There were rusty doorknobs, leaky pipes, exposed wires and puddles of mystery liquids. I saw a child drop his pants and defecate right on the floor. There was medical waste—bloody Q-tips, cotton balls, razor blades and used needles--laying on the floors and counter tops.

First a lab tech told me to put a thermometer under my arm. I was relieved. That was easy. When it came to the blood test, I was terrified. The tech assigned to this task was an older, hefty, battle-axe of a Chinese woman. She wore no gloves and her fingernails were yellow and dirty. I watched her dip Q-tips directly into the bottle, and retrieve syringe and needles from open containers sprawled on the counter. We protested until the tech reluctantly washed her hands, puts some gloves on, and got new needles and syringes out of unopened boxes. She was visibly irritated by the inconvenience.

The chest x-ray came next. There were no instructions to take off our money belts and large metal objects, no protective shields for our groins, and no suggestions to hold our breath or even remain still. It was hard to believe any serious diagnosis could be made from this. We were just glad to receive a clean bill of health.

When I took my mother to the Chengdu airport on May 8, measures against the outbreak had been stepped up. There was now a perimeter around the city. As we pulled up to the new checkpoint, the driver rolled down the windows, and health officers reached in and pointed hand-held scanners at our eyes. The driver said the scanner recorded our body temperature. I was amazed because I’d never seen a device like that, but at the same time I was annoyed that no one had used one on us previously. Up to that point I’d had thermometers shoved in just about every part of my body that could accommodate one.

On May 12, the official count of SARS cases in China passed 5000. Four days later a warning was issued by China’s Supreme Court, via the official Xinhua News Agency, stating that people who violated quarantines and spread the SARS virus may be imprisoned for up to seven years. Further, anyone causing death or serious injury by "deliberately spreading" the virus could be sentenced to prison for 10 years to life, or could even face execution. It was a scary thing to let sink in. We were worried about getting the disease itself, but we were equally concerned about being sent to one of the quarantine hospitals. If we did become ill, whether we actually had SARS or not, any hesitation to seek diagnosis and treatment at the hospital could have serious consequences.

On May 23, my brother took me later to the bushmeat market to see all the exotic animals in cages. Normally it’s like death row at the zoo, but today it was empty. A friend told us that in nearby Chengdu, dogs (not just the dinner variety, but actual pets as well) and exotic animals were being slaughtered for fear they carried SARS. That same day a link between SARS and eating the meat of civet cats had been suggested by scientists. In response, the police apparently shut down bushmeat markets across the country and citizens overreacted by killing their own pets. The news didn’t impress everyone in the region however, as I saw civet served in restaurants in Hanoi, later that summer.

By this time things were getting sentimental and a little corny in the media. There were endless pageants and concerts on TV to show support for SARS victims. Around 80 singers got together in Taiwan to produce a “We Are the World” style music video, entitles “Hand In Hand (Against SARS),” which was then played over and over again on the airwaves.

When I finally got ill in early June, I was understandably worried, but I was worried as much about being misdiagnosed with SARS as actually having the disease. I wanted to avoid another trip to the hospital at all costs. I hid in our flat until my symptoms were gone. I didn’t want anyone to catch me coughing. In the end I apparently just had Bronchitis, but with all the typical symptoms of SARS—fever of 100.4 °F, fatigue, coughing, sore throat, aches, difficulty breathing, respiratory infection, etc. It was a scary time.

I finally left China on June 22, as the outbreak subsided. We survived the first great viral epidemic of the century! Many criticized China for the way it managed the SARS epidemic. While obviously China’s response was secretive in regard to the outside world, they certainly weren’t ignoring the problem. To many people it was a mystery why SARS burn itself out after a single outbreak in just one year. After witnessing China’s reaction to the epidemic, I have no doubt that China’s intensive management was the reason why SARS was contained. I wondered if my own country would be willing to take the same kinds of measures by restricting travel, canceling holidays, quarantining communities and instituting mandatory health exams to save lives. Imagining the outcries against loss of individual freedom and liberty, I knew we might not face the same positive outcome.