On Day 1, we followed the high trail out of the village of Qiaotou and on to Tea Horse Guest House, where we spent the night. Our trekking on Day 2 took us high up and around the face of the sheer granite walls of the gorge, back down to Tina’s Guest House and on to the lovely little hamlet of Walnut Garden.
The rains seemed to follow us everywhere we went in Asia. Not just happy-flower -April-showers, but torrential, tropical, monsoon rain — every where. The type of rain that permeates not just your supposedly waterproof jacket and hiking shoes, but your once seemingly impermeable being. The rain comes and comes and comes, turning rivers and lakes — and your soul — into a deep, dark milky brown mess.
We knew to expect this to a certain extent. We had planned our trip to coincide with the end of rainy season in most areas, and the flat-out dry season in others. What we couldn’t fully appreciate before our trip, however, was how crazy of a year — climate-wise — 2012 had been, and how that utter lack of predictability would continue. Who cares if the months we planned to be in China, India and Southeast Asia were — traditionally, historically, usually — relatively dry months. When Mother Nature’s delayed by even a little, all bets are off.
We got our first taste of nature’s plans for Asia soon after arriving in China, our first stop on a six month backpacking trip around Asia. Literally days after we left Beijing, the entire city was under several feet of water in the worst flooding in recent years. The torrential rains also brought severe flooding to other regions of the country, particularly the municipality of Chongqing and the rest of the Yangtze River valley.
Mind you, we had just gotten married in late June and were technically on our “honeymoon,” and as such, we had planned to do a handful of honeymoon-like activities (in addition to the daily grind of lugging a heavy pack on and off of cramped and stifling buses and trains).
One such activity we were looking forward to was a multi-day cruise down the Yangtze, one of those quintessential honeymooner-in-Asia things to do. But the Powers that Be didn’t think too fondly of our plans (as is often the case) and flooded the entire valley, killing 111 people, destroying 540,000 homes and displacing more than 1.2 million people.
The last of the generators in the world’s most powerful dam (Three Gorges dam) on China’s longest river (the Yangtze) was forced to open ahead of schedule to try and deal with the extreme influx of water. Water from the upper Yangtze reached a maximum flow of 70,000 cubic meters per second, generating the power equivalent of FIFTEEN nuclear reactors. Needless to say, we decided to pass on the Yangtze boat cruise and took a flight skipping over the region.
So what does any of this have to do with Tiger Leaping Gorge? Well, as we all are becoming increasingly aware of, changes in climate patterns are rarely localized, and though China is a giant country with diverse geography, we would soon find that any efforts to escape the effects of the extreme weather were futile.
While not as extreme in Yunnan province in the southwest of China, weather still had a significant impact on that region as well. Trekking the famed Tiger Leaping Gorge had been on our bucket list from day #1 of planning the Asia trip, and consequently, we were intent on doing it. However, just a week before we planned to be in the area, the government closed the gorge to hikers due to massive rockslides.
One particular rockslide (first photo of this post, above) was more akin to the entire face of a mountain succumbing to severe and sudden erosive activity than simply rocks falling onto the ground. The rockslide was so massive that it completely wiped out the brand new highway which had become the main link between the gorge and the outside world. Additionally, smaller rockslides and landslides had wiped out portions of the TLG trail, making for treacherous hiking conditions.
Though the highway rockslide took several weeks to clear for vehicles, the high trail had been cleared by the time we arrived in Quiatou. One of the beautiful things about trekking is that it doesn’t matter if the main thoroughfare in and out of a place is inaccessible to automobiles, if your own two feet can get you over, around or through, you’re golden…and that’s exactly what we did. By the time we arrived no vehicles were getting in or out of the area, but trekkers were.
By our third day on the trail, we had been through the muckiest, hairiest portions of the trek, and were happy for it. But there was one key task still at hand. We still hadn’t descended down to the river and visited the iconic Tiger Leaping Rock, where, you know, that tiger evaded capture by some tiger-eating humans by jumping across the width of the gorge with the help of a large rock in the middle of the river. It’s the namesake of the entire region and thus, is kind of a big deal. We couldn’t come all this way not to have the requisite tiger-leaping photo taken, and feel the Tiger’s magic mojo, man.
Rough translation of the above inscription: “Tiger Leaping Gorge rocks!”
Crazy beautiful and all, but the challenge at this point is to do the unthinkable: Get down there!
Hmm…where’s the trail, exactly?
Aha! Clever. But don’t fool yourself into a false sense of security — the railing here is nothing but some sticks tied together with twine marking a very, very long drop to the bottom of the gorge.
Maybe now is a good time to state that most trekkers visiting TLG don’t actually do this portion of the trail. They’re far too sane for that. Most trekkers get to Tina’s Guesthouse at middle gorge, descend down to the tiger leaping stone via some ladders and steps, take some photos, hike back up and call it a trip.
If you’ll recall from TLG Day #2, however, we decided to push on to Walnut Garden, spend the night, and then make our way back along a quasi-marked trail hugging the gorge. We didn’t see a single other trekker our entire time and have a good idea why. It was all both awesome and terrifying at the same time.
A nice little map along the way apparently posted courtesy of Sandy’s Guesthouse. I liked it because it was one of the few maps that sort of [accurately?] illustrates our path taken from Walnut Garden down to Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge.
After a few hours of hiking, clambering and uttering silent prayers, we arrived at our destination: the magical, mystical TIGER LEAPING ROCK. SWEET!!!
HA! That’s actually a photo from the interwebs (thanks interwebs!). That actually looks like a rock. No, sadly, the rock we were treated to on this particular day was more like a nubbin:
Ah, the violent fury of Mother Nature.
Our requisite photo with the Tiger Leaping Rock (which looks more like a horn coming out of my head than an actual rock…)
Alright, so we saw the famous rock which we hiked three days to see. Awesome. Now, time to head back up…and up…and up!
The way from the bottom to the top of the gorge is not exactly for the faint of heart, and incorporates a series of questionably maintained iron ladders somewhat attached to a sheer granite cliff. Great fun!
And what a view!
As you may have guessed, we did make it up and out of the gorge alive and with everything intact but our sanity, perhaps.
With the descent and ascent of the gorge behind us, all that was left was to head to Tina’s, kick back and wait for the bus to whisk us away on to a place appropriately called Shangri-la…or at least that was the plan. Remember that highway that got wiped out from the rockslide?
Turned out that [large collection of rocks] was really our only way back to the rest of the world. Well, technically there was another way, but it was in pretty rough shape as well and would have taken days longer. And theoretically I suppose we could have gone back the way we came (along the long, winding and mucky upper trail), but how can you possibly pass up yet another opportunity to risk life and limb clambering over an unstable pile of boulders perched precariously along a precipitous drop?
By the way, my favorite thing about the photo above (besides the terrifyingly huge piece of mountain sitting where tourist buses used to go) is the permanent “beware of falling rocks” road sign on the right. I’ll never look at those signs in quite the same way again…EVER.
There’s Lori in the baby blue top and tan shorts steadying herself behind a backpacker having a nervous breakdown. Fantastic.
Fortunately, I was able to hail a passing tiger and leap across ahead of her to get the shot.
We all did manage to make it back to the bus alive and headed on to our next destination. A funny thing happened on the way, though…
Some clouds parted and a gorgeous rainbow over a valley filled with emerald fields appeared. What happened next may surprise you.
Immediately following one or two Chinese passengers spotting the rainbow, one particular word began circulating loudly throughout the bus as cameras were violently being pulled left and right from rucksacks causing the driver to slam on the brakes and pull off to the side. Before the bus has come to a full stop, Chinese people are streaming out of the bus yelling what I can only assume is the Mandarin word for “RAINBOW!” There was such a commotion in fact that Lori and I were still confused whether it was the rainbow or Confucius himself sprawled over the valley.
As you may have guessed, rainbows have strong significance in Chinese culture, representing a double-headed sky dragon who is the mediator between heaven and earth. Yet, the fact of the matter is that much of today’s Chinese population concentrated in sprawling megalopolises characterized by towering high-rises and hazy skies likely aren’t afforded many opportunities to witness a scene quite like this.
Given that this post began with a stormy narrative, I thought it fitting to end on a note of green fields, sunshine and rainbows. Moving forward, my hope for the Chinese people is more rainbows and fewer storm clouds, but as we know as well as anyone, wishful thinking doesn’t change the weather.