Tiger Leaping Gorge Part II: Halfway House to Daju

Written by Nov 2, 2007 20:47
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The unfamiliar smell of bacon and eggs...

(Introduction: In the summer of 2005 a good friend (S) and I decided to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge as part of a month long journey around China. I was only planning to spend a year teaching and believed this would be my only chance to travel. This is a two-part story based on the diary I wrote and my memories of one of the most spectacular places I have ever had the privilege to set foot.)

The unfamiliar smell of bacon and eggs greets me at 7am in the morning. The eggs come from the lucky free-range chickens that get to wander these mountainside dwellings at will, but the bacon ? I’ve rarely seen bacon in China, so I’m very impressed.

We eat a grand breakfast on the balcony at Halfway House with spellbinding, morning-mountain views. Tiger Leaping Gorge seems still to be sleeping, its mountains somewhere behind a cool and subdued blanket of clouds. With the air full of breeze and the threat of rain, we don our hiking boots, strap on our rucksacks and set out once more.

Waterfalls are our companions today...

Waterfalls are our companions today, with last night’s rain adding more to the already waterlogged ground. The effect is spectacular and not a little dangerous.

The first part of our walk takes us along the similarly narrow and stony paths as yesterday, perhaps a metres width or so between the cliffs on our left and the vertiginous drop down to the Yangtze River on our right. The river so far below us now that its muddy red-brown waters look as smooth as silk.

We meet a few more goats who, with expert balance, scramble up the rocky slopes.

It is about this time that we notice a streak of white running down the cliffs, across our future path and ever downwards. It looks as though a tin of paint has been spilled. As we get closer it becomes obvious that this is a waterfall and we can hear it rushing long before we reach it.

Sometimes it is difficult to remember the scale of Tiger Leaping Gorge, even when walking it. It seems impossible that we are thousands of metres above the Yangtze River and that there are yet thousands more metres above us. Who knows how far above us this waterfall has come from, but it makes me feel tiny.

When we reach the point where the waterfall crosses our path, which takes a deceptively long time, the narrow streaks of white have become at least a ten metre wide strip of freezing, gushing water that hits the rocks and fills the air with a fine misty rain. Not only is our path narrow, wet and slippery, but the water has brought down great lumps of rock and stone which we must also negotiate.

In fact, the path is buried beneath this recent rockslide and we have no choice but to pick our way through the boulders. We are both aware that a slip here would probably be fatal and it is with slow and deliberate steps that we continue. I let my friend go first and it takes quite a lot of resolve for me to follow him. On safely reaching the other side we both let out our breaths in collective relief. We grin with some unknown sense of achievement, as though Tiger Leaping Gorge has tested us, and we have survived.

From this point onwards our path begins...

From this point onwards our path begins a steady descent. We are treated to the luxurious human-touched scenery of terraced fields that map the slopes in intricate patterns. Small villages pop up here and there and the feel of a return to civilisation comes much more quickly than I expect. A road becomes visible and people start appearing on the path, a sure sign that the weather is improving.

The arrival of the road, and setting foot on it, inevitably takes away from the experience of the gorge and I can’t help but feel resentful of it. I’m selfish in begrudging this piece of tarmac that allows traffic to make it through to the remote communities scattered through the gorge. For these communities it is a lifeline and taking the “high path” allows walkers, tourists or whatever we are, to forget, for the most part, that this road exists at all.

As it is, today, there is no more traffic on the road than ourselves, a farmer, his horse and two cows.

It also becomes clear that the road is relatively new, as an hour further on and we reach a section that is more dirt track than road. Just around the corner from here and the gorge reminds us again that it is not to be messed with. On passing a particularly sheer section of cliff, the road is blocked with another recent fall of jagged boulders.

The Yangtze River is once more our guide...

The Yangtze River is once more our guide, its rough, wide bulk flowing only a few hundred metres below us now. We know that we must cross the river at some point, and we find a sign suggesting there are two ferries: an “old” one and a “new” one.

We decide to take the “old” ferry as it’s cheaper and as the arrow points in the general direction of the road we are following, we continue.

Whilst the road makes walking feel less authentic, the gorge itself is no less imposing. Behind us the rugged pyramid of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain rises up keeping its peaks maddeningly hidden behind thick cloud. To the right, the gorge flattens out into one long green plain stretching up to the edge of our sight, where it ends at the feet of yet more mountains. The plain is dotted with higgledy-piggledy fields and houses that bring colour and life to the vast valley.

We follow the road...

We follow the road, there is nowhere else to go, keeping our eyes out for a sign that will tell us where we can catch the ferry. It is a surprise therefore when the road takes a turn inwards, away from the river and into a tiny town. The houses flank either side of the road and there is not a single person to be seen. It feels like walking into a ghost town.

The houses are run down, but it’s obvious people still live here from the small patches of washing hanging out, the odd vegetable plot and the incongruous collection of pool tables, balls and cues that sit in many of the dwellings. It is only when we have walked the length of the village that we see signs of life – a store – and we get vague directions (the wave of a hand out over the fields and towards the river) to the ferry.

The village is surrounded by sunflower fields which are just coming into flower. The gleaming yellow heads might never be more like their namesake that we haven’t seen for the last few days; against their soft green foliage, they really do glow. We have to walk through them, following what may or may not be the path, and only knowing for sure that we are heading towards the river.

At last we stumble across a path and a signpost that confirms the miraculous – we are on course for the ferry. Then it is down a steep, sandy incline that we head to our inevitable meeting with the Yangtze.

Weary-limbed we reach the top...

Weary-limbed we reach the top and find ourselves on the edge of the green valley we had seen from the other side. It is 4pm in the afternoon and we are tired and certain that the end of the walk is upon us. We are mistaken however, when we reach a small cafe, conveniently perched on the edge of the valley, who’s owner tells us that we have missed the last bus of the day back to Lijiang.

She tells us the bus comes out as far as her cafe but we don’t know if she is telling the truth. She is eager for us to stay at her house for the night, but she tells us that the village of Daju – where we feel we should be heading – is another hour’s walk from here. She is convinced it is too far for us and that we should stay... but for some reason... we don’t.

Perhaps it is the thought that there might be a bus there, or something else, but we decide to keep going. We sip a hasty cup of hot water in the blissful wooden chairs of her courtyard garden before taking our leave.

Again it seems we are following the road. We ask the locals the way to Daju but most of them don’t answer. They eye us with a strange caution I have not seen elsewhere in China and I never do find out why.

The clouds are closing in again with the end of the day hot on their heels. The greying sky is gloomy and looks full to bursting with rain. We can see Daju in the near distance and it is a sight that gifts our tired limbs with extra energy.

Daju is a village of criss-crossing streets and single-story, tiled-roofed houses. Chickens peck and roam the walkways and green fields spread out from every side. The green fields stretch in great swathes up to the lurking bulk of cloud-clad mountains that sit on the horizon. It is as peaceful and picturesque an ending as we could have asked for.

As we pick up our weary feet for the last few hundred metres, a sunbeam, and then another, and then another, shine like a host of silver spotlights over the valley. This gift of late afternoon sunshine feels like a blessing and a glistening farewell from this place where it has been our privilege to have left our footprints: Tiger Leaping Gorge.

A Quick Guide to Places in English & Chinese

Tiger Leaping Gorge [hǔtiàoxiá | 虎跳峡]
An awe-inspiring gorge filled with mountains and the Yangtze River and found in Yunnan Province.

Yunnan Province [yúnnán sheng | 云南省]
Located in the South West of China. Home to Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Lijiang [lìjiāng | 丽江]
Small, ancient, canal-crossed town in Yunnan Province. The entire town has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Qiaotou [qiáotóu | 桥头]
Village often used as the starting point or finishing point for the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. Roughly 2 hours by bus from Lijiang.

Daju [dàjǔ | 大举]
Village often used as the finishing point for the TLG trek. Roughly 24kms from Qiaotou on foot (including a ferry crossing over the Yangtze)

 More Yunnan Travel Reviews
1. Tiger Leaping Gorge Part I: Qiaotou to Halfway House LEMONCACTUS from CN Oct 26, 2007 21:55
2. Cultural Embrace: China's Future WINDENERGY from CN Jun 15, 2007 08:06
3. <A> The Gorge Guardian KYLE from CA Apr 9, 2007 03:04
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